PNW natural history

Our family lives in the Willamette Valley of Oregon — about an hour south of Portland. We live on our farm on a river island (the Willamette River branches around the 3,000 acres that make up the island, and there is a bridge for driving on and off).

Although we are both from the Pacific Northwest ourselves, neither my husband or I grew up in this valley, and it has been a deep pleasure to learn about this place alongside our children. Below are a list of resources (field guides, etc.) that we have used as a family to learn about the natural history of our region, as well as the greater Pacific Northwest — which is a diverse region of many different biomes: Mountains! River valleys! Deserts! Coast line! Volcanoes! We are blessed with a rich landscape to explore and inhabit.

I’ve put an asterik (*) next to the resources that we use most often in our wandering and learning together. I’ve marked other books with an exclamation mark (!) if they have broader appeal than just the PNW!

General Pacific Northwest guides

National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest by Peter Alden and Dennis Paulson — These little (but thick) pocket-sized guides can be a great way to start learning about any region. They contain information about everything from geological histories to weather to habitats to flora and fauna. They also often list important places to visit. As a result of their breadth, however, the photos are small and the list of species is limited, making them hard to use when you actually want to identify something. But a great introduction!

* Washington and Oregon Nature Guide (a Lone Pine guide) by Erin McCloskey — This is also a more general guide but features larger images (accurate drawings) and more information about the species included. Our family has enjoyed using this guide very much over the years, and it was especially accessible to my kids when they were younger! Includes many key species in the region, even though it’s nowhere near comprehensive.

! Venomous Animals & Poisonous Plants (Peterson Field Guide) by Steven Foster and Roger Caras — Not specific to our region, but a very interesting collection of dangerous plants and animals! Our children have especially enjoyed looking through this, even though only a few of these actually live/grow here. But it is important to learn about the dangerous plants and animals in your region early on in your nature study!

Plant-focused guides

* Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (a Lone Pine guide) by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon — This is the one of the seminal guides to plants along the Northwest coast and inland to the North Cascades. Doesn’t cover much in central or eastern WA or OR. Can be hard to find a plant in here if you don’t know its name or family yet, but once you do, it is rich in information, including interesting details about indigenous uses of plants (don’t eat plants based on this guide, however! It is not a comprehensive guide to edibility, just provides historical information.)

* Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest (Timber Press Field guide) by Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson — This field guide is organized by the color and shape of flower blooms, making it great for identifying blooming species that are new to you. I often look here first. Photos are somewhat small.

* Lewis Clark’s Field Guide to Wild Flowers of Forest & Woodland in the Pacific Northwest by Lewis C. Clark — This is a less comprehensive guide than others but features larger photographs and covers the 100 most common wildflowers in our region. It’s great for verifying an identification in another book.

Northwest Trees by Stephen F. Arno and Ramona P. Hammerly — This guide is a love letter to the regions trees, featuring extended text about each type along with gorgeous and accurate line drawings that provide important information for identification. Also features an identification key. I don’t look at it nearly as often as I should, but it is a true keepsake book.

Trees & Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest (Timber Press Field Guide) by Mark Turner and Ellen Kuhlmann — Provides lots of useful information for identification purposes and has beautiful photographs.

Trees to Know in Oregon by Edward C. Jensen — Contains lots of really useful photographs and identification information!

Shrubs to Know in Pacific Northwest Forests by Edward C. Jensen — Also contains lots of good photographs for use in identifying.

* ! Weeds of the West published by the University of Wyoming — I love this book so much! As farmers, it’s been fun to learn to identify all the weeds in our fields and seen in ditches and edges all over our region (weeds are nature too!). It’s organized by family, meaning that if I don’t have a clue where to begin, I have to flip through every page. But the photographs are large and very useful.

Northwest Weeds: The Ugly and Beautiful Villains of Fields, Gardens, and Roadsides by Ronald J. Taylor — Another, less comprehensive, guide to weeds.

! Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West by Gregory L. Tilford — Useful both for identification purposes and to learn more about edible species. Take great care when consuming wild species. Ideally learn to identify it positively without a guide before consuming. If you do plan to forage for wild foods, I recommend starting by learning to identify anything known to be poisonous in your region first.

Natural Vegetation of Oregon and Washington by Jerry F. Frankling and C.T. Dyrness — A more scientific guide to local ecology.

* ! Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas J. Elpel — A must-have for learning about identifying plants! Helps teach the patterns of growth that are shared by different plant families, making it easier to find new plants in field guides.

* ! Shanleya’s Quest by Thomas J. Elpel — Much of the same information from Botany in a Day but presented in story format for younger audiences. Excellent! There is also an accompanying card games that is very fun and worth purchasing. Our whole family loves playing it, and we have all learned a lot!

Bird guides

* Birds of Oregon (a Lone Pine guide) by Roger Burrows and Jeff Gilligan — A very useful guide for identification and contains beautiful illustrations. I love having a guide that’s specific to Oregon so that I am more likely to find the exact species that lives here.

* Birds of the Willamette Valley Region by Harry Nehls, Tom Aversa, and Hal Opperman — This guide is even more specific to where we live. In the front it features a photographic guide to the most common local birds, which is a great place for the total novice to begin learning about birds here.

* ! The Backyard Birdsong Guide: A Guide to Listening (Western North America) by Donald Kroodsma — Unfortunately I think this exact book is out-of-print, but I’ve seen other similar guides advertised since then. It’s a unique guide to birdsongs in that it has the recordings built-in to the book itself — there’s a small set of buttons you press on the side to hear the different songs that go with the birds in the book. Our family has LOVED this book over the years. We go through phases of leaving it out and listening more and then put it away for a year or two before pulling it back out again.

! National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer — My son’s favorite bird guide. Very full of beautiful illustrations!

! Western Birds (Peterson Field Guides) by Roger Tory Peterson — The first field guide my husband and I every owned, given to us as a college graduation gift by an older friend (what a wonderful idea!). Very useful identification details but covers a wide range of birds, beyond what we’re likely to see in our region.

! The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Western Region by Donald & Lillian Stokes — I like that this field guide uses multiple photographs to illustrate each bird. Very thick and full of useful identification details!

MORE BOOKS COMING SOON! Wildlife, mushrooms, geology, etc.