The Crossley ID Guide


This is a new photo guide to American birds by an ex-British birder, but it is unlike any you have seen before. It contains not single images but, for each species, large life-like scenes containing multiple images, some close but many distant, from a variety of angles, in flight and showing typical habitat and behaviour.

This montage approach enables all aspects of a bird’s size, shape and structure, plumage and behaviour to be displayed to best effect. Also, unlike conventional photographs, everything from front to rear is in sharp focus – just like in life.

It is a large, heavy book, running to 544 pages and containing 640 montage scenes, with more than 10,000 of the author’s own photographs. Traditional taxonomic sequence is avoided, with birds grouped into categories such as ‘swimming waterbirds’ and ‘songbirds’. Regularly occurring species are given a whole page, while rare or vagrant ones are accorded a smaller space. Although the plates are designed to speak for themselves, each has a brief text caption – incorporating the four-letter North American species codes – and a small range map.

The book claims to “revolutionise birding” by showing birds as they really appear under field conditions. There is minimal captioning within the plates, and no pointers to plumage minutiae. Instead, the reader is encouraged to linger on each plate, working out for themselves the distinctive ‘feel’ of each species. There is therefore something of an ‘interactive’ element to the book which should appeal to many readers.

The plates are, almost without exception, superb, some containing too many separate images to count, and the composite gives a truly life-like impression of each species. It really is like seeing the birds for real. Only a couple disappoint: Bay-breasted Warbler fails to capture the brilliance of the males, while Yellow-bellied Flycatcher shows none of its beautiful yellowish hues. This is mere nitpicking, however, and the overall standard is simply outstanding.

There is also much gentle humour in the plates, which incorporate passers-by, golfers, bathers, sheds, bicycles, cows, other birds and much more besides to give an authentic context for each species. The captions are pithy and playful too, Saw-Whet Owl being described as “pocket-sized and cuddly, you would love to take it home”. Swallow-tailed Kite is, aptly, likened to a creation from the film Avatar.

A tiny reservation is that although the book covers ‘eastern’ North America, the boundary adopted follows ecologically meaningless state boundaries. While this may be convenient in terms of bird recording, it means that many essentially western birds are included. Given the promised arrival of a companion guide to western birds, adopting a boundary such as the 98th meridian might have been more appropriate.

This book has undoubtedly revolutionised photo guides, representing a huge advance over anything seen previously. The combination of today’s digital photographic technology and image-manipulation software means that this genre of guide, long considered by many to be inadequate to the task, can now compete with conventional artwork-based guides.

For anyone living in or visiting eastern North America this is a ‘must buy’, and at a price that represents excellent value for money. But has the book really revolutionised birding? Well, that would be a bold claim!

Tech spec

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2011).
544 pages, 640 colour montages.
ISBN 9780691147789. Flexibound, £24.95.

Available from Birdwatch Bookshop

First published in Birdwatch 226:44 (April 2011)