Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The I.D. Guide: Eastern Birds

I.D. Guide, The: Eastern Birds
by Crossley, Richard
2011, 529pp, ISBN: 9780691147789
Basics:  flexcover, 2011, 529pp; large photo identification guide to the 660+ species in eastern US/Canada; excellent color photos show multiple plumages and poses of the bird digitally inserted over natural backgrounds; brief text gives concise descriptions of the bird and its vocalizations; additional notes provide key pointers on identification; map for each of the non-rare species shows summer, winter, and resident ranges

This is an intriguing book that differs notably from the familiar guides out today, which will probably cause both positive and negative comments from the various groups of birders.  First, this is an awesome collection of photos that deserves high compliments and respect for the mere creation of this work.  Second, this book is an identification guide but definitely not a field guide.

Why not a field guide?  The three reasons are: (1) It's a large and heavy book on par with some college textbooks (10 x 7.5 x 1.75 inches and 2 pounds); (2) the layout of the species and of photos does not allow for quick comparisons between birds; and, (3) the lack of notes or arrows on the plates plus the text crammed at the bottom of the page demands more time to be spent looking away from the bird.

The most outstanding feature of this book is the wide selection of excellent color photos of the 660+ eastern birds of USA/Canada, including rarities.  The 10,000 photos used to compile this book show vibrant colors and nearly all the plumage variations (gender, age, season, race) one would expect to see in the field.  For the American Redstart, you see the male/female, the adult/immature, perched/in-flight. With the shorebirds and gulls, you can enjoy inspecting the various plumages, all crammed onto one page.  Yes, crammed in many cases.  Some pages are nearly overwhelming, causing your eye to dance all over the page trying to look at each plumage.  As an extreme, over 50 different Snow Buntings and over 20 Herring Gull are shown on the page.  A consequential distraction with this format is having to inspect each individual to see if it is another plumage variation or, if it's just another photo of the same.  This would be a severe distraction when trying to use this book in the field while trying to keep your eye on an unknown bird.

However, as an identification and not as a field guide, this busy format provides a wonderful reference of detail to be inspected when at home with the book.  You can stare at the perched or in-flight bird to practice for upcoming excursions or, when recalling your sighting; or, when examining your own photo.

A few nice touches I like about this book involves the ducks.  Instead of the readily identifiable male, it is the female that is typically put up front in the selection of photos.  This may come in handy for anyone with doubts about the female mergansers, scaup, scoters, or teal.  Another is the inclusion of many eastern rarities (e.g., Garganey, Fieldfare, Bahama Mockingbird, Thick-billed Vireo).  Also included are many western species that routinely stray to the east.  However, some of these birds seem a bit too rare for inclusion (e.g., White-eared Hummingbird, Greater Pewee).

In addition to a very busy page, a few other small critiques can be made.  Some of the birds seem a bit too dark, such as the Empidonax flycatchers, the Gray-cheeked & Bicknell's Thrush, and some of the warblers.  Perhaps this may mimic realistic field conditions but, it does not always translate into an easier way of learning the bird.  The inclusion of a photographed habitat in the background makes for an attractive photo while also giving a sample of the bird's typical habitat choice.  It also adds to the busy look to the page, forcing you to search around for birds that may get lost in the collage - especially the little birds in the background.  See if you can find all the Brown Creepers.

As a couple of quirks, the order of the birds in the book follows familiar taxonomy for the most part; however, the jays/crows are sandwiched between the woodpeckers and hummingbirds while the swallows precede the flycatchers.  This is no big deal, but may cause some birders to search a little more to find a particular family group.  One other interesting tidbit is the plate showing the Song Sparrow.  How did that American Robin slip into the background?

Accompanying the photos is the seemingly smaller amount of text.  As noted in the introduction, the author prefers pictures and may find text to be boring.  The material offered focuses mostly on description and on identification.  After reading through many species, the smaller amount is actually strengthened by the conciseness and potency of the information given.  This will prove to be very useful for beginning to intermediate birders.  The text, backed up by the photo, points out the long undertail coverts of the Connecticut Warbler, the contrasting white undertail coverts of the Tennessee Warbler, and the dark eye of a first year White-eyed Vireo in the fall/winter.  Additional notes that are useful are key comments on the bird's behavior and habitat.

Which of the beginning, intermediate, and experienced birders will appreciate this book the most?  Probably the intermediate, who is looking to learn from those additional tips and views which are abundant in this book.  The experienced birder will immensely enjoy the thousands of photos but probably won't read or see anything new.  In contrast, the beginning birder will certainly like the great photos but the sheer volume of birds and the crowded, busy pages may be daunting.

The author said in the introduction "a picture says 1000 words", promoting the quick mental snapshot of an image versus reading and memorizing information.  However, quickly interpreting a picture or a view of a bird in the field comes with experience - and frustration.  The newer birder often does not know what in the photo may demand extra attention; what things must be compared; how to read relative sizes and shapes; etc.  The beginner won't have the experiential knowledge needed to free him from the text and to rely on only the photos.  Having just said that, any birder will still greatly enjoy this book so long as he knows what is and is not in this book.  – (written by Jack at Avian Review, February 2011)

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