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Monday, February 14, 2011

The Crossley ID Guide

At long last The Crossley ID Guide is here! I'm not sure we've waited for this as long as we waited for the Sibley guide, but once word got out about Richard Crossley's project, we've been looking at his sample guide images online and wondering what the final book would look like. Well, it is finally here and there is a lot to talk about!

If you haven't already, you might want to watch Crossley's own intro video, where he explains what this book is all about.

So where to begin? Best to just jump in!

Size Matters: This is the largest "field guide" format yet. In fact it is closer to Audubon's Birds of America than it is to the old Peterson or Golden field guides in size. At 9.8 x 5.9 x 4.5 inches it is bigger than Big Sibley. Crossley ID seems almost designed to be impossible to carry into the field. In fact, it was. As Crossley notes in his Introduction, he "grew up in a British birding culture where you didn't take a guide into the field--only a notebook. You focused on the bird and wrote notes. This was the 'law' and, if you wanted to be taken seriously as a birder, you simply didn't carry a guide." Crossley's not about to encourage breaking that law. So this is an ID guide, not a field guide. Don't even think about putting it in your day pack. Leave it at home where it belongs. OK, maybe you can carry it in your car.

Format: As shown in the video, Crossley ID utilizes a different format than past field guides. Perhaps the best way to sum it up is in the Crossley's first statement in the Introduction: "I DON'T LIKE TEXT." In fact, the Crossly guide probably has less text per species than many other recent field guides (see how it stacks up in an actual comparison here). In this way it is the Anti-Stokes guide. Where the new Stokes guide has so much text that my eyes tended to roll back in my head, the species accounts in Crossley ID are so brief as to be almost sparse. But again, this is by design. This is an ID guide--a resource to teach birders how to see and identify birds themselves, rather than a compilation of field ID tips. This may be the most frustrating thing to some birders, but there is a method to the madness.

According to Crossley, what we all need is to become more adept at looking at birds. Not just memorizing or looking up field marks on birds after we've seen them, or as mentioned above, even worse, in the field. So what Crossley ID does is present the birds themselves. Lots of images of the birds--close up, far away, in good light, in bad light, sitting, flying, in all kinds of positions and in their native habitat. Then you, dear reader, are encouraged to explore the images on your own. Look closely and compare the photos, and become so familiar with the birds that you can identify them no matter where or how you see them. The ID approach isn't about field marks so much as it is about familiarization. You don't need field marks to identify a cow or a horse. Likewise, if you spend enough time looking at birds, you will be able to identify most of them just as easily. In fact, the plates in the book are set up to encourage you to spend time with the book, and it is probably more useful to do this before you go birding than it is using Crossley ID as a reference to look something up after you've been out birding.

I love this aspect of the book. I'll admit my bias here and say I'm not one to spend a lot of time reading field guides. Field guides are good for looking stuff up, but not necessarily great for studying. I especially don't like most photo guides for this--as the format of multitudinous and disparately colored background boxes with birds in them just puts me off. And long written descriptions just put me to sleep. Just get me the field marks and get me out of there, as clearly and quickly as possible!

But with the Crossley ID guide we can linger on each picture, read the brief captions which make up most of the text, and really get to know the birds.

In many ways, the Crossley ID guide is a throwback to the days when birders learned to identify birds by studying museum skins. But in this case, instead of rows of specimens to look at, what Crossley had presented are more like 2D versions of old museum dioramas, with each species getting its own diorama chock full of individual birds. If perusing the Crossley ID guide is by design more like birding than reading a book, it is even more like visiting a museum and checking out the dioramas. But instead of creepy looking stuffed birds, we get great images of living birds. Crossley has revolutionized museum dioramas as much as he has ID guide plates!

Most species get their own full page--but for less common birds, or birds that don't s how as much variation (or maybe birds Crossley doesn't have as many photos of?), several species share a page--but each with their own species box or diorama and accompanying photo caption. For the most part this works well, and is orders of magnitude more attractive than photo field guides that offer rows and rows of boxy pictures.

Photos: OK, so how are the photos? Amazingly, Crossley took over 99% of these photos himself (and we can all be jealous for how much time in the field that represents)! So there are more than 10,000 photos of over 640 species in the guide. Most of them are good to great. A few are only so-so. At least by conventional bird photo standards. But the brilliant Crossley has pulled a jujitsu move on us! Even the "bad photos" are illuminating! I was especially struck by some of the alcids and other water birds that appeared underexposed. The photos of Eastern Whip-poor-will are also so dark as to be almost ridiculous. But that is the beauty of it! How well are you really going to see that Whip-poor-will in real life? And how do you ID seabirds in bad light? Especially if you are like me and you use a vintage spotting scope rather than a newer scope that costs more than a used birding mobile?

So this is a book that has to be judged by a completely different standard. Instead of how beautiful are the photos (a standard the Stokes guide explicitly adopted), how useful are they? Since the Crossley ID format allows for so many more images, the sheer number of images makes this guide much more useful than a standard photo field guide. Since the photoshopped images allow the birds to be seen in closer proximity to each other, and in one continuous scene rather than in chopped and vignetted scenes from separately cropped photos, the eye and mind can much more quickly and easily and pleasurably examine all the birds. This makes the Crossley guide something completely different--a photo guide that is fun to look at for long periods of time. The Crossley guide is to old photo field guides what a top of the line roof prism binocular is to an old out of alignment pair of Tasco brand binoculars. You can use one of these all day, but the other one will eventually give you headaches!

One of the limitations of past photo guides is that there just isn't enough room to have enough photos to show birds in all different plumages or poses. Crossley ID goes a long ways towards rectifying that, though there are still some serious limitations based on space or, probably, the number of photos Crossley had available. For instance Crossley ID is just the latest photo guide to not show a young Northern Saw-Whet Owl, and we can never get enough shots of songbirds in flight. Hopefully future editions of this guide will get even better as Crossley gets more photos to fill in the missing shots we might want included.

Finally, it has to be said, that the habitat shots in these photos/dioramas are unique and deserving of comment. Most are fantastic (waterfowl, shorebirds, seabirds). Some seem strange (hummingbirds look like they are in miniature Victorian glass cabinets for sure!). Only a few seem to not work at all for me (not a fan of the Anhinga plate). Most are beautiful. Birds are tucked away everywhere, making an exploration of Crossley ID a birding version of Where's Waldo? Or wait, makes it actually a lot like birding! And there are so many crazy things tucked into the backgrounds. This has to be the first bird ID guide with habitat shots that feature girls in bikinis, fisherman, and grumpy old men! It would be fun to see how many of the actual landscape shots are identifiable by knowledgeable birders--especially those shots that don't feature the Cape May lighthouse (anyone count how many times that shows up in Crossley ID?).

Text: As I mentioned before, the text here is pretty spare. Not as spare as the Kaufman guide--but probably more spare than many birders may be used to. And there is almost no mention of bird vocalizations--which may frustrate some birders, but I found it refreshing for a field guide author to admit that written descriptions of bird vocalizations are almost worthless in most cases. There also aren't a lot of distracting bolded words in the photo captions--just a bold "ID" to separate the intro portion that discusses mostly behavior notes from the text focusing on plumage marks.

Did I say that Crossley hates text? He's not just saying that for effect. Even the ID portions of the species accounts are spare. Very spare. No list of field marks. Only the briefest of description. No going into inordinate depths about aging or geographic variation. This is not the book to get if you want to try and identify every bird you see down to the subspecies level (a tricky and usually not even feasible goal in most cases). But that said, the ID sections of each species often have more jewels per word count than many other guides.

The writing itself is fun. I really appreciate a guide that allows me to vicariously bird with the author. I've only seen Crossley in action once, back in the mid-1990s on Higbee Dike at Cape May. But reading Crossley ID is like joining him for an extended romp through the field. At random, I open Crossley ID to the Carolina Wren page where I read this--
Common and would be very familiar if it allowed itself to be seen. Usually found in dense tangled vegetation and trees, particularly near homes, but also more extensive woodlands. It's amazing how something so small can make so much noise you are sure to have heard it. A large repertoire of songs, calls, and scolds, cheery, cheery, cheery perhaps the best known. If you are not sure of a sound, it's probably this species. Skulks around, on or near the ground, tail nearly always cocked (straight when singing). Climbs trees nuthatch-like, often hanging pside down and entering holes. Inquisitive, it goes to odd places--garages, through the open window, under the car, in plant pots, and just about any nook it can get into: perhaps you have found one stuck somewhere. Sometimes bobs up and down. Hops rather than walks. Very aggressive, the yard boss.
How's that for character? This is just the first part of the species account, not the ID section. It is fun writing, but it also gives you a good feel for the bird itself--and for Crossley, behavior and personality are as much of a field mark as anything. So don't skip the text, even if you don't get a long list of field marks. If you get a sense of what the bird is like, that may be as useful as anything (just like Pete Dunne's species nicknames and descriptions of how each bird flies may have been the most valuable part of his Essential Field Guide Companion).

Parting Thoughts: There is a lot more to say about this guide, so I will have additional posts here for sure. In the meantime, a few random comments:

--Paper: I'm not a book engineer, but the pages seemed overly stiff in my copy, making it a little bit awkward to open and thumb through the guide. Not sure how much of this is paper vs. binding issues. Maybe something for the publisher to look at in future printings.

--"The Line Up": Inside the front cover there are small images of birds lined up in groups to help birders find them in the book. I like the idea, but somehow these birds look like they were cut out and pasted in rows by a school kid. I like how Kaufman has his intro birds visually grouped into different colored backgrounds--perhaps something like that could help out here as well. The 16 page visual index in the Introduction is similarly challenged--not as visually interesting or even useful as the old Golden guide sparrows or confusing fall warblers plates. Perhaps a redesign could make these pages more useful and interesting--though that is probably tougher to do with photos than paintings where birds can be posed more similarly.

--Maps: The maps seemed to be accurate and are another Paul Lehman production, so they are mostly pretty good. They use the old Golden guide color scheme, though the red for summer distribution is a bit too red for my taste--too ketchupy! Some of the maps seemed small or cramped (they are literally thumbnails), and visually I don't think anyone has surpassed the map scheme in the Kaufman guide. I particularly miss seeing migratory routes, as well as areas where each bird is more common or uncommon.

In conclusion, I think all birders would benefit from making a regular study of Crossley ID. Get a copy and start having fun with it. I'll have more to say about that later!

More Crossley ID Posts:
Crossley ID: Text Too Short?
Crossley ID Guide: Image Number Comparisons

(This review was based on a complimentary review copy provided by Princeton University Press)


Anonymous said...

Just got mine gave it a quick look before sending it back,Barnes & Noble put it in a box that was too big & beat the covers to death.But it looks like a great book.

Birder's Library said...

You pretty much nailed it. The text seems to be more extensive than it appears, though. I haven't made any direct comparisons, but I bet that on average the text is no more sparse than any other recent field guide (with the exception of Stokes, of course). But as you pointed out, it often focuses on things other field guides don't. And it is quite fun - I've run across quite a few Dunne-esque gems.

birdchaser said...

Yeah, I'll probably revisit that claim with some actual word counts later this week.

Carolyn Ohl-Johnson said...

Your review is excellent. Right on target.

Anne McCormack said...

Looking forward to people guessing where these background plates are located!

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