How to Choose and Use Field Guides

A good field guide can be a very helpful tool when you’re doing nature walks or nature study. Let’s talk about what to look for when you’re choosing them and how to use them.

Joining me today is my longtime friend and co-creator of Simply Charlotte Mason, Karen Smith. Karen is my go-to person for anything that is science and nature related.

Sonya: So thanks for joining me, Karen. Field guides. What are they? Let’s start there.

Karen: A field guide is just a tool to help you identify what you see in nature.

Sonya: Does it have to be a book?

Karen: It does not have to be a book. There are apps out there that are available now; you can put them on your phone.

Sonya: And those are considered field guides?

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: Okay, so whenever I go into a bookstore or go to Amazon and look for a field guide, there are so many choices out there. You can get North America and everything you might see anywhere on the continent, and you can get just your region, or you can get all the animals, or you can get just plants or just flowers. How do you choose a good field guide?

Karen: You need to choose based on what you want. Many moms are not comfortable with getting one that’s going to have a whole lot of birds, for instance, to have to look through to have to find what they—

Sonya: Yes, it’s hard to narrow them down.

Karen: So they may go with a regional one: one that’s just for their state. By doing that, it will be very limited, because it’s only going to be what’s most common in their state. So you take the chance of not being able to identify something that might or might not be in your field guide.

Sonya: Okay.

Karen: So it’s a good place to start, but once you gain experience, I do recommend that you move to something that is Birds of the Eastern U.S., for instance. So you have a broader pool to choose from.

Sonya: So you wouldn’t jump all the way to the whole continent. You could do just the eastern or just midwest or something. Okay, I got it.

Karen: And ones that are specific to that nature item—birds, mammals, wildflowers, for instance—are going to give you more options for identifying than ones that are more general—that have birds and trees and insects or whatever all in the same one.

Sonya: Okay. So once you choose a good field guide, how do you use the thing? Do you haul it with you out into the field and say, “Okay, there’s a bird. Hang on, hang on! I’m looking, I’m looking!” I mean how do you use these things?

Karen: For birds, it’s probably better to take a picture with your phone or if you have a camera with you, and then you can look through your field guide later. Because they don’t stay still.

Sonya: They don’t.

Karen: For things like wildflowers or trees, you can take your field guide with you to help you identify while you’re there, because they don’t move.

Sonya: That’s true.

Karen: So there are different ways you can do it. Depending on what field guide you have, you’re going to look through the pictures and find the one that is closest to what you saw.

Sonya: Okay, now there’s a question, because I’ve seen some field guides that have illustrations—drawn pictures—and other field guides that have photographs. Which is better?

Karen: I prefer photographs, because illustrations are an artist’s perception of what that looks like—which is great for your nature journal, but not so great when you’re trying to identify something. A photograph will show you all the features of the bird, not just what the artist put in there.

Sonya: That makes sense. Now, what are some of your favorite field guides? Can you share some specific ones and maybe why they are your favorites?

Karen: I will share with you, not specific to the nature item, but the brands, if you will, that I like. Audubon is very easy to use. It’s probably one of my favorites, especially for beginners, because you have in the beginning color photographs of everything that’s in the book. So you can very easily browse through the photos, find what you’re looking for, and then it will tell you what page to go to in the book to find out more information.

Sonya: So the photos are all kind of collected and you don’t have to leaf through the whole book. Nice.

Karen: Then Princeton University—

Sonya: Let me ask you this first. I’m sorry. You said Audubon; and as soon as you say Audubon, I think birds. Is Audubon only birds?

Karen: No, Audubon has field guides for just about everything imaginable in nature: birds, butterflies, wildflowers, mammals, rocks, fossils.

Sonya: Wow!

Karen: Reptiles and amphibians, even fish.

Sonya: Okay, so you’ve got the whole spectrum with Audubon. What’s another brand of field guides?

Karen: Princeton University are very good ones. They have many photographs in them. So birds, for instance. You don’t just get one picture of the bird, many times you’ll have a picture of the male bird and the female bird and perhaps even one that is an immature bird or a juvenile.

Sonya: How handy.

Karen: So it helps you to identify. Sometimes the juveniles don’t look like the adults.

Sonya: Yes! And then you’re stuck. Okay, that’s the Princeton University ones. Nice.

Karen: Then National Wildlife Federation also has some very nice ones with photographs. And along the same lines as the Princeton University, they’ll have several different pictures of what you’re trying to identify. So it kind of helps you narrow it down a little easier.

Sonya: How long have you been using field guides?

Karen: About 35 or 40 years.

Sonya: Thank you for passing along your wisdom to us. I appreciate this. Are there any apps that you would recommend? You said that you could use apps as field guides.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: Some that are really good?

Karen: Ones that I’m aware of: Audubon has some that are very good. They’re set up similarly to their book ones.

Sonya: And that’s for the wide range that we talked about before, not just birds?

Karen: They don’t have as many in the apps.

Sonya: But they have more than just birds?

Karen: Yes, a few more than that.

Sonya: Nice.

Karen: Then there’s one called Merlin that will help you identify birds.

Sonya: Now that sounds like the book that you were talking about earlier that you gave to me called All About Backyard Birds. And down in the corner, it says a “Free Merlin Bird ID App” goes with it. How do those work together?

Karen: The book will allow you to find the bird. And then there’s a little QR code that you can take a picture of with your phone. That will open the app, and then it will give you more options. On the app there are the bird songs, so you can listen to them. Many times, identifying a bird, you have to be able to hear its song. And it’s very important in identifying birds, because you won’t see them if you don’t hear them.

Sonya: That’s true. And so often I hear them, but I don’t know what I’m listening to.

Karen: Yes, and if you know what you’re listening to, it’ll make it easier to help identify.

Sonya: So that’s how the book and the app can work together. Now I noticed there were a couple of other books that you mentioned, but they’re not field guides. Is that correct?

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: The Tree Identification Book. I know my husband got one of these, but you don’t consider this a field guide.

Karen: No.

Sonya: What is this called?

Karen: This is more of a key to help. It steps you through and helps you identify what you are looking at, but it will start with questions for you to answer and to go through.

Sonya: So it walks you through the steps.

Karen: It will walk you through the steps of identifying. This one has actual photographs.

Sonya: Black and white photographs. They’re very detailed.

Karen: And it has photographs of the leaves, the twigs, the fruit, the bark—to help you identify trees in any season.

Sonya: So you go through and you say, “Okay, this is what the leaf looks like,” and then it’ll tell you, “All right, now go here and identify this,” and as it walks you through, at the end, “Ta-da! this is what you’re looking at.”

Karen: Exactly.

Sonya: Nice. Now, that’s a big book to take with us in the field.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: You have a little one here.

Karen: I have a little one.

Sonya: Called Tree Finder.

Karen: This one is more portable to take with you. Similar concept, but this one just has little drawings in it; but again, will step you through. “Does it have this? Does it have that? Go here if it has this. Go here if it has that,” and will just keep stepping you through until you get to the name of whatever it is you’re looking at.

Sonya: This book has a special history with you, doesn’t it?

Karen: I’ve used this book since sixth grade.

Sonya: Not that particular copy, though.

Karen: Not this particular copy, but this Tree Finder, since sixth grade. I learned how to use it in sixth grade.

Sonya: Sixth grade was a wonderful nature year for you.

Karen: Oh, it was wonderful.

Sonya: What did you do in sixth grade? Tell everybody.

Karen: I was one of the . . . there were 120 students in our public school system who were chosen to go to either the city zoo or the nature center for their sixth year class of schooling. I went to the nature center, and we learned all sorts of things.

Sonya: You went there how often?

Karen: For the full year. That was our year of school. We raised chickens on the farm that the nature center had. We learned to identify the trees—some of them by their bark; many of them by their leaves. We learned all sorts of things that you can learn at a nature study. The nature center has a pond, forest, fields, everything. So we spent the whole year pretty much out in nature, drawing wildflowers, learning about frogs and toads and trees and anything that was on the nature center grounds.

Sonya: So ever since then, that love of nature has kept going. And field guides—you probably know most of what’s in field guides by now. Do you even use them anymore?

Karen: Yes I do.

Sonya: Do you?

Karen: I still come across things that I do not know what they are, and I have to go grab a field guide so I can look it up, yes.

Sonya: That’s wonderful. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of field guides with us. I hope that it makes everybody’s nature studies and nature walks a little more comfortable.


  1. Great episode! I especially loved the Tree Finder that Karen introduced, both for its size and illustrations. When looking it up on Amazon I noticed that it is listed as an Eastern U.S. guide. Is there a similar tree identification resource that you or Karen would recommend for the Western U.S.? Thanks again for such an interesting episode!

  2. Wow! I can’t imagine being able to immerse myself in a year of nature study as a young person. What a blessing.

  3. Thank you Sonya and Karen for this blog post. We love nature study, and I am always looking for book recommendations. I appreciate Karen sharing her extensive knowledge, and I would like her to share more about nature study–especially about the actual keeping of a nature journal. I get bogged down trying to discern how much I should help the kids, how to encourage them to do their best work, etc. Also, although I know Charlotte Mason advocated going out in all kinds of weather, we live in the Midwest where the weather in winter is just plain hazardous. I would love to hear how to continue nature study into those dark COLD winter months.

    • For Winter you could spend the term focusing on the sky and constellations. Set up a telescope by a window with a good view. Weather and climate is a good one for winter as well. The Handbook of Nature Study has a section on weather and climate and it talks about atmospheric temperature and height. You could pull snippets from that section of HNS and then add in living books, such as those by Eric Sloane. He has several about weather, including “The Weather Book”, “Look at the Sky and Tell the Weather”, and “Book of Storms”. Sabbath Mood Homeschool also has a list of weather-related books for all grades.

      Sincerely, someone in Idaho who also likes to stay inside and be cozy during the winter. 😉

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