What Exactly is a Field Notebook? - Part 4

Fact: Careful observations and sketches help you really learn birds. What color legs does a Kentish Plover have? Well, the field guides in the 1970s and 1980s would say black or gray, but my notes said “dark gray-blue legs and feet, almost appearing dark pinkish gray or greenish gray against different backgrounds and in varying lights” (Image 04a). Do I trust my eyes during an hour of observation, or the field guide? My eyes for sure. And by careful observation I got to see where the guides were not always accurate, or perhaps didn’t have space to convey the variation inherent in any species.

Kentish Plover, the first Gwent County record (South Wales, UK) and my lifer, which I found on 21 April 1978. I spent an hour watching and sketching this bird, and it was pretty exciting! Better than snapping a few pictures and moving on after a few minutes.

In my late teens I got to know bird artist Laurel Tucker, which taught me how little I really knew about drawing birds, especially about bird anatomy. Anyone who wants to draw birds should examine and even dissect all the dead birds they find, to learn how feather tracts fit together – especially the wings and scapulars. It’s pretty clear from my sketches in 1981 (Image 04c) that I had no idea how scapulars were put together and the pictures of juvenile Little Gull and Little Stint are terribly wrong!

I also did more traveling at this time, to other parts of the UK, including ‘twitches’ (trips to chase an individual rare bird). My notes on the bird in the front of the notebook weren’t much to look at: Location, date, species and number/age/sex, but usually I spent one to three hours watching the bird and writing a description, making sketches, etc. (Image 04b). It’s fun to look back now and see my descriptions and sketches of my first Belted Kingfisher (about the size of Green Woodpecker and flies a bit like a Hoopoe!), or of Killdeer, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lark Sparrow, etc, all vagrants in Britain.

You can see how much I didn’t like to draw legs and feet, which are hidden or omitted from almost all sketches! (1977-1978)

Around that time I started a ‘commoner birds’ notebook, in which I made notes and sketches of things that weren’t really rare, to try and help me learn them better – things like the silhouettes of sleeping ducks, the shapes and feeding behaviors of different shorebirds (Image 04c). When I started birding in the New World I did the same thing, even making notes on American Crow and House Finch! One day in Florida I spent an afternoon watching and sketching a mixed flock of Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers in non-breeding plumage (Image 04d). I found all sorts of ways they differed, and after an hour or they weren’t so difficult to separate – but who has the time for this these days? And when I found something really obliging I would sit and sketch it for an hour or two, like Henslow’s Sparrow (Image 04e).

Never ignore the commoner birds, wherever you are; field notes and sketches from 1980-1981. (Of course, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Little Stint, and Little Gull are NOT common in North America!)

Notebook pages from my first few months in North America, where even the commonest birds were lifers! 1981.

Sketches made in the field while watching a Henslow’s Sparrow, Point Pelee, 5. May 1982. Still the only Henslow’s Sparrow I’ve seen, but at least I have some record of it. These are my original field notebook pages, torn out and taped into my field journal.

It’s a bit scary to see how much patience I had then, and how carefully I observed things. Nowadays I’m often lazy and just snap a few pictures. But that Arctic Warbler back in September 1981, by the time I had watched and sketched it, I really knew what an Arctic Warbler looked like (Image 04f). So when Peter Pyle and I found an Arctic Warbler in Mexico 10 years later (Image 04g) the identification was ‘easy’ (of course, since then it has been shown that ‘Arctic Warbler’ comprises 3 species, best told by voice – sadly we did not hear that bird call, but if we had I would have made detailed notes on the voice, and perhaps would be able to determine if it was a Kamchatka Leaf Warbler!).

Arctic Warbler twitched in Britain, September 1981. A lifer for me, but after studying it for 1-2 hours I had a good idea what the species looked like – making it almost ‘straightforward’ to identify one in Mexico 10 years later.

Sketch made in the field while watching the bird, of ‘Arctic Warbler’ in Baja California, 12 October 1991. The first Mexican record, which came some years before the first California record.

Sketch ‘written up’ at the end of the day, and used to document the Mexican Arctic Warbler in a publication. From Western Birds, Volume 24, pages 53-56 (1993). Look at that, a year and a half to get something published. These days it would be up online within a day, if not an hour!

Arctic Warbler, near Nome Alaska, 21 June 2104. © Steve N. G. Howell. An OK memory shot, and nice to have. This image took a 1600th of a second, versus an hour of study. What teaches you more?

If you get more serious about sketching, then you may have a field sketchbook and even carry around a set of colored pencils or a box of watercolor paints (Images 04j-04k). It’s easier to match colors in the field than later, from memory. Some people run away from a dead bird, but the poor thing is dead and it can be very valuable even after death. A fresh road-kill or window-kill in good condition is a great chance to learn about structure, and it’s much easier to draw or paint a dead bird than one that’s flitting around (Image 04l).

Field sketches of Piping Plover and Snowy Plover from Yucatan, Mexico, 28 November 1984. There are so many structural differences between these two species that when you’ve drawn them you may wonder why anyone would ever even use leg color as a field mark!

When I finally got to see a breeding plumage Ross’s Gull it was too far away for photos, but a couple of hours watching it allowed me to do some sketches and now I will always have an image to reboot my memory of this stunning bird. May 1984.

This window-kill junco Gray-headed Junco provided a great chance to study plumage and structure, and also for me to practice with watercolors. January 1985.

Now you have an idea of what could go into a field journal. Part 5 will summarize some things it can be useful to record as you keep field notes.