Choosing Field Guides (with videos)

plant field guides Field guides: Newcomb’s Wildflowers and folding Peterson’s Wildflowers

A field guide is a book or pamphlet consisting of descriptions of plants, animals, minerals or other natural objects. Some guides are small enough to fit in a pocket or field bag. Others are too big and heavy to carry outdoors. They stay at home on a bookshelf.

As a librarian I’ve reviewed and purchased numerous field guides. There are fewer guides published today than thirty and even twenty years ago. Organizations that individually sponsored field guides in the past have collaborated, perhaps to share the expense and workload. An example is the Peterson Field Guides sponsored by the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute.

But as you search for a new field guide the choices can be confusing and overwhelming. My calm, cool, and professionally trained librarian’s mind comes to the rescue. I ask you some of the questions I’d ask myself as I chose field guides to include in the library’s collection. If I’ve missed something please let me know in the comment box below.

Peterson birds field guide page Peterson birds field guide page – latest edition.

Questions To Ask Yourself

Portability?

Will the guide need to fit in a pocket or a field bag? Or can it be a large reference size book that stays at home?

Range?

What area do you want the guide to cover?

A field guide can cover a small region, a single state or section of the country. Others are very comprehensive and try to cover every species known on a continent.

Some books focus on common species or all species including rare ones in an area. Other books only focus on the species that you are most likely to see or are very important in a specific ecosystem. 

I like guides that cover my specific region (Northeast or Mid-Atlantic, Pennsylvania, etc.) to carry with me in the field. The big comprehensive guides covering the whole continent stay at home or in the car. If I take a trip, I buy a guide of the region I will be visiting.

I also like learning about the most common species first. Then when I see a new plant or animal I know that it is not a common species. It is a big help in narrowing down the identification choices.

Another question to ask yourself, are only indigenous species described or are introduced species included?

Natural History?

Many guides include some information about the life cycle of the animals or plants. This information helps in understanding how a species lives and aids in finding locating their habitats.

Copyright?

What is the copyright date? Has the book been updated? Have you chosen the latest version?

Illustrations?

Do I want the more accurate drawings or will photographs be sufficient?

Field guide illustrations consist of drawings, photographs or both. Drawings are much more accurate. An artist can capture minute details or field marks. Field marks are distinctive markings on a plant or animal which distinguish it from other plants or animals like it. A field mark would be the yellow belly of a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum).

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). Courtesy fws.gov Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). Courtesy fws.gov

A photograph can only show the details the camera angle can capture. The yellow belly of a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) distinguishes it from the gray belly of a Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulous). Hopefully a photograph can display the differences. 

Guides with drawings have given way to guides filled with photographs. With the growth of the Internet, publishers released numerous guides with photographs. Online stock photo suppliers like Getty Images and iStockphoto.com make collecting photos easy.  I prefer guides with drawings. The guides that feature drawings are the Peterson Field Guide Series (particularly the early guides) and David Allen Sibley’s and others. 

Remember: cover art may change or given an updated look. The information inside may not change very much. Check in the cover and introduction for clues when the information was last updated. 

Peterson's birding field guide Peterson Identification System – arrows pointing to field marks.

The Peterson Identification System

The Peterson Field Guide series uses the Peterson Identification System which highlights visual features of a subject instead of technical features of interest to scientists. The System was created for laymen and amateur naturalists by Roger Tory Peterson in 1934.

Scientists at the time relied on identifying plants, animals, or objects while held in the hand or under a microscope.  In the case of birds, animals, and plants, this meant the subject was dead. The method to identify birds was to shoot first, retrieve the dead bird, and identify it while held in the hand. Luckily Roger Tory Peterson created his field guides and Identification System so living plants and animals could be identified in the field.

The Peterson Identification System uses arrows to point to important field marks. Other field guides didn’t use the arrows as a professional courtesy See “Birder’s Guided by Roger Tory Peterson Legacy” on Courant.com. There were a few guides that eventually copied the Peterson Identification System. With so few field guides currently being published, this might not change anytime soon. 

birding field guides A big comprehensive field guide, smaller pocket-size, and a folding guide.

The Types of Guides

Identification guides

Are most concerned with the question, “what is this?” There is often a photograph or a drawing to help you identify what you are looking at. All similar birds are shown on one or two pages. There may be a small amount of information about range, habitat requirements and what a species likes to eat.

natural history field guides Guides focusing on natural history or life ways.

Natural history Guides

The information included in natural history is the lifecycle and how an organism fits into its ecosystem. These guides also discuss what role it plays and how it lives. An example is the Peterson Guide to Mammals.

Combination Field and Natural History Guides 

Some books explain comprehensive information on one specific group like a book on gulls or milkweed plants. Information would include appearance, courtship, reproduction, food, vocalizations and more. 

folding pocket-size field guides folding pocket-size field guides – Peterson First Guides aren’t pictured.

Pocket and Fold-out Guides

Peterson Guides also include FIrst Guides which are skinny guides which only describe the most common species. Peterson First Guide to Birds of North America

Laminated fold-out cards are lightweight, pocket-sized guides. There are many to choose from on various topics. Some guides that are focused on a region or even a city.

Publishers of folding guides include Peterson Flash Guides (out-of-print) and A Pocket Naturalist Guide Series which focus on local topics like Cape May Birds or Eastern Backyard Birds. You can choose from trees, wildflowers, birds, butterflies, mammals, etc. You can find these fold-outs in environmental center shops, bookstores, and online.

Local and regional environmental centers and organizations also publish simple local identification guides.

My recommended Field Guide List

If you are just starting out focus on learning the names of the common animals and plants in your yard, neighborhood or region. Starting out with a big comprehensive book for the entire continent of North America, may just confuse you. It may take you longer to know and identify your local species. 

1. A Peterson Guide to my local ecosystem – I have Eastern Forests by Kricher and Morrison.

2. Audubon Society guide to a region. I have Field Guide to the Mid-Atlantic States by Alden and Cassie. This series is a comprehensive identification guide including the most common birds, spiders, insects, wildflowers, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Star maps for the seasonal rotation of the night stars, geology and ecosystems overviews are also included. 

3. Comprehensive guides to a specific interests like birds or wildflowers. Examples I have include Newcomb’s Guide to Wildflowers and Peterson’s guides to Eastern Birds. 

Recommended Field Guides

Most of the guides I recommend have drawings or paintings. I like those best for identification. Some of the titles are out-of-print and are available through bookstores and retailers that carry used and out-of-print books.

The list is dominated by Peterson Field Guides. As a librarian these guides were staples on the shelves. Other guides were purchased for variety. The Peterson series includes over thirty-six field guide titles, I only list a few.

I have included links to the books on Amazon.com. The Amazon links are affiliate links from which I receive small sums that help support this site. See FAQs: Buying from this website.

plant field guides plant field guides

Plants, Trees, Wildflowers, and Edible Plants

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb and illustrated by Gordon Morrison (drawings). An excellent guide which uses a botanical key system for quick, identification of wildflowers, flowering shrubs and vines of Northeastern and North-central North America. My favorite wildflower guide. 

Eastern Trees: Eastern United States, Canada, and Mid-West by George A. Petrides (Peterson guide – drawings)

Field Guide to Trees of North America by Kershner, Matthews, Nelson, and Spellenberg (National Wildlife Federation – photos)

Edible Wild Plants of Eastern Central North America by Lee Allen Peterson (Peterson – drawings and photographs)

Mushrooms by Kent H. McKnight and Vera B. McKnight (Peterson Guide – drawings). See the video below for a review.  Please note in the video review below – the reviewer has a defective and out of date copy of the guide. Some of his pages are blank. My copy has all its pages and is. newer edition. The reviewer should have exchanged his copy for a complete one. 


A Book Review of Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms (video)


Insects and Arthropods Field Guides 

Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners by James Nardi (drawings)

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson (Princeton Field Guide – photographs) There is a guide to Dragonflies of the West by the same author.

Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies by Blair Nikula and Jackie Sones (Stokes Guide – photos)

Tracks and Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates: A Guide to North American Species by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney (photographs)

butterfly diagram - the parts of an adult butterflies body labeled. Photo by Rolf Krahl via Wikimedia Commons. Accessed 8/10/2015. butterfly diagram – the parts of an adult butterflies body labeled. Photo by Rolf Krahl via Wikimedia Commons. Accessed 8/10/2015. English: Butterfly with description
A – Forewing; B – Antenna; C – Compound eye; D – Proboscis; E – Thorax; F – Leg; G – Abdomen; H – Hindwing; I – «tail»

Butterflies and Moths Guides

Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner – photographs of caterpillars of butterflies and moths. I don’t know of a guide for caterpillars of western North America.

Moths: Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrookie Leckie (Peterson Guide – photographs). There is also a tile covering Southeastern North America

Western Butterflies by Paul A. Opler and Amy Barlett Wright (Peterson Guide – drawings and photographs)

Mac’s Field Guides: Midwest Garden Bugs also Mac’s Field Guides: Northeast – These are charts. 

birding field guides A big comprehensive field guide, smaller pocket, and folding guide.

Birds Guides

The Peterson Guides are good for beginning birders. The Sibley guides are popular with experienced birders.

Peterson First GUide to Birds to North America by Roger Tory Peterson

Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Roger Tory Peterson (Peterson Field Guide – drawings). The first title in the Peterson Field Guide Series. 

The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley – a larger book with 600 paintings by the author. It’s too big to carry in a jacket pocket. 

The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior Illustrated by David Allen Sibley (National Audubon Society – drawings)

Sibley Birds West: Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and Sibley Birds East

Hummingbirds of North America by Sheri L. Williamson (Peterson Field Guide – photos)

Wetland Birds of North America: A Guide to Observation, Understanding, and Conservation by Scott Leslie (photos)


A Review of Five Different Bird Field Guides


Reptiles and Amphibians Guides 

Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America by Roger Conant and Jospeh T. Collins (Peterson Field Guide – photographs)

Peterson First Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians by Robert Stebbins

Mammals Guides

Any pocket field guide on mammals will be fine. There aren’t many mammals around compared to birds or insect species. 

Peterson First Guide to Mammals of North America by

Behavior of North American Mammals by Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart (Peterson Guide – photos and drawings) – not so much a field guide but a large book on the behavior of animals.

 

field guides

Comprehensive Regional Field Guides

Eastern Forests: A field guide to birds, mammals, trees, flowers, and more. by John Kricher and Gordon Morrison (Peterson Guide _ drawings and photos). These series has volumes covering several regions of North America. These guides combines ecology, natural history, and identification.

Field Guide to the Mid-Atlantic States by Peter Alden and Brian Cassie (National Audubon Society – photos). There is a guide for each region of the United States. These identification guides cover landforms, geology, night sky and stars various animals and plants.

Field Guide to the Eastern United States by Janine M. Benyus (drawings). This title is more a description of characteristics plants and animals. There is also a Field Guide to the Western United States.

Field Guide to the Piedmont: The Natural Habitats of America’s Most-Lived in Region from New York City to Montgomery, Alabama by Michael A. Godfrey. This series includes books covering other regions of North America.

The Middle Atlantic Coast; Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod by Bill Perry(A Sierra Club Naturalist’s Guide). This series (and oldie but goodie) has volume covering many regions of North America.

tabs on field guide pages tabs on field guide pages

One Quick Note

I personalize my field guides. On this Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Trees, I’ve added stick on tabs so I can quickly find the sections on leaf types, silhouettes, evergreens, oaks in winter, etc. I write in my guides and take notes, too. Take it form a librarian, it’s okay to write in your books, not library books. But personalizing your books make them more useful and you can learn the information easier.

Wrap-Up

I hope this post helps make sense of the wide array of field guides available to naturalists and nature journal keepers.

Did I miss a favorite title? If you have questions or comments, send me a message in the comment field below.

Related Topics

Simplicity: Basic Equipment for the Naturalist

Choosing a Hand Lens for Nature Study

Choosing Binoculars for Nature Study

Best Books for Nature Journal Keeping and Drawing

Basic Information on Keeping a Nature Journal 

4 comments

  1. This is a fabulous article, Donna! Thank you so much for your research and recommendations…

We're Listening

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.