What Information to Include in a Bird Watching Journal

A bird-watching journal should have a durable cover, and be small enough to fit into a pocket or field pack.  If you intend to carry it in your pocket, you might want the cover to be flexible.  Some field notebooks have pages that are partially unlined, to allow space for sketches.  Some birders keep their field journals  in plastic bags in case of wet weather.  If you do this, you will want to remove it from the bag when you get home to prevent mildew.

A good, useful bird-watching journal is not just a list!  Whether you are birding purely for your own enjoyment, or are engaged in “citizen science”, your journal should include information that will both be useful to others and increase the enjoyment of your sightings.  For each outing, a short introduction about the location, the date, and the weather conditions is essential.  If you leave one birding spot and move to another, that should be noted.  Record the approximate time of day for each observation.

Of course, the main thing your journal should include is the birds you have seen.  If you are familiar with the bird, list its common name.  If you do not know what bird it is, sketch it.  Your sketch does not need to rival the bird art of John James Audubon, it just needs to be a reminder of any prominent field marks the bird might have, such as its general size, for example, “robin-sized”, its overall shape, bill shape, eye-rings or wing-bars.  Trust me, this is less time-consuming and distracting than rifling through your field guide, leaving more time to watch the bird.  Even if you know what bird it is, if it is rare or uncommon, if you report your sighting, you could be asked to document your discovery.  For documentation purposes, a sketch is often better than a photo, because a photo might not capture some field marks as well as the human eye.

It is important to note the habitat for each observation.  Birds that frequent marshes will not be found in the deep woods.  Keep it simple; short descriptions such as “dry upland woods”, “marsh”, “wooded creekside”, or “fallow field” are adequate.

Renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson once said he studies ants, “to see what they are up to.”  What is the bird you are observing up to?  Is he singing?  Is she exhibiting nest-building behavior?  Is the woodpecker drumming, or excavating a hole in a dead tree?  If you see a bird carrying something, make a note of that.  Birds carrying food, like caterpillars, worms, or insects, or nest materials, like sticks, grass, or animal hair, might lead you to discover the location of the nest.  Birds also carry nestlings’ fecal material away from the nest, so it will not attract predators.  Birds carrying things can be presumed to be nesting nearby, not just passing through.

Record your observations in your journal to tell a story, intended to be read.  Write your journal with your reader in mind, even if it’s just for yourself.  A well-kept bird-watcher’s journal should be both a valid scientific record and a pleasurable keepsake of your birding adventures.