Crossley Books – Princeton University Press – 2011 – 528 pages, 680 illustrations & maps – ISBN: 9780691147789

What do all fieldguides and ID handbooks have in common? Obviously the answer is the presentation of distinctive filedmarks, unique ID features that separate difficult species. Wrong! Because the Crossley Guide breaks the mould. The author has used every birder’s experience to present a unique aid to ID – a guide that sees what the birder does, obscure views, distant views, birds in trees, in flight, in the distance on a flat marsh. The guide starts where we do and uses all the evidence to help the birder narrow down the possibilities.

We don’t see birds in taxonomic order, so the guide abandons it in favour of ‘types’ of birds or habitat – grouping together what you see in various places. Unlike other guides, which provide isolated individual photographs or illustrations, this book features large, lifelike scenes for each species. These scenes – 680 in all – are each composed of 12-20 color images showing the bird in a wide range of views, both near and far, from different angles, in various plumages and behaviors, including flight, and in the habitat in which they live. These compositions show how a bird’s appearance changes with distance, and give equal emphasis to characteristics experts use to identify birds: size, structure and shape, behavior, probability and color. These images are reinforced with concise text and provide a wealth of detailed visual information that invites and rewards careful study. However, the most important identification features can be grasped instantly by anyone, whether a beginner, expert, or anywhere in between.

The photomontages are excellent and almost overcome my anti-photo prejudice – almost, but not quite as they still do not precisely compare like with like. OK so Long-eared Owls are very nocturnal but are sometimes seen flying in the early summer morning… it would be hard to tell apart from a short-eared owl no matter how well one studies the photos as underwing colour and pattern is not presented in exactly the same was as drawings from skins allow.It is no surprise that the author is British. Unlike our birding American cousins we Brits rarely take a fieldguide into the field… its usually in the car, or back on our bookshelves as we prefer, on the whole, to take notes and study ID rather than rely on comparing a bird in situ to a fieldguide illustration. There is no doubt that this does make for better birders on the whole… so long as it doesn’t lead to shunning the fieldguide in all circumstances. I suspect that this too is in flux as we all become more likely to carry digital guides on our mobile phones or iPods.

Nevertheless, this groundbreaking approach has a lot going in its favour and will, I am sure, lead many birders to study in the dead times when the weather is too bad even for the hardiest birder or, of course, its dark. Anyone who reads the text and looks at the composite pictures will gain something and most will get a great deal from this book.

I, for one, am very pleased to have the book on my shelves and, if I get a chance to get back to the Eastern half of the US or Canada be sure this book will be very well thumbed before I go. I look forward to the Western Guide as that is where most of the gaps are in my ABA list and I’m determined to get there one day!