Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

March 30, 2011

Two recent bird books

Filed under: Birds, reviews — richditch @ 6:32 pm
Hawks at a Distance - Liguori

Hawks at a Distance - Liguori

I think the personalities that lead so many of us to seek out new birds for our various lists (life, state, yard, year, etc.) also play a large role in the growth of our personal birding libraries. I’ve just added two new identification guides to my library:

  • Hawks at a Distance, by Jerry Liguori, and
  • The Crossley ID Guided to Eastern Birds, by Richard Crossley

Both are veteran birders with extensive experience in New Jersey and elsewhere, and both are published by Princeton University Press. Both fall into the current trend of using photographs instead of drawings or paintings.

Other than those few traits these guides have little in common.

Liguori’s book takes on a large task in trying to incorporate all the “tricks” learned from thousands of hours of actual observation of distant hawks in the field. The best way to learn this, of course, is to put in the time in the field watching the birds and slowly gaining knowledge on each species after it has been studied repeatedly under all field conditions. Distilling this knowledge into a single book of less than 200 pages is an immense task.

Liguori does a respectable job of this through photos of each species covered, showing the birds in various flight positions six photos per page. The birds are shown small in each image – about what you’d get with your Nikon or Canon if the hawk just filled the central focusing spot. I know what you’re thinking: there are a lot of us with hard drives full of shots like this that we took in the excitement of the moment even though the bird was too far away for a quality image. It turns out these make decent images for Liguori’s ID narrative. The images used are a good representation of the effects of viewing the hawks at a distance, where fine detail merges into areas of color and overall shape and posture take on primary importance.

The only real issue I have with Liguori’s Hawks at a Distance is the missing species. I don’t see any mention of Common Black Hawk, Gray Hawk, or Harris’ Hawk – not a problem for the majority of hawk watchers along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts or the Mississippi flyway. But if you are a birder in Arizona as I am this is a serious omission. I’d also like to see more coverage of White-tailed Kite – it gets less than half a page of text and only two images. Plus, its regular occurrence in much of central and southern Arizona is unacknowledged.

The Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds

The Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds

Crossley has taken on a much more imposing challenge: completely redefine what a bird identification guide is. Crossley’s novel approach is to create photo montages for each species, filling each page with an often overwhelming collection of photos of a species taken both near and far over a typical habitat image. The purpose of this approach is to show each species in a variety of conditions and distances to simulate actual field conditions. It is an intriguing concept and I was anxious to actually see the book, but my immediate reaction to it was confusion at all the visual clutter. For me this simply does not work very well.

Even though Crossley’s book is an Eastern guide it is rather large and heavy, and definitely not a book I can imagine anyone taking with them into the field. As a result it will spend time in the car or back home on the reference shelf. For an experienced birder who already has a good selection of field guides and other bird books I can’t imagine just when anyone would turn to this book to assist in any identification question.

Just when I was ready to write this review I happened to have lunch with a visiting novice birder from the east who surprised me by bringing up Crossley’s book in our conversation. His impression of Crossley’s guide was a lot more positive than my own. He indicated that he found the habitat photos very helpful in his early stages of learning where each species might be seen and thought that the real world lighting used for many of the images was also helpful to him.

So, Crossley’s novel approach isn’t for everyone, but it might be just the ticket for many beginning birders wanting to learn more about where to look for certain species and what they might encounter while doing so.

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