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Article posted: 9/8/2013 6:00 AM

Field guide author helping to draw youth to birding

When Richard Crossley isnít watching birds he is likely taking pictures of them for his innovative Crossley ID Guide series.

When Richard Crossley isn't watching birds he is likely taking pictures of them for his innovative Crossley ID Guide series.

 

Courtesy of Michael Engelmeyer

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By Jeff Reiter

From my perspective, the birding hobby appears healthy and growing. The bird walks and meetings I attend are usually well-populated, and membership in the DuPage Birding Club continues to rise.

The national trend is positive, too, based on a USDA Forest Service report issued in April. However, the report said that while birding continues to grow, the pace of growth has eased. That may not qualify as a "dark cloud," but there's no doubt birding is falling short when it comes to attracting youngsters and ethnic minorities.

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If you go

What: Richard Crossley, author and photographer, presented by the DuPage Birding Club
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12
Where: Cantigny Park Visitors Center, 1S151 Winfield Road, Wheaton
Details: Crossley's fast-paced talk will include globe-trotting stories, lessons learned and his dreams for the future; books will be for sale.
Cost: Free admission and parking
Info: dupagebirding.org

Birding can never have enough cheerleaders. We know our hobby is fascinating and fun, but we probably could do a better job of sharing it.

Perhaps nobody embraces that idea with more enthusiasm than Richard Crossley, a popular figure on the national birding scene and best known for his Crossley ID Guide series.

A native of England now living in Cape May, N.J., Crossley will visit here on Thursday, Sept. 12, as a guest of the DuPage Birding Club. All are welcome to attend his presentation at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.

Crossley moved to the U.S. in 1991. He hasn't lost his Yorkshire accent or his memories of hitchhiking 100,000 miles during his youth in pursuit of birds. I asked him whether he still gets the urge to "twitch" a rare bird, such as the rufous-necked wood rail that appeared in New Mexico in July.

"Occasionally I'll chase a bird if it's a plumage or a bird I want to learn more about," Crossley said. "My twitching these days is for photos for my books."

More about the books later, and their development is a great story. But what really excites me about Crossley is his passion for getting more people to try birding. He is absolutely on a mission, and his trusty Nikons are focused on young people in particular.

In 2012, Crossley co-founded Pledge to Fledge, a global outreach aimed at hatching new birders. I like the concept so much that I added the "P2F" banner to the front page of my blog.

The idea is for active birders to inspire a broader public appreciation for birds by sharing their passion with others. It starts at the grassroots level by taking a friend or other non-birder out to see and enjoy birds for the first time.

Crossley says Pledge to Fledge is getting some traction but will take years to build on.

"Mobilizing birders is very difficult," he admits, and recruiting new birders also is challenging.

"We have no household TV celebrities in birding and no TV programs that talk about things people see on a day-to-day basis. Celebrities make things fashionable and most people relate to their stories."

But Crossley is not discouraged.

"The surge in the number of youth birding clubs in the last few years is the big bright spot that will have a huge positive impact. It will also help with our dowdy image."

Crossley and his wife, Debra, provide time and leadership to the Cape May Young Birders Club, which they co-founded. On Oct. 19 the club is hosting a Young Birders Day in cooperation with other youth birding groups. They hope a few members of Illinois Young Birders might be able to attend.

One senses that Crossley's time with the kids has been transformative. Indeed, so has his work on the Crossley ID Guides, the first of which (Eastern Birds) published in 2011. His guide for raptors debuted in April.

The books are quite different than conventional field guides and have caught on fast with birders. Crossley's marketing materials say the guides provide the first real-life approach to identification. Pages feature lifelike scenes with multiple photographic images of the same species, the goal being to match what a birder really sees in the field.

Crossley will discuss his creative process for the ID Guides when he visits Cantigny and perhaps talk about what's next. His website indicates new guides are on the way for British birds and western U.S. birds.

If you have a chance, do take a look at crossleybirds.com. The site includes some excellent short (and funny) videos with Crossley offering specific advice to help us become better birders. You can see the man in action, too, shooting birds through an enormous lens. His energy level in the field is impressive.

"I still feel like I'm 21 years old when I'm out, but I have two teenage daughters who remind me that I'm not," he says.

Richard Crossley obviously enjoys his craft, and the birding community is better for having this former twitcher in its ranks. He's a bookseller, sure, but he's giving the hobby more than he's taking.

"My birding life is totally different to the past. Now it's based on doing things such as creating books that will have an impact. To have an influence on anybody's life has to be one of the greatest gifts anyone can receive."

• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in the Daily Herald. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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