on 4 December 2013
Richard Crossley has done more to ignite debate about how to display field guide photographs than anyone else in two decades. His ground-breaking The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds (2011) created much debate with up to 16 photographs digitally superimposed onto a common background landscape. These busy scenes had several individuals of each species in all types of plumages posed in every kind of position. The book's production values were high but it divided birders into two camps. Those who liked to see birds lined up as if they were on a Police identity parade probably found that book to be somewhat surreal. However many others - and I would suggest that these were in the majority - were pleased that the images presented birds in a way that truly reflected the way they are seen in the wild.
There certainly is still a place for books that line up birds facing the same way, but as we all know, raptors are the least generous of birds when it comes to offering you such easy comparisons. In his preface Crossley gives several pointers that this book is more for reference than use for in the field. In fact it is not a field guide but a master class in raptor identification, and in many ways the best part consists of 32 plates that are designed as tests to see what you have learned. Here there are busy compilations of unlabelled raptors flying over in different directions and angles. The answers are given at the back of the book which encourages you to try harder to work out the identities, but is a bit annoying when you really want the answers easily.
In each plate the birds are shown near and far, often perched but mostly in flight and always at every angle possible - front, back, side, above and below, and often in silhouette. A total of 34 raptor species are considered. There is always an impressive background photograph of a stunning habitat - even including a cityscape. Many of these, such that for the American Kestrel Falco sparverius are really great because of the clear sky and uncluttered background. Those with busier backgrounds of mountains and canyons are a bit more challenging on the eye - but the truth is that many raptors do not make life easy!
While Richard Crossley provided most of the photographs, the species texts have been predominantly written by Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan. The Introduction describes the concepts of migration, moult and topography, and then outlines the various raptor groups. Each account covers from two to four pages with detailed sections on Flight Style, Size and Shape, Plumage, Geographic Variation, Moult, Similar Species, Status and Distribution, Migration, and Vocalization. A decent-sized colour map shows the breeding and wintering zones for each species, although there is no colour to indicate main passage routes.
I was impressed by the amount of space devoted to the commonest species - the Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis, which has several geographic morphs. No less than ten pages are used to show how the species may appear across the range, with particularly excellent photographic studies of the harlani and kriderii races found in the north-west and north-central regions respectively.
In the 1950s it was Roger Tory Peterson who changed the way field guide plates were presented with arrows pointing at each bird's main features. That general style of education has served us well for more half a century. Although this photographic montage style departs hugely from the path that Peterson guided us along, I suspect he would have approved of its ability to improve our identification skills.