Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to publish this review of the latest Crossley ID guide, written by world lister and avid traveler from the UK, Keith Betton. Keith is our new contributing editor. Welcome, Keith!
The arrival in 2011 of Richard Crossley’s ID Guide to Eastern North American Birds certainly opened the eyes of many UK birders to the way that photo montages could be used to great effect, and similarly his recent book on Raptors had us wanting even more. But were we ready for him to give “our” local birds the same digital treatment? A few people were in for a shock!
Let’s look at the book itself. An active UK birder is likely to encounter at least 200 species in a year, and some will get above 250, so the 330 featured in this book cover exactly what most people need. In this book we have all of the breeding and wintering species, plus all of the regular migrants and a few semi-rarities.
Just like the East North America book the layout mostly allows each of the most common species a page of their own, while those that are rarer either get a third or a quarter page. Each full page species is described in around 150 words giving ID tips and general guidance on how to see it, plus there is a colour distribution map and seasonal abundance data. The rarer species are covered in about 80-100 words without a map or data.
The decisions as to which species go into each category are mostly sensible, but several less common breeding species have been downgraded to have no map – which is really unhelpful. These include Hawfinch, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Woodlark and Goshawk – all of which are widespread even if uncommon. Other breeders that really ought to have a map are Honey Buzzard, Quail, Corn Crake, Eurasian Bittern, Stone Curlew, Storm and Leach’s Petrels, Red-necked Phalarope and Dotterel. Among the wintering species that also lack a map are Jack Snipe and Yellow-legged Gull. Abundance data is not given for any of these – and there seems to be no good reason for this.
Much use is made in the text of 5-letter and 2-letter codes (for example COMTE or CT for Common Tern). These were developed by the British Trust for Ornithology for shorthand use in surveys and ringing, but in this book I find them really annoying – especially when used to caption a page of flight shots. In fact the result was to slow down the speed with which I identified the birds – which is surely not what the authors aimed to achieve!
The Crossley Guide approach involves birds standing and flying against a habitat background, perhaps with groups of birds together both near and far. These are very realistic for families such as waterfowl, waders, gulls and thrushes, but less convincing for other non-flocking groups such as warblers. Some pages do look rather cluttered, but I think the secret is to focus in on each individual image rather than be overwhelmed by the page in its entirety.
I think that this book is going to surprise those birders that have not seen Crossley’s other works, but having tested out a few pages on friends the response has been very positive. Personally, I like the way that many images have been used against a clear background, although I am less pleased by those that are positioned against “busy” habitat backgrounds where it is less easy to pick out plumage features. Clearly I am not alone in expressing that view, but many people are relaxed about it and feel that the montages really reflect the way that birds show themselves in the real world. Let’s face it, birds often present themselves in a rather unhelpful way – skulking around in hedge bottoms and generally trying not to be seen – so having a book that recognises that challenge is actually helpful.
This book is aimed at intermediate birders and I think it will be well received by most people. Those who like their bird books to present species all facing left as if in a police identity parade will probably struggle with this new concept – but surely it is the way forward.
Stay tuned for more from Keith on Nature Travel Network.