Photo © Justine E. Hausheer

Like many naturalists, I’m obsessed with field guides. I carry them afield and pore over them when I can’t be in the field. I buy them for upcoming trips, and also for trips that I might someday make. Often, I’d rather leave the toiletries at home than go without my bird and mammal guides.

I’ve come to have a similar fascination with nature reference guides. These are typically too heavy and specialized to carry in the field or during travel. But they contain in-depth information that field guides can’t. Many include detailed information on habitat, habits and conservation that give a greater understanding of a species beyond mere identification.

Some reference guides can also aid in identification of especially tricky groups of species.

In the past, the more-detailed nature references were often expensive and difficult to obtain. That’s not the case anymore.

Johns Hopkins University Press has emerged as one of the leading publishers of nature reference guides. This year, the press has three new ones perfect for the book-loving nature nerd.

  1. Lagomorphs: Pikas, Rabbits and Hares of the World

    Edited by Andrew T. Smith, Charlotte H. Johnston, Paulo C. Alves and Klaus Hacklander. (Johns Hopkins University Press)

    To the casual backyard wildlife watcher, a rabbit is a rabbit. For serious mammal watchers, the lagomorphs – a mammalian order that includes rabbits, hares and pikas – hold special interest. This is because, unlike many small mammals, you can readily find them simply with binoculars and decent field skills. Rabbits and hare species also exhibit a surprising variation in size, coloration and habitat preference.

    However, some species can also be tremendously difficult to differentiate in the field.

    This excellent book is a tremendous help for those who keep mammal life lists, or who have a detailed interest in mammalian taxonomy. It provides detailed information on habitat, range, taxonomy, geographic variation, diet, parasites, conservation status and even paleontology.

    While there are color photos, this is not primarily an identification guide. But it can aid you on trips by providing substantial information on the rabbits, hares and pikas you could encounter.

    As a small mammal fanatic, I keep this one next to the equally awesome Squirrels of the World on my shelf of frequently-accessed references.

  2. Owls of the World

    By James Duncan. (Johns Hopkins University Press)

    This is a difficult book to categorize. It’s a lovely volume with captivating photography, and would look quite at home on a coffee table. It is also jam-packed with useful information on owls. And the information is presented in an interesting narrative, so it is one of those few reference guides that you could enjoyably read cover to cover.

    I consider owls among the most fascinating birds, and this is a definitive guide. Owl expert James Duncan provides detailed information on adaptations, behavior and ecology that should be of interest whether you enjoy spotting owls in the local park or are a hard-core birder.

    The book also includes detailed accounts of all the world’s owl families, plus a checklist of all species. There’s even a chapter on owl relatives and lookalikes.

    As Duncan writes in the introduction, this book is designed to encourage readers to “put on good footwear and go for a long walk to look for owls living in your neighborhood. The soft hooting of an owl at dusk awaits you, inviting you to experience a life beyond the familiar. Will you accept the invitation?”

  3. Butterflies of the World

    By Adrian Hopkins, F.R.E.S. (Johns Hopkins University Press)

    A book on butterflies usually has one simple requirement: gorgeous photographs, and lots of them. The shimmering, colorful wings of butterflies lend themselves to stunning imagery. The problem, at least for serious naturalists, is that many butterfly books consist only of photographs. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but some of us want some science mixed.

    Butterflies of the World features some of the most diverse and varied butterfly photographs in a single volume. Even better, it is perhaps the most comprehensive written guide to all things butterfly. Every butterfly family in the world is given full treatment, and there is comprehensive coverage of butterfly biology.

    Like Owls of the World , this is a useful reference that is also aesthetically pleasing and readable. The spectacular variety of colorful butterflies is on full display here, including many rare and unusual species found in tropical forests. It’s biodiversity at its most charismatic.