Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Review - The Crossley ID Guide to Raptors - Part 2 !!!!

If you've read any of my past book reviews for the Crossley series, you'll know that I have a hard time figuring them out... I like the photos - but how well do they really "work" as a field guide???

A co-worker of mine recently took a shine to hawkwatching - as one of our projects required some field work and there were some openings for any capable observers. As someone who was just beginning to learn the craft - I offered up my copy of the Crossley ID Guide! Seems nice of me, doesn't it? 

Well it came at a price! A book review would be required upon return... Which recently transpired (kind of makes you wonder why she still talks to me) - but that should be of no concern to you! Because now, you get an in-depth review from an extremely talented writer, ecologist and (now) expert hawkwatcher presented here on the blog. 

The Crossley ID Guide - Raptors, as reviewed by Melissa Cameron:

Hawk watching for me is about as familiar an activity as walking on my hands. My natural history inclination has been, until now, toward the sedentary taxa – trees and turtles – so the idea of studying an animal which moves faster than I can follow, well out of my view, and which looks different from every angle and in changing light conditions is disconcerting to say the least. Add to this an impression (admittedly a false one) that birders take themselves very seriously and a personal dislike of doing things poorly, and hawk watching with an accomplished birder becomes a terrifying prospect.

Yet, somehow, as my favourite season (fall) approached and the opportunity arose to spend more time at a study site along the stunning Georgian Bay coast if I was only willing to participate in the raptor migration surveys, I became … gasp! … a novice hawk watcher. As any good armchair ecologist knows, the first order of business in learning to identify a new taxonomic group is to sign out from the library the largest reference book available and to read this, cover to cover, all the while pretending to understand (and care about) the differences in size, colour and pattern of the different sexes and age classes. Memorizing details of anatomical features you never knew existed is important! Days of study passed, and the most significant result was that my fear of misidentifying hawks had become crippling now that I realized not only how many species there were, but how much variation existed within each species!

Amused, perhaps, by my academic approach to learning raptor ID, a good friend suggested I take a look at the new-ish Crossley Guide for Raptors. Previous reviews of this book by experienced birders have called its teaching style “revolutionary”, “multi-dimensional” and “mind-blowing”. I think I’d be more inclined to label it “amusing”, “unpretentious” and “forgiving”, because what I really like about it is the simple acknowledgement that raptors don’t sit still and that, therefore, trying to identify them in flight, at a distance, and under changing light conditions means that sometimes you’ll just get it wrong. The authors of this book aren't embarrassed to admit that a gull can be mistaken for a osprey or that it takes more just than memorizing the field guide to tell the difference between a female Sharp-shinned Hawk and a male Cooper’s Hawk. Don’t believe me? Check the answers to the mystery photo quizzes. For nearly every quiz there are answers conceding defeat in identification, whether the unknown element is age, sex, or colour morph. Oh the humiliation! Serious birders, this is where you point and laugh.

The photo collages in this book are also really entertaining. They remind you that raptors aren’t the most widely-recognized group of birds among non-birders because of their poise when perched at the roadside. They’re awesome because they are hunters – they soar, they dive, and some can apparently explode smaller birds on impact! And each of the species can be differentiated, to a large extent, by their movement and behaviour even if you’re not able to see their markings. Once you narrow down the observed characteristics to size, movement, wing shape or angle, habitat and time of year, identifying raptors in our area is so straightforward it’s almost like cheating. It helps, of course, to have said accomplished birder at your side to confirm your observation (if correct) or help steer you in the right direction when you’re missing something important.

So, thanks to Messrs. Crossley, Liguori and Sullivan, I’m not ashamed to say in front of a serious birder that I am a novice hawk watcher. True, the sum total of hawks I’ve successfully identified this fall has probably amounted to fewer than 30 individuals, and certainly no more than 5 species. I still can’t tell the difference between a Cooper’s Hawk and a Sharp-shinned Hawk (though I’ve read how!) and I’ve nearly steered my bicycle into on-coming traffic while trying to figure out why the hawk overhead that so clearly exhibited the characteristics of a red-tailed hawk didn’t have a red tail (maybe it was a juvenile?). But I’m okay with this now. Experience is really the only way to learn a new skill, and it will take more than just acing the quizzes at the back of the Crossley guide to pick up raptor ID. I have learned, however, that hawk watching is at once exciting and relaxing, that it’s okay to squeal with excitement when a bald eagle flies right over your head, and that watching hawks is among the best ways to enjoy cold weather in beautiful surroundings with a good friend. And if I’m very lucky, by the time spring migration takes place I’ll have sorted out the accipiter dilemma.

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