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The Birder’s Tree Guide

‘So if the bird flies away, or if you’ve identified it, you can turn your attention to the tree in the same view, without moving your binoculars or telescope, and have a whole new challenge of something to identify.’ Sibley

Sibley came out with a tree guide! I haven’t yet seen any mention in the garden world, but the birding blogs are on it. 10,000 Birds has a review and an interview, and there’s a 3-part interview with him in Birder’s Magazine. He put together the guide as a birder rather than as a botanist, writing with birders as his target audience, and it’s interesting to see the elements of his bird book carry over into a tree guide.

The most obvious carry over is the life list at the back of the book. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who keeps a life list for trees, though the idea is intriguing. Bristlecone Pines were certainly something I felt I needed to see, and the east coast members of my trail crew this summer arrived out here determined to see a Giant Sequoia before they headed home, so the idea does make some sense. It might be interesting to keep track of how many different trees I can see just in the Bay Area.

Instead of photographs, the book uses paintings, which work better for birds and seem to work better for trees, too. The guide includes native and non-native species, making it more useful to me than, for instance, my Audobon guide which only includes native species. I find I already know a lot of the California species, but that it’s the tall non-native shade trees, trees I rarely plant or buy at the nursery but sometimes find in clients’ yards, that I need help identifying. I tried out the book with a couple of trees, the English Walnut in our yard and the Red Oaks where I was working today, and it seemed easy to use.

And it was nice that I went through the ID process without a key. Keys went out of style in the birding world a long time ago, and I’ve never liked using them for trees; they seem like a relic from old-fashioned, rote-style learning. In the Birder’s magazine interview, Sibley says he wants readers to engage more directly with the book.

‘I really wanted the book to work the same way the bird guide does. That is, if you see something interesting, whether it’s a leaf or some odd bark or an unusual type of fruit, you can open up the book and just start flipping through the pages and try to find a picture that matches.

‘I think in the long run, that’s actually more helpful and more educational than working through a key, because after you’ve done that a few times — flipped through the pages of the book, looking for things that match — you’ll realize that if you’ve seen an odd fruit and it’s not an acorn, you can skip the whole 40 pages of oaks in the middle of the book. You start to get a sense of what the variation is in all the types of fruit. Pretty soon you’ll be out in the field somewhere and say, “There’s an odd fruit. I don’t know what that tree is, but I know I’ve seen that picture in the book, and I think I remember it being toward the end of the book,” and flip through the pages and find it and put a name to it.

‘By flipping through the pages and getting an overall sense of what’s out there, you subconsciously begin to understand larger patterns — which families are similar, which families are different, what makes all the oaks similar to all the other oaks, what makes willows and poplars so similar that they’re put in the same family. You’ll develop an understanding of that simply by flipping through the pages of the book.’

I know I became a more knowledgeable birder when I discovered Sibley’s bird book. It’ll be interesting to see what I learn from his tree book.

— Addendum —

I have noticed signs that the guide was written by someone from the east coast. For instance, the guide does not include ceanothus or manzanitas, an omission in my opinion. Sibley’s definition of a tree is ‘anything that you can walk under,’ and manzanitas and ceanothus definitely meet that standard, though I suppose the 30 foot tall manzanitas and treelike ceanothus are known primarily within California native plant circles. And at the same time as the guide excludes manzanita and ceanothus, the guide includes the less treelike Toyon and the less common or iconic Western and Utah Serviceberries and the Mountain Mahogany, probably because there are large old specimens in some of the arboretums back east and in England. I say this not so much a complaint, but rather as an observation, something to maybe fix in future editions; the book is a national guide with a national perspective. And as I was saying, I already have plenty of books for the native trees. Interesting, though, that I find it most helpful for identifying the east coast and european specimens that I find in California gardens.

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11 Responses to “The Birder’s Tree Guide”

  1. December 1st, 2009 at 7:49 am

    Town Mouse says:

    What fun! I have the same problem, I’m really not very good at identifying trees. Maybe this book will help, though I’m not sure I’ll start the list thing. That feels like work.

  2. December 1st, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Gayle Madwin says:

    Yes, I’m glad to hear the book doesn’t have a key. I have one book that does have a key, and every time I try to use it, I become massively frustrated because I only get about three steps of the way through a 15- or 20-step keying process before the key asks about flowers or seeds or some other trait that, more often than not, simply isn’t available. Most plants are out of bloom for far more of the year than they’re in bloom, so by putting the flower questions so near to the beginning of the key, the book’s authors made it impossible for me to narrow down the species possibilities significantly at all on the majority of plants I want to identify.

  3. December 1st, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    ryan says:

    TM – I hear you about a list sounding like work, one more chore to add to the hiking experience. I think I might do something with the list, like maybe see how many I spot in just Bay Area gardens.
    GM- I think keys are mostly just meant to frustrate us. The Sibley book seems more fun to use, though I haven’t yet tested it with anything difficult.

  4. December 3rd, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    lostlandscape(James) says:

    I love trees but I put them in the category of “that’s way too big to fit in the garden so I won’t look at it in the same close way as if I were looking for something I could actually have.” God I sound like a real botanical materialist… The life list idea is great. I haven’t been real systematic, but some walks I’ve tried photograph or ID every plant species that I see. (I’ve spent some of my life cataloging things in a library.) Some trips really do number filling up my SD card, but it really makes me appreciate the diversity that’s out there.

  5. December 5th, 2009 at 9:26 am

    ryan says:

    Naming, cataloguing, materialistically buying and planting, all great ways to learn about trees. If you did come up with a life list, it would be interesting to see it. I plan to keep one for trees I see in the Bay Area, for a while at least.

  6. December 6th, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Brad B says:

    I have a very small booklet on Pacific region trees that functions with a key. I love it, but it never asks about fruit or flowers to identify them. Though it will give that info once it’s given you the specific tree. Mostly it identifies by leaf/needle and sometimes bark. I guess I’m in the minority. I do remember a friend with a much more complicated key book that was no fun to use.

  7. December 7th, 2009 at 6:28 am

    Country Mouse says:

    I am intrigued by the idea of keys but I lack the botanical vocabulary as yet to use them easily or at all. However, I also love acquiring said vocabulary so for me it’s all fun. That Sibley tree book sounds just great, a different and easier approach, and based on your wonderful review I am definitely going to get it. I feel very frustrated when I look out from my property and can ID only about 20 percent of the trees – including the garden ornamentals people plant even here in the woods. I have a high level of desire to be able to know all those trees more intimately and address them familiarly when I meet them. I’ll probably keep the life list – but only for trees in my immediate area, which is what I am most interested in. Thanks so much for this very useful and interesting post!

  8. December 7th, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    ryan says:

    B – You’re right, some keys are better than others. I’ve tried to ID trees and had the key ask for flower descriptions or other info that I couldn’t give. I definitely prefer the birder style where the book helps you figure out the details that distinguish between the similar species. I think you end up learning more about birds and trees that way.
    CM – It would be interesting to see what you end up with on the life list. I’ve been paying attention since I bought it, noting the difference between the California Sycamore and the American one, the Eastern White Oak compared to our native ones in the White Oak family, and so on. I’ve been liking it.

  9. December 12th, 2009 at 7:59 am

    Lynn says:

    This is very exciting, especially since I’ve been saying I need a tree guide since I moved east 2 years ago & can’t tell a red from a white oak, much less know what a hickory looks like. I think a walk in the woods & fields with the a group of meticulous cataloguers would be sort of fun!

  10. December 12th, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    ryan says:

    The guide would probably be especially good for New York. I’ve noticed a few signs that he is an easterner, and apparently, he did a lot of the paintings in the Boston Arboretum.
    I’m vague on hickory trees myself. They’re another group of east coast species I should learn.

  11. December 19th, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    a forest of things « Sin City to Slaterville says:

    […] mystery tree, among so many others in the hills I’d like proper introductions to. Thanks to Dry Stone Garden for letting us know about it. It’s time to order my choices from the NARGS seed exchange! […]