Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Crossley ID Guide

I am not a birder. Oh, I can identify the common birds that frequent my habitat. I also have a decent pair of binoculars that I whip out when I’m trying to decide whether the animal lolling about in the yard is just an ugly dog or a coyote. Or when a great blue heron wades at the edge of the pond. But that’s about it.

So I didn’t request a review copy of The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds (Princeton University Press, 2011) to improve my birding skills. Of course, who knows? The book is so lush and the identification technique so compelling that I may just be sucked in. I can, however, say unequivocally that for anyone who is a birder in North America, since many of these birds are found across the continent, I can’t imagine being without Crossley’s book and its more than 10,000 images. The price is certainly right: at 544 pages and $21 on Amazon that works out to less than four cents a page.

All right, so what did I think my readers could learn from Crossley’s book and from his method of identifying birds? In what ways is identifying a bird similar to identifying a good trading opportunity?

Crossley’s plates represent a task unfulfilled for traders. In a typical plate devoted to a single species, Crossley includes photos of male and female birds, juveniles, all or most plumages (breeding, nonbreeding, molting), and birds in flight. These images are anchored in the bird’s most common habitat and exhibit some of its typical behaviors. One rationale for the staggering amount of information in each plate is that “it’s much easier for the human brain to absorb information from a single image than from many separate images.” (p. 23) Traders unfortunately still have to process many separate images, even if they’re on the same computer screen.

Crossley grew up in a birding culture where you took not a guide but only a notebook into the field. “Taking field notes … makes you think for yourself—to look at a bird for what it is rather than what someone else tells you it is supposed to be. … [T]he bird in front of you is your immediate reality. Watch it and you will learn it. … You will understand the bird in a way that books cannot teach you.” (p. 25) Most traders bring a guide into the field. They can thus easily identify a head and shoulders pattern, but are they seeing what is or what every reader of the guide thinks is supposed to be? Crossley’s simple words bear repeating: “Watch it and you will learn it.”

The notion of context (which Crossley describes as probability) is important in birding as well as in trading. The questions in birding are whether the bird “usually or always occur[s] in this location and in this habitat.” (p. 26) If, for instance, we substitute “pattern” for “bird,” the same questions are applicable, and these are questions that many traders fail to ask.

Then we have the problem of the same but different, for instance a juvenile as opposed to an adult of the same species. Think of the juvenile as an early, sometimes a premature entry. The juvenile can be harder to identify; the distinctive characteristics of the adult are often missing. On occasion traders who manage to identify the juvenile can get a better entry point. At other times they simply jump the gun: even a winning trade will have farther to go and the entry won’t win a beauty contest.

And then consider the near vs. the far or the stationary vs. the in-flight, all represented in a single Crossley plate.

Although I jotted down several more comparisons, I think I’ll wrap up this post. And go back to looking at some more gorgeous photographic composites. This book is a truly amazing accomplishment!

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