BUILDING BIRDING SKILLS
by John Rakestraw
[Originally published in Birding - February 1996]
EVERY BIRDER KNOWS the frustration of observing a rare bird or an unusual behavior while birding alone. A phone call to report the finding might sound something like this: "I've found a White-tailed Kite at Cheyenne Bottoms!" "Did you get a picture of it?" "No." "OK, thanks." (click)
Rare birds often seem to be attracted to novice birders or to those who bird alone. Whether you want to document rarities or merely record your birding experiences, the most practical method for most birders is to take field notes and photographs.
Sketches are helpful additions to field notes and rare-bird documentation. Even the crudest of drawings by individuals professing little or no artistic ability can later be an integral part of the record. 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.
The concept of keeping field notes is certainly not new. Early naturalists, before the days of telephoto lenses and video cameras, relied exclusively on their field notes (and collected specimens) to record their findings. Some of these journals are works of art in themselves, containing detailed drawings and paintings along with poetic narratives. Although most birders will feel that this level of artistry is beyond them, a great deal of information can be recorded with a few short sentences and a crude line drawing.
Many people can enjoy watching a bird for an extended period of time but then have difficulty describing the bird to others. The first step to taking good field notes is deciding what information to record. The level of detail in your notes will vary, depending on your purposes. If you are merely recording a sighting of a familiar species for your own journal, you will not go into as much detail as you would if you were recording an unknown species or documenting a rarity. Listed below are several things to look for when making field notes.
Unless you can get very close to a very cooperative bird, you will probably not be able to see all the details noted above. But this list will give you an idea of what to look for and what type of information to record. How you record this information will depend on your personal preferences and artistic ability.
If you are more comfortable using words instead of pictures, you may choose to describe your observations with a straight narrative. A written account can provide a wealth of detail butsometimes takes a considerable amount of time to prepare. The best way to make detailed notes in the field is to carry a small tape recorder. A micro-cassette recorder in your shirt pocket can record your observations while you are actually looking at the bird. Your notes can then be transcribed and edited at home.
A simple sketch can quickly record a lot of detail. Proportion, prominent field marks, and bill shape can all be accurately portrayed with a primitive drawing.
If you find the idea of drawing a bird to be intimidating, practice sketching the birds at your feeders or in your neighborhood. Don't try for perfection and don't take time to erase. Just jot down the important concepts. Make short notes around your drawing to clarify details and to mention any interesting behavior. A small sketchbook, about the size of a field guide, can easily be carried with you in the field. With a little practice, you may find your sketches becoming more and more life-like. As your artistic skills improve, you may want to keep a birding journal complete with colored illustrations. Colored pencils and watercolors are easy to work with and make very pleasing renditions. Colored pencils and watercolor pencils can be taken into the field, but you may find yourself spending more time drawing than you spend birding. It is usually more practical to take notes and make simple sketches in the field, then use these to create more formal journal entries at home.
Getting into the habit of taking field notes can benefit a birder
in several ways. Unless you are carrying a camera, fieldnotes and sketches
are the best way to document rare birds. The accumulated notes of casual
birders provide scientists with valuable information on bird distribution,
populations, and behavior. And finally, keeping notes or a journal is an
excellent way to relive your own birding experiences. Reviewing your notes
from a warbler-filled morning in May is a great way to liven up a dreary