Books & Resources

Every naturalist ought to have access to a decent library of field guides and natural history books, for both identifying species in the field and study at home.  In addition, there are a number of useful websites and apps available to the naturalist these days.  Below I list a few of my favorite resources for the California naturalist, books and websites I have found to be particularly useful.  As always, I am open to suggestions for further reading!

Field Guides
A note on illustrations: Depictions of species in field guides may be in line drawings, color illustrations, color photographs, or some combination of the three.  I have noted which method each guide uses.  Personal preference varies, but I like to compare idealized illustrations with real-life photographs to get the overall best impression of a plant or animal.  I find it's useful to consult one guide's drawings and another guide's photographs!

Trees & Shrubs

The Sibley Guide to Trees
The Sibley Guide to Trees : Covers the trees of North America in full color illustrations.

Trees and Shrubs of California : One of the California Natural History Guides series, this guide covers the woody plants of California in line drawings with some photographs.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Western Region : Covers trees of the western United States in color photographs.

National Geographic Field Guide to Trees of North America : Color illustrations.


Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers: Washington, Oregon, California and adjacent areas : Covers wildflowers of these states in line drawings; a few illustrations are in color.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Western Region : Covers wildflowers of the western United States in color photographs.

The wildflower books in the California Natural History Guides series are all beneficial blends of field guide and natural history text:

Introduction to California Desert Wildflowers

Introduction to California Spring Wildflowers of the Foothills, Valleys, and Coast

Introduction to California Mountain Wildflowers

Introduction to Shore Wildflowers of California, Oregon, and Washington

For the Sierra Nevada region:
Sierra Nevada Wildflowers: A Field Guide to Common Wildflowers and Shrubs of the Sierra Nevada, including Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks : a Falcon Guide with color photographs

For the desert regions:
Mojave Desert Wildflowers: A Field Guide to High Desert Wildflowers of California, Nevada, and Arizona 
Colorado Desert Wildflowers: A Guide to Flowering Plants of the Low Desert, Including the Coachella Valley, Anza-Borrego Desert, and Portions of Joshua Tree.
(both by Jon Mark Stewart, with color photographs)

Mojave Desert Wildflowers: A Field Guide to Wildflowers, Trees, and Shrubs of the Mojave Desert, Including the Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley National Park, and Joshua Tree National Park
Sonoran Desert Wildflowers: A Guide to Common Plants  : Includes Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Saguaro National Park, Organ Pipe National Monument and the Sonoran portion of Joshua Tree National Park
(both are Falcon Guides with color photographs)

The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California  : At 1570 pages, this is not exactly a field guide, but is the authoritative resource on all California flora and must be included!  I've brought it with me on trips and stashed it in the car, though I don't recommend putting it in your backpack!  All illustrations are highly technical line drawings (use along side a dissecting scope - or at the very least a hand lens - for best results!)


The Sibley Guide to Birds
The Sibley Guide to Birds : Beautiful full-color illustrations of the birds of North America.  A personal favorite.  I have found the book itself too big to take into the field (maybe leave it in the car) but there are also eastern and western regional versions that are a little smaller.

Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America : Perhaps my second-favorite, this book is backpack- (or large pocket-) sized and depicts the birds in color photographs, which are helpful to compare with Sibley's illustrations.

Kaufman Field Guide to Birds
Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America : Many birders swear by Peterson, with good reason.  This guide predates Sibley and Kaufman, and is illustrated with Roger Tory Peterson's classic color paintings (and a few new ones in the latest edition).  It is also small enough to be considered a true field guide.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Western Region : And of course other birders prefer Audubon.  This guide is illustrated in color photographs, though in classic Audubon field guide style, the photographs are in the first half of the book, while the descriptions and range maps are in the second half, requiring readers to flip back and forth between multiple pages.  It's not my favorite lay-out, but it has its merits if you prefer photographs. 

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America 
Birds of North America (Golden Guide)
are also both handy, with color illustrations.

For owls specifically,
Field Guide to Owls of California and the West : Part of the California Natural History Guides series, I might call this more of a natural history book than a field guide.  If you are as fascinated with owls as I am, read it from cover to cover!  An excellent book.
Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean : One of several Peterson Reference Guides, this is a great guide to owls and their natural history, with beautiful color photographs.


Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America : Attractively laid out with color photographs on the right side of the page, and species accounts and range maps on the left.  A delight to use.

Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America : Laid out similarly to Kaufman's Butterfly guide, with nice color photographs but without the handy range maps (and I can't figure out why).


Mammals of California : Part of the California Natural History Guides series, illustrated with color plates as well as line drawings

Peterson Field Guide to Mammals of North America : Illustrated with color plates in the first third of the book, and range maps and color photographs alongside species accounts in the last two thirds of the book.

Mammal Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American  Species : A handy, though hefty, book for identifying mammals signs in the field, including tracks, scat, dens and more.

Reptiles & Amphibians

Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California : Uses line drawings, color illustrations and color photographs effectively throughout.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians : Like all Audubon guides, color photographs occupy the first half of the book, while species accounts and range maps are located in the second half.

Intertidal Life

National Audubon Society Field Guide to Seashore Creatures : Arranged as all Audubon guides are (see above) and illustrated with color photographs.

California Coastal Invertebrates (Mac's Guides) : Not a book, but a handy, double-sided plastic laminated card with full-color illustrations for quick reference while splashing in tide pools.  (More convenient than the Audubon guide.)

If you're really interested in intertidal life, The Light and Smith Manual: Intertidal Invertebrates from Central California to Oregon is the Jepson manual of the rocky coast, the authority on tide pool organisms.  (I have little experience with it, but like Jepson it is highly technical.)

Regional Guides

The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada : A favorite for trips into the Sierra where my attention may be divided between wildflowers, birds and a curious fungus on a log, this guide has it all, from lichen to mammals, all in full color illustrations.  It even contains star charts.  What more could you ask for?

A few books in the California Natural History Guides series
By now you may have noticed a pattern and that several names repeat themselves: the Sibley, Peterson, Kaufman, National Audubon Society, and California Natural History Guides series are all excellent field guides with volumes covering a wide range of topics beyond what is listed here. 

Additionally, the National Wildlife Federation has put out a series of excellent guides on birds, trees, wildflowers, and insects.

I also like the Golden Guide series.  These feel more like children's books, and I know I would have absolutely adored them as a kid!  They're beautifully illustrated in color but not super technical - excellent for beginning naturalists, or seasoned naturalists eager to get their children interested.  Favorites include guides on  trees, wildflowers, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies, insects, spiders, and seashore life, among others!  Pond Life would be especially valuable for teaching ecology lessons to children who enjoy dabbling at the edge of the neighborhood pond!  (Might as well just buy the whole set!) 

I've had these little well-loved books since I was 4 years
old and they were an invaluable introduction to common
species for me.
For a set of pocket-sized lightweight field guides that would be beneficial to anyone starting out their nature explorations, I recommend the Finder series, which includes individual books on ferns, trees, fish, birds, mammals and intertidal life of the Pacific Coast, as well as Sierra wildflowers, redwood region wildflowers, and desert trees.  I used these as a kid (though they're intended for adults as many use dichotomous keys) and I still think they're pretty great!

Plenty of these guides come in multiple editions, as scientific nomenclature is every-changing.  You may have a favorite edition if you've been at this for a while, or you may want to look for the newest edition if you're just starting out, so I've left out information regarding the different editions.

Natural History Books
More than field guides, these books go beyond identifying species (though some do that as well) to describe their ecology and natural history, how they all fit together into the bigger picture and form cohesive ecosystems.  I highly recommend reading them cover to cover - don't merely flip through them as you would a field guide.  It does help to have a field guide or two handy while reading natural histories, though, for quickly referencing unfamiliar species.

This list is by no means complete - there is a wealth of natural history books available for California alone - but these are some that line my own shelves.  I am familiar with all of them and have read all but two or three in their entirety (and some more than once!) 

A Natural History of California (Allan A. Schoenherr)
An excellent and comprehensive work, broken down by region to describe the key species of each major bioregion in California, from coast to desert to mountain peaks.

California Forests and Woodlands: A Natural History (Verna R. Johnston)
Beautifully describes each of California's distinct forest types and their characteristic trees, along with the interrelationships between the other plants and animals that call our woodlands home.

Sierra Nevada Natural History (Tracy Irwin, Robert Usinger, David Lukas)
This book is a classic guide to the Sierra Nevada region, describing hundreds of species, from fungi to mammals.  Sort of a hybrid natural history-field guide.

Sierra Nevada: The Naturalist's Companion (Verna R. Johnston)
Beginning in the western foothills, the author takes the enraptured reader through each forest type as we climb higher in elevation and finally pass over the Sierra and into the Great Basin on the eastern side.  Read this beautifully written book, then enjoy a slow drive over Tioga or Sonora pass with an all new perspective!

Introduction to California Plant Life (Robert Ornduff, Phyllis M. Faber, Todd Keeler-Wolf)
A thorough but concise overview of California's many diverse plant communities and the factors that have influenced them.

California Plant Families: West of the Sierran Crest and Deserts (Glenn Keator, Margaret Steunenberg)
To become proficient at identifying plants in the field, it is imperative to recognize the characteristics of common plant families, and this book helps with that.

Conifers of California (Ronald M. Lanner)
A must-have for those who admire and love trees, this part-field guide, part-natural history is the only book devoted entirely to the diverse array of conifers found in our state.

Oaks of California (Bruce M. Pavlik)
Equally beneficial, this is the first and leading book on California's numerous and iconic oak species.

Secrets of the Oak Woodlands: Plants and Animals Among California's Oaks  (Kate Marianchild)
Beautifully illustrated with watercolor painting and packed with fascinating facts about key species of the oak woodlands, this book made me fall in love with a part of California I was more used to driving through on the way to the mountains or coast than stopping to admire.

California Desert Flowers: An Introduction Families, Genera and Species (Sia Morhardt, Emil Morhardt)
This is another good guide to the characteristics of common plant families, and a great help when heading into the desert in search of spring blooms!

The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery (Bruce M. Pavlik)
This highly enjoyable book describes the desert region and all its inhabitants in such a way that it is sure to change your perception of what so many think is just a vast wasteland.

Introduction to California Birdlife (Jules G. Evans)
A handy volume for birders and other naturalists, the author describes the key birds found in each of California's major bioregions.

Between Pacific Tides (Edward F. Ricketts, Jack Calvin, Joel W. Hedgpeth)
This classic work has not met its equal in the nearly 80 years since its original publication and deserves a spot on the shelf of every naturalist that enjoys a good peek into tide pools or tromp along mudflats.  I highly recommend this one!  It appears dense, but is very readable and provides an astounding amount of information on the inhabitants of our highly productive coastal habitats.

The Monterey Bay Shoreline Guide (Jerry Emory)
If you plan to visit the California coast at any location from Point Año Nuevo in the north, south to Point Sur, pick up this book.  More than a natural history book, it covers the human history of the area as well, along with providing maps and information regarding walking paths and beach access points to make the most of your visit.

Magpies and Mayflies (Derek Madden, Ken Charters, Cathy Snyder)
For those with a casual interest, this little book and its fanciful sketches provides an introduction to the plants and animals of California's Great Central Valley - the only book of it's kind I've come across. 

Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California (David Alt, Donald Hyndman)
A handy guide for geology enthusiasts, bring this one along when driving the highways of the northern part of the state (north of San Luis Obispo, Bakersfield and Bishop) for information on geological features easily viewed from the road, as well as the geologic processes that formed them.

Geology of the Sierra Nevada (Mary Hill)
For a relative novice in the world of geology, I found this book to be engaging and easy to understand as the author describes the vast geologic history of the awe-inspiring Sierra Nevada range.

For the gardener-naturalists among us:
Gardening with a Wild Heart: Restoring California's Native Landscapes at Home (Judith Larner Lowry)
The author's almost poetic approach to describing restoration gardening will captivate and inspire those who enjoy cultivating or would like to cultivate their own plot of native plants.

The California Native Landscape: The Homeowner's Design Guide to Restoring Its Beauty and Balance (Greg Rubin, Lucy Warren)
More of a practical, how-to book than anything, this guide leads the homeowner through the process of planning, designing, planting and caring for native landscapes.  It includes an overview of popular native plants to consider using in a native landscape that is particularly helpful.

The California Wildlife Habitat Garden: How to Attract Bees, Butterflies, Birds, and Other Animals (Nancy Bauer)
This guide describes how to provide the best balance of food, water and shelter for a number of beneficial garden critters, for those who would rather provide a little piece of wildlife habitat than meticulously tend a lawn.

Weedless Gardening (Lee Reich)
This gardening guide advises readers in how to implement the "no-dig," top-down approach to gardening, which mimics nature and aims to restore a healthy soil ecology.  I've used this method and think it works quite well!

Websites & Online Resources
In our day and age, the internet can be an invaluable tool for naturalists as well.  Smart phones even allow us to take nature apps into the field (though I will always prefer a book!)  Listed below are a handful of websites useful to naturalists and those interested in the natural world around them.

This citizen science project is an excellent photo-based tool for naturalists of all ages and experience levels.  The concept is simple: snap a photo of a plant or animal and upload it to the website, tagging your location and adding the species name if you know it.  If not, that's fine too - other users will help come up with an ID for you.  Browse around for a while - this site is a great one!

A collaboration between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, this site is the number one resource for birders worldwide.  As birders enter their data in the form of checklists, they create detailed personal birding statistics for themselves and simultaneously provide valuable data for science.  Access maps of birding hotspots and checklists of species, locations of individual species, bar charts showing what birds to expect in your area, and more - all in real-time.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
This is probably my favorite online resource for all things bird, from interesting articles to species accounts.  Cornell's site provides access to bird songs and calls, as well as links to the real-time range maps found on eBird.

Project FeederWatch:
This citizen science project, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, helps scientists track the movement of winter birds as well as record long-term trends in populations through the assistance of FeederWatchers, interested individuals who count birds that show up at their backyard feeders and report their data.

Also in collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this citizen science project seeks to engage the public while also gathering data on the reproductive success of birds across the country.  If you've found an active nest, become a certified NestWatch monitor (it's really simple) and contribute to scientific research from your own backyard!

Audubon Society:
Everything from birding tips to conservation issues to an informative guide to birds can be found on the National Audubon Society's website.  In particular, I like their North American Bird Guide, under the "Birds" tab at the top of the page.

The Feather Atlas:
Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this tool lets anyone search their user-friendly data base of feather images.  I have found it very useful for identifying feathers found in the field.

Calflora is a resource just for those of us in California, and is a little like eBird (see above) for botanists.  Like iNaturalist and eBird, you can search regions (by county) for certain species to get an idea of what's out there, contribute data, or get help with identifying a species.  Calflora allows you to enter your observations, like iNaturalist, but doesn't require a photo (though you're welcome to upload one).  It's a little more technical than the other sites listed.

Nature Tracking:
A guide to tracks and sign that includes birds, herps and inverts as well as mammals (a guide to beetle tracks, antlion traps and caterpillar scat is not something you come across everyday!)  The site includes links to iNaturalist and a list of favorite tracking books, as well as a tracking app.

California Herps:
A site dedicated to the reptiles and amphibians of California, with species accounts, photos, range maps, and even sound recordings.  (The place to go to hear frog and toad calls.)

Butterflies and Moths of North America:
A guide to exactly what the title says, with a twist: the site is interactive, allowing users to upload photos and contribute data.

A guide to nearshore plants and animals of the Monterey Bay.  The section on rocky shores is particularly useful when tide-pooling.

NOAA Tides and Currents, Monterey Ca:
Equally helpful when going tide-pooling along the coast is knowledge of daily high and low tides.

A natural history website with a bent toward birding, created by prominent California naturalist, Don Roberson.  Linked below is the page for all things Monterey County.  Set aside some time to explore this diverse and valuable site.

Bring Back the Beaver Campaign:
Information on the importance of beaver as keystone species, from the Occidental Art's and Ecology's WATER institute.  An excellent reference guide is available for download here:

No comments:

Post a Comment