The Crossley ID Guide: Britain & Ireland

Richard Crossley & Dominic Couzens
Crossley Books/Princeton University Press
ISBN: 978-0-691-15194-6
£16.95

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I guess it’s fair to say that in the past I’ve not been a fan of photoguides. Mostly they are a poor collection of thumbnail images taken in different lighting conditions and seemingly randomly arranged. The big breakthrough came with Dick Forsman’s Raptors book, certainly on this side of the Atlantic. Over on the other side of the pond another ex-pat Yorkshireman, Richard Crossley was quietly planning to revolutionise fieldguides. I’ll be honest his North American guides had passed me by as on my two trips to B.C. there was no Crossley Guide to Western Birds… oh how I now wished there had been a Western Guide.
The guide is very much aimed at beginnerand improving birdwatchers. Richard has, for now, sensibly gone for a limited range for his first European guide. The book looks closely at over 300 species that regularly occur in Britain & Ireland.
The introductory chapters are a must read part of the book as the layout of the plates is very different from just about anything that has gone before; the exception being the Hilary Burn RSPB guide. Gone are the blank or vague backgrounds of the past to be replaced by stunning photographs of birds placed right into there key habitat. Your attention is drawn to the fact that birds can turn up just about anywhere. I’ve personally seen plenty of Reed Warblers in coastal bushes.
Also within the introductory chapters is a great piece on how to be a better birder and there are many ‘birders’ I know that could benefit from having the chapters laminated for them to read over and over as they jump on planes to far flung islands to chase down a rarity. Richard asks us as birders to start seeing birds as opposed to just looking at them. This leads on to the basics of note taking. This needn’t be a lost art as now many of us carry a smartphone that we can dictate notes into, we can even attach the phone to out binoculars or telescope and dictate fieldnotes as we video a bird. Surely this has to be a great tool for beginners or improvers to really start to learn. Whatever level of birder you think you are you might just learn something, in fact I’ll set you the same challenge that the authors set you… if you think you know your birds do a description from memory of a Goldfinch and see how close you get.
With the book coming from the same publisher as the equally revolutionary Warblers guide one, the only real, let down are the bird topography pages. The thin, pale blue line that are used as pointers easily get lost in the feathering in all but the best lights. A similar approach to the warbler guide where the main feather tracts were boldly colour coded and easily understood by beginners.
On to the plates themselves, these are excellent but at first look they can be quite a shock to those of us more used to a traditional fieldguide. Birds are arranged as we would mostly expect to see them in their usual habitats. You also get the birds photographed under similar lighting conditions so there is no loss of fidelity. As we all know light can affect a photograph but as far as I can see the plates are all comparative to a standard field guide such as the Collins Guide. Common species each get a full page with scarcer birds two thirds or half of a page and ‘rarities’ a third of a page. In the foreground you get a couple of close-ups that link in with the text and then a series of vignettes that show birds as we really see them and often at distance. This really helps you get your eye in and prepares you to see birds under field conditions. If we take Pink-footed Goose for example if you add in the background photograph you’re taken straight back to a crisp winter day at Holkham scanning back towards Wells-next-the-Sea. I think that in some cases a bit of a softer blend on the photographs might have been advisable as the Reed Warbler in the reeds does look a bit stuck on.
The text by Dominic Couzens is at it’s best, concise and punchy and very easy to relate to what you are seeing in the plates. The book uses the BTO five and two letter short codes. I must admit theses are not as familiar to me as the should be as I’m terrible at actually completing surveys except for my WeBS count… yes I know, I must become a better birder and get more involved. These codes do need a bit of cross-referencing even for me but I’m starting to get there though I doubt I’d use them in the field. We birders have already got our workable short codes. One of my fellow birders on Scilly this autumn did spot a real error and in fairness the only one we could find. All birds are given the length in cm except for Common Sandpiper which comes in at a massive 60″. I’m not sure how this slipped through but I hope the production copies have this corrected.
Overall I think this book is superb and it should be on every birders Christmas list or even a treat for yourself as you buy presents this year. For the target audience this really is the book they’ve been waiting for and it is one every birder should recommend to a friend who is starting to get interested in birds. For the experienced birder, yes I know you know what a Yellow-browed Warbler looks like but there is plenty of fun to be had identifying the location of the background shot – that goes for just about every plate in the book. My personal favourite is the Mistle Thrush, with the bird shown realistically on a playing field below Bamburgh Castle, but the plate comes alive with a game going on featuring Bamburgh Castle FC… birds and football, I’m a happy man.

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2 responses to “The Crossley ID Guide: Britain & Ireland

  1. Pingback: Winter Thrushes – The Crossley ID Guide Blog Tour | The Drunkbirder™

  2. Pingback: Review Roundup: October, 2013

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