What Exactly is a Field Notebook? - Part 3

It’s all very well showing some of my notes from recent years (Part 2), when I’m an experienced birder, but what did my notes look like when I was a teenager? Well, not that great really. But I still have all of my old notebooks, at least the ‘field journals’ with notes copied up at the end of the day. It’s pretty clear, however, that I wouldn’t have come close to winning any Young Birder of the Year field notebook competition!

Here are some examples of pages from my early notebooks. I was a late starter in British birding terms, at about 9 years of age, and I didn’t really keep notes till I was 12. Looking back on those notes, I didn’t bother about start and end times of birding visits until my late teens, and rarely did I make any mention of weather. I was simply cramming birds and numbers onto the page; notable and less common birds I indicated with symbols (such as *) or underlining them (Image 03a).

While I had one or two mentors in the field, there was nobody to mentor me on my notebook. So when I suggest that today’s YBs include in their notes stuff like date, time, and weather – it’s because I learned too late. If I want to go back and see whether high numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits at my local patch in the mid-1970s were correlated with easterly winds – not so easy.

Most of my formative birding was done at a local patch to which I could walk or cycle, and I kept one notebook for that area, another for everywhere else. Because I was familiar with the local birds, my ‘notes’ for the first few years were just of the unusual birds I saw, the highlights. Later I kept notes on all the waterfowl, shorebirds, and most of the migrants. But I never did count every crow or keep note of House Sparrow numbers.

As I do today, starting from the front of a notebook I kept notes of dates, times, species, numbers, etc., and at the back I kept notes on plumage, vocalizations, behavior, etc. Hence, my descriptions flow ‘backwards,’ from right-hand page to left-hand page, as in Image 03a, upper right pages). I also kept arrival and departure dates for migrants at my local patch and would write monthly summaries of the birds, noting things like when post-breeding flocks of finches started to form; how many pairs of shelducks hatched young; if numbers of some species seemed high or low; and even guess why that might be (Figure 03b). For me it was all about understanding seasonal distribution and abundance, and in doing this I could better see what stood out as rare, both by location and season.

In 1977-1978 my notes got better, with time and weather added. I wonder who suggested I do that? I also added summaries by year and month of scarcer migrants and visitors, migrant arrival and departure dates, etc. There’s no end to how much you can learn from the birds at your local patch.

As well as helping you learn status and distribution, keeping a field journal can really help train your powers of observation – by watching and sketching birds. Lots of people say “I can’t draw birds,” but really, with practice, anyone can draw birds and learn a lot in the process. Don’t believe me? Part 4 will show some of my early field sketches, which are not very good (and neither are my recent ones!). But hey, I’m not proud, and making bad sketches has helped me become a better birder.

I saw this Black-and-red Broadbill a few years ago on a family holiday. Did I write a description or take any notes beyond the basic ‘date, location, species and numbers’? Hell no, I just snapped an image (well, quite a few images) and enjoyed it. Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam, 29 April 2013. © Steve N. G. Howell.