The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland
Richard Crossley and Dominic Couzens
I’m a big fan of Richard Crossley! I like the way he thinks about birding, I love the way he writes, and his photographic images are awe-inspiring. A couple of years ago I reviewed the first book of this series, The Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds (referring to the Eastern United States)
Much of what I wrote there is also true of this book too, though, of course, with the passing of years, the Britain and Ireland guide is following in the tradition which Crossley has established, rather than being the trail-blazer which Eastern Birds was.
The Crossley ID Guide: Britain & Ireland aims to be a ‘user-friendly” guide to “the 300+ species regularly occurring birds likely to be encountered by observers” in the area. As such it is pitched more toward beginner and intermediate level birders, although there is plenty to be gained from it by more experienced ‘experts’. The amazingly sharp flight shots of many species, including passerines, are a particular revelation.
For those unfamiliar with the Crossley Guides’ unique style and approach, the ‘heart and soul’ of the book is the plates. This is a photographic guide, but one unlike any other prior to this series. Each plate is a visually stunning montage of images of a individual species, depicting a range of plumages and angles, from close up to far distant, all set against a backdrop chosen to depict ‘typical’ habitat for the species. The effect can be a little disorientating at first. My wife’s first impression was that the plates look ‘weird’ and a bit overwhelming. However, once you get over that first impression, and begin to understand the purpose of the plates, they can become quite addictive (as my other half later admitted!).
Crossley’s rationale for the plates is explained in some detail in the introductory section of the book – one suspects in part because they have drawn strong reactions in previous guides. The aim is to provide a ‘content-rich’ learning environment, with each plate deliberately containing more than can be taken in at first glance, with the intent that, with repeated and prolonged viewing, the mind can absorb much more than could be gained from traditional guides containing just a few images of birds in profile. While most identification guides aim to simplify and minimize complexities to accentuate ‘diagnostic features’, there’s a sense in which Crossley does the opposite, providing as much information visually as it is possible to do, in the belief that the process of identification is more about becoming familiar with the bird in its entirety than looking for discrete bits of information.
In that sense, the book demands a certain amount of effort from the reader. Crossley’s implicit starting premise is that people who read this book want to become ‘better birders’. As one of the ‘old school’, this seems natural to me. I remember in the days before bird information services, there was a certain pressure to ‘prove one’s mettle as a serious birder’ in order to be included on the ‘grapevine’ – which was then the only way to know what birds were about (other than the ones I was seeing).
Nowadays though, I wonder whether there is such a widespread felt need to ‘self-improve’, especially where it involves some effort and discipline (like – heaven forbid – taking field notes, as Crossley advocates!). Perhaps I am getting cynical in my old age, but I do wonder whether Crossley’s underlying assumption (that beginner birders want to become ‘top birders’) is as universally true as it once was, now that one can have one’s every identification query solved by posting a photo online and asking someone to tell you what the bird is.
Cynicism aside, I do believe that this book will be an asset to those who do indeed want to hone their skills as a field birder, and are prepared to put in some effort doing so. I find Crossley’s ideas about how we learn completely convincing – it is all about getting familiar with common species, really getting to ‘know your birds’, and this book sets out to aid that process as much or more than any other field guide out there.
Aside from the photos, Dominic Couzens does a fine job of the text accompanying each plate. In just a few brief lines he captures the essential identification points, as well as the character of each species, without getting bogged down in minutiae. His description of Caspian Gull is a good example: Most easily recognized by unusual shape, with long, narrow, parallel-sided bill, weirdly small head on long neck, long legs, and more attenuated rear end than others. That said, some people may find there is a need to supplement this book with others which take a more ‘clinical approach’, to supply finer plumage details.
Compared to the Guide to Eastern Birds, this one definitely has the feel of being a bit of a ‘rush-job’. The quality of ‘photoshop wizardry’ is well below that of the first guide (which is perhaps more a reflection of the amazing standard of that volume). A number of waterbirds seem to have had legs amputated crudely at water level, and some birds in flight have halos separating them from their background. More jarringly, a Black Redstart appears to have developed a woodpecker-like trait of having two backward-pointing toes, a Chaffinch levitates above the roof it is presumably supposed to be sitting on, and an unlabelled Dunlin on the White-rumped Sandpiper plate may cause confusion for some.
These are, however, tiny niggles which don’t detract from what is overall, a thoroughly excellent book. If you are wondering what Christmas present to buy for the British birder who has every field guide there is, look no further!