My Favorite Field Guides for Southern California
And Tips on How to Get Started
Learning about local plants and animals is exciting, but can be frustrating when you first start out. For years, I hiked around with a backpack full of field guides, stopping frequently and furiously thumbing pages. And I bought many books that didn't have sufficient or good photos for identification. I'm going to share some of my favorites with you. But first some tips:
- Take guided walks whenever possible. For bird watching, join your local chapter of Audubon. Chapters usually offer regular walks lead by an experienced birder.
- When you visit parks and forests, look for interpretative trails. These offer some plant identification and basic ecological information. For plants, also visit Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, the Theodore Payne Foundation nursery (it has a short, landscaped trail), or Tree of Life nursery in San Juan Capistrano. While not impressive, Descanso Garden also has a native section.
- Hike in places with nature and visitor centers, such as Eton Canyon, Monrovia Watershed Park, Stough Canyon, Placerita Canyon, Franklin Canyon Park, Topanga State Park, Will Rogers State Park, Malibu Creek State Park, and Debs Park. Volunteers or staff can help you identify things you've seen.
- Get as local as possible. When trying to identify flora and fauna, it helps to narrow things down. Look for bird and plant lists at nature centers, and troll their bookshelves for local field guides.
- Support you local nature center. Parks are chronically underfunded, so donations and volunteer help are greatly needed.
Following are some of the books I find most helpful for identifying species and understanding ecosystems.
Birds of Los Angeles (including SB, Ventura and OC Counties), Chris C. Fisher and Herbert Clarke.This guide has great illustrations, and because it only lists birds found here, you can save yourself hours of frustration, for example, trying to figure out which of the many North America Sparrows you've seen.
Kaufman Focus Guide: Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman. This is hands down my favorite book, but it does include all of North America, so if you're a beginner, use it in combination with local guides. Once you get to know some of the basic categories of related birds, it will be a wonderful guide for you.
The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley. This book has gorgeous drawings and brief descriptive information created by this famous ornithologist. Above I've posted a link to the smaller volume of just Western birds. For more about the life and times of these tweeties, buy the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Bird Behavior. For birding tips, try Sibley's Birding Basics.
Bird Songs of California by Geoffrey A. Keller. This is a CD from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Some birds refuse to show themselves. If you're haunted by the twitters, this CD can help you ID some 220 species. Still, you have to have a pretty good idea of what you think you heard, because cycling through hundreds of calls without any notion of what bird it might be would be incredibly frustrating. To get you started, search the CD for a few of your favorite birds, and become familiar with their calls.
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Not a book, but an important website.
SO CAL NATIVE PLANTS
An Introduction to The Plant Life of Southern California by Philip Rundel and Robert Gustafson. This book won't help you identify every plant, but it's a great overview of local plant communities. Once you know the types of plants we have here, and where they're found, it's a lot easier to figure out what you're looking at.
California Native Plants for the Garden by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O'Brien. Not a field guide, but one of the best reference books on natives. Plus, a good way to learn is to plant a few in your yard.
Flowering Plants of the Santa Monica Mountains, Coastal and Chaparral Regions of Southern California by Nancy Dale. Comprehensive, more useful once you already have a little knowledge of the plants.
Wildflowers of the San Gabriel Mountains by Ann and Gerald Croissant. A nice introductory book.
Nature Guide to the Mountains of Southern California by Bill Havert and Gary Gray. This, too, I think is out of print, but available used. It includes plants and animals. I'm partial to this book as short, sweet, introductory guide. I hauled it on many hikes, and still appreciate it. No color photos but good drawings.
An Introduction to Southern California Butterflies by Fred Heath. Lots of color photos and good, local info.
Mammals of California by Tamara Eder. This guide has nice color photos and drawings. Plus, drawings of the animals' footprints, and information on the their habitats and life cycles. Since the number of mammals you're likely to see is small, don't buy this unless you're a wildlife nut like me. Just visit local nature centers for information on the furry creatures that live in the area. But if you love field guides, this is a good one.
Beyond the Beach Blanket: A Field Guide to Southern California Coastal Wildlife by Marina Curtis Tidwell. Hooray for this book! I own several authoritative tomes on marine ecosystems that are good textbooks, but not accessible or fun. I recommend this one for beginners. It's a small press book, so if you're interested, buy it while you can still get it.
California Marine Life by Marty Snyderman. A lovely introduction to marine ecology. More enjoyable even than the Tidwell book above, but doesn't have as much local information.
Got a favorite guide? Please let us know.