Book Review: Hawks at a Distance

Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors, by Jerry Liguori, Princeton University Press (http://press.princeton.edu/), 2011, 216 pages, $19.95

I can remember a time not so long ago when field guides made me squint – not because I needed glasses (I did), but because it was the only way my mind could make heads or tails of the blurry, through-the-shower-glass images that passed for photography. Today, there’s no question that photography – and field guides – have come a long way. But raptor expert Jerry Liguori has raised the bar to new heights with Hawks at a Distance, a field guide that takes the guesswork out of soaring silhouettes.

Even the worst birder knows its rare when – beyond the bird feeder – a chickadee or creeper (much less a raptor) deigns deliver itself unto you within arms reach (a Darwinian drive no doubt related to our ancestor’s reluctance to amble past a pride of chops-slopping lions lazing on the veldt). Still, that is the premise most fields guides rely on, thus our reliance on a fair pair of optics to close that gap. So while by now most run-of-the-mill field guides have all but canned the bird identification experience every which way but up, Hawks at a Distance looks… up.

Birds on a fence line or treetop are low-hanging fruit compared to Liguori’s quarry – little black spots on the sun. Be they stooping, soaring, or gliding, each of Liguori’s carefully selected photographs are so bright and vivid, it’s as if you’re peering through a pair of Zeiss glasses. Nearly all of the 29 migrant raptor species featured are treated first with a full-page color portrait and an accompanying description of the species’ plumage and presentation. But the feather in this cap is the pages that follow: a series of color and achromic plates showcasing far-off raptors in a feathered flurry of positions, settings, and lighting conditions – real-life scenarios, not the perched portraits we’ve been spoon-fed.

Sample pages for the red-tailed hawk; click for detail

Yes, each of the composite plates is small, but no smaller than you’d experience through the viewfinder of your binoculars. Thus, once you’ve done away with the instinctual formalities of unnecessarily squinting while telescoping the book back-and-forth like an oarsman, its easy to re-calibrate your search image to hone in on shapes and other key characteristics explained in the captions that accompany each plate. Additional resources include a thoughtful glossary and annotated anatomy diagram, and composite plates of species in silhouette that stress posture and profile.

With pages upon pages of composite plates for so many of the species, perhaps the only thing I found lacking was the same “whole ball of wax-wing” treatment for kite or owl species, which are otherwise lumped with the California condor as “uncommon migrants and others.” Still, as a field guide Liguori’s wings tip the scales, marking another “why didn’t I think of that” moment in the evolution of the modern field guide.

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