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The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds [Analysis]

February 25, 2011

First things first, if you are in the Ithaca, NY area on 28 February, consider attending the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Monday Night Seminar which will feature Richard Crossley.

“Past, Present and Future”

A story told in a Yorkshire brogue through a camera lens that loves color and art. Tales of lessons learned while growing up in the wild British birding scene – from travels around the world to living in Cape May. With humor and depth it highlights the thoughts behind the revolutionary ‘The Crossley ID Guide’ series . But is changing how we look at books and birds enough? ‘Hell, no’ says Richard. Come listen to his past, perhaps it will change your thoughts on the future!

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds
Richard Crossley

When I received a review copy of a this new field guide I immediately lost my next half hour, absorbed completely in paging through plate after plate of birds found in the eastern U.S. and Canada. Since then I’ve been able to not only evaluate it on my own, I solicited impressions from my Bloggerhead Kingbird teammates at the Super Bowl of Birding, from folks at the workplace (turns out there are a lot of people with an interest in field guides at the Cornell Lab), as well as a few with only a casual interest in birding and birds. What follows are my thoughts along with their comments.

The first thing I noticed, and the very first observation by most everyone who I talked with: “Wow, this is huge!” Some wondered aloud whether Crossley intended this as a coffee table book. Furthering this speculation they pointed to the plates: they are, if nothing else, eye-catching. But it’s clearly not a coffee table book, it’s got “Guide” right there in the title, and it’s the second-biggest word on the cover (next to “ID”) so the intent should be obvious.

After spending a little time with this guide, a simple, direct statement sums up the general consensus: “This is wow!”

In addition to being huge in the “Does Size Matter?” department, it’s huge in the “This Is a Pivotal Moment” sense, specifically in the approach used to present the birds. It’s not a stretch to call it a landmark guide: Crossley set out to create a new kind of field guide to birds, one he feels represents birds as they are observed in the field. To a large degree, he has succeeded, and his guide deserves a spot on your book shelf alongside other excellent field guides.

Crossley ID Guide: American Oystercatcher

A typical representation in the guide, the birds are portrayed in their expected habitat in the typical way you'd find them in the field.

The book is not large by accident. A big book means big pages, which equals usable space, which means you can include more images, ones that are appropriately sized. And this guide is all about the images, they are described as the “heart and soul,” so there are lots of them with plenty of space for presentation.

The images are meant to portray the birds as you would see them in the field, and they do. Photos of each bird, in various plumages and from various angles, are displayed on a background photo that depicts where you would commonly encounter that species. Eastern Bluebirds are portrayed in a meadow, Wood Thrushes in an open-understory deciduous forest, Sanderlings on a sandy beach with waves crashing in the background, Chipping Sparrows on a golf course (I don’t golf, but I still understand the habitat type one would expect to find them), Carolina Wrens are perched on downed logs with a tangle of Virginia Creeper, Eastern Phoebes patrol a backyard. The arrangements of many photos in different poses, arranged like you see them in the field, was appreciated by both beginning and experienced birders.

And while everyone appreciated the richness of the plates, everyone remarked on their “busyness,” that they were visually overwhelming. However, I found this became less of an issue as I spent more time with the book, like something you must habituate to. A few commented on the usefulness of some of the included photos, as they are too small or an unidentifiable flight shot, and that’s true if this were a typical field guide. In Crossley’s portrayal, however, they serve as views you are likely to get in the field, and there are clues to be gleaned, such as the “giss” (General Impression of Size and Shape) of the bird. As more than one put it, better too many pictures than too few, even if it becomes a “Where’s Waldo” of the bird guide genre (this will rapidly become an overused analogy, but it fits). Some lamented for more flight shots as some species are lacking them altogether, meaning key field marks — underwing or tail patterns – are missing.

Crossley ID Guide: Black-and-white Warbler

A Black-and-white Wawrbler as you'd encounter it in the field, but is this presentation too visually jarring?

The biggest complaint about the large images: oftentimes only two species can be directly compared without flipping pages back and forth. You can compare Lesser and Greater Scaup as they are on facing pages, but you cannot compare all three scoters. So, while the size and general busyness seem to hinder its use to identify something in the field, this lack of direct comparison hinders it’s use while studying at home.

The text is somewhat brief for each species, but what’s there was well-received. Most importantly, no one pulled out anything blatantly incorrect or misleading, and I found the style is very readable, often relating descriptions one would expect listening to a trip leader in the field. Stilt Sandpipers are described as “long-legged so tips like an oil-derrick to feed,” American Redstarts “often fluttering ‘butterfly-like’ as it drops down to catch insects,” descriptions that textually paint an image that the still shots cannot capture. Some wondered if the text was too jargony in places, and if some of the descriptions would be understood by all audiences, such as a Western Sandpiper described with “. . . a neck on steriods . . . “.

Similar to the text, no one noted gross inaccuracies on the maps, though a couple wished the presentation stretched all the way to the west coast, even if the book’s focus is on eastern birds. Having access to the whole range is useful in learning about the species’ distribution.

The size is a plus in allowing the desired presentation, but that hinders its use as a field guide (meaning, specifically, a guide to use in the field). While it would be cumbersome to look up a bird as it flits around in the bush in front of you during a hike, it’s ideally suited for pre- and post-game review. It’s the sort of guide to study before going in the field: the images and text are designed to give you experience with birds you have no or limited experience with, or observe something new with species you regularly encounter. It’s also the sort of guide to study upon returning from a birding trip. Habitat associations, behaviors, and plumages that you may have observed are presented and therefore reinforced as a way to identify that species in the future. And while you probably don’t want to take it along on a trail, you very well might want it in the car waiting upon your return.

Crossley ID Guide: Black Scoter

Scoters can be seen singly, sometimes up close, but more often than not in distant flocks, as captured here.

Crossley states the audience is everyone, from novice birders to experts. Beginning and intermediate birders will certainly benefit from the presentation, advanced birders will have their issues and pet peeves. There’s the layout: birds are not presented in the expected taxonomic order, but grouped by physical and habitat similarities — something that makes more sense in the field experience, but which doesn’t map with how you’ll encounter the order in other places, such as other field guides, when searching on eBird, or on other checklists. More than one person commented on the unusual group names, such as “Walking,” “Swimming,” and “Flying Waterbirds,” “Aerial Landbirds,” and “Miscellaneous Large Landbirds,” titles not usually found in traditional guides. New birders will adopt this categorization more readily than those entrenched in more-universal terms, and some remarked these casual groupings didn’t fit in with an otherwise serious guide.

Crossley’s guide has its roots in a rapidly-growing approach, that which focuses on the “General Impression of Size and Shape” as a method for identification (see “The Shorebird Guide,” for example, which Crossley co-authored). As I already paraphrased from the preface, Crossley “wanted to create a book that replicates the world of birds as I see it,” and as you go through each species you’ve got two things working towards this goal: text that read as though Richard is standing next to you in the field as you observe the bird, and images that represent what you are likely to see in the field. While this guide probably won’t, and shouldn’t, replace your current favorite, it will exist comfortably along side it.

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds
Richard Crossley
Cloth Flexibound
March 2011
$35.00 / £24.95
544 pp.
7-1/2 x 10
10,000 color images.

Many thanks to all those who offered comments, including: Andrew Baksh, John Beetham, Christopher Ciccone, Jacob Drucker, Corey Finger, Jay McGowan, Kevin McGowan, Reina Powers, Nathan Senner, Nathan Swick; sincere apologies to anyone I didn’t credit.

Also, thanks to Princeton University Press for providing a copy to review.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2011 12:38

    It was fun talking to you about the guide!

    • March 2, 2011 14:00

      @John – I really appreciate how fortunate I was to receive the guide just before the Super Bowl – it was a lot of fun to hear your comments, especially in that group setting with other dedicated field birders. Hopefully we’ll get another chance to do that again soon!

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