Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Posts Tagged ‘trees’

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.