Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors

In 2011, Richard Crossley introduced a new format for photographic field guides with his much-heralded Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds. Crossley tried to overcome the limitations of traditional photographic field guides by presenting each species in an array of plumages all crowded into a single plate that depicts each bird's typical habitat. The intent is to mimic how birds appear in the wild. While no printed guide can recreate actual field conditions, Crossley's guides are about as close as one can get.

Since then, Crossley has worked to expand his ID guide series into other geographic regions. A guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland is already published, and one for western birds is planned. Last year I received another installment in the series, The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. The new guide is coauthored with Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan. Like the guide to eastern birds, this raptor guide features birds as they appear in the field: perched, flying, interacting with other birds, in various plumages, etc. Once again, the plates show a raptor's typical habitat with numerous bird photos added into the background with the help of Photoshop.

Like its predecessor, The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors features beautiful photography. I initially enjoyed just flipping through and looking at the plates. Since hawk migration is an emphasis in this guide, the backdrops are often coastal or mountaintop hawk watches, some of which are spectacular. I especially liked the plate showing how vultures might look from the top of the Cape May Lighthouse.

The focus on a single family allows even more detail than was possible in the guide to eastern birds. Most species are spread over multiple pages, with color morphs or regional plumages receiving separate attention. As in the first guide, the photos of individual birds are inserted into backdrops depicted a typical habitat. The raptor guide takes this a step further by showing separate plates for hawk watches and habitats where the hawk typically resides. This is useful because there are different identification challenges for raptors that are just passing through (especially at mountaintop hawk watches) than ones that are perched or hunting in a field. Some plates also mimic difficult lighting conditions, like overcast skies or the golden hour, and plates show both close and distant raptors.

New features introduced in the raptor guide are comparison plates and quizzes. These plates show groupings of similar species in typical habitat with individual birds numbered and with answers at the back of the book. These features ought to be useful for someone who is new to hawk study or for learning unfamiliar species. Another difference between this guide and the guide to eastern birds is the inclusion of detailed species accounts with range maps at the end of the guide.

While it is smaller than its predecessor, The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors is a little too large to carry as a field guide on most occasions. However, since hawk watching is a matter of waiting in a location for hawks to pass by, it could be used as a reference at a hawk watch (provided that getting to the hawk watch does not require a hike, as some mountaintop hawk watches do). The Crossley ID guides are intended for home study, mainly for preparation to know what to look for. On numerous occasions since I received Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds I have made use of it to help figure out difficult identifications.

Photoshopping aside, The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors occupies a similar niche as Jerry Ligouri's other guides, Hawks from Every Angle and Hawks at a Distance. All three guides attempt to show readers how raptors look under less-than-ideal field conditions: at a weird angle, backlit, at a distance, disappearing behind some trees, and so on. All three guides emphasize shape and flight style as a way of getting around the difficulty. I think the new guide actually improves on Hawks from Every Angle and Hawks at a Distance by showing those angles in their habitat contexts.

From reading reviews of Crossley's first guide and from conversations with other birders, I get the sense that some birders find Crossley's style far too cluttered. The new raptor guide is probably not for them since The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors shares much in common with its predecessor. However, if you like raptors and enjoyed the first Crossley guide, as I do, you will probably like The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors.