Review: The Crossley ID Guide to Raptors

The Crossley ID Guide to RaptorsRichard Crossley, Jerry Liguoir, Brian Sullivan, Princeton University Press, 2013

Wayne Mones, March 29, 2013


Since it was mid-January we weren’t expecting anything but the usual cast of characters – an assortment of gulls, pigeons, mockingbirds – but there it was.  A Peregrine falcon sitting  (actually posing) on a lamp post directly over our heads.  It just sat there, twenty feet above us.  It looked exactly like its portrait in my Peterson’s. 


A scene like this is a special treat because life is rarely so simple. Real life (for a hawk watcher) is standing on the hawk watch platform at Cape May, or on top of Hawk Mountain on a crisp autumn day when many of the birds appear to be the size of the period at the end of this sentence, or when they are heavily backlit, or when you are looking at a mixed flock of accipiters and buteos with the odd falcon thrown in.  These are the days when one is tempted to strangle one of the official hawk counters who casually assign raptor names to the flying commas.  These are the conditions that will make you curse all but the best binoculars, remind you that your visit to the ophthalmologist is overdue, and humble all but the best prepared observers.


“Best prepared” means “homework.” Learning to identify raptors in the field requires first learning to identify them at  home because a hawk watch is not the place to be paging through your field guide or arguing over which picture best matches what you are seeing.  A hawk watch is the place to have your binoculars up and scanning the skies.   A hawk watch is the place to be looking at birds -- not at books.  If you cringe at the idea of homework I am happy to report that your assignment just got a lot easier and became a lot more fun with the publication of The Crossley ID Guide to Raptors.


It took me a while to get comfortable with Richard Crossley’s approach because I grew up in America rather than in England, which means that I grew up with the habit of carrying a field guide in the field. Richard and other birding superstars of his generation view consulting a field guide in the field as the mark of an amateur. Intent on evangelizing this approach, Richard never intended his first identification guide (The Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds) to be used in the field.  He didn’t even call it a field guide.  It was meant to be a study guide.  Something that you studied at home.  The images—consisting of complex, composite plates showing birds as you see them in the field --  were different than those we grew up with.  Rather than a series of portraits with little arrows pointing to diagnostic field marks Crossley offered busy, confusing, sometimes poorly lit, images that look like what you actually see in the field.  When Richard first showed me the plates over lunch a few months before publication it felt, frankly, like someone had thrown a glass of cold water in my face. I wasn’t sure that I would ever find something good to say about the book.  But the more time I spent with it the more addicted I became and the more my birding skills improved.  When I learned, several months later, that Richard was working on a new volume I really wondered what he could possible do to top the guide to eastern birds.


Well, top it he has with the Crossley ID Guide to RaptorsSince it is a specialty guide, there is space to include multiple plates of the same bird in varying conditions, different age classes, in different light, and in different environments.  The authors have  expanded  many of the plates to two-page spreads.  They have included a number of puzzle pages showing a number of similar looking raptors in different flight postures and varying distances.  These pages show exactly what you expect to see at a hawk watch.  Just as in real life, the birds aren’t labeled.  As in real life, you are  challenged to sort them out.  Below is a sample of one of the puzzle pages.  (There is, of course, an answer key at the back of the book.)  



The heart of the book, of course, is the plates which are all in the front of the volume.  Each plate has some text to help focus your attention on the key aspects of the scene depicted in the plate.  The more detailed text takes up the rear portion of the volume.  Crossley’s co-authors include Jerry Liguori whose Hawks From Every Angle and Hawks At A Distance also belong in your library, and Brian Sullivan who is working on a new guide to North American Birds.


If you love raptors and want to improve your identification skills buy this book.  Leave it on your coffee table or bed stand and study it.  Follow this prescription and show up at your next hawk watch ready to hold your own against the pros.  My library includes a several  outstanding raptor guides which I will continue to use.  However, The Crossley ID Guide to Raptors breaks new ground in the evolution of bird identification guides.  


P.S.  Richard – if you are reading this, I hope your next act will be a guide to gulls.


Wayne Mones, March 29, 2013


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