For Learning in the Natural World, the Book Is Better
Field guides and nature apps (plus Snowy Owl and Snow Goose updates)
AT THE END of a morning of birdwatching some years ago, at a nature preserve in Canada, I came upon something remarkable and wonderful — something so unusual that I may never witness it again in nature.
No, not a rare sparrow or some exquisite warbler. Instead, gathered in a circle and sitting in the grass were 10 teenagers, binoculars at their sides, discussing the birds they had encountered that morning. And to help in their learning, the teens were reading from field guides to birds — actual books. There was not a phone in sight.
The young birders were onto something with relevance for any of us: If you want to learn a new group of wild things in nature — birds or butterflies, oaks or orchids — you will do better to consult words and images on the pages of books, and not apps on your phone. To my mind, nature apps are like movies: the book is better.
So here now is my gentle rant on nature apps, along with a preview of my Field Guide to Field Guides — recommendations to help you discover and enjoy more life outdoors. It’s an example of the extra benefits coming soon for paying subscribers to Chasing Nature.
First know that this is no anti-tech polemic on my part. I read actual books and e-books, and I believe that nature apps indeed have their place in the world. But if you aspire to learn to identify stuff in nature, to build core knowledge, then get yourself an actual book. There among the pages of manuals and field guides you will discover the essentials for learning outdoors: detail, context, and, most important, the harmony of families, shared characteristics among related species.
To be sure, you can now carry a virtual library of field guides in your pocket. In an app, type in your location and maybe habitat, choose a matching shape or color, for example, or the approximate size of your organism. The app delivers a list of possible identifications — often enough the correct one. But this is no way to learn nature. Learning is a journey.
Nature apps are like movies: the book is better.
More than 40 years ago, I began to learn birds by wandering outside with binoculars and then roaming the frontiers of my field guides. On a single page of the Audubon Water Bird Guide, I could witness Don Eckelberry’s spectacular grebe illustrations — I could see and feel what it means to be a grebe in form and function. As I leafed through Roger Tory Peterson’s various flycatcher illustrations, I learned how and why a flycatcher was not a vireo; I could study various flycatcher genera to learn what made a Contopus flycatcher a Contopus and how a Contopus was certainly not an Empidonax flycatcher. And to this day, there is no better way to master the challenges of hawk or seabird identification, for example, than with help from specialized guides to those or other bird groups (and, of course, to be outside a lot among actual birds).
When using an app, however, there is no slow and purposeful exploring through pages of possibilities, no discovering and learning as you go, no seeing how various species fall into place, how they resemble or differ or relate to one another in form or function. Learning nature with an app is like learning a language with a phrase book. You’ll get by, you’ll be wrong sometimes, and your knowledge will be superficial.
So, if you are brand new to birds or any other group of organisms, and want to learn them properly, use a book and find experts willing to share their knowledge. I learned birds, butterflies, and dragonflies that way — well enough to earn a living among them. Now a mediocre botanist who aspires to be a reasonbly accomplished botanist, I will spend the rest of my days observing plants and consulting manuals and field guides. I do not own any botany apps.
There is indeed a place for apps — mostly to augment what you learn from books. If you already know birds, for example, but cannot recall the field marks to distinguish, say, a Great Crested Flycatcher from a Brown-crested Flycatcher (tertial edges and belly) — whip out the app and double-check. Apps are great for that. But first learn the essentials from field guides — like those young Canadian students of birdwatching.
Learning nature with an app is like learning a language with a phrase book. You’ll get by, you’ll be wrong sometimes, and your knowledge will be superficial.
Before I send you off to my Field Guide to Field Guides (where you might find holiday gift ideas if that is a part of your celebration), I will nonetheless mention two revolutionary apps that employ artificial intelligence: Seek and its parent app and online platform iNaturalist. (I will have lots of wonderful things to say about iNaturalist in the coming second season of Chasing Nature.) Using the Seek app, point your phone at the living thing and get a good prediction of its identity. With due wariness of AI, I admit that the Seek app is amazing.
But, again, you’ll learn without context — and nature is nothing if not contextual. It’s like learning the game of cricket by pointing your phone at a match and having it tell you what just happened was a “four.” You might learn what a four is, but you won’t know overall what’s happening on the field (or would that be on the pitch?).
The Chasing Nature Field Guide to Field Guides, now evolving and improving (and better viewed on a wider screen than on your phone), resides for the time being on my personal website. (Among the suggestions you’ll find there are the revolutionary photographic guides from the Northern Forest Atlas, the source for that banner image of heath plants above.) I’ll be updating the Field Guide to Field Guides over the next couple of weeks leading up to Chasing Nature’s one-year anniversary on Substack and the debut of our “Classroom” — online lectures and other resources for paying subscribers. We will have lots to celebrate together.
Dispatches like this one don’t grow on trees. They come from my decades spent outdoors, at typewriters, and in front of glowing screens. Your paid subscription makes Chasing Nature possible and keeps it online for everyone. Thanks!
Snowy Owl and Snow Goose Update
Snowy Owls remain uncharacteristically scarce so far this winter across the northern U.S. and southern Canada (except for Saskatchewan). With no reported owls yet in New England, and just a few in the Midwest, I’ve not seen such scarcity in November since 2010. Serves me right: I predicted in my previous dispatch that Snowy Owls would be showing up in New England “any day now.” I was wrong. So I guess this constitutes my first correction on Chasing Nature.
Meanwhile, on the day I blew the Snowy Owl prediction, I nailed the Snow Goose advice for the Champlain Valley of Vermont and New York, with flocks in the tens of thousands reported from around King Bay southeast of the village of Champlain, New York. As usual, the goose viewing has been hit or miss (in the hundreds or low thousands) in the past 10 days at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison, Vermont. We may have already hit “peak Snow Goose” in Vermont and New York, but the show isn’t over, certainly not yet on the New York side of Lake Champlain.