What Exactly is a Field Notebook?

by Steve N. G. Howell

Young birders (YBs) are sponges that absorb all sorts of information, ask questions, and never seem to tire out – although they can certainly exhaust the adults who work with them! I’ve been involved with YB events for 15 years now, and in 2013 I was a judge for the field notebook module of the ABA Young Birder of the Year Mentoring Program. It was great to see all the different entries, but it made me think about a basic question: What is a field notebook?

These must be field notebooks, right? They’re out in a field… No, these are my field journals, spanning many hundreds of field days from January 1999 to March 2014.

And in these digital days of instant gratification, who really keeps field notes? Who actually writes things down in the field? All communication is based upon definitions, and words, so first we have to define a ‘field notebook.’ Here’s what the ABA blog (accessed Sep 2014) says:

“The Field Notebook Module entails taking field notes on birds that you observe in the field. You should be birding and taking notes at least every other week, preferably more often. Your notes should be supplemented by field sketches. Keep in mind that field sketches are often quick, loose drawings and not as detailed as a technical illustration. In addition to the sketches, small reference photos are also acceptable. This module is intended to help you sharpen your bird observation and note-taking skills as well as learn more about bird distribution and behavior in your home area and places you visit. Taking good field notes will improve your overall birding skills, as it requires you to look more closely at birds than you may have ever done before. It is no coincidence that virtually all of the world’s leading birders take meticulous field notes. Minimum entry is 8 full notebook pages (include a title page and side by side spreads).”

The motley assortment of notebooks I used as a teenager for my birding journals, before I found a standard model to use.

But the above statements seem to cross over between a field notebook and a field journal. And there’s a distinct difference between these two things… What is that difference? Think about it, and Part 2 will explain and expand upon the differences; Parts 3-4 will show some of my own notebooks from my teenage years – and you’ll see that I never would have won a Young Birder of the Year Competition! And Part 5 will sum it up, perhaps with something to help you get more out of birding, out of your time afield, and out of your own notes.

Really, you expect me to read all this without at least one image of a cool bird to look at? OK, so here’s a roosting Fulvous Owl, from Honduras earlier this year. A field journal might reduce this sighting to ‘FUOW 1,’ but the bird is so much more than a simply notebook entry! La Tigra National Park, 23 March 2015. © Steve N. G. Howell.