The Sibley Guide to Trees

Naturalist David Sibley, like Tory Peterson before him, made his reputation painting and annotating birds before expanding to other biological realms. Sibley’s guides to birds and bird behavior (recommended on Cool Tools) are the best all-around guides to the birds of North America. Sibley’s beats out Peterson’s, and the dozens of others published today. Sibley’s newest book, also written and illustrated by him, is the best all-around guide to the trees of North America, again displacing the many other field guides to trees in print.

Sibley’s illustrations are clear, crisp, and accurate. He manages to maintain distinctions in tree types where species get fuzzy, like in the oaks, or firs. His maps are specific. He includes more parts of the tree than most guides — buds, bark, branches, seeds, silhouettes, flowers, cones, etc. — which really help in identification. And he includes not only native trees but many feral varieties, and even widely planted ornamentals. One detail I appreciate: he lists alternative common names to trees, since trees seem to have local names.

With Sibley’s guide I’ve been able to identify more trees than with other guides. However the book is big, not at all pocketable, or the kind of thing you are likely to take with you into the field on a hike. Perhaps future editions might remedy this. I use this quality softcover edition (a delight to browse) by taking samples and photos outside and returning home to identify.

-- KK  

The Sibley Guide to Trees
David Allen Sibley
2009, 426 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:




I sent one of these to a friend who lives in Tasmania. She has a wonderful assortment of southern hemispherical birds that she likes to feed and provide water for, but she travels on a regular basis, and the birds empty the bath in a day. She tried various home-brew ideas for automatically filling the bird bath, but none really did the trick for her. Also, this one’s the most aesthetically pleasing I could find, as the reservoir sits separate from the bird bath.


I sent her the KozyFill, she set it all up, fine-tuned the height of the various tubes, and voila! She’s got a yard full of happy Eastern rosellas, wattle birds, the occasional cockatoo, and other sundry birds of the Antipodes. Watching the birds beats TV any morning: you’ve got drama, conflict and humor in dazzling color right outside the bedroom window.

-- Rick Turner  

KozyFill Automatic Bird Bath Filler

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Allied Precision

[Plans for a homemade automatic bird bath purger-filler by James M. Clark here. –es]

The Deep


Whoa! Boggling, bizarre and beautiful, the creatures evolving in the remote depths of the world’s oceans really are a trip. This book’s crisp close-ups allow astounding detail to pop out from the blackness: gorgeous mugshots of translucent octopi, technicolor jelly fish, and feathery pink iceworms (also seen in the previously-reviewed Ecology of the Deep Sea Vents). I missed the book when it came out last spring; I’m thrilled it didn’t pass me by any longer than it did. Seventy years ago, explorer William Beebe put it this way: “Anyone who has actually seen this universe will keep an image of it in his memory forever; for its isolation, its cosmic cold, its eternal obscurity — and above all, for the indescribable beauty of the denizens of those regions.” Amen.

— Steven Leckart

The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss
Claire Nouvian
2007, 256 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:


Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:

Coral Reef Guides


Natural Reef Aquariums


Wild Trees

In the search for the world’s tallest trees, a renegade band of nerdy, obsessive tree-finders discovered patches of wilderness in California and Washington that had never been explored. These areas were so rugged, so blocked with fallen timbers, and so useless otherwise, that they very likely have never been visited by humans before. The nerds began finding trees taller than any known, but no one believed them. In order to prove their claims, they invented ways to climb and examine these giants, and to measure them using lasers. Not only were these indeed the tallest trees in the world, but there was an entirely unknown arboreal ecology in these canopies, including other smaller trees that rooted only in the tops of the tallest trees. Eventually a bunch of maverick biologists joined the pursuit, and they lived, slept, and made love in the tops nearly 400 feet above ground. And sometimes they would fall out of the trees. Richard Preston, the author of the heart-thumping bestseller about the Ebola virus (Hot Zone), manages to tell this story of biological discovery as a summer page-turner. Who will die next? Fast-paced, exhilarating, enlightening — an intense biological thriller.

— KK

Wild Trees
Richard Preston
2007, 320 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

A small part of the crown of Iluvatar.


Lowman used a Magic Marker to write numbers on the leaves of some Australian trees, and then she climbed up into the trees every so often to see how many numbered leaves were still hanging there. “I’m from upstate New York, and I figured maybe six months, and then the leaf would fall off,” she said. Nineteen years later, entering middle age, Lowman found leaves with Magic Marker numbers on them that she had written on the leaves as a younger woman. The leaves had remained alive and unchanged for almost two decades. This illustrates the difficulty humans can have in seeing what’s happening in a forest canopy. Humans don’t live long enough to see many events in trees unfold. Lowman had spent much of her career trying to observe the fall of a leaf.


A forest-canopy biologist at the University of California, Berkeley named Todd Dawson installed sensors in the tops of redwoods that grow around Santa Cruz, and in Sonoma and Humboldt counties. He and his colleagues discovered that a redwood that’s bathed in fog can take moisture in through its needles and send the water downward into its small branches. Todd Dawson suspects, but so far hasn’t been able to prove, that redwoods can also send water from their needles all the way downward into their trunks. In other words, redwoods can reverse the flow of water inside them when it suits their needs. This is one reason why a redwood can grow so tall — it doesn’t have to depend entirely on water that it gathers from the ground and pulls up to its top. It can gather water from the air. Redwoods feed on the sky.


Notes from Iluvatar. Two pages from Steve Sillett’s climbing notebook, drawn in 1999, showing his developing map of one section of Iluvatar’s crown. This is a sketch of an eight-and-a-half-foot-thick-trunk that gives rise to ninety-eight other trunks.


It is a slow-moving infection. A piece of Lobaria the size of a child’s hand might take ten years to grow to that size. (Lobaria is a comparatively fast grower. Some lichens can take twenty years to become the size of a dime.) It can take years or decades for some species of lichens to spread from one tree to the next. “If a whole mountainside has been cut, it will be a very long time before the Lobaria comes back,” Antoine said. “You start to see it after about two hundred years. But you don’t see big, juicy, drippy abundances of these lichens for centuries. You only see it now in old-growth Douglas-fir forests that are over five hundred years old.”

A stand of Douglas-firs may be three hundred years old, older than the United States of America, but it will still be a young patch of forest, devoid of many species of lichens. A stand of trees in a temperate Pacific Northwest rain forest that began growing at the time of the Magna Carta (1215) will only now be reaching a fullness of biodiversity. It will be loaded with a variety of lichens and mosses that don’t occur in younger forests, and it will also contain a much greater variety of animal life, large and small.


Based on a mention in Wild Trees, I tracked this incredible monograph down. It features scientifically exact pen and ink portraits of about 100 specific giant trees of various species. The locations for each branch were done from laser measurements since there is no way to stand back and see (or photograph) such giants. It’s a maniacal labor of love. Each tree is extremely individualistic, very Ent-ish. There’s a wonderful story about each Ent.

— KK

Forest Giants of the Pacific Northwest
Robert Van Pelt
2001, 200 pages

Available from Amazon

Notice the scale of the people (specks) at the base of the trunks.

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:

The Woodbook

The World Without Us

Ecology of the Deep Sea Vents


Heart and Blood

The intersection between deer and humans is tangled with emotion and economics in the US. Though it was published a decade ago, this exhaustive look at the ecology and history of that relationship is still the best primer on the subject I’ve found. When I spent two months researching and writing about the deer debacle in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore (there are controversial plans to eradicate white fallow deer), Nelson’s insight was priceless, especially to a neophyte. A cultural anthropologist and hunter, Nelson looks at deer management mishaps, from contraception on New York’s Fire Island to predator introduction on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. His own hunting ethos echoes the mindful conservation of the Alaskan Koyukon people, with whom he traveled for several years: from tongue to testicles, he wastes nothing. The book opens with an unarmed Nelson stalking a doe on a remote Alaskan island and closes with the author witnessing the birth of a fawn on the same island. Nelson visits sprawling game ranches in Texas Hill country where hunters can pick off deer from stands strategically placed by feeders. He joins a group of anti-hunting activists in the Wisconsin woods as they sabotage those in camouflage on opening weekend, when some 650,000 hunters fan out in the forest hoping to bring home fresh venison. And along the way, Nelson continues to drop great historical tidbits: the etymology of American slang “buck” for the paper currency is a legacy of the rise of market hunting in the 1830s when an entire deer carcass would sell for about a dollar. Whether you’re a hunter or someone who enjoys theories of wilderness and writing in the spirit of John McPhee, this book will no doubt change how you feel the next time you spot a deer.

— Zachary Slobig

Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America
Richard Nelson
1998, 416 pages
Available from Amazon (more…)


The World Without Us

The world is a feat of engineering. Beyond nature’s glorious design, as this book recounts, our hands and minds have worked to shape, build, plant and populate as much of this planet as, well, humanly possible. With meticulous history and imaginative speculation, Weisman deconstructs progress across time and space. From concrete jungles in the West to ancient underground cities in Turkey to Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation, he both challenges and emphasizes the permanence of all our creation(s). The echoes of human impact, he concludes, will fade quickly in some arenas, but perpetuate radically in others. Remarkable, disheartening and inspiring, the book illustrates that we’ve inherited an immense, complicated and beautiful world from ancestors who were both ingenious and ignorant. Ultimately, how we choose to think, invent, and act will be what differentiates us from them.

— Steven Leckart

The World Without Us
Alan Weisman
2007, 336 pages
Available from Amazon

[It’s worth taking a look at the Multimedia page on the book’s web site for some intriguing time lapse artist renderings — sl]

Sample excerpts:

Among the myriad species loosed on the world by humans that have surged beyond control, eucalyptus joins ailanthus and kudzu as encroachers that will bedevil the land long after we’ve departed. To power steam locomotives, the British often replaced slow-maturing tropical hardwood forests with fast-growing eucalyptus from their Australian Crown colonies. The aromatic eucalyptus oils that we use to make cough medicine and to disinfect household surfaces kill germs because in larger doses they’re toxins, meant to chase off competitive plants. Few insects will live around eucalyptus, and with little to eat, few birds nest among them. Lusty drinkers, eucalypti go wherever there’s water, such as along shamba irrigation ditches, where they’ve formed tall hedgegrows. Without people, they’ll aim to colonize deserted fields, and they’ll have a head start on the native seeds blowing down the mountain. In the end, it may take a great natural African lumberjack, the elephant, to blaze a trail back to Mount Kenya and expel the last British spirits from the land for good.

If humans were to go tomorrow, enough wild predators currently remain to out-compete or gobble most of our domestic animals, though a few feral exceptions have proved impressively resilient. The escaped wild horses and burros of the American Great Basin and Sonoran Desert essentially have replaced equine species lost at the end of the Pleistocene. Dingoes, which polished off Australia’s last marsupial carnivores, have been that country’s top predator for so long that many down under don’t realize that these canines were originally companions to Southeast Asian traders. With no large predators around other than descendants of pet dogs, cows and pigs will probably own Hawaii. Elsewhere, dogs may even help livestock survive: sheep ranchers in Tierra del Fuego often swear that the shepherding instinct is do deeply bred in their kelpie dogs that their own absence would be immaterial.

Ruins of high-rises echo the love song of the frogs breeding in Manhattan’s reconstituted streams, now stocked with alewives and mussels dropped by seagulls. Herring and shad have returned to the Hudson, though they spent some generations adjusting to radioactivity trickling out of Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, 35 miles north of Times Square, after its reinforced concrete succumbed. Missing, however, are nearly all fauna adapted to us. The seemingly invincible cockroach, a tropical import, long ago froze in unheated apartment buildings. Without garbage, rats starved or became lunch for the raptors nesting in burnt-out skyscrapers. Rising water, tides, and salt corrosion have replaced the engineered shoreline, circling New York’s five boroughs with estuaries and small beaches. With no dredging, Central Park’s ponds and reservoir have been reincarnated as marshes. Without natural grazers – unless horses used by hansom cabs and by park policeman managed to go feral and breed – Central Park’s grass is gone… Long before, the wild predators finished off the last descendants of pet dogs, but a wily population of feral house cats persists, feeding on starlings. With bridges finally down, tunnels flooded, and Manhattan truly an island again, moose and bears swim a widened Harlem river to feast on the berries that the Lenape once picked. Amid the rubble of Manhattan financial institutions that literally collapsed for good, a few bank vaults stand; the money within, however worthless, is mildewed but safe. Not so the artwork stored in museum vaults, built more for climate control than strength. Without electricity, protection ceases; eventually museum roofs spring leaks, usually starting with their skylights, and their basements fill with standing water. Subjected to wild swings in humidity and temperature, everything in storage rooms is prey to mold, bacteria, and the voracious larvae of a notorious museum scourge, the black carpet beetle. As they spread to other floors, fungi discolor and dissolve the paintings in the Metropolitan beyond recognition. Ceramics, however, are doing fine, since they’re chemically similar to fossils. Unless something falls on them first, they await reburial for the next archaeologist to dig them up. Corrosion has thickened the patina on bronze statues, but hasn’t affected their shapes. “That’s why we know about the Bronze Age,” notes Manhattan art conservator Barbara Appelbaum. Even if the Statue of Liberty ends up at the bottom of the harbor, Appelbaum says, its form will remain intact indefinitely, albeit somewhat chemically altered and possibly encased in barnacles. (more…)


The Future is Wild

A wonderful series of cinematic speculations on what animals could evolve into in the next, oh, 500 million years. The same skill and techniques that resurrected dinosaurs of old and made them seem real and natural (see Walking With Dinosaurs ) are applied here to possible animals millions of years into the future. It’s a fabulous job of scientific imagination and a great lesson in following the logic of evolution.

— KK

The Future is Wild
2003, 3-Disc Series, 328 min.
Available from Amazon
Rent from Netflix


Trail Cameras

I live adjacent to a national recreation area where we enjoy a year-round parade of wildlife past our house. I can track wildlife with a remote camera triggered by an animal’s movement. Right now I am trying to capture a mountain lion in the hills behind our house on film. I’m using trail monitors, which combine a motion detector and a point and shoot camera (with auto exposure and focus) into one unit that is set up along a trail.

Detector-enabled cameras are becoming a key tool in conservation work. Because they are unobtrusive, eternally patient, and immune to sleep or bad weather, they see things observers keep missing. Trail monitors are enabling field biologists in Africa, Asia, and South America to detect species of animals in areas no one knew they inhabited. Once an animal’s existence is proven by film, it becomes easier to find other evidence of its precense.

Hunters also use these gadgets to track bigger game. I have used several types and for my purposes I am currently happiest with a game-hunting device called Cam Tracker. This a completely self-contained weatherproof unit that straps to a tree or post. I like it over others because it is simple, camoflauged, and easy to program. The beefed up battery system also lasts longer if you use the night/flash mode, which I do. They also make a digital version which I have not tried yet.

For rangers, Trailmaster makes several models of infrared wildlife monitors. These battery-operated devices detect movements that can easily be used to trigger a camera, but many folks purchase the monitor alone as a counter. Biologists taking censuses of animal populations, or hunters tracking game are typical uses. The advantage of this system is that the motion detection system is a separate unit which can be placed perfectly (even away from the camera) and tweaked to detect, say, only large animals, or only fast moving animals, so it can be used to selectively distinguish certain animals. It is also cheaper. I purchased a Trailmaster passive monitor camera kit ($180), which is geared to sensing all wildlife in a wide field of vision, to try to catalog all the animals active on the trails in the hills behind our house. It’s not as weatherproof as the Cam Tracker but we got pictures of fox, coyote, and bob cat, but alas, no panther yet. (It takes some experience to aim the set up effectively).

The coolest thing is the way getting film back from the processor is like Christmas every time. You open up the envelope with no idea what you’ve got. It certainly has broadened my view of the neighborhood.

— KK

Available from CamTrakker

Trailmaster Trail Monitor
TM35-1 Camera Kit
Available from Trailmaster


Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science

I confess that I believe in Big Foot. My belief is based on no personal witness. On the contrary, my claim that a large bipedal North American ape exits is based on the huge mounds of consistent evidence I’ve seen from other researchers, many of them scientists. In other realms of inquiry this level of evidence would be sufficient for confirmation, but I admit that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. This investigative documentary contains the best scientific case for Big Foot in America (such as it is). It includes the four compelling video clips of alleged Big Foots that are the most persuasive so far; three of the clips have not been widely seen, the fourth is seen in crisp digital quality not available before (only degraded analog copies of copies were shown before). These movies are more than adequately analyzed in creatively skeptical ways. Other kinds of data are examined as well, including body prints and hair samples. One of the reasons I like this DVD is that they conclude that certain samples do NOT support their hypothesis. There is of course a LOT of flakiness around Big Foot beliefs but this documentary –structured as a court to try evidence about the existence of this elusive animal — keeps the woo-woo out and all the possible science in. This DVD is as good as the argument will get at the moment. I can’t promise it will change your mind, but it does shift the debate to where it should be: is there sufficient extraordinary evidence?

— KK

Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science
Available from BFRO


The Big Here Quiz


You live in the big here. Wherever you live, your tiny spot is deeply intertwined within a larger place, imbedded fractal-like into a whole system called a watershed, which is itself integrated with other watersheds into a tightly interdependent biome. (See the world eco-region map ). At the ultimate level, your home is a cell in an organism called a planet. All these levels interconnect. What do you know about the dynamics of this larger system around you? Most of us are ignorant of this matrix. But it is the biggest interactive game there is. Hacking it is both fun and vital.

The following exercise in watershed awareness was hatched 30 years ago by Peter Warshall, naturalist extraordinaire. Variations of this list have appeared over the years with additions by Jim Dodge, Peter Berg, and Stephanie Mills among others. I have recently added new questions from Warshall and myself, and I have edited or altered most of the rest. It’s still a work in progress. If you have a universal question you think fits, submit it to me.

I am extremely interested in hearing from anyone who scores a 25 or better on the quiz on their first unassisted try. I’d like to know how you got your Big Here education. I have a few small prizes for anyone who scores (on the honor system) a perfect 30, without Googling.

The intent of this quiz is to inspire you to answer the questions you can’t initially. I’d like to collect and then post the best step-by-step suggestions about how to answer a particular question. These are not answers to the quiz, but recommended paths on how one might most efficiently answer the question locally. Helpful websites which can provide local answers are wanted. Because of the severe specificity of local answers, the methods provided should be as general as possible. The emerging list of answer-paths will thus become the Cool Tool.

Post your methods in the comment section for each question linked in red to my Help Wanted page. I will award a copy of the next paper-book version of Cool Tools to the person providing what I consider the best solution method(s) for each question.

— KK

30 questions to elevate your awareness (and literacy) of the greater place in which you live:

1) Point north. [Recommendations for answer methods]

2) What time is sunset today? [Recommendations]

3) Trace the water you drink from rainfall to your tap. [Recommendations]

4) When you flush, where do the solids go? What happens to the waste water? [Recommendations]

5) How many feet above sea level are you? [Recommendations]

6) What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom here? [Recommendations]

7) How far do you have to travel before you reach a different watershed? Can you draw the boundaries of yours? [Recommendations]

8) Is the soil under your feet, more clay, sand, rock or silt? [Recommendations]

9) Before your tribe lived here, what did the previous inhabitants eat and how did they sustain themselves? [Recommendations]

10) Name five native edible plants in your neighborhood and the season(s) they are available. [Recommendations]

11) From what direction do storms generally come? [Recommendations]

12) Where does your garbage go? [Recommendations]

13) How many people live in your watershed? [Recommendations]

14) Who uses the paper/plastic you recycle from your neighborhood? [Recommendations]

15) Point to where the sun sets on the equinox. How about sunrise on the summer solstice? [Recommendations]

16) Where is the nearest earthquake fault? When did it last move? [Recommendations]

17) Right here, how deep do you have to drill before you reach water? [Recommendations]

18) Which (if any) geological features in your watershed are, or were, especially respected by your community, or considered sacred, now or in the past? [Recommendations]

19) How many days is the growing season here (from frost to frost)? [Recommendations]

20) Name five birds that live here. Which are migratory and which stay put? [Recommendations]

21) What was the total rainfall here last year? [Recommendations]

22) Where does the pollution in your air come from? [Recommendations]

23) If you live near the ocean, when is high tide today? [Recommendations]

24) What primary geological processes or events shaped the land here? [Recommendations]

25) Name three wild species that were not found here 500 years ago. Name one exotic species that has appeared in the last 5 years. [Recommendations]

26) What minerals are found in the ground here that are (or were) economically valuable? [Recommendations]

27) Where does your electric power come from and how is it generated? [Recommendations]

28) After the rain runs off your roof, where does it go? [Recommendations]

29) Where is the nearest wilderness? When was the last time a fire burned through it? [Recommendations]

30) How many days till the moon is full? [Recommendations]

The Bigger Here Bonus Questions:

31) What species once found here are known to have gone extinct? [Recommendations]

32) What other cities or landscape features on the planet share your latitude? [Recommendations]

33) What was the dominant land cover plant here 10,000 years ago? [Recommendations]

34) Name two places on different continents that have similar sunshine/rainfall/wind and temperature patterns to here. [Recommendations]