Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

Photo-based bird identification guides ('photoguides') have had mixed fortunes and few, if any, have really become the definitive reference for their coverage area. The chief problem is that it is hard to adequately portray a species with just a handful of images. Birds look different under different conditions, individuals vary, and of course many species wear multiple plumages at different times in their life and/or show regional differences. For this reason, a lot of synthesis must go into producing good field guide paintings, not only summarizing the physical features but also capturing the 'essence' of the species. Painted plates do not necessarily replicate every detail of the feathers but rather try to gel that visual information into a realistic representation and distill much of the individual variation. In a well crafted plate, the birds are arranged carefully to highlight useful differences whether it be the thickness of a supercilium or the contrast between mantle and neck. The much loved Sibley guide (North America) and the equally loved Collins Guide (Europe) have been very successful in this regard and currently maintain the #1 spot on each continent.

The new digital age has challenged attitudes towards visual images. No longer is a photograph considered an immutable record. It is something that can be shaped and adapted for a purpose. With Adobe Photoshop and other software it is now commonplace to manipulate images for one reason or another. Blemishes are swept from the skins of movie stars to make them more appealing and to sell something. Troublesome branches or missing wing tips can easily be removed or added to nature photographs to create instant masterpieces. The power of digital manipulation also has great potential in terms of disseminating information. With relative ease, one can create images that could never occur in life and use them to impart reams of complex information. The new tome from Richard Crossley does just this; very carefully building a series of montages from huge numbers of reference photos to show the salient identification features of more than 600 species that occur on a regular to scarce basis in eastern North America.

As in the Sibley Guides, Crossley sets the western edge of the Great Plains (prairies) as the boundary between eastern and western North America. So all the expected Eastern species are present but too are quite a few 'Western' species such as Clarke's Grebe, Pygmy Nuthatch, Bushtit, Black-throated Sparrow, extending the usefulness of the book. Perhaps "TCIDG: 3/4 of NA Birds" would be a more accurate title? Joking aside, a 'TCIDG: Western Birds' is rumored and although there will be extensive overlap with the current volume, complete coverage using the 'Crossley method' will be a welcome thing. If this is the case, then presumably the more widespread species (such as Savannah and Song Sparrow) will be given a fully westernized treatment, depicting the fascinating but under-appreciated regional variation.

Physically, the book is well made with a stout binding and a useful extension of the cover that serves as a place mark. Some commentators have lamented the size and heft of the book but quite frankly I think this is a good thing. Like Crossley, I am a strong believer that field guides should rarely be used in the field. The car, camp site or motel maybe but when you have birds in front of you, having you head buried in a book is the last thing you want to do. 'Field' refers to birds in the wild, not books in the wild. As Crossley explains on Pg. 25, you will be a better birder if you go into the field as well prepared as possible, you will see more and understand more. If you don't know what something is, then take notes or sketches or try to photograph (digiscope) the bird for later study.

The fact that Richard Crossley took the majority of photographs used to build the montages is quite astonishing and the blending of the images into the 'scenes' is skillful. Some are too complicated perhaps but considering the number of plates the overall quality is impressive. Richard and I had fun once sitting in a bar comparing our favorite plates. Interestingly my favorites were not his by any stretch, a reflection of the very personal aesthetic component to this book.

I found the excessive hype ("[r]evolutionary….first book to accurate portray all the key identification characteristics….bird like the experts…") that accompanied the launch of this book more than a little tiresome. The hard sell even carries over onto the back cover of the book. These statements simply promise way too much and ultimately does the author and the book a disservice. There is no magic formula for becoming an expert birder, it takes time and practice. Although the Crossley Guide serves up the information in a way that is different and perhaps refreshing, one still has to digest it and work at it through long hours in the field.

It will be interesting to see whether the TCIDG and other photoguides ever fully displace more traditional guides. I suspect not and would actually recommend using the book side-by-side with Sibley or similar. Already many people use the internet in this fashion, calling up collections of photographs to pair with the more instructional illustrations in field guides or identification articles. I've had the book for about a year now and will confess it is not the first text I turn to when I need information or what to identify a mystery bird. This is not to say that I don't dip into it on a regular basis, because I do. Sometimes I just want to take a fresh look at a group of birds or rekindle my search image of a particular species. In this regard the guide is ideal, better perhaps than painted plates.

In summary, this is a very well-made book and every serious birder in North America (if not beyond) should own and use a copy. I disagree that this approach works for entry level birders, there's just too much information in one dollop. Although the critical differences between similar species are captured and judiciously shown, it takes a trained eye to notice these differences. In this regard the now dated approach pioneered by Roger Tory Peterson and others of paring things down to a minimum and using arrows to point to the key features has its advantages. However, I do think the Crossley approach will revolutionize photoguides. Creating montages using photographic images allows the author to impart more of their expertise than a simple lattice of square panels.

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