» Field Guides
» Ranking
» Illustrations vs Photos
» Portability
» Important Field Marks
» Range Maps
» Aesthetics
» Coverage
» Page Flipping vs Keys

« Ontario Field Naturalist's Toolchest
This website's purpose is to provide naturalists with the tools to identify and appreciate almost any flora, fauna or natural phenomena in Ontario.

The field guide section covers most the flora, fauna and natural phenomena that could be found. Field guides are usually in book form but some are online. Each field guide has a picture of its cover linked to Goggle Books or publisher for your convenience.  It also includes sections on the best field guides, field guides of the future, an outline of species diversity, sounds that creatures make and more.  Because of the large number of books on a wide range of topics are being reviewed, reviews are short and based mostly on the layout of the books.  I can not easily judge the quality of  the text, so you can take many of my reviews with a grain of salt.

The links section covers stuff found on the internet that is not directly related to identification.  These include field volunteering, field naturalists clubs, organizations, forums and more.

The gear section outlines the equipment needed in the field depending on your interest.   

Field Guides
Topics are arranged in descending order of popularity.  Hence birds are covered first and within the insect category butterflies and dragonflies are covered first.  Field guides are listed in descending order of usefulness.  Each field guide is briefly described in terms of its usefulness, its Niche and various other factors which are described later.  Each field guide has one or two links to more information.  These links are in code.  "GB" means a link to Google Books, "Pub" means a direct link to the publisher of the book, "Am" means and "Rev" means a review.  If the link is in italics that means there is a preview of the book.  If the link is in bold that is the more useful link and will be the link used for the image of the book cover.  

Google Books is a great place to learn more about books.  They include a general description of the book; links to Amazon, Chapters and libraries; references from web pages, books and  scholarly works; reviews and other features.  Often a limited preview is provided for a book.  Some pages or illustrations are omitted.  In the case of out of copyright works, usually really old books, you can see the entire book.  You can follow the links for Amazon or Chapters and learn even more about the book. If you change to in the address bar you may get additional reviews.  Bear in mind that sometimes the links to Amazon or Chapters that Google Books provide are sometimes incorrect.  They may point to an out of print version or point to nothing.  You can do a search with Amazon or Chapters in that situation.

After reading the material on the internet about the book you can research further.  The book may be available through one of your local libraries or through interlibrary loan.    

To purchase a field guide you have many options. You can buy it online through Amazon, Chapters or directly from the publisher.  You can buy it from a book store -- a local Coles or Chapters, an independent bookstore, or from a specialty nature bookstore.  Pelee Wings and the visitor center at Algonquin Provincial Park are outstanding bookstores.  If you know of any more let me know.  An independent bookstore can be useful for getting deals on shipping.  On a rare occasion you may find it used.


In this website I rank a book primarily on its species profiles and especially on its format.  The introduction sections and appendixes are often useful but it is the quality of the species profiles that make or break a field guide.   

Illustrations vs Photos

Illustrations are generally preferred to photographs because they can fine tuned to represent the average appearance of an organism like birds from a good angle with field marks clearly visible.  Illustrations at times can misrepresent subtle colors and patterns and it is useful having photographs to compare against.  The Kaufman Focus Guides have tried a third approach -- digitally altered photographs -- which removes much of the disadvantage of photographs.

Useful field guides must balance size versus coverage.  If it is too big the book will take up too much room in your pack, be too heavy or will not fit into your pocket.

Important Field Marks
The Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America has in my opinion the best system for illustrating important field marks.  First of all it only highlights about one to three field marks.  These field marks are the ones most easily seen in the field.  As a beginner learning to spot these field marks will lead to accurate identification most of the time.  Focusing on more field marks is useful for experts (as in the book Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America) who want to identify in poorer conditions when the primary field marks are not visible.

How the field marks are presented is important too.  The Peterson's guide uses unadorned arrows plus italicized text for its field marks.  The expert guide Sibley's uses labeled arrows.  Other books leave its illustrations or photographs unadorned and instead just use bold or italic the important field marks.  Guides which don't include important field marks can significant slow down learning and thus slow learning.

Range Maps
Knowing where an organism lives in important.  Having range maps so you know if its occurs in your area is essential.  Mind you range maps are not exact -- their borders are often poorly known and do change over time.  Sometimes a bird might be seen way outside its range.  Still many books don't include range maps.  This can be overcome somewhat by using local checklists or by referring to books with range maps.  Also, if a book is local enough range maps are not necessary.

In general the ranges of the more popular animals are well known.  For many groups of animals such as spiders, ranges are poorly known and you may not find range maps without considerable difficulty.  In the case of plants, range maps are less important it you have a regional guide.  Plants are generally widespread and not nearly so habitat specific.  Most plant guides do not include range maps.

Aesthetics sells but does not necessarily make a great field guide.  But having beautiful photographs and good stories are more likely to spur interest.  Unless the aesthetics are well built into the format of the book it is best to get a great but dry field guide and get an interesting book to leave at home to read on the subject.

What a guide includes and excludes is important. Ideally you want a book that covers all the species in your specific area. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find high quality local field guides because the more local the field guide the more difficult is it to sell sufficient quantities of that guide. In the case of flora or fauna with high hundreds or thousands of species many species must be sacificied and/or species coverage will be limited to common species or coverage will be at a more general level like genus or family.

Page Flipping vs Keys
Dichotomous keys are unfamiliar to most naturalists.  With a dichotomous key you are given a number of decisions.  Each decision can go one of two ways.  After following a number of decisions you can zero in on the species you are trying to identify.  Dichotomous keys are the norm in the more scientific field guides or are sometimes included in some more popular field guides as an add on.  Dichotomous keys are time consuming and difficult to get use to and that is why most people prefer page flipping.   People who page flip don't necessary look at every image in a field guide.  With a bit of experience you could sacrificed between different families of organisms and later different genuses without difficulty.  Then you only need to compare a few pages for an identification. The Newcomb's Wildflower Guide uses a key that is not dichotomous but involves much more than two decisions at a time (specifically eight, six and four then a series of two afterwards).  This makes it easier than a standard key.