Friday, March 4, 2011

Book Review: Crossley ID Guide

Why review a bird book for Eastern North America in a blog for the Pacific NW?

Two reasons. 1) This book represents a revolutionary paradigm shift in the design and presentation of a bird identification guide. 2) A version covering Western North America is in the works--and you will want one!

I have been hearing about this new guide by Brit birder/photographer Richard Crossley and seeing some sample plates on the web for over a year now. My review copy finally arrived yesterday, but I had read a dozen reviews already. I'm not sure I can add anything that hasn't already been said, but I'll try.

This bird identification guide is different.

It is different from anything you've ever seen before. As such, it may take a little getting used to. And, because it is so different, it is hard to directly compare it with other bird books.

What is it?

The Crossley ID Guide is a photo guide to bird identification half way between a field guide and a coffee table book. Larger than the big Sibley guide, it is heavier too. This is not a field guide.

Sparse on text, Crossley relies on the 640 plates to teach bird identification. He does this by providing 10,000 of his own bird photos in this book! That's over 15 photos per species--twice the number of illustrations per species as Sibley's guide.

But you've never seen bird photos like these before!

Each plate is a collage of bird photos superimposed realistically within an appropriate habitat. As others have said, each plate is like a museum panorama.

The thrushes are on the ground and lower branches in the shadows of a dense woods. The ptarmigans are on a snow-covered mountain slope. The blue jays are on a typical Eastern farm with an orchard. The juncos are in a snowy residential backyard with feeders. The chipping sparrows are on a golf course, complete with 4 golfers playing through. There are warblers dripping from the tree tops. The fish crows are in the marina. A man is feeding the pigeons in a park. The owls are in the dark and barely discernable. The snowy owls are on the beach dunes. The parrots are backdropped against a Miami skyline. The laughing gulls are on the beach at Cape May. The glaucous gulls appear to be at Niagra Falls in the snow, complete with rainbow. The killdeer are following a tractor as it plows a field. The semipalmated plovers are sharing the beach with swimming children. The yellow-headed blackbirds are in a cattle feedlot. The tree sparrows are in dirty snow in a city with spired architecture that I am guessing is Montreal.

No tack-sharp cookie-cutter bird illustraions, here.

The house finch photographed for the introduction covering bird topography has a near-fatal case of avian conjunctivitis--disgusting... and real! Crossley chooses to show birds as he actually sees them--a few near birds in various plumages and ages, then some at medium range, and a virtual "where's Waldo?" collection of distant birds hidden away in their natural habitat.

As in real life, only one of the 7 bushtits is facing the camera. The flying shots of some of the smaller birds are just blurs. There are 7 flying red-breasted nuthatches--the largest has a wingspan on the page of 1 inch, the smallest photo is 1/8 inch long--just as Crossley photographed it, and just as you might see it--flying in the tree tops. He uses to excellent advantage, distant, headless, non-artistic, and sometimes blurry photos such as I have been deleting in my own photography!

Birds are hopping, crawling, fighting, eating, flying, singing, stretching, courting, fleeing, mating, nesting, diving, displaying, preening, drying, swimming. Only a very few are actually sitting there quietly posing for the camera in a Peterson-style side-view. This presentation may be confusing and overhwelming to many at first.

Who is this book for?

Crossley says he designed this book for "beginners, experts, and everyone in between."

I see the appeal this book has for beginners and intermediate birders. The realistic habitats will instantly give one a feel for where each species lives--fence lines next to dredge spoils for palm warbler, deep swamps for Swainson's warbler.

But I do worry that the plates could also mislead. For instance, the text doesn't always tell you that some species are usually solitary. Thus the plate with a dozen merlins may mislead someone into thinking that they are usually found in flocks.

I'm not sure exactly what this book has to offer for experts. Perhaps the tiny photos will show what field marks are visible on a distant flying bird, Certainly, the identificaion of flying birds is not adequately covered in any field guide. But without describing wingbeat angles, frequency, and pattern, and without showing flight progression, this book fails there, too. Maybe the unique presentation alone is enough for more advanced birders to purchase this volume.

"I don't like text."

Well, that certainly is an attention-grabbing way to start a book! In fact, Rick Wright, in his review of this book, argues that this guide would be more approprate as an electronic book.

There are no arrows pointing out field marks. There are no side-by-side comparisons of similar species.

Instead of telling you the "answers" directly, Crossley asks you to pore over the plates and learn from them, thus the reduced amount of text. He likens his guide to a "workbook at school." I'm not sure beginners are willing to put in this amount of work. And there's no "teacher's guide" to this so-called workbook.

The species accounts in the Crossley guide have a small amount of text, but Crossley gives it his own inimitable voice. For instance, under black-crowned night-heron he describes a bit of behavior: "crouches like smaller GRHE [green heron], occasionally walking a few paces hoping for better luck." Under red-headed woodpecker: "Sits quietly for periods of time, always looking around so it knows what's going on."

You might notice the bander's 4-letter alpha code in the description above. These are used throughout. Whether you love or hate referring to birds by their alpha code, it is the purpose of communication--including writing a book--to be understood. This will make it harder for many.

The maps are adequate, 3-color showing breeding, winter, and year-round ranges, but not migration. They often show more of the range than just the East, but are inconsistent in this regard.

In short, this book will not replace any of your field guides. It is, however, a splendid addition to your birding library... or coffee table.

- - -

The offical site is here: The first thing you'll notice is Richard Crossley on his head at the beach "turning birding upside down." Well, I doubt he'll turn birding upside down, but already he has turned bird books upside down!

Be sure to look at samples of the plates on the web site above and watch the YouTube link of the "Wild in the City" TV program concept--you might just find that the boisterous, busy, confusing, exciting, overwhelming new Crossley ID Guide mirrors the man--and I mean that in a good way, for both the man and the book.

I can't wait for the Western guide. If Clark's nutcracker isn't shown on the rim of Crater Lake....