Monday, November 29, 2010

Taking Fieldnotes - a practical primer

How and when

A lot depends on the circumstances of the sighting. If the view is fleeting, or likely to be short-lived (ie a bird flying over or likely to disappear into undergrowth) I watch the bird for as long as possible, and only open the notebook once the bird has disappeared. Even if the bird hangs around, I generally watch for a reasonable amount of time before opening my notebook. In that time I try to make mental notes of as much of the bird as possible, behaviour, calls etc.

If the bird does disappear, time is of the essence - the quicker I can record the details of the observation, the more I will remember - so I'll find a place to sit down as soon as possible to do this.

If the bird remains visible after I start note-taking, I find that it works best to go through the following procedure:

i) Get comfortable - either sit, kneel, or support the notebook somehow so that the process isn't rushed.

ii) Make a mental note of where the bird is in relation to 'landmarks' so that you can relocate it easily.

ii) Build up the description gradually, referring back to the bird often. I can't keep a large amount of data in my mind for long, so it's easier to work methodically, looking at a certain part of the bird, then making notes, then referring back to the bird, etc. This might be less easy if the bird is moving rapidly or likely to 'disappear', in which case I would focus on observing the bird continuously and try to make mental notes for as long as possible before writing them down.

iii) I start with a sketch (or more usually, a series of sketches) because I can add information rapidly.

The 'two egg' method works well for some people (see here for a perched bird) and here for a flying bird. Sometimes it's not necessary to sketch the whole bird - or one can draw several sketches of different parts of the bird - the head, the wing, the tail etc.

If a bird has a complex upperpart pattern, for the sake of speed, you can just show the pattern of one or two feathers within a feather group.

To get a really accurate description, it's a good idea to double-check everything you make a note of, if the bird allows lengthy scrutiny. It's surprising how often first impressions are not all that accurate. Or a second perusal may add additional information to what was noted earlier. It's a bit like adding layers of detail. The first layer may concentrate on feather patterns; the second may focus on structure - wing length, tail shape, and so on.

Here are a couple of examples of fieldnotes taken recently.

This is a first winter Pacific Gull at Black Rock Jetty, Victoria, in Australia. The bird was one of a number that were loafing in the area, and I knew that it wasn't going anywhere, so it was an easy 'target' for practice. Nevertheless, it flew off before I got all the details I wanted to, so I stopped once I had filled in as much as I could remember. The'white feathers' were not white; they had similar patterns to the few representative feathers I filled in, in each feather group.

A sketch of another bird. This one stayed put for longer, enabling me to take fuller notes than the previous one. By the time you have sketched a bird twice in quick succession, you already have a better memory for what the bird looks like than the first time round. With this and the previous sketch I referred to the bird often in between 'filling in' parts of the sketch. Since the bird was not always side on, I focused on the bits I could see. For example, if the head was hidden, I focused on the wing, etc.

When a bird flies, views will usually be much briefer, but important details may be revealed which were not visible when the bird was perched, such as the rump, tail and underwing patterns, and it can be important to note these, especially with waders, raptors, some bitterns, terns, ducks, etc. In this case, I sketched as soon as the bird was no longer in view.

This was a different scenario - a bird perched farily briefly before flying off. I watched the bird till it flew, then quickly wrote down everything I could remember. I then relocated the bird and was able to add further details, and make some slight changes to the face pattern. This was a Red Wattlebird, by the way.

Incidentally, as an aid to your field sketching it is very helpful to familiarize yourself with the topography of a bird. Topographical diagrams are usually included in the introductory section of most good fieldguides these days. Learning the various feather tracts on the wing and head especially will go a long way to helping you make sense of sometimes complex feather patterns in these areas. An easy way to do this is to copy a diagram into the inside cover of your notebook, or else cut and paste one in!

There are five basic areas to take notes on:
1. Size and structure
2. Plumage
3. Vocalizations
4. Behaviour
5. Habitat

The last two can be completed more easily after the bird has flown; the first three need to be noted while the bird is still present or as soon as possible after it has gone.

Then what?
Once your field sketches are complete, you might want to write fuller notes in 'long-hand'. When you're happy you've written down everything you can remember about the bird, then, and only then, it's time to refer to the fieldguide.

It may be that the fieldguide emphasizes a diagnostic feature that you have not noted. If the bird is still around, you still have chance to check for that feature. If not, at least you still have a good record of what the bird looked, sounded and behaved like.

Hopefully the bird will reappear and allow others to confirm your id. But what if it never reappears? "Suddenly, as rare things will, it vanished..." is a quote originally attributed to Elizabeth Barrett Browning but used subsequently many times by birders I am sure, because it so often happens!

Now you have to make a decision about whether or not to submit your record for scrutiny to a regional or national records committee. I'll say more about that in the next post...

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!!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Finding rarities is hard work!

With the unusually bad weather of late, it's not surprising that there have been a high number of rarities reported in the past month.

Rarities are always exciting to see, and even more to find, but they are also hard work! Not just looking for them, but finding them!

In an ideal situation, if you find a rarity, you'll be able to get excellent photographs to confirm the sighting, or other people will see the bird and confirm your identification.

However, it doesn't always work that way. Not everyone has a camera, and, even if you have one, not every bird comes within range or sticks around long enough to have its photo taken, still less for others to arrive and see the bird.

Of course, you might not be bothered whether or not anyone else sees or confirms your sighting. However, if you do intend to share your observation with others, and especially if you wish it to enter the record books for the site, region or country, then you'll need to provide some evidence for others to be able to assess your claim. This is where the hard work comes in.

In spite of the advances of digital photography, digiscoping, videoscoping,'digibinning','phonescoping' and digital sound recording, the staple equipment of the would-be rarity-finder still has to be a notebook (the paper variety!) and pen or pencil, and the key skill to master is taking good field-notes.

In the 'old days' before suitable camera equipment was widely affordable, birders would start off with the basic equipment of a pair of 'bins', a notebook and pencil. Then, when they got serious, they would supplement these with a 'scope' and tripod. At the end of any day's birding, their notebooks would be filled not only with a list of what they'd seen, but also notes on bird calls, behaviour and plumage. This is how I learned about birds.

Nowadays, when people usually buy a camera almost as soon as or even before they get their first pair of bins, the emphasis is more on 'getting a record shot' than taking notes. But this is not a foolproof approach to getting a possible rarity 'in the bag', for the following reasons:

1. Some birds' diagnostic features are not visible on photos (eg call, behaviour, relative size, etc)

2. Photos, even sharp ones taken at an advantageous angle, do not always reveal the distinctive plumage characters or structure of a bird. All too often, evidence from photos alone is inconclusive due to distance, lighting, angle or lack of sharpness.

There are other positive reasons for taking fieldnotes.

1. Taking detailed field notes habitually will sharpen your powers of observation. It's amazing how lazy our mind can be at noticing details. If you don't believe me, try sketching the head pattern of a common garden bird from memory (eg a Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Spotted Dove or Olive-backed Sunbird), without referring to any books. If you get anywhere close to the real thing, you have a better memory than most. Now try sketching the wing pattern of that same species!

2. Taking detailed field notes will also improve your ability to remember what you observe. One of my favourite 'wise sayings' is "Expression improves impression". In other words, if you take in what you notice with your eyes and ears, process it with your mind, and then express it through your fingers in either written or drawn form, it will etch a far deeper impression on your memory than it would if you simply see it and press a shutter button!

So finding a rarity should involve taking field notes. Then later, if you decide that your evidence is 'solid' enough to stand the test of objective assessment, you will want to submit the record formally, which will mean more writing! Hence the title of this post!

If I've convinced you on the matter of taking field notes, I'll write more about the how tos in the next post.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I emerged from two days in bed with a heavy cold doped up with antihistamines this morning, tempted out against doctor's orders by a Red-necked Phalarope sighting over the weekend at Pulau Burung.

Pulau Burung is a peculiar paradox of a place. It's a stinking landfill site, one of the most noxious places you could imagine to visit, yet the light there first thing in the morning is unlike anywhere else I know, and this, coupled with an abundance of confiding birds, makes it a great place for photography, even in the absence of the phalarope!

White-browed Crake, Wood Sandpiper and Little Grebe at first light.

A Wood Sandpiper at point blank range, resized but uncropped.

A Lesser Whistling-duck taking a bath at sunrise.

Water off a duck's back!

A subadult Little Grebe.

This Blue-tailed Bee-eater was begging to be photographed. I was happy to oblige!

A Wood (left) and Common Sandpiper pose for handy comparison!

A slightly closer Common Sandpiper.

A Crested Serpent-eagle enjoying the sun.

Since the phalarope was clearly elsewhere, I decided to drive over to Kampung Permatang Nibong in search of recently-arrived aquila eagles.

The first birds I came across were two Slaty-breasted Rails, though the light could have been better!

It wasn't long before the first Aquila was discovered - a cracking adult or near adult Eastern Imperial!

Being mobbed by a most upset Black-shouldered Kite.

Frustratingly, the eagle flew off before I could get any closer views.

This subadult Greater Spotted Eagle was much more obliging.

The bird appeared to be panting (it was hot!!)

While watching it, we realized that it had been joined by a second Greater Spotted, a younger bird, judging by the pale trailing edge to the wing.

Here's the first bird again.

The Eastern Imperial flew overhead briefly, providing a nice shape comparison.

Neither of which should be confused with the much commoner and smaller Black-eared Kite.

While Terence and I tried to approach the Eastern Imperial again, we came across this nice female Eastern Stonechat - a scarce bird in the non-breeding season, and always a nice find.

Paying attention to the wagtails in the paddyfields paid off - still no Citrine, but Red-throated Pipits - at least four of them.

Oddly, we didn't hear them call once, even when they flew. Usually Red-throated Pipits are pretty vocal, and the call is one of the easiest ways to pick them up.

Helpfully showing off the rump, which is streaked (though barely!).

We thought this plainer, more worn bird was probably an adult winter, whereas the other brighter, fresher birds were first winters.

Showing off!

The stripey plumage blended in surprising well with the dead paddy stalks.

While we were watching the pipits a Pale/Sand Martin made several fly-pasts.

By this time the remnants of my cold were beginning to make themselves felt, so I reluctantly decided to call it a day. However,on my way back I bumped into ...

... the Ruff flock at last! Well - five of them anyway (there were originally six). I counted 3 males and 2 females.

In just three weeks since there were photographed on 25 October, they have almost completed their body moult into first winter plumage. You can still see a few juvenile lesser coverts, scapulars and mantle feathers on the female (left).

The difference in size between the male (left) and female is very obvious here.

And here!

The white U shape on the rump is unique to Ruff.

Three males and a female.

A couple of shots from an abortive trip two days ago, when my car broke down!

Black-browed Reed Warbler.

Oriental Reed Warbler.

So that's it for now. Off to Australia for a month on Thursday. Please don't find too many rarities while I'm gone folks!