Notes on taking field notes

Nature NotesFor those with an academic orientation perhaps field notes are easy. There is a specific aim. But for the amateur nature enthusiast, or amateur naturalist, taking notes can also be a great activity and can greatly enrich your experience of nature.

You may not be sure what exactly to take notes of. I would like to provide some guidelines, share my own experiences, and reasons for note taking.

Here are some really random examples from field notes that I have taken:

  • Sharpe's Grysbok on p.m. drive.

  • Damara Dik dik. ♀ squatting and urinating in display manner (17h10) (Gate Namutoni,) scratches the area she urinated on.

  • Bushman's South ±100 Oryx. There are many Orxy & Springbok scattered around all over now. Note: Afternoon wind still strong.

  • Pan [Etosha] still with water from Springbokvlakte on. Lot's of birds, but far. Incl. Pelicans and Herons

Those notes were taken all over the place and just give examples of how I was just jotting things down. I did make some careful descriptions from time to time, tried to keep up with weather, and even GPS co-ords from time to time. But mostly it was those simple scribbled notes that I found gained a value over time.

  • List Okay, I put listing first because it's worth a whole post by itself. To most people, no big deal. To birders it can be.

    To half the birders it's all about the lists and to others the lists are seen as evil things. I, of course, love lists. This post is a list isn't it? A list is easy to do. You go out, write what you see and you have a list. Compare it to previous lists and you start very easily to learn something about the area. Compare it with others, and you have a good reason to start a club and have a drink together!

  • Behavior If you are visiting the same places regularly and often seeing the same animals over and over it can become boring. But if you keep very general notes about behavior you will be amazed a year or two in, how significant those notes are. One great personal example would be Springbok on NamibRand Nature Reserve.

    Over the years I made notes of what they were eating along with the date. It seemed boring. I probably did it just because I wanted to appear to be a serious student of nature and animal behavior. Well, it may have meant nothing at the time. But a couple years later I was able to compare dry years notes to wet years notes and to compare what they ate compared to what food I saw. It also taught me to 'see' the food. It made such a difference in my guiding. One year I was still talking about "Springbok gestation period...horn length...da da da.." and the next I was saying "Look, now they are starting to eat... because ...dropping...pregnant..." And that's just springbok. Same went for many things. Not just big things. Just notes I took on tracks in the dunes taught me a lot.

    One very important thing is that I was hardly consistent. Sometimes I took great notes. At other times I had guide issues or whatever on my mind. After a year or two it really didn't matter.

    The point is, even simple notes, as long as you READ them later, teach you a LOT.

  • Special Notes give you that special knowledge. It's partly covered in the notes above. But if you look at it the other way around, the guy who didn't take notes looses so much knowledge of what goes on. I would basically say that it is the key to calling yourself a naturalist. If you take notes, you know something those who don't can't now. Like I said above, you do have to read those notes for this to be true. Taken notes, carefully filed away and never touched again just make you look organized. Notes used and read and compared and integrated into what you study, observe and hear from others, that's the stuff!

  • Report It helps you report. Notes give you the information you need to give to report sightings to relevant authorities or conservation bodies. Sometimes you may not even know, while in the field, what you need to give these people. Careful, thoughtful notes will make it easier and you get better the more you report. I have, at times, done this fantastically, but at other times I have been really poor. I know that some of the people who may take the occasional peek at this blog know all to well how that went! Yes, I know.....

    But still, even if I wasn't always the best, I did try and sometimes that effort was actually useful to people. It's those facts and numbers that, used by the right people, are going to help conservationists around the world make those decisions that we need to keep the world from being destroyed at the hands of man. So, some numbers or careful observations of yours may disappear into the void of science and conservation and government archives, but don't despair. There are those who dig carefully to produce useful data out of the stuff. To summarize, just hand in your notes...come on...don't make those poor conservations beg...they have better work to do (I put this in just so that they would forgive me!)

  • Share I don't know about you, but I love to read good stuff about nature. I love it. I subscribe to wildwatch (a nature/sightings blog by &beyond) and subscribe to many blogs. I read magazines. I hardly ever read books these days, because there is just to much other stuff to get read. With your notes, you and I have a chance to create this kind of material. Blogs, of course, give a great opportunity to share not only with conservationists, but to everyone.

    If you ever do have a good story that you would just love to share from your experiences in the wild, let me know and I may post it on this blog or, if it's African in nature, may even post it on African Bush Stories (my wilds of Africa stories blog.)

  • Discover Perhaps this is obvious. If you take careful notes when you find stuff, you are going to know much better when what you see is interesting from a taxonomy point of view. Your notes are the proof that what you saw has not been seen before. Or your insight may lead to a significant study.

  • Remember Just for you. If I take a look my field notes, it can really take me back. I remember special events and I remember my life at that time. Sightings are a memory tag.

    I noticed one thing over the years. Hyenas decreased and Leopards increased over time on NamibRand Nature Reserve. Why, well, I could talk at length about that, and probable have mentioned it in this blog before. But that's not important. What is important is that my notes clearly show this trend over the year. Clear to me, perhaps not as scientific data, but enough to give me an understanding of what was going on.
  • Another side to using notes in this way relates to photography. When you take photographs these days with digital cameras it is getting easier and easier to just shoot more images. When you get home it may be hard to remember which ones are important. If there are notes in your field notes referring to a photograph you took, it is easier to remember why you took it.

Next time you have the chance to be out in nature and do some birding or simply enjoy the experience, scribble a couple of notes and you may find it becomes a habit that makes your experience in nature much richer!
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Grace said...

Really unhelpful post. Rather than point out the specific elements of field noting, you've rabbitted on about yourself.

Vernon said...

Hi Grace,

Thanks for pointing that out.

As the post is almost four years and I'm not much of a guide any more, I'm not going to do any editing now. Hopefully you'll find what you're after elsewhere.