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Nature Field Guides

Of the many excellent field guides, choose the one that best suits your own style of observing and thinking about nature. Choose a series you like, and then choose others in the same series.

Two Approaches, Plus My Approach Birds Wildflowers Butterflies Trees Reptiles and Amphibians Mushrooms In-Page Navigation, Nature Guides Page
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Two Approaches, Plus My Approach

There are two general approaches to nature field guides, each with their advantages and disadvantages. To these, I will add my own personal approach.

The subject-focused approach seems to be the most successful, from a publisher's perspective. These are field guides that concentrate on a particular kind of nature study - birds, trees, mammals, etc. These kind of field guides usually come in series, as discussed in the next section. The advantage to this kind of field guide is that it is very comprehensive, covering everything you'll want to know about that subject while out on the hiking trail. The disadvantage is that, in order to cover all aspects of nature that you will encounter on your hike, you have to carry a small library with you.

The locality-focused approach includes very many titles, none of which is very widely published. These are field guides that concentrate on a particular region, or even a more specific place. They cover the gamut of sciences and field observations - geology, wildflowers, birds, invertebrates - for a particular place. The advantage of this kind of field guide is that you have fewer books to carry with you. The disadvantage is that each subject tends to be covered rather lightly, and you are likely to observe some things that are not covered in the book.

My own approach, developed over years of experience, leverages technology to get the best of both general approaches. Traditionalists may shudder, but I say, use technology if there is a real benefit. So, I have a good, comprehensive library of easy-to-use field guides, plus lots of other reference materials, enough to require a small pack mule to bring them on hikes. But all I carry is a decent digital camera. I leave the books at home, and identify trees, birds, butterflies, and wildflowers by comparing the pictures I took with the information in the field guides. Of course, if you really want to take the best possible advantage of this approach, you need to be familiar with the kinds of information the field guides will describe. No good to return from a hike and realize that the field guide says you can tell species X from species Y by the difference in the undersides of the leaves. but your photos don't show that part of the plant. So study the field guides, take a hike, then come home and study the field guides some more. Works for me!

All of the well-known and good-quality field guides come in sets. A given publisher will put out a guide to every aspect of nature you can think of, and then some, and make sure that they all have a similar "look and feel." They also make sure that the authors and photographers are expert in the subject matter, and excellent in the art of explaining the subject matter.

The result of all this is that, once you have chosen a field guide you like for one subject, you can easily find one you like for the next subject to catch your interest.

My own personal favorite series is the National Audubon Society's Field Guides. They are among the oldest, most authoritative, and most respected publishers of books and other materials about nature. I can't say anything bad about their similarly prestegious competitors - Peterson's comes to mind - but I have gotten used to the National Audubon Society's books. This is what I'm familiar with, and I'm here to tell you what I know about.

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Field Guides to Birds

My copy of The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds has a lot of miles on it. It's soaked up enough rain and baked in enough sunshine that I'm afraid to turn its pages sometimes. (Maybe it's time to buy the latest edition?)

Fortunately, this book is designed to take some punishment. It is printed on durable, thick, reasonably water-resistant paper, and bound in a very tough plastic cover. The cover resembles leather, but is thinner and more resistant to cycles of wet and dry. The size and shape of the book is designed to fit easily into the outer pocket of a day-pack.

This field guide is layed out in a very intuitive format, with color plates in the front section and a quick index to more details in the main section. The color plates are organized first by the general types of birds, then, for the larger groups, by color. And the "types" are not strictly scientific taxonomy, but more field-observer-friendly groupings by behavior - duck-like birds, perching birds, birds that creep on tree bark, etc. - or by very obvious physical features, such as long-legged birds.

The photographs are most excellent. They're not works of art, of course, but they are composed in such a way as to help you identify the bird. That's what they're for, and they do it very well. Similarly, the text descriptions are very informative, giving first emphasis on the information most helpful to identification and distinguishing one species from other similar species, and yet still providing a wealth of information that is simply interesting.

In order to cut down on the size of the book, it is published in two volumes, one for the eastern region and one for the west. Naturally, there is a huge amount of overlap, and probably most birds in one volume are also in the other. Unless you do a lot of traveling across North America, you only need one or the other of these volumes.

You will become familiar with this guide with very little practice. Read through some of the general information about what the various parts of the bird are called (does that bird have a red crest or a red nape?), and page through the color plates so you know which kinds and which colors of birds are where, and you'll be identifying new birds out in the woods in no time.

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Field Guides to Wildflowers

Like their field guides to birds, The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers is a most excellent, easy to use guide. My copy is a veteran of uncountable miles on the trail.

The binding and materials are identical to the other volumes in the series, so you know it can stand up to long, hard use in the outdoors.

The layout is the same, consisting of color plates in the front indexed to detailed text descriptions in the main section of the book. The color plates are organized by the general appearance of the flower - Round clusters, elongated clusters, odd-shaped flowers, etc. - then by color.

Like the bird guide, this book is published in two volumes, one for the eastern region and one for the western region. Again, there is much overlap, and you only need the volume that covers your area, unless you travel broadly.

Familiarize yourself with the information in the book before you head out to the field. You will quickly find that it is important to know a bract from a sepal if you want to identify flowers, and this book will help you do it. (It's easy, with a good guide.)

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Field Guides to Butterflies

Following the same format as the other guides from the National Audubon Society, The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies is a durable and thoroughly usable identification guide to these beautiful insects.

Just reading the book, you will learn things about butterflies (and moths) than you never imagined. Once you familiarize yourself with the layout, and with the kinds of details you have to look for, you'll be ready to identify any butterfly out there.

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Field Guides to Trees

We take them for granted, but there wouldn't be a forest without them! Of course, even to the casual observer, trees come in many different kinds, but you really never know just how many kinds until you take the time to look closely. And to know exactly what to look for in order to tell one species from another, you need a good guide.

The National Audubon Society delivers with The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. Following the usual format, this guide is a rugged, compact manual with color plates at the front, divided into obvious sections by type of tree, plus tremendous and fascinating detail in the main section.

And you might never know it until you begin studing them, but there are so many different species of trees in North America that the society divided this field guide into separate volumes for eastern and western regions.

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Field Guides to Reptiles and Amphibians

The lowly cold-blooded vertebrates hold more fascination than you might expect. Unfortunately for me, I live in a relatively herptile-poor region of North America. Rarely do I encounter a snake, frog, or toad that I don't recognize immediately without the help of a field guide. Fortunately, The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians covers the entire continent, so I can bring this single field guide wherever I go in the U.S., including such reptile paradises as the southwestern deserts and the southeastern swamps. (Well, unfortunately, my business no longer takes me out on the road very often, but one of these days, ...)

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Field Guides to Mushrooms

Well, maybe it's just the nature of the subject matter, but frankly, I never really got into this one. Yes, walking through the woods and fields, I would be interested to know what kind of bracket fungus this is, or whether those not-quite-identical mushrooms are two phases of the same thing or two separate species. However, when I started reading this "field guide" and found that you often have to bring a mushroom home and study the pattern of spores it sheds onto a piece of paper, I found the limits of my curiosity. I'll tell you the truth: My copy of The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms is probably the least-worn nature guide in my collection.

The book is as sturdy and compact as any in this series. I'm sure it will stand up to a lot of heavy use in adverse weather conditions.

The layout is quite similar to the other National Audubon Society guides - Color plates in the front indexed to detailed text in the main section - but I find it cumbersome. Again, it's probably not a cumbersome book, but a cumbersome subject that does not lend itself to true field-based study.

Try it yourself, and if you find you enjoy the subject, knock yourself out. Speaking for myself, I use this book in a very superficial manner. If I find I can't distinguish this mushroom from among three species without dissecting it, I satisfy myself that it's one of those three species and leave it at that.

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