Field guides in situ. Image supplied.

A field guide to field guides

Linda Jane Keegan is an environmental educator slash nature nerd – this year she heroed salps, kelp and mangroves in her excellent children’s book, Things in the Sea are Touching Me! Here, she explains what makes a functional field guide, and shares her favourites on our native flora and fauna.

Every hike or wander in the bush, for me, takes phenomenally longer that it needs to, and not just on account of my slow pace. Every movement, sound, splash of colour, and intriguing texture must be investigated, and often photographed. Birds, fallen berries, tiny bird’s nest fungi … Everything is waiting to be identified. So many species have fascinating biology, history and properties. To know the name of what you’re looking at opens the door to so much more.

There are some key features to look out for in field guides. Obviously clear photos and/or illustrations are helpful, and a written description detailing size, habitat, and other identifying information. Distribution maps showing where in the country a certain species is found can help eliminate options. Dichotomous keys guide you by comparing characteristics until you can determine a species.

This is a selection of guides covering the various plants, animals and fungi of New Zealand. It is not an exhaustive list, nor does it necessarily represent the “best” book(s) for each group, but they are the ones that I’ve tattered on many adventures, or certainly hope to as time goes on. This is what I think makes them stand out and be functional in the field or when identifying later at home. You don’t have to be an expert on our native species – I don’t proclaim to be – in order to enjoy them.

Linda Keegan tramping (hiking?) in New Hampshire.; image supplied.

Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest by John Dawson & Rob Lucas (Godwit, 2000)

I’m starting with this because it’s my most-used guide, slightly wavy from past dampness, with the odd leaf still tucked between its pages. I distinctly remember choosing it, maybe 15 years ago, as my go-to tree identifier for its front section containing pages of leaves, grouped by similar looking species, which then directs you to the page with more on that specific plant. It is a very user-friendly way of identifying species, and a great place to start. While this book contains birds, lizards, frogs, bats and invertebrates, its limited scope in these areas make it less useful as an all-round guide. Which is why, for trees, I would instead recommend the more recent Field Guide to New Zealand’s Native Trees by the same authors (Craig Potton Publishing, 2012). Its superior layout with mostly one species per double page plus photos showing different aspects of the tree – leaves, flowers, fruit, bark – make it an incredibly useful identification guide. For general wildlife guides I would suggest Collins Field Guide to New Zealand Wildlife (HarperCollins Publishers, 2011) or Bateman Field Guide to Wild New Zealand (Bateman, 2010).

A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand by Andrew Crowe (Penguin Group NZ, 2004)

Andrew Crowe is well-renowned for many New Zealand plant guides. This one delivers exactly what is promised along with nutritional value and history of use. The text is accompanied by black and white illustrations of each species, and colour photo plates in the middle of the book. It includes edible fungi and seaweed, as well as a section on poisonous plants. Bonus features: plastic cover and a ruler on the back. It would be wonderful alongside Robert Vennell’s The Meaning of Trees (Harper Collins, 2019) which goes into a deeper explanation of the various plants’ history and uses.

A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand; image supplied.

Field Guide to New Zealand’s Epiphytes, Vines & Mistletoes by Catherine L. Kirby (The Environmental Research Institute – Te Pūtahi Rangahau Taiao, 2014)

It’s nice to have a guide that’s dedicated to plants that grow on top of other plants. Each double page spread represents one species – text on the left and photos on the right. The description includes a comment on recognition: similar species and how they are differentiated. The images are close-up and show multiple aspects of the species. Bonus feature: ruler on the back.

A Photographic Guide to the Mushrooms and Other Fungi of New Zealand by Geoff Ridley; photographs by Don Horne (New Holland Publishers, 2006)

I am always fascinated by fungi, surely frustrating my hiking companions as I stop here and there on hands and knees peering at various coloured growths. Something about their neat caps, wavy edges and myriad forms draws me in. This guide separates types by coloured tabs. Bold text helps you find the identifying features easily, an aspect of all the books in the A Photographic Guide series, which are also all conveniently sized for your backpack. Another fungi book worth a look is Shirley Kerr’s self-published A Field Guide to New Zealand Fungi (2019). It appears to be a very comprehensive guide with over 600 species represented.

Above the Treeline: A Nature Guide to Alpine New Zealand by Alan F. Mark (Craig Potton Publishing, 2012)

This all-in-one guide covers cone-bearing plants, flowering plants, ferns, mosses, club mosses, liverworts, lichen, fungi, birds, lizards and invertebrates. It makes sense to be inclusive of all species when considering a particular habitat such as the alpine environment. Maybe you want to know what species of tussock cushions your fall as you pounce to catch a skink (is that not everyone’s personal experience?!). Flowering plants make up the vast majority of the book, and the section begins with a photographic guide to the most easily recognised flowering species. Bonus feature: ruler on the back.

The Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand by Hugh Robertson & Barrie Heather; illustrated by Derek Onley (Penguin Books, 1999)

Beautifully illustrated with colour paintings, this guide covers native, introduced and vagrant birds. The great thing about this guide is showing differences in male and females, juveniles, breeding plumage, and some shown in flight. I generally prefer photographs for identification but having the dimorphic, age and seasonal differences all on one page is incredibly helpful. Distribution maps accompany each species, which all note their status, such as native, introduced, rare, straggler. Bonus feature: Plastic cover.

The Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand; image supplied.

Birds of New Zealand: A Photographic Guide by Paul Scofield & Brent Stephenson (Auckland University Press, 2013)

Despite all the pluses of the previous bird book, I would happily replace it with this one. Well laid out and not short on excellent photos. It’s the one I would have picked first if it existed at the time of starting my collection. Although you can never have too many bird books, right?

Field Guide to the New Zealand Seashore by Sally Carson & Rod Morris (Collins, 2017)

My childhood memories are rife with searching in rockpools and exploring the seashore. I still get immense pleasure from intertidal discoveries. Clearly colour-coded sections in this guide cover sponges, anemones and related species, worms, crustaceans, coastal insects and spiders, molluscs, brachiopods, bryozoans, sea stars and their relatives, sea squirts, fish, seaweeds, and coastal plants. The main photo for each species (mostly one per page) is across the top of the page, making it easy to quickly flip through to find the group of species you want. It also has a page on sea slug sex, so it has that going for it.

Field Guide to the New Zealand Seashore; image supplied.

New Zealand Seaweeds: An Illustrated Guide by Wendy Nelson (Te Papa Press, 2013)

This guide allows you to browse seaweed by colour, or use the provided dichotomous keys preceding each genus, to help you identify down to a species level. The images show multiple views including seaweed in situ, close-ups, magnified views, and in some cases detailed drawings. It turns out there’s more to seaweed than throwing it at your siblings or mistaking it for some creepy sea creature that is almost certainly going to bite you.

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Reptiles and Amphibians of New Zealand: A Field Guide by Dylan van Winkel, Marleen Baling and Rod Hitchmough (Auckland University Press, 2018)

Although coming face-to-face with our herpetofauna is a rare occurrence for me, this is the guide I would want to have tucked under my arm. A ‘quick guide’ in the endpapers breaks down into genera all the tuatara, skinks, geckos, frogs, marine turtles and marine snakes that grace our country and its offshore islands. Each section starts with a dichotomous key and every species has a large distribution map. Identifying features are bold within the text for easy reference.

Which New Zealand Insect? by Andrew Crowe (Penguin Books NZ, 2008)

An Auckland Libraries copy has this pegged for the Junior Non-fiction section but I think it’s a great starting point for anyone trying their hand at the vast kingdom of insects. Nicely laid out and includes life-sized and magnified images to aid you. Bonus: ruler on the back. There are many other books in this series which are equally helpful, along with Andrew Crowe’s Life-Size Guides and, well, pretty much anything by Andrew Crowe.

A Photographic Guide To Spiders of New Zealand, by Cor J. Vink; photographs by Bryce McQuillan (New Holland Publishers, 2015)

I’d recommend this guide for spiders for the same reasons I’d suggest any other books in the Photographic Guide series: compact size, full of colour photos, and bold text to signpost origin, range and habitat. Another book worth investigating – although not designed or sized as a field guide – is Ray Forster and Lyn Forster’s Spiders of New Zealand and their Worldwide Kin (University of Otago Press, 1999).

Things in the Sea Are Touching Me! and Nga Mea Kei ro Moana e Whakapa Mai Ana by Linda Jane Keegan and Minky Stapleton (Scholastic, $19) are available at Unity Books. 


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