Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Buying a Field Guide

I recently went looking for a tree identification field guide that covers all North America, it took me so long to decide that my poor husband became quite aggravated and retired grumpily to the comic book section and read an entire comic. This is a grave state of affairs so for the sake of all supportive spouses out there, here is my Top 10 list of things to look for in a field guide. 

  1. Size : It's not a reference manual, it's a field guide. I like to be able to slip it in into my back pocket or easily conceal it in my purse. (You would be surprised what else I keep handy.)
  2. Drawings vs Pictures: I prefer drawings since they better represent the essence of the species instead of individual characteristics. It is also possible to draw important identification details that are not always visible in a picture.
  3. Range Maps: Super important, especially if the guide covers a large area (e.g. North America). I prefer them to be on the same page instead of at the back. Who likes additional page flipping anyway?
  4. Common and Latin Names: A good field guide should have both and that's that. 
  5. A good written description: The description should include specific characteristics such as size, gender distinction, age distinctions, habitat preference, etc.. I also enjoy the additional knowledge of whether the species is edible (mostly for plants) or venomous .
  6. Built in Ruler: Size sometimes determines the species, nothing better that having a handy ruler you can't loose. (Less important for bird identification since it's mostly done at a distance.)
  7. Identification Markers: Arrows on the illustration pinpointing specific things to look for (e.g. distinctive markings or coloration).
  8. Glossary: (or informative introduction to the field) Sometimes scientific words make no sense.
  9. Index: Preferably with both latin and common names.
  10. Intuitive Organization: The species must be organized in a way that makes it easy for you to find what your looking for. It depends on the depth of your knowledge on the subject and there are a wide range of options out there ( e.g. by colour, by approximate size, by habitat, taxonomically, etc.).
 It's not always possible to find the perfect guide for all topics, sometimes the choice is quite limited. But when the options seem endless, knowing your preferences helps narrow down your search.

Here are three of my favorite field guides :

Peterson First Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America (The Peterson Field Guide Series)

:) Gorgeous Drawings                                  :( No latin names
:) Identification Markers                               :( No ruler
:) Perfect size                                               :( No range maps                       

Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification, Revised and Updated (Golden Field Guide from St. Martin's Press)

:) 9/10                                                         :( No identification markers

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Fifth Edition

:) Depiction of adult                       :( No identification markers
(male and female) and juvenile plumage                                       
:) Range maps                               :( Knowledge of bird taxonomy required for navigation

During my technical degree we were basically brainwashed into swearing by Peterson field guides, now I find that other publications meet my needs better. I'd love to know what you're favorite field guide is why. Do you swear loyalty to a particular publisher? Is your top ten similar to mine? Let me know!

Take care!


  1. Have you seen the new Sibley Guide to Trees? It's gorgeous!

  2. I haven't actually, I'm going to have to check it out. Thanks!


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