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How to Keep a Birding Journal

Tips for Bird Journals

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Bird Sketch

Many birders sketch to remember field marks.

Randen Pederson

While many birders record sightings with a simple species checklist, learning how to keep a birding journal can help both novice and experienced birders perfect their observations and record their birding experiences in rich detail. Far more than just a checklist, a birding journal can be a sighting record, ongoing species log, identification tool and more.

Why Keep a Birding Journal?

A species checklist is a great way to remember what birds you see, but after hours of observations a simple checklist will not remind you about behaviors, field conditions or the other factors that can make each sighting memorable. A birding journal, on the other hand, is a way to record each bird sighting in more detail. Those details can help you perfect your identification skills, learn more about the species you see and train your eyes, ears and other senses to make more intimate observations. With practice, you can learn to distinguish subtle differences between birds by relying on your detailed field observations and journal notes, and you will begin to appreciate the birds you see in more depth.

Types of Journals

There are several types of birding journals to choose from. A simple notebook or blank journal is the easiest option and you can customize your notes as you prefer. Specialized volumes often include sections for recording observation dates and common characteristics of each sighting, but these specialized journals can be more expensive and may be difficult to find.

When looking at different notebooks and journals, choose a volume that will be useful in the field so you can be comfortable using it with every bird you see. Consider the following characteristics:

  • Size: Pages should be large enough for full notes without cramped or illegible writing, but not so large that the journal won't fit comfortably in a pocket, vest or field bag.

  • Binding: Volume should be sturdy to withstand different temperatures and weather conditions, and covers should be strong enough to protect note pages. Books that fold over or lie flat are often preferred.

  • Types of Pages: Some birders prefer lined pages to make their journal notes, while others prefer unlined pages to jot down observations and make simple sketches. Choose a volume you will be comfortable using.

What to Record in a Birding Journal

Whatever type of birding journal you choose, you will want to include a variety of information about each bird species you record. When in the field, try to take notes on…

  • Species Name: Include both the common and scientific names of the bird so you are able to reference it with different field guides.

  • Habitat: Note plant life, water sources and vegetation conditions, as well as which of the plants the bird is preferring as you observe it.

  • Weather: Note temperature, visibility, wind, light level and any weather conditions that affect your observations. Rain, mist, snowfall, accumulated snow, drought and other factors can impact observations.

  • Date: Record the date, time and day of the week you are making the observation, as well as how long you were able to see the bird and whether or not you had clear views or just intermittent glimpses.

  • Appearance: Take copious notes on the bird's appearance, including the brilliance of plumage, any peculiar markings and any outstanding or unusual features such as missing feathers, leucistic patches or signs of illness. Also record the bird's gender if possible.

  • Behavior: Take notes on what the bird was doing as you observed it. Note general actions and specific reactions to changing conditions, such as the appearance of a predator or how the bird interacts with other birds. Note large actions such as preening, flight patterns and foraging habits as well as small movements such as tail bobs, head cocks or wing stretches.

  • Vocalizations: If the bird sang or made other sounds during your observation, use mnemonics or descriptions of how it sounded. Also note non-vocal sounds such as wing noises or drumming.

  • Flock Size: If you are observing more than one bird at a time, try to estimate how many birds are in the flock. Also try to note how genders are balanced if possible, and check different birds to see if they are the same species or part of a mixed flock.

In the few minutes or even seconds you have to observe a bird, it may be impossible to record everything you'd like in your birding journal. Over time, many birders develop their own shorthand notations that may include birding acronyms or other quick ways to record common observations. After you've seen the bird, take time to fill in your journal as completely as possible – you'll often be surprised at how much you did notice, even if you didn't have the time to write everything down right away.

Using Your Birding Journal

To make the most of your birding journal, review it regularly. Studying the notes you've made can help you realize what observations you missed so you will know what to look for the next time you see a bird, and you will learn to appreciate their individuality and diversity even more with each observation. Comparing your notes on similar bird species can help you learn to accurately identify the birds, and over time you will learn more about each species than you'd ever dreamed. Your notes can also be transcribed onto a computer to share with other birders, and your observations may be a valuable tool for local birding groups or conservation studies.

Learning how to keep a birding journal can be a rewarding way to enhance your observational skills and enjoy every bird you see in depth. Your detailed notes can even be a way to enjoy bird sightings over and over as you study your observations and remember exactly how you saw each bird and what made each sighting special.

Photo – House Sparrow Sketch © Randen Pederson

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