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The gift-giving season is around the corner, so this is a good time to review four handsome books that arrived on my desk, bringing a whiff of the outdoors and making me long for springtime.

Two are by the same publisher. They are Sagebrush Country: A Wildflower Sanctuary, by Ronald J. Taylor, and Watchable Birds of the Rocky Mountains, Mary Taylor Gray, each $12, by Mountain Press Publishing Co., Missoula, Mont.Sagebrush Country is delightful. Written by a recently retired biologist who taught at Western Washington University, Bellingham, it displays sharp photos and clear descriptions and is packed with gems of lore that most readers probably didn't know.

Taylor also makes occasional droll comments, such as this from a section about insects keeping warm by vibrating their muscles and thereby burning up energy: "The bees and moths can conserve energy, however, by heating only their flight muscles and tolerating cold rear ends and feet."

It surveys most of the flowers and grasses throughout this region's lower elevations.

Watchable Birds is written on a more basic level than most ornithology books; yet its striking portraits and intelligent descriptions make it an ideal introduction for, say, a junior high youngster who cares about nature. As a sample, take this paragraph about the western meadowlark:

"Bobbing on top of a weed stalk along roadsides or in fields, or sitting on a fence post, head tossed back, bill open and singing cheerfully, the meadowlark is surely the bird of the prairie. Its wonderful, melodic song seems to tumble joyfully across the grasslands of the West. To some pioneers the yellow lark seemed to say Methodist preacher and gee whiz whillikers."

Anyone who can't find these books at local shops can call Mountain Press toll-free, (800) 234-5308.

A few months ago, the U.S. Geological Survey issued Deserts: Geology and Resources, an interesting 60-page booklet by A.S. Walker. Illustrated with color photos, it is available free at the USGS office on the eighth floor of the Federal Building, Salt Lake City, limit one per visitor.

It's a good introduction to deserts, which cover about a third of the globe's land area. The booklet tells how different varieties of deserts form. A couple of the photos show Utah scenes.

A brief discussion covers damage to dry land by livestock overgrazing and recreational abuse.

The pick of the litter didn't come out this year. It's from late 1991, and I meant to review it then; interviewed an expert then; never got around to it 'til now.

This is Utah Threatened, Endangered and Sensitive Plant Field Guide. Its several hundred unnumbered pages of text are collected, loose-leaf, within a plastic notebook cover; it can be updated easily by adding pages when plants are designated as threatened or new species are discovered.

At first, the lack of page numbers makes it seem difficult to find particular plants. But the reader soon discovers that an early section of the book lists all by scientific and common names, and the texts is arranged in alphabetical order by scientific name.

The book was put together by a team of scientists from the federal government, the state, Brigham Young University and the Nature Conservancy. Most of the writing and much of the photography are by Duane Atwood, regional biologist for the Forest Service in Ogden.

Stanley Welsh, the noted BYU biologist, provided many descriptions. Interviewed about the project earlier, he said Atwood "this year (1991) collected 3,500 collections of plants. He's absolutely amazing."

The book brims with photos, drawings, location maps and brief descriptions. My reaction goes beyond the vast scientific value, however: I simply love the views of our rugged, isolated, windswept wild country. There are salt desert landscapes, talus rubble, dunes, cliff walls like creased elephant hides, slopes of broken shale.

Atwood started working on rare Utah plants even before the Endangered Species Act was passed. Back in the 1960s, he wrote his doctoral dissertation at BYU on the scorpion weed, a phacelia of southeastern Utah whose nickname comes from the fact that the flower spike curls like a scorpion's tail.

"About 10 percent of our flora is endemic (native only) to the state," Atwood said in telephone conversation. "It's kind of interesting to travel around the state looking specifically for these rare endemic species that occur on isolated geological formations."

Atwood still has about 1,500 copies of the book, which he'll be glad to mail. To get a copy of this exceptional volume, write to: Dr. Duane Atwood, regional biologist, U.S. Forest Service, Federal Building, 324 25th Street, Ogden, UT 84401. Or call him at 625-5599.

And it's free! As the meadowlark says, gee whiz whillikers.