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Book review: Tracks and Signs……

November 29, 2013

This article was originally published here by Birding Frontiers in November 2013

Tracks and Signs of the Animals and Birds of Britain and Europe
by Lars-Henrik Olsen

It’s worth mentioning from the off that, far from being an expert on the topics covered in this book, keen amateur is a fairer description of your reviewer; but with a developing interest in such things (as well as more opportunity to learn, having recently relocated to the provinces), approaching Lars-Henrik Olsen’s Tracks and Signs… from such an angle seems as valid as any.

Theoretically this is a book that is intended to be taken out into the field, and as such, it’s well designed; soft-back, wipe-clean, sturdy, hard-wearing and strongly bound, it feels like a good field guide should. It is, however, too large to comfortably carry on your person, and at best therefore competes for space, and weight, in a backpack – a reflection, perhaps, of the minor identity crisis the book suffers from (addressed further below).

The first part of the book is divided into sections, covering a range of subjects – from feeding signs on trees, to antlers, nests and dens and so on – all of which are well presented and engaging, embellished with high quality photos and illustrations. The tracks section (arguably one of the key features of the book) is clearly formatted and easy to reference, with illustrated prints alongside track sequences and measurements.

Somewhat predictably I’d like to have seen more space dedicated to birds – more information on e.g. woodpecker holes, more in-depth treatment of remains likely to be found in owl pellets and the like – and the book’s title perhaps implies better avian-related coverage than it delivers. Despite this, the related sections on e.g. feathers, nests and feeding signs on cones are informative introductions to the subjects.

The second part (and the lion’s share) of the book is dedicated to species accounts – dealing almost entirely with land mammals – each consisting of a varying amount of text, photographs, and a distribution map. The written accounts are instructive, concise, and are a font of fascinating information (which I’m still enjoying and learning from, and will be for some time yet). The distribution maps are necessarily quite small, generalising each species range across the continent and perhaps best serving their purpose as a rough guide for where to travel in pursuit of the animals described.

The photographs are excellent, almost without exception; a testament to the high standards of the author and publisher and the extensive pool of photographer’s archives and libraries they draw from. It’s not easy to choose favourites, although the Alpine Marmot and the tree-hugging Wolverine spring to mind; probably best not to linger too long on p194’s mouse scat on meat, however, particularly on a full stomach.

And this is where the book seemingly falls between two stools (as it were). As a genuine field guide (i.e., one to be used in the field), it could comfortably lose plenty of the content in the species accounts; a case in point is the space occupied by species photographs, particularly familiar ones – three photographs of House Mouse (one of which occupies half a page) seems unnecessary at best, for example – where more photos of e.g. the variation in scats would surely serve both the reader and the premise of the book better.

As more of a housebound reference book (which it arguably leans more towards), such themes could be developed further without the same concern for proportions; several photos of each animal involved, comparably differing scats, sets of tracks, signs, etc, with more in-depth information on e.g. behaviour or range would perhaps make for a more indispensable resource.

There are a few minor errors and oversights – the captioned Brown Hare on p55 is a Rabbit; the ‘duck’ in the clutches of the American Mink on p159 is a Little Grebe; Southern Water Vole is missing a distribution map; the illustration, description and photo of Short-eared Owl pellets are contradictory – but they are few and far between, and hardly impinge on the overall quality of the book.

Despite the aforementioned reservations, it’s a fascinating, high-quality, good value and very informative book that I’d happily recommend to anyone with an interest in the subject, and I’m looking forward to test-driving it in the North Yorkshire forests this winter.

Mark James Pearson



























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