What is That
(and why knowing is important)

Knowing that this tiny plant is actually the carnivorous common sundew adds immensely to my satisfaction as a naturalist. 

As summer wildflowers are in full bloom in Island Park, I have been spending a little time trying to identify them with a new field guide, Wildflowers of Island Park, by Penny Walbom. For me, part of the fun of outdoor exploration is being able to identify, by name, things I see.

This is not always easy, and there are some things that I have given up on. Raptors will always be my nemesis, and other than the easy ones such as bald eagles, ospreys, kestrels and Northern harriers, I seldom get 50 percent of my guesses, yes, guesses, right. Grasses are another group that I have a tenuous grasp on. There are many of them and determining species often requires a handlens, a field guide, tons of practice and more than a little guesswork. I am usually happy just to get them in the right family.

Identifying an animal, plant or fungus to species is often a challenging task even for those trained in taxonomy. There are so many different species that few field guides or even University references can include them all. Within groups, there are often many species choices—paintbrushes, asters, fleabanes, lupines and penstemons in the wildflowers come easily to mind here. The species are often similar.

 In addition, there are often gradients among species. Take the common Red-tailed Hawk, for instance. There are Eastern, Western  and Southwestern birds all with subtle but real differences. There are light (color) morphs, dark morphs and intermediate morphs. The Western birds are also subdivided by what some birders call Harlan’s hawks, which are very dark, almost black. And don’t forget the juveniles, which can look very different from the adults.

Closely related species can often interbreed, creating viable offspring that in turn can breed. Almost all domestic ducks, for instance, came from the mallard. If you are in an area where two species might interbreed, it really can be challenging to determine exactly what you are looking at.

Becoming proficient at identification requires patience and attention to detail. Both of these are often my undoing as I tend to become captivated by the overall appearance of, say, a flower or butterfly, and forget to look for the small details that might separate it from other species. Lack of patience is just a character flaw that I won’t be defeating any time soon.

Tools for the aspiring taxonomist may depend upon the type of plant or animal being studied. For almost everything, a 10X handlens and a good field guide are the bare minimum equipment. As you get more serious, dichotomous keys, charts where you answer a series of present-absent questions about the subject, such as the initial key from  my Key to the Skulls of North American Mammals: teeth present/teeth absent, can be helpful. The descriptions often get more complex the deeper into the key you go.

Since no single field guide can cover all the species in a given area, more than one guide may be required. It is also a good idea to look at more than one reference when you have a difficult subject to identify. For wildflowers, I have two phone apps and over a dozen field guides for different areas and plant types such as desert shrubs, riparian plants and cacti. Many of these start with, “Common Plants of...”, indicating that you aren’t going to find the lesser known ones in that reference. I have specific field guides for mollusks, ground squirrels, mammals, birds, poisonous and venomous animals, mammal tracks, bird tracks and bird feathers and desk references for mammal skulls, aquatic insects and terrestrial insects. Now, if I only knew what was in them all!

This all proves that the study of nature is a lifelong pursuit, not one that can be quickly conquered and set aside. I hope to be learning new things until the day I exit this wonderful world. 


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho