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Doug Wednesday 8th January 2003 06:40

Whay are field guides taboo in the field?
I can't get my head round the fact that most birders seem to feel that you shouldn't use a field guide in the field?!!! In Mark Cockers book he decries the practice - feeling that a 'real' birder should know intimately every species he is likely to see while out and if he doesn't he should take notes and then use the guide at home. WHY??? My wife and I thoroughly enjoy pulling out our battered and well loved Collins Guide in hides and seeing 'birders' sneer at us (the same ones who seem to feel that birders shouldn't talk to each other either!!) We like to be able to ID birds on the spot - when we can check subtle points against the guide. What do you guy's think - am I a Philistine?

Ashley beolens Wednesday 8th January 2003 06:50

I personally always carry a guide with me but you are right, I very rarely use it in full view, I think one of the reasons is that most birders I know feel they should be able to ID birds from the off and don't like to admit they need help.

However there is also a good reason not to look at a book straight away if you don't recognise a bird, the point is that you should always make notes on a bird before you check a book, otherwise it is likely you could see things that are not there, and cloud your judgement, its a lot easier to "see" ID features when you know what you want to see. Not that I'm saying anyone would but there is certainly a chance. This is only important if you plan to submit a record for a bird (presumably a rarity).

What I am trying to say is you get an accurate description of a bird if you note down ID features before looking in a book (i got a bit muddled up in the middle i think but I have been up all night)


MikePearson Wednesday 8th January 2003 06:53

Hi Doug,

There were some similar comments a few days back. I know exactly what you mean. I too get funny looks when I get my book out and like you I don't give a stuff. I also always speak to people if the make even the slightest eye contact. If they are adamant that they are going to ignore me, fair enough.

Usually, "Hi , whats about?", is all thats needed.

Quite honestly, I have found that most birders are only too willing to talk once you get them going and I have learned far more form other people than I have from books.


Doug Wednesday 8th January 2003 06:55

I agree, Ashley. I do take a notebook for my jottings first - but I can't resist getting the guide out and trying to confirm things right there. I don't mind 'birders' knowing I am a bit thick. I am hopeless at ducks, and don't talk to me about gulls!!! I wsh birders were more chatty in hides and in the field - when I get achatty birder I am all ears and usually see much more and learn more from those willing to apss on the benefits of their experience.

Ashley beolens Wednesday 8th January 2003 07:10

I think there is a very strange attitude in this country towards birding, If you make a mistake you are ridiculed yet if you check a book you are also ridiculed, its a no win situation.

An example of this happened to me this year on Scilly, I am not the most confident birder, well I wasn't I am more so now, and while checking a certain area i spotted a small sylvia warbler on a wall, it turned out to be a Subalpine Warbler, I saw it very briefly and then couldn't believe my eyes, unfortunatly only one other birder, a friend of mine saw its back as it dissolved into the bushes, now I lost all confidence and put the news out that it was a probable (i regret that now). This left me open and i heard a few comments that night in the log call, I had alchol in me by then so I put people straight, but if i hadn't feared being made to look a fool if I was wrong I would have been a lot more confident and others may have seen the bird.
Unfortunatly the bird was not seen again and this lead to people (including friends) thinking I had strung the bird.

It has taught me a valuble lesson tho, I now no longer judge peoples records in a harsh way, to quote the bible (and me a staunch atheist) "Judge not lest ye be judged" or something.


Marysan Wednesday 8th January 2003 12:10

Field Guides are not taboo where I live in Southern California. Our Bird Walk leaders encourage us to bring our Field Guides and if there is a difference of opinion on an ID the Field Guides are hauled out and discussion follows. Different places, different ways.

Alastair Rae Wednesday 8th January 2003 12:42

I guess the field guide thing is that you're supposed to really know your birds. At home (UK) I recommend The Macmillan Field Guide to Bird Identification which we call "the difficult bird book". It's small but only deals with species or plumages that are hard to id.

I always have it in the rucksack but don't actually need to consult it that often. Abroad, I spend half my time with the local field guide open.

Andy Thatcher Wednesday 8th January 2003 21:36

I generally have a guide close by or to hand when birding though I rarely have to use it in the UK but would not hesitate to do so if I thought it required. If others think I am thick they are probably right but I would rather be absolutely certain and if that means me diving through a giude so be it.

MikePearson Wednesday 8th January 2003 22:12

Nah Ashley,

it's me and you that have the strange attitude mate, I take the book out whenever I see a bird I dont know. Ept when there are other birders in the hide and I say, "Oy, whats that? Help, anyone know what that is?". Never be scared of your own ignorance. Most people get a real kick out if helping you out. take it from me, I was a maths teacher!


T0ny Wednesday 8th January 2003 22:35

IMHO <grin>, this whole elitist non-field-guide-user attitude was first brought to light in Bill Oddie's LBBB, where he stated in as many words what has been hinted here - carrying a field guide was frowned upon because it demonstrated one's ignorance, and 'real' birders should make notes and id the unknown bird when they get home.
My view FWIW is that this is a load of dingoes' kidneys, and the more people who can discuss the bird, and check it out from the book while it's still in view the better. If you're with a group, try to have a variety of guides with you, because they all have something to contribute to thorny id problems.


PS No sneaky nipping outside the hide, looking it up, then coming back and confidently id-ing it as though you're an expert !

peter hayes Wednesday 8th January 2003 23:07

Almost every hobby, pursuit and sport has its own elitists. You can never escape them entirely, and birding is no exception. Speaking as a newcomer I can't do without a guide, and I don't care who sees me using one.

Surely the whole point of all this is to encourage an interest in birds, and that means increasing your knowledge of them. It really doesn't matter how you do it.

So my advice is to ingore the snotty lot who look down on you - break out the field guide whenever you want!

Andrew Wednesday 8th January 2003 23:44

This is very true all walks of life have snobs. In fishing matches there are different levels, the pleasure angler, the club match angler and the open circuit angler and apparently the club anglers does not like the open angler cos they look down on them. The deaf community have various liguistic planes, those who speak well, those who speak and sign and those who sign excluisively. Both the speakers and Signers look down on each other and the bilingual ones in the middle get left out in the cold.

As for field guides sometimes when I'm in a hide and it crammed with people I daren't get my Collins out but if they're all geriatrics then no problem cos I know most of them will be of my kind. SOmetimes it's too late cos you have it out (ooh pardon me!) already and someone comes in and scoffs you. When you pick out a sanderling in a flock of dunlins they scold you for stringing them along cos you have a book! Surely, having a book open in front of you means it is definitely a Sanderling!

T0ny Thursday 9th January 2003 01:14

Anyone remember the Frost Report sketch with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker & Ronnie Corbett ?

(From memory) 'I look up to him because he is upper class, but I look down on him because he is lower class. I am middle class'. etc.

Maybe this is why some hides have three 'decks' ?

Or the Dubliners :

'My Lord Bishop, Reverend Mothers, Reverend Fathers, Your Excellencies, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen - and fellow peasants.'

'Class Distinction is merely a rumour spread about by the lower classes' - anonymous Tory MP in the fifties.


bcurrie Thursday 9th January 2003 03:39

Here in Utah you are considered incomplete unless you have your field guide with you.

Gaye Horn Thursday 9th January 2003 03:48

Well here IF you have a guide with you .. you are literate.. if it is dogeared.... you can read... if you use it to complete an id..... then you are really on the ball and IF you have all of David Sibleys books...... then you are righteous.... I always have them,... but I always say dumb stuff like "hey what is that anyway???"
I always get some person thinking I am a complete dolt and need a lesson on what it is that has everyone's attention.. and I snap away .. while they talk... I learn stuff and am not called upon to speak any further.. it is an old ploy!

mkdon Thursday 9th January 2003 03:56

I really have never heard of not using a field guide, although I don't often go birding in a group. My local bird store sells a shoulder bag that a bird guide fits into so it can be carried more easily. My opinion is that field guides are made to be used, so I use them. That is one way for me to learn. Put me on the side of using a field guide whenever necessary.

Simon A Thursday 9th January 2003 08:31

Hmmm, I fear this may be a British trait, as I recall only too clearly the silent but tangible scorn and ridicule that used to be directed at anyone daring to admit their ocular inadequacy by producing a field......and if it was that Mitchell Beazley pocket guide, then you could virtually guarantee yourself an ornithological crucifixion.....grrrrrr, Middle-spotted woodpecker indeed!

It got to the point where I left all books in the car, although a favourite of mine occured when out with a non-birder mate at Titchwell - he got so bored that he pulled out a copy of that day's Guardian and read that!

In Oz it is perfectly okay to have a field guide (as it should be) in the field (that name is a bit of a giveaway ain't it?), although I have heard the comment that a birder with a 'scope, on the beach, with no field guide is invariably a pom!

Next time I'm back in Blighty I intend to cart the entire multi-volume set of BWP in a shopping trolley down the East Bank at Cley - see you there.

Nice work (finally) on the cricket incidentally.


Alastair Rae Thursday 9th January 2003 09:11


Originally posted by Simon A
In Oz it is perfectly okay to have a field guide (as it should be) in the field (that name is a bit of a giveaway ain't it?), although I have heard the comment that a birder with a 'scope, on the beach, with no field guide is invariably a pom!
Before I visit a new birding area, I study the field guide for months beforehand. You'd have to be really arrogant to try to bird Oz without opening the book in the field. You can't memorize it all and you surely couldn't make notes fast enough!

Beverlybaynes Thursday 9th January 2003 11:54

Give me a group with guides galore and talking any day!

When I bird with my local Audubon group, you find every single person carrying a guide for reference. And the larger the group, the wider the variety being carried along!

And we TALK!! Through this group, I get to go out in the field with some truly wizard birders, and I have learned soooooo much from them. They will-- and have on many occasions -- take the time to make sure you are seeing and identifying a bird that is new to you. They will help you find a target bird by leading you to good locations to find them. They will point out field marks to distinguish those devilishly-hard-to-ID empids!

I can't imagine NOT being in a group that wasn't referring to their guides, and talking about what's being seen!

By the way, I carry the National Geographic Guide, 3rd edition (NG3) with me in the field, and keep the Sibley Guide and the Birder's Handbook in the car for reference.

monkeyman Thursday 9th January 2003 22:04

From readiong the above, I feel that the consensus is that it's ok to use a Field Guide.

Personally, I never leave home without my Mitchell Beazley and a notebook! All the others I leave at home and then thoroughly enjoy going through them, recapping the day from my notes!

And anyway, I think if I could memorise every feather on every bird in the world and their habits, habitats and everything, I'd writeTHE bloody book myself!

Colin Thursday 9th January 2003 22:21

I think it is OK to use a field guide in the field but as Ashley says, make notes first. While you root out your guide and start thumbing through it, the bird may well have flown and then questions like 'What colour were its legs?' start springing up and there is no answer cos you were looking through the pages for something like the bird you had only taken a cursory glance at (cursory, in as much as you saw enough to not be able to id it). So, the field guide has its place in the field but not as the first resort.


Regan Friday 10th January 2003 23:55

I have just been reading some old 'Bird Watching ' magazines from 2000. The readers letters were complaining then about the attitude and snobbery of some birdwatchers. Personally it makes me laugh, I take notes and a field guide, if I can't put a name to a bird it distracts me from the rest of my birdwatching. Especially if it's something I know I should recognise.

peter hayes Saturday 11th January 2003 10:07

I couldn't agree more, Kevin

digi-birder Saturday 11th January 2003 15:58

This is a very timely thread, as a colleague at work only asked me this very question the other day. I had earwigged that he was discussing the carrying of field guides with another colleague, and had a feeling that I was going to be asked the question. I promptly answered that I do carry one on birding trips - and I unselfconsciously use it as well.

I much prefer to check out the ID in the field rather than back home. I know that you should learn to take good field-notes, but I work in a different way to my more experienced colleagues, and probably some of you. Everyone has their own preferences. I just like to check it out while the bird is there. Of course, as Colin suggests, I take a good look first and try to pinpoint as many features as possible before it flies off.

On a number of occasions, other birders have sneaked a look over my shoulder when they haven't been carrying their own guide. So it can be OK to use a guide sometimes!


Eddie Saturday 11th January 2003 19:58

I strike a happy medium in as much as I keep a field guide in the car. I can then check things out fairly quickly if necessary and I don't have to wait to get home. I would carry it with me but with scope, bins, notebook, dog phaser, flask etc I don't have enough pockets. I do agree that it is a useful piece of field kit. Yeah, definitely.


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