Crossley ID Guide Blog Tour – Q&A with Brian Sullivan

Alright, this is the second to the last stop of the Crossley ID Guide Blog Tour hosted by Princeton University Press. Be sure to check out the great posts from the past eight weeks as it has definitely been a wild ride.

I had my hands on a copy of the new Crossley ID Guide: Raptors for a few days and was extremely impressed at the detail and high quality information that is contained within its covers. The plates are immaculate and the text is equally as impressive and important. Richard Crossley, Brian Sullivan, and Jerry Ligouri did an exceptional job when developing this new addition to the revolutionary Crossley ID Guide series.

For Day 9 of The Raptor Blog Tour, we here at Thermal Birding have a Q&A (Question & Answer) session with Brian Sullivan. Brian provides insight on the new guide, hawk ID, and hawk watching. Read all about it below!

Adult light-morph Ferruginous Hawk, Butte Valley, CA, Feb. Photo by Brian L. Sullivan.

1. What was your part in creating The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors?

  • Jerry Liguori and I were brought in mainly to work on the species accounts and to provide photos for the plates. Richard built the plates with some input from us, but those are largely his creations.
2. What is your favorite part of the new guide?
  • I really like the approach of putting birds in their habitat and trying to convey something more than plumage details about these species. There are a lot of books out there that will give you the plumage details, but I don’t think these species have ever been presented in this way. I also really enjoyed writing the introductions to each species account with Jerry. We were forced to think outside the box with these, and dig out some insights into raptors that really give you a sense of the essence of the bird. Most challenging was taking a highly complicated subject and trying to simplify it down to its core, essentially trying to figure out the best ways to help people arrive at correct identifications in what is a notoriously challenging group of birds.
3. There are so many other families or groups of birds, why raptors? How did you find your niche?
  • Raptors fascinated me a child. I spent lots of time when I was really young watching the procession of Red-tailed Hawks march past Hawk Mountain every fall, and then really cut my teeth on raptor identification, and the appreciation of all birds, at Cape May Point, NJ. To me there is something life-affirming, almost spiritual, about bird migration, and raptors stage some of the most spectacular flights on our continent. I was drawn to it, and to the challenge of putting a name on birds in the distance, when they were at the limit of vision. 
4. What do you find most fascinating or interesting about raptors?
  • There are so many things that make these birds interesting. They are big, fast, powerful, and predatory, if that kind of thing appeals to you. They are fantastic birds to watch due to their exciting behaviors, but they are much more too. Raptors are subtly beautiful, have incredibly variable plumages in some cases, and represent the cutting edge of bird identification techniques in many ways. We are still learning about the complexities of very common raptors, such as the Red-tailed Hawk, and while we see these species all over North America, surprisingly little is known of it during the breeding season, especially in the northern and western portions of its range. Species like the Red-tailed Hawk present constant challenges for us, making us learn more and look closer. 

Identifying this bird as a Golden Eagle is relatively easy. But can you tell what age it is? This bird is a second-year based on the molt patterns in the wings. Pick up the Crossley ID Guide: Raptors to learn how to age Golden Eagles. Photo by Brian L. Sullivan.

5. What is the first characteristic you look at when attempting to ID a raptor?
  • It depends on the situation. If the bird is sitting and you can get a good close look at the plumage, then that can be helpful. But often raptors are seen in flight, unfortunately at a distance, and at these times it’s best to focus on shape and flight style. Learning to distinguish the shapes of the different groups of raptors can help you quickly limit your choices, after which you can focus on more subtle flight style differences and broad plumage patterns. Shape is helpful even when perched.
6. What is the first characteristic you tell beginning birders to look at when trying to ID raptors?
  • Shape. The various groups of raptors all contain species that share similar general shapes. Accipiters for example, have long tails and short, rounded wings when compared to the shorter-tailed and longer-winged buteos. Learning these basics helps you restrict your likely species choices from more than 30 to 3 in just a glance, in the case of accipiters.
 7. Do you have a favorite raptor?
  • Hard to say. In general I really like the buteos, especially Red-tailed, Rough-legged, and Swainson’s hawks. These three species are highly variable, and pose more questions each time I really look at them carefully. Really digging into the subspecies differences and the biogeography of Red-tailed Hawk is one of my main interests these days.

Would you be able to identify this bird? Red-tailed Hawks show the most complicated plumage variation of any North American raptor. This dark-morph juvenile was photographed in Big Sur, CA, Dec. Photograph by Brian L. Sullivan.

 8. Where is your favorite place to hawk watch?
  • Right now it would be the Goshutes in Nevada. The site is so far away from any kind of population center that it really is a retreat; a chance to unplug from the digital world and reconnect with the natural world.  A long hike is rewarded with stunning views from the lookout, and when the wind blows from the southwest, and steady stream of hawks make use of the updrafts passing within near arm’s reach of you and they head south along the ridge. I try to spend a few days here each year. The site is run by Hawkwatch International.

Hawk counters scan the edge of an approaching rain squall for migrating raptors, Goshutes, NV, Sep. Photo by Brian L. Sullivan.

9. Anything else you would like to add about the The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors

  • The idea of this book is to take a very complicated subject and break it down to its essence, making raptor identification accessible for all birders. The plates are a new approach, and the text is light and readable, yet informative. We hope you enjoy this book, and most of all, we hope it inspires you to get out there and do some hawkwatching!
We would like to thank Brian for taking the time to answer our questions!
Brian Sullivan is the coauthor of the forthcoming Princeton Guide to North American Birds. He is eBird project leader and photographic editor of the Birds of North America Online at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, as well as photographic editor for the American Birding Association’s journal, North American Birds. (Photo – Jerry Ligouri (left) and Brian Sullivan (right) at Goshutes, Nevada during Fall 2012. Photo by Aaron Barna). 

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors is set for release in April 2013. Until then, check out these downloadable E-Books – The Top 25 Garden Feeder Birds; Raptors E-Book Sampler. There will also be a Shindig tomorrow online tomorrow night  that is FREE. The Shindig will be from 6 – 7 PM on 22 March 2013. You can pre-register here or just join in at 6 PM. Princeton University Press is also giving away a fantastic prize package. Enter to Win the Ultimate Crossley ID Guide Prize Pack here.

Two other blogs are featured for today’s stop along the Raptors Blog Tour including:

BRDPICS  – Tips on raptor photography & ID
NatureShare – A feature on the ubiquitous red-tailed hawk.