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Choosing & Using Wildlife Field Guides


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You’ve made the decision to learn more about nature, to move past the generalities of “pine trees" and “songbirds" and learn the specific names of various species, as well as something about their life cycle and their place in your habitat. How do you begin.

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Choosing & Using Wildlife Field Guides

  1. 1. You’ve made the Choosing & Using decision to learn more about nature, to move past the generalities of “pine trees" and Field Guides “songbirds" and learn the specific names of For more nature habitat information various species, as well Visit these helpful websites: as something about A Plants Home their life cycle and their A Birds Home place in your habitat. A Homesteaders Home How do you begin. U nless you are lucky enough to have a mentor who will take you into the woods and share years of accumulated knowledge with you, it is likely that you are going to turn to field guides for help. The number and variety of these guides on the market today is astounding. This wealth of information is certainly wonderful, but it can also be overwhelming. The trick is not in finding a guidebook, but in finding the right guidebook for your needs and your learning style. Finding a Field Guide Finding field guides is as easy as a trip to the local bookstore or library. If you travel, you will often find books geared specifically to each geographical area, and these can add a lot of interest to your trip. Nature centers are a good source of guides, wildlife magazines suggest many mail- order sources, and most large© WindStar Wildlife Institute Page 1 A Plants Home
  2. 2. cities now have at least one necessarily match the photo “...each plant is unique; store devoted to nature and unless you are looking at it at each has its own stories, wildlife. the same time of year and at legends, and the same point in its life cycle. superstitions and its Nurseries frequently offer own uses for medicine, field guides to plants, and your food, magic or beauty – in Drawings or paintings, on the local County Extension Service short, each has its own other hand, generally include or Government Printing Office folklore. Learning this the flower, leaves, seed are other sources of folklore is an excellent capsules, and other distinctive information, as are botanical way to begin to truly characteristics and are useful gardens and special interest know the plants – their no matter what time of year organizations, such as native nicknames and proper you begin your search. plant societies. names, their virtues and uses, and their tales and Ideally, your personal library legends." Don’t neglect the children’s should eventually include both area of the bookstore or library. – Wildflower Folklore types of guidebooks. Although guides designed for Laura Martin younger readers won’t go into Those books which rely on as much detail, they are a great photographs are often arranged way to get the whole family according to dominant colors. little printed material available. involved and often have larger, For example, a wildflower guide clearer illustrations than adult Most sites will also suggest might be broken down into links to additional resources. books. In this electronic age, action Additionally, check out the Tree Shapes categories marked “Nature and sound can become part of Writing" or “Ecology." While not your guides when you choose videos, CD ROM’s, or cassettes. Pyramidal Conical Columnar traditional field guides, these books often offer not only methods of identification, but also a sense of humanity’s Choosing a Field Guide relationship to nature. Here you Most guidebooks are can find such diverse topics as illustrated, but some use Native American uses for photographs (generally in color) plants, wildflower folklore, while others rely on drawings Spreading Vase-shaped conservation efforts on public (sometimes in color). Both have lands, or ways to use your their merits. knowledge of nature to develop survival skills. Some people, especially beginning naturalists, find it If you have access to the easier to recognize a specimen Internet, whether at home or from a photograph, and feel Broad Rounded through computers at the more comfortable with color library, you will discover a wealth pictures because they “look of online field guides. These can real." These do, however, have be especially helpful when their limitations. researching a subject such as dragonflies where there are The field specimen you are –Audubon Society, many family members yet very trying to identify won’t Field Guide to North American Trees© WindStar Wildlife Institute Page 2 A Plants Home
  3. 3. “yellow flowers," “red flowers," that you just want to identify good chance that you will get and so on. Once again, this is those species in your own area, only a fleeting glimpse of a bird good for the naturalist who is then a regional guide will simplify in constant motion. In that relying on more obvious your task by eliminating the case you need a guide which is characteristics to make the butterflies which aren’t likely to small and portable but which identification, and can work well be found in your backyard. clearly indicates specific if used during the blooming identifying characteristics, plus season. Seasonal guides may also be of offers good information on interest to you. Some books habitat and song. Other guides are grouped by specialize, for instance, in field species which have similar marks available in winter, such as Beginners will be more characteristics, and still others tree bark or animal tracks, while concerned about general by “families" which are arranged others highlight autumn traits appearance, while those who are alphabetically by their Latin like leaf color, seed pods, and more experienced will look for in- names. fruit. Habitat-based guides can depth material such as be helpful too, concentrating on illustrations of alternate Generally the common names specific surroundings, such as plumage (on younger birds, will also be listed in the index, wetlands or deserts. adults in different seasons, but these can be unreliable etc.). since they often vary from When choosing a field guide, region to region in the country. think about how you intend to Obviously, the more The Latin names, or “scientific use it. If you are interested in information on each species nomenclature," may seem bird identification and will do that is included, the less intimidating at first, but they most of your bird watching from portable the book will be. As a become more familiar with use your picture window, with the rule, the best time to identify and can offer a surprising same birds repeatedly visiting wildlife is in the field, while you amount of information on their your feeders, then you will be able are looking at the specimen own about each species. to study them in a more leisurely and can check details, so at manner, gradually absorbing the least one of your guides Using Latin names will also details of their appearance. should be pocket-sized. make it easier to be sure that you are looking up exactly the On the other hand, if you’re As you think about how you’ll same species in different books. walking in the woods there is a be using your guide, give each Another consideration is the scope of the guide. You will find that some books cover the world, while others concentrate Parts of a Bird on North America, and still others narrow their view to a specific state or region. If you are fascinated by butterflies and love seeing the variety that nature has provided, then you might enjoy a guide that illustrates those insects from all over the world. If, however, you have decided – Stokes, Field Guide to Birds© WindStar Wildlife Institute Page 3 A Plants Home
  4. 4. book a test. Choose a species Virtually all field guides, hand lens (magnifying glass, 6X that you already know, pretend regardless of subject matter, to 10X magnification). that you have spotted it for the will include for each example first time, and see how easy it the size, color, habitat, range Birds are often too far away to is to “identify" with each book. (where it is found), appearance see details clearly with the Use the same example for all at different times of the year, naked eye, and small wildflowers the books that you are food or soil preferences, and can often only be differentiated considering. It is likely that you some remarks about similar- by very tiny characteristics. will find variations in how quickly looking species. There are small binoculars on the you are able to eliminate the market which will focus at closer “wrong" species, the helpfulness Most will also have a section distances, making them handy of the illustrations, the amount on “How to Use This Guide." It is for studying butterflies and of information about the worth taking the time to read other insects, and magnifying species, and the general level of these pages, because they will lenses which fold up into cases comfort that you feel while include the symbols and so that they are easier to carry using the book. abbreviations used in the text, in a pocket. information on how the book is As a rule, the quickest arranged, charts showing the It is best to do your identification takes place when labeled parts of the wildlife or identification in the field but, if all the information about each plants upon which the book is that isn’t possible, plant species – picture, range, and based, often an illustration of material can be saved in your information – is located on a the various species in book or a plant press and single page. Don’t be silhouette, and a wealth of brought home for further study. discouraged if it seems to take other material, including a long time to make an suggestions for additional Include as many parts of the identification when you first reading. plant as possible (stem or twig, begin. Practice is the best leaf, blossom) and make notes teacher, and soon you’ll find As you about other characteristics that you can more quickly explore your (bark, soil, fruit). narrow your choices. environment, it will be very Never take plants which are Using a Field Guide helpful to endangered, and don’t take Before going out in the field, have both a good set of samples when there are only a be sure that you are familiar binoculars (at least 7x35, which few of them growing in a given with the appearance of plants means a magnification of 7 area. In those instances, a to avoid, in particular poison ivy, through a 35 mm lens), plus a photograph is a much better poison oak, poison sumac, and alternative. In addition, as you Stinging Nettle. study your specimen, be careful Poison Ivy where you put your feet and your Never eat any fruit or equipment, taking care not to mushrooms unless you are crush surrounding vegetation. certain beyond any possible doubt that what you are eating When studying wildlife, keep a isn’t poisonous. Don’t rely on respectful distance away to be wildlife for clues as to safety. sure that your presence doesn’t One of the favorite foods of scare the animal, and also that many birds is Poison-ivy berries! it doesn’t alert potential Be sure to teach your children predators to a nest or other the same safely rules. – Golden Guide, Weeds hiding place. The most© WindStar Wildlife Institute Page 4 A Plants Home
  5. 5. important part of studying can be helpful when you try to Nature identification relies nature is learning to respect remember what you have seen, as much on eliminating and care for it. and they can also be used to possibilities as it does on educate others. matching up characteristics. If Taking notes on what you you are trying to identify a identify will both enhance your As you work with your field tree with deeply lobed leaves, enjoyment and increase your guides, you will start to learn you might first eliminate all learning. You might want to jot what characteristics are most those without similar leaves, things down in the margins of helpful when attempting to and then consider more your book or keep a separate identify a species. detailed characteristics journal, but it is definitely among the species that worth establishing the habit of For example, a beginner seeing remain. Many plant guides are keeping records. a bird usually notices the color set up in this manner, asking first, and perhaps the general you to make a series of choices Your notes should include size. The experienced bird which will gradually narrow your the species, whether it is male watcher knows that search to just a few possible or female (if appropriate), identification is easier if one has matches. where you found it, the date, taken note of smaller the surrounding habitat, and characteristics, such as eye As you gain in knowledge, you any unusual characteristics or rings, head patches, and beak will probably find that you want behavior. Start to notice shape. more than one field guide for patterns. Looking back over each category that you’re your notes will give you a Similarly when studying studying. Take your time and deeper appreciation for the flowers, the color of the blossom build your library gradually, cycles of nature as you realize, may catch your eye, but you’ll making notes on what you have for example, that a quickly learn to notice the found helpful in your current hummingbird reappears at your number of petals and the type guide, and what you wish it feeder on the same date each and placement of the leaves. offered in additional material. year. Which Guide To Buy Unlike humans, the rest of When all is said and done, Leaf Arrangement& Types nature responds to an eternal, which field guide is the best. Alternate Opposite Whorled unchanging clock, and that can As you may have gathered, be very reassuring to those of there is no definitive answer to us dependent on the that question. Your own sometimes whimsical and ever- experiences will ultimately changing demands of work and Palmately determine the best books for family. Simple Compound your needs. Don’t stop with just keeping In the meantime, the a written record of your following series of guides come discoveries. There are many highly recommended by many ways to “collect" nature as you Even-pinnately nature lovers and would be a compound learn about it. Taking pictures good place to start: is an obvious choice, and you might decide to create a • Stokes Odd- series of specialty albums – pinnately Bipinnately • National Geographic compound mushrooms, animal tracks, compound • Peterson seed pods, and so on. These – Golden Field Guide, Trees of North America • Audubon© WindStar Wildlife Institute Page 5 A Plants Home
  6. 6. Most botanists and more RESOURCES advanced naturalists also recommend Newcomb’s Books Wildflower Guide for its s Butterflies Through Binoculars, nearly foolproof key system. Jeffrey Glassberg While not a traditional field s Mushrooms of North America, guide, Mary Blocksma’s book, Orson K. Miller Naming Nature, A Seasonal Guide for the Amateur s Common Plants of the Naturalist will be very Mid-Atlantic Coast, Gene Silberhorn inspiring. The author begins: “One day I was gazing out my s North American Wildlife, Reader’s Digest window at a stretch of trees when I was suddenly struck s Owls, An Introduction for the Amateur Naturalist, with the realization that I Gorden Dee Alcorn couldn’t name any of them." s A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold This started her on a year- long project to name just a s The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats, Janine Benyus few parts of the wildlife in her environment each week. Many Internet of her experiences will s For dragonflies: resemble your own, and the results are very readable as well as informative. s For butterflies: In the end, as Mary bflyusa.htm Blocksma writes and so many of us have felt, “...What brings me joy is more than knowing names. Many names, like last summer’s This article was written by Maryland Master Wildlife Habitat wildflowers, have already Naturalist Cathy Gilleland. faded away. It was the process of naming that drew For more information or for the name of a Master Wildlife me like a magnet into a Habitat Naturalist in your area, please contact: magnificence of green, pulled me into flowers, opened my WindStar Wildlife Institute ears to the cadences of birds. For the first time, I E-mail: really feel like taking care of things." Gather your field guides and start today to learn and WindStar Wildlife Institute is a national, non-profit, conservation care for nature, and be sure organization whose mission is to help individuals and families to share your knowledge and establish or improve the wildlife habitat on their properties. inspiration with others.© WindStar Wildlife Institute Page 6 A Plants Home