Thursday, January 10, 2008

Book review: The Nature Handbook by Ernest Williams Jr

I picked up this book from the library on a whim, and enjoyed it enough to think I should mention it here: The Nature Handbook: A Guide to Observing the Great Outdoors, by Ernest H. Williams, Jr. The book gives readers insights and shortcuts to understanding various patterns in nature, from bird/animal/insect behavior to plant/tree characteristics to patterns seen across entire landscapes.

The author divides the book into 14 chapters, categorized under three broad headings of Plants, Animals, and Habitats. Each chapter describes about a dozen patterns, and each pattern includes multiple illustrative photos.

I had already picked up some of the plant information from reading other sources, and a smaller amount of the animal and habitat information, but I learned a lot of new stuff across the board. I especially enjoyed learning about:

  • "puddle clubs" of butterflies, mostly males, who gather at wet muddy spots, or carcasses, or animal excrement, or urinals, to drink up sodium, a mineral they have a hard time acquiring otherwise. In at least one species, the males offer sodium to females along with their sperm, a sweet little nuptial enticement.
  • "sun and shade leaves", where trees have larger leaves towards the shaded bottom, and smaller leaves at top where sunlight strikes with more intensity. Makes sense, but I'd never noticed that!
  • "leaf retention" of many oaks and beeches, where the trees hold onto dead deciduous leaves for months into the winter, possibly to keep the nutrients from leaching away all at once over the winter. Trees tend to keep leaves at the bottom more often than the top, possibly because lower leaves will more likely fall close to the trunk where the tree can easily recapture the nutrients. Right after reading this chapter I started noticing the retained leaves on the oaks at the local park.
  • Wind-pollinated deciduous trees flower before they make leaves which would block the movement of air and thus pollen. Makes sense! I had noticed that all the catkin-trees have their catkins over the winter, instead of flowering with the insect-pollinated trees. Now I know why!

The book doesn't have enough hardcore details that I need to have it in my library as a reference book, but I feel very glad that I found it and read through it once. I highly recommend it to anyone at a beginner or intermediate naturalist level!


Mathew said...

Sounds great. I also suggest "Seeing Nature" by Paul Krafel. He moves from simple observations to Gaia theory and human culture.

Ottawa Gardener said...

Sounds interesting. Thanks for the suggestion. I organize a nature club for young homeschoolers and I think I'll take this out of the library and see if it would be appropriate for them (and me).

ering said...

i had a cool experience at Lama in NM a few years ago. someone told me where to go to see a lot of butterflies. i started walking up a path toward a spring. the bushes on either side were dense and i certainly saw lots of butterflies and bees. but i had a feeling that i should keep going. i continued to walk and all of a sudden the path opened up and there was a huge muddy puddle with a ton of butterflies on it. until reading this post, i had no idea why! thanks!