When I set out with the intent to naturalize, I have four field guides at the ready. If I am planning a longer hike, I usually leave them in the car, but if I am going for a saunter, I bring them with me. Even one field guide will go a long way.
While the internet has anything and everything, books remain great resources. Not only do they feel great in your hand, but you know that they have a high level of accuracy. A good field guide, or two, or four, will do wonders to help you discover the beauty and intricacies of the natural world.
Everyone has go-to resources to start out with and here are mine.
List of Contents
Plant Field Guide
Plants of the Rocky Mountains is hands down one of my favorite field guides for plants. It’s a hefty one to carry, but it has a wealth of information. It covers not only the Rocky Mountain West, but it also holds many of the plants found all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
This guide color codes types of plants in the top corners to help you easily find sections. The sections include: trees, shrubs, wildflowers, aquatics, sedges, grasses, ferns, bryophytes, and lichens. For the largest section, wildflowers, the field guide gives several pages with a grid of thumbnail photos of flowers based on color. When identifying wildflowers, I start with this grid. Even if I do not find the exact flower immediately, I can usually find it within several pages.
When examining a plant more closely, the guide pulls out all of the immediate identifiers into easily digestible content. It bolds several factors used more often than not in identification. Below this the guide provides a paragraph description which often includes cultural information and possibly edibility. Although, I usually seek out additional information regarding how to eat wild plants and especially how to cook them.
Bird Field Guide
National Geographic Field Guide to Western North America has the best images of birds, in my opinion. On the east coast? Never fear, it has a guide to Eastern North America as well! These two field guides combined will help any birder.
As I learned birds, I mostly identified them by taking my own photo, then skimming guide books for birds with similar colors. While this took a long time, I learned where certain families of birds were located within the guide which proved helpful in future skims.
When I had a better idea of shapes of birds, I could look them up by knowing a bird in the same family. I find this important to note in my own journal. The more I explore in this guide, the more it gives me.
The Western North America guide will also mention some Eastern birds to better understand the regional differences of the Western birds. For example, it includes the western bluebird, mountain bluebird, and the eastern bluebird despite the eastern bluebird not usually existing in Western North America.
Insect Field Guide
I currently use the Peterson Guide to Insects of America North of Mexico. The insect sketches used in the field guide help me conceptualize insects. I like how they help me see the different segments and therefore how the main parts of insects change between species.
I never really had much interest in insects until I began sketching them for my own nature journal. As someone who struggles with sketching, I find that sketching insects brings me a sense of calm. My brain seems to like drawing all the segments, especially some of the more elaborate wings.
In the middle of the Peterson Insect Guide, glossy photos help with differentiating color differences between insect species. These help when you can easily determine the shape and the order of an insect, but not the species. The guide makes it easy to flip back and forth between the textual information and sketches with the glossy photos.
For when you really have no idea where to start, the Peterson guide has two flow charts: one in the first pages and one in the last pages. These flow charts provide “either-or” scenarios. For example, if you recognized your insect in question to have obvious membraneous wings that sometimes have scales hairs, then you can look to see if they have “wings covered with minute scales; mouth parts a coiled tube” or “wings not covered with scales, usually clear; mouth parts not in a coiled tube” (Peterson Field Guide, opening pages). This also helps in understanding which insects are related and which physical parts link them.
Overall Field Guide (Including Mammals)
I began my nature journal in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. When I found myself utterly overwhelmed, I grabbed the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park field guide. This guide combines plants, insects, birds, and mammals among a few other helpful topics.
Since Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks hold a wonderful trove of the natural world, they can act as a smaller version of the Rocky Mountain West to the Pacific Coast. While it is not exhaustive, it provides a fantastic launching point to dive into other field guides. Kurt F. Johnson uses his own photography in the guide, so you can really have detailed color photos.
I have not yet found a larger regional mammal guide that I like. Therefore, I begin here. After the section on mammals, this guide includes a section on scat and tracks which helps immensely if you have not seen a mammal but have found signs of one in the mud or snow. Often with larger charismatic megafauna such as grizzly bears, elk, or bison, we more often find evidence of their movement rather than the mammals themselves.
If I hike anywhere in the Rocky Mountain west and I plan on bringing one guidebook, this is the one I take with me. Often, it provides me with just enough information to satisfy my desire to know more. I can make a note of what I find here and use other guidebooks to supplement my knowledge after the hike.
If you are, in fact, in Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks, this guide includes information on the geology of the area, local waterfalls, and some basic stargazing information.