Field Notebook Primer: How to Take Good Field Notes
A resource of the UMMZ Bird Division
by Robert B. Payne
Your field notebook is your entry to memory and is your record of your developing skills in observation and interpretation. Keep it with you on all field trips. A sturdy notebook that fits into a pocket can be with you all the time. A bound notebook holds up better than a spiral book, and one with a stiff cover is handy to write on while you are in the field.
Print your name on the inside cover of the notebook. Also, in case you lose the notebook, list an address (yours, or the instructors' or GSIs' depending on your security concerns) and a phone number or e-mail address so the notebook can get back to you.
For each day in the field, first enter the date and locality. Find out where you are! Underline this information on the top of a new page for each day. When you have written several pages, repeat the date on top of each left-hand page, but underline date and locality on only the first page, so you can see where observations began. A smudge-proof ball point pen is more permanent than a pencil; previous generations of bird biologists have used indelible ink. Pen is best. Never erase, because your first impression might be correct. Instead, draw a single line (pencil best) through the erroneous note, but do not obliterate it.
What to record in your notebook: First, indicate the general conditions of observation (time, weather, temperature, wind then, or the night before) that might affect the birds you see and what they do. Also briefly describe the habitat (closed maple forest with trees over 20 m high, lakeshore with cottages and motorboats, etc.). List each species you see, and the number of individuals for each species. This will provide basic data on the occurrence and relative numbers of birds which change with habitats and seasons. For numbers of birds, use a vertical mark for each bird; for a flock note the number with a circle around the number. Because it is easier to find information on each bird if the birds are in some kind of sequence in your notebook, you can note sets in check-list sequence if you see several at once. Wait a few minutes between observations, then enter the data; this means you do not have to write while you are busy watching or looking for more birds, but don't wait till the end of the day. For behavior observations made in detail on a bird or on a nest, start each entry with the time of day. Use the 24-hour clock, e.g. 1300 = 1 pm. You can add notes that will help you identify the bird the next time you encounter it, such as the words you would set to describe a bird's song, or the flight pattern of a hawk. Also try to identify a food item if you see a bird feeding, and describe the way it finds the food or treats it after capture. An objective of keeping a field notebook is to put your own observations into words, and in the process to sharpen your own powers of observation. Another is to be able to recall your observations at a later time.
Sketches are helpful too. Sketches firm up your ideas of field marks, show the postures in behavior, the shape and location of a nest, maps of where you go, and so on.
After the field trip, write your general summary comments on the field exercise, with observations such as the kinds of birds that were nesting, or the great numbers of birds in fall migration on the mudflats after a night of cold winds from the north, or describe in more detail the behavior of a bald eagle as it killed a goose and what the goose did about it, or whatever observation you choose to elaborate. As with all writing, don't write something you wouldn't want your peers to read. The notebook is your primary record of fieldwork and your personal observations of birds, and the summary after the field trip is the place to interpret what you see. Distinguish between what you see, and what you consider to be the ecological significance of your observations.
A good way to organize the summary and commentary notes is to take field notes only on the right-hand page of the notebook, and add comments and explanations that you think of later on the left-hand page just opposite the field notes. This way you can return later and write sidebars without confusing the original.