Methods for Recording Birding Field Notes
Together with a pair of binoculars and a field guide, the most important aid that a birdwatcher will need is a field notebook. This, as the name implies, is for use in the field, and is used to record the essential facts of any observation, as well as comments or impressions while they are still fresh in the mind.
The field notebook may take a number of different forms, although it obviously must be small enough to fit easily into your pocket. It may be a cheap notebook that you can throw away when it is filled and the information has been transferred to a more permanent system of recording.
On the other hand a pocket-sized loose-leaf notebook can be very useful as the sheets can be transferred directly into one of the structural index systems.
It is in the field notebook that you write the details of your sightings. You should never be afraid of recording too much at this stage, as you can analyse and edit the entry when you are writing up your final records. Remember that every observation in the field is unrepeatable. Always record the date, time and place together with the weather conditions. An Ordnance Survey grid map-reference is a useful method of recording the place of your observation. It is also worth noting the number of the ten kilometre square in which you are working since it is often useful for recording the distribution of birds.
A new way of recording your observations is by recording your notes verbally, this has the advantage of leaving your hands and eyes free to manipulate your binoculars and watch the bird. However, some practice is needed initially.
Whether you write up your records or simply transfer them to another notebook or filing system depends on how you prefer to organize your original observations and, of course, whether the original field notes are legible. Some people never write up the results of their observations, and, indeed, there is little that would need to be done to a simple list of birds. Some birdwatchers, however, like to go further and keep a diary of ornithological events. In one way the ‘bird diary’ is the simplest method of keeping more permanent records, but it is not always the easiest system from which to retrieve information. In addition to the field notebook I, personally, use a stiff-backed notebook and write out an index at the end of each volume.
With a loose-leaf system, as with the loose-leaf field notebook, the sheets can be re-arranged according to your needs; for example, all the records on a particular species or a specific locality can be kept together. There is a wide variety of systems involving loose-leaf sheets. Also there are systems which are used widely in the business and scientific world, which can be successfully adapted for use in birdwatching. ‘Key-sort’ cards which have small holes punched around their edges can be very useful. Each hole can be indexed to a separate subject. If the completed card contains a reference to that subject then the hole is clipped out to the edge. When you want to find all the cards with a reference to ‘habitat’, for example, you just put a knitting needle in the appropriate hole and lift the cards and all those with open holes will then fall out.
What you record depends on what interests you. If you are a beginner identification problems will almost certainly require you to write down bird descriptions and the excitement of discovering new birds will be reflected in your diary. One thing is clear: writing down what one has seen is a wonderful way of developing observational ability and an enquiring mind.
All too often I realize what I have not recorded when I come to write-up the field notes, and all too often when I look back for information from old records I find that I have failed to make a note about some important item. So regular recordings, and regular checking of what one has written, helps to improve one’s field discipline.
Once you can be sure of identifying most of the common birds that you see in your normal ‘birding’ area, or, indeed, even as you are learning, you will want a list of birds that you have seen, so that you can read more about them when you get home. Lists can also remind you later of what you have seen in a particular place and are useful when you visit it again.
However, field lists have an additional value if you use them properly. Many regional clubs produce annual reports based on the records submitted by their members, and here the figures recorded in the field list can be the basis of the records sent to the county recorder.
It is possible to purchase from the British Trust for Ornithology printed field lists which have a space for the date, the length of time you spend in any particular habitat, description of the weather, the habitat and a column for numbers or a symbol opposite each bird’s name. The symbol may just be a tick to show that you have seen the bird or it may be a figure indicating the number of birds you have counted. The British Trust for Ornithology have three different types of field lists. The first contains the names of a hundred common birds. The second list is the Field List of British Birds, and contains the names of all those species recorded in Great Britain and Ireland at least three times a year, in recent years. This has column space for eight field trips as well as the usual spaces for dates, description of weather, habitat and route, as well as the ten kilometre grid square. The third BTO field list is the Lists of the Western Palearctic Birds, and includes all the species that have occurred in Western Europe, North Africa and the Near East. It is a particularly useful list especially when travelling abroad in search of birds. However, at the time of writing Professor Karel H. Voous has produced A list of recent holarctic bird species, which includes all the birds of the northern hemisphere north of the Tropic of Cancer, and since this list has been accepted by most ornithological societies, some changes in the names and the order in which species are listed will inevitably follow.
Perhaps the most common use of the field list is for keeping records of birds seen on an outing. Many birdwatchers keep a list of different species which they see in a year in the United Kingdom. Others keep a life list which will include birds which they have seen in any part of the world. Now that various ‘world lists’ of birds have been published to keep your own is a fairly easy proposition.
Useful lists can be made of birds in all sorts of different places and doing all sorts of different things. It is inevitable, however, that not all birdwatching is deadly serious and a number of people have kept lists of birds doing strange things. I remember a friend, several years ago, talking of the birds he saw on a Monkey-puzzle Tree in his garden. He also used to keep an hour-by-hour list of birds singing throughout the day and was therefore able to build up a picture of the frequency of song at different times of the day and discover whether the emphasis changed.
There is a story of the late W. B. Alexander who used to keep county lists which may be apochryphal, of his ‘persuading’ a Curlew which was on the Oxfordshire-side of the county boundary near Ot Moor to move across the boundary into Buckinghamshire where he had not previously recorded it. He also kept lists of pubs with bird names which Jeffrey Boswall has continued since his death. Jeffrey Boswall seems also to have been responsible for producing lists of ‘word-botched’ birds including such horrors as the Bar-tailed Oddwit, the Harsh Marrier, Red-backed Strike, the Y-fronted Goose with a Latin name of Anser cumfifrons and the Lesser Y-fronted Goose Anser indecenta. Others that have been named are the Evening Jar, the Stucco Heron, the Little Creep, the Dapper, the Flied Piecatcher and the Once Bittern.