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© Delta Birding Festival
© Delta Birding Festival. Hadoram Shirihai
© Delta Birding Festival. Lars Svensson
© Delta Birding Festival

DeltaBirding Festival

Delta Birding Festival 2016

The third edition of the Delta Birding Festival took place on 23rd, 24th and 25th September 2016 and had a real challenge to meet. The previous two editions had enjoyed as guest speakers some of the most important ornithologists of the world; therefore the standards were so high that we feared to fall short last year. We decided to bet strong and we brought to the Delta the best-known ornithologist in Europe, Lars Svensson, a truly living legend. Even though the DBF yielded uncountable good memories for us all, we focus on Svensson's visit in this article.

Lars Svensson was born in Sweden in 1941, when Europe was well into the Second World War. Swedish neutrality helped Lars to have a pleasant childhood that allowed him to develop his early interest in nature and birds. As he stated in the DBF when he was interviewed by Raül Aymí, head of the Catalan Ringing Office, he used to go with his school mates to the woods to watch and listen to owls in a time when this was quite a weird thing to do if you were not a hunter. Also, the harbour of Stockholm was a hot spot for young Lars, who used to go there very often to watch gulls.

However, Svensson didn't go to University to study biology as it would be expected. Instead, he started a career in the sector of book publishing but his passion for birds led him to become more and more involved in bird study, started to publish papers on bird identification and he joined scientists in their investigations. It seems a paradox that the best known ornithologist in Europe is an amateur, as he defines himself. He has received recognition from many international institutions and universities, including a degree honoris causa from the Uppsala University. Not too bad for an amateur.

Lars's first greatest hit was to come in 1977. After years of studying live birds and museum skins (stuffed birds kept in drawers in museum collections) he published a real smash: the Identification Guide to European Passerines (passerines are the small songbirds and account for 50% of bird species). This was a guide intended to help bird ringers in the identification of birds in the hand (ringers capture birds and place a numbered ring on the bird's leg to uniquely identify them). One big challenge that ringers have is to determine the sex and the age of the bird but until that time they had to rely on partial information from published papers, knowledge transmitted by veteran ringers or their own experience, which led to uncountable errors. Svensson's guide put an end to this and offered a comprehensive guide that set the method to identify and determine the sex and age of every single passerine species in Europe. Ringers call this spectacular book "the Bible of bird ringing", reflecting the value of this gigantic work. No European ringer can do without the Bible.

Solely with the Identification Guide to European Passerines Lars Svensson would've had his place in European history of ornithology but a restless soul like him could by no means stay still and watch the grass grow. He teamed up with artist Killian Mullarney to produce the most comprehensive bird guide ever published to the identification of the birds of the Western Palearctic (a biological region that includes Europe as far East as the Urals, the Middle East and North-Africa). Entitled just "Bird Guide" and published by Collins, this book is referred to by birders as "the Svensson", "the Mullarney" or "the Collins". This time Svensson is sharing the honour with the artist and the publisher of his new Bible. To be honest, most of us think that it is fair to share the fame with Killian Mullarney because his drawings are so good and so precise from the ornithological point of view that he truly deserves a place in history. Mullarney was a guest speaker at the first edition of the DBF.

At the age of 76, when most people are enjoying a peaceful retirement, Lars Svensson is about to publish yet another Bible. To be released in a few months, the Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds (HWPB) is probably the book that has involved more travel and field work difficulties. Co-authored by Israeli bird expert Hadoram Shirihai, the book includes photographs of most plumages of all bird species of the Western Palearctic. By most plumages it is meant that the combinations of male, female, young, adult, summer and winter plumages of all birds are shown, yielding thousands of combinations in total. Many pictures are by the authors, especially from Hadoram Shirihai, or are borrowed from specialists in particular species. Shirihai, younger than Svensson and more fitted to stand the extreme heat of the Middle East deserts and the intense cold of the Urals in winter, has travelled to get the most difficult pictures in the most difficult regions. This bird-addict has taken up the challenge of photographing as much bird species of the world as possible; he has beaten the record so far -no other bird photographer has managed to photograph so many birds- but he keeps on searching for the rarest species on Earth.

Such a work can't be done just by two ornithologists, even if they are as skilled as Svensson and Shirihai, so they created panel of experts that is helping them out with the classification of the pictures. Seven people constitute this panel that is reviewing more than 100.000 pictures of which around 9.000 are to be published. We are proud to say that three Catalan ornithologists are part of the seven people panel of experts. They take care of the review of the Southern species of the Western Palearctic and one of them is David Bigas, ranger and ornithologist of the Ebro Delta Natural Park.

As mentioned above, one important source of information for bird guides authors are Museum skins. For the HWPB, the authors reviewed around 40.000 specimens from more than 20 museums, taking about 700.000 measurements. This means that both authors had to spend an average of 2 months per year to measure, photograph and identify museum skins from such distant institutions as the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Zoological Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg.
Well, these two guys attended the DBF 2016 -Shirihai gave a lecture too-, thus putting the threshold very high again. As soon as November 2016 we started contacting other leading ornithologists for DBF 2017, which needless to say, we want to keep at the same quality level as previous editions.
Lars Svensson was a strong bet in 2016 and according to the comments and evaluations in specialised publications, blogs and social networks, we definitely won the bet. Stay tuned to see what the bets are for 2017!