Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Guide to Field Guides

Congrats to everyone who identified the bird in "Do It Yourself" as a Mourning Dove! You rock!

Just so you know, I plan to continue alternating "Bird of the Week" videos with little wordy posts. Both have their merits. But these wordy ones are definitely way easier to make.

Field guides are an important part of birdwatching. As of last week's wordy post, you know a couple of websites that can help you identify birds. But paper field guides are, in my opinion, way better.

Why are paper guides better?
1. You can take them out into the field with you. No internet connection? No problem.
2. A website can only show you one bird at a time. A book can show you all 700+ that we have in the U.S.
3. You have to kind of know what you're doing to use a website. You have to be able to look at a bird and know what field marks are important. (FYI: A field mark is an identifying feature on a bird.) In my last post, I had to guide you. I told you that the bird was found in California, and a dove, and brown, and only then could you plug that info into a website. Field guides have pictures that you can flip through until you find a bird that looks like the one you just saw. It takes time, but it's way easier to use when you don't have any idea what you're doing.

It can be hard to use a field guide at the very beginning. Don't worry, we have all been there. But, field guides are not scary! You don't have to look at every single bird. Just look at all of the large groups of birds. There are egrets, and woodpeckers, and raptors, and sparrows, and hummingbirds, and flycatchers, and more. A field guide shows you the major differences between each of the families of birds. With a bit of patience, you will be able to look at a bird and say, "Hey, that's some kind of raptor." With a bit more patience and attention to detail, you will be able to say, "Hey, that's a falcon." With only a bit more work, you can say, "Wow! Peregrine Falcon, that's way cool." You get what you put in - the more time you spend looking at your field guide, the better you'll get.

There are so many field guides out there! How are you supposed to choose? Let me walk you through a few of my guides. I have five. But don't worry, most of them were gifts.

This was my first field guide. I don't think it was even mine, it was just one of those family books that you have laying around to look like you're interested in nature. (Don't lie, you have those books, too.) It's the National Geographic's Field Guide to Birds of California. It's a really cursory introduction to common birds of California. These books are available for every state. This is what a page looks like.

As you can see, it has some really great information. That thing up in the top-right corner is called a "range map." The blue areas are places the Great Egret can be found in winter, the purple areas are where it can be found anytime. Also on the page are facts about its behavior, breeding habits, etc. At the bottom of the right page is a bird that looks very similar to the Great Egret, with tips on telling them apart.

This is a pretty info-packed field guide. But it doesn't have very many birds. It has most of the common ones - like this Egret, the Northern Mockingbird, the Yellow-billed Magpie, and the American Robin. It has some weird birds that you wouldn't see unless you were really looking - Red-throated Loon, anyone? But there are many birds missing. Even as a beginning birder, you're not going to find every bird you see in this book.

Basically, use this field guide if you are a very casual birder who wants to know the name of the occasional bird. If you're planning to really get out there and bird, you will eventually need an upgrade. In the next few weeks, I'll introduce you to some of the more popular field-guides.

This next week, I will not be blogging - I'll be up in Twain Harte! I'm taking my camera, and maybe I'll do a special on the common birds of the Sierra Nevada when I get back. : ) Bye, guys!


  1. Have you tried using the field guides from the Audubon Society Apps?

  2. No, I haven't heard of that! It's an App for an iPhone or iPod?

    1. There are apps for both iPhone and iPod. There might be some in the Android market too, but I'm only familiar with Apple products unfortunately.