As an amateur naturalist, I need to rely heavily on the work of professionals and more experienced amateurs if I want to know what the Hell I’m doing. To that end, I’ve tried to assemble a pretty sizable library of natural science information. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s impossible to appreciate nature without these resources, but they certainly help. I wouldn’t be able to, oh, say, write a blog about nature without them, for example.
My starting place is a wide array of field guides. Call me a Luddite if you will, but I do think this is one area where print volumes remain superior in some ways. Yes, it is impractical to take a whole shelf of guides into the field, but I find them indispensable when I return home. It can be quite difficult to achieve good results Googling an animal or plant from a description (although odds improve as one learns more naturalist jargon) and the ability to page back-and-forth can be a tremendous asset. In general I prefer the Audubon series of guides, though The Sibley Guide to Birds may be the single best of these publications. I do think that choosing one series of guides vs. another is largely a matter of personal preference but have found that keeping it consistent can be advantageous. The presentation of information can vary pretty widely from one publisher to the next, and familiarity with a given format develops one’s research speed. For topics of particular interest it’s a good idea to have more than one guide. It might sound excessive, but different authors tend to focus on different features and the multiple perspectives can be the difference between “this is one of these seven species” and “oh, definitely this one.” One last thing about field guides: when I’m about to take a significant trip I like to prepare by browsing a guide or two to the common local wildlife at my destination. Knowing what I’m likely to spot goes quite a long way. It’s how, for example, I ultimately figured out that the odd “bird calls” I was hearing in Vermont’s Green Mountains were in fact produced by flying squirrels.
The next resource you’ll need is a good set of trail maps and hiking guides. Again the old-fashioned print version is often preferable – no device’s battery lasts forever and you may find yourself without a signal for your GPS but still needing to get your bearings. A lot of great maps are published by the US Geological Survey and/or local trail clubs (the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in this area). For guided hikes, I have found the Falcon and “50 hikes” series particularly well done in general, but there are countless options and I have rarely encountered one which was terrible.
Beyond the field guides, maps, and hike collections the contents of a naturalist’s bookshelf are really captain’s prerogative. What topics most interest you? I’ve chosen, among other things, a few volumes on gardening and landscaping, some additional mushroom guides, and a variety of environmentalist manifestos. I’m a major bibliophile in addition to a naturalist, so I am always on the lookout for that next perfect fit.
In the digital age, the word “library” has taken on a vastly expanded definition. This new breadth of meaning begins with our friend the internet, and naturalists benefit as much as anyone else. Even Wikipedia can serve as an excellent beginning – sure, it might be wrong, but it’s usually not hard to corroborate or debunk. Most parks and other public lands have their own websites (and social media presences). Localized species lists can also often be found. The sheer volume of available web resources is staggering, but below are a few of my favorites.
Smartphone apps can also be wonderfully useful and are increasing rapidly in sophistication. The Merlin Bird ID Tool, for one, is excellent. I caution against (and may be guilty of) overusing the bird calls to attract birds in the wild, but they are a wonderful learning tool. I’ve heard that Leafsnap is also quite good, although I haven’t been able to get it to accept photos taken with my phone for some reason. I have just recently discovered Mushroom ID. It is well-reviewed but I haven’t yet put it through the paces myself. I’m sure there are plenty of other great apps and I welcome recommendations.
Rounding out the naturalist’s library are two more collections, one of which I have in abundance and the other something I’m a bit delinquent in. The former is a curated and organized collection of one’s own data. Some might say I am a bit anal-retentive in this regard, but I don’t think I take particularly good field notes. I just catalog whatever information (and photos) I do come back with to a pathological degree. The latter is a network of other naturalists. I’m a bit of a lone wolf in my hobbies and so I do not excel at making and maintaining these connections. However, when I do blunder into them I see why they are so valuable. Sometimes it is simply so much easier to learn when taught directly by someone with the same interest.