Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Review: Hawks at a Distance

Anyone who has participated in a hawk-watch knows how difficult raptors can be to ID.  It's more difficult still to learn how to do it. It's almost impossible to put that knowledge into a book. However, well known hawk guru Jerry Ligouri has done it. His new book "Hawks at a distance" is an excellent book to have with you when out hawkwatching or even just casual observation.  

In this book, the photos are just what the title says: at a distance. They are not close up, they are not cropped down, but left to replicate how you might see a hawk through your binoculars in the field.  
As with the Crossley guide, impressions are best here. What is your impression of shape and size? What field marks would you pick out if you saw this bird in the field? 

Let's take a look inside the cover: 

Ligouri starts each species account with a brief, one or two page segment of text followed by photos: 

The photos, as expected, are literally "at a distance." They show the bird as one might see it in the field.  
Take this Swainson's Hawk. What, to you, says it's a Swainson's Hawk? How might that be used in the field?  Those dark flight feathers show up pretty distinctly.  
Like Crossley, Ligouri dispenses with pages and pages of text and keeps the text to a minimum. This allows you as the reader to determine what works for you to identify the bird. 
Though my scan of the page doesn't show it, the photos in this book are beautiful and well chosen to fit every imaginable instance where you might see the bird in flight out in the field. 

The newest field guides seem to be taking this stance.  The new school of birding seems to be based on impressions and shape.  New I say? Well, not exactly new, just coming around again. 
There are two schools of birding. One is based on careful observation of detailed field marks to identify the bird. The other is based on GISS. What is GISS? General Impression of Shape and Size. Sure, there's more that goes into it than that, but that's the basic idea.  
There are many field guides out there that use detailed field marks and carefully explain what those marks are and how to look for them. It's fairly easy to learn bird identification this way. The problem comes when a lot of birds, hawks in particular, are just too far away, and often in bad light, to use this method.  The newest guides, the Crossley and now Ligouri's book are exploring methods of teaching identification at long range using only impressions of shape, size and behavior.  With more and more of these books coming out, the well-rounded birder would be wise to study both as it provides a whole other face to bird identification. 

Ligouri even goes the full step to ID by shape by providing a page of nothing but silhouettes: 

Views of the bird from every angle as you might see it in the field, backlit against the sun.  

Interestingly, all the photos in this book show the bird in flight. The assumption being that if the bird is perched, you can get close enough to it to ID it by field marks alone.  
I would however be interested to see if we eventually get a book that tells us how to ID perched hawks from over a mile away. 

In all, I would say Ligouri's book is one for anyone wishing to learn to ID all those raptors they see floating on the horizon.  As Pete Dunne says in his excellent Foreword "Now that Hawks at a Distance is available to today's "students of birds," the world beyond the horizon is about the only place that a raptor that aspires to remain anonymous can hope to hide." 

1 comment:

D. Strickland said...

Great review on a great book!