Best Field Guides for Nature of the Pacific Northwest

One of my great obsessions in life is field guides. Really good, thorough, and beautifully photographed field guides. I can (and do) spend hours bookstores pulling guides off of the shelf and flipping through them, getting excited about species I might see in the wild. The natural history section of the Powell’s City of Books in Portland is like a second home to me. I recently had to block Amazon.com from my laptop and phone because my addiction had me spending way too much money every month on the latest guides. 

Okay, I get that I sound like I have screw loose. But let’s take just a moment to appreciate the amazingness that is a field guide.

Decades of research by experts is compiled, sorted, pared down to the crucial details about an array of species. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of hours of observation and note-taking, massive stacks of peer-reviewed journal articles and study results, drawer upon drawer of specimens in natural history museums carefully analyzed and compared… all of this whittled down to a paragraph for each species. The editor of the guide book adds their own expertise while artfully deciding what snippets to include to ensure the guide is useful yet still portable.

That alone is miraculous. 

Then add in what a field guide does for the user. The vast, unintelligible world around you is suddenly broken into many intricate puzzle pieces, each of which can be looked at individually and understood on its own, and appreciated as part of the larger whole. 

Carry a plant guide on a hike with you and discover how the field of monotone green in front of you becomes individual plants, each with its own unique role, quirks, uses, and relationships with other species. Take a bird guide to a walk and those “little brown jobs” earn names – song sparrow, white crowned sparrow, hermit thrush, brown creeper. You transition from knowing you saw “some birds” to being amazed at the sheer number of unique species you can list off seeing in your 30 minute stroll.

The wide world is broken open like a piñata and fascinating details come spilling out.

When I stop to think about the wonder of what a field guide is and can do, my obsession feels absolutely justified. It’s also my job to know nature stuff, so I can totally justify my obsession that way, too.  I guess I don’t need an excuse to buy another field guide after all…

Anyway, it is with care and love that I provide you with a list of my favorite guides for the species found here in the Pacific Northwest. These are the primary guides I use on a daily basis (though certainly not my only guides!) and I can whole-heartedly recommend as money well spent if you decide to invest in them. 


Birds


Going beyond the must-have The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, my favorite go-to guide is Birds of the Pacific Northwest by John Shewey. 

I also really love these three additional guides, which give much needed detail for identifying sparrows, gulls, and all the songs you hear during dawn chorus:

Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America by Rick Wright

Gulls Simplified: A Comparative Approach to Identification by Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America by Nathan Pieplow


More Wildlife


Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest: Tracking and Identifying Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates by David Moskowitz is an absolute must-have. It provides not only an excellent summary of the animals you’ll find here, but also information about tracks and sign so you gain additional insights into the lives of the wild things around you. 

Of course, there are more species than a single guide could hope to include and still be portable. So my favorite additional guides include:

Reptiles of the Northwest: California to Alaska; Rockies to the Coast by Alan St. John

Amphibians of the Pacific Northwest by Lawrence L. C. Jones, William P. Leonard, and Deanna H. Olson

Insects of the Pacific Northwest by Peter Haggard

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West by Dennis Paulson

Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide by Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson, and Sheila R. Colla


Trees and Plants


If you’re going to select just one field guide for the flora of the area, make it Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. If one word sums up this book, it is “indispensable.” 

That said, there are other amazing plant guides. My favorites are:

Trees to Know in Oregon by Edward C. Jensen

Shrubs to know in Pacific Northwest Forests by Edward C. Jensen

Northwest Trees: Identifying and Understanding the Region’s Native Trees by Stephen Arno (This is a little redundant if you have the other guides, but I love it because it’s so beautifully written.)

Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest by Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson 

And for finding edible plants while on a wander, try Pacific Northwest Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Alaska Blueberries to Wild Hazelnuts by Douglas Deur and Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora


Rocky Shores


Beachcomber’s Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest by J. Duane Sept 

Pacific Seaweeds: Updated and Expanded Edition by Louis Druehl and Bridgette Clarkston

Pacific Coast Nudibranchs: A Guide to the Opisthobranchs Alaska to Baja California by David W. Behrens

Seashore Life of the Northern Pacific Coast: An Illustrated Guide to Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia by Eugene N. Kozloff

The rocky shores remind us of the amazing geological history (and future) of Oregon’s coastline, which leads me to another particularly interesting guide that any road-tripper will want to have riding shotgun: Roadside Geology of Oregon by Marli B. Miller (There are also Roadside Geology books for Washington and British Columbia.)

Download the Free eBook

This 24-page book details five easy-to-learn naturalist skills that will help you see what wildlife is in the area, predict behaviors for amazing action shots, and maximize your photographic opportunities every time you go outside! Also included are 5 exercises and 2 downloadable templates to use in the field. A few minutes a day building these skills will advance your photography from lucky snaps to highly crafted images.


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