Richard Crossley’s initial foray into the crowded North American field guide market was greeted with something along the lines of wild enthusiasm when it wasn’t being being derided as the finest inducement of epileptic seizures as your likely to find in a nature book. I’ve gone back and forth on it as a tool for identifying birds, but I stand by what I said before. That Crossley, if nothing, really deserves credit for blowing the doors open on what we should expect for a field guide, even if I can’t spend a lot of time looking at his forest birds because the depth of field thing just kills me.
But remove the need for the eye to observe birds in three dimensions by making the backdrop a distant shoreline or a wide prairie or, best, the broad blue sky, and you’ve got something here. The bottom line is that I am not convinced that Crossley’s busy collage style really works for a full field guide.
Hawkwatchers have long had a library at hand with considerable pedigree. Dunne et al’s Hawks in Flight being the father of the genre and still holding up well in a second edition thanks to a mix of great new photos and the classic illustrations by David Sibley. Jerry Liguori has charged into the field with a pair of volumes indispensable in their narrow niche, and it’s nice to see Liguori’s expertise put to good use here as it’s his books that seem to be the inspiration, intentional or not, for Crossley’s interpretation. What, then, is this ID guide but a mashup up of Hawks at Every Angle and Hawks at a Distance?
The third in that formidable trio is eBird guru and hawkwatcher extraordinaire Brian Sullivan. The three of them have pooled strengths to make this book an instant leader in the field. But as with the last Crossley guide, this one is intended to be more than just a means by which you puzzle out those hawkwatch specks, and I’d even argue that’s not what it’s best at. Guides like this are intended to be workbooks. Of course, every field guide now on the market has this as its intention, going so far as to urge birders to set it aside when the bird is in view, or to keep it handy for when you’re not birding, but none are so explicit as Crossley. The guide includes a series of quizzes throughout intended to test you on what you’re learning. And this is really where Crossley’s style shines.
This plate is entitled “Topsides” and it shows a variety of unidentified raptors from the top encouraging the reader to try to identify them based on criteria from the individual species accounts. Now granted, this type of thing really only works once as a quiz, but the reference is the sort that is most valuable for those trying to identify raptors and it forces you to take into account the more subtle aspects of proportion, shape, and style that take decades to grasp before. Hawkwatching it always going to be touch, but birders these days have the sort of head start that was unimaginable 40 years ago when the practice began to catch on. It’s a wonderful world that we live in that this is so.
I’m still not 100% on board with the Crossley style, but that’s ok – even Roger Tory Peterson himself didn’t nail every one of his graphics either. But this specific book, full of birds typically seen in expansive settings or on the wing works pretty well.
Check that. It works really well.
If they haven’t already, hawk enthusiasts are going to enjoy this one.
Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy
Vultures are pretty awesome when it all comes down to it. As common as they are around here not a week goes by that I don’t look up and notice one teetering almost motionless in the sky and think to myself, “you know, that’s pretty cool”. Plus they’ve got the whole raptor thing going for them even if they’re pretty mild-mannered raptors in the end.
Anyway, I put together another edition of I and the Bird this week, one focusing on vultures both Old and New World. Check it out.
Despite Mumbai’s famous human population, the density of which feels like it’s apt to crush you to dust at any point during your stay, there are parts of the mega-metropolis where wildlife does all right. This seems to be particularly true of wildlife that can kill you. Sanjay Gandhi National Park has cobras, crocodiles, and several pit vipers. It also has, as I mentioned in a previous post, a unnervingly high concentration of leopards which have in the past killed and eaten people. This is not the sort of urban wildlife I am used to dealing with, where the worst thing I can come across is a Black Bear, and not even in my part of the state with anything approaching regularity. As exciting as it is to bird in a place with large carnivores (and I do intend to use exiting with both positive and negative connotations), it is not something I need to experience regularly. I will say, however, that my birding in Mumbai was made somewhat more enjoyable by the presence of monkeys, which I recommend highly.
Sanjay Gandhi has several species of monkeys running about, some more tolerant of people than others apparently. Walking back to the entrance I found myself in the middle of a troop of Rhesus Macaques walking leisurely along the river. I was taken aback, but this must have been a pretty common occurrence as none of the other, apparently local, walkers seemed to give a second look. The big male of the group sat along a rock wall, posing in that very simian way that makes them look like they’re so wise and content when really they’re just waiting for someone to drop some food. not a single person stopped to look, likely as this was hardly a unique thing to people in Mumbai, but I stopped to photograph and all at once felt entirely foreign. Not only because I was the only white guy in the park (and the only white guy I had seen since I left the airport), but I was the only one with a few thousand dollars worth of optical equipment trained at the fairly normal sight of a monkey sitting on a wall.
I’ll say this about India. I never once felt like I was in any sort of danger. But as someone who likes to blend into the crowd wherever I go, this was a jarring experience. So when I put my camera up to my eye such that I couldn’t see anything except what was through the viewfinder, I felt incredibly exposed and claustrophobic. Indians are generally friendly, but they are very curious and don’t care much for the personal space like we may take for granted in America or Europe. I had already seen one to many pointed fingers and poorly muffled giggles from passer-by. I imagine this is what anyone of color feels like when birding in the US, but with the added complication of not understanding a single work anyone was saying.
I realize that this was mostly me dealing with my own stuff, but it’s remains one of the oddest experiences I’ve ever had in the field.
In any case, a small tribe of what I later realized were Bonnet Macaques (note the crown of dark hair on their heads and little different face) began getting into it on the other side of the pathway. I turned and fired off a few shots of this monkey fight.
People began to gather, I walked on. My clock was urging me onward anyway and I had a plane to catch back home. Where there are no monkeys.
I admit I was not prepared for Mumbai. In my defense, I don’t know that anyone really can be. The city is massive, and crazy, and filled with people and buildings that at once seem modern and equally apt to fall apart in a strong wind. I had a 10 hour layover at the Mumbai International Airport, which in and of itself wasn’t so bad except that a series of armed guards won’t let you into the terminal until two hours before your plane is scheduled to depart. I had intended to try to do some birding somewhere while I was there, but with no place to leave my bags during the 8 hour interim, that plan was rapidly devolving into the prospect of sitting on curb for most of the day.
I had been traveling with a Portuguese/English travel writer, and not being a birder he was willing to sit by and watch my suitcase while I took off for a few hours to nearby Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the hopes of seeing something, anything, other than the Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows that make Mumbai no different than any other major city in the entire world. This changed everything.
I grabbed a cab, who almost certainly ripped me off, and headed north along the main thoroughfare towards the park. Driving in Mumbai is an experience unto itself. The same highway on which massive semi trucks barrel across the potholed surface also hosts cyclists putzing along in the middle of the road. There are no lanes, only right of ways shared by everybody. It is hair-raising to be sure, but enough that all you can really do is sit back and enjoy it, and my driver delivered me to the entrance of the park for only about $5 so I couldn’t complain. It’s India, if you worry too much you’re sunk.
I had done a bare minimum of research on the park before I left for the airport. Learning little more than the fact that the park has the highest concentrations of tigers in the nation. It’s an odd thing to be birding in a place where there is a very real, if exceptionally distant, chance of being eaten by an alpha predator. Fortunately, the entry way to the park was packed with people, like almost every part of India is, and there were no big cats, and exceptionally few birds but for the Oriental Magpie-Robins that hopped around a garden.
Without any sort of map or guidance, I sort of wandered the main paths looking for any sort of movement. An odd sound caught my ear and I paused to seek it out to find a gorgeous Coppersmith Barbet perched motionless on a almost bare tree. As this was one of my targets, I was pretty stoked.
The birds were pretty quiet around the masses of humanity, so it was with some trepidation that I wandered up a dry creek bed deep into tiger country in search of anything else. A flowering tree with huge orange blossoms attracted a nice variety of birds including Greater Coucal, Asian Koel, and Indian Jungle Crows with their enormous bills and deep voices. Good stuff.
Some smaller birds turned out to be Chestnut-tailed Starlings, a total brain bird. Until now I had managed pretty well identifying Indian species. Nothing had completely thrown me given the research I’d done beforehand. This odd species floored me, however, though I was able to guess at the family. They’re smaller than the Euro Starlings, though the shape was familiar.
A troop of Rhesus Macaques escorted me down the path as I returned to the entrance to catch a cab back (worth a blog post in their own right). The locals undoubtedly thought I was something of a nutjob as I paused to photograph them. A single Little Cormorant perched over the pond on my way back, the best opportunity I’d had to photograph one since I’d been there and a good enough last bird of the trip, if you don’t count the Rock Pigeons at the airport, and why would you?
I took an open air jitney back to the airport, a truly Indian experience, and made it back to the airport dusty and exhausted, but with a better sense of the country that I was going to be leaving. There’s truly no place like it, the modernity and the poverty crammed so abruptly against each other. I hope I get to come back some time, I remain insufficiently overwhelmed.