A guide to guides and other books

By Claire Curry | Published Thursday, July 28, 2011

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The heat is oppressive right now. It’s a great time of year to sit in the shade and read books! I’d like to talk this month about useful guides to identifying our fauna and flora, plus a few of my favorite books about the natural world.

Let’s start with birds. My favorite field guide is the “Sibley Guide to Birds” by David Sibley. It also comes in eastern and western smaller editions. If you have a smartphone, you can get versions of it that have the benefit of providing bird songs and calls as a reference, too.

The Sibley guide uses paintings. If you prefer photographs, the “Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America” is a great guide. It also has the benefit of showing multiple views of some species. You’ll often find a bird in odd lighting or at different angles, so more than one picture is very useful.

“The Sibley Guide to Trees” has the same quality artwork as his bird guide.

What about flowers? It’s so dry, there’s only a few to work on, but hopefully next year we’ll get more rain. “Wildflowers of the Texas Hill Country,” by Marshall Enquist, is about many of our common flowers despite covering a different region.

“Wildflowers of Texas” by Geyata Ajilvsgi has both great photos and fascinating information on what the various plants have been used for by humans.

If you find a caterpillar on one of your plants, what is it?

“Caterpillars of Eastern North America” by David L. Wagner will help you find out with photos and lists of hostplants. Another good book is the “Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars” by Amy Bartlett Wright.

For the adults, “Butterflies of North America” by Jim P. Brock and Kenn Kaufman and “A Field Guide to Moths of Eastern North America” by Charles V. Covell Jr. cover all the North American butterflies and many common moths.

A new, and rather pricey, guide is Powell and Opler’s “Moths of Western North America.” It’s beautiful and includes many “micromoths” that are beautiful, tiny, hard to identify and rarely included in other books.

You can find many fascinating moths to identify by checking around your porch light or outside your lit windows in the evening, or just by not dismissing the non-butterflies on your walks outside in the day as they flush from the grass.

How about some fun reading material?

“The Nesting Season” by Bernd Heinrich is a recent book about the nests, eggs and breeding behavior of many birds, from geese to songbirds.

If you want to pretend you’re in a snowy north land, his “Winter World” from a few years back is also a great read. It discusses how birds, mammals, and insects can survive extreme temperatures with adaptations such as insulating fur and feathers, warm nests and dens, and physiology suited to the cold.

“The Singing Life of Birds” by Donald Kroodsma is another delightful read. It talks about why different populations of the same birds sing different songs (have you ever noticed the “accent” that cardinals have the farther you get from home?), how some birds learn their songs while others can sing perfect songs even if they’ve never heard another member of their species, and “extreme songs,” from extremely complex to extremely simple.

It even includes a CD that allows you to easily listen to several of the species discussed in the book.

While some birds are still singing and nesting, others are beginning to migrate south from regions farther north. I heard an Upland Sandpiper, one of our regular spring and fall migrants, just recently.

“How Birds Migrate” by Paul Kerlinger talks about both why and how birds head south. It covers everything from flight mechanics to geographical patterns. Other topics include where they stop to fuel up with food, how high and fast they fly and whether they fly by day or night. (It varies among different birds, but the variety is astounding.)

Kerlinger covers examples with particular species, too, including many that we have here in Wise County and talks about how scientists have discovered what we know about bird migration.

“Living on the Wind” by Scott Weidensaul is another great book on migration that covers many of the subjects in a more personal way, with the author describing the people and places he visits as he researches the book.

Whether you’re inside reading or outside finding critters to look up in the field guides, it’s a great time of year to learn more about our natural world. Keep your eyes peeled and your mind open. You never know what wonders you’ll learn about!

The next monthly field trips on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be Aug. 3 and Sept. 7. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service district office in Decatur. Call Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service at (940) 627-5475.

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