Your #1 source for kayaking and canoeing information.               FREE Newsletter!
my Profile
Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Nature's an Open Book

The Living World

By Tamia Nelson

October 23, 2007

With the fall migrations well under way and General Winter already drawing up plans for his next invasion of Canoe Country, I've been spending a lot of time with my nose buried in books. No, I haven't been reading best-sellers. I've been consulting field guides. This year I added six new bird species to my "life list": four warblers, one vireo, and a rail. Without a field guide to help me, these birds would have remained nameless unknowns, and I'd still be clueless. Yet my curiosity about the natural world goes far beyond bird identification. I use my library of field guides and natural history books every day, whether I'm paddling, hiking, or cycling — or just staring out the living-room window. If you're a keen birder or amateur naturalist, you'll know what I mean, and you'll probably have many favorite guidebooks of your own. But if you're just starting out, a few examples drawn from my library might not go amiss.

With that in mind, let's look at books that paint …

The Big Picture

After all, it's hard to get acquainted with the trees until you can see the forest. And these books all serve as good starting points when you're getting to know who's who in the landscape.

  • Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife by Henry Hill Collins.  If I could have only one field guide, this would be my choice. I first recommended it years ago, and I haven't changed my mind. It's a one-stop shop for anyone who needs to identify almost anything that runs, crawls, swims, or flies in eastern or central North America, provided that it doesn't have six (or eight) legs. And it's also a good read. You can't say that about very many field guides!

  • A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, 2nd edition, by Olaus J. Murie.  One of the many guides in the Peterson series, this little book delivers far more than the title implies. In addition to Murie's evocative pen-and-ink sketches, the text is enlivened with anecdotes drawn from long years of field work in the Epoch BRC (Before Radio Collars), when naturalists actually lived among their subjects of study for months at a time, rather than commuting to a remote observation post in a SUV or snowmobile, or monitoring a computer screen.

  • A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald W. Stokes.  A perfect companion for canoeists and kayakers who are forced to trade their paddles for snowshoes during the Season of Hard Water, this paperback's utility is further enhanced by Deborah Prince's delightful pen-and-ink illustrations. Nature may sleep during the winter months, but there's still a lot to see, and Stokes' guide will open your eyes to the austere beauty of the frozen world.

  • The Backyard Bestiary by Ton de Joode and Anthonie Stolk.  Nature begins on your doorstep, yet there are very few guidebooks to the "near wild." The American edition of Bestiary is a happy exception to this rule, and thanks to Kees de Kiefte's wonderful paintings, it's also a work of art. Your kids and grandkids will enjoy it, too.

  • Wild Sounds of the Northwoods by Lang Elliott and Ted Mack.  Though it's a cassette tape (remember those?) and not a book, I've nonetheless found this "audio field guide" very useful indeed. Many wild creatures are masters of camouflage, but our ears often reveal what our eyes cannot see. Wild Sounds is the key you need to unlock the door to the invisible world of the not-so-silent shadows.


Now it's time to bring the focus closer. From the Big Picture we move on to …

The Watery World

Paddlers often wonder what's happening beneath their keels, and I'm no exception. Here are some of the books that I turn to time and time again to answer my own questions:

  • Field Book of Ponds and Streams by Anne Haven Morgan.  Published almost 80 years ago, this little book is still one of the most comprehensive guides to freshwater life I've seen, and it's certainly one of the handiest. I snatched my copy from a college dumpster, where it lay among many other victims of a periodic "weeding" of the library shelves. The library's loss was my gain.

  • Pond and Brook: A Guide to Nature Study in Freshwater Environments by Michael J. Caduto.  An overview of the watery underworld, this paperback is part field guide and part textbook, with good coverage of the hydrologic cycle, water chemistry, and the geology of ponds and streams.

  • Life In and Around the Salt Marshes by Michael J. Ursin.  Salt marshes are fascinating places, teeming with life. This slim volume, subtitled "A Handbook of Plant and Animal Life In and Around the Temperate Atlantic Coastal Marshes," is a workmanlike guide to the world where the sea meets the shore.

  • Pond Life: A Guide to Common Plants and Animals of North American Ponds and Lakes by George K. Reid.  Simple and good, this well-illustrated Golden Guide is small enough to fit in your pocket, yet detailed enough to be of real use in the field.


Curiosity is boundless, but general field guides and ecosystem-specific handbooks can only take you so far. There are times when you'll need to dig deeper, and if …

The Subject is Birds …

These volumes will be invaluable:

  • A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Roger Tory Peterson.  RTP is dead, but his work lives on. To my mind, this book remains the gold standard among birding guides. (There are also companion volumes for the birds west of the Rockies, Texas and adjacent states, Mexico, and Great Britain and Europe.) My copy is seldom out of reach. 'Nuff said?

  • A Guide to Bird Behavior, Volumes I - III, by Donald W. Stokes and Lillian Q. Stokes.  Peterson's field guides give short shrift to bird behavior — no surprise here; that's not their purpose — but these three volumes fill the gap admirably.

  • The Practical Ornithologist by John Gooders.  Not so much a field guide as a guide to working in the field, this large-format paperback is accurately subtitled "What to Look For, How and When to Look for It, and How to Record What You See." Behavior, migration, calls and songs, flight, life cycles, morphology, and anatomy — you'll find all these, to be sure, but the book's best chapters are the practical ones, dealing with subjects ranging from selecting binoculars and telescopes to the art of keeping a field journal.


Then, when you're ready to turn your attention …

From Feathers to Fur …

You'll find the following guides of interest:

  • A Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior by Donald W. Stokes and Lillian Q. Stokes.  Once again, the family Stokes delivers the goods. I'd get Murie's Field Guide to Animal Tracks first, but this volume is a useful supplement.

  • Lily Pond by Hope Ryden.  The modern North American landscape still bears the impress of a time when the beaver was the only planetary engineer in residence. Hope Ryden's charming chronicle of daily life in a family of beavers shows us how they did it.

  • Chipmunks: Secrets of their Solitary Lives by Lawrence Wishner.  These indefatigable striped foragers are familiar sights around backcountry camps and weekend picnic spots, but not many of us stop to wonder how chipmunks live when they're not cadging food from our larders. Lawrence Wishner did, though, and he brought a scientist's discipline to what was obviously a labor of love. The result is a book that no amateur naturalist will want to miss. Little of significance escaped Wishner's eye. More importantly, he teaches us how to see, too.


And what about making the leap …

From Warm Blood to Cold?

Birds and mammals may steal the scene — and capture our hearts — but snakes, turtles, newts, frogs, and, yes, insects are no less important in the larger scheme of things. Are you a swamp rat? If so, you'll want to check out:

  • A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles by Thomas F. Tyning.  One of the Stokes Nature Guides, this book is a good introduction to the world of snakes, turtles, salamanders, and frogs.

  • A Guide to Observing Insect Lives by Donald Stokes.  Another Stokes Guide, Insect Lives, too, lives up to its title. Once you read it, you'll never look at a housefly in quite the same way again!

  • Aquatic Entomology by W. Patrick McCafferty.  Bigger than most phone books and heavier than some of the tents I've owned, this is definitely not a field guide. What is it, then? Well, the subtitle calls it a "Fishermen's and Ecologists' Illustrated Guide to Insects and Their Relatives," and I can't find anything wrong with that. In fact, it's the most comprehensive guide I've seen to the insects who live their lives in and around the water. The line drawings and paintings by Arwin V. Provonsha are superb, too, so the book is a feast for the eye as well as the mind.

  • The Year of the Turtle by David M. Carroll.  Another labor of love. What Wishner did for chipmunks in Secrets of Their Solitary Lives, Carroll does for turtles, bringing an artist's eye (and hand) to his subject. If you want to know how turtles survive a drought, what they eat, or why they cross the road — and all too often end up under the wheels of a speeding car — then you'll want to read this book.


Of course, animals, whether cold-blooded or warm, make up only a small part of the living world. Not for nothing is earth sometimes called …

The Green Planet

Shrubs and trees, cattails and rushes, flowers and ferns — where would we be without plants? But how many of us know what we're looking at when we see them? If you're not happy with this state of affairs, you might want to add one or more of these titles to your library:

  • A Guide to Enjoying Wildflowers by Donald and Lillian Stokes.  In this volume, the Stokeses do for wildflowers what they've done for birds, mammals, and amphibians and reptiles, not to mention insects. And they do it well.

  • The Practical Botanist by Rick Imes.  Similar in format and purpose to The Practical Ornithologist, this book bills itself as a guide to "studying, classifying, and collecting plants." That's a pretty good summary. And the emphasis is on the practical. There's even a section on urban botany. (Warning! Many parks and reserves rightly prohibit collecting plants, and even where it's still legal, common sense would suggest that it's usually best to refrain.)

  • Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region by E. H. Ketchledge.  This unassuming booklet delivers much more than it promises. In just 100 pages — and with only indifferently reproduced black-and-white photos by way of illustration — it gives the aspiring naturalist a thorough introduction to the most common tree species of the boreal and transition forests. And it fits in your pocket! Could you ask more of any field guide?


OK. That's a start. But it's only a start. This list is just a tiny sample of a much larger universe of books. And that brings up an important point. Many of my favorite titles are out of print, as, indeed, are some of the books I've just described. Or if they're not out of print now, they will be soon. So …

Where Can You Find Them?

And the answer? On the shelves of a used-book dealer. Through an online auction site or classified page. In the library. Or maybe — remember how I got my copy of Anne Haven Morgan's Field Book of Ponds and Streams? — in a dumpster outside a college library. Stay alert. Expect the unexpected. Seize the moment. This is good advice for naturalists and bibliophiles alike.

Nature's an open book to anyone who cares to see, but we often need books to open our eyes. I've described a few of my favorite natural history titles here, and in future columns I'll pick up the thread again. In the meantime, however, I've got a favor to ask: Why not tell me a little bit about the field guides and other books that you've found most helpful in your attempts to understand the natural world? I'm sure I've missed many useful and interesting volumes. But it's not too late. Now is the time to set me straight!

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

Sponsored Ad:
Follow us on:
Free Newsletter | About Us | Site Map | Advertising Info | Contact Us


©2015 Inc.