Taking Notes

A Field Sparrow photographed from a distance through thick fog. Good field notes would be more useful.

If you use eBird, and I hope you do, you will notice that when you report a bird that is unusual for your area, eBird requires you to make a comment. The purpose of this is to provide some documentation to support your sighting, making it more valuable for scientific purposes.

Unfortunately, many comments do not accomplish this. I recently saw a report for a bird that would be extremely rare for my area. The comment read, “singing in my tree.” Similar types of comment include “at the feeder” or “I had just spent 30 minutes in the bathroom so I stepped outside for some fresh air and saw this bird.” None of these really provide any useful information.

If you are going to document a bird, whether for eBird or for a bird records committee, make sure your comments actually describe the bird you saw. Things to include in your description include:

  • the size and shape of the bird in direct comparison to nearby species.
  • the size and shape of the bill
  • distinguishing marks or patterns
  • any vocalizations that you heard
  • behaviors
  • the habitat being used

With the advancement of digital photography in the past decade, it seems that everyone is a photographer now. If you can get a good photo of the bird in question, by all means, do so. But birds do not always pose for photos, and the lighting is often bad. So don’t underestimate the value of a crude sketch and some field notes. Even the most basic drawing, surrounded by brief written descriptions, can provide enough support for a solid rare bird report. 

A detailed article on taking field notes, based on my article in Birding, is available on my Patreon.


Judy Burton Nature Preserve

On a recent visit to my home town in northern Indiana, I was struck by how much land is taken up by corn and soybeans. Mile after mile along the highways, it seems that these two crops are all you see, broken up by the occasional small woodlot or wind break. But there are a few little areas of replanted prairie and woodland edge. One such site is the Judy Burton Nature Preserve. Despite the high heat and humidity, my mid-morning visit provided a nice assortment of birds that I don’t get to see on the left coast.

Gray Catbirds were common and noisy, but didn’t want to sit out in the open long for photos.

Field Sparrow. Note the plain face and the pink bill. Their loud bouncing song identifies them even if you don’t get a good look.

Common Yellowthroats and House Wrens are both found in Oregon, too, but it is always a pleasure to see them.