Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

Most readers have probably already heard or read some of the buzz surrounding the newly published Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, and maybe you have read some reviews of it already. I mostly stayed away from the pre-publication buzz because it is hard to get a good sense of a book from a few pull-quotes and sample pages. Now that I have the book in my hands, I can see that it does something much different from previous field guides, and that it does it very well.

A major limitation of photographic field guides has been that birds appear in rectangular images that take up extra space on the page and make it difficult to include enough images for a reader to get a good sense of the bird's appearance and plumages. The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America attempts to solve this problem by shrinking the photos and increasing the size of the book to include more images and a lot of text. Richard Crossley takes  a different approach. Each species plate has a single background image and photos of the species in various plumages and poses have been Photoshopped into the scene.

When I first held a copy of The Crossley ID Guide (in the company of other bird bloggers), my first impression was that the book was huge, even bigger than The Sibley Guide to Birds (see photo below). My second impression was that each plate contained a lot of images, so that some plates almost looked crowded. The guide includes about 10,000 photos, almost all of which were taken by Richard Crossley himself. Most are excellent, and even the ones that are not perfectly sharp or well-exposed are still useful for learning more about the shape and behaviors of a bird. The photos include some birds molting from one plumage to another, including some birds in flight with missing flight feathers. The photo editing is also very good. Most plates are put together well, so that the Photoshopped birds appear as a natural part of the scene, and some birds even cast shadows or reflections. In some plates, particularly songbirds on the ground but also some perched birds, the birds do not look quite right to my eye. However, birds in the water and birds flying generally look more natural to me than the perched or walking birds. There were some errors on the plates, and further review will probably turn up a few more.

The background images themselves provide information about where a birder might encounter a species and add a lot of charm to the guide. Killdeer appear in a farm field with a tractor in the background; Bar-tailed Godwits appear on a beach with bikini-clad beachgoers; Ruffed Grouse blend with leaves covering a forest floor; Whip-poor-wills emerge from a dark forest; Chimney Swifts fly over a house's chimney; Grasshopper Sparrows sing in a grassy field; House Finches perch on the branches of a tangled mass of vines. Cape May regulars will recognize a lot of scenes (some obvious, like a lifeboat labelled "Cape May" or the lighthouse behind the American Oystercatchers). I am sure that birders in other places will find familiar scenes as well. I found one apparent oversight in the backgrounds: on the Herring Gull plate, a background image of fishing boats appears to be flipped horizontally, so that the names on the boats are backwards.

A major advantage of Crossley's approach is that it allows him to show a bird's typical behaviors along with their plumage and how a bird's appearance changes in different poses. Scoters can appear up close, to show plumage details, and in distant rafts, as a birder would usually encounter them. Songbirds appear perched, in flight, performing breeding displays, and foraging. On the American Coot page, a Great Black-backed Gull is attacking one of the coots in the background – a scene repeated many times (link not for the squeamish!) in front of Cape May's hawkwatch. A male Vermillion Flycatcher is displaying in the background of its plate, and a Northern Shrike is shown perched at the very top of a tree. Black-and-white Warblers creep around a tangled understory and hang upside-down from branches as they seek invertebrate prey.

Crossley begins his guide with the statement, "I don't like text," to emphasize that his guide is presenting images and letting the reader interpret them. However, his guide contains a fair amount of text: an introduction, prefaces for each of the bird categories, and notes on each plate about the bird's behavior and identification. Crossley's writing is lively and informative, with personal impressions and anecdotes included among the birding tips. For example, did you know that Richard Crossley took his wife to a sewage outflow on their first date? I learned that from his commentary on gulls, which went on to discuss why gulls should be interesting to a birder. If you do get this guide, the introduction is particularly worth reading because it lays out Crossley's ideas about bird identification and what he tried to accomplish with the plates. The one thing I do not like about the introduction is that it emphasizes the importance of taking good field notes but does not go into much detail on what they should look like or include.

Some elements of this guide are likely to be controversial among birders. In particular, Crossley includes the four-letter AOU/BBL code for each species along with the English and scientific names, and he uses those abbreviations throughout the text. I think that providing these codes is helpful since many birders do use them as shorthand in their own notes (as I do) and some rare bird text alerts make use of them. However, these codes were designed for recording data, mainly records of banded birds. Using them in the text makes the species descriptions initially confusing, especially for birders unfamiliar with the codes. Besides the abbreviation issue, the guide abandons the strict taxonomic ordering found in most recent field guides. Instead groups birds based on categories such as "swimming waterbirds," "walking waterbirds," "upland gamebirds," and "aerial landbirds."

If you want a traditional guide to carry in the field, this is not the book you are looking for. While The Crossley ID Guide covers 640 species that occur in eastern North America, it will not be easy to carry and it does not offer the quick field mark reference that we have come to expect from field guides. There are plenty of good choices available for field use, such as the Sibley Guide (Sibley's eastern birds is still the guide I use in the field) and the National Geographic guide

That said, The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds is a guide that all birders will want for study and reference. Its large and detailed plates come closer than those of any bird guide to replicating the experience of seeing birds in the field. It should be especially useful for intermediate birders who want to move beyond puzzling out field marks to identifying birds according to size, shape, and behavior. I plan to consult it ahead of time when I pursue unusual birds to familiarize myself with their appearance, and I want to study all of the plates in greater detail now that this review is finished. According to Crossley Books, three more guides are in the works: one for Great Britain, one for western birds, and another mystery guide. I am eager to see Crossley's future guides.

Note: This review was based on a review copy provided by Princeton University Press.

If you are not satisfied with my review of the book, there are a lot more reviews in the bird blogosphere; you can find links to many of them at The Birder's Library.