Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the category “Flora and Fauna”

Washington WildWatchCams

Washington WildWatchCams – http://wdfw.wa.gov/wildwatch/


Links to live cams and prerecorded video of bats, bluebirds, eagles, herons, loons, martins, owls, ospreys, salmon, seals and swifts.

Alaska Fish and Game Virtual Viewing page

Alaska Fish and Game Virtual Viewing page – http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=viewing.webcams


Links to a number of government and private webcams offering views of eagles, bears, beavers, and sea lions. In addition, they also offer a webcam keeping an eye on arctic sea ice outside Barrow, Alaska.

Be sure to click all the tabs on the viewing page.

Plants of Minnesota

Plants of Minnesota – http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/plants/index.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What does luminous moss look like?
  • What are some kinds of orange wildflowers?
  • How do I measure a tree?


This is a guide to native plants in Minnesota and is divided into the following sections:

  • Aquatic plants
  • Ferns, lichens, mosses
  • Trees & shrubs
  • Wildflowers
  • Gardens & landscaping
  • Rare plants

This resource has particularly detailed resources on moss and lichens through the “Moss Atlas” feature. According to the Atlas, it lists the presence or absence of 358 species and varieties of mosses within the 87 counties of Minnesota.

Plants Database from USDA

Plants Database from USDA – http://plants.usda.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What plants can I expect to find in North Dakota?
  • What does Sonoran Indian mallow look like?
  • What does flowering garlic look like?


While this plants database has many good features, the two items that you should know most about are the Plants Gallery and the State Checklists.
The Plants Gallery contains over 40,000 images consisting of photographs and line drawings. It is the place to go if you want to see what Sonoran Indian mallow looks like. The gallery can be searched by scientific name, common name, family name, category (fern, etc), Duration (annual, perennial, etc), artist (for line drawings), citation, image location, native status, wetland status, distribution by state and province (Canadian)

Records from gallery searches contain the scientific and common names of the plant, growth habit, native status, images, synonyms, a distribution map and a “kingdom to species” classification. Using the plant gallery will give you something to write a description from and let you know if you’ve correctly placed that plant. If you want to use a non-native plant out in the middle of nowhere, that could be a clue to something being out of place.

According to the Plants.gov website, the state checklists contain “Symbol, Synonym Symbol, Scientific Name with Authors, National Common Name, and Family. Fields in this text file are delimited by commas and enclosed in double quotes.” These files are spreadsheet friendly.

Although the feature is called “state checklists”, this information is also available for US territories and protectorates, Canadian provinces, Greenland (Administered by Denmark) and St. Pierre and Miquelon (Administered by France).

Other helpful features on plants.gov include guides to “culturally significant plants” which document significant human (often indigenous) uses and the Threatened and Endangered species database which can be used to give your character a cause.

Search Tips:

Clicking on Advanced Search provides access to dozens of different criteria that can be combined. This screen allows you to search for plants of high toxicity in a given state as well as for plants that can be human or livestock food. The search for toxic plants does not provide details about their toxicity. You’ll need to go to other resources for details.

In addition to effects on humans, one can search by height, life cycle characteristics and so much more.

The search results only list scientific names, but clicking on a name brings up a report that include the plant’s common name.

Northwest Native Plant Guide

Northwest Native Plant Guide – https://green2.kingcounty.gov/gonative/index.aspx

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • How can I use windstorm debris for plants?
  • What might a character plant to discourage deer?
  • What does a paper birch tree look like?


This Seattle area guide is focused on getting people to use native plants in their landscaping. Two notable resources from this site are “find a native plant” and “How to Articles.”

The Find a Native Plant section has plant images and can browsed or searched. The database is searched by plant type, moisture requirements, exposure requirements, general (including aggressive, fire-resistant, fruit, spreading), color, growing habit, and wildlife (attract birds and butterflies). Plant records include images, size of plant, description and keywords. Some records links to articles. For instance, the entry for black gooseberry links to the article deer resistant plants.

The “How To Articles” focus on different gardening practices and might be helpful for depicting characters who garden or who need to deter deer or paper wasps.

National Atlas Biology

UPDATE 10/5/2014 – The National Atlas ceased to be updated as of 9/30/2014. A copy from 9/24/2014 lives on in the Internet Archive.

National Atlas Biology – https://wayback.archive-it.org/4416/20140919123143/http://nationalatlas.gov/biology.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Where are bats found in the United States?
  • Are there forests in Northern Alaska?


The Biology section of the National Atlas actually covers animals as well as plants. Like other sections of the National Atlas, it has overview articles and links to Map Maker samples. The overview articles include information about zebra mussels and africanized honey bees (aka killer bees.)

Clicking on one of the Map Maker samples, such as “Forest Cover Types”, allows you to access a number of other map layers including:

  • Amphibian Distributions (by type)
  • Bat Range (by type)
  • Breeding Bird Survey Routes
  • Butterfly Distributions (overall and by species)
  • Ecoregions
  • Forest Cover Types
  • Invasive species
  • Moth Distribution (overall and by species)
  • Wildland/Urban interface (under National Fire Plan)
  • Vegetation growth (average and peak)
  • Wildlife mortality

Invasive Species (plants)

Invasive Species (plants) – http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/plants/main.shtml 

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Where is kudzu a problem?
  • What invasive species could I find in a national park like Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina?
  • What does a “tree of heaven” look like?


Invasive species are plants that are not native to a particular area but have out-competed the local animal and plant life. Think rabbits in Australia or Kudzu in the south. This federal site has images, profiles and control measures for a number of different invasive plants.

Missouri Fish and Wildlife Information System

Missouri Fish and Wildlife Information System – http://mdc7.mdc.mo.gov/applications/mofwis/Mofwis_Summary.aspx?id=0700019

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What fish could I find in a cave in Missouri?
  • What sort of birds could I find in Boone county?
  • What could be found basking on a rock?


Contains information about more than 900 Missouri species. Photographs are included for approximately 75% of the species. Searchable by taxonomic group, common name, scientific name, county, primary habitat association, status, life history or habitat variable.

There are literally dozens of possible habitats to choose from, but in my view some of the ones of possible interest to writers are:

  • Cave – I thought I’d only find bats through this search, but came up with various kinds of fish, salamanders and snails as well.
  • Grassland – native prairie – This search could give you a feel what species roamed the Midwest before European contact and still survive today. These include the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid and the Dusty Hog-Nosed Snake.
  • Transportation/Utility – roads
  • Transportation/Utility – waste
  • Urban – urban non-vegetated – I thought this would be mice and cockroaches and maybe pigeons. At least in Missouri, non-human urban dwellers are more varied.
  • Wetland – wet ditches – If a body got dumped into a ditch, what animals might show up to nibble or crawl on the remains?

Once you do pull up an animal or plant record, you’ll see a basic information profile with a link to a detailed report. For the most part, the detailed report will contain more information than you probably want to know. The exception may the list of citations at the end of each detailed report. For example, the record for the dusty hog-nosed snake has about a dozen citations, including:
Anderson, P. 1965. The Reptiles Of Missouri. Univ. Missouri Press, Columbia, Mo. 330pp.

Johnson, T.R. 2000. The Amphibians And Reptiles Of Missouri, 2nd. Ed. Missouri Dept. Of Conservation. Jefferson City, Mo. 400 Pp.

Daniel, R.E. and B.S. Edmond. 2002. Revised county distribution maps of amphibians and reptiles of Missouri. MO Herp. Assoc. Newsletter 15:16-38.

These types of citations could come in handy if an animal or variation on an animal is important to your story.

Alaska Wildlife Notebook Series

Alaska Wildlife Notebook Series – http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=educators.notebookseries

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Where do polar bears live?
  • Where do harlequin ducks make their nests?
  • How long is a flying squirrel?


From the website, “the new edition, revised by department biologists, features more than 150 different animals. Included are: big game, small game, furbearers, nongame animals, birds, fish, shellfish, reptile and amphibians. Each chapter offers insights into the life history, reproductions, feeding habits, management and conservation of Alaska’s diverse wildlife.”

The information contained in these PDF notebook chapters varies, but almost all contain a life history and most will include descriptions of the animal and its range. Check out the entry for polar bears and see why one dominating the streets of Juneau and Ketchikan would be laughed off the pages of a book. A few entries, such as the one for Alaskan King Crab, offer advice on how to cook the animal.


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