Several years ago I asked one of my birding mentors, a curmudgeon with an enviable life list, if he was a bird watcher, a birder, or a lister? “None of the above,” he proudly proclaimed, “I am a naturalist!” A naturalist, he told me, looks at everything. Birders only look at birds. Well, I’m sure there are birders out there who can walk past Halloween Pennants or Ostrich Ferns without pausing, and who doesn’t care if the bird is in the White Spruce or Eastern White Pine, but I’ve never met one. Which is why I was so excited when I found out that the Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England was being published. I love traveling through New England; it’s a cornucopia of eiders and gulls in winter, a symphony of leafy colors in autumn, a treasure trove of sea glass and seashells in the summer, and the home of good friends in springtime. Some of these friends are birders, some are not, and either way, a field guide focused on the wonderful things we see on our walks would be welcomed.
The Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England is the latest addition to the series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (originally called Focus Guides, the name was changed in 2005). I have been a fan of the Kaufman Guides since I bought the Field Guide to Butterflies of North America, for a birds and butterflies trip to Colorado. I keep the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America in my office, to use when my co-workers ask me about the large woodpecker they’ve seen at their feeder, and I carry the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America in my car because you never know when you’re going to come across a really cool looking beetle. Kaufman guides are colorful and well-designed and convenient, just the right size and weight to slip into a backpack or even a pocket. They have one primary goal: to enable people—beginners and experts, the active seekers and the hesitantly curious—to identify natural things easily, while in the field.
And, many natural things are covered by this book. The fourteen identification chapters cover: geology and constellations; habitats; wildflowers; trees; shrubs, vines, and ground cover (grasses, sedges, rushes); primitive plants, lichens, and fungi; mammals; birds; reptiles and amphibians; fishes; butterflies and moths; other insects; other invertebrates (spiders, leeches); beach and tidepool life. I was most impressed by the material on constellations as seen over central New England, probably because I wouldn’t think that a field guide would include the stars. A childhood of reading Greek myths makes me forget that they are a part of our natural world, as are rocks and weather and the moon, all of which are covered in the first chapter. The following section on Habitats serves to provide the larger picture, frameworks in which to root the hundreds of individual species to follow. And, the concluding identification chapter on Beach and Tidepool Life, with entries on seashells, crustaceans, and seaweed, provides informative material on a unique part of New England.
There is also a chapter on conservation, an area in which New England has a historical stake. It was Massachusetts Representative John Weeks who sponsored and fought for the 1911 Weeks Act, which authorized the use of federal funds for the purchase of forest lands for conservation. The authors outline the basic problems of New England’s ecosystem, with attention given to endangered species such as the New England Blazing-star (a late-summer wildflower whose habitat is disappearing) and the dangers of invasive species (beware of Garlic Mustard!). They offer simple, do-able suggestions for what we can do, as individuals, for conservation. I was really happy to see bird-friendly coffee leading the list, since this has become my new passion.
It is impressive how many living things the authors have included in 416 pages without making the book look cramped. As the above plates on Various Wading Birds show, care is taken to balance text and graphics, with color doubling as both design and educational tool. Each entry includes one or two photographs, common name, scientific name, major identification points, size, and range maps where appropriate. Text is necessarily brief, focusing in on what you need to know in order to separate out one species from another. Virginia Rails look “rotound in profile but their bodes are narrow, to slip through dense marsh growth.” Sora “sometimes walks about on open mud beside ponds, twitching its short tail.” A musical note precedes syllables of each bird’s call or song. The Black-crowned Night-Heron’s voice is “low, hollow wock!” and the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron’s voice is a “hollow wack!” The nature of this field guide limits the number of photographs showing birds in flight, and age, gender, and seasonal forms. But, there are more than you might expect. Flight photographs are included with the hawk, seabird, and tern entries, and many of the ducks and warblers are depicted in their male and female forms. Size is indicated as much as possible throughout the book, with measurements are given for birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. In the insect chapters, a small silhouette of the actual size of one species is given, allowing you to see the other species in perspective.
Each chapter starts with a section on how to view this specific part of the natural world. The section on Trees and Large Shrubs, for example, talks about leaf shape, bark pattern, and the flowers and fruits of trees. The chapter on Butterflies and Moths describes the Lepidoptera life cycle and how to differentiate butterflies from moths. The organization of each chapter varies according to the topic, but in all cases priority is given to making the subject matter accessible to the beginning naturalist. Wildflowers are arranged by color rather than taxonomy. Birds are arranged by perceived similarities. I know some birders find this type of avian arrangement troublesome. I don’t. There is plenty of room for different kinds of field guides for different types of audiences.
Like the other field guides in the Kaufman series, the New England field guide is organized by colors and indexed for quick access. A different colored tab and page edge denotes each chapter. There is a 1-page Quick Index on the back page, and a longer index to species by common name. Digitally edited photographs, designed to be as clean and clear as possible and to emphasize diagnostic features, illustrate each item. About half of the photographs, more than 1,000 images, were taken by the authors, Kenn Kaufman and Kimberly Kaufman. The remaining photographs are by about 128 photographers, fully credited in the back of the book.
I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Kenn Kaufman several years ago at the Hampshire Bird Club, located, appropriately, in Massachusetts. Kenn is the author of Kingbird Highway (my favorite coming-of-age memoir), as well as the author or co-author of the earlier field guides in his book series and many birding identification articles. Kimberly Kaufman is the executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in northwestern Ohio; she helped found the Ohio Young Birders’ Club and is a pivotal force behind the Biggest Week in American Birding. She is also my Facebook friend (as is Kenn, but Kimberly and I really talk on Facebook). Additional members of the New England field guide team, listed as collaborators, are Eric R. Eaton, who wrote the chapters on insects and other invertebrates, Eric H. Snyder, who wrote the geology section, Ken Keffer, the Habitats author, and John Sawvel, who located the photographs not taken by the authors.
I do have one nitpick to present. I love dragonflies and damselflies. And, having spent time this past summer looking at odenata in western Massachusetts, I know that there are more common species than the 14 presented here. Where is Skimming Bluet? And Azure Bluet? I saw those everywhere. Interest in dragonflies and damselflies is rapidly expanding, and I would argue that they are entitled to expanded treatment!
I can’t think of any birder (or botanist or lepidopterist) who wouldn’t find the Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England useful during a trip to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine. It is the perfect book for the naturalist who knows a lot about one subject but needs assistance with everything else. It is the perfect field guide for the beginning naturalist. It is the perfect reference source for the family on a trip or living in New England. It is definitely going to be in my car the next time I visit my friends in Massachusetts. And, if they are lucky, I might be bringing a second copy for them.
What is your favorite Kaufman Field Guide? And, which region of the United States do you think should be next in what promises to be an excellent series?
Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England (Kaufman Field Guides)
by Kenn Kaufman and Kimberly Kaufman with the collaboration of Eric R. Eaton, Eric H. Snyder, Ken Keffer, and john Sawvel.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 416 pages, illustrated, paperback (flexicover), $20.00.