Plants and fungi are not only beautiful and interesting to study, but they also provide the building blocks on which all of our other wildlife (and ourselves) depend. Monitoring their abundance and diversity is key to understanding the health of our habitats. Plus, there are numerous studies that suggest that being around plants has benefits for our mental wellbeing, including improved concentration and memory as well as a better overall mood.
Spring and early summer are the perfect time to study your local plants as many will be in flower at this time, making them much easier to identify. (For other times of the year, a guide such as the Vegetative Key to the British Flora is invaluable – but it may take a bit of practice. For beginners, we suggest starting during the flowering season).
In this article we’ve featured a number of wild flowers that you’re likely to find, either in your garden or when out walking. These are separated into Town and Country/Woodland, but bear in mind that there will be some overlap, so it’s worth looking at both lists. Chances are that you’ll also find a few species that aren’t included here – you can find lots more information on the Plantlife website, including ways to submit your findings to their records. Or why not check out one of our wild flower ID guides listed at the bottom of the post?
Here you will find nine of the most common species that you’re likely to encounter in urban areas. Pay particular attention to parks, waste ground and walls, and don’t forget to check the pavement cracks too.
LOOK OUT FOR:
1. Daisy – Bellis Perennis Flowers March-October. Easily recognisable flower with a yellow centre and numerous white petals. Abundant in short grass such as parks and garden lawns.
2. Silverweed – Potentilla anserina Flowers May-August.
Common on bare or well-walked ground such as the sides of tracks. Easy to recognise due to the silver-white underside of leaves.
3. Bramble – Rubus fructicosus Flowers May-October. Very abundant on waste ground as well as on heaths and in hedgerows and woodland. Thorny shrub with white or pale pink flowers.
4. Scarlet Pimpernel – Anagallis arvensis Flowers April-October.
Commonly found in gardens as well as arable fields, dunes, cliffs and heathland. Low growing and sprawling. Flowers are red with a purplish base.
5. Rosebay Willowherb – Chamerion angustifolium Flowers June-September. Abundant on disturbed ground, verges and railways. Produces tall spires of purplish flowers. Often found in dense stands.
6. Ivy-Leaved Toadflax – Cymbalaria mularis Flowers May-September. Often found on old walls and in pavement cracks. A straggly plant with ivy-like leaves and small lilac flowers with a yellow spot.
7. Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) – Buddleja davidii Flowers June-October. Likes dry, disturbed places such as waste ground, railways, walls and roofs. Long sprays of purple, white or lilac flowers; a favourite of butterflies.
8. Feverfew – Tanacetum parthenium Flowers July-September. Found in walls, pavement cracks and on waste ground. Flowers similar to a daisy but with shorter, broader petals. Aromatic leaves.
9. White Clover – Trifolium repens Flowers May-September. Found in most types of grassland as well as on waste/disturbed ground. Globular clusters of flowers on long stalks; usually off-white or pale pink. The leaflets usually have a pale chevron shape near the base.
This list features nine species commonly found in the countryside and wooded areas. Hunt along the hedgerows and meadows as well as on river banks and in woodland clearings.
look out for:
1. Cow Parsley – Anthriscus Sylvestris Flowers late April-June.
Extremely common during May on roadside verges and in woodland rides and clearings. White flowers radiate out from the stem on spokes. Fern-like leaves.
2. Germander speedwell – Veronica chamaedrys Flowers March-July.
Common in grass and roadside verges. Bright blue flower with a white eye on a sprawling stem. Leaves oval and toothed.
3. Meadowsweet –Filipendula ulmaria Flowers June-Sept.
Likes damp ground such as roadside ditches and wet woodland. Long stems with clusters of cream, fuzzy flowers which smell of honey or almonds.
4. Herb Robert – Geranium robertianum
Likes banks, woods, gardens and walls. Purple flowers with lighter stripes on petals. Whole plant may sometimes turn red.
5. Bugle – Ajuga reptans
Common in damp deciduous woodland and other shady places as well as unmanaged grassland. Forms long stems with rosettes of green-purplish leaves and blue flowers marked with white.
6. Red Campion – Silene dioica
Likes hedgerows and woodland clearings. Five-petalled pink/red flowers on long stems with opposite leaves.
7. Greater Stitchwort – Stellaria holostea
Flowers late March-June.
Common in hedges and verges as well as in woodland. White flowers with five petals, split halfway to the base. Sprawling with narrow leaves.
8. Yellow pimpernel – Lysimachia nemorum Flowers May-September.
Fairly common in moist, shady woodland (deciduous). Low growing/sprawling with yellow star-shaped flowers.
9. Lesser Celandine – Ficaria verna
Likes slightly damp soil in woods, fields and churchyards. Yellow flowers on long stalks and glossy heart-shaped leaves.
The Wild Flower Key: How to Identify Wild Flowers, Trees and Shrubs in Britain and Ireland #143162
Collins Wild Flower Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland #225655
Harrap’s Wild Flowers: A Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland #245027
Co-authors James Eaton and Nick Brickle share some of their birding insights and in-depth knowledge of the region’s avifauna in this interview with NHBS.
Could you tell us a little about how you became interested in birding and what drew you to this region in particular?
James – My Grandmother gave me a copy of Benson’s Observer’s Book of Birds when I was six, and, wanting to see some of the birds in the illustrations in real life, my father agreed to take me to the local nature reserve to look for them, and from that point on it became an obsession!
Nick – Similar story. I got hooked before I was 10 years old, partly thanks to Choughs, Peregrines and my dad’s old binoculars on family holidays to Pembrokeshire. Ten years later and I found myself surveying White-winged Ducks in Sumatra and never looked back.
What inspired you to create a field guide that covers the entire Indonesian Archipelago? It must have been quite a challenge to cover such a diverse region.
All four of us are pretty obsessed with the region’s birds, both as a hobby and professionally, and all of us have travelled pretty widely in the region over many years. During this time the region has gone from having no bird field guide at all, to having a variety of books covering different parts of it; some now already long out of print. We all decided it was time to put our passion into a project that could do justice to the spectacular diversity to be found here, and so agreed to work together to create the new guide.
Could you explain a little about the unique biogeography of the region which makes it such a biodiversity hotspot?
Hard to sum it up in a sentence! It’s a fantastic combination of Asian and Australasian bird families, spread across 1000s of islands, with Wallace’s famous line running down the middle, and spectacular endemism throughout. For more, read the biogeographical history section in the introduction to the field guide!
Who is your target audience for the book?
Anyone with an interest in the birds of the region! Visiting and resident birdwatchers are the obvious user, but given that it includes over 13% of the world’s birds, anyone with an interest in birds should enjoy it. In due course we also hope to produce an Indonesian language version of the guide, so as to make it more accessible to the growing number of local birdwatchers.
For someone visiting the area for the first time, what are some of the most exciting sites, and the key species that you recommend looking out for?
Where to start! Within Indonesia, the best places for an introduction are probably the mountains and forests of West Java, which are easy to visit from Jakarta, and where many of the most sought after Javan endemics can be seen; or perhaps North Sulawesi, where a trip to see hornbills, endemic kingfishers and Maleo can be combined with beaches and diving; or Bali, where one of Indonesia’s rarest and most spectacular birds – the Bali Starling – can be seen with a short trip from the beach resorts.
Another choice for an easy introduction is the Malaysian state of Sabah in the north of Borneo. Here many spectacular and endemic birds can be seen from the comfort of first-rate hotels, including Great Argus and the completely unique Bristlehead. After that, the opportunities are limitless!
How do you kit yourself out for a birdwatching trip to the region, and can you recommend a great birding gadget or app?
At the simplest, you don’t need much more than a pair of binoculars (and maybe a rain coat or umbrella!). Beyond that it depends a bit on where you are going and what you’d like to see: a telescope can be useful, but is rarely essential, sound playback or recording equipment can be very useful, a camera if you like to take photos, camping equipment if you plan to visit very remote regions. If you plan to explore off the beaten track (and there are lots of parts of the region that qualify as this!) then a phone and google maps can be a surprisingly useful way to look for patches of forest, and then all you need to do is try and make your way towards them!
Do you have any favourites among the species in the guide? Are there any that proved particularly elusive or challenging to observe?
James – Difficult question, can I give two answers? One would be Helmeted Hornbill. Such an iconic bird that symbolises the region’s rainforests. You know when you hear the bird’s incredible mechanical laughing call you are in the rainforest, but equally you are reminded how it is disappearing from many areas due to illegal hunting for its casque. Another would be Bornean Ground Cuckoo. Once a mysterious bird, largely unknown due to its shy nature, feeding on the rainforest floor, but now as our understanding of the species has grown it is possible to see it. Nothing gets the adrenalin pumping quite as much as looking for this species.
Nick – Too many to choose from! For me it would have to be something that walks on the ground… pretty much any pitta, pheasant or partridge is a candidate. Maybe Banded Pitta (any of the three species…)? Or the spectacular Ivory breasted Pitta? Then of course there is Rail Babbler… Actually, more often than not my favourite is the last new species that I have seen, or the next new one that I want to see!
With so many endemic species, there must be some that fill very specific ecological niches?
Endemism is very high in the region, and many species are only found within very small ranges, such as Boano Monarch on an island only 20km wide, or Sangihe Island, only 40km long at its widest point, and with five endemic bird species. Damar Flycatcher too, found in the dark understorey of a tiny island that requires two days’ boat travel from the nearest city. Kinabalu Grasshopper Warbler is only found on the top of two mountain tops in Borneo. When it comes to specific niches, however, small island endemics are often the opposite, in that they often expand their niche due to the absence of competitors. Birds filling very specific niches are probably more a feature of the large islands groups like Borneo and Sumatra, where the overall diversity is much greater.
It is quite well publicised that one of the biggest threats to the conservation of all Indonesian species is rapid deforestation to create palm oil plantations. Are there other threats to bird species which also need to be highlighted?
Deforestation is a big issue. There has been a huge loss of forest over the last decades, but vast areas still remain, and their value is finally starting to be more widely recognised. Hunting for the captive bird trade also remains a huge threat, particularly to those species most desired as pets, such as songbirds and parrots. Local and international groups are working hard to try and reduce this trade, in particular the public demand, but there is still much work to be done to change attitudes.
How can the international community help to support conservation efforts?
As birdwatchers one of the simplest and best things you can do is to visit the region and go birdwatching! Coming here, spending time, spending money, staying in local hotels, eating local food, using local guides, all serves to create a value to the forests and the wildlife that lives in them. This is not lost on local people or the regional governments. Beyond that think carefully about the products you buy from the region, to make sure they come from sustainable and fair sources. If you have money invested make sure that is not going to support destructive or exploitative practices in the region. Finally, support a good cause! There are many, many local NGOs established and emerging in Indonesia and the wider region, all working and lobbying hard to protect the region’s forest and wildlife. Your support will help them achieve this.
Your book is proving to be a huge success – what prompted you to write it, and who is your target audience?
It mostly came about from the grass courses I’ve run for the last seven years, during which I built up a huge body of observational evidence on grasses, from chatting to people and just spending a lot of time looking at them. Teaching plants is fantastic as it really makes you be concise about why things are what they are, plus you get to see what people muddle up; things you might never think yourself.
In addition I felt there was a niche for an affordable, portable, and easy to use book. It definitely won’t suit everyone, but I hope that people who might have been put off by some of the more weighty tomes might find this a good way in (which certainly applies to me). It won’t teach you every grass, but hopefully it will make people feel much more confident about the ones you tend to encounter regularly.
How did you become interested in grasses?
During my early years of being a botanist I was terrified of grasses and it took me a long while to get a handle on them. This came about from spending time with other friendly botanists and gleaning as much as I could from them. Once I had got better at them (and I’m still a long way from mastering them) I was really keen to share this knowledge with other people. I did my first grasses course at the Kingcombe Centre 7 years ago, which I was absolutely terrified about running, but it went OK, and it all moved from there. I now run about 18 grasses courses a year, which I absolutely love doing, and all the proceeds from these go into our species conservation programme, meaning a single day’s training can fund a species programme for a year.
What defines the graminoids, and how can the three groups – grasses, rushes, and sedges – be distinguished?
It’s a difficult term, graminoids! I’m very guilty of calling them grasses, which of course only some of them (the Poaceae) are. I also tend to commit the grave sin of talking about wildflowers and grasses (especially when describing courses) when of course grasses are in fact flowers. Their key characters are that they are all monocots, and exclusively wind pollinated.
Telling them apart can be relatively easy, the rushes tend to have waxy round stems, the sedges are tussocky with separate female and male inflorescences, and the grasses are, well… grassy looking? But there are so many exceptions to this! Just today I was running a course where someone muddled up Slender Rush with Remote Sedge, and I realised that these two look almost identical from a distance!
What is the importance of the graminoids in the ecosystem at large?
Graminoids are exceptionally useful as indicator species, with many of them showing incredible affinity to certain soil types, nutrient levels and pH. If you walk into a field and see a shiny green swath of Perennial Ryegrass you know you’re unlikely to be finding overwhelming levels of biodiversity. Go into another field and find a clump of Meadow Oatgrass and you know you’re in for a long haul of finding other species.
As it says on the Species Recovery Trust website, over the past 200 years, over 400 species have been lost from England alone. Do you think enough is being done to halt biodiversity loss in the UK?
Tricky question! We have an incredibly large and diverse conservation sector in the UK, full of talented and passionate individuals devoting their lives to saving the planet. And yet we are still losing species at an alarming rate. When I was born, just over 40 years ago, the world had twice as many species as it does now, so this is not a historical problem we can blame on previous generations, this is the here and now of how humans are choosing to live our lives and harm our planet.
These are clearly difficult times financially, and clearly every sector is feeling the pain of budget cuts, however it is upsetting to see the way biodiversity has almost dropped off current political agendas (the environment was barely mentioned at all in the referendum debates) so I do worry that people, and governments, are just not doing enough. It is now fairly widely accepted that we are living through (and causing) a sixth mass global extinction event, which should be the biggest story and policy issue anyone is talking about, and yet species conservation still seems to be a niche market!
What does it take to re-establish a species like Starved Wood-sedge, which is one of the Trust’s Species Recovery Projects?
Starved Wood-sedge (SWS) has two native sites in the UK, and we’re working hard at both of these over a long time period to steadily improve the conditions, bringing more light in through coppicing and canopy reduction, and trying to encourage seedling establishment through ground scarification. SWS has an interesting bit of trivia in that it has the largest utricles (seeds) of any native sedges which should make it very easy to grow, but recently we started to think these large seeds may be their downfall as they are so susceptible to vole and mouse predation – but it’s hard to know for sure. We have established and continue to closely work on the two re-introduction sites, where we used plants grown up by Kew Gardens to establish new populations, and we are keen to establish one more in the next decade in a more traditionally managed wood to look at how the species would fare in active coppice rotation.
If you could put one policy change in place today to enhance species conservation what would it be?
I’m not sure, my current rather grassroots view is I’m not sure if conservation isn’t dying a death by policy. A few years back I spent the best part of two years of my life working on Biodiversity Opportunity Areas, only to see these being replaced by IBDAs (which I’ve now forgotten what it stands for) only to see these superseded by NIAs. I then had somewhat of a personal crisis that in all that time, even though I’d been instrumental in producing some very interesting maps of core area and buffer zones and opportunity areas, I’d done absolutely nothing to help species on the ground. I think it was during this same time that Deptford Pink went extinct in Somerset and Dorset too, which I still feel pretty bad about.
The problem with policies, and ministers, and successive governments is that they never last for that long. While not disputing that our current democracy is a wonderful thing, and obviously I feel lucky to live in a country where we can all vote and potentially change things we like, if you superimpose governments and policies on top of the Anthropocene (the current geological age where humans have gained the ability to start fundamentally changing the planet, both in terms of biodiversity and climate) then the two simply don’t match up in terms of the timescales we need to be operating on to bring a meaningful change to biodiversity loss. And it goes without saying that when government budget cuts occur it will always be the environment sector that will suffer, and this obviously has a terrible net effect on projects that are up and running and are suddenly suspended.
Without wanting to sound too ‘big society’ I think the meaningful changes we are seeing are from individuals, either making a big difference in their jobs in the environment sector, or simple volunteering, spending a few days a year clearing bramble from around a rare species, counting butterflies on a transect, monitoring their local bat populations. For me, that is where change is happening, not in government policy units.
How would you encourage a young nature lover or student to take an interest in the subject of grasses?
I’m lucky to have two young children to try this out on, and I must say they are now budding graminologists. I think the starting point is everyone likes knowing what things are and naming them, whether it’s music, works of art, types of lorry. We are on the whole naturally inquisitive beings, so I just tend to show people things and encourage them to go off and find more like them. Add to that some stripy pyjama bottoms (Yorkshire Fog), Batman’s Helmet (Timothy), Floating Sugarpuffs (Quaking Grass) and Spiky Porcupines (Meadow Oatgrass) and the whole thing becomes pretty fun! Incidentally there are equivalent adult versions of these too, which are unmentionable here…
What is the most surprising, odd, or unexpected fact you can share about grasses?
Grasses have a profound link with humanity. 4 million years ago the spread of grasses in the savannas of East Africa is now believed to be the main driver in our primate ancestors coming down from the trees and developing a bipedal habit to move between patches of shrinking forest while keeping a watch out for predators. 40,000 years ago we saw the birth of agriculture with the development of early crops, the decline of hunter gatherer lifestyles and the start of the society we live in today (gluten intolerance sufferers probably think this is where it all started to go wrong). And all because we learnt to collect seed from promising looking grasses, and start planting in quantities we could harvest.
Tell us more about the plant identification courses. What are these all about and how people can get involved?
When we set up The Species Recovery Trust we knew that funding projects over a long term basis (all our work plans are 50 years long) was going to be a challenge, so we set about seeking ways to bring in modest sums of unrestricted funding over that period of time, for which running training courses was an obvious contender. This was combined with my passion for teaching plants, and then finding other people who shared this view. We’ve now been able to build up a team of some of the best tutors in the country, who combine their expert knowledge with running courses that are extremely fun and really help people get to grips with a range of subjects.
By automating the booking process (which works most of the time) we can also keep our prices extremely competitive, as well as offer discounted places for students and unemployed people who are desperate to get into the sector. On alternate years we offer one ‘golden ticket’ which enables one winner to attend 10 training courses for free, which will give people a huge helping hand in their conservation careers.
All the information on the courses can be found on the training courses page of The Species Recovery Trust website.
Can you tell us about any interesting projects you are involved with at the moment?
We have a great project running on Spiked Rampion at the moment, and after 6 years we now have the highest number of plants ever recorded, all due to a fantastic steering group of the good and great from Kew, Forestry Commission, Sussex Wildlife Trust, and East Sussex County Council, along with some very committed local volunteers. It’s been a lot of work but proved a great example of many organisations joining up with a single achievable aim of saving a really rather special plant from extinction.
This summer is going to see a network of data loggers placed around the New Forest as part of a project to re-discover the New Forest Cicada, that we’re working on with Buglife and Southampton University. There are real concerns about whether this species is already extinct, but as it spends most of its life underground and only emerges and sings for a short period it is a good contender for the UK’s most elusive species.
Foraging for wild food is a world away from the trolley-push through the supermarket.
Those brightly-lit aisles barely cut it when you imagine gathering wild garlic in springtime, blackberries from late summer hedgerows, or sweet chestnuts as the tired old year begins to cool.
Clare Cremona wants to remind us how easy foraging for wild food can be, and it’s perfectly possible to start at home. “You would be surprised what is coming up on a bare patch of earth in your back garden,” she says.
And as an unusually mild winter slowly gives way to spring, she adds: “Right now there is actually quite a lot about. I think everything is coming out quite early, like pennywort, that is very good in a salad.”
Pennywort – the distinctive round leaves at their best and juiciest before flowers appear, usually in May – is just one of the wild foods she has chosen in the most recent of the Field Studies Council’s handy fold-out charts.
“I agonised over the 25, that was the hardest thing,” she says. “Twenty-five is not very many, that took longer than actually writing it, deciding what to leave out.”
Among those that made the cut are common sorrel, one of the earliest green plants to appear in spring; jack-by-the-hedge, another harbinger of spring, which can be used to make a slightly garlicky sauce for lamb; wood sorrel, a woodland plant, once recommended by John Evelyn as suitable for the kitchen garden; fat hen, a very old food plant, its remains have been found at Neolithic settlements throughout Europe; and wild garlic, a good addition to salads and soups.
There are hints on when and where to look for each plant, identification notes, and suggested uses.
Several of the well known favourites that need no introduction are there, such as blackberry. As is the customary health warning – never eat any wild food unless you are absolutely sure you have identified it correctly.
Cremona includes a few poisonous plants that could be confused with the edible ones, such as hemlock water dropwort, extremely toxic and probably responsible for more fatalities than any other foraged food, and dog’s mercury, highly poisonous, common in woodlands, and easy to inadvertently pick with other foraged plants.
There is a conservation issue too. She advises only picking what you need, never uprooting a wild plant (an offence without the landowner’s permission under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981), and never pick a protected species, such as cowslip, even if you’ve found an old recipe book with the most tempting of recipes.
Cremona, a Forest School and Wildlife Watch leader for the Field Studies Council and Devon Wildlife Trust, says: “Generally people have a go and test something, people generally don’t strip the land of everything.
“For me it is far more important people know what they are seeing, if they don’t we are not going to look after them. And we are losing the knowledge of what you can and what you cannot eat.”
Which brings us neatly to cooking. Cremona makes her first nettle soup of the year at Easter time – it has become a family tradition – and includes a recipe for nettle soup here, and some others, including a mouth-watering wild garlic pesto.
A seasonal tradition in parts of the north of England is to make bistort pudding – sometimes called Easter-ledge pudding, dock pudding, passion pudding, or herb pudding – where foraged bistort leaves are cooked with onions, oats, butter and eggs, although recipes vary from place to place and sometimes other hedgerow leaves go into the mix.
The resulting partly-foraged and wholly distinctive savoury pudding is served as a side dish with lamb at Easter, or with bacon and eggs at other times. Competitions are held to find the best tasting, including the annual World Dock Pudding Championships, at Mytholmroyd, in the West Riding.
So perhaps this Easter is the time to have a go at foraging for wild food?
Naturalist and wildlife artist Steven Falk has had a diverse career with wildlife and conservation, including working as an entomologist with Nature Conservancy Council, and as natural history keeper for major museums. He is now Entomologist and Invertebrate Specialist at UK invertebrate conservation organisation Buglife. His new Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland will be published by British Wildlife Publishing next month.
Tell us about your role at Buglife.
At Buglife, I have quite a diverse role. I provide information and advice to colleagues, external enquirers and a plethora of external organisations. I’ve been particularly involved with overseeing the production of new red lists for assorted invertebrate groups, also providing feedback to the various national pollinator strategies, new agri-environment schemes, plus helping to develop projects for some of our most endangered invertebrate species. We also have a consultancy now, Buglife Services, which carries out and coordinates invertebrate surveys all over Britain. We’ve just done an exciting survey of the A30 and A38 in Devon and Cornwall. We need more understanding of road verge invertebrates, especially pollinators.
How did you come to write this landmark identification guide to all the bees of Britain and Ireland?
I was approached by Andrew Branson in 2012 and was initially quite reluctant, because you cannot use a traditional field guide approach for bees, as many cannot be identified to species level in the field (they require the taking of a specimen for critical examination under a microscope) and it is crucial that we keep the national dataset (run by BWARS) clean and reliable by being honest about where the limits of field identification lie. So I agreed to write it on the basis that it covered all 275 species, had reliable keys, and could appeal to both hardcore recorders and general naturalists. I knew this was feasible, because we had faced the same challenge with the seminal book British Hoverflies (Stubbs & Falk, 1983, 2002). So it is a field guide in the loose sense – it will help you to recognise much of what you see in the field, but also indicate at which point you need to take specimens and put them under a microscope. But you don’t need to collect bees or have a microscope to enjoy the book – we made sure of that.
There is growing concern about the conservation status of bees – how are our bees getting on, and how might the publication of this book help them?
Yes, we need to be concerned about bees. We have already lost 25 species and several more are teetering on the edge of extinction. Good bee habitat continues to be lost. Brownfield land came to the rescue last century, but most of that has now been developed or lost its flowery early successional stages, which is what so many bees need. The research being carried out on pesticides such as neonicotinioids is also pretty disturbing – check out the work by Prof. Dave Goulson at Sussex University. It seems to be affecting bee numbers in many parts of the country. The national pollinator strategies being published by UK member states are a call to arms – let’s get monitoring bees. But the emphasis is on developing citizen science to achieve some of this, because there is little funding. High quality amateur recording is part of this plan, and Britain’s strong tradition of this makes it a realistic proposition. But the last comprehensive coverage of British bees was Saunders, 1896, and it has been the lack of modern ID literature that has held bee recording back. Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, and the supporting web feature (embedded in my Flickr site) will hopefully fix this!
Your career as a wildlife artist began early – you worked on the colour plates for Alan Stubb’s guide to British Hoverflies when you were just a teenager. How did this collaboration come about?
I pinned some bumblebees I had caught near my home in North London when I was 12. Half of them turned out to be bee-like hoverflies, and that started a fascination with hoverflies. The following summer holiday, I went out with a net almost every day, and seemed to find a new type of hoverfly daily. I was totally hooked on them, and I painted things that fascinated me, including those hoverflies. I exhibited some hoverfly artwork at the 1976 AES Exhibition in Hampstead, and met Alan Stubbs who told me he was writing a new guide to hoverflies. I said I wanted to do the artwork (I was only 14), and the rest is history. It took 3 years of evenings, and I think I was 17 when I finished it. I’m very proud of those plates, and you can see how my style develops (plate 8 was the first and plate 7 was the last – you can see a lampshade reflection in the early ones!).
Do we see any of your artwork in this book?
Sadly not, my eyesight is not great these days and I do very little drawing and painting now. But the British Wildlife Publishing ‘house artist’ is the great Richard Lewington, and he’s done a magnificent job. The bumblebee plates in particular, are just stunning, the best ever produced.
What sort of techniques do you use to produce your artwork – which is strikingly realistic and very detailed?
I painted birds a lot as a young child and was very aware of the bird artists of the time and their styles, people like Basil Ede, Charles Tunnicliffe and Robert Gillmor. I particularly liked the detail and photo-realism of Basil Ede’s work and became aware that he used gouache. So I started to use gouache and preferred it to watercolour. I’d often start with a black silhouette and build up the colour and texture on top of this, which is the opposite of watercolour painting. But others, like Denys Ovendon and Richard Lewington, show what can be done with watercolour, so it’s just a taste thing. For really intense or subtle colours, I’d need to use watercolours, because they produce a much larger colour pallete than gouache. Richard knows his watercolours – you need to if you want to tackle butterflies like blues, coppers and purple emperors. I’m possibly more proud of my black and white illustrations than my colour work. Here I was most influenced by the likes A. J. E. Terzi and Arthur Smith, house artists for the Natural History Museum. Their use of cross-hatching and stippling is so skillful, and I’ve tried to emulate this in my pen and ink artwork. Never use parallel lines in cross hatching!
Any future interesting projects coming up that you can tell us about – artistic, or conservation-based?
There are many more books I’d like to write, especially for wasps and assorted fly groups. It’s not just the subject, it’s the approach. I like getting into the mindset of the beginner and finding the right language and approach. We need to get more people recording invertebrates. I like the double-pronged approach of books plus web resources, and I have a popular and ever-expanding Flickr site that greatly facilitates the identification of many invertebrate groups. On the conservation front, I’m keen to continue promoting understanding of pollinators and to increase the effectiveness of agri-environment schemes. Invertebrate conservation is in my blood and I’ll be pursuing it to the very end in one form or another. I might even try illustrating again one day if I can find the right glasses!
This excellent field guide to the flowering plants of Almeria and the Sierra de los Filabres region covers an area of southern Spain with a particularly rich and varied flora. The book is beautifully illustrated with stunning colour photographs, and botanist Sarah Ball describes a good representative selection of the most frequent and characteristic flowering plants to be found, from the Sunshine Coast to the beautiful mountainous area inland, spanning 2000m in altitude. Aromatic thymes and colourful brooms dominate, along with other Mediterranean vegetation types, and Sarah has used the botanical collections of the University of Reading extensively to check her plant identifications and to further discover the distribution and variation of the species she describes.
Wild Flowers of Eastern Andalucía contains background information on geology, habitats, vegetation types and classification, and descriptions of 625 plant species, with 575 illustrated by colour photographs. A comprehensive glossary will help novice users to understand the necessary botanical terms, and the text is also supplemented by information on traditional plant uses that bring the descriptions to life. There is an introductory account for each plant family and each species account includes the English and local Spanish names where known.
I think this book will appeal to local residents and holidaymakers, visiting botanists and students, and anyone with an interest in wild flowers, planning to visit the area. I travelled to this region of Spain in 2004 with groups from the Eden Project and the University of Reading, to study both wild and cultivated plants, and this book would have been invaluable… and small enough to carry easily in a rucksack!
The Crossley ID Guide series hit the market in 2011 with the guide to Eastern Birds, marking a revolution in identification guides. The plates of birds, scenically arranged in their natural context, are photographic composites and show a variety of angles. They cover plumage, sex, and age variations, and situate the birds among other species for comparison, and in perspectives unusual for an ID guide.
With publication of the Raptor guide imminent, we asked ID guide mastermind Richard Crossley about the concept, and how well it’s working so far…
It has been two years since the first Crossley Guide hit the market. It’s a great design – context is often critical when trying to identify birds. How has the Crossley concept been received?
I think it has been received really well. It has been interesting to watch all the different reactions to something that was totally different from anything people had seen before. It has been the biggest hit with beginners and kids because it helps them to understand the ‘big picture’ of how a bird’s appearance and behaviour is linked to where it lives. It makes sense to them and they are generally not biased by any preconceived ideas of what a bird book should look like.
Adapting to this new approach may be harder for long-time birders who have used side-on, white backgrounds with arrows pointing to specific features. It has been interesting to see that many people are slowly but surely coming around, and may be now finding it tougher to look at traditional guides. Particularly inspiring for me are the number of kids who love the ‘discovery’ aspect of the plates. Today, they are taught at school to work things out for themselves by seeing patterns and repetition. This ‘discovery’ within each plate is just like being outdoors, but a lot easier. My dream is that this style of imagery will encourage more people, young and old, to go outdoors and have a better grasp of what they are looking at. That is the biggest compliment for me!
How would you sell the concept to the average birder who hasn’t been initiated?
I believe that birding is about the voyage of discovery and that learning how to look is the key. At school there are some teachers who make you learn by memorizing the answers parrot-fashion. The second type of teacher helps you to understand how to work the answer out for yourself. They also make it as fun and realistic as possible with lots of examples to practice on and build confidence. Practice still makes perfect! My books are intended to be the second one.
The intention is for the viewer to enjoy looking at the birds in their habitat, behaving as they do in their world so that birds’ personalities can be understood. Everything is connected so it is logical to show all the dots – the viewer can put them together. Today, we now know how the brain works much better than before and this is the better way to inspire all ages. I suppose the Crossley concept can be described as somewhere between traditional guides and reality.
How did you come to have such a passion for birding, and how did the road lead to the Crossley ID Guide concept?
My teacher, Mr. Sutton, introduced me to birding when I was 10 years old. Remarkably, I lived in Whykeham Forest just down the road from the now famous Honey Buzzard raptor watch site. I had collected eggs since I was 7 years old. I just loved it right away. I think there are lots of reasons why. I feel I have had an incredible life because I have seen and experienced so much in my quest to see birds. Birding has quite simply shaped my life.
Funnily enough, I am not a book person and rarely look at them. My favourite is the Collins Bird Guide, in large part because of Killian Mullarney’s and Dan Zetterstrom’s beautiful vignettes. It seemed logical to make books even more lifelike and create one scene. Digital photography and Photoshop came along just as we started the original edition of The Shorebird Guide. I soon became fascinated with book design. The backbone of The Shorebird Guide was the comparative wader shots and making every image as different as possible from the last one – to keep people interested. Ironically, we couldn’t get the comparative images needed and this was the catalyst for me buying a big ‘fancy’ lens and taking up photography. I soon became hooked. Amazing how things come about! Towards the end of making the The Shorebird Guide there was a simple question. How do you take 5 pages, about 15 photos and put all this information in to one image and make it lifelike?
So what goes into the making of a Crossley ID Guide? Do you do all the photography leg-work?
It is scary just thinking about what goes in to these books. The learning curve in the early days was brutal with so many things to work out. In hindsight, many seem quite obvious now. The close-up section of the backgrounds is the most difficult thing to create. There are so many decisions to make and then you have to try to piece it all together. If you don’t have a large selection of images to choose from, it can seem overpowering at times. It’s like a big jigsaw that can be frustrating but ultimately very rewarding.
I set myself the goal of taking all the images for The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds (I consider over 99 per cent to be good enough). I live with multiple, constantly updated, ‘want lists’ of crazy things. They include certain behaviours, different plumages, habitat shots and flight shots – back then nobody took flight shots of warblers, sparrows etc. I hand-held my big lenses for speed, didn’t use flash and moved quickly – this was not in vogue back then. I didn’t tell people what I was doing for some time because it seemed far-fetched and I didn’t think any one would believe it was possible. Technology has changed a lot in just a few years and now it is possible to get just about any image. How things have changed!
The Eastern guide had over 10,000 photos in it, took 5 years and more money than I care to remember. Most plates have dozens of layers of extracted images and require an intimate knowledge of both Photoshop and understanding what a camera can do. Like everything, practice makes perfect, and I feel like the learning curve is still fairly steep. Perhaps that is why it is still fun.
The new book covers raptors in North America – does the chronicling of different kinds of birds in their natural environments present different kinds of challenges to the photographer?
Not really. It is all a challenge but that is the fun. It comes down to creating a mental image of what you want to create like any artist. Going to the right places makes life a lot easier. My paint brush is a camera and Photoshop. It is amazing what you can ‘paint’ these days with a few pixels and some time! The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors only covers 34 species so it certainly gives you room to express yourself differently from a book covering hundreds of species. That was fun. It is always a challenge to think of new ways to capture people’s interest with new kinds of imagery that bring about a better understanding.
We are eagerly anticipating the Britain and Ireland guide later this year. Dominic Couzens is providing the text. Where next for the Crossley crusade?
Of course, it was a great excuse to spend a lot of time travelling to get all the photos I needed. Britain and Ireland are so photogenic and I really hope I have captured the essence in the book.
In many ways, this book is for my Dad. He is a very casual birder who loves his backyard and going for a stroll down by the river. Many of the bird books are written for Europe, which he finds a bit overpowering. He is an artist and likes things done right. The true test will be to see if my Dad puts his other books away!
We have lots of other projects going on. Hopefully we can get The Crossley ID Guide: Waterfowl finished in the next six months. We are also just finishing up The Crossley ID Guide: Western Birds. We have a couple more books on the go but I need to get out of the forest before thinking about those.
I am also the co-founder of a new global birding initiative called Pledge to Fledge. The goal is to encourage birders to introduce a non-birder to the outdoors and so fledging a birder. We have 2 weekends a year set aside for this; the next one is April 26-29. Eric Dempsey heads up Ireland and Alan Davies & Ruth Miller Britain (keep an eye on the Biggest Twitch website for more information about events in the UK). This campaign takes up a lot of time but hopefully we can have an impact, particularly in countries where birding is not currently so popular.
And finally, I couldn’t resist: what’s your favourite bird?
Oh come on, hard core birders don’t have favourite birds! Okay, here is your answer. There is one bird I like a lot, and more importantly, we have a lot in common. It is the Sanderling. We are both sort of chunky, always on the run, love the beach and tend to be in photogenic places. Although we both superficially have many colours, if you see past this, we are remarkably consistent in our shape and behaviour. We both travel the world a lot and are approachable – if you can catch up with us. I think Sanderlings are great!
New edition of the popular guide to Iceland’s birds by the country’s pre-eminent ornithologist and photographer, Johann Oli Hilmarsson.
This attractive and informative guide completely revises and expands the previous edition and covers the appearance, behaviour and other identifying features of over 160 different species.
Includes detailed information, and maps and diagrams, about breeding range, seasonal distribution, migration behaviour, breeding and feeding, and plumage variations by age, size and sex.
Illustrated with more than 700 photos, species are depicted clearly in their natural habitat in various behavioural modes.
Johann Oli Hilmarsson is a leading authority on the birds of Iceland and one of the country’s most experienced bird photographers. He has written numerous articles on birds in books, magazines and newspapers. He has held many courses, lectures and exhibitions and his photographs have been published around the world, and he is also president of BirdLife Iceland.
“The second edition has been updated with some new plates including Spiderhunters, Hornbills, Blue Flycatchers and others. Also included in some of the plates are food plants which are helpful. Information has been updated at the front and new maps and birding sites have been added at the back of the book. New taxonomic information about the endemics and other families has also been updated with new information about the new species recently discovered, Spectacled Flowerpecker, which has several nice illustrations in the book.
Packed with great information, great plates and fabulous insight into the birds and birding in Borneo this is the only guide you’ll need and it’s small enough to carry in the field.”
Full of information about the primates of the highly bio-diverse West Africa region – from the coast of Senegal to Lake Chad and Cameroon’s Sanaga River, The Primates of West Africa focuses on the Guinean Forest, one of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots.
This compact guide is portable for field use, and introduces the region – topography, climate, vegetation, native peoples and history – as well as its primate inhabitants. Initial essays cover primate classification, evolutionary history, and the history of field research and conservation in the area, while the species accounts extend the traditional field guide format of identifying features and location to include concise but thorough information on natural history and conservation status, making this volume invaluable for the primate researcher and field worker, as well as the eco-tourist or wildlife enthusiast.
Includes full-colour plates by Stephen D. Nash, colour photographs and distribution maps for every species and subspecies.
John Oates is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York, where he was a member of the teaching faculty from 1978 to 2008. He has a PhD in zoology from the University of London based on studies of the ecology and behavior of black-and-white colobus monkeys in Uganda, and has had research affiliations with Rockefeller University (New York), Cambridge University, the University of Benin (Nigeria), Njala University College (Sierra Leone) and Oxford Brookes University (England). More…