Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: The Crossley ID Guide

[Disclosure: Princeton University Press provided a free copy of this book for review.]

Richard Crossley’s “The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds” is the most extensive and ambitious photograph-based North American guide to bird identification on the market today. This is not your typical guide to bird ID, nor is it meant to be. For this reason it has caused a stir among the birding community. With the hugely successful “The Shorebird Guide” by O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson fresh in everyone’s minds, the anticipation was high leading up to the book’s release.

GISS (General Impression, Size, and Shape):

Since one of Crossley’s ambitious goals for this guide is to teach the GISS for each species, we may as well turn the tables and apply GISS to his book! While you may find this book in the ‘field guide’ section of your favorite book or nature store, this is no field guide based on size alone. Not unless you carry a backpack with you at all times. This book is large, measuring 10in x 7.7in x 1.8in and weighing in at 3lbs 12oz (according to my trusty fish scale).

Intro:

Upon opening the book and proceeding past the Table of Contents, you first see several pages that contain a single representative photo of nearly every species presented in the guide, with each page being drawn to scale to make for useful size comparisons. Under each species’ photograph is its 4-letter alpha code and the page on which you can find its full plate and text.

Then we have the Introduction, in which Crossley displays a very informal writing style, as if speaking directly to you. This style of text remains true throughout the book, written in his own words. This is Crossley’s book and he wants you to know it. Over 99% of the photos in the guide are his own.

In his Introduction, Crossley attempts to answer the “why” behind his book’s unique style. For instance, the plates are not arranged in strict taxonomic order. Rather, they are grouped by like appearance, though the general order of families is fairly close to taxonomic order (he starts with geese and ends with passerines). For this he states multiple reasons, such as the usefulness to a field birder of grouping similar species and the always-changing order of taxonomy.

He also throws in a section entitled “How to Be a Better Birder.” Here Crossley taps into his decades of experience to relay tips on learning birdsong, the basics of molt, and understanding factors such as lighting and wear on the appearance of a bird. He places a heavy emphasis on note-taking and paying attention to structure, and rightly so. Lots of wisdom in these few paragraphs.

Next up are a series of Bird Topography (AKA surface anatomy) plates. These are very well done and thorough, including such features as primary projection and gonydeal angle. The following groups are represented in this section: songbird, raptor, duck, gull, shorebird, and hummingbird. Each photo is well-labeled.

Species Accounts:

Now onto the good stuff: the Species Accounts. The birds are categorized into the following groups: swimming waterbirds, flying waterbirds, walking waterbirds, upland gamebirds, raptors, miscellaneous larger landbirds, aerial landbirds, and songbirds. Each section begins with an overall description of the group. This description points out the unique qualities of that group and other useful tidbits such as general molt and migration strategies. For example, in the goose part of the “Swimming Waterbirds” section, Crossley states that large goose flocks can act as “carriers” for vagrant individuals. The text is ripe with useful information like that.

To describe age Crossley uses the life-year system (first-year, second-year, etc). Back in the Intro he gives a nice rundown of the pros and cons of the most popular aging systems, and he explains the details behind the life-year system.

Each species account consists of a large photographic montage that takes up most of the page. At the bottom of the page is the following: species common name, Latin name, alpha code, length in inches (**only body length, NO wingspan), range map, and text. Many species get an entire page, while others get one-half or one-quarter page. More space is devoted to more widespread or variable species, while less space is reserved for the vagrants (of which there are many included here).

Let’s break down the plates themselves. You get one large photo of the species’ preferred habitat in the background with several bird photos superimposed on it. There’s a lot going on in each plate. The habitat photos are rich and colorful, sometimes striking enough to take the focus off the bird. Sometimes there are literally dozens of birds on the plate and you just don’t know where to look first. It can be a bit overwhelming. Here in Connecticut I’m just not used to seeing so many birds at once! (kidding…sort of)

Why so many photos? Crossley’s goal, in his own words, is for you to “get a feel for” the species you’re studying. This includes seeing the bird in different plumages, at different angles, at different distances. If you’re expecting a nice profile example of each plumage, prepare to be disappointed. He wants you to learn to identify each bird by practicing seeing it in the same way you might see it in the field. You’re more likely to see a flock of scoter at a quarter of a mile instead of point-blank range, so he includes photos of rafts on the water and flocks in flight.

Not all individuals are labeled to age/sex. It is up to the reader to age/sex some of the birds in the photos. This bothers me a bit, because there are many cases in which there’s enough space to insert a tiny little label. But I recall Crossley’s repetitive use of the word “interactive” in his Introduction. He wants to make you work, to critically think. He will label one or two juveniles on the plate and will describe what a juvenile looks like in the text, but it’s up to you to pick out the third, fourth, and fifth examples of juveniles on the plate. This guide really aims to teach.

One of my favorite features in this book is the use of many flight shots for so many species. It’s funny how quality flight illustrations can be so difficult to come by in many field guides. Many of Crossley’s songbird flight shots would be useful while learning to ID passerines during ‘morning flight.’ I’m sure many of the photos were taken by Richard himself from the dyke at Higbee’s in Cape May! Don’t get me wrong…many these aren’t razor-sharp images, but even the poorer ones are generally useful for understanding structure and color pattern.

The text descriptions are written in that same informal manner as earlier in the book. The general format for the text is: behavioral/misc notes, then voice description, then field marks and comparisons to similar species. Many species-specific tidbits are included. For Mute Swan, Crossley states, “Young are protected zealously; an adult, standing its ground, has hissed fear into many a human.” I can almost see the swan doing this in my mind…can you? For Spruce Grouse, he notes “Famously tame allowing close approach – a real experience!” It’s this type of information that sets Crossley’s text apart from your standard field guides. Lucky for us, he manages to pack a vast amount of knowledge into a rather small amount of text. Even facts about range expansion and vagrancy likelihood are included. Well done, and very refreshing to see information presented that is often left out of field guides.

Interestingly there is no consistency in how he refers to subspecies, as far as using Latin names versus regions. Sibley uses regions, while Nat Geo uses Latin names. Crossley mixes it up…sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both! The type-A part of me would have liked more order here, but it works.

The range maps are your standard color-coded fare, but it’s worth noting that the scale of the map depends on the bird’s range. For instance, the map for Kirtland’s Warbler is zoomed into the Great Lakes region with Michigan at center, so one can better appreciate the limits of the bird’s range. Also, for migratory species, the species’ entire North American range is shown (including all the way to the west coast), rather than just the eastern part of it. That’s another small but significant feature I’m a big fan of.

I went through each plate and noted a few things I liked and a few things I thought were lacking. Here’s some of what jumped out at me.

Positives:

- It’s pretty cool that the Barnacle and Pink-footed Goose plates include photos of a single bird among a flock of Canadas, the way they’re generally found in the eastern US.

- I really like the Arctic Tern plate. For just a half-page plate you really get a feel for the structural and plumage differences from Common Tern, better than I think Sibley or Nat Geo portray.

- There are many shorebird plates to love. The AMGP versus BBPL plates are very nice, the Avocet plate is visually stunning, and the Baird’s versus White-rump differences are well-illustrated.

- The Harrier plate is beautiful, and the Ferruginous Hawk photos really do show how big, bulky, and pale this bird is.

- The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker plate is a fine example of what I would like to see more of in this guide. Photos evenly spaced out, a light background making the bird easy to see, multiple full-body shots, and very useful and high-quality flight shots. Definitely one of the best plates in this book.

- The Cave Swallow plate is very appropriate for an eastern guide. We have a coastal setting, with a lighthouse in the background and birds huddling under an overhang of some sort as if to roost on a November evening.

- For a fine example of the usefulness of this style, check the Eastern & Mountain Bluebird plates. Crossley’s photos really capture the Mountain Bluebird’s long, thin shape and often alert posture as compared to EABL.

Negatives:

- Lacking photos of breeding plumaged Dovekie, except for the distant flight shots.

- Fea’s and Bermuda Petrel plates do not compare in quality to illustrations in other field guides…this is not a big surprise given how difficult it can be to see, let along photograph, rare seabirds. This is an example of a shortcoming of photographic guides, especially a guide that depends on photos from a single birder. Nobody has great, instructive photos of every species. A similar example is the flight shot of “Scopoli’s” Shearwater, which very poorly shows the bird’s underwing. And the underwing is something you want to see when looking for Scopoli’s.

- Another seabird example: the photo of juv White-tailed Tropicbird is just awful! Almost no view of the bird’s upperparts and a dark shadow on the underparts! Adults are easy to ID but young birds can cause confusion. This is disappointing. If Sibley provided an equivalent illustration of a young WTTR he would be ripped for it!

- No adult breeding Little Gull except one little speck of a photo??

- I wouldn’t use this book to confidently separate a Common Gull (canus) from a Mew Gull (brachyrhynchus) – something that should be done for all reported “Mew” Gulls in the east.

- Some gull flight shots do not do a great job of depicting the birds’ primary patterns

- The Ruddy Turnstone plate is just too cluttered. There are large photos slightly overlapping one another. Just remove or shrink one of them and show me the whole bird! Sometimes less is more.

- Some photos are intentionally very dark or camouflaged. I see what he’s trying to do here, but a few plates, such as the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Woodcock, and Eastern Whip-poor-will actually suffer from it, I think.

- The only Black Rail photo is of a bird with its wings spread. The photo is quite nice, but not all that instructive as structure is concerned. Am I nitpicking here?

- No photo of lekking/displaying Greater Sage-Grouse. When a male is displaying, it looks like a completely different beast.

- There are no photos of a young light phase Short-tailed Hawk, which, in its range is probably the plumage most likely to be confused with other buteos.

- When I look at the Rock Pigeon plate I feel like I’m being attacked.

- Tropical Kingbird, common in its range and easy to photograph, has one of two photos with a large shadow across it

Summary & Recommendation:

I don’t want that list of negatives to cancel out all the good things I’ve already said. But this guide does have its flaws and I wanted to point them out. Ideally, each species account would be spread over a few pages as they are so perfectly done in “The Shorebird Guide.” That way the author could avoid clutter, not overwhelm the reader, and specifically caption every photo with teaching points for each plumage. But this is not possible when you’re dealing with so many species. Because of this, I think Crossley’s approach is probably better suited to the ‘specialty’ ID guides. In “The Crossley ID Guide” you really do get a feel for most of the presented birds, but when it comes down to apples-to-apples comparison between two similar species or the ability to display field marks in a consistent manner, it is difficult for a photographic guide to compare to true artwork. If I had to pick just one eastern bird ID guide to use as a reference, it wouldn’t be this one. However, it would be in my Top 3!

Once I came to terms with the fact that this is not your typical illustrated identification guide, I was less annoyed by what it lacked and began to really enjoy each species account. There is a lot to be learned thanks to Crossley’s style. The brief text is so rich with information that this alone might be worth the price of purchase. Add to that a quality collection of images and you have a resource very much worth owning. I think I’m really going to enjoy this one; I’ve been through the entire book once in detail yet I feel there’s still so much more to explore and find. I highly recommend “The Crossley ID Guide” to birders, both beginners and experienced alike.

- Nick

2 comments:

  1. One thing that struck me is that it is an Eastern guide. This is bucking the trend these days. Of course if the Eastern version is large, a version that spanned the continent would be mind boggling. Any word on a Western edition? I have to figure it will be a significant wait if only because of the amount of work involved - if I recall correctly Western guides have to cover more birds.

    RH

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  2. Can't wait to check this one out in person. Thanks for the breakdown on the book for us novices.

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