Guide to Taking Field Notes

On Taking Field Notes

Many birders dream of “hitting the jackpot”: stumbling onto a mega-rarity, a bird so far out of range that nobody really expected one to show up—ever. The perils of migrating and navigating long distances through often dangerous weather conditions makes birds prone to appearing suddenly in unexpected places. It is this thrill of discovery that motivates many birders. Documenting the occurrence of a rare or unusual bird, however, is an acquired skill, something that may not come naturally, but rather is learned as one becomes a better and more skilled birder. On the other hand, taking detailed field notes might seem too much like “work”, squeezing the fun and joy out of our hobby. Here we provide a few thoughts on documenting a rare or unusual bird with the aim to keep this process in line with the rest of your birding—fun!

A digital existence, from birding apps and smartphones to social media and digital cameras have revolutionised the documentation of rare birds. A large percentage of birders now carry some sort of digital camera when they go birding, be it a DSLR or a smartphone. Many rare birds are now documented with a photograph – even ones hastily taken by holding a smartphone camera to one’s binoculars. Moreover, smartphones in a pinch can be used to make reasonable field audio recordings, and voice memo apps can be used to dictate your notes without taking your eyes off the bird. But just because the technology exists, doesn’t mean that birders are utilizing it to its full potential, and doesn’t mean that “classic” field tools – that of notebook and paper – are any less relevant today.

Looking back 30 years at previous rare bird reports it’s clear that much has changed. On one hand accompanying photos were almost as rare as the rarities they were documenting; on the other, written reports were detailed and at times exhaustive. Nowadays we have the reverse: almost all submitted documentation is supported with at least one photo, but the written documentation is generally weak to practically non-existent. Many assume that a photo is sufficient evidence. Photos, however, do not tell the full story that only a detailed written report can. Is this decline in the written documentation of rare birds due to time constraints? Procrastination? Not knowing what, how, or more importantly, why? We assume the answer to be an amalgam of all these reasons. This is hardly surprising. After all, it can sometimes feel like “all work and no play”!

Many decades ago, we came across James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson’s “the note-taker field drill”. We have not seen it in any on-line resource. This is a pity because it encapsulates all one needs to take good field notes. It had a huge influence on how we take field notes and we apply these skills today.

It’s easy to forget what you need to write down when you’re in the adrenalin-charged moment of discovering a rare bird. Did the bird have wingbars? Was the tail notched or rounded? drat! I forgot to look at the tail! Here then are a couple of mnemonics to help you remember what you need to scribble down in your notebook (or dictate into your smartphone): “WHICH IS IT?” and “DO IT!”. Run the drill before you look at a field guide. The idea is to get as much detail as possible before the bird disappears. These simple mnemonics will help you get it all down:

Where and when? Locality and date.

Habitat: freshwater marsh, deciduous woodland, tidal flats, backyard feeding station, etc.

Impression: What is the bird’s general appearance? Small-headed, big body? Long and skinny? Brightly coloured and gaudy or simply plain grey-brown all over? Just some general thoughts on what it looked like in a broad general sense. “It was all black with a yellow head.” or “It was a streaky little brown job.”, for example.

Comparison: How big is it? Note this in relation to some well-known species or better yet, compared to birds that are nearby for direct comparison.

Habits: What was the bird’s behaviour? How did it move, fly, walk, patter, dive, feed? Did it probe in the mud or pick from the surface? Was it probing in the bark or gleaning from the underside of leaves? Describe anything and everything it was doing, by itself or during its interactions (if any) with other species.

Identification flashes: These are field marks: distinctive patterns on head, wings, tail, body, flashes of colour or pattern that allow a bird to be identified.

Sounds: Describe as best you can everything you heard.

Important details: soft part details (shape and colour of the bill, eye colour, orbital ring, leg shape and colour).

Tail and wings: describe their shapes, length, colour and patterns (identification flashes [i.e., field marks]) are often found here.

This information will strengthen and support your identification. Additional details make for a more thorough and complete rare bird submission:

Distance: how far were you from the bird?
Optics: list all optics you used (binoculars, spotting scope, camera, etc).
Instant of observation: The time of day and duration of observation. Here include lighting conditions (sunny, overcast and direction of light relative to the observer and to the bird). You can also quickly note the weather conditions, again, in a general sense (rain, sun, snow, etc.).
Team: list all the observers that were with you, if relevant.

These mnemonics can form a mental template for getting as much as possible immediately into your field notebook while you’re still looking at the bird. Don’t rely on memory. The order in which you describe the bird doesn’t really matter so long as it’s logical to you. The preferred method for some is to start with the general impression, then work into the details, beginning with the head, then moving on to describe the upperparts, underparts, wings and tail, then soft parts. The information that you obtain in the field while studying the bird—all of it—become the foundation for one’s rare bird report submission. You include only what you saw and wrote down, not what you should have seen upon opening a field guide. Avoid the temptation to change something that you think you saw, or think you should have seen, only because you saw it mentioned in a book. The importance of describing the bird before looking at published references cannot be stressed enough. This is not the time when, having checked your trusty Sibley guide, you say to yourself: “hmmm…yeah. Come to think of it, that bird I saw did have a notched tail.” Channelling biases such as these are all too easy to do, even when we’re not aware we’re doing it.

Practice the WHICH IS IT? and DO IT! note taking drill on common birds so that you’ll be ready for when you find that Rustic Bunting. It’s extremely important to learn the basic topography of a bird. Learn where the various feather tracts are and how together they form patterns of colour that are important to clinch an identification. All field guides have an introductory section where one can learn a bird’s topography. Knowing this will greatly facilitate note taking and provide a logical structure to describing a rare bird. After even a little practice, you’ll be amazed at how quickly and accurately you can describe a bird. Forcing us to look more closely at birds improves our observational skills and adds an extra dimension of enjoyment to our birding.

For further information about rare birds in British Columbia and their reporting follow the BRC drop down tab above.

Sample Completed Rare Bird Report Form

RBRF ver3 sample report M Force-1

RBRF ver3 sample report M Force 2-2

RBRF ver3 sample report M Force 3-3

Page updated: 8 February 2020