On Taking a Notebook Afield

By Claudia Wilds

Serious field ornithologists do the most tremendous amount of paperwork. Whenever they go birding they take notes on the spot about everything about the birds they see that catches their attention: interesting behavior, unusual plumage, unfamiliar songs and calls, an exact count of every species, effects of wind and weather, drought, concentrations of insects, and so on ad infinitum. Then they go home and transfer all these items into more permanent records.

NotebookPeriodically an article appears in some journal for birders urging everyone to keep these kinds of records. There is no doubt that such information can be enormously useful in a variety of projects: environmental studies, identification papers, analyses of seasonal patterns and many others.

For those of us who bird just for our own enjoyment, however, most record-keeping is all work and no fun. (I’m not counting all the personal lists most birders keep–life lists, state lists, yard lists, year lists, etc.)

Still, for one major reason if no other, every birder needs to take a notebook on every expedition into the field. Sooner or later, unless you are extraordinarily solitary and self-contained, you are going to see a bird so unusual and exciting that you will want to 1) get credit for having found it, and 2) mobilize the birding community to go look for it.

It is hard to beat the gratification of being acknowledged in a scientific publication–American Birds or a state ornithological journal–as the finder and identifier of a rare bird. It is even more satisfying to acquire a reputation as a careful, trustworthy observer whose reports are believed whether or not they are verified by other knowledgeable birders.

Many birders despair of achieving credibility because they have no idea how to give convincing evidence of what they have seen. They may try once or twice to report a rarity, fail to be persuasive, and sulk in silence forever after.

There is no need; however, to linger in this unhappy state, feeling either unrecognized or incompetent. You must start, however, with the understanding that having your reports trusted is not in any birder’s bill of rights. If you are willing to make the effort, you can learn to be a believable witness.

First, you must carry a notebook and pen or pencil or a mini-cassette recorder with you every time you go birding. (I buy the 3 x 5 ruled pads you can get in any supermarket, use them for shopping lists, addresses, or whatever I want besides bird notes, and tear out the irrelevant pages as they are used up.)

Second–and this is the really tough commandment–you must break the habit of looking at the field guide before you have studied an unfamiliar or puzzling bird as carefully and as long as it will let you do so. The best solution is to leave your field guide in the car or at home, so that you will not have your nose in the book instead of keeping your eyes on the bird.

No one can become a good birder without a lot of home study of their field guides: you need to bone up as much as you can in non-birding hours on the kinds of field marks that are most important for each family (like breast, wing, and face patterns and tail shapes for sparrows, or eye and leg color, bill and wingtip patterns, and mantle color for gulls).

When you decide a bird is worthy of special attention, start to describe it to yourself, either mentally or orally. When you are just developing descriptive skills, you may find having a partner to exchange observations with will sharpen both sets of eyes, but eventually you will want to depend on your own judgment.

Name the family if you can. If other, familiar birds are nearby, compare it to them in size and proportions.

Then try to see the soft parts, as ornithologists call the bill, the eye, and the legs and feet. Observe the colors first, and the shape and length of the bill. (compare longer bills to the length of the head and shorter ones to the distance between the bill and the eye.) Some birds, such as hawks, egrets, and cormorants, have bare skin around the base of the bill or around the eye; look for that too. If any of these features are difficult to see at first, look at other characters instead, but don’t forget to check for them when you can.

Look at the plumage systematically. The plainer it is the less you’ll have to say about it, but point out to yourself every pattern and block of solid color. In whatever order is easiest for you, describe 1) the side of the head and neck; 2) the upperparts: the forehead, crown, hindneck, back, scapulars, rump, and tail (including the length and shape of the tail); 3) the wings, including feather edgings and wingbars or patterns on the coverts, and the length of the wings compared to the tail; 4) the underparts: chin, throat, breast, belly, flanks, undertail coverts, and under tail–to the extent you can see them. Make it only as detailed as the reader needs to precisely visualize the bird.

On birds in flight, at least the larger ones (ducks, hawks, and terns, for instance) study the patterns on the extended wings made by the wing coverts and the primaries and secondaries from both above and below, as best you can.

The more you have studied the words for the parts of a bird shown in the introduction to every field guide, the more precise you can be. In addition, you need to know that bars run across a bird from one side to the other, while streaks and stripes run lengthwise. Qualify words like bars, streaks, or spots, dense, sparse, fine, coarse, and so on.

When you have described the bird to yourself in your head or out loud as well as you can it is time to pull out your notebook and write down everything you can remember. If the bird is still in front of you, you can check the details as you set them down; if not, you will have the advantage of having verbalized what you observed.

At this point take photographs if you can or make simple sketches if you have the talent for it. Photos without notes are all too often inadequate as evidence, though they can sometimes be invaluable. It all depends on light, distance, focus, angle, and pose.

Though your notes are easiest to follow if they are organized from the start, additional details can be added as you notice them or as they become visible. Calls, song, and behavior are all-important supplementary facts.

When you have written down absolutely every thing about the bird you can think of, then, if you cannot stand waiting another minute, you may check your field guide. It is possible that you will be reminded of something you overlooked. Just don’t add anything to your notes that you did not see on the bird, and delete nothing that you did see.

After you have run out of details to write about the bird itself, put down the other facts that are important: date, time of day, length of observation, weather, lighting conditions, exact location, habitat, optics used, other observers present. All these points can wait until the bird has gone, but they should be added as soon afterwards as possible.

If the bird was cooperative, you now have on paper all information needed to convince a state records committee or a Christmas Count compiler or the editor of a rare bird alert that you saw an interesting bird well enough for your sighting to be evaluated. If it turns out to be rare enough to be published, you can write it up with proper formality.

Naturally, if you do not have a reputation as a reliable observer, the best thing you can do after taking your notes is to find an experienced and respected birder to look at your bird. After several of your rarities have been confirmed by local experts (not by members of your family or your dearest friends), your unverified reports will inspire confidence. Even after that, though, keep to the birder’s golden rule and share your discoveries by spreading the word about them promptly.

Whatever you do, never try to describe a bird you have seen while you look at an illustration of the species to which you think it belonged. Never add to your description details that you read about after you have left the bird or the bird has left you. If you did not see the bird well enough to describe it in detail at the time, it probably belongs only in your memory. Practicing on easily observed birds at your feeder or in a nearby park, even the boring house sparrows and pigeons, will develop your descriptive skills more quickly than you may imagine. Then, every time you go afield, choose one bird to describe thoroughly, preferably one with a fairly complex plumage. Make a special point of writing a full account of every life bird you see from now on.

By the time you make your wonderful discovery, you will be able to whip out the notebook you always carry, describe the bird with precision, and claim the credit you deserve.

Naturalist News
October 1985
Page 15