Thursday, January 13, 2011

My Guide to Field Guides and Journals

I did this post a while back on a now defunct blog.  I was pretty happy with it so I’d thought I resurrect it here. The post is about my choices in field guides for identifying flora and fauna while out in the field.  In it I explore print media, free on-line sources, and also show some of the ways that I use to help me ID plants and animals that are new to me.  

Print Media
There are a wealth of books out there that cover plant and wildlife identification in very broad terms covering entire continents such as the Sibley Guide to Birds to highly specialized books that focus on one family, or species like Stokes Field Guide to Warblers. Selection of a good field guide depends entirely on what you...(wait for it!).... want to identify in the field!  If you are interested in birds alone, pick out a book that covers birds in your region (i.e., Western U.S., or Eastern U.S., etc...).  A little later I will give my recommendations for the series of books that I use.  At this point I would like to give a disclaimer; this is an opinion piece.  These are the books that I prefer to use.  I strongly dislike some books that people better at identification swear by (I am thinking of the Audubon and Peterson guides send hate mail here(include link for email address, do research and find what works for you.  I suggest going to your local library and to check out book layouts.  If they don’t have the ones you are looking for try getting them through a inter-library loan.

OK, so now to the subject.

For birds I have a couple of recommendations.  For a true field guide I carry the Kaufman Guide to Birds of North America.  I like the Kaufman Guide because of the artwork.  Rather than artists renditions, they are digital photographs, which I find a little more useful in the field.  There are other books in the Kaufman Guides series now covering insects and mammals and that are of the same high quality as the bird guide.  I’ve looked at them but have not purchased them yet.

You’ll notice above I mention Kaufman being a “true field guide”.  By that I mean it’s reasonably sized to be comfortably carried in the field either in a day-pack, shoulder bag, or if you’re built like me, a cargo pocket.  For my “desk guide”  I use the The Sibley Guide to Birds.  The Sibley guides are excellent and go above and beyond simple bird ID by including text on bird behaviors that you may observe.  The wealth of information included in the Sibley books make them a touch prohibitive for use in the field, but they make a great reference to cross check your findings once you are home.

For plants the books I prefer are a bit specialized and focus on the tallgrass prairies because of my location.  I don’t use an ID book for trees because I was taught those by my Grandpa and Dad growing up.  The prairie book I use is the Falcon guide Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers.  It is broken up by the colors of the flowers rather than my families which makes it nice for beginners.

When it comes to wild edibles I have to go with Sam Thayer’s Foragers Harvest.  I have been lucky enough to meet Mr. Thayer on a couple of occasions through work and the man knows his stuff backwards and forwards.  Mr. Thayer’s books are focused on the Upper Midwest, but a lot of the plants he covers can be found throughout North America.  The layout of the book, the text, and the art work are the best and most concise I’ve ever seen in a book on wild edibles.

Budget Buys
I, like many others in the survival/bushcraft world, tend to be a touch on the frugal side.  So I thought I might take a moment here to endorse some books you can get on a budget.  For a great source of field guides that can easily fit in your back pocket I recommend the small Golden Guide.  There is a Golden Guide for just about every thing you could come across on a hike, day or night such as; insects, birds, trees, flowers, stars, weather, geology, weather, and the list goes on.

One of my favorite desk references, and one of the most important books in my life, is the Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife.  I can remember a copy of this sitting on a shelf in my Grandma’s living room.  I always loved to sit on the floor in front of the kerosene heater on winter evenings after a night of coon hunting and just pouring over the pages.  I think I can safely credit this book with a good portion of my interest in the natural world.

By searching around you can get these guides at very reasonable rates.  If you are a patient lot and as thrifty as I am I recommend setting up an account over at  When you set up your account you will get two credits to order books for free; after that you have to mail books out to receive credits (one credit per book).  All you have to do is pay the media mail postage.  You can pay your postage in advance on the site and then print your mailing label with postage right at home.  It isn’t as always as convenient as ordering from an on-line book seller, or going to a local bookstore, but it is low cost and sort of adventurous.  When you set up the wish lists of books you are looking for you receive an e-mail notifying you if one of them has been posted then you just request it and it will be mailed out to you.  You never know when that book you’ve been trying to find will suddenly be within your grasp.

On-line Resources
If you are R-E-A-L-L-Y cheap and aren’t looking to shell out money there are a wealth of websites out there that are very useful for plant and animal ID.  This is all the better you you are tech savvy and have an internet capable phone.  Below you will find a list of my preferred websites and a terse description of what you can find there.

Animal Diversity Web is a excellent source put together from reaserch done by students at the University of Michigan.  Lots of in-depth information no all aspects of the ecological niche’s that animals hold.

eNature is a loss scholarly website geared more towards the layperson interested in animals in there area.  At eNature you can search plants and animals that can appear in your zipcode.  

All About Birds is one of my favorite websites, largely because I love to identify birds.  All About Birds is run by the prestigious Cornell Lab of Ornithology so you can count on the validity of the information you will glean from there site.

American Mushrooms is a site maintained by mycologist an author, David Fischer.   The site has ton of rich photography an text on every fungi imaginable.  Mr. Fischer has also been very good about IDing photos of fungi that I have sent him via e-mail, which is listed on the site.

Kansas Wildflowers is a great place to ID a lot of grasses, flowers and trees, even if you are not from Kansas.  Most of the plants listed on the site occur in my native state of Iowa, and there for can be found across a wide expanse of the Midwest. The site is affiliated with Kansas State University.

Insect Identification is a site I just stumbled across in writing this post.  I had been using a different site for a few years, but i always found it a bit cumbersome to navigate.  In the brief while that I have been looking over Insect Identification it seems that a lot of the problems with my old standby have been worked out.  I am happy about this...

The Importance of Field Notes
When I go hiking I don’t like to carry a ton of ID books with me because of the added weight.  If I carry any ID books at all it will usually be my bird book, or maybe my wild edibles book if I’m on a foraging expedition for new food stuffs.  Instead of carrying a book to ID each new thing I may come across I have taken to carrying a couple of small notebooks that I use for sketching and note taking.  I have found that this technique has greatly improved my powers of observation when traversing the wilds.  

I carry a small Moleskin notebook and pen in my shirt pocket where ever I go.  All day, every day.  Lot’s of important people have done so,  just look here. Then in my satchel (It’s a satchel, not a purse.  Indiana Jones carries a satchel.) I carry and unlined hardcover notebook that I picked up at a local art supply store.  It has a small elastic strap you hold it shut, and a loop on the side where I keep my pencil.

In addition to my satchel notebook I carry an inexpensive set of water colors.  I started out with a set marketed towards children and I had really good luck with it, like this Belted kingfisher.  I purchased my first set of water colors at the lowest possible price for fear I would royally suck at it.   I have since purchased a nicer, yet still modestly priced set of water colors from a company called Reeves.  This kit was appealing to be because of the nice mix of colors it has and it had white, which I have found to be useful for blending and muting colors, etc.

To demonstrate some of the different ways I use field sketches and notes I have included a few of the things I have done over the last few years.  Each sketch was selected to highlight different mediums and different attributes to look for when sketching.

Sketch 1:Pencil Sketch of Bird
I was leading a hike in western Iowa for a group of grade schoolers focusing on Lewis & Clark and the journals they kept when an unidentified bird lit into the top of a nearby tree.  TEACHABLE MOMENT!!!  I deftly reached into my ever present satchel and grabbed my trusty notebook an whipped up this sketch.  I made notes as to field marks that i knew would probably appear in my bird book back home. I promised the kids I would e-mail their teacher when i knew what it was and we continued on our hike.  Upon returning home I was able to easily identify the bird I saw as a Harris Sparrow.

Harris Sparrow
Sketch 2: Pen Sketch of Hawk Tail

One day while my assistant and I were scouting some areas for potential prescribed fires she spotted an unidentified hawk circling above us. As I stared at the distant hawk through my binoculars (don’t scrimp on your optics, cut cost elsewhere) I looked for an distinguishing markings like the shape and length of the wings and tail, and markings on the birds chest.  What stood out most of all was the hawks tail.  So I sketched it in my Moleskin notebook/planner and sketched it.  I also jotted a note next to the picture that the hawk in question was a “Buteo”.  Buteo’s are soaring hawks that have relatively long wings, and short tails that specialize in hunting over open ground.  The “opposite” of a buteo is an accipiter, which generally have short wings and long tails and specialize in hunting in forest environments.

I bring this up because while the hawk in question had the body type of a buteo, and was soaring high above a grassland the tail was marked with distinctive bands, a trait common among accipiters.  Needless to say I was intrigued.  When I was able to look the bird up I learned it was a buteo that has adapted to forest hunting.  Hence the crossover markings on a buteo body of the Broad Winged Hawk.

Broad Winged Hawk Tail Detail
Sketches 3-4: Pencil and Watercolor Plants
Here, side by side, you can see how adding water colors to a sketch can really make a difference when IDing a plant.  Both drawings were done with a No. 2 pencil with notes pointing to where certain colors appear on the plant.  The drawing on the left is a Prairie Larkspur and the one on the right is Toothed Evening Primrose.
Left:Prairie Larkspur Right:Toothed Evening Primrose
Sketch 5: Pencil and Watercolor Bird
Finally I have included an example of a practice painting I did in my kitchen.  I sat down with my bird book and my paints and chose to do a Black-Throated Blue Warbler.  As with any skill it is important to practice to keep yourself sharp.  It’s not always easy to go birdwatching (i.e. the birds are out when the 11 month old is napping, etc.),  so I cross train.  When I can’t make it out I spend time looking over field guides memorizing characteristics and range maps.
Black-Throated Blue Warbler
I hope that this post will be helpful to beginners and experts by showing just some of the resources out there.  I believe that survival is all about observation, and awareness of your surroundings, and that it is arguably the most important skill to have.  Get guide books you are comfortable with, get a note book and a pencil, start taking notes, and sketching.  Paint a picture of a flower.  You will notice intricacies you never before noticed and I believe it will open your eyes and your heart to a world around you that you may have missed.   I hope that you will share your ideas about field guides that I have missed and that it will open a dialog about perception and awareness as it pertains to bushcraft and survival.