NATURE NOTES - Number 10                December 14, 2020



Thanks for visiting Nature Notes.  The intent here is to develop a greater interest and knowledge in nature and then pass it on to scouts.  This NATURE NOTE is to encourage you to use field guides in working with scouts.  Several merit badges require their use in identification of plants and animals.  Email me with any comments at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..              Bob Garst

Our current topic:  Field Guides

Field guides are necessary for anyone wanting to identify birds, trees, wildflowers, insects, rocks, etc.  There are many good ones out there, but let me offer some thoughts before you go holiday shopping for your scout.

Make sure the guide covers this area: Virginia, or at least Eastern North America.  Some will include all of North America.  These can give you more identification options than you need, and add to the confusion of a young scout.   A simpler guide is best for beginners.  Color pictures, range maps, and some narrative description are usually included in any guide. 

Once acquired, spend time with the guide to see how it is organized.  You might want to focus on only a part at a time.  For birds, learn about ducks, woodpeckers, hawks, and sparrows in the winter, and in the spring look at flycatchers, warblers and vireos.  For trees, winter is great for evergreen identification.  Browse the guide often to become familiar with the contents.  The time will come when you see a bird or tree, and say “I remember seeing that in the book!”  You may not remember the name, but you know you’ve met before.  Don’t wait until you are in the middle of the woods before you first open it.  (BE PREPARED!) 

Always consider the range maps and time of year.  Scouts don’t always grasp the range map concept right away.  This is also a time to teach a little geography, like where you live on a map of the US.  Don’t assume they know this.

You will not be able to identify all species you find even with a good guide.  That’s OK.  Maybe you didn’t get a good look at it, or the leaves were too high, or whatever.  Often you can narrow it down to a maple tree of some type, or a beetle of some kind.  Searching the guide for an unidentified plant or animal will better equip you for the next time. 

Don’t be afraid to write notes in YOUR guide – date, place, something you noted that the book didn’t discuss.  A well-worn field guide is a sign of a good naturalist, or at least one that is learning.  Wear it out!

Don’t assume a second guide on the same subject won’t add to your knowledge.  A different guide might just mention that one thing you needed to solve the mystery.  I have probably 8 bird guides.

Also remember that plants and animals don’t change, so an old field guide is acceptable.  Visit used book stores, yard sales, antique stores, and your grandmother’s attic and look for them. They will be cheaper. 

Some folks want to use one of many apps that are out there for identification.  If you are comfortable with that, go for it.  I’m a believer that you can get more interest in pictures in a field guide than an app for a 12-year old scout in the field.  Use apps or the internet to supplement the field guide.

Animal and plant identification helps teach the need to look for details – the length of the tail, the fuzzy feel of a leaf, the numbers of petals on a flower, and so on.  Some guides include a dichotomous key for plant identification.  A great aide, but it takes some knowledge of terms as well as patience and may be too much for young scouts. 

A word of caution on trees and plants.  Most guides are for native plants and trees.  If you are in a suburban area, you’ll encounter many ornamental and introduced species that the guide probably won’t cover.  Get into the woods away from civilization if you can.

Nature Opportunities:

Hopefully this Note will better equip you to get a few guides for a son or daughter and get them interested in nature.  Or maybe buy for your troop library.  I won’t indorse any set of guides over another, but a current good series that includes birds, reptiles and amphibians, mammals, trees, rocks and minerals, wildflowers, and other topics is published by the National Geographic Society.  They are pocket-size, inexpensive ($15 or less) and available in bookstores or on-line.   The Peterson Field Guide series and Audubon guides are also excellent, but a little more detailed.  Go look at what’s available, pick one up, and stick your nose into nature in 2021.  Enjoy!