Conjure an image of a 21st century naturalist and you’ll probably envision an intrepid adventurer swaddled in wicking fabrics, shod in state-of-the-art hiking boots, and fully strapped with cutting-edge binoculars, scopes, digital camera with interchangeable lenses (long and macro, naturally), mobile communications device, and a suite of gadgets able to play back bird calls, determine GPS coordinates, and surf the net looking for the next rare sighting. What you probably won’t see is a notebook. Ye olde paper and pen seem to have gone the way of the blunderbuss in the arsenal of inquisitive outdoorsmen. While the technical innovations that have made field identification so much easier in the current era are certainly laudable, it may be that we’ve lost something by leaving our notebooks behind.
Kevin Karlson, co-author of the stupendous Shorebird Guide, seems to think so. Not long ago, he commented that “Every birder should get into the practice of taking field notes with unfamiliar birds, even if you have a camera.” This valuable lesson assumes greater resonance when you realize that he issued it in response to Corey’s less-than-perfect pics of a potentially rare shorebird!
Field notes are part of a long birding tradition. Back in 1996, John Rakestraw wrote a wonderful article in Birding magazine on the topic of keeping field notes. Besides observing slyly that rare birds often seem to be attracted to novice birders or to those who bird alone, he shared the following:
Notes and sketches made in the field greatly increase the chances of identifying an unknown species by forcing the observer to study the bird carefully instead of wasting precious time flipping through a field guide. If you thoroughly record your observations, you can then compare your notes to field guides and other references.
Much more can be said in praise of field notebooks, although as weighed down as I usually am, I’m not sure I have any pockets left. Maybe I can text my field notes: yellO bod, red hed… I jst saw a westn tangr. wtf?!?
Yet, the fine tradition of field annotation has not been completely abandoned… countless naturalists have simply moved their journals online. Blogs may not be fully portable (yet!) but if you’re blogging, posting to your local listserv or forum, or uploading field photographs, you’re compiling your own naturalist notebook of sorts. The host of the newest I and the Bird has too. Summer’s Naturalist Notebook is stuffed with joyful observations of the flora and fauna populating her ranch in New Mexico. It also holds a charming presentation of I and the Bird #59!
What have you been jotting down in your notebook? If you’ve recorded some keen birding insights or stellar sightings of exciting avifauna, there’s a lot of people who wouldn’t mind peeking over your shoulder. Make it easier for them by submitting a link and summary to your best recent post to the next I and the Bird. The host of our October 18 edition will be the redoubtable David Ringer of Search and Serendipity. Please send your submissions to me or David (birdwatchingdave AT yahoo DOT com) by October 16.