Thursday, October 23, 2008

Finding help for tough identifications

If you’re anything like me, you likely have a bookcase full of fieldguides in your house. And though you may have started with a fieldguide to birds or trees or mammals, somehow, inexorably, over the years you’ve added fieldguides on subjects you never would have guessed you would own back when you got your first one.

Some fieldguides are very complete. Birds are a good example. Many now show females, males, juveniles, inter-grades, hybrids and other plumages. As a result, if you get a good look at the bird (which of course it feels like something that rarely happens) you can probably identify it.
Other fieldguide topics are less satisfying, I’ve found. For something like fungi, for example, there are so many species that authors are forced to make selections about what species to include. So they look at the various habitats in the U.S. and then choose the most common species found in those habitats.

But there you are, out in the woods somewhere, new fieldguide in hand, fungus (or fern) in front of you and you can’t identify it. Isn’t that a bummer? I can’t really fault the authors of those national guides. With thousands of species, they simply have to make choices. Especially with plants and insects, the number of species found in just a single state will fill the average number of pages of in a single fieldguide. That doesn’t make it any the less frustrating for the rest of us.

A solution, I’m finding, is to search for fieldguides specific to the state or region where you live. In the bad old days when you were lucky to find any fieldguide for just mushrooms, say, regional fieldguides rarely existed. But now they are much more common, and even if you can’t find a guide to your state, it’s usually possible to find one for the state or province next door that will be better for you than a national guide that tries to cover a little bit of everything.

The regional guides will certainly include more of the uncommon species in your area than is possible for a national fieldguide to include. And so while I can’t guarantee that you will be able to identify that odd fungus or fern or wildflower you’re sitting in front of, those regional guides will increase the odds you’ll find out what it is.

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