(This is the second post in a 5 part series especially geared for participants in the Young Birder of the Year contest. Read Part 1 here. –ed.)
by Steve N. G. Howell
A field notebook is, well, what it says: a notebook you carry in the field (in my case, 24/7 in my pocket, with 2 pens), where you can write down birds as you see them, and where I also write down anything else that comes up during the day – shopping lists, thoughts that pop into my head, book or movie recommendations from friends, and such. It’s the raw data of your field journal.
These notes are pretty rough, and basically they act as a memory jogger for when I write up my notes later, in a more structured manner, in my field journal, which is a bit of a misnomer, since it doesn’t go into the field. Here’s a copy of my field notes from one day, written up in my field journal later that same day.
A field journal is a compilation of your field notes written up later (and preferably neatly), not usually in the field; in taxonomic or some standardized order; and perhaps including notes on behavior, plumage, molt, voice, etc. Ideally you write up your notes that same day, at the latest the same week – basically as soon as you have time. More on time later. The main function of a field journal is to organize your observations and allow you to find things later.
These days, many birders, not just young birders, simply type in their lists to eBird each day (even while they’re in the field), snap some pictures, and are done for the day after they download their images and maybe post something to a social media site. There’s nothing wrong with that approach – it’s just different, not better or worse. But, if you really want to become a good birder, a good observer, a good naturalist, there is no substitute for field observation and making notes in the field, by hand.
In this regard, I refer you to a good summary of the entire process of taking notes and maintaining a field notebook and field journal, found by friend, colleague, and fellow Young Birder of the Year Contest judge, Jennie Duberstein.
Part of that essay says:
“But my own experience is that unless you take the time to write things down and think about what you are writing, the benefit to your work is reduced. Remember, you are not just a passive recorder of data. The point is to absorb what you see, and in order to do that effectively, you have to write it down. By hand.”
And if you read that essay, sooner or later you’ll realize one thing – keeping a field journal requires discipline and organization. Even if you stop birding later in life, the act of keeping a field journal can empower you with a very useful skill: organizing your time efficiently. As you go along you’ll develop your own style of notes, your own abbreviations, which can take a few years. But always remember, they’re your notes – you are keeping them for yourself.
Of course, if you keep your notes online in something like eBird then they can also be useful in the wider field of birding, which isn’t a bad thing. Digital images can also be really helpful for documentation or reference, but observation mostly stops when you put your eye to the viewfinder; don’t forget to watch as well as click. In Parts 3 and 4 you’ll see some field journals from my teenage years, and from them you can perhaps learn from my mistakes…