The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds
Published by Princeton Press
Cloth Flexibound, March 2011, £24.95
This is a brand new photo-guide to the birds of eastern North America by a well-known ex-British birder. With advances in digital photography, photo-guides are becoming increasingly commonplace but it is safe to say that this new guide is unlike any you have seen before! It contains not, as is conventional, single images but, for each species, large life-like tableaux containing multiple images, some close but many distant, from all sorts of angles, in flight, feeding, flocking, and all set in typical habitat, just as you see the birds in real life. This montage approach enables all aspects of a bird’s size, shape and structure, plumage and behaviour to be displayed to best effect and, contrary to what we are used to in photographs, everything from front to rear is in sharp focus, also just like in life! It is worth emphasising that this is not a guide for the field - it is a large (and heavy) book, running to 529 pages. It may even be too large to pack for a holiday.
However, what it lacks in portability it more than makes up for in comprehensiveness. It contains 640 montage scenes with more than 10,000 of the author’s own photographs. Almost all of the photographs (with only a few exceptions - recognise the Long-billed Murrelet photos?) are taken by the author, a remarkable achievement. The traditional taxonomic sequence is avoided, with birds grouped into categories such as “swimming waterbirds”, “walking waterbirds” and “songbirds”. Regularly-occurring species in the region are given a whole page, whilst scarcer, rare or vagrant species are accorded a correspondingly smaller space. Although the plates are designed to speak for themselves, each has a brief text caption (incorporating the unfamiliar - in Europe - four-letter North American species codes) and a small range map. Though at time confusing (“DOVE” = Little Auk i.e. Dovekie), most people should quickly get used to them, and even start using them. The book claims to “revolutionise birding” by showing birds as they really appear under field conditions. There is minimal captioning within the plates (and no pointers or little arrows to plumage minutiae). Instead, the reader is encouraged to linger on each plate, working out for him or herself the distinctive “feel” of each species. There is therefore something of an “interactive” element to the book which should appeal to beginners and more experienced birders alike.
The plates are, almost without exception, superb, some containing too many separate images to count, and the composite gives a truly life-like impression of each species. Many are truly beautiful and would happily merit framing for the wall. It really is like seeing the birds for real. Only a few disappoint. That of Bay-breasted Warbler, for example, only contains images of males in shadow, thereby failing to capture their true brilliance, whilst that of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is similarly compromised, showing none of the beautiful daffodil-yellow hues for which the species is known (and named). I would also question the usefulness of the Arctic Redpoll plate where the images labelled hornemanni, if truly of this form, provide no basis for an accurate identification. These are mere nit-pickings, however, and the overall standard of the plates is simply superb. There is also much gentle humour in the plates, which incorporate passers-by, golfers, bathers, sheds, bicycles, cows, other birds (and much more besides) to give an authentic context for each species. See what you can spot (and who is that in the Eastern Phoebe plate?) The captions are pithy and playful too. Saw-Whet Owl is described as “pocket-sized and cuddly, you would love to take it home”. Swallow-tailed Kite is, aptly, likened to a creation from the movie “Avatar”.
A tiny reservation is that although the book covers “eastern” North America, the boundary adopted follows, for the most part, ecologically meaningless state boundaries. On the Plains, for example, it follows the western borders of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. Whilst this may be convenient in terms of bird recording, it means that many essentially western birds such as Mountain Bluebird and Violet-green Swallow are included. Given the promised arrival of a companion guide to western birds, adopting a more ecologically significant boundary such as the ninety-eighth meridian “aridity line” might have been more appropriate.
It is no exaggeration to say that this book has revolutionised photo-guides. It represents a huge advance over anything seen previously. The combination of the latest digital photography technology and “photoshop” software means that this genre of guide, long considered by many to be inadequate to the task, can now compete with conventional artwork-based guides. Does this therefore mean the end of art-based field guides such as our trusty Collins guide? Personally, I doubt it. Whilst photographs have tremendous value, I still believe that there is a place for the synthesising hand of the artist, bringing to the page not just a few snapshots of a bird but a lifetime of observation, experience and skill in depiction.
However, for anyone living in or visiting eastern North America this is a “must-buy”, and at the price it respresents excellent value for money. But has the book truly “revolutionised birding”? Well, that really is a bold claim!