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
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.
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...