The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds – Initial Review

I was first introduced to Richard Crossley’s striking photographic bird plates nearly two years ago. A post on 10,000 Birds linked to Crossley’s gallery and asked if this could become North America’s best identification guide. A year later, Princeton University Press announced that they would publish The Crossley ID Guide. The sample plates were unique and utterly amazing. I couldn’t wait to see the book for myself.

In the past month, the buildup to the book’s publication has seen more plates revealed, video interviews with the author, and a few early reviews. I was starting to wonder if it would live up to my lofty expectations. Finally, the day came when I had in my hands The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds.

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds in hand

After my initial look-through, I was distinctly…whelmed. I neither loved nor hated it. I still appreciated the reality birding concept that Crossley was going for, where the birds are shown as a part of a lifelike scene in their actual habitat, at various distances, and in all sorts of plumages. But maybe the novelty of the plates was starting to wear off. Some of them also looked “off” somehow, in a manner that I couldn’t quite articulate.

But as I continued through the guide, I started looking at the images more closely. I found myself trying to find all of the birds in each scene, which is not as easy as it sounds. It’s not unusual for songbird plates to have as many as 15 (or more) representatives portrayed. I also started to notice some small details, such as the House Finch that had conjunctivitis. Some images also showed behaviors that aren’t usually mentioned in field guides, much less actually illustrated, like a Rough-legged Hawk perched on a limb that looks much too small to support it, or a Blue-winged Warbler poking its head into a cluster of dead leaves.

Blue-winged Warbler account from The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

I had to further reconsider some initial impressions when I read Crossley’s blog posts explaining some choices concerning color and sharpness in his images. To keep the plates as realistic as possible, many of them are darker and less sharp than photos we’re used to seeing in field guides. I realized that was the main source of my nebulous consternation regarding the images. Once I understood what was being attempted, it bothered me much less. However, there are some images that still seem too dark, like the Bay-breasted Warbler below. The lighting may accurately reflect the conditions in the spruce-bogs where they breed but, call me crazy, I’d like to be able to see at least one of the breeding males well.

Bay-breasted Warbler account from The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

The text, overshadowed by the images literally and figuratively, is more extensive than it appears. It covers abundance, behavior, habitat, voice, and identification. It’s very informal, and more than once certain phrases or descriptions reminded me of something Pete Dunne would write (a very big complement coming from me). Don’t skip it. The range maps are pretty standard, though unfortunately they don’t include migratory range.

I should also mention that this thing is huge. You’re not going to want to take this in the field with you. But that’s ok; everything about this book was designed to be studied at home, before you go birding.

I’ve got plenty more to say about it, including additional distinctive features and, sadly, some issues. But that’s going to have to wait for the full review. The more time I spend with The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, the more I enjoy it and the more I learn from it. This is one book that anyone interested in North American birds needs to see.

Continue on to the full review of the Crossley guide.

cover of The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, by Richard Crossley

Posted by Grant McCreary on February 15th, 2011.

Category: Quick Picks

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  • cyberthrush says:

    I’m glad you mentioned how good the text is (I glossed over that in my own review); it is not as compact and short-hand as in some field guides, but as you said more reminiscent of Pete Dunne’s excellent prose.
    And as your review implies, this is a book (I think) that at first, stuns, then on closer inspection has some annoying or questionable aspects, but then on further review, again immensely impresses!
    It’s literally difficult for me to conceive of what anyone could do now as a followup bird guide to this one, and pity to anyone who currently has one in process!

  • Rob says:

    I’m already planning more posts on Crossley ID, as I agree the more you look at it the more there is to talk about–good and bad. Mostly good. I’ve got a fun bird program to give tonight in Delaware, and all I can think of is how I can’t wait until that is done so I can get back to looking at the Crossley ID guide. Crazy, eh?

  • Grant McCreary says:

    @cyberthrush: I hesitate the use the term “gamechanger”, but time will tell if that’s indeed the case. I still think there’s a need for more traditional field guides, but this one is going to be hard to top.

    @Rob: If that’s crazy, then I’ll be locked up in the asylum with you :)

  • As soon as I learned about this book, I ordered a copy from my local bookstore. I can’t wait to get my hands on it. The plates are so beautiful (esthetically pleasing) and thought provoking. One so seldom gets a perfect well lit look at an unfamiliar bird so I love the reality of the plates. I can see myself birding in my book at times I can’t be actually out birding. And just having the ABA codes is worth the price. Tell me another bird guide that does that. Sibley was, and may still be, my bible, my main course, but Crossley’s guide will be my dessert. I only wish it would cover the whole US. I don’t care how big and heavy it would have to be.

  • Grant McCreary says:

    @Carolyn: That really would be a huge book if it covered the entire region! But at least the Western edition is in progress. Did you mean the alpha codes? The ABA codes are a numeric scale that indicates rarity, which the Crossley guide does not include. Just wanted to clear that up so that no one else was expecting them in the Crossley Guide.

  • I just got my Crossley guide today and have a few more comments to make. Yes, I meant the alpha codes. Sorry. Encyclopedias are big, but wonderful. Big is good. I don’t see myself carrying this guide into the field. In fact I don’t see it as being all that useful. One problem I’ve always had with photographic guides is that some of the photos are wonderful, some not so much. I found the same problem with this guide, unfortunately. I still think it’s a must have book. I love it. BUT many of the photos add nothing and at some point just create mind-boggling confusion. Then there are species that aren’t fully represented. The Bullock’s Oriole comes to mind. I think of them as orange, which is how I normally see them. He shows them as yellow. Just one example. Some photos are so small as to be worthless. The brilliance of some of the hummingbirds was sorely lacking. There seems to be as much photographic variation between photos of one empidinax species as there is between the different empid species. Way too ambiguous for me, but we’ll see. Maybe it will be helpful. Either way, I’ll enjoy the book. I’d label it a book for enjoyment more that using as a guide, kind of like a coffee table book. I guess if a person takes 10,000 plus bird photos they feel a need to showcase them somehow. Richard did a brilliant job of that. It’s a technological marvel, not expensive, and a wonderful addition to a bird book library.

  • Rob says:

    Yeah, there is a lot to say about the photos. As far as the Bullock’s Oriole, I’m guessing he’s showing us birds more like they appear when show up in the East, usually in winter. Tomorrow I’m posting another review comparing photos between Crossley ID and several recent field guides. And perhaps a Crossley ID vs. Stokes bird guide smackdown!

  • Yes, Rob, I sort of figured that’s the Bullock’s Oriole plumage you’re most likely to see in the east. But I don’t think the book should be that way. If he’s going to devote a page to the species, he should depict it accurately and comprehensively. I can’t get past the thought that he was looking for a use for his photo collection. And I think that’s perfectly fine. Kudos to him. The reason the book doesn’t have better shots of, say, the beautiful gorget on a Rufous Hummingbird is because he didn’t take a better one. I have better ones I’ve taken and I’m just an amateur photographer. So he’s basically showcasing his own photography. I have no problem with that. I just believe in calling it as I see it. And I still love the book and plan to enjoy it immensely. Use it? Probably not much. I’ve collected bird books for 60 years and it’s one of my favorites. I look forward to your upcoming reviews.

  • Rob says:

    Yes, limiting illustrations to his own photos is a bummer, and limits the effectiveness of the book to some degree. I hope that in a future edition he’ll either have more photos to add of his own, or he’ll search out additional photos to make it even better. What’s puzzling is that he did add photos of some species from other photographers (see credits at end of book)…so why didn’t he add others? Juvenile saw-whet owl? Looking forward to additional comments from others as it gets into more birders’s hands.

  • cyberthrush says:

    This is certainly no typical “field” guide and mostly won’t be used as such, but it’s also much more than a coffee table or pretty bird book. It really is a volume one can learn tremendously from, though it will take effort pouring over BOTH the pics and text in conjunction (more effort than we are used to doing — traditional field guides are almost like “Cliff Notes” by comparison!).
    And time will tell whether this concept of depicting birds as the human eye generally sees them, rather than in some idealized, stylized bird-in-the-hand manner is an improvement or not, but I suspect (especially for tough IDs) it WILL prove its value.
    And every guide has some weaker pics or plates (I like Nat. Geog., overall, but think it has some very weak pages/sections, among its panoply of artists), so I’m not too concerned about a certain number of fuzzy, indistinct, or off-color portrayals in Crossley. (For me, no one has yet topped Peterson for sheer clarity and consistency of artwork, but Crossley has re-captured in photo-form, some of the fervor of old Fuertes prints).
    Anyway, love seeing all the variable opinions expressed. Crossley won’t take the place of owning multiple guides, but WHAT an addition!

  • I agree with what you all said (other than I don’t care for the Peterson’s). I think Richard wanted the book to be uniquely his plus it had to have been an overwhelming task to create. Add to that the concept of poring through tens of thousands of other photographer’s photos, waiting for consent forms to be returned, seeing to all the proper credits, concerned that someone may be miffed if their wonderful photo got reduced to pea-size, etc., I can see why he tried to keep it simple in that regard. Can you imagine trying to credit someone with a particular microscopic photo in the background among other similar depictions? It would have made the book twice as daunting and lengthy. Hardly even doable. For example, he put two shots in of an Elf Owl. One (or both?) is credited to Brian Gibbons. I haven’t a clue which. So I think using other’s photos presented a huge problem. Maybe now that he’s better known, he could collaborate with a team to put together something similar with all the best photos they can get. That could entail photographers wanting payment for their masterpieces, which once greatly reduced in size might make for a bad investment. The book certainly wouldn’t be as reasonably priced. But yes, what an addition! I’m so happy with it.

  • Grant McCreary says:

    Carolyn, excellent analysis on the potential problems of his using others’ photos.

    I came to the same conclusion about the reduced plates for western species unlikely to be seen in the region covered by this book. I think it would be much less of an issue if the Eastern and Western guides were published simultaneously. If that were so, on one hand those borderline species could be dropped (and maybe more attention paid to the range-restricted birds birders want to see). But then you’d have complaints from those living near the demarcation line that they now need two books to contain all of their birds. Of course, who wouldn’t want both? :) Not sure if there’s a perfect solution.

  • I live in Texas so have to have both Eastern and Western guides if I don’t have one that covers the whole US. That’s one reason I don’t think I’ll take the Crossley into the field with me. I’m just going to enjoy the book for what it is. I’ve spent way more money on lots of things less pleasurable. Right now I just wish I could figure out how to put a smiley face in my message or put my profile photo on posts. I’m 70 years old and not that computer savvy.:)

  • Grant McCreary says:

    A colon and close parenthesis should work to make a smiley. Maybe yours didn’t do it because there was no space between the period and colon?

    As for the profile picture on comments, I (and most other blogs that have them) use Gravatar. Sign up with them and upload a picture, and it will automatically appear on your comments.

  • Grant McCreary says:

    Oh, forgot to mention. It will work if you comment using the same email address that you used to sign up with Gravatar.

  • Thanks. It actually worked. :)

  • Kristen Murtaugh says:

    I was at the Ding Darling NWR book store this morning and was drawn to a big display of Crossley’s new book (lots of autographed copies – he must have made an appearance there). And, of course, I, too, felt it would be a great addition to my collection of bird guides. I really like the way Crossley shows the birds in their habitat and in their various plumages. I know I will have hours of pleasure and education going through the book. I wish I’d had it with me for my novice birding friends in Captiva last night after my lesson on the beach earlier about the differences between Royal Terns, Black Skimmers, and Laughing Gulls. As others have said, it’s not a guide to carry around; for me it will join Sibley’s guide in the trunk of my car when I go on field trips. I have a question, though, for people who know Painted Buntings. I live in southeast Florida and have large groups of Painted Buntings visiting my feeders from September through April. I have marveled at the varied plumages they have and have looked for a guide that might help me identify them. Crossley’s book is the first I’ve seen that labels First Year Painted Buntings. However, he labels the First Year Male also an Adult Female. I’m not so sure he’s right here. That tinge of pinky orange on the bird’s breast tells me it’s a young male, but I have never seen that marking in the images of Adult Females in any other guides. Can anyone correct or confirm this remark? The varied plumages in the PBs is remarkable, especially in the males, and there are changes as the winter turns into spring down here. I’d love to have a guide to that variation, and I wish Crossley had included more images of them.

  • Grant McCreary says:

    @Kristen: I’m not an expert on Painted Buntings – I don’t see them nearly as often as I’d like. I looked up PABU in Tanagers, Cardinals, and Finches of the United States and Canada: The Photographic Guide, and it only has 6 photos. This is what it says about first year males: “males are variable but generally brighter [than first year females], with a few scattered blue and red feathers in their plumage”.
    As for the label in the Crossley guide – in the intro Crossley says that he labels them that way when the majority of birds cannot be easily identified by sight. That may indeed be a 1st-year male, and Crossley may even know for sure that it is, but still labeled it that way for the purposes of the book.