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Tutorial: How To Take Good Field Notes

The Value of Good Field Notes in the
Search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

James Tate, Jr., Ph.D. Science Advisor
to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Foundation


The value of field notes to the study of natural history is well known. Less apparent, but perhaps equally important is the value of field notes to the individual writing them.

Many people have expressed doubt about every sighting of the Ivory-billed woodpecker since the Singer Tract sketches of Don Eckelberry in 1944. What made Eckelberry's sightings different and acceptable to the scientific community was his reputation as an artist and his long history of careful note-taking. Other observers have not been so fortunate in that they reported second hand observations, someone else's photographs, or had only sound recordings to support their claims.

There are two parts to the acceptance of Eckelberry's 1944 sightings; his reputation for skillful observation, and his skill at taking written and sketched notes. I believe that for any serious naturalist, professional or not, use and maintenance of a systematic field note system is essential. You never know when your notes will be the only, and best, evidence that you did indeed see what you claimed to see.

Like most field biologists, I learned the Grinnell system for recording and maintaining a record of my time in the field. This method was developed in California by Joseph Grinnell, the first Director of the University of California's Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ), whose field notes written between 1 January 1894 and 25 May 1939 (five days before his death) are still mined for information.

The Grinnell system has been written about many times and in great detail. You may want to visit the MVZ website for additional information on the value of field notes. I intend to provide here only an outline of what is expected of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker searcher. I hope you will follow the leads provided here and initiate, or improve, your own note-taking so that your reputation and your notes will speak for you when that lifetime sighting comes your way.

The Grinnell system helps jog your memory for details of who saw something, what they saw, when they saw it, and where they saw it. The system documents your sightings in a form suitable for analysis and submission to various databases. And it combines records taken over a long time, often years, in a form that provides insights into details of plumage and behavior.

I am going to assume that you have the desire to have your observations accepted, and that you have the discipline to persist as you develop your treasury of notes. Let's get started.

The Grinnell system has four main components: the Field Notebook, the Journal, the Species Account, and the Catalog. From this basic assemblage of parts, you can develop your own variation and still be in a position to communicate with others who can favorably judge your professionalism.
The Field Notebook

The field notebook is small enough to fit in a pocket, of archival quality paper to stand time and abuse, and has lined pages. I have changed size and style of field notebooks many times over the years, but for several years have used the Moleskine® Pocket Notebook. These notebooks, according to the manufacturer, have been used by many artists and writers, including Van Gogh, Matisse, and Hemingway. They have what I need in the field: a hard cover, thread-bound acid-free paper pages, and an elastic closure.

This notebook is the one I take everywhere with me for my observations and thoughts. I use it at work, in the field, at social gatherings, and anywhere else I want to make a short, but clear note of what I see and hear and the conditions at the time.

You may have heard the tale that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration spent millions of dollars developing the zero gravity capable ballpoint pen suitable for use in space, while the Russian space agency opted to simply use a pencil. This is an appealing story, but it probably is false. However, both the space pen and the pencil have the characteristics I seek in the field—the ability to get wet without running or fading.

For years I used the Fisher Space Pen® that was ultimately adopted by both the U.S. and Russian space agencies, until I began seeing that its thixotrophic ink (a gel that becomes liquid when disturbed) would run and fade and would not hold up to specimen label use. Now I use either a Stafford uni-ball® "vision" pen or a Pilot G-2 07 both of which use thixotrophic 207 ink which is both fade proof and waterproof. These pens are advertised as safe for signing unalterable checks. Sometimes I use a good old fashioned pencil.

My field notes start with a new page each day with a line describing where I am when I wake up, the day, and date-[CO: Jefferson Co., Golden Mon 14 May 2007]

I have standardized to use the State:County,City, and the Continental dating system for consistency and to prevent confusion. Obviously this template needs to be modified for foreign travel. I use abbreviations rarely. An example of when I do is when I am at home; my field notebook reads 2031 H instead of DC: 2031 Huidekoper Pl NW. I also break the rule on abbreviations in using the four letter symbol for bird names used by bird banders (ex. IBWO for Ivory-billed Woodpecker). You can compare the bird bander's naming system to others in common usage in this link to an overview document.

After a bad experience with bleed-through, I began to write on one side of the page only. I still use the other side of the paper for a penciled comment, a crude map, or a sketch. I use the 24-hour time format, and precede dates and times with leading zeros (ex. 04 June 2007). I try to be brief and concise in my field notes because I have a chance to put it all in perspective in the Journal.
The Journal

I use a regular 8.5 x 11 three-ring binder for my Journal. At the end of the day I sit down with my Field Notebook, maps, tourist brochures, and anything else I might find useful and put together a thorough, documented journal entry. Each day's journal entry either begins with a calendar page generated on my computer, or is the page of a calendar. That first page gives the general overview of where I was that day and what I did.

There exists an abundance of advice on writing a journal. But for me, the most important factor of a good journal is the correlation between the Field Notebook, the Journal, the Species Account and the Catalog through the date and location title line that begins each page. In my journal I just try to get the facts down consistently. The analysis comes later.

Photographs should be incorporated and indexed by location, date, and other appropriate data into the Field Notebook and Journal. A time-date stamp on the photos gives them field authenticity. I sometimes use a waterproof disposable camera for backup to my digital camera. Computers and tape recorders have almost no usefulness for the Field Notebook, but can be useful to record repetitive data on forms for incorporation in the Journal. They are not a substitute for pencil and paper in the field, however.

The use of digital cameras and tape recorders to authenticate a sight or sound is fraught with difficulties. Catching a chance encounter on tape or recorded on a digital camera is a matter of great luck... that almost never happens. A sketch in your field notes done before consulting a bird book or discussing it with others is a great testament to what you actually saw.

Tim Gallagher, Bobby Harrison - February 27, 2004

You may recall the sketches Bobby Harrison and Tim Gallagher made on Feb. 27, 2004 when a large black-and-white woodpecker flew across the bayou less than 70 feet in front of them. Later, after the bird had disappeared into the forest, Gallagher and Harrison each sat down to sketch independently what they had seen. Their field sketches, were included in the Science article, and show the characteristic patterns of white and black on the wings of the IBWO.
The Species Account

This is probably the hardest unit in the Grinnell system to keep current. The Species Account is really an index to every meaningful encounter with a species. For example, every time I record an interesting behavior or plumage characteristic of a species in my Field Notebook or Journal, I cross-reference the date and location in the Species Account for that species. Over time, patterns of behavior begin to emerge in the Species Account. You will learn when and where you most often see the species. You will begin to see patterns of behavior that correlate with the seasons, the time of day, or the weather. The possibilities are endless and intriguing.
The Catalog

As a professional ornithologist, I used to regularly collect birds, their eggs, and nests under proper permitting authority. The catalog I used was a one-line per specimen record of those activities. Today, I seldom collect a bird specimen. But, I do get the occasional plant, beetle, rock, or other specimen during my travels.

The catalog is a separate notebook of specimens collected (and their disposition). Start with number "1" and number consecutively. Mark the specimen with the same number. The data on the specimen's tag and the line in the Catalog should contain all of the same information: collector's name, date, collection number, location, and notes you may think important.

Volumes have been written on the identification, preservation and storage of various kinds of specimens. It is less important that you become expert in these matters in advance. One thing is most important, however. Every day you should take your Field Notebook with you. Each evening you should make it a habit to expand and supplement your notes with your thoughts. Before you know it, you will be thoroughly prepared for that big day when the Ivory-billed Woodpecker flies straight down the channel toward you. And your skills and expertise as a field observer will be available for anyone to see when they read the notes on your observation.

Jim Tate can be reached at: 2031 Huidekoper Place NW, Washington, DC, 20007, [202 841-2056], .