Saturday, August 22, 2015

On taking field notes

Guess what's in this blue tub?

blue tub

Van Remsen in American Birds September 1977 wrote an article that greatly influenced my birding: "On Taking Field Notes." Following this article I changed the way I kept track of birds I saw. In fact, I kept field notes based on this article faithfully for 28 years, until 1996. After that my field notes kind of sputtered and were irreglular until 2006. Then I started using BirdNotes online for some of my birding trip lists. 

tub full of field notes
A tub full of Greg's bird field notes dated from 1972 to 2006.
In 2010 I started using eBird and became a strong advocate (one might even say "evangelist") of this great program (click here for "What is eBird?" that I wrote in 2010). This real-time online checklist program allows me to take field notes in the way that Remsen recommended. Locations can be mapped precisely. Time and distance are recorded. I can note mere presence or exactly count numbers. Rare birds are flagged (and vetted) so that I must write a description before they'll be accepted into the database. One of the problems of my paper field notes is that I would underline rare birds on my day's list, but then not say anything more about them. Thus, years later, even I can't vouch for some of the sightings of rare birds that I listed but did not describe. I can even add photos to my lists.
birding field note books

The reason I bring this all up (again)? Just this week I finished a 5 year project of entering all those 37 years of my bird notes (1972-2010) into eBird. Yes, every bird that I've ever seen for which I have notes that contain exact locations and dates, are now in eBird. In total, including these old notes and bird lists directly into eBird from 2010 to date, they number over 7000 checklists. 4000 of those lists are complete checklists--every bird I saw at a particular location and date. All my notes, all those valuable data, all that hard work, is preserved and publicly available right now as long as eBird and National Audubon Society and the Internet exist. That's a lot better than sitting unused in a blue tub in my closet.

I think Van Remsen would be pleased.