Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On My Night Stand: The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

Cedar Waxwings from The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds.

Shortly after we first started birding, my husband and I saw an unusual hummingbird. It was mostly green and grayish underneath, like an immature Anna's Hummingbird (an expected and common species in southern California, where we lived at the time.) But unlike an Anna's, this bird had a distinctive golden crown, utterly unmistakable.

We didn't have a field guide with us, so we just stared at it for a few minutes, took several photos, then went home to figure out what its story was. And we drew a blank.

No hummingbird in either or our guides looked anything like our bird. There was an illustration of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in one of them that showed some yellowish stuff on its head, but the build seemed wrong. Flummoxed, I posted the photo and a query on the Orange County Birding listserv. And the verdict was unanimous:

It was an immature Anna's Hummingbird. With pollen on its head.

Duh. It was, after all, feeding in a goldenrod bush, clearly visible in the photo.

The moral here is that birds don't always look like the canonical illustrations in field guides. This drove me nuts when I first started birding. (Sometimes, it still does.) Birds have an annoying tendency to move around, hold themselves in weird positions, or transition s-l-o-w-l-y from one plumage to another. They're no more likely to stand around all day in full profile view wearing canonical secondary plumage than are female homo sapiens to look like cover models in Vogue.

But for the past year or so, word was out that a new guide would change that. A few weeks back, I got my very own review copy of The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds in the mail and eagerly tore into it. Whoa.

Many, many far more knowledgeable birders than I have already reviewed Crossley's book, so I'll keep my comments fairly brief. As most have noted, Crossley deserves major props for originality--his is a bird ID guide that looks like no other. While most guides contain an illustration or two of each species, always in that nice full profile view or a top-down flight shot, Crossley dedicates a full page montage of half a dozen or more photographed birds (all from his own photos), each in a different position and plumage, to all but the rarest species.

If his plate of Cedar Waxwings doesn't give you a pretty good grip on what the bird can look like, both close up and at a distance, in flight and standing still, nothing will.

I field-tested the book once. (More precisely, I brought it with me in the trunk of my car to show off to a friend during a recent sparrow-hunting trip to La Chua--the book is way too large and heavy to be carried into the field.) Shortly past the trailhead, we saw a flock of sparrows we were unsure about--Vespers, perhaps, or maybe something else? In a winter sparrow hunts, it's way too easy to turn any expected bird into some exotic rarity. And the individual birds that gave us the best views, weirdly, posed themselves directly facing us so all we could see were their faces and bellies--were Vespers supposed to be that pale underneath? I honestly couldn't recall from any of my other field guides.

So we went back to my car, flipped open the Crossley guide to the sparrows and started looking. Almost all the plates showed frontal as well as side views of the birds, which was enormously helpful. One shot showed a bird that looked exactly like the puffed-up frontal view of the bird we just saw--a Vesper. Mystery solved.

Helpful and beautiful as the book is, it's not one I'd recommend as a sole resource for a beginning birder, although I'd definitely recommend it as a supplement to more accessible works such as the Kaufman guide. Because the photos take up so much space, there's little room for explanatory text. The ages and sexes of birds are labeled on some, but not all, of the plates--in his introduction, Crossley says this is intentional, so the reader can figure it out on his or her own. Much of the concise but useful explanatory text under the plates, as other reviewers have noted, contains banding ID abbreviations of bird names. For instance, part of the description under "Harris's Sparrow" reads "song like WTSP at one pitch." Aren't most newbies self-conscious and confused enough without having to figure out what WTSP means? Even experienced birders can get thrown by these--a local master told me he once spent hours staring at his list from the previous day, trying to figure out what the hell kind of sparrow a ROSP is. (Hint: he was birding in Florida.)

Oddly, even the labels under the individual birds shown in the comparative size guide at the beginning of the book -- a very useful feature -- are reduced to four-letter codes, even through there's more than enough space under each photo to print out the full common name. I can just picture some poor novice flipping through this, saying, "Honey, you know that pretty duck we saw at Kanapaha Gardens yesterday? It's called a Wodu!"

So what good is this book? If I had to carry something in my back pocket for quick reference on a day in the field, I'm sticking with my Sibley or Kaufman guides. But if I'm chasing something new, I'll be sure to get a good look at it in Crossley before setting out. And I'll be sure to keep Crossley in the trunk--or close at hand when I get home--for further study.


myamuhnative said...

I'm with you.
I got my copy from Amazon the other day and found myself rather disappointed with this book.
I do like the variety of photos and poses but find that a lot of the background scenes seem to be too dark and distract from the detail of the birds.And then there is the more minor annoyance of the photos seeming to be poorly photoshopped and dropped on the picture(this one is probably just a camera persons pet peeve).I hadn't even gone back to notice the other details like using banding codes rather than names (I really HATE that!).
Oh well, I guess this one will just be another shelf lingerer while the Sibley and Nat Geo and Kauffman go along on birding trips.
PS I'm jealous about the Vespers.Icame up to La Chua recently looking for White throated sparrows and only found white crowns and no fox sparrow up the road either ;-(

troutbirder said...

Interesting. I may need to reinforce our coffee table if I get this one. Still one can never have too many.... :)

Harold Stiver said...

Thanks for the review, very interesting.

I've been fooled by pollen on a hummingbird as well.

dAwN said...

Howdee..great review..did you read mine about why I dont want it..
Waiting for an app.. :)

Jen said...

Thanks for your thoughts on the Crossley... I'm eagerly awaiting the western version! Loved the pollen/hummingbird story...