Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Crossley ID Guide - a review

The new Crossley ID Guide has been touted as a revolution in field guide layout so I was very keen to take a look. The thing that needs to be said right off the bat; however, is that at 20 x 25.5 cm (8 x 10 inches) and with 529 pages and weighing 2 kg, the Crossley ID Guide is NOT a field guide! It is however a very useful reference for home consultation.

The Crossley Guide covers U.S.A and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains and has a photomontage for each species with a brief text discussing status, habitat and ID, and a range map (maps a little outdated for parts of Canada as so often the case). Though it is natural to market this as a “new” concept, it is of course is a very old concept that has been revisited with new technology, i.e. with photos rather than illustrations. It differs from other recently published photo-based guides in the placement of each species in a "three-dimensional" montage. Each plate can be likened to a museum diorama, packed with illustrations of the species in question in numerous postures (including many flight shots) and all the main plumage types. In most cases, all the major plumage types are well illustrated, with a handful of exceptions, e.g. the ptarmigans. Most of the plumages are labeled, with just a few errors of omission. It is an extraordinary achievement to have assembled so many photographs of so many species, including vagrants and accidentals and including ultra skulkers like Yellow Rail and Black Rail, though of course Crossley borrowed some photos from friends. Most of the photos are excellent; only a few being pixellated or soft or poorly exposed. The photomontages are crowded but this is a deliberate choice to pack in as much information as possible. Some birds are hidden in the background, which provides for a certain element of “fun” and realism. For the most part they are flawlessly executed and show the relevant ID features to good effect (there are a few exceptions, e.g. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper). The text is succinct and generally useful, though would benefit from augmentation in a few cases. Arrows to point to key ID features or other such highlights are not used.

This book does not follow a taxonomic arrangement of species, which decreases the utility for experienced birders (makes it harder to find things) but is possibly useful to beginners. The governing principle seems to similarity of appearance. In the layout of the photomontages themselves, great attention has been paid to aesthetics, even over utility. Many easy to identify species get full-page treatment whereas others that are more difficult to identify get much less space and consequently less detail. I find that decision perplexing. Furthermore, confusingly similar species are not always placed side by side, which also seems incomprehensible. Occasionally two or more species are shown together in one corner of the same plate for comparative purposes but this technique could have, and I feel should have, been used much more, especially in groups like waterfowl and seabirds.

Here are two examples of two-page spreads to give you a sense of the concept. The Sedge Wren + Marsh Wren is discussed below under “Specific Criticisms” and the “Forster’s Tern + Common Tern” is discussed under ‘Specific Advantages”.

Detailed comments provided below:

Specific criticisms:
· The background photo for the Marsh Wren and Sedge Wren are very poorly chosen. The Marsh Wren shows some birds appropriately perched on reeds in the foreground but the background is a sedge meadow, i.e. the right habitat for Sedge Wren and the wrong habitat for Marsh Wren. Conversely the Sedge Wren is shown in a cattail marsh, great habitat for Marsh Wren but wrong for Sedge Wren. This suggests the author is unfamiliar with these species and gives the reader a completely inaccurate impression.
· The photomontage for the Common Ringed Plover should have been placed opposite Semipalmated Plover for ease of comparison. Instead we find Mountain Plover occupying that space. A bizarre choice especially given that the book is not arranged taxonomically. The author has achieved an incredible feat in having a photo of both Semiplamtaed Plover and Common Ringed Plover head on with one foot raised so as to be able to show the differences in the inner webbing (that gives the Semipalmated Plover their name); however, inexplicably, he chose to crop the raised foot at the page edge and ruin the comparison. There are numerous other examples of poor placement, e.g. Bay-breasted Warbler and Blackpoll Warbler, Connecticut Warbler and Mourning Warbler and others.
· Though I fully admit it is difficult to take photos of different species in identical postures, I think there are several examples where the photos used in the plate were poorly chosen or poorly positioned. This is true in some cases with flight shots where one is hoping to compare “apples with apples” in terms of a field mark such as wingtip pattern but despite the large number of photos used, the dissimilarities in posture make comparison difficult. An example of a pair of common species where this could be better done is Downy Woodpecker versus Hairy Woodpecker. All the field marks are shown but the images could be better chosen and better positioned on the plate to highlight the differences in bill size and, especially, tail pattern.
· Position on plate of similar age / sex / plumage should be more consistent to enable easier comparisons of similar species. Examples of this include the two-fold spread of Black-bellied Plover versus American Golden-Plover, the comparison of Lazuli Bunting versus Indigo Bunting, and the Chimney Swift versus Vaux’s Swift distinction (marred by poor layout, underexposed photos and unequal sizes, especially tiny size of the latter, that makes comparison extremely difficult).
· Some plumages are missing (not many). The Ross’s Gull plate does not show a bird in full alternate plumage but rather a bird where the collar is curiously faded. Likewise the only photo of a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in full breeding plumage is very small and backgrounded. A few others, e.g. some warblers, have bird photos that are labeled as breeding plumage but which are not quite in full breeding plumage. The worn plumage of Black-capped Chickadee is not shown (nor any photo of that species that shows how buffy they can be in the flanks in summer and winter)
· More attention should be paid to size of species relative to other species, especially similar looking species on neighbouring plates. For example, the American Three-toed Woodepcker looks larger than the Black-backed Woodpecker when the reverse is true
· One of the Eurasian Collared-Doves looks like a domestic variety or Ringed Turtle-Dove (though the undertail is partially obscured)
· A flight shot of a roding American Woodcock should have been included
· The Western Willet is shown in the type of habitat one would find this bird in winter (on a sandy beach), whereas the Eastern Willet appears in summer habitat. This was done because the western Willets winter further north and can be seen through the winter in U.S.A; however, these two subspecies exhibit considerable ecological differences which pertains especially to their breeding habitat selection (they overlap much more in passage and winter in terms of habitat utilised) so a good opportunity was missed to demonstrate how the western Willet “fits” their habitat and a reader who is not familiar with the species could get rather confused as to why the “prairie breeding” form is being shown on the coast! (still, great to see the plumage differences between western and eastern Willets illustrated)
· The text of Red-naped Sapsucker says the species occurs in the Black Hills and rare elsewhere in “our region” but the background photo looks like the Rocky Mountains and does not look at all like Red-naped Sapsucker habitat.

Specific advantages:
· Wonderful to see different subspecies side by side in photos. This alone is enough to make this book a useful reference resource! (e.g. Greater White-fronted Goose)
· Great to see male and female difference defined for so many species where the difference is subtle (e.g. Common Nighthawk)
· Generally excellent effort to show each species’ association with their habitat, although done better in some cases than others
· Some of the two-fold spreads are a wonderful way to study differences; for example, Warbling Vireo versus Philadelphia Vireo, though I thought it should have included a more yellowish Warbling Vireo as well.
· Likewise, the two-page spread of Common Tern versus Forster’s Tern is an example of a carefully planned and well-executed comparison of two similar species, showing key features such as upperwing and underwing pattern. Although there is a statement in the text of Forster’s Tern that reads “Diagnostic dark mask in most plumages”, which is counterfactual and unhelpful (requires A LOT of qualification!).
· Text generally very useful although not all of the terms used in the text are defined in the bird topography section, which beginners will find frustrating.
· Generally attractive appearance could generate interest amongst younger readers and encourage them to start scanning everyday scenes for birds

In summary, I’ll keep a copy at home and will consult regularly but won’t throw it into my backpack!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Owls en route...

People sometimes asked me why, after having lived in so many countries, I would now live in frigid Manitoba, Canada. Aside from having an awesome job working towards developing citizen science and for conservation, there are some perks to being this close to the magnificent boreal forest, even if it is brutally cold. Recently I traveled to a few spots in Manitoba to do atlas presentations and workshops and en route got to see one of the things that makes living in Manitoba so appealing – lots of owls! The photos below are from a short “owl prowl” yesterday with some students from University College of the North – they were in for quite a treat!

Here is the Great Gray Owl we saw (or Great Grey Owl if you prefer) near Pinawa, Manitoba. Perched out in the light snow, this handsome phantom of the boreal forest was not in the least worried about our presence. Notice how they tuck their feet under the body feathers when perched to reduce exposure to bare parts.

Here is the same bird listening intently while hunting…

And why not zoom in for a close up of that face (which we discussed as the students watched the owl in the spotting scope). The large, flat face is shaped like a pair of satellite dishes (separated by a ridge down the middle of the face) with a ruff of stiff feathers around the outside and a pattern of concentric circles. This face, beautiful though it be, is not designed for beauty (nor for aerodynamics) but rather for… LISTENING! Great Grays have asymmetrical ears (one higher and one lower) and they use the slight difference in timing in the arrival of a sound to one ear over the other to pinpoint prey that they cannot see; for example, a vole under the snow. The satellite dish-like shape of the face and the stiff feathers surrounding it funnel sound to the ears. The separation of each half of the face further enhances their ability to pinpoint prey. With this face, Great Grays can hear the movements of a vole that is several feet under the snow. Their long legs help them to plunge through the snow but it is their precision hearing that enables them to capture prey they cannot see.

Great Grays also have such a magical “soft” and leisurely flight style that I never tire of trying to capture photos of them in flight, or launching into flight… here are a few samples from yesterday. Here are a few flight shots I took yesterday. The first three illustrate take off…

And this photo shows the "turn, drop and launch" technique. If you look closely at the secondaries you can see the different feather generations indicating an adult bird…

We also had fantastic looks at four Northern Hawk Owls. After some instruction, the students were even getting the search image down and spotting their own owls! When this Northern hawk Owl chose to fly right over our heads it was great to “hear” everyone’s smiling faces while I clicked a few flight shots…

These are the perks of my job!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Quick Quizz - Why are they fighting?

Hey folks - we'll get back to Peru as soon as I can squeeze a little time but meanwhile thought I'd keep you on your toes with this one. Look at this series of photos of a Loggerhead Kingbird and a Northern Mockingbird and see if you can figure out what they are fighting about (then scroll down for the answer)


The answer is a katydid (just behind the dead palm frond) - if you spotted this, well done! if not, I cropped out the katydid below

The Northern Mockingbird got the tasty morsel on this occasion...
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