Friday, November 30, 2012

Holiday Gift Guide 2012

At this time of year I like to give a free plug to products that I have found useful myself, or that I believe would be beneficial to my readers and their friends. This year has seen a trio of books that I am proud to sing praises of. I even lent images and text to one of them. Enjoy!

Kollath+Stensaas Publishing continues to turn out highly useful, generously illustrated, and compact regional field guides on subjects seldom treated by major publishing houses. The latest from their presses is Insects of New England & New York, by Tom Murray.

Tom is a prolific photographer of invertebrates and his images here are more than worth the $18.95 retail price of the book. I was profoundly flattered to receive a free copy, but even more astounded to read the acknowledgements:

”When I was first becoming serious about insect photography, Eric Eaton….would regularly visit my website and identify my photos. With Eric’s encouragement I joined in March of 2005.”

Tom should be very proud of what he has done with that “encouragement.” Critics will say that the images of insects identified to species, or even genus, can be misleading to users trying to make their own identifications. This is true, because many species look essentially identical, or are conversely highly variable in color, pattern, and/or size. I would make the counter argument that one goal of a field guide should be to illustrate just how incredibly diverse invertebrates are. Tom and the publishers achieve this in boatloads.

Insects of New England & New York is more comprehensive than most field guides to insects for any region. It should be a standard reference for students of all ages throughout the northeast U.S. and adjacent southern Canada. Still can’t get enough of Tom’s photography? Then please visit his amazing galleries at

Another good friend, who I have yet to meet in person, had her own book come out this year. Seabrooke Leckie, together with David Beadle, produced the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America (Houghton Mifflin Company).

Seabrooke lives in the wilds of Canada, assuring that any U.S. bias was curbed at least to some degree in the coverage of this book. Those that are familiar with Charles Covell’s A Field Guide to Moths of Eastern North America (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984), also in the Peterson series, might think this new book to be redundant at best. Not true. Beadle and Leckie cover more species, and illustrate them with images of live specimens. No more pinned specimens with wings spread out. What you see at your porch light is what you will see in this book. Common variations in color and pattern are also shown for those species that vary in their appearance.

This book exceeded my expectations. One thing you might find puzzling, as I did, are the green, red, and orange bars next to the name of each species. Those bars represent “spring,” “summer,” and “fall” respectively. Beneath the bars is a black line that is not readily apparent, but which indicates the flight period for that species. This is explained in the “how to use this book” chapter, but it could have benefitted from a diagram. That is a minor negative, completely overwhelmed by the quality and comprehensiveness of this guide.

Seabrooke is a very gifted writer, and one’s style can be cramped by the constraints imposed by field guides. You owe it to yourself to visit her blog, The Marvelous in Nature, for a dose of her engaging style.

Last, but not least, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman have another hit in the Kaufman Field Guide series with the Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England (Houghton Mifflin Company). Kenn was kind enough to approach me to contribute the terrestrial invertebrate section, both text and a few images, for which I was very grateful. Income never hurts, but it is always a joy to work with him on a new project.

Again, this book far exceeded my expectations, even though I should have known better. Yes, virtually every organism you are likely to encounter, plus geology, weather, and astronomy are covered in this book. From your backyard to the wilderness, it’s in there. Tidepool life, and open ocean fishes are even included. Wait, there’s more! You also get….passages on habitats, sustainability, endangered species, conservation, and invasive species. Now how much would you pay? Ahem. Sorry, I was momentarily channeling infomercials.

I am certain it is not coincidental that all three of these books are focused on New England or the northeast U.S. It makes sense for the publisher, as this is where the majority of the human population lives, recreates, and does business. I look forward to participating in the creation of more regional guides in the future. Breaking our biosphere down into bite-size regions means that you can cover more species.

There you have it, the three books that I think every naturalist should have on their shelves this year. Let me know your opinions, and feel free to make additional suggestions.


  1. I am an advocate of the field guide. I train beginning field biologists and naturalists, not scientists. These people are not going to dive head first into taxonomy. They need to get their feet wet first. Field guides serve that purpose.

    Tom Murray's photography is exceptional. I've had his website bookmarked for some time. When Eric says his book is "more comprehensive than most", that catches my attention. Besides, for that price, how can you go wrong.

    As for the CRITICS. We have this same discussion all the time in botany. The professionals are quick to criticize Newcombs Wildflower Guide, but show me a field guide easier and more user friendly. Botanists will say "that picture is correct, but there are 3 others that look alike". Then they leave it at that. Tell us the difference. Are the leaves, stem, or flower rays different? I don't want to hear the descriptions are published in some obscure journal that the public will never read. I don't know anyone who carries a 50 pound backpack full of Gleason and Cronquist Illustrated Flora, or FONA, or Borror Delong & Triplehorn for insects, it just isn't practical.

    I'm sure Eric has experienced the frustration at Bugguide when people are told their photo can't be identified to species because you can't see the vital parts, like hindwings. As a lepidoptera collector, I will always be a fan of Covells book. So it was with some apprehension that I purchased Leckie and Beadle, what with just live shots. To my surprise, many of those that need the hindwings are illustrated. So I give it a thumbs up. There are plenty of Butterfly and Dragonfly guides on the market now. Books that show other insect groups, especially moths, are quite welcome.

    Many professionals spend their time under scopes, and are too introverted to care about programs and publications geared to a more general audience. With universities putting natural history on the back burner in favor of genetic studies, we are depending more and more on the hobbyist, the amateur, the photographer, and citizen science groups to provide us with much of the data coming in today. With that I say cheers to the field guides, and let's keep pumping them out. (sorry for the rant)

    1. "Rant?" You are simply making critical observations. What we need is to translate natural history interpretation, be it through writing, online blogs and websites, or personal interaction, into income for those people who do that kind of thing. Yes, I'm one of those who can't seem to make much of a living doing this, and writing is *not* lucrative. I know there are lots of others in my boat.


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