It’s not my intention to cause any safari guides to lose their jobs, but sometimes it`s just nice to be able to identify whatever creature (or plant) you come across for yourself.
And unless you happen to have a photographic memory, coming up with the correct identities for what you come across in the bush is going to require carting around a few trusty field guides (and I`m not talking about those suntanned guys in two-tone khaki).
Here’s what’s in my book bag when I head for the great outdoors.
There are hundreds of options when it comes to bird field guides. Among birders I know, preferences vary, but I actually have several that I use under different circumstances. I like the Roberts Bird Guide for general purpose birding around southern Africa. The layout is straightforward, the book itself is durable for use and abuse in the field, and the checklist in the back is handy for keeping track of what you see. Others swear by the new Sasol Birds of Southern Africa, which is great because it`s a good thing to have some book diversity when you`re with a group and trying to settle on a tricky ID. I also really like Birds of Southern Africa: The Complete Photographic Guide, but I think it`s easier to learn the subtle features that distinguish between species from an illustrated guide. So, I recommend it as a supplement. If you often travel north of the Zambezi (or if you just want to know what wonders you`re missing), you`ll definitely want a copy of the hefty Birds of Africa South of the Sahara.
For some reason there aren’t as many excellent mammal field guides as for birds, and recommending a few isn`t as straight forward. I haven`t even settled on one to permanently add to my collection. Of course, Smither’s Mammals of Southern Africa: A Field Guide is good for southern Africa, but for my collection, I want something that covers a wider geographic swath. And then there are some excellent books on behavior (like The Behavior Guide to African Mammals) and interesting mammal tidbits (like The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals), but I want something that covers more species. Then there is the trusty Kingdon Guide to African Mammals. Though beautiful, this book is a little out of date and unreasonably expensive. I heard a rumor that an updated edition might be in the works, and I hope it’s true!
No doubt about this one, A Complete Guide to the Frogs of Southern Africa is the book to have. It even comes with a CD of all the frog calls so that you can (try) to identify frogs by call. And if that doesn`t work, I`m sure your guests will appreciate it if you play it in the background at your next dinner party. There`s also a more compact guide, Frogs and Frogging in Southern Africa, which contains the most common species and some interesting commentary on “frogging”. If you need more coverage geographically, try Amphibians of East Africa or Amphibians of Central and Southern Africa.
Snakes and Reptiles
There are two ways to go when it comes to field guides for snakes and reptiles. If you want completeness, go for the Field Guide to the Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. If your more interested in glossy pages and pretty pictures, don’t mind a larger format, and identifying to family group rather than species is okay for tricky cases, the Complete Guide to Snakes of Southern Africa and A Guide to the Reptiles of Southern Africa are beautiful, more user friendly books. For East Africa, A Field Guide to the Reptiles of East Africa is highly regarded.
Insects and other things that crawl
I`m no expert on insects, but friends who are tell me there`s little hope for identifying an insect to species level from a catchall field guide. Nonetheless, I like to have some idea what I`m looking at, and I`ve found the Field Guide to Insects of Southern Africa to be quite useful and interesting. I don`t own them myself, but there are quite a few interesting-looking guides for specific groups: scorpions, butterflies, spiders, dragonflies, etc.
For now plants are still on my “to learn” list, but I know there are some popular tree, flower, and succulent book lists out there. Maybe one of the botany leaning bloggers can fill you in. For now, my book bag is already pretty full. Maybe I`ll bring one of the khaki-clad guys along after all—to help carry all the books!