Wildlife

10 Field Guides for the Serious Naturalist

January 21, 2015

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Some field guides that you won't want to leave behind. Photo © Matt Miller/TNC

I’d just as soon leave binoculars and camera at home than head afield without field guides.

I know some now prefer apps: they’re undoubtedly lighter and even allow you to hear bird songs. (And you can check out birder Tim Boucher’s favorite bird apps in our previous blog).

But I still prefer an old-fashioned paper field guide. I love paging through the (often beautiful) illustrations, using the books not only to identify species but to plan future adventures.

Roger Tory Peterson created the first modern field guide in 1934, Guide to the Birds. Before that, naturalists relied on complicated scientific keys. Peterson’s field guide changed natural history and made birding a hobby anyone could enjoy.

Today, field guides exist in an almost mind-boggling variety, covering just about any flora or fauna you’d like to identify.

These guides now take innovative approaches to natural history. Here are ten recent favorites. I’ve focused on North America for this blog, with guides appropriate for a range of skill levels and interests.

Let me know your own favorites in the comments section.

  • The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior

    Illustrated by David Allen Sibley. (Knopf)

    “Life listing” birds can have an unfortunate side: it can reduce birds to mere tokens to be “ticked” in a competitive game. Obsessive birders race around just to notch the most sightings; at its most extreme, it seems to have very little to do with birds.

    This guide – a companion to the popular Sibley Guide to Birds – offers a remedy. It’s a guide to what birds do, encouraging observation of behavior and habits.

    It includes information on taxonomy, food and foraging, breeding, migration and conservation. And it will help you find birds: a lot of the information is loaded with useful tips on where to look for bird species at different times of year.

  • Hummingbirds: A Life-Size Guide to Every Species

    By Michael Fogden, Marianne Taylor & Sheri L. Williamson. (Harper Design)

    I’m not sure if this is a small coffee table book or a field guide. What earned this one a place on this list is its novel approach – the hummingbirds are pictured life sized.

    These smallest of birds lend themselves to such an approach. It covers all the hummingbirds of the Americas, so it could serve as a guide when going to a hummingbird-rich hotspot like Southeast Arizona or Ecuador.

    But it’s also a visual feast, creating a nice reference and a nice book to page through on a wintery evening.

  • The Warbler Guide

    By Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle. (Princeton University Press)

    Even for experienced birders, warblers are difficult to identify. Standard field guides just don’t have enough space to provide all the plumage variations and differences among juveniles and adults.

    This comprehensive book provides just about any view of the 56 North American warblers that you can imagine.

    It represents a useful new approach to birding guides – comprehensive and specific guides that help birders identify particularly difficult groups of birds. There are now guides for shorebirds and raptors and even gulls. If you’ve reached that point in your birding career, these guides can be indispensable.

  • Squirrels of North America

    By Tamara Eder. (Lone Pine Publishing)

    A field guide to squirrels? What could be so difficult about identifying these backyard rodents?

    Actually the North American squirrel family – which includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs and marmots – represents 35 species. Many are found in some of the most scenic and iconic landscapes in the United States.

    Many mammals are nocturnal or highly elusive, which can make keeping a “life list” very difficult (although even that doesn’t deter some enthusiasts). But squirrels are active and highly visible during the day.

    To see all the squirrel species in this book would take you to many of North America’s great national parks and mountain ranges, from Utah’s canyonlands to the Olympic rainforest to Rocky Mountain peaks. And beyond.

  • Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes

    By Lawrence M. Page and Brooks M. Burr. (Peterson Field Guides)

    Increasingly, conservation-minded anglers recognize that a sport fishing mentality emphasizing just a few game fish – brown trout, rainbow trout, largemouth bass – has devastated native fisheries and aquatic habitats.

    Many anglers now recognize that all native fish species have value, and keep life lists of species caught. There are “microfishers” who focus on minnows and other tiny fish, and “rough fishers” who seek out species of sucker and gar.

    Other enthusiasts don’t even catch the fish – they observe them underwater via snorkeling.

    Whatever the case, this book is the best source I’ve found to help you identify this amazing freshwater diversity. Expand your angling horizons and start seeking out the native fish in your area – all far more fascinating than stocked hatchery fish.

  • Dragonflies & Damselflies of the Rocky Mountains

    By Robert DuBois. (Kollath & Stensas Publishing)

    Dragonfly spotting has been called the new birding. Dragonflies are charismatic, they undergo similarly long migrations and they are often found in the same places as birds.

    There are a number of excellent dragonfly spotting guides. I chose this one because it’s the one I use for my backyard and surrounding areas in Idaho.

    It includes excellent photographs as well as key identification features. The Princeton Field Guides Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is similarly excellent. There are also a number of state-specific guides. For birders, Dragonflies through Binoculars applies bird ID techniques to dragonflies.

    So you have many options to help identify these charismatic insects. Pick one and head to your nearest marsh.

  • Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids and Crickets of the United States

    By John L. Capinera, Ralph D. Scott & Thomas J. Walker (Comstock Publishing Associates)

    Crickets and katydids are the evening summer soundtrack for many of us. And there are even interesting citizen science projects around identifying the different katydid calls.

    But really, let’s be honest: If you have this title on your shelf, you are either (a) a professional entomologist or (b) on the lunatic fringe of wildlife watching.

    Still, if you must know what that grasshopper is hopping away, why not go all in and get this comprehensive guide?

    You’ll amaze (or alarm) your friends, and besides, this is a well-done guide with full-color identification of 56 species, as well as information on ecology and behavior.

  • Falcon Nature Guides to National Parks

    By Ann Simpson and Rob Simpson. (Falcon Guides)

    Say you’re heading on a family vacation to a national park. What field guides do you bring? Birds, wildflowers, mammals, reptiles? If you have varied interests, pretty soon you can have a whole library bogging down your daypack.

    A new Falcon Guide series helps solve this problem with a field guide to all the common flora and fauna of specific national parks. Current titles are available for Shenandoah, Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks, as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway.

    These books probably won’t work for the serious life lister, focusing on rarely seen shorebirds or elusive nocturnal mammals. But they provide a great overview for a family vacation, enabling you to identify most of the creatures you’re likely to see.

  • Bison: A Falcon Pocket Guide

    By Jack Ballard. (Falcon Guides)

    This is another interesting approach from Falcon Guides: a field guide to individual species. In addition to bison, the series includes guides to black bears, grizzlies, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and moose.

    Many of these are species you’ll see on national park visits. What I like about this approach is that it encourages park visitors to stop and observe, rather than snap that bison photo and rush onto the next sighting.

     

    The book includes detailed information on the behavior you’re likely to see while observing the herds at Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley or a Rocky Mountain meadow.

    Few people have spent as much time photographing and observing these critters as Jack Ballard, so the slim volumes are packed with useful details.

  • Wildlife of North America: A Naturalist’s Life List

    By Whit Bronaugh. (University Press of Florida)

    Finally, here’s a book to help you track all the interesting species you’ve seen using the guides above.

    This massive tome is about as far from a handy field guide as you can get.

    But it is a complete reference (and check list) of the species you’d commonly track on life lists: birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish, butterflies and dragonflies. It also includes space for notes on each sighting.

    If you’re serious about listing, it offers a useful, old-school format to track your sightings.

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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What are your favorite field guides? Let us know in the comments!

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29 comments

  1. Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers (of Northeastern and North-central North America, Mckenney and Peterson)

    also their one to Trees and Shrubs (Petrides and Peterson)

    Lauren Brown’s Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter.

    Surely you know of one or two about plants? The list in the article/post is not about “nature” but just animals.

    1. Thanks Eve. Yes, I know the list neglected plants. There are so many field guides to choose from, and this list in part represents my own interests. I plan a second edition of this blog that focuses on field guides to plants, fungi, etc.

      1. So agree about the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior! I wish there were more volumes like this. I do hope you follow up with more field guides. I’d like to chime in for plants and mushrooms–Audubon’s Field Guide to Mushrooms is great, as is the Sibley Guide to Trees. And there are some great local guides–101 Trees of Indiana is a wonderful book. Also, Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds has a special place in my heart for its emphasis on ethics in nature appreciation. What a great post and great comments. Will definitely check some of these out.

  2. Flattering though it may be, at least as far as my minimal contribution to the book goes, I was shocked to see Hummingbirds: A Life-Size Guide to Every Species included in a list of field guides.

    This book illustrates less than 80% of the world’s hummingbird species, the rest (including extinct species) being covered in text only. Most are represented by a single photo, including many species in which males and females are dramatically different. Even the “Life-Sized” claim doesn’t hold up, as illustrated by the tiny Rufous Hummingbird appearing larger than the enormous Sword-billed (which would have been a great candidate for a foldout).

    Though it makes a nice addition to the coffee tables and bookshelves of hummingbird enthusiasts and general nature lovers, I sincerely hope that people won’t buy this book expecting an identification guide.

    1. Sheri, in part what I hoped with the blog was to show new & different approaches. Some reference books have also used a field guide format even though you may not carry them in the field on an outing. Another title I originally had — Princeton’s Carnivores of the World — uses field guide format. I doubt many carry it on a trip, but it would be a help in sorting out, say, a confusing mongoose sighting. So…it is a reference but also helps sort out a field sighting. I am sure many of us have multiple guides/references to help sort out confusing species. I included the Hummingbirds for the novelty.

  3. I’m disappointed that neither of the Peterson Field Guides to Reptiles aren’t on here.

    1. George,
      Thanks for the comment. I own both Peterson reptile guides, and the eastern edition was one of the very first field guides I owned as a kid. And I regularly carry/consult the western edition now. There wasn’t enough room for every field guide. I have received many great recommendations so may do another blog on more great field guides.

  4. I thought the addition of one of Crossley’s ID guides would have been nice like this one on Raptors: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9966.html
    Talk about new and different approaches!

    I also like the new Beetle book that’s out: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10218.html

    My favorite field guide is Sibley’s Eastern Birds – my very used and tattered book is a testament to how much I carry it in the field, even when in my local haunts. It’s great to show people on the trail what bird you’re looking at.

  5. An Eclectic Guide to Trees East of the Rockies and Weeds of the Woods, both by Glen Blouin and Forest Trees of Maine: Centennial Edition by the Maine Forest Service for trees and shrubs. Marine Life of the North Atlantic: Canada to New England by Andrew J. Martinez. Bird of North America Golden Guide. Those are my favorites, and as a park ranger in Maine, they’re all in use all the time.

  6. For addressing the title of specifically field guides here are a few of my favourites:
    -Beetles of NA by Evans
    -Sibley Field guide to birds (either east/west or all of NA)
    -Sibley Field Guide to trees of NA
    -Forest plants of central Ontario by Chambers (pretty region specific)
    -Butterflies of NA by Kaufman
    -Mosses of Northeast by McKnight
    -Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes region by harding
    Those are just a few of my favourite ones but as for the serious aspect of this article here are what I call the best in their class although they are less field guide based and more manuals to be used on your own time outside of the field after specimens have been collected. They also all feature dichotomous keys which is essential for any serious naturalist.
    -Dragonflies of NA by Needham (there is also a damselfly version) one of the best guides I’ve ever seen, although very hard to get ahold of and quite pricy (easily worth the price). This guide can also help you identify any nymph to species level with phenomenal keys. Easily the best in its class. Also has amazing pictures in keys.
    -Manual of Vascular Plants by Gleason (southern ontario-michigan region mostly) This is another amazing but quite pricy book. It is simply amazing though and the best in its class for proficient ID. Once again important to note only for advanced/serious naturalists as it has 0 pictures unless you buy the accompanying illustrated guide. (Flora of alberta by moss is similar in quality but specific to AB region
    -Also on another note my favourite books for wild edibles are easily The Foragers Harvest and Natures Garden by Thayer (could not recommend these enough for anyone interested in wild edibles)
    -Lichens of North America by Brodo. Simply a masterpiece. I dare you to find a review that is not good. Once again though very advanced and quite pricey.
    Once again these are just a select few there are tons out there for every order,family, genus or even just species. Also my collection is far away from where I am right now and I could easily write pages on the top guides/manuals. If you have any questions about any of them or any field guides on specific topics feel free to ask or feel free to suggest more options. Finally not all the titles I put are exact and I may have spelling mistakes in authors names so sorry for that.

    1. I second the Beetles of North America!!!! (notice all the explammation marks?)

      With there being so many species of arthropods in the world, you really need a good field guide that focuses in on a particular order, such as beetles, dragonflies, butterflies.

  7. […] There is no book closer to my heart than a good field guide these days. Here is a great list of particularly helpful general and a few extremely specific ones. http://blog.nature.org/science/2015/01/21/best-fieild-guides-birding-naturalist-wildlife-insects-fis… […]

  8. I grew up with a Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America. Heartbroken when I lost it! But it was always handy when someone unusual made an appearance in the back yard (like a peregrine falcon who had caught a pigeon and was eating it on a branch near the house!).

  9. Love the Sibley. And a squirrel guide! That’s a new one for me. I will have to check it out.

  10. Several items on the list are geared towards the western states and not the entire US. Looks like he could make a list for the eastern states as well as there are guides out there for both since many of the species are different from one coast to the other.

  11. The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada (Heyday Books) is wonderful because comprehensive on species, from trees to fungi to birds to plants — and because Laws is an artist, he teaches discernment so well, including how to key a plant.

    The California Natural History Guides (UC Press) are the most amazing collection of field guides! Many are devoted to single taxa — excellent spiders, excellent bees, excellent shorebirds, for example — but then they also publish “introductions” to various features and processes of the landscape. A wonderful writer, David Carle, is responsible for UC Press guides to air, fire, water, and earth! Every state or ecoregion should have their own set of these guide books.

  12. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior is my favorite since being a birder in Kenya i am interested in learning more about bird behavior. i strongly believe that this field guide being from a practicing naturalist is rich with practical information on birds behavior. i would love to have it.
    that guide on grasshoppers appears to be rich with information. In Kenya such guides are scarce. i would love to use this one too

  13. Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeastern Ohio. A well organized, comprehensive guide. Applies to more than Ohio. Stunning photography. Published by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
    Larry O. Rosche and Judy Semroc.

  14. I would like to share a recent observation and get your feedback
    I am seeing some changes in nature here in Arizona taking place that are very disturbing
    I am in a position to see things that others might not notice…
    Swimming pools are traps for insects… I have always scooped insects up from the surface of pools and tried to save their lives…Pools have always been traps full of insects… Recently there are no insects in these traps…They are literally gone.. The pools are literally crystal clear
    When I was in the pool yesterday… One bird flew over during my entire ¾ hour swim. I am seeing fewer and fewer birds around.. I am concluding the humans are far more adaptable to climate change than small creatures (such as insects)…The smaller the creature the less adaptable it probably is..…. The smaller the creature the more important they are to mother nature’s food chain.. The gurus talk about how life in the oceans is impacted by changes of 1 or 2 degrees… The insect size creatures around us in Arizona are impacted by recent climate changes of 10 degrees or more…
    I went out this morning and sat by the pool…. In one half hour I saw 3 birds… One was a bird of prey looking for the same thing I was looking for ..other birds… In this amount of time I could usually spot dozens of birds… It seems that the insect eaters are disappearing
    We tend to think in terms of human adaptability to climate change.. We may have to change our perspective.. I hope there is another answer to what I have observed, but I have to think that the bottom of the food chain is not adapting to the drastic climate changes we are experiencing..