A Tribute to the Field Guide
A Buyer's Guide to Actual Books — Not the Apps
Nature apps are like movies: the book is better. Yes, you can now carry a virtual library of field guides on your gadget. But if you really want to learn to identify stuff in nature — from birds to butterflies, oaks to orchids — get yourself an actual book. There among its pages you will find detail, order and the harmony of families.
This assault of mine on nature apps isn’t one of those polemics dedicated to the “tactile” pleasures of real books. I read books and e-books with equality of enjoyment. What I’m saying instead is that when you resolve to discover more nature, in all its diversity and beauty and complexity, you will learn more easily from words and images on the page.
Field guide apps foist upon us, figuratively and literally, small views of the world — cheap short-cuts to your mystery species. Type in the state, maybe habitat, choose a petal or feather color, for example, and the approximate size or shape of your organism. The app delivers a list. No searching through actual pages of possibilities, no discovering and learning as you go, no seeing how the panoply of species fall into place, how they resemble or relate to one another in form or function. Learning nature with an app is like learning a language with a phrase book. You’ll get by, you’ll be wrong a lot, and your knowledge will be cursory.
Forty years ago I began to discover birds by wandering outside with binoculars in the morning and then roaming the frontiers of my field guides at night. On a single page of the Audubon Water Bird Guide I could witness Don Eckelberry’s spectacular grebe illustrations — and learn about what it means to be a grebe. As I leafed through Roger Tory Peterson’s flycatchers, I saw what made a Contopus a Contopus and how a Contopus was certainly not an Empidonax. And in Ann Haven Morgen’s Field Book of Ponds and Streams, well, those pages were the next best thing to getting wet in actual ponds and streams.
I reserve most app antipathy for birdwatching. Sure, there’s a place for birding apps. If you already know birds — but say, for example, you cannot recall the marks on Great Crested Flycatcher versus Brown-crested Flycatcher (tertial edges and belly, by the way) — it’s fine to whip out the app and double-check. Apps are great for that. But if you are new to birds (or any other group), do not use an app for learning. Use a book.
Birding apps have proliferated with gimmicks masquerading as teaching tools: one warbler app, for example, has so many ways to look at a warbler on a little screen that you might never look at actual warblers in trees. The apps remind me of weight-loss gadgets: so many under the sun, all competing for your dollars, none of them really that useful (except for the Sibley app, which I’ll get to below). Read your field guide instead; wander its pages on an expedition of text and illustrations and understanding.
Here below is my field guide to field guides, particularly some amazing guides to butterflies and dragonflies (among my areas of expertise) plus some other taxa. Many of these guides cover New England or the Northeast (where many of my readers and I reside). If you do not live up here, fear not: you will still find superb regional field guides — everything from The Butterflies of Cascadia by Robert Michael Pyle to Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeast Ohio by Larry Rosche et al. Never will any app come close to these and other regional masterpieces.
So, for your holiday gift-giving, visit your local bookshop and buy some of these books. Remember, these are my suggestions for better learning and for field use. My rant here does not concern apps and websites that we use to collect and report data (eBird or iNaturalist, for example). Just don’t obsess on those data apps while you’re outside: you’ll miss a lot of nature, which isn’t very natural. Oh, by the way, this is a living document, er, web page — I’ll add your worthy suggestions. Send them by email. Thanks!
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