Hiking, Field Guides Help Fill a Winter's Day

By Wiegman, Paul g | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 6, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Hiking, Field Guides Help Fill a Winter's Day


Wiegman, Paul g, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Winter will arrive at 2:47 p.m. Dec. 21.

I'm not a big fan of winter. I spend more time indoors but still have natural history on my mind. Winter is my time to pull field and hiking guides from the shelves to review what I saw over the past season and make notes on things and places to look for come spring. Staying warm and leafing through the pages of bird, wildflower and insect field guides, or looking for new places to visit next season is a perfect winter day for me.

I recently spent a long afternoon at the local bookstore leafing through some field and hiking guides I hadn't seen before. There were some exciting new titles for outdoor enthusiasts.

The blockbuster, in my estimation, is the new "Sibley Guide to Trees" by David Allen Sibley (Alfred A. Knopf, $39.95). It features more than 600 species of trees from throughout North America. More than 4,100 detailed illustrations highlight the subtle similarities and distinctions between species of both native and introduced species. Also included are 500 maps of the ranges of the trees.

The book is arranged in taxonomic order. Pines, firs and spruces are at the front of the book with the flowering and nut-bearing trees following. This ordering puts all the pines together, the oaks in one group, the ashes together and so forth. I favor that arrangement in field guides because it demonstrates the natural relationship between families of trees, thus teaching a little botany as well as providing identifications.

"The Sibley Guide to Trees" covers all of North America and is a big book -- maybe a bit too big to be a field guide. However, the same author first introduced his bird field guide covering all of North America and then published smaller Eastern and Western versions. I'm looking forward to a similar division for the tree guide.

A perfect companion to the Sibley guide is "Trees of Pennsylvania. A Complete Reference Guide" by Ann Fowler Rhodes and Timothy A. Block (University of Pennsylvania Press, $55). This is a hardback book beautifully illustrated with photographs, line drawings and range maps for the nearly 200 species of trees in Pennsylvania. It's not a field guide, but one that is a must for when you get back home.

Aside from the brief, to-the-point notes about bark, leaves, buds, fall leaf color, flowers and fruits, each species has a paragraph or two outlining the range in the state as well as the habitat in which the species is found. The descriptive text is exceptional because the authors have done extensive field explorations within Pennsylvania.

That last point of having lots of real field experience is important to consider when you are looking at any field or hiking guide.

There are guides written by authors who gather data from the Internet and other sources without doing much observing or hiking on the ground. The results are often misleading and downright wrong. As a precaution, when you are looking at a state or regionally specific guide, check the "About the Author" section to see where they are from and how much experience they have in that place. The more local the author, the more likely the book will have accurate information.

An excellent field guide by a regional author is "Birds of Pennsylvania" by Franklin Haas and Roger Burrows (Lone Pine Publishing, $21.95). Haas is the founder of and was publisher and chief editor of the periodical Pennsylvania Birds from 1987 to 2000.

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