I saw my first greylag geese near Tring Reservoir on 17 September 1977. I clocked up 49 species that day, including some unexpected green sandpipers. How can I be so sure more than 30 years later? Because I have been writing field notes since the devil was a boy, and my notebooks have become the timeline of my life as a birder.
This technique really pays off. If you document your visits to your local patch over the course of several years, you start to see patterns emerging – when migrant birds arrive and depart, for instance, and whether populations are rising or falling.
The amount of information you record is up to you. When I started, my notes consisted of a list of the species seen in each place, along with brief details about the precise location, date, weather, time, number of individuals and their behaviour.
These days, I am more concise, just recording anything unusual and then filing my species list for the day on the laptop back home.
If I come across a rare species, or a bird that I don’t recognise, I note down as many of its salient features as possible. Sometimes I even do a quick sketch.
The key is to have a checklist of distinguishing features to draw. Focus on the plumage, particularly on the head, any patterns such as streaking or blocks of colour, the length of the wings and tail, etc. The coloration and length of the bill and legs are important, too. Don’t worry if you can’t draw to fieldguide standard – very few of us can!
Also try to describe any calls and behaviour, but bear in mind that displaced birds sometimes act out of character.
Detailed notes will not only help you to identify the species later, they also have more currency with rarity committees, which reject records that do not contain enough information.
Some people whisper their observations into a dictaphone, and many smartphones have excellent recording facilities. These are useful tools, but to my mind nothing beats the visceral quality and atmosphere of hand-written notes and sketches, so why not try it?
DAVID’S TOP TIP:
Practise making notes on common birds in your garden. Then you will be used to scribbling at speed for when you’re out in the field and spot an unusual species.
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