Review: The Crossley ID Guide

i Mar 1, 2011 No Comments by

By Nathan Swick, Wake Audubon Board member

I love field guides. Just love ‘em. I love the way how what can seem like an essentially static form, a paperback book to help you identify the birds around can be interpreted in so many ways by so many different people. Granted, ever since Peterson came up with the illustrations facing information format back in 1934 the cast was essentially set for the next 80 years.  As such field guide innovation has been limited to more (or less) information or better illustrations or illustrative photos or different tips for identifying birds packed into increasingly, and unfortunately, unread introductions.  With ever more information about identifying birds at our disposal, perhaps it was inevitable that a bird guide (I wouldn’t dream of tying the adjective “field” to these most recent behemoths) would come out that sought to incorporate it all.  We got just that late last year in the Stokes recent magnum opus, a jolly orange giant that is easily the most informative field guide currently available, if not the most user-friendly, that seemed to seek to make the rest of the genre obsolete from the perspective of a pure, unadulterated data crush.  One guide to bring them all in, indeed. And when I reviewed that guide several months ago I asked, is this the ultimate culmination of the field guide genre?  Is there ever going to be anything new under the sun?

The much anticipated new bird guide from Richard Crossley looks to answer that question with an enthusiastic “yes!”.  Birders have been privy to the Frankenstein’s monster Crossley had been working on for some time, as he doled out finished plates on his own website before the book was published, so we sort of understand what he’s going for here.  Each plate is a composite of many different photographs, mostly Crossley’s own work, showing a single species of bird at multiple angles and multiple positions and multiple plumages all stitched together via the magic of photo-editing software into a mostly seamless whole.  And that’s essentially it; the gimmick that we’ve known would make or break the book from the moment we saw the first plate on Crossley’s website.

The question is, does it work?

For me, the answer is yes and no.  Crossley clearly deserves to be cheered for his creativity.  This is a very different guide from what we’re used to, for better and for worse, and his treatment seems to work better for some species than for others.  Flocking birds such as waterfowl, and larger open country species that are often observed in flight come out really, really well here.  It’s incredibly useful to see distant flocks of Scoters, for instance, in a guide, or to have in front of you examples of the many ways a field birder might see a Sandwich Tern or a Rough-legged Hawk.

Shorebirds, too, translate exceptionally well to this approach.  Not that this is to be unexpected for one of the authors of The Shorebird Guide, one of the best, if not the best, family specific guides on the market, but it stands to be reiterated that Crossley has an innate sense of how these species manifest themselves to field birders, and presents them as such.  That’s why it seems odd, though, that I end up disliking some of the perching bird plates for precisely the same reasons I love the larger bird plates.  The birds can seem cluttered and awkwardly shuffled into their habitats.  In these plates the limitations of the photo-editing seem more obvious and the whole plate can be a tad overwhelming with multiple birds in multiple and often inconsistent light schemes, devolving into little more than a game of “Where’s Bird-o”.

But of course they have to be like that, it’s not as if Crossley could switch his format up half-way through. This is what makes the book unique and, as Crossley himself states in the introduction, very often this is how you see the bird in the field.  Games of “Where’s Bird-o” are all too common among birders picking warblers out of treetops so why shouldn’t an ostensibly useful field guide seek to illustrate this on its pages?

And that’s what I think is the crux of what Crossley is trying to convey.  What should be obvious for any self-professed connoisseur of field guides is that it is incredibly difficult to re-invent the wheel in this genre.  Not only are there 80 years of avocational inertia Crossley has to overcome, but there are very good reasons why field guides show the things they do and are laid out the way they are.  Notably, because it’s generally the easiest way for observers to narrow down the birds they have seen in the field so that they can identify them.

They have seen.  Past tense.

If I am looking to use a field guide to help me puzzle out a difficult identification of a bird I’ve seen, Crossley’s guide would not be the first book I’d use. I have Sibley, of course, and Kaufman’s Advanced Birding if it’s relevant. Maybe throw in the Collins Europe guide or Crossley’s Shorebird Guide or Howell and Dunn’s Gull guide depending on the family I’m dealing with.  I even have the Pyle guides if we’re really stuck, so to be honest, Crossley would probably not be in the top five.  Those other books lay the potential confusion species out in a systematic way.  They point to relevant field marks and generally get me to the right bird eventually after a series of steps I have to follow.  They’re roadmaps.

But Crossley’s guide is not a roadmap, it’s more like a Fodor’s guide.  This is what struck me most about the way Crossley lays out his guide because it was intentionally meant to be more than just a means by which you identify that weird bird that you saw.  He means to change the way we think about birding, how we think about the resources we use, for the better.  He wants us to look at his guide and prepare yourself for what you might see before you go out in the field.  It may not be a novel approach for us – how many of us have a field guide on the coffee table to flip through absent-mindedly in spare minutes – but for the vast majority of the bird guide buying public, this is something of a revelation.   And it works too, because if I’m going to a new place and I want to familiarize myself with a new suite of birds so that I can easily identify them when I get there, I’m going to want to see them in multiple lighting schemes and multiple angles and different distances.  In these cases, Crossley’s guide may well be the first one I reach for.

Other reviews have pointed out that this is emphatically not a “field” guide in the conventional sense, but it’s not meant to be for reasons beyond its heft.  It’s more obviously a tool to teach you how to identify birds rather than a bird catalog, to know what to look for and to prepare you for the potential pitfalls so that when you find that bird you’ll be able to identify it without the book.  It’s more of a textbook rather than an identification key, and should be taken on those terms.

So while there are some issues (an out of place and unidentified female Mallard in with the Cinnamon Teal (p59), and the Saltmarsh Sparrow is incorrectly labeled “Sharp-tailed Sparrow” (p464) to name two), this book is one I think birders should feel legitimately excited about.  It is, bar none, the closest anyone has gotten to actually showing what the birds look like in life short of a video recording, and there’s no better way to train yourself to be a better birder than by seeing birds in life.

And until everyone starts carrying around pocket video field guides, the Crossley ID Guide may be the nearest thing we get.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy

crossposted at The Drinking Bird