(This is the final post in a 5 part series especially geared for participants in the Young Birder of the Year contest. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. –ed.)
by Steve N. G. Howell
Recognizing that there are no such things as right and wrong, here are some thoughts for what you might include in your field journal (and field notebook!). But remember, it’s your field journal so you can do what you want. And your interests may change over time; 10 years from now you may wish you’d kept better notes on age/sex of some species, or wind direction, or whatever.
So what do you note in a notebook? At a minimum I would include: date, location, time (start and end), weather summary (including wind direction/strength), and perhaps who you were with or met. Whether you want to note things like “2 days after heavy rain storm” or “duck numbers seemed low – shooting nearby?” or anything else is up to you. For example, my notes might read:
“22-9-13. AL. 7.50-11.45. BH. Sunny, clear, cool becoming warm, ground fog clearing to light NW wind.”
Yes, I’m British, so 22-9 is 22 September, which would be 9-22 in the US. With notes like this, it’s up to you to remember, years later, that AL = Abbotts Lagoon, in Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin Co., California, USA, and to which birding friend the initials BH refer. But that’s about as much as I write for each entry before listing the birds and other things. If it’s a new place with some exciting and different habitat I note that as well, but for my local sites I don’t bother, I know what they are like. Of course, they could (and will) change, so perhaps I should make more habitat notes, but I don’t.
Do you record all birds? Again, up to you. It’s good practice to try and identify everything you see and hear (that’s my approach), as it will help you to learn, to recognize the one call that’s different, unfamiliar. In some local spots, however, I simply record species of interest to me, such as migrant waterbirds and raptors, not the resident Bewick’s Wrens and Song Sparrows that are ‘always’ there (friends at eBird may cringe at this admission of incomplete checklists, but hey, it’s my list). I don’t recommend this, necessarily, but the one thing you will discover, sooner or later, is that writing notes takes TIME. And it’s your time. Ideally, though, a complete list of bird species and numbers/estimates is a good thing to aim for.
I use (my own) 4-5 letter codes to save time and space. So, for AL on 18-10-13 my notes read as follow (Images 2a-2b in Part 2 show my in-field notes and written-up notes for this day): WEGR 5, RNGR 1 juv, EAGR 35+, BRPE 1 ad., WHPE 14, GBHE 1, GREG 3, AMBI 1, waterfowl incl. WFGO 3, CAcGO 2, CAGO 92, GRSC 8, LESC 5, RNDU 9 male, 6 female, SUSC 120, RUDU 165 = big increase, AMCO 170+ = big increase, BBPL 5 1st cycle, PGPL 1 – juv? KILL 4, GRYE 2, MAGO 25, BLTU 1, WISN 6-7, *COSN 1 flushed twice, obvious ID, LBDO 3 1st cycle, DUNL 180, SAND 9, WESA 16, LESA 160, ELTE 5+ off beach, FEHA 1 adult, 1-2 1st cycle, … and so on.
You can make your own notations. I use a superscript 1 for 1st cycle, and superscript A for adult, juv for juvenile, etc. It’s fine to say 40+ as in at least 40, or 50-60 as in at least 50, with maximum 60 – birds move around and exact counts are not always possible. When there are really big numbers or not much time, I sometimes use 10s for tens, 100s for hundreds, 1000s for thousands, etc. Orders of magnitude are more useful than nothing. Species/ages/numbers of note I underline, as in 120 Surf Scoters is a high count for this date, so 120 is underlined; BLTU is uncommon; an * indicates something of greater note, in this case a Common Snipe! But I didn’t count every duck this time – they were skittish and I couldn’t be bothered to work on them.
If you go birding only, say, once a week, and you have time for a full and detailed checklist, great. I tend to be birding several days a week, on average (and almost daily in the fall), and I’m more interested in taking the time to note things like “Western Sandpiper 380 (40% adult, juvs mainly females); Baird’s Sandpiper (6 juv, at least 3 new arrivals); Pectoral Sandpiper (14 juv, including 4 male, 6 female, one dull grayish individual); Dunlin (1 1st-year, first of season); Pacific Golden Plover (1 ‘adult’ – suspended inner primary molt, p1-p2 new, p3-p10 old)…” and so on. I take this time at the cost of counting every resident crow or Wrentit.
Because, despite what some advertisers would have us believe, you can’t save time, you can only spend it. And how you spend it is up to you. If you enjoy birding and don’t want to keep notes at all, that’s fine. Or if you want only a list of every species recorded, that’s fine, or every species and its age/sex/plumage, then good for you. Or, as I often do locally, an edited list with only the species of interest (to me).
Away from home, on the other hand, I keep complete lists of everything I can identify, by sight and sound, even Great-tailed Grackles in Mexico. But sometimes, in some rich neotropical location, it really seems like work to be up till 10-11pm each night making a list and copying out notes on 150-200 species recorded every day. And that’s without dealing with photos or voice recordings! If that’s fun to you, and what you want, go for it. But if you just want to note the highlights and get to sleep, there’s nothing wrong with that.
For example, in the World Birding Rally in Peru back in May 2014 (which our team won! http://travelingtrinovid.com/blog-contributors/how-did-steve-howell-and-the-sunbird-wings-team-do-during-the-word-birding-rally-in-peru/#.VCH9cf2GalJ), there was barely time to identify a bird before we moved on, so the list would be pretty weak on details and locations. For one day (when I recorded 219 species out of 225 found by the team) we simply broke the day down crudely into higher elevation, mid-elevation, and lower elevation (Images 5a-5b).
In conclusion, your notes are your notes. Write what you want, but in later years you’ll only have yourself to blame if your old notes don’t contain the information you find you want. If you have time, write it all down. If you don’t, pick and choose. But whatever you do, or don’t do, the main thing is to enjoy birding.