Friday, October 9, 2009

The Writing Life Book Review: Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats of the Eastern United States

“Imagine diving headfirst into the water from a height of 50 feet and, at the precise moment, intersecting a fish that is desperately trying to evade you. Imagine repeating this every 20 minutes from 4 A.M. to 11 P.M. Parent kingfishers are on this schedule for weeks at a time . . .”

Janine Benyus’s field guide, organized by habitat, is interwoven with essay style descriptions that make identification of the plants, animals, geology and ecosystems easier to use than standard field guides.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading field guides this year. Some, like this book, are meant to be studied at home or in the classroom before heading out to explore a specific habitat. Knowing not only what a plant, fungus or animal looks like, but how it behaves increases your ability to correctly identify what you observe.

While field guides that feature comparisons of look-alikes provide important information, often plants, fungi and wildlife that look alike do not live in the same habitat.

Benyus provides easy-to-follow information on 38 distinct habitats without overloading the senses. You are much more likely to remember the information in her subheading “What’s in it for Wildlife,” with writing that shows, rather than tells what the wildlife is doing.

The book begins by showing readers how to use the guide and defining habitat. Benyus also offers tips on observing and getting closer to wildlife. Each chapter provides geological and ecological histories in Benyus’s essay style and a closer look at the lives of a representative mammal, bird and reptile or amphibian inhabitant.

Sidebar information includes a map and sampling list of locations where the habitat exists, a list of characteristic plants, a two-page illustration of the habitat and an interactive Wildlife Locator Chart that lets readers pinpoint the nesting and feeding sites of over 40 residents of each habitat.

This guide and its companion The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats of the Western United States, belong on every teacher’s desk, in every public and home library, not just for the information, but for the pleasure of reading an engaging nature writer.

JJ Murphy is a freelance nature writer, photographer, forager, and aspiring mycologist giving nature a voice at””.

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