I REGARD FIELD GUIDES, like cookbooks, as the universal gift, a “something for everyone” category. Everybody’s got to eat, and occasionally go outside, right? But sometimes you crave more than just the facts—a good read, perhaps, or an adventure story, or just to dig deeper than the classic field-guide format allows. Some favorite books on nature that do just that:
‘better birding:’ the not-a-field-guide field guide
‘BETTER BIRDING: Tips, Tools & Concepts for the Field,” is not a field guide, exactly, but more a serious guide to being in the field with a smarter, wider-angle point of view.
This just-released collaboration between Brian Sullivan of eBird.org and George Armistead of the American Birding Association begins with a quick course on how to bird like a master: to watch birds more insightfully by considering context—not just what the bird is, but why the bird is.
Rather than obsess on markings alone, we’re reminded to go for the GISS (“general impression, size and shape”), to take in habitat and behavioral clues. How and what a bird eats, its style of flight or other body language, such as head-bobbing or whether it hops or merely walks on the ground, can prove valuable to identification.
A caveat: “Better Birding” doesn’t cover every species, but rather zeroes in on some key groups of the authors’ choosing with in-depth text and illuminating grids of side-by-side photos. They help us discern differences between raptors; various sea, water and shorebirds; wrens; the rosefinches (such as house finch); crows and ravens, and others–but again, not your typical field-guide range.
Though at first I want to say this science- and natural history-heavy book is not for beginners, of course that’s exactly wrong. If we’d each begun our birding adventure with the authors’ pro tips, and been treated to their more detailed style of species profiles, I suspect we’d all be farther along by now.
when in doubt, give bernd heinrich
SO MANY THINGS I have observed and sometimes even taken photos of but did not grasp have been explained to me in absentia by Bernd Heinrich, the prolific author, illustrator, professor emeritus of biology, and ultramarathoner who has a special gift for not just science and nature, but also for the written word. The only challenge in recommending Heinrich is deciding which one of 18ish books to recommend (with a new one due April 2016).
Perhaps my favorite is the one least like the others, more memoir in style, more personal. “The Snoring Bird” is Heinrich’s homage to his Papa, a man of natural science in his own right (an expert in wasps, specificially). Gerd Heinrich, his young family in tow, was driven from the family land in Poland by the Red Army, and forced to flee Europe and start again, in Maine.
If you have not read “Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival,” that is likewise a good place to begin, and what better material to hunker down with in the offseason than inspiration on how animals make it through? We learn a diversity of strategies from hibernating bears, torpid turtles beneath the ice, the wood frog with its built-in “antifreeze,” and a bird that weighs only as much as two pennies (the golden-crowned kinglet) but can survive and even thrive in a Northern winter, among the book’s stars.
observe nature without leaving home
A FRIEND GIFTED TO ME “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating,” Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s little prize-winning 2010 book, a kind of memoir blended with natural history and an almost-Buddhist sense of awakening. It was written about a time when Bailey was bedridden, convalescing from a long and serious illness. The story begins when a guest who happened on a snail in the garden picked it up, potted up some violets from the yard, and set the flowerpot down, snail and all, at Bailey’s bedside. The accidental companion becomes not just a curiosity item or entertainment, but a teacher, a soulmate, and the source of revelation. It’s hard to think of the story of a more intimate relationship—and all conducted in silence (except for that occasional munching on a mushroom slice).
the field guides: favorites from my bookshelves
I HAVE GIFTED field guides on many occasions, always well-received. I’ve given a mammal guide to a birthday boy (age 8); one on moths as a housewarming gift; more bird guides than I can recall. All my favorite field guides are gathered on this page.
(Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)