Winter trees: From AIDGAP test version to final book

Winter trees and the River Severn in flood.  Photo: Rich Burkmar

This blog was migrated to this website on 17/02/15 from the previous Tomorrow's Biodiversity scratchpad website.

The accurate identification of specimens is an important part of many forms of biological fieldwork. Although popular groups, such as birds and butterflies, are well served with identification guides, other groups are relatively neglected. Back in the 1970s, the Field Studies Council initiated the AIDGAP project, to work towards producing identification materials for these negelected groups. In many cases, the difficulty lay in the absence of a simple and accurate key, and not in any insuperable taxonomic problems.

A significant feature of all new AIDGAP guides is the extent to which they are tested before final publication. In addition to routine editing and refereeing by experts, the guides are subject to extensive field tests. Copies of the preliminary draft (the AIDGAP Test Version) are circulated to a wide range of potential users, including students, amateur naturalists and research workers. In the past, printed copies were circulated; today a freely downloadable pdf is usually made available. If you have not been involved in AIDGAP testing, and would like to do so in the future, there is more information about AIDGAP testers at the FSC website.

Feedback, both written and verbal, is passed to the FSC’s AIDGAP co-ordinator, and is used to generate an anonymised report to the authors of the outcomes of AIDGAP testing. One of the strengths of the anonymised testing process is that testers should not feel reluctant, perhaps out of reasons of politeness, to submit critical feedback where they feel that this is justified. The authors are asked to amend the guide in the light of this feedback before final publication.

Winter trees: a photographic guide to common trees and shrubs

The latest guide to pass along the AIDGAP conveyor belt is Winter trees: a photographic guide to common trees and shrubs by Dominic Price and Leif Bersweden. Tested over autumn and winter 2012/3, the final book is printed and available for October 2013; a fantastic achievement by the authors.

As usual, testers came from a wide range of backgrounds, from interested beginners to professional botanists, and included teaching staff and others from within the FSC.  In common with almost all AIDGAP guides at this stage, the Test Version attracted a wide range of responses, some were very enthusiastic, others had concerns as they felt there were problems with some sections of the guide. Interestingly the sections that testers had trouble with were also sections that the authors had become concerned about during their own testing and fieldwork.

A common observation was that the new guide was an unsatisfactory replacement for the existing AIDGAP dichotomous key by  Panter & May (A guide to the identification of deciduous broad-leaved trees and shrubs in winter, 2000). It’s probably worth stressing here that the new guide was never intended to replace the older key – which remains in print, and this gave us a valuable lesson for the future; always make it clear to testers the intended level of the guide and whether it is in an addition to the range or a replacement for an existing book.  This was intended to be an intermediate ‘stepping stone’ helping people first trying to identify in winter and those with a general curiosity, so had to be suitable for those with little or no experience of using keys, However the range of photographs will be a useful additional support for many fieldworkers.

There were two routes into the guide – photographic bud galleries and a dichotomous key. Both these routes then directed testers to the illustrated species accounts to confirm (or otherwise) their identification. The illustrated species accounts were generally felt to be pitched at the right level and there was widespread feeling that the photograph section was a good idea. As one reviewer wrote:

The whole concept is excellent and the genera/species accounts are very good for beginners… Almost all beginners will use the very good photo gallery for ID.'

The area that caused most problems was the dichotomous key. Although the authors had tried to create an accessible key for beginners, problems in bud and twig variability and lack of clear characters for some species had made this difficult. However, there was a general feeling that the key was basically redundant as most beginners would use the bud galleries. 

So what is in the final book?

As the feedback had showed that most people were using the photo galleries of buds for initial identification this has become the main route through the guide.  Users start at the gallery of bud photographs, grouped into opposite and alternate buds and are then directed to the photographic species accounts that make up the majority of the book. In addition there are a few pages of photographs and key identification features of confusable species, such as Beech and Hornbeam.

Each species (or genus) has a photographic species accounts with text outlining the overall characteristics, twig features, bud characteristics and bark, supported by  photographs of each. 36 species or groups of species are covered, including the commoner species and a few rarer examples.

To order the book, visit Winter trees: a photographic guide to common trees and shrubs on the FSC website.

Ash tree in winter.  Photo: Rich Burkmar