Field guide to the future

My first field guide. A 35 cent bargain.

I could ask “what was your first field guide?” but my first field guides belonged to my parents, not me. So instead I’ll ask “what was the first field guide you remember using?”

I remember two: Trees of Victoria by Leon Costermans – a permanent resident of the car glove box – and Birds of the Ranges by the Gould League. I am indebted to the authors and illustrators of both. Without them, I may have led a different life.

Our Costermans bore the hallmark of a truly great field guide; after years of abuse, we stripped it of every skerrick of re-sale value. One summer, someone put a block of copha in the car glove box to protect it from the sun. When discovered weeks later, everything floated in a pool of coconut fat. It was awesome. Costermans was indestructible. Like the trees inside it, we created the world’s first rip-proof, water-proof, scented, and highly combustible, field guide to eucalypts.

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What makes a field guide truly great? There are four rules. Every great guide must be: (1) distinctive, (2) attractive, (3) well organized, and most important of all, (4) impeccably accurate. As in life, one small mistake about eye color (‘Your eyes are a beautiful brown’. ‘Aah, they’re green actually’), and into the reject bin we fall.

Many of the great guides are also (5) exhaustively comprehensive, but that rule isn’t rigid. Comprehensiveness is equally an asset and a liability. A good field guide can’t be huge, it has to fit in the backpack.

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Our generation witnessed and abetted the great migration. The migration of information from paper, plastic, canvas and vinyl, to invisible strings of zeroes and ones. The migration to digital. Never despair, books won’t disappear; familiarity breeds contempt for usurpers. It’s hard to find content, let alone contentment, in a replacement – especially one with no pages.

Yet resist as we will, the next generation of great field guides won’t be on paper, but on a device. The Compleat Naturalist of the future will treasure a phone more than a library. To my offspring, a bird in the handset is worth three in a book.

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Accuracy is the hallmark of the great guides to the future.

What will we demand from the digital field guides of the future? Be distinctive, attractive, well organized, accurate. These maxims won’t change, but another rule will vanish and a new rule emerge. Comprehensiveness will no longer be a liability. Size won’t matter, as the longest field guide need be no bigger than the shortest. Every entry in a digital field guide can expand and contract like a concertina, from mug-shot to museum and back again.

As encyclopaedias shrink in the palm of our hand, the field guides of the future lay prone to a new imperative. Be Popular. In the olde days, greatness led to popularity. In the digital world, popularity leads to greatness; not through imitation, but through content creation. As each user adds and shares new information, the most popular guides will blossom and grow, while the wallflower guides wither and die.

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Many field guides have migrated from paper to digital. Some synced smoothly from book to ‘app’. Others grew in stature as they shrunk in size. Augmented by libraries of recorded calls, the better guides to frogs and birds can now be viewed and heard on a mobile phone. Can’t tell a Crinia signifera from Crinia parinsignifera? The pictures won’t help, but the calls certainly will.

Calls aside, this first generation of digital field guide is characterized by the ‘silent cinema syndrome’. Remember the first silent movies? How quaint and silly they appear? The pioneers of the silent movie transported an old aesthetic to a new technology. They pushed the stage show onto the silver screen. But they created nothing new, beyond a distribution network. They had no concept for the cinematic. The art of cinema evolved later, as unruly directors liberated film from the stagecraft of the theater. The evolution of cinema was enabled by technology and directed by new worlds of imagination.

A century beyond the birth of cinema, we squeezed great books onto the small screen. We added a soundtrack. But we are yet to generate a new genre, a new art-form, worthy of the title, the Truly Great Digital Field Guide. We stuck dumb apps on smart phones.

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A young phone has a great eye, perfect ears, superb short-term memory, an encyclopaedic brain, and looks fantastic.

Too anthropomorphic? A little bit creepy? Let’s try again. A modern phone has a sensitive microphone, quality camera, accurate voice recorder and connects to the cloud. Thanks to a GPS, it knows exactly where it is most of the time, which is more than I can claim. The fab guides of the future will feast on every one of these features. Why? Check out my apps.

Shazam! What an app. Hear a song you don’t know? Grab your phone, point to the sound and – Shazam – the name of the song, artist and album appears in a flash, with links to biography, lyrics and videos. It’s magical. My phone records a sound bite, sends it to a satellite, compares it to a database, and sends me back the artist’s face.

Hmm. If this is possible, then why do I have to scroll manually through frog call after frog call to work out which critter is croaking in the dam? Surely a Truly Great digital field guide should tell me who made the call?

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The Leafsnap app. Photo source: SmartPlanet
The Leafsnap app. Click on the image for a larger, clearer view. (Source: SmartPlanet).

What about that camera? Leafsnap is a ground-breaking app for identifying plants in north-east America. Point your phone at a plant, take a photo of a leaf, beam it to the cloud, and it shoots back a list of potential species, with additional photos of fruits, flowers and distinguishing features. There’s no need to measure the leaf, or to look up a glossary to determine if it’s palmate or pinnate, just point, snap and leave the work to the app.

Every meat-eater knows that Leafsnap has limited potential; most leaves look the same to a carnivore. But picture a smorgasbord of photo ID apps, like FruitSnap, BudSnap, BarkSnap and EucSnap. Australia has over 700 species of Eucalyptus, all with distinctive fruits (‘gum-nuts’), buds and bark. Two or three photos should be all it takes for EucSnap to identify most trees. Photograph a fruit, send it to the cloud, and receive a shortlist of possible species, filtered by locality. Snap some buds, send them back up, and the shortlist shrinks again. Can’t tell your Snugglepot from Cuddlepie? Just shoot a gum-nut to the sky.

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Shazam nails song identification. It gets hurt by Nine Inch Nails every time I play it. It knows its covers, and gets hurt by Johnny Cash every time too, just like me. But bird songs aren’t pop songs. Both versions of hurt always sound the same. The crimson rosella outside my window never does.

Blackbird is a song, but a blackbird isn’t. The metaphor is poor, but a bird is an artist with a long improvised repertoire. Blackbirds sing more songs than the Beatles ever sang. To contain a bird, a library must call upon a discography, not a whistle. To make it harder, blackbirds ain’t blackbirds. Birds have accents.

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In 2011, a science reporter at the University of Wisconsin wrote an enthusiastic press release about WeBIRD; a phone app to let users, ‘record a nearby bird’s call, submit that song wirelessly to a server and retrieve a positive ID of the species’. Shazam.

But a blackbird licked the publicist, and WeBIRD is yet to launch. What went wrong? Apparently, the prototype identified the resident birds of Wisconsin really well. Users could upload a call and download an ID, as the PR promised. But WeBIRD went wonky out of Wisconsin, as many birds sing different tunes in different towns. WeBIRD couldn’t cope with accents. It’s vocal files were too localized. It needs a bigger jukebox.

The solution? Collect more songs and data files and try again. Surely, centuries of natural history should provide reams of data to train a smart app? Yes and no. We’ve got piles of information. It’s just the wrong type. Or rather it’s all type. It’s all text.

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Words are cheap. Since birth, natural history has been subject to this economic dictum of the printing press. Images and sounds are expensive to reproduce, so generations of biologists created ways to translate images and sounds into words.

The challenge of representing sounds in text. (Source: Edward Tufte)
‘Aydle tee, wheedle tay’. Describing songs with words and squiggles. Click on the image for a larger, clearer view. (Source: Edward Tufte).

Botanists penned glossaries to describe undrawn plants: ‘leaves conduplicate, seeds tuberculate, indumentum villose, calyx accrescent’. The efficiency of communication is exemplary. A Handbook to the Plants of Victoria Volume II. Dicotyledons (Willis 1972) distinguishes 2290 species in 832 pages without a single picture. Unburdened by art, both volumes – plus lunch, water, camera and coat – fit snugly in my day-pack.

With a budget for paint – one illustration per species – but none for sound, cheerful ornithologists turned to onomatopoeia: ‘Pee-pee-pee-peeooo, Wee-willy-weet-weet, It-wooa-weet-sip, Zzzt zzzt zzzt. Cher-cher-cherry-cherry, Wah-i-wah-i-wah-oo, Twitchy tweedle, Kupa-ko-ko, Lik-lik-lik’. Less cheerful colleagues followed suit: ‘Chop-chop, Four o’clock, Wide-a-wake, Walk to work. Want a whip? It’s for teacher. Tweet-your-juice, Sweet pretty creature’. (All real calls, I assure you).

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‘Writing about bird songs is like dancing about architecture’.

As Napster broke the music industry, the mp3 file made redundant a century of imaginative onomatopoeia. WeBIRD cannot hear the poetry of a Flame Robin – ‘You may come, if you wish, to the sea’ – in the sonogram of a bird call. LeafSnap cannot see, ‘foliage trifoliate, margins runcinate’ in a snapshot of a leaf.

Like these pioneering apps, the great field guides of the future will identify species by algorithm not allusion. Algorithms that characterize the geometry of a scale pattern, the spikes and troughs of a sonogram. Algorithms that interrogate hundreds of images and calls to capture the geography of accents and provenance. Algorithms that will always appreciate a little help from a human:

  • Phone: ‘Excuse me Megan, is that a New Holland Honeyeater I hear calling behind you?’
  • Megan: ‘Where? Oh, I see it, no it’s an Eastern Spinebill. Good try Hal, their calls are really similar.’
  • Phone: ‘Thank you for the correction Megan. I shall upload the identified call to improve the database for next time.’

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Will we like the field guides of the future? Will EucSnap ever replace my coconut-scented Costermans? Will we stick with our bulky books, long glossaries and child-friendly bird calls? The ‘warm, intimate vinyl’ sounds of the past?

Your preferences don’t matter. Neither do mine. You already have a guide, you already value nature. What really matters is – can a phone full of apps help a new generation of ‘digital natives’ to value and conserve the diversity and beauty of the natural world?

I hope so. I hope my grand-children pocket a galaxy of guides to nature’s delights, and use it to call on the soundscape of the planet. If they do, they’ll never need to ask, ‘can we squeeze another field guide in the glove box?’ They’ll just need to be careful with the coconut oil.

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Further reading

Farnsworth, E.J. et al. (2013). Next-generation field guides. BioScience 63(11), 891-899. [The full text of this paper can be downloaded from this link].

This article triggered this blog post. It gives a fascinating overview of recent developments in digital field guides, although it doesn’t suggest that field guides will one day answer us back.

Many thanks to the friendly folk on Twitter for their helpful hints about bird calls and field guides.

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40 thoughts

  1. Costermans, Rogers (Acacias) and Galbraith (Wildflowers) … those three are the ones I began with and only recently passed on to an “internet pen-friend” starting his library, in Eastern Victoria. So good to know they are still being used and loved. (My blog is sadly neglected; but the block is not, and is now awaiting final paperwork to confirm its Heritage Listing *crosses fingers*) Judith

    1. Hi Judith, I had those books too! I’d forgotten about Rogers’ great wattle book. I also had a slim book on ferns of Victoria and Tasmania by Norm Wakefield that I used to squeeze into the backpack. Best wishes with the paperwork for your Heritage Listing, that’s a great initiative – Jean Galbraith would have been very proud of you! Thanks for writing in, best wishes Ian

  2. Costermans was my first too Ian, given to me by bushwalking mates while languishing in hospital with a mangled leg. Later had me hopping around trying to knock down euc samples with one of my crutches…Still in my library.

    1. Hi Duncan, Leon Costermans must have turned more Australians on to their native plants than anyone else. I had his little book and then the ‘big Costermans’ when it came out in the early 1980s. It’s hard to think of identifying plants in SE Australia without the big book as nothing comes close to it even now. I think he deserves an Order of Australia medal, both of his books have been permanently in print since they came out, in the 1960s (the small book) and 80s (the big one). Thanks for writing in, best wishes Ian

  3. After spending the first half of my life in blissful ignorance of the rich variety of Australian nature, my awareness and interest was awakened by visits to WA, where the brilliant diversity hits you between the eyes. I still remember seeing my first salmon pink Banksia menziesii around the suburbs and tall glowing kangaroo paws on the roadsides, as well as bright blue leschenaultia and other exquisite groundcovers. So I started with the Key Guide to Australian Wildflowers (1987) by Leonard Cronin, which organised species by flower shape and colour – very simple for the rank amateur and utterly maddening if you already have an idea of genus but your species isn’t included in the 600 Australia-wide in the book. However the botanical descriptions are comprehensive and accessible, while the illustrations by Ruth Berry, Roslyn Devaux and Marion Westmacott are still beautiful. Anyway, I was hooked and moved on to Costermans and a variety of specialised books for wherever I was living and learning. Now I might carry a field book but am more likely to carry small samples and many close-up pics home for identification from my library or websites like the Key to Tasmanian Vascular Plants

    1. Hello Gwenda, thanks for writing in. It’d be fascinating to learn which books were most important for readers in many different regions. The flora of SW Western Australia is so diverse, that it’d be a nightmare to try to write a popular field guide as you’d have to leave so many species, and even genera, out of it. I haven’t used the on-line Tasmanian key but it looks like a fantastic site, with illustrations and help screens to help users make a decision at each point in the key. I imagine that sites like this will become extremely sophisticated and even more user friendly in the future. Thanks again, best wishes Ian

  4. Having used various field guides along the East Coast of Australia, I have always carried Costermans “Native Shrubs and Trees” for reference or cross reference. For local knowledge , I have sniffed out field guides by the Society for Growing Australian Plants. Surprisingly, I have used Leonard Cronins Key guide for “Australian Wildflowers” due to user friendly generic flower shape and colour ID index at the front of the book. A useful start for when one is completely in the dark about a species. Otherwise, Simpson and Day’s Field Guide for Birds and Lamp Forbes and Cade for Grasses are tried and trusted friends. The travelling Serventy family, doing research for CSIRO whilst travelling around Australia, released a monthly edition for kids like me to collect in the seventies. I could not let this opportunity go by without mentioning “Australia’s Wildlife Heritage” chronicling their work and wanderings. Whilst not being a carrying reference or even biologically specific, I would suggest it remains a “go to” reference on Australian ecology.

    P.S. Agreed. Digital databases are becoming increasingly exhaustive, mobile and updated.

    1. Hi Runar, thanks for writing in. Vincent Serventy was one of my wildlife heroes when I was a kid. I didn’t have the ‘wildlife heritage’ series, but we received a regular wildlife magazine from Queensland which I think the Serventy’s may have started up in the 1970s. As they say, ‘from little things, big things grow’ – so many of these books, magazines and TV shows were incredibly important for promoting wildlife and the environment to generations of kids. Nowadays kids have great YouTube videos by fantastic presenters like Dr Dave to add to the mix as well. If you haven’t seen them, take a look at – . Thanks again, best wishes Ian

  5. Hi Ian, Thanks for yet another fantastic blog. My fave field guides are all mentioned above, although I would add Plains Wandering to the list! The GBCMA has recently released a frog app (a trimmed down version of the Vic Museum one), and has a fish app is in the pipeline. There’s no doubt a lot will happen in this space over the next few years. My hope is that device screens will become as good as paper (eg by incorporating ‘e-ink’ technology) – I can hardly read my phone in daylight, and the tablet is next to useless in full sun. Cheers, Tim

    1. Hi Tim, you can’t list your own book in the list of best field guides of all time, that’s way too biased 🙂 Thanks for mentioning the Goulburn Broken CMA’s frog field guide. I looked it up on Apple’s app site and the formal title is ‘iSpy Frogs by Goulburn Broken Catchment Management’ and the link (for those with iPhones) is . I hope it gets lots of downloads and use. Best wishes Ian

  6. Thoroughly enjoyed your article Ian. Yesterday I read a review of Edgar Waite’s ‘Popular Account of Australian Snakes’ published in 1898 in Sydney’s ‘The Evening News’. A first field guide to Australian snakes in which the cautionary tale is told of the chap who cut off his finger to stop the progression of the poison due to a snake bite. If only he had had this excellent guide he would have realised the snake in question was harmless! Your blog appeared at just the right time for me to reflect on just how fascinating and fun good field guides can be. Practical and challenging as you race to identify a specimen, by their nature, always evolving.
    The first guide I owned was Graham Pizzey’s ‘A Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (1980) with illustrations by Roy Doyle. Just a beautiful publication and still often referred to. I was however very quick to purchase the recently released App version and am mighty pleased I did. It is easy to treasure the hard copy guides, browse the illustrations, sort through the clues to identification and thrill to success! But in concert with digital versions those that enjoy a good field guide have all fields covered. Field guides are publishing’s “the sky’s the limit”, can’t wait to see what comes next!

    1. Hi Ann, thanks very much for writing in. Graham Pizzey used to write a weekly column on birds in a major newspaper when I was a kid, before his great book came out. There is another good app on Australian birds in the iTunes Store by Michael Morcombe. Like the Pizzey app, it’s based on a hard copy book, both have sound clips too. I haven’t used either but gather that both are very good, although much more expensive than most apps. If others are interested in looking them up, I’ve pasted the links to both apps below. Thanks again, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Best wishes Ian

      Pizzey and Knight Birds of Australia Digital Edition by GIBBON MULTIMEDIA AUS PTY LTD
      The Michael Morcombe and David Stewart eGuide to the Birds of Australia by

      1. Tangent Alert!
        The comments so far have reminded me of my earliest “Nature Study” lessons courtesy of a book in our school library, then precious and new, by John Albert Leach … the first Australian Nature Study book I ever saw. 30 years later the Leach was being thrown out at my children’s rural primary school and I snaffled a copy and it is STILL a much loved book. Until then my only natural history books had been of hedgerows and great big clumsy birds someone called robins, newts and buttercups … so NOT Eyre Peninsula, South Australia!

        More than that; on Sunday afternoons I was allowed to turn the radi … oops wireless on, to listen to Crosbie Morrison. He taught me to carefully catch a huntsman in Dad’s handkerchief (he did specify Dad’s, so I thought it an important detail) and release it in the garden; about how it was predicted that one day a rhododendron would be found in Australia and about … well, it was an amazing world he introduced me to; way out in the hinterland of Oz. Thank you for such an interesting topic and thus, day.

      2. Ha! Nothing I can say can top those recollections Judith. I’ll have to try to write a blog one day on who triggered our first interests in nature. If I did, my blog would probably be pretty boring, but the comments would be absolutely wonderful. Thanks again, best wishes Ian

  7. Isn’t it interesting that the (presumably fairly sophisticated) modern technology of WeBird couldn’t cope with “accents” or “dialects” of birds from different regions, but if I play the call of an eastern-states honeyeater to a western honeyeater, the bird will recognise the call and come to investigate. Our best technology is (as yet) no match for a bird brain!

    1. Hi Judy, yes it’s amazing isn’t it. The fact that birds and we humans can often identify birds from their calls, even when we visit different places, makes me think (perhaps naively) that the accent problem should be relatively ‘easy’ to overcome, provided that lots of sound files from different areas are available. The link to the article on WeBIRD in the post above has a really interesting postscript by the developer that helps to explain why the accent problem occurred. It makes it sound like the problem is fixable, but who knows how long it may take. Thanks for writing in, best wishes Ian

    1. Ooh yes, another classic. Colin Totterdell’s photographs raised the bar for the quality of landscape and plant photographs in oz field guides for many a year afterwards. Thanks again Max, best wishes Ian

  8. Growing up, the only field guide my parents had was the now old hat Neville Cayley’s ‘What Bird is that?”. For me, later, for plants, my first was Leon Costerman’s book that everyone else seems to have mentioned, then the book that every Sydney based bush regenerator has a well thumbed copy of, Les Robinson’s ‘Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney’ (initially a 1991 hard copy and then a 3rd ed’n paperback). I’ve various book field guides for fungi, insects, frogs, reptiles, and especially birds. Haven’t yet graduated to the digital age with field apps, but can see the potential for storage of/access to so much more info. I had a (youngish) birdo colleague comment once in response to bird app users raves, that he thought such people were just being lazy. There was also a short note in the last issue of Australian Birdlife (Vo.2 No. 4, December 2013) p. 13 referencing concern ( about the use of apps featuring bird song when the species are threatened species – causing disturbance, especially during breeding. I could imagine in the UK, with its large population of bird watchers that this could be an issue. This same issue of Birding Australia also contained a detailed, and rather rave review of the Pizzey and Knight Birds of Australia digital edition.

    1. Hello Deb, thanks for writing in. My grandma used to have a copy of Cayley’s bird book by her kitchen window. It was probably the first bird book I ever saw, although it was pretty old by the time I saw it. The growth in bird books since those days has been spectacular. A colleague commented that Australia has the highest number of bird books per head of (human) population in the world, so we aren’t starved of great choices. I don’t know that I buy the ‘lazy’ argument about field guide apps. It seems more like a lazy put-down to me. I’m sure some slow-adopters said much the same thing when clocks replaced sundials. Thanks again Ian

  9. For me, Hal Cogger’s Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia was a real turning-point in my interest in natural history and herpetology in particular. I used to borrow from the public library the edition with the Barking Gecko on the front. Now I have the latest edition with the green tree python (and other editions in between). A new edition is due out in March, and I have it on back-order already! Although Cogger (the book) has always been too heavy for backpacks, it worked just fine for car-based field trips. It had the advantage of providing keys for ALL known species, and was not geographically limited, covering all of Australia. A true natural history classic.

    1. I should also put in a mention a new book: Marian Anstis’ Frogs and Tadpoles of Australia. Although way too heavy for backpacks, the book is an amazing achievement and totally awe-inspriring.

      1. Hi Simon, thanks for both comments. Cogger set the standard for reptiles and frogs when I was younger. I gather that Steve Wilson and Gerry Swan’s fantastic reptile book is now really popular too. I’ve never seen Marian Anstis’ frog book but I have only heard wonderful things about it. Let’s hope they all help to turn more people onto enjoying these fantastic critters. Thanks again, best wishes Ian

  10. Hi Ian, Thanks for another entertaining and informative blog. I agree with Tim Barlow about Plains Wandering and am keen to see the next iteration. Your readers might be interested to know about ‘Trust Trees’ the app for the National Trust’s Victorian Register of Significant Trees. ‘Trust Trees’ brought the 30 year old Register to a wider audience and assisted us to protect and advocate for Significant Trees. The free app was launched in April 2011. There are currently more than 4500 users. By comparison, only 21 paper copies of the Register had been sold in the nine months prior to the launch of the app.

    While developing ‘Trust Trees’, we built in a function where users could add updated information and send in recent photos directly from their phones. This information was moderated before uploading to the app on the quarterly updates, but it had great benefits in keeping the Register up-to-date (e.g. if a tree was in good condition, had died or been removed) or alerting us to development that was threatening a tree(s). The app for the National Register is due for launch later this year. Best wishes Sue

    1. Hi Sue, wow, that’s an amazing endorsement for an iphone app compared to printed paper reports isn’t it – 4500 app downloads versus just 21 paper reports, plus the social media benefits of gathering new data from users of the app. The link to the Trust Trees app on the iphone store is: . The Plains Wandering field guide to grassland and woodland plants is currently being re-written (by a new team of authors this time) and it shall be great to see the update which is due out later this year. Thanks again Ian

  11. Hi Ian, what an interesting post! I’ve been hoping that someone will invent the equivalent of a tricorder to cope with the huge diversity of botanical things in WA – wouldn’t it be great to shine a small light onto a section of leaf or flower and identify the plant from the frequencies bouncing off its DNA (a future refinement of spectroscopy)? Come to think of it, perhaps it would work for thin-skinned animals too (frogs, and possibly birds) but probably not reptiles. I can’t comment on digital apps as I’m the humble user of an iphone; in this case the “i” stands for “idiot”. The website Florabase is probably as close as it gets to a digital app, but still requires a knowledge of at least family, and hopefully genus, to save hours of trawling through data in a hit-and-miss fashion. But how to identify a leafless stick with no flowers or fruit…?
    My first field guide was H. G. Cogger’s “Australian Reptiles in Colour”, a slim little volume. This was followed a few years later by Peter Slater’s “A Field Guide to Australian Birds” in two knap-sack-friendly volumes. We also had in our house a series of Qld Museum booklets including (if I can remember correctly) “Mice and Rats of Brisbane” and “Bats of Queensland”. I have a larger collection of field guides now – you never know when someone is going to ask you about a scorpion, orchid, germinating seed, snakeskin, or some alien-looking and decayed lifeform washed up on a beach. (Now, about that tricorder…)
    P.S. Please do write a post about scientific heroes; it would be a fascinating read.

    1. Hello Linda, you know I’ve actually heard about an iphone app that turns your phone into a high powered microscope and a spectrocrope, but I won’t vouch for its usefulness. Have a look at this short article: if you want to give it a try! Slater was the first bird book I had after the Gould League books, it was great. He probably won’t appreciate it, but I found all of the ‘nonsense’ bird calls in the blog above in Slater’s book 🙂 I did write a blog ages ago about my ‘hero’ who wrote the paper that turned me onto ecology, I called it ‘Steve Packard was my Steve Jobs’, and you can read it here if you like: It generated a fantastic stream of comments from readers. It would still be be fun to write a broader blog post on the topic one day though. Thanks again, best wishes Ian

  12. Yes, interesting discussion. The early game-changers for me were:
    – Birds. Cayley’s ‘WBIT’ (a legend in it’s own time!) followed closely by the brilliant Gould League series ‘birds of Victoria’- required bed-time reading, at the time!
    – Mammals. A 1960’s edition of Ellis Troughton’s ‘Furred Mammals Of Australia’; I’m sure I photocopied the entire book! And Wood Jone’s ‘Mammals of South Australia’; exotic, yet local, for a Victorian.
    – Herps. Cogger! – goes without saying.
    – Veg. A copy of the 35c Costerman’s, along with Jean Gaibraith’s guide (with pictures & plates!).
    I have stronger and better memories of these books than of any others I read as a teenager, no doubt because I returned to them, over and over.
    A recent Vic ID series not mentioned yet is Peter Marriot’s trail-blazing ‘Moths of Victoria’, published by the Ent. Soc. Vic. Vic has 2,000+ species of moth. They are significant ecosystem elements, yet precious little is known about them. These ID guides (book &CD) open onto a world of amazing diversity, colour and form.

    1. Hello Bert, thanks for commenting. We’re gradually collecting a great collection of old and new field guides in the comments here. Thanks especially for the reference to the moths book. I wonder whether it’s possible to develop a chronology of all the readers who have written a comment, based on the field guides they first saw 🙂 Best wishes Ian

      1. I would have at least 20 field guides birds, plants, reptiles, animals and then the regional ones and I think they certainly “date” me in both their age and chronological order!

  13. Great read, thanks Ian. As a field botanist I’m still mostly pen and paper but I doubt it will be long before the standard way to do a vegetation survey will involve dictating a species list to your device which transcribes species names and other details from a database, arranging them taxonomically, Site characteristics such as slope, aspect, modelled/interpolated climate will be determined based on the GPS location. A quick series of snaphots builds a crude 3D model of the site, giving canopy height and foliage cover estimates. Then all you need is a ‘DNA probe’ to sample and instantly ID those species you’re unfamiliar with 🙂

    1. Hi Nic, thanks for writing, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Apart from the DNA probe, and perhaps the speech conversion, I suspect that many people are already doing many of these things! It’ll be fascinating to see how DNA profiling develops in the future, and whether it can be made into a portable and inexpensive process. I may not live long enough to see it! Thanks again, best wishes Ian

  14. Good Afternoon Ian, This would appear to me to have valuable natural systems’ monitoring capabilities, as well as farm / pasture tracking. The intro video give enough info to get the hang of it I think. (I won’t be buying it, but professionals in your field might find it useful to investigate at least). Learn Ranch Mapping Using Google Earth online course starts on January 21 w 24/7 access. Check out

  15. Great article. Not only is it insightful and thought provoking, but it is beautifully written (especially for a scientist!). I wish I could write like that. Congratulations. I think my first FG was Freshwater Fishes and Rivers of Australia by John S Lake from 1971. I still have it – complete with aftermarket plastic covering. Sadly many of the species that he considered to be widespread and abundant are now teetering on the brink.

    1. Hello Allan, thanks for writing in, I’m glad you liked the blog. It’s great to have a field guide to fishes added to the list. My uncle used to have a huge book on fishes of the world that I used to pore over when we visited long ago. Thanks again, best wishes Ian

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