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Tools and Tips

What to bring in the field:

Fairbanks Field Cards – These cards are designed for you to carry with you on your walks and wanderings for easy identification of the birds, butterflies, wildflowers and clouds you’ll see. The birds, butterflies, wildflowers and weather phenomena in these cards are the “indicator” species and events that we’ve selected to watch for change. (Find them at the Fairbanks Museum)

In addition to the Community of Observers Field Cards, there are a number of tools we recommend that will sharpen your observation skills, keep you company, and confirm the identity of what you have seen or heard. You do not need all of these tools; they are what we have used over the years to become familiar with the particular species we’re watching.


Field guides:

  • A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America (Peterson, Peterson Field Guides)
  • Birdwatching in Vermont (Murin and Pfeiffer, University Press of New England)
  • The Bird Watching Answer Book (Erickson, The Cornell lab of Ornithology)

Compact binoculars (8x magnifying power)

Tips from Charlie Browne:

  • The best times of day to observe most birds are in the two or three hours after dawn and the late afternoon and early evening. Hawks and vultures are more likely to be seen during the middle of the day when rising columns of warm air help to hold them aloft. Winter birds may best be seen during the warmest of the few hours of daylight each day.
  • Many birders use not only their eyes but also their ears to detect the presence of bird species. Listening to audio recordings of bird songs and calls can be a refreshing lesson in the depths of winter or during a long drive.
  • Spring brings a rush of returning birds, so many that you may well find them confusing. Learn to note the field marks that distinguish the birds of one species from very similar ones. For example, Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures are both very large dark soaring scavengers most often seen overhead. Black Vultures in flight show a very distinctive grayish-white wingtip; the larger Turkey Vultures show a broad grayish trailing edge on their wings. Black Vultures, when seen soaring with Turkey Vultures, appear smaller and more condensed with shorter necks and squared-off tails. Turkey Vultures have pink featherless heads; Black Vultures have dark gray featherless heads.


Field guides:

  • Butterflies and Moths Field Guides (Opler, Peterson First Guide)
  • Field Guide to Butterflies (Pyle, National Audubon Society)
  • Butterflies through Binoculars: The East (Glassberg, Oxford University Press)
  • Butterflies of North America (Brock and Kaufman, Kaufman Field Guides/Houghton Mifflin)
  • Green Mountain Digital: Audubon Butterflies Field Guide App

Close-focus, low power (8x or less) binoculars (Papilio Binos 6x or 8x)

Tips from Mary Beth Prondzinski:

  • Canadian Tiger Swallowtails and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are easy to confuse. Here are a few pointers to help distinguish between the two:
    • Canadian Tiger Swallowtails have a continuous yellow marginal spot band on the front wing below is continuous, while in the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail these are broken into distinct spots (Unfortunately, some Canadian Tiger Swallowtails may have some distinct spots, and the lighting may make it appear as if they are separate.)
    • In the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, the broad, black line on the trailing margin of the hind wing reaches at least halfway to the first vein; in the Eastern this is less than halfway, and in fact it is often considerably less than halfway
  • Volunteer to do a Xerces 4th of July Butterfly Count. You will meet other butterfly enthusiasts and learn how to find and identify many different species in a friendly environment. Count localities can be found at the North American Butterfly Association


Field guides:

  • Wildflowers of Vermont (Carter, Cotton Brook Publications)
  • A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-Central North America (Peterson, Peterson Field Guides)
  • Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (Newcomb, Little, Brown & Co.)

Magnifying glass

Tips from Joanne Adams:

  • Yellow Marsh Marigolds (Caltha palustris) are among the early spring flowers in our region. Look for these large, showy golden blooms in shaded wet woods, along rivers and streams or in roadside ditches. Their stems and leaves are succulent and bright green.
  • Marsh Marigold is native to northern North America and is a wetland indicator species, and a regional plant species of the USA National Phenology Network, which monitors "Nature's Calendar" of emergent plants and animals.


Field guides:

  • National Audubon Society Field Guide to Weather (Ludlum, Knopf)
  • Clouds and Weather (Peterson, Peterson First Guides)
  • For your weather station:
  • Min-Max Thermometer with magnet (Sper Scientific)
  • Rain Gauge (available through the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network –
  • yard stick
  • "snow board"

Tips from Chris Bouchard:

  • Every cloud has a story. Tall, vertically growing cumulus clouds indicate the atmosphere is becoming unstable, and may mean thunderstorms are on the way. Halos around the sun tell us there are icy clouds at high altitudes, which sometimes signal a low pressure system is closing in. Fog shrouding a valley early in the morning often indicates the presence of light wind and high pressure. Take note of the weather as you learn to read clouds.
  • Order your rain gauge and take a look at the excellent material provided by the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS)

Many of these field guides and tools are available at The Nature Store in the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium.

Contact Leila Nordmann with your questions or comments.

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