Review: The Shorebird Guide


Looking through books online at last month, my mother found a copy of The Shorebird Guide by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson. She remembered that I had a copy of Richard Crossley’s The Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds and thought I would enjoy this, especially because I came home from YOW talking about the difficulty some of us had identifying shorebirds.

Even though it’s not a new book, published in 2006 by Houghton Mifflin, it’s new to me and incredibly useful for identifying North American shorebirds so I thought I would review it here.

In a nutshell, if you are having trouble identifying shorebirds or want to brush up on rusty skills, this is the book for you. Photographer Richard Crossley believes in the use of pattern recognition, or what he calls General Impression of Size and Shape (GISS, according to some a World War II term for identifying aircraft) over field marks, and uses photographs to help readers improve their abilities to identify various species. Some birders call this use of pattern recognition gestalt (a German word) or “jizz”, a Briticism popularized by Thomas Coward in his 1922 book, Bird Haunts and Nature Memories; there’s an interesting Australian article online, “The Etymology of Jizz”. From the preface:

When advanced birders look at a flock of shorebirds, they are often able to identify the vast majority of birds with a quick binocular scan. How do they do this? Experts have an easier time identifying shorebirds because they are using an easier identification method. Instead of skipping straight to plumage details, they base their identifications, first and foremost, on relative size, structure, behavior, and voice. They start with the basics. All these characteristics are far less variable than plumage details and are therefore an easier, more reliable starting point for identification. In fact, virtually any shorebird can be identified solely on the basis of these fundamental characteristics. That’s not to say that plumage details are not important to identification — they very often are. But in order to get off on the right track, the identification process must begin with the fundamentals. …

By simply focusing on those characters that are least variable and most visible in the field, not only will your identifications become more accurate, but you’ll also identify a higher percentage of what you see.

The book, with almost 500 pages, is divided into two sections, Species Photos (with full captions and range maps) and Species Accounts. The Species Photos section is further subdivided into “Domestic Species” (48 of them) and “Rarities and Regional Specialties” (44 rare, regional, or “accidental” species, including hybrids and aberrant species). Altogether the guide includes more than 850 color photographs of shorebirds — in flight, in mixed flocks, displaying a variety of behaviors, and differences in plumages — by Richard Crossley and Kevin Karlson, as well as Mike Danzenbaker, Arthur Morris, and others.

When studying shorebirds or any species of birds, learning about bird topography is very important in understanding how the feathers are arranged and placed. As an example of the incredible detail in the guide, here’s one of the photos from the topography section,


Each North American species account includes information on status, behavior, size, structure, and a range map. Many species have more than four pages of photographs of shorebirds in different stages of molt, close-ups, in flight, and from a distance. The other 44 species accounts don’t have range maps, and these species (the rare, regional, or accidental) aren’t covered as thoroughly. And, for some species such as the Whimbrel and the Willet, the guide demonstrates how to distinguish each subspecies.

One of the features of the book I really like and will no doubt find useful for a long time is the last page featuring 47 silhouettes by Michael O’Brien of the domestic shorebird species (all but the American Woodcock). You can test your knowledge on the species, and the answers are found on the page listed beneath the silhouette.

Now that I have a scope, I’ll be able to get better looks at local shorebirds, and this guide will help me identify them much more easily. The guide is comprehensive and the pictures are beautiful and clear, so it’s a great book for both beginning and advanced birders. With all the pages and photographic plates, it’s a pretty heavy book to carry around in the field, but definitely deserves a place in your backpack or bag if you know you’re going to need help at the shore. I highly recommend this field guide!

You can buy it from your favorite bookseller or

8 thoughts on “Review: The Shorebird Guide

  1. Very good book indeed. Doing my S AB May Species Counts, id-ing the various migrating shorebirds has been a challenge in the past but now much better. The peeps can be difficult for sure especially at a distance but I find one can get fairly close if ground conditions are good. A good scope and a knowledgeable assistant is a big help!

  2. Thank you for this review! I have been eyeing this book for a couple of years now as I need to sharpen my shorebird skills, but I usually prefer to examine my guides in hand in case they aren’t very good. It sounds like a valuable guide and I think now I’ll add it to my Amazon cart :)

  3. Pingback: Review Roundup: March, 2013

  4. Pingback: Book Review: “The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors” | Prairie Birder

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