Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book Review: Waterbirds, by Theodore Cross

Today's book review is on a magnificent collection of beautiful images and exciting adventures in pursuit of birds - compiled by the late Theodore Cross whose life accomplishments would be proud achievements for a college's alumni, let alone one person.  He was an advisor to the White House, a distinguished professor on minority economics and law at Harvard, Cornell and the University of Virginia.  He was a trustee for the NAACP legal defense fund and Amherst college and still found time (a lot of it) for birds.  Perhaps he was trying to play catchup as he paid little attention to our feathered friends for the first 40 years of his life (not unlike author Luke Dempsey).  But once he "caught the bug" he literally went to the edges of the world to pursue their beauty.

I was fortunate enough to receive Waterbirds as a gift for Christmas from my thoughtful brother and his wife.  He had heard an interview on NPR with Mr. Cross (listen / read here: Extreme Birding) about this book and promptly went out and purchased it for his budding photographer brother.  I must say, it's one of the best presents to date I've received and easily the best book I've unwrapped on Christmas morning. This collection is massive (in depth and weight - reading this book is an exercise for the mind and the arms!) and covers decades worth of birding adventures - each of which is accompanied by amazing photos.  When I say that the photos are amazing - there is no exaggeration.  I'd be happy to stamp my name on any of them, but when you consider the vast majority were taken in the pre-digital, pre-photoshop, pre-memory card days you begin to understand how much talent and passion was really involved.

Theodore's favorite type of birds are the water lovers and livers (hence the title).  From Snowy Egrets to Snow Geese, from the understatedly beautiful Willet, White Tern and Whimbrel to more showy and aptly named Reddish Egrets and the Purple Gallinule, if a bird was dependent on water for life, Theodore Cross would stop at nothing to see and photograph one of God's wonders.  While many of the pages are filled with a beautiful image matched with a brief but in-depth description of the species, the author takes many opportunities to tell the stories behind the photos.  The most incredible story and adventure involves the Ross's Gull.  For those of you who don't know, you may think what could be so "incredible" about a Gull, well I'll leave it up to the author to lead you down that path as he is a much better story teller than myself.  But his pursuit involves helicopter rides in Eastern Siberia, mosquitoes that could suck you dry in minutes and 100 degree temperatures - the ending of this story is a hard irony which many of you will be able to relate to (almost certainly on a much smaller scale).

I can only hope that at the end of my life journey I will have a collection of photos that could be compared to that of Theodore Cross's.  In this entire volume there are pictures that would make you say, "Oh, that's a nice picture of that species".  There are no ID photos - no snapshots.  No, each image is a work of art that can stand on its own, which is wildly enhanced with Mr. Cross's words.  He makes Great Blue Herons look as wild and rare as a Crested Auklet.  If there was ever one book to buy it would be this one.  Don't be surprised if you find yourself spending hours staring at the images... turning the giant pages in excitement to see what is next. The price of the book is steep - but this is the type of book that will hold a prominent place on your book shelf and not collect dust under a pile of tired and worn old field guides.

For a quick obituary from NPR click here: Ted Cross - White House Advisor / Birder

For a short overview of the book from the NY times go here: "Waterbirds" by Theodore Cross

To purchase the book and read more reviews, please click the image/link below.

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