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Books and online tools

Smartphone apps are making learning flowers, trees, birds and butterflies a lot easier, but books can still be useful for checking identifications and finding out more about what you have discovered.

I confess that my knowledge of what books are now published is now out of date, since I many years ago found books that suited me and so have not had to buy new ones. But on the other hand most of the books below are still available on Amazon, either new or secondhand, and my comments on them might help you to choose a book that would be most useful to you.

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There are also now good apps and online tools: I don't claim comprehensive knowledge but those I am aware of are mentioned at the end of each section. If you have something that you can't identify using other means, you can upload a photograph of it to iSpot, run by the Open University, on which other users will usually provide a very quick identification. 


Flower books all have their deficiencies. Some use illustrations (colour drawings) of flowers and some have photographs, but both have their problems. A photo shows you what the flower actually looks like, but an illustration can give you the critical detail that you need to identify it. That means illustrations work better for some flowers, and photos for others, and many books now use a bit of both.

Until a few years ago, most flower books also arranged their contents by scientific families, which is not much use for a beginner. Thankfully, many now do it in colour order.

Wild Flowers
Dorling Kindersley Pocket Nature series
  • an excellent beginner’s guide: packs an amazing amount onto each page
  • photos of plant growing, in its habitat, and illustrations of details. Distribution maps and a diagram that shows the size of plants.
  • Drawbacks: a bit heavy for its size. Some of the main photos are rather indistinct. Only has a quarter of the flowers covered in the Majorie Blamey book mentioned below. Some flowers covered are not found in Britain

Blacks Nature Guide to Flowers
  • Similar to the Dorling Kindersley book. Slightly less detail on each flower, but better photos

Majorie Blamey’s Wild Flowers by Colour
published by Domino
  • an interestingly different approach, in that it shows lots of flowers per page, arranged by colour and then families. Flowers shown actual size.
  • packs over 2000 flowers – all you will ever need – into a relatively light book.
  • sections on habitats, showing what flowers you may find in grassland, for example.
  • short section on flowering shrubs and berries.
  • Drawbacks: does not show what whole plant looks like that can be vital in identifying some plants. Some white flowers illustrated on a white background, which makes them hard to see

Readers Digest Wild Britain Guide to Flowers
  • excellent illustrations, showing both detail and what the full plant looks like when growing
  • arranged not just by colour, but by the number of petals
  • Drawback: a little bit chunky, though not over heavy

Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
by Rae Spencer-Jones and Sarah Cuttle
published by Kyle Cathie Publishing in association with Plantlife and Natural England
  • far too big for field use, but a wonderful reference book to have at home
  • presents a photograph of a picked version of each flower in colour order and the order they appear during the year
  • you can use this book to test your knowledge (cover up the text page and identify the flower!)

While the above books are excellent to get you started, you will find surprisingly quickly that you start trying to identify flowers that are not in your book. Once you get to this stage, you need a book that has all the flowers growing in the UK:

Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland,
by Majorie Blamey, Richard and Alastair Fitter,
published by Domino
  • the bible of British flower books – covers absolutely everything that can be found flowering in UK, including shrubs and trees, and every detail you need to identify them.
  • Drawbacks: not for beginners: you need to know the flower families.

Cassell’s Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe
by Christopher Grey-Wilson and Majorie Blamey
  • Another very comprehensive flower book
  • Drawback: only available in hardback (a very heavy book, so not really suitable for for field use). 
Online tools:  Pl@ntNet is an phone app that allows you to take photographs of a flower and have it identified by comparing it to other photographs online. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland offers an online plant key, which takes you through identifying a plant step by step. For a very comprehensive set of flower photos, try


The ideal book will have both a picture of the full grown tree as well as close ups (ideally illustrations rather than photos) of its leaves, flowers or catkins, and fruit or nuts. It is useful to know when the tree flowers and produces catkins. One flaw with most books is they arrange trees by families, but see the New Holland and Readers Digest ones below, which arrange their contents by leaf type.

in the Collins Gem series
  • Meets all the above criteria and fits in your pocket. The perfect book for beginners
  • Drawbacks: does not have the more exotic park and garden trees which after a while you might be curious about. Arranges trees by families, but there are not that many, and you soon find your way around the book.

The Pocket Guide to Trees
published by Mitchell Beazley
  • Brief details on a wide range of trees, including more exotic ones, in a pocket format.
  • Drawbacks: perhaps a bit lacking in detail on individual trees. Sadly seems to out of print. You may get it through re-sellers on Amazon.

The Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs of Britain & Europe
published by New Holland
  • A good substitute for the Mitchell Beazley book: has various exotic trees as well as the basic native ones
  • Contents arranged by leaf type
  • Photographs and illustrations of leaves and fruit
  • Includes shrubs and climbing plants found in hedgerows too
  • Drawback: slightly clunky layout

The Field Guide to the Trees and Shrubs of Britain
in the Reader's Digest Nature Lover’s Library
  • arranges the trees by leaf type – that is, with similar types of leaf together.
  • useful sections on berries, catkins and identifying trees from their twigs
  • Drawbacks: a bit short on basic data such as when the tree flowers. The contents page does not mention the above special sections, which makes them hard to find. A bit larger than the above two books, but not too heavy to carry around.
Online tools: The Natural History Museum website has an interactive tree identifier.


You may laugh, but there are all sorts of interesting plants that are neither trees nor flowers, yet which produce flowers, berries and which you may want to identify. Yet nobody does a wild shrub book.

The New Holland and Reader's Digest books in the tree section are useful here. Both Majorie Blamey books in the flower section also have full coverage of flowering shrubs.


For birds, you ideally want a book with illustrations of each bird in a number of different poses and behaviours, together with information about their character, habitat, breeding behaviour and song. Failing that, a good clear illustration or photo of each bird will do.

You can simplify things considerably by getting a book on garden birds. This will include just about all the birds you will see in the countryside in the south east, probably also including common birds of prey and seagulls, while excluding the more specialist wading birds, other sea birds and ducks.

Having said that, I am enchanted by a wonderful Dorling Kindersley Book entitled What's that bird? - see below - which has photos of similar birds arranged by habitat and is a brilliant tool for the beginner.

What's that Bird?,
published by Dorking Kindersley
  • Supported by the RSPB, groups similar looking birds by habitat in a wonderfully slim and portable book - a great identification tool for the beginner.
  • Drawback: limited text details about each bird, so you may want to use in conjunction with one of the other books suggested here 

The Pocket Guide to Garden Birds,
published by Mitchell Beazley
  • I love this book. It has lots of pictures of each bird in different poses, plenty of useful info, but without being wordy or over technical, and in a very light and easy to use volume.
  • Sadly now out of print, but you may get it through re-sellers on Amazon.

    Green Guide to Birds of Britain & Europe
    published by New Holland
    • Only one illustration per bird, but they are very clear pictures, and this is a light book

    RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds
    published by Helm
    • The most light and slim of all the RSPB guides
    • The RSPB also does a Garden Birdwatch book, but much of this book is taken up with features on how to build nesting boxes and feed birds

    in the Collins Gem series
    • like all books in this series, very informative in an extremely compact size
    • They also have a Garden Birds title
    • Drawback: these books have only one small photo of each bird, which can make it hard to identify particular aspects of their plumage

    Reader's Digest Wild Britain: Garden Birds
    • Chunkier than the others, but has a wonderful range of pictures for each bird
    • Drawback: like others in this series can be light on the basic data
    • Reader's Digest Field Guide to Birds of Britain also has wonderful photos, but includes all birds rather than just garden birds, and is even heavier

    Birdsong CDs
    • Lots are available. Again stick to one for garden birds so as not to be burdened with waders and seabirds. I have found Songs of Garden Birds from the British Library sound archive perfectly adequate. The RSPB website also has brief song clips for many birds.

    Birdwatching with your eyes closed
    by Simon Barnes, published by Short Books
    • Another approach to learning birdsong. It takes you through the common English birds year by year, starting in midwinter with robins and building up through the spring. There is an online podcast of birdsong to accompany the book.

    Online tools: The RSPB website has photographs and sound clips of all British birds, as well as an interactive bird identifier. For a massive library of songs and calls for every bird, see


    There are only 59 butterflies in the UK and maybe half of them are either rare or found only in a specific few locations. So it is relatively easy to get to know the common ones you see around you.

    The ideal butterfly guide has views of both the front and back wing views of both males and females of each species. This matters because females are sometimes very different from males (eg in the various blue species) and because some butterflies are more normally seen with their wings open and others with their wings closed.

    Even more useful is if the pictures of the butterflies are actual life size, which helps hugely in field identification. You might scratch your head as to whether you are seeing a meadow brown or a small heath, but once you see them in their correct dimensions you will be in no doubt.

    The excellent Guide to the Butterflies of Britain by the Field Studies Council (see below for link) does all these things in one three-sheet card that you can easily carry around in your rucksack. Back home (or on your smartphone) you can supplement it by consulting the excellent online identification tools of the Butterfly Conservation website. If you want a book guide, the Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland illustrated below is excellent and easily fits in your pocket.

    As for insects, there are so many that probably the best way to identify insects is by taking a photo of it using iSpot, the website run by the Open University, whose experts will identify any insect photo you take within minutes. If you want a handy field guide, the Collins Gem book is conveniently pocket-sized

    Guide to the Butterflies of Britain by the Field Studies Council is an indispensable field guide - a simple laminated card that gives you actual size male, female and underside pictures of all British species. 

    Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland published by Bloomsbury has the big advantage over many other guides that it only shows butterflies that can be found in the UK (apart from one purely Irish species). It has comprehensive actual size illustrations and useful distribution maps, and is genuinely small enough to fit in your pocket.

    Insects in the Collins Gem series is a useful pocket book, but does not have butterflies, moths or spiders: for that you need the Butterflies or Spiders books in the same series. Given the sheer number of different insects, a book this size is inevitably not comprehensive, however.

    Insects of Britain and Western Europe by Domino Guides is an authoritative guide to over 2000 insects, spiders, butterflies and moths, but probably more for an insect enthusiast.

    Also useful as a home reference, but rather too heavy for field use is Complete British Wildlife published by Collins, which has the most common butterflies, moths and insects, along with a selection of mammals, birds and flowers

    Online tools: Butterfly Conservation has an identification site for all British butterflies and day-flying moths with both photographs and video clips.

    © Peter Conway 2009-19 • All Rights Reserved

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