Tony Fitzpatrick

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Whither the Field Notebook?

Note: This blog post is intended specifically for entrants in the “Field Notebook Module,” ABA 2020 Young Birder of the Year contest. However, it is hoped that the opinions and counsel contained within shall be of interest to anybody who records sightings of birds and other objects and phenomena in nature.

 

Every good birder keeps a field notebook. That lesson was drummed into me long ago by such birding greats as Jon Dunn and the late Chan Robbins. (Robbins, gentle though he was, especially harped on that point.) My undergrad thesis advisor demanded that I keep a field notebook. So did my high school biology teacher. And before any of them got to me, my parents made me write it all down. Along with tidying up my room, taking out the trash, and not beating up my younger siblings too much, I was compelled by my parents to keep a daily record of the stuff I noticed in the world around me.

This Apr. 27, 1984, entry from the author’s field notebook seems crude in today’s currency of iNaturalist “research grade” uploads and eBird’s “rich media” content. But the critical elements are all in place: date, location, count, and at least rudimentary behavioral notes.

There’s just one problem. I don’t write anything down anymore. At least, not the way I used to, with pen and paper. These days, I do it all electronically—from my laptop and, increasingly, my smartphone. In a moment, I’m going to walk you through a recent eBird checklist of mine. The date was Apr. 27, 2019, so just a couple weeks ago. But not quite yet. First, we’re going to turn the clock back exactly 35 years, to Apr. 27, 1984, when I was a sophomore in high school. In other words, I was the same age as you.

 

As you can see, Apr. 27 of my sophomore year in high school was an unhappy day. I’d broken my foot the day before. So I wasn’t able to go all-out with birding on Fri., Apr. 27, 1984. But I was on this consecutive-days birding streak, and I was not to be denied. So I hobbled into the back yard, where I found a singing Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I recorded the sighting in my field notebook, and the streak was alive.

The author’s lifelong obsession with consecutive-days birding streaks has gotten just a bit out of hand in the eBird era.

Thirty-five years later, with several more broken bones behind me, I’m still at it. Am I ever. As I said a moment ago, I don’t write things down in notebooks these days, but I am documenting birds more thoroughly and more valuably than I ever could have imagined as a high school student.

One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that’s the primacy of date and location. Your observations are beyond useless if you don’t record when and where you went birding. It just seems so obvious to me, like putting your name on an essay or lab report. And yet I can’t begin to tell you how many grownup photographers submit images to Birding without including location, date, and credit info in the filename. Fortunately, eBird forces you to include the location and date for your checklist, plus, while you’re at it, your name.

A marvelous feature of eBird is that it allows you to include additional comments. I wish this were a requirement of each and every user. Ornithologist and eBirder Kimball Garrett refers to such comments as “the first rough draft of natural history”—without which any subsequent interpretation becomes impossible. My comments, as you can see, are pretty casual: some notes about the weather, observations of other taxa (butterflies, wildflowers), and general remarks about coverage and participation. Judges love this stuff. Don’t worry about crafting the perfect specimen of nature writing; don’t even worry too much about typos and such. We just want to see that you appreciate the importance of putting your birding adventures in a broader ecological context. A key idea in all of this is that of repeatability. Could another birder, two months from now or two hundred years from now, go out and repeat your survey? Ongoing resurveys of bird studies conducted by, among others, Henry David Thoreau (yes, that Thoreau) have yielded surprising and important results. One day, your eBird checklists might be as important as Thoreau’s field notebook entries.

eBird permits the user to add comments. Judges in the Writing Module, ABA Young Birder of the Year contest, demand it!

 

Okay, on to the eBird checklist proper. The first species entry is for the common, even banal, Canada Goose. Teachable moment! The judges want to see what you do with your treatment of species like the Canada Goose. Don’t bypass the Canada Goose in your rush to upload stunning photos of that rare Pink-footed Goose or something. I’ll state this point more emphatically: My eBird checklist for Apr. 27, 2019, doesn’t contain a single “good” bird, whatever that means. It’s just the expected species at a park near my home in eastern Boulder County, Colorado. This is the sort of checklist judges want to see. Unless you live in Alaska or Oaxaca, your eBird checklists from those two states tell us that you are blessed with generous adults in your life, not that you’re an especially good birder. The bulk of your submissions should be of ordinary birds from ordinary parks and preserves close to home.

Go to the actual rich media uploads at the Macaulay Library to enlarge the images and listen to the audio—and to view additional comments: macaulaylibrary.org/asset/154360321

Let’s linger with the Canada Goose for a while—just as my companions and I did on that chilly morning late last month. We estimated the number of adults we saw (n=30), we surmised that all pertained to the eBird taxon moffitti/maxima (but note our caution), we uploaded photos and audio, and we included those all-important comments—are you starting to get the impression that the judges really want comments?? As to the images, note that the photos themselves are annotated; we were interested in the heavy feather wear on the birds, and that is mentioned. As to the audio, I commented on how Canada Geese sound different when they are relaxed vs. worked up.

Scroll down the checklist, and you’ll see that every single entry has comments. That’s sunk in by now, yes? There are no Falcated or Eastern Spot-billed ducks on this checklist, but there is an entry for “duck sp.”

From the eBird checklist, click on the first of the two robin images to see a feather-by-feather analysis courtesy of molt guru Peter Pyle: macaulaylibrary.org/asset/154435001

Keep on going down, all the way down to another totally ordinary—but endlessly fascinating—species, the American Robin. You’ll see two photos there of the same robin. Click on the images, and you’ll notice a detailed analysis. But it’s not by me! I was unclear on what, exactly, I was seeing on the bird’s wings, so I reached out to Peter Pyle for his analysis. You may have heard the name Peter Pyle. He’s one of the foremost authorities on avian molts and plumages. And he took the time to patiently and courteously answer a couple questions I had about this particular robin. It gets better. Assuming Peter’s around, and assuming you tell him your name and the date and location of your photo, he’ll probably help you too! There are many wonderful things about our birding community, and the most wonderful thing of all, if you ask me, is that experts like Peter are willing to answer questions from practically any birder. I’ve said it in another blog post for young birders, and I’ll say it again: The worst thing you can do, as far as the judges are concerned, is to say you figured out birding on your own. You didn’t. Everything you know, you’ve learned from someone else. Even if you’ve truly discovered something new, the context for that discovery nevertheless arose from your interactions with experts, mentors, and, in all likelihood, your longsuffering parents. Say so!—not only in the Field Notebook Module, but in any other Young Birder of the Year module.

eBird allows the user to upload audio, in many instances more valuable for bird ID than a photo. From the live eBird checklist, click on any spectrogram to hear the bird sing and, just as important, to “see” it sing by watching the animated graphic: macaulaylibrary.org/asset/154773101

From robin molt, let’s proceed now to sparrow song. Scroll down to my entry for the common Song Sparrow. I uploaded a simple photo of our songster—who isn’t necessarily a male. I’ve learned in recent years—mostly from Colorado birdsong expert Lauryn Benedict—that female birdsong is vastly more pervasive than I ever knew. Then I uploaded three different songs from this Song Sparrow. Like Carolina Wrens but unlike Red-eyed Vireos, Song Sparrows sing one song over and over again, then switch to another song. I learned that from another Colorado birdsong expert, Nathan Pieplow. Anyhow, each Song Sparrow has a repertoire, and I included with my eBird checklist representative elements from this individual’s oeuvre. I made these recordings with a handheld digital recorder, by the way, but that wasn’t necessary. You can get perfectly good recordings with the built-in recorder on your smartphone.

Keep on going to the bottom, where my checklist ends with something of a dud: “passerine sp.” But it’s an honest entry. I think the bird probably was a Great-tailed Grackle, but, whatever it was, it was far away, I didn’t hear it well, and I didn’t see it at all. Which reminds me of some advice not from me or any other judge in the Young Birder of the Year contest, but, rather, from Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, one of the most important figures in the field of immunology. This is from Medawar’s classic and still very relevant Advice to a Young Scientist (1979):

I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: The intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not. The importance of the strength of our conviction is only to provide a proportionately strong incentive to find out if the hypothesis will stand up to critical evaluation.

Medawar wasn’t a contest judge, as I said, and, as far as I am aware, he wasn’t a birder. But he might as well have been. Because that’s the best advice I could give to any birder of any age or generation.

 

A final thought. The other day, I went into eBird and uploaded my Ruby-crowned Kinglet from Apr. 27, 1984. It’s just an incidental observation, a datum of presumably limited value. But, hey, it suddenly has more value than when it was only an entry in my pen-and-paper field notebook. If you’re a young birder right now, you’re coming of age in what is surely the most exhilarating time in the whole history of birding. You’ve alive at a difficult time, that’s for sure: People older than you have done terrible harm to the environment and to the American political system, and it’s going to be largely up to you to reverse the damage. You’ll do that through science and civic and political engagement, of course, but you’re already doing it, in no small measure, by being a birder. eBird and other citizen-science initiatives are importantly influencing conservation policy, and your observations make a difference. So be thorough. Be accurate. Use “sp.” when you just don’t know. Go all out with documentation of Canada Geese, American Robins, and Song Sparrows. Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Margaret Morse Nice, three of the greatest ecologists of the twentieth century, achieved their seminal insights by pondering Canada Geese, American Robins, and Song Sparrows, respectively.

And to think: They didn’t even have Wi-Fi!

Your observations are more valuable on eBird than in a pen-and-paper notebook—but only to the extent that you apply care to the interrelated matters of identifying birds and interpreting your observations in their ecological context.

Acknowledgments
I appreciate the comments of Johanna Beam, Kimball Garrett, and Van Remsen on an earlier draft of this blog post, and I am grateful to Liz Gordon, Michael O’Brien, and Ioana Seritan for including me in the brainstorming that led to this blog post. And I had a wonderful time in the field with the University of Denver students who accompanied me for the birding trip that yielded the eBird checklist that formed the basis for this post.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted at The ABA Blog for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.