Monday, November 29, 2010

29th November 2010: On taking fieldnotes...or not!

My last post stimulated a range of interesting responses, for which many thanks to one and all. Several good points were raised, and I think it would be helpful to comment on some of them, not in chronological order!

1. A picture paints a thousand words, Dave. If a bird does not stay long enough for a decent photo, it stays too short for a meaningful description of words.

I agree completely that a good photograph provides more information than many words can. And, even as a birder who became a photographer (rather than one who was a photographer first), when I see a bird I think or know is rare I will always reach for my camera first rather than my notebook!

However, if you have seen a rare bird, even if you manage to get dozens of great photos, you'll still need to make some record of the circumstances of the observation IF you intend to submit the record. And, as mentioned in the last post, there are aspects of behaviour, calls, etc, which will be useful to note down which cannot be captured by the camera.

The second point I disagree with. If a bird does not stay long enough for a photo it will still leave an impression on your memory, which, if you have a notebook on hand, you can make a record of. And there may be circumstances when a good photo is impossible, but taking notes is still a viable option.

Lastly, there are still plenty of birders out there who don't own a camera. It is still possible to get a sighting confirmed by others, provided good field notes are taken.

2.It is quite difficult for me to bring along a notebook with me during my regular birding around the neighborhood, did not have a back pack or pockets to put those in, so the solution is often to rush home immediately, briefly glance for the suspected group in Robson's to see if any of them fit the memory.

My biggest problem is not lack of space but lack of efficient memory (I tend to forget to pack my notebook when I go out!). A notebook doesn't have to be large (though see 5ii) and certainly isn't heavy, so I reckon if you can manage to carry a pair of bins around with you, you can certainly carry a notebook and pencil.

Going to a fieldguide before writing down what you have seen is an easily-made but sometimes 'fatal' mistake! It is a much better practice to record everything you remember BEFORE opening the fieldguide. That way you have something concrete to compare with the fieldguide illustrations.

There are several problems with going to a fieldguide before making notes:

i) Seeing a multitude of similar illustrations on a plate will likely confuse your memory of what you actually saw.

ii) When comparing your memory with a fieldguide illustration you end up trying to find the 'best fit' with what you remember ("Well, it definitely had a white rump. I didn't notice any white patch on the wing but it probably did have one ... so it must have been a ____"). From here it's one small step to convincing yourself that you saw things you actually didn't!

iii) Even the best fieldguide doesn't show every plumage or angle.

I am convinced that the majority of mistaken identifications come from this practice of going directly from field observation to fieldguide without making notes.

For this reason I either leave my field guide at home or in the car (usually the former), to take away any temptation to consult it before taking notes.

3. I will record my own imitation of the calls, but often is just to record down the sensation of the call rather than the real pitch for a potential comparison with real calls in the future.

Taking notes on calls is tricky. Songs are even trickier! There are several approaches I use:

i. "Sounds like a ..." Comparing the call or song to that of another known species gives a useful reference point. For example, Malaysian Whistling-thrush call "sounds like Blue Whistling-thrush, but more monosyllabic and harsher at beginning"

ii. Some calls convert into syllables which can be written quite easily. For example, Streaked Wren-babbler has a call which sounds like seee-ooo-eee. More grating calls can be conveyed by using consonants - eg Little Pied Flycatcher makes a soft trrrrt.

iii. For simple songs I often use a series of lines to denote relative note pitch and length.

iv. For more complex songs, I usually go for a verbal description. For example, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo song: A mix of fluty downslurred notes and harsh churring notes. Some calls similar to Black Magpie.

4. Now with HD and an external mic, all the sounds can even be captured for later ID confirmation.

Very true! And as photos are nearly always better than drawings and notes, sound recordings are always better than one's attempts to transcribe them. What I am advocating is not EITHER/OR but BOTH/AND! And in the absence of recordings and/or photos, notes are a whole lot better than nothing!

5. Notes taking is not much of a problem to me but sketch is!!! consider i hate drawing!!! Do hope you can write something like sketch made easy 101.

Lots of people have this problem! I will try to address this issue in my next post, when I have a bit more time. In the meantime, consider the following:

i. A field sketch is not supposed to be a work of art! It is simply the quickest, most efficient way of transferring information from eye to page.

ii. Size matters! It is much easier to draw a large field sketch than a small one! Many people start too small. Finding the right size of field notebook is a balancing act between what's practical and what's comfortable. I would always say - go for as large as you can comfortably take into the field.

iii. The choice of writing implement. A pencil is easier to indicate differences in shade/tone. With a pen you need to use cross-hatching, which take s a bit more skill, especially if you want to distinguish this from streaking!

iv. Practice makes ... better! While not every field sketcher ends up a David Sibley or a Killian Mullarney, I guarantee that you will improve with practice! Part of this is a result of training your brain to retain information longer. The more you sketch the longer you are able to retain the image in your 'mind's eye' and in consequence the more the image you produce with your pencil will resemble the bird you saw.

v. For a good primer on basic field sketching, check this site and for a helpful video, try this.

I hope to include some pictures in my next post!!


Unknown said...

Nicely put into words...can't agree more. i must say i'm lazy but i do agree taking fieldnotes is rather critical!

Ari said...

Excellent lesson, Dave. Thanks for sharing.

Terence Ang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terence Ang said...

Thanks on the note for sketch.

I will just will like to add this note in why important to take field note. I have observing raptor for many years now. Having to take field note, I'm able to point out that some illustration is not really accurate in which creates confusion(even by very famous book) but since I have note some of this species for years this is no longer a problem. Recently itself one to our local species of eagle gape line was discover to have a little difference for all the other raptor book. I was viewing this through a swaroski 20-60X scope and unless I have a good camera I wont notice it when I view this picture back at home.

jytou said...

hi dave,

I agree it is very important to take note on all possible features during the observation.

A binocular is very easy to carry due to it having a strap and you can let go of it anytime and it just falls back to your body, but not the same for the note book, and an extra pencil, thats why for my usual birdwatching in my backyard, i just grab my phone, bino and camera and head out, but if I am traveling to further locations for a longer trip, I usually carry a back pack with me with also includes Robson's, paper and pen and pencil for sketching and recording. And would immediately jot down important features that I saw especially for glimpse of birds that I could not ID. However I did think of a solution for bringing the notebook and pencil out during my backyard watch, probably adding a strap to it, I did this during MY Garden Birdwatch, I add strings to all my count sheets and strap a pen to my bino using a string, problems I get is, I often had difficulty to ensure that all these strings and straps are not strangling each other, probably need to work on some design that is easy to carry and easy to use in the field, and also a solution where I dont need to waste too much time equiping myself everytime for my daily backyard watch.

However, I also had a problem of using bino, looking away from ur bino and start to make notes could often end up loosing the bird next time when you wanted to look up again, especially when they were in a tough background, reedbeds, thick foliage of a line of trees of the same species, and other difficult habitats where the bird are very hard to be noticed through naked eye, with a rather poor directional sense, I often lost the bird as soon as I take away the bino for a short while, a spotting scope would help to solve this but too bad I did not own one yet.

I however think, if we can try to describe watever we see verbally first when the bird is still in view might be a good alternative and we can start to sketch the bird out once it disappears from view, we can just switch on a recorder and starts to speak into it but keeps looking at that bird.

jytou said...

In terms of sound, if the bird never calls again, transcribing the sound is really very challenging, especially when many calls are hardly describable in human interpreted manner, and different people tends to hear it differently, the Savanna Nightjar for example, some says it was a loud "tui", some says "chee-wit" or something like that, that adds to the difficulty of describing calls. However for multiple syllyble call, the tone of the call is also important, such as does it sound like a do-re-mi or mi-re-do, I will usually capture this later information, and try to describe the sound of the call in words later on, it is easier to compare the melodius tone later with some real clips then viewing the verbal description and find a match later. We may describe the Savanna call such as sounds like a loud "chee-wit" which sounds also a bit like "tuit".

Do agree reading the book first often blurs my memory, sometimes I will question myself did I see that in real or I see that in books. For my first lifer of the Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, I did not make any notes then and search the book and found that Yellow-bellied Warbler is the best match of what I remembered, luckily before drawing last conclusion, I suddenly remembered I saw a yellow rump which helps to solve the ID later on, showing our memory is indeed very fragile.

But there were also sometimes such hidden memory is helpful, I had recently seen 2 warblers on Fraser's Old Gap Road, seeing 1 wing bar, nothing very diagnostic, I identified them as Arctic Warbler, but I did get puzzled by a greyish head and a flash of pale yellow on the vent of one bird when it reveals the part at one angle, I did not suspect that i gave a wrong ID as I remembered that Arctic Warblers do come with a yellowish morph.

But days later, I was doing my regular reading of Wells II, I happen to see on Phylloscopus, then when I flapped through the notes and illustration, I was stunned, especially when I read that Arctic should never have any yellow on the vent, I quickly reveal all the species's characteristics and soon think that Eastern Crowned Warbler is the most potential suspect, I then search OBI for impression photos of the bird and it is resembling what I see, the greyishness is of similar resemblance and there were also one photographed on Fraser's just some time before I went up there. That adds me another lifer.

That shows that even if we think that it was a common species, without note taking, we could still potentially draw a lot of wrong conclusions. Lately I am starting to read on all passerine species in West Malaysia and their most important ID characteristics and possible confusion species since I am very poorly knowledgeable in families such as babblers, warblers and flycatchers. Without prior field experience with them, the best is to know them better in theory, so that you wont miss them in real life at the field.