Bird watching in Spain
nightingale burst into song only a few feet away
in the bushes but we could not see it. Then a
small grey bird appeared on a branch as if it
was trying to steal the spotlight. Its own song
did not have quite the operatic range of its neighbour,
but at least we could see it. "That's a Cetti's
warbler. In Spain we call it a bastard nightingale,"
said Josep del Hoyo.
A light breeze
was rustling the rushes in the Emporda Marshes
Natural Park. Marsh harriers flew overhead and
a solitary small-toed eagle found its predatory
glide disturbed briefly by a flock of seagulls
which had scrambled to meet the enemy.
yellow-footed herring gulls," said del Hoyo,
explaining this small distinction from their more
common pink-footed brethren. "That's what
I like about birds - their diversity. A humming
bird could fly through the eye socket of an ostrich."
Del Hoyo should
know. What began as a hobby at the age of 19,
developed first into a passion and then to a vocation
as he decided to attempt a venture that other
ornithologists had said was impossible - documenting
and describing every species of bird known to
man in a published work.
thought he was mad and told him so," said
Jordi Sargatal, director of the reserve and del
Hoyo's closest friend and collaborator. It was
1982 when del Hoyo first mentioned the idea. Five
years later, on a bird watching trip to the Netherlands,
Sargatal was still telling him he was mad but
he said: "Let's give it a try." It made
all the difference. "I needed someone to
share my belief," said del Hoyo.
the full picture, beyond that of "bird book
publishing", they also sought financial backing
from fellow bird enthusiast and entrepreneur,
Ramon Mascorta. Finally they recruited a third
editor, Andrew Elliot, football fan, classicist
and linguist, whose talents were vital to the
book's production in English.
the company established to produce the Handbook
of The Birds of The World , has published four
volumes so far. By the time the 12th and final
volume is issued in 2008, del Hoyo will have devoted
more than 25 years and most of his working life
to this one venture. From the very first volume,
the book attracted critical praise for its quality
and attention to detail.
Much of the research
is carried out at the world's two greatest bird
collections - the Natural History Museum's collection
in Tring and at the American Museum of Natural
History in New York, which each house more than
a million specimens. But, if necessary, researchers
will go to collections anywhere in the world to
examine a single specimen. This happened in a
museum in Lima. "It took them three days
to find it," said del Hoyo.
is the discovery of new species as the work continues.
When the Udzungwa Forest Partridge, a previously
unrecorded species, was found in Tanzania in 1994,
Volume II, which included partridges, was well
into production for publication the same year.
But if you turn to the partridge section you find
the bird is where it should be, drawn on the same
plate as the others, described in detail and photographed.
"I think our readers were impressed by that,"
said del Hoyo.
As new species
emerge, there is a real possibility that others
may be extinct by the time the volumes are complete.
The kakapo, a flightless New Zealand parrot, was
caught on the evolutionary hop by the arrival
of people and the rats they brought with them.
Today there may be about 50 or 60 kakapo left
in groups that have been transferred to islands
free from predators.
The handbook will
describe between 9,000 and 10,000 species, using
the most traditional form of classification. There
are newer forms, including some that have adopted
DNA testing to describe families, but the editors
have chosen to use the system most familiar to
ornithologists the world over.
Del Hoyo, 43,
developed his bird - watching skills when practising
as a GP in a Spanish village. Later he became
involved in medical publishing and compiled a
health encyclopedia. The experience would come
in handy with the handbook. But there were some
things for which he could not prepare.
collected together all the bird books I could
find. We now have 5,000-6,000. I thought we would
have about 90 per cent of the information we would
need from these sources, but much of the information
was not of the quality we were seeking. So we
have scoured private collections and zoos because
we wanted to see live birds, not just specimens
The success of
the first and subsequent volumes has led to a
steadily increasing number of contributors. The
300 photographs in each volume are selected from
about 27,000 possible contributions. The handbook
is no longer an ornithological reference but the
Now del Hoyo wants
to repeat the success with mammals. "It will
be a separate venture for which we will seek separate
funding, but we know the format now and how to
go about it.
"I feel very
grateful to birds because they have given me the
chance to travel the world doing the things that
I enjoy," says del Hoyo, whose personal philosophy
has been inspired by a quote from Pablo Neruda,
the Chilian poet and Nobel prize winner: "Bird
by bird I knew the world."
He also points
out that the handbook could not have waited. "I
believe we are living in a window of history probably
no broader than 100 years because the travel opportunities
and the technology exists to carry out this undertaking.
In 50-100 years, many of the species are likely
to have disappeared."
© Financial Times