Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Review: The Crossley Id Guide: Eastern Birds

First off, I should make clear that the “Eastern Birds” referred to in the book title are those found in the east of North America, not Asia!

The publisher’s blurb makes some bold claims about this book – “revolutionary,” “The first real-life approach to bird identification,” “reality birding”. In addition, one could add “ambitious” – it aims to satisfy “beginners, expert, and anyone in between” and “promises to vastly improve all birders’ abilities to identify birds.”

Hype apart, the first thing that strikes me about this book is that it really is different from any other identification guide I have seen. For a start, the plates use digital technology to arrange dozens of separate photographic images of birds into stunningly arranged montages – each plate showing one species in a realistic setting in an array of postures, ranges and plumages. The results are visually impressive. Each fresh page is a birder’s Utopia – a bush bursting with warblers, a sky full of raptors, a seascape crammed with seabirds. The plates invite us to pore over them - there’s so much to see and notice - and to interact with the images, building up an impression of the characteristics of each species from the many images. Often, it is some of the tiny, distant images of a species which portray the distinctive character or ‘jizz’ of a species more than the close-up profiles.

Then there is the text. The very first section of the Introduction announces “I DON’T LIKE TEXT”, by which I presume Crossley means the traditional, rather dry ‘id-speak’ which often fills typical field guides. However, that’s not the way Crossley writes. A few examples will give a flavor of the text accompanying the photos. “The infamous parking-lot “beggar” (Ring-billed Gull). “Bold plumage and crested “professorial” look (Northern Lapwing). “Big and very fat with a potbelly and short tail” (Prothonotary Warbler). “Sits quietly for periods of time, always looking around so it knows what’s going on” (Red-headed Woodpecker). These unconventional descriptions not only show how intimately Crossley knows his birds, they are exactly the kind of nuggets of wisdom one would hope to gain from an expert birder, but which are so often absent from field guides, perhaps because they are too ‘subjective’. Occasionally Crossley’s esoteric descriptions border on the unhelpfully tangential (such as “it would have been at home in the movie ‘Avatar’” for Swallow-tailed Kite) but generally they are succinct and spot-on, at least for the species I am familiar with.

From a personal viewpoint, as someone who has wrestled with the challenges of teaching others about birds, what I love most about this book is Crossley’s approach. He has clearly thought long and hard about how we learn bird identification. For the beginner he has made a number of helpful innovations. Firstly, birds in this book are grouped according to similar characteristics related to obvious commonalities such as habitat (e.g. Upland Gamebirds), behavior (e.g. Swimming Waterbirds) and size (e.g Miscellaneous Larger Landbirds). Secondly, he has provided a photographic key in the opening pages of the book which attempts to show every common species to scale, alongside a page number. This is generally helpful though, occasionally, where there are birds of widely disparate sizes on the same plate, this necessitates the use of a magnifying glass to see some of the smaller species (e.g. the ‘peeps’ on the Walking Waterbirds page). Thirdly, he opens each section of the book with a very helpful introduction, which summarizes the common characteristics of each group and gives tips on how to approach identification. For example, he counsels anyone wishing to start identifying terns, a notoriously confusing and difficult group, to begin with the basics. “Learn the familiar species well, based on size, shape and behavior, and study the patterns of color that remain consistent. Beware: if you get caught up in the minutiae of color, you will become very confused!”

The Introduction to the book includes a superb section on “How to become a better birder”. I would recommend several readings of this, and will certainly be dipping into it again and again as I prepare my own training workshops. The website features short video clips of Crossley talking about several aspects covered in this section and they are well worth a watch, here.

For the more expert and experienced birder there is also much to be gained from this book. Apart from a wealth of information in the plates and text on sexing, aging, different color morphs and regional variants, there is an online web resource which contains additional information on many species (E.g. check out the additional information on Upland Sandpiper here.

So, does the book live up to all the superlatives that have been lavished upon it? I’d have to say, “Absolutely!” This book really will change the way many people approach birding, and, while we won’t all end up with the amazing breadth and depth of knowledge of Richard Crossley, it should make us better at identifying the birds we see.

The website promises that this book, on the birds of Eastern North America, is the first of several more ’Crossley Id Guides’ in the pipeline – including birds of the Western United States, British birds and the enigmatically titled “Mystery Guide.” So, the question for birders in this part of the world is, when will we see a Crossley Guide for South-eastern Birds (which will refer to South-east Asia!)?


M. A. Muin said...

Looked really interesting n nice plates! Pity not SEA birds...

jytou said...

very very interesting!! But of coz the composites dont look very natural, how good if it looks like a natural scene for the species.

John said...

A very bold approach.. I wonder if it works better for much-photographed species in North America than it would in Asia.

There are lots of fine asian bird images out there, but perhaps not enough.

We'll see.

digdeep said...

The challenge would be sorting though them! I didn't mention this in the review, but the technical aspect of this book is pretty amazing - all those pics in similar lighting, at a similar angle to the photographer, so that they 'sit right' on the page without looking odd. Crossley took all but a handful of those 10,000 pics himself - I think you'd have to do something like this, unless you had a Pixar Studios style team!

Jeremy Pearse said...

Hi Dave, thanks for your take on the book - I agree it is quite an unusual style and I'll be checking out the guide myself when I see it in the shops. Just found your blog today (link from John's blog in HK) and is great to know that you are still birding and creating art too! Love the mynah drawing and the eagle done on your computer is amazing. Hope you'll visit my blog (pigbristles.blogspot) and let me know what you think. Cheers!

Antshrike said...

Gee, my opinion is really different. I'm pretty disappointed by the book. Yes it's very artistic and has lots of pretty pictures. But I find it very noisy. It hurts my head to look at most of the plates. Another birder told me the same thing. The bird photos are usually cluttered against a very distracting background. Some of the waterfowl look good but many of the passerines photos look contrived as they were wedged into what is supposed to be appropriated habitat. Some of the pics are of a bit poor quality also. Not too impressed with the descriptions either.

Bottom line to me is it's OK for supplementary material but will give the beginning birder plenty of problems. It would have been much better with neutral backgrounds.

Dan Jones in USA

digdeep said...

Hi Dan

You know the birds better than I do.

But I'm impressed with the way Crossley has thought long and hard about the way we identify birds and sought to design the book from scratch accordingly.

I would agree with your comments about some of the plates, but still, overall I'm impressed by what he has boldly attempted.