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What is a field guide? About field guide books

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

What is a field guide? So you’re interested in guide books. Let’s look at the main features of a field guide book and where you can find them.

Read time: 4 mins

A guide book to different bird species in the Lowveld. These kinds of books are instrumental in identifying and distinguishing different species. 

Here at Bushwise, we train field guides – people who are passionate about nature and want to become ambassadors of the natural world. 

But a field guide could also be a guide book, such as a guide to fynbos or regional birds. These books provide incredible detail into plants and animals, helping you identify them and learn more about them. 

In this blog we’re focusing on the book version. 

What is a field guide?

A Bushwise student explains something to his guests while training in the African bush.

Around the world, this term has different meanings. Here in South Africa, it means  nature guide – someone who interprets the natural world for their guests, typically in national parks, game reserves and other protected areas. 

In the UK and the US, as well as many other countries, the term field guide often refers to a guide book. A person could go to a bookstore or online shop and order a guide book on a specific species or species group, whether plant or animal. 

Why it’s called a field guide

A Bushwise student flips through pages of a bird guide book while on game drive.

The idea is that you’d carry this book with you whenever you’re “in the field” and use it as a reference. 

So, the book should guide you as you explore and understand the different species you see. Therefore, the book guides you in the field. It is a field guide.

The most common ones cover things like trees, wildflowers, birds, amphibians, fish, mammals and insects. You might also get a region-specific book for a specific biome or ecosystem. Such books might simply be called “field guide to the wildlife of…” or something similar.

What are the main features of a field guide?

Field guide books can be used in the field to identify species or signs from animals.

The best field guides will include a clear organisation system, whether alphabetical or taxonomic or otherwise. Then, each species page(s) should ideally have:

  1. detailed description of each species

  2. images that help you distinguish it from others

  3. regional map or other visualisation for habitat and status

  4. calls (usually phonetic – and usually just for birds)

  5. breeding details, diet, and other information

Obviously this will vary depending on the type of book and publisher. 

A Bushwise trainer shows a number of books to students in a classroom. These are valuable resources for their education.

You can also now find these books published as apps. A popular example in southern Africa is birding apps, such as Roberts or Sasol. These types of apps include interactive maps, audio recordings of bird calls and tools to compare similar species. 

You can also keep track of the species you see, which is a fun way to turn wildlife sightings into an interactive game!

How do I find a field guide? 

Whether you’re talking about field guide books or field guide people, they’re all important resources for understanding the natural world.

Wherever you find books! Most bookshops will have a section on nature or wildlife. Simply search for the subject matter you’re interested in. They might have multiple options depending on the region or species group. 

We recommend you try a few different field guides to see what you enjoy the most. For example, I prefer wildflower field guides that categorise flowers by colour instead of by species grouping. It just seems more straightforward to me, but your preference could be different!

What is a field guide person?

A guide looks back from her seat in the front of a game vehicle, as she explains something to her guests. 

A field or safari guide is a trained person who conducts a guided experience for guests in a natural environment, often in a game viewer or on foot. 

You’re interested in field guide books. You’re interested in nature. Have you ever thought about making a career out of it? That’s where Bushwise Field Guides comes in.

Through Bushwise, not only can you absorb more knowledge about wildlife and nature – you can become a qualified guide yourself


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