Tuesday, 8 March 2011
Review: The Crossley ID Guide
I have to confess I like different; Crossley's 'unrestrained by tradition' approach appeals. The missionary zeal with which he proclaims he wants to make birding 'more fashionable, current and exciting' plays to the rebel in me. I can hear the groans from hides across the country that such a statement will no doubt elicit as the old guard trot out their tired mantras.
This guide focusses on the Eastern Birds of North America, though there is a host of familiar European species that occur as vagrants. It's a photographic guide and unashamedly the photographic plates get centre billing. Crossley's fairly basic species identification text isn't about to challenge Nils Van Duivendjik any time soon but then I guess it's aimed at a different set of birders.
This guide isn't about the text though, it's all about the plates, the 640 scene creations that Crossley and his Photoshop wizards have conjured from c.10000 individual images, most taken by Crossley himself. Months ago when I first saw some pre-publication plates I found them disconcerting, odd, jarring. Over the past few days, I've dipped in again and again, left the book open over lunch, sat with child on lap pointing out each of the 20 images of Black Tern or trying to count the inordinate number of Brown Pelicans. My initial shock at what seemed a jumble of images, an overkill of cut and paste, has gradually worn away. The more I've looked the more there is to find, though ironically it is in the scenes that offer less images that I think the overall 'more' works best.
Those scenes with a more restrained number of images such as American Bittern (six portraits) achieve a representation that has balance and elegance, useful in identification and pleasing to the eye. Contrast this with Night Heron (31 portraits) and the overall impact and balance is skewed in my view.
Crossley may well argue that this is more representative of a species that communally roosts or appears in large numbers in the field and he may well have a point, though I can't help feeling this (over) abundance of imagery distracts from the nature of the project a little. Compare Sooty Shearwater with Cory's Shearwater for another example of this.
Occasionally the chosen backgrounds are a little odd, the Yorkshire terraced houses in Northern Lapwing and how I wish I could get as close to the local Bar-tailed Godwits as the bikini clad females sharing the surf in that plate. Some of the Hummingbird backgrounds seem to have been created from a garden centre flower catalogue but who could argue with plates such as Cassin's Sparrow and the blurred background of Blackburnian Warbler works a treat (see right).
The layout, particularly some of the species side by side pairings, could have been improved; Eared Grebe with Horned Grebe and American Golden Plover with Pacific spring out but then I'm looking at this with European eyes. There are many other instances where the combinations are perfect, the Dowitchers just one example.
Crossley's Guide makes no secret of aiming to make it's readers and users better birders. Much of what he has written in the short section in the intro entitled 'How to be a Better Birder' is common sense and good practice to the experienced. If it succeeds in helping push those that aren't as experienced further along the learning curve then he would have good cause to feel he has delivered on his mission.
It is worth highlighting that in the digital age a book is never just a book and this is no exception. Crossley also has an 'interactive website' This currently has additional text and comments on 36 of the species contained in the guide as well as several videos of the author making short presentations. The potential is there for this interactivity to push the boundaries further with embedded videos in the scenes and interactive identification challenges and I would not be too surprised to see material of this nature appear.
The Crossley ID Guide is an interesting, multi-dimensional, unique take on a bird guide that delivers to a high standard for a specific target audience - if you're starting out or just making the occasional trip to Eastern North America it's as useful an introduction to the region's birds as anything I currently have on my bookshelf and at £24.95 won't break the bank.
An interview with Richard Crossley is available as a podcast from the irrepressible Charlie Moores at Talking Naturally