View Full Version : Book Review: National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians

8th May 2008, 21:13
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians
(NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1979. 744 pages)

Also: National Audubon Field Guide to Mid-Atlantic States (1999, 448 pages)
and National Audubon Field Guide to Florida (1998, 448 pages)

I am a big fan of the Audubon Field Guide series. Compact and full of pictures. I like photos, and not drawings. Why? Who among you with a totally useless degree in literature did not have drummed into them Plato's charge that art is three times removed from the truth ('an imitation of an imitation')? For Plato, a true thing was its Ideal Form, or what we might call an archetype. Its manifestation in our world of reality is a mere copy of that, and an artistic representation, like a painting, is a copy of a copy.

But Plato never heard of a camera. It would have pleased him, I think, to find a form of art that is one step back closer to the truth. And if he wouldn't have, who cares? I'm pleased, and I'm done with Plato and Comp Lit.
Pictures are as close to truth as a book can get. For this reason, I bought all Audubon guides and not Peterson's, though I think that Peterson's may be using more photos these days.

As I mentioned in my review of Staniszewski, in the beginning I was not aware that there was more than one specie of newt in the world. It was a blow to my naive innocence that this was not so, but it turned out quite happily in the end.
This was my first field guide--my first introduction to the variety of salamanders in the world (I was still to discover there are whole other continents with yet more salamanders). I couldn't believe it. I would page through it over and over and just marvel. All these animals I never knew about. I thought a newt was a Red-Spotted Newt and that was that! Can you, world-weary reader, remember back when you first discovered the myriad exciting rainbow universe of caudates? Can you remember the wonder you felt when your Dad woke you up as a child to see your first snowfall? Can you remember the glorious feeling when Hagrid first told you that you were a wizard and you finally understood there WAS a place for people like you?...hang on, that might have been Harry Potter, not me. Oh well, even if it isn't a copy of Miranda Goshawk's Standard Book of Spells, this book still holds magic for me, which is renewed whenever I peruse its pages.

That said, as I've mentioned in another review, it's a bit frustrating that the scientific names do not accompany the species pictures in the front of the book. And as I'm sure we all have experienced, common names can vary! The Brown Salamander (A. gracile) I've also read of as the Northwestern Salamander. That's just the tip of the iceberg.
Another problem I have with the Audubon books is why they'll have more than one picture of a specie and not group them together (for example, mudpuppy: pictures 16 & 20; Two-toed Amphiuma: pictures 15 & 18; Pacific Giant Salamander larva, picture 23, but adult is picture 41). I've never figured out their logic, they do that in their other books too.
The text sections contain important points about each specie: size, breeding, habitat, and range. These short accounts can't begin to compete with information in a book like Petranka's, or even Bishop's, but it is a very helpful start. And though I've only discussed their salamander section here, remember, there are frogs and reptiles in this guide as well.
Like their other books, this book is not complete. That was another hard lesson for me, but my recovery has been eased by the realization that I now have an excuse to buy every book on salamanders that I find. The lesson to take away is this: the more field guides, the better.
And I started with more Audubon guides.
The Mid-Atlantic Guide concentrates on, as the title suggests, the Mid-Atlantic States (NY, PA, NJ, MD, DE, WV, VA). These area guides include a selection of flora: mushrooms, trees & flowers, and fauna: bugs, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals of the area. Another plus: in the trees and flowers section they include bushes and shrubs, which are not included in either the trees or flowers field guides. They need a bushes and shrubs field guide. Then in the last section of the area guides is an introduction to each area's major parks and preserves.
You don't want to get too many of these area guides, because of all the overlap: species that are found all over, topographic info, habitat info, the solar system, this stuff can get repetitive. So I got the one for my home area, and the one for my favorite vacation spot, Florida. I'm hoping to make it to Oregon/Washington sometime, in which case I'm sure I'll get the Pacific Northwest guide. In fact, I think I'll order it now, as I haven't bought a book in about three days and I need a reward for writing all these reviews.

I love my Audubon Guides. They are thumbed through and well-worn. They have bookmarks and post-its all through them. They have been dragged all over the place, and they hold up very well. They may not be complete, but they sure are portable.

8th May 2008, 21:42
Ah, the National Audobon Field Guides... I could easily go either way with these books. The biggest pro is pictures! Glorious full color pictures of beautiful amphibians (oh, and reptiles, I suppose.) The information in the back of the book is good, brief but it provides you with a few pointers on habitat and behavior.

To me there are many cons. Unlike Peterson guides the pictures are not accompanied by text that helps elucidate what details differentiate this small, brown salamander from that brown salamander. The descriptions in the Peterson book are also much more thorough, but are nothing compared to Petranka. Range maps are also smaller in the Audobon guide. The other thing I don't really like about the Audobon book is the thin, thin pages. They are like the pages of the bibles you find in hotel rooms in the US. I would be worried about these pages in the field.

Do I regret owning the Audobon guide? Heck no. The pictures are great, the information is okay and it really is portable. Do I wish my Peterson guide wasn't destroyed in a move/garage flood? Yes. :( As Dawn mentioned this book's pictures were magical to my amphibian naive self.

Note: The Audobon insect guide is nearly useless. The Peterson guide will actually help you identify families and maybe genus by counting tarsii and antena segments.

Edit: I forgot to add, excellent review, yet again. And I couldn't agree more, grab all the field guides you can get.
EditEdit: The thin pages I mentioned above are restricted to the information section. The pictures are on thick, glossy paper.

8th May 2008, 21:48
Unlike Peterson guides the pictures are not accompanied by text that helps elucidate what details differentiate this small, brown salamander from that brown salamander.

Now Abrahm you've given me something: a reason to buy the Peterson's guide as well!