Lost Art? Revisited: Alternatives to Taking Notes

Our recent piece, entitled Lost Art?: Writing Descriptions of Rare Birds, has generated a fair amount of interest among those who serve on records committees and review eBird reports. Several of these folks have recommended this article to others and posted links to it on personal blogs, statewide listservs, and other birding forums to which they subscribe. Given the scattered distribution of the article, audience feedback has not been centralized or limited to the comments posted directly to BirdFellow. 

As the author of the piece, I have a predictable interest in all the commentary and response that the original piece has generated, so I've been doing some surfing. As one might expect, some respondents are still not that excited about writing descriptions, even if they appreciate the value of doing so. The general theme of such feedback ranges from, "I don't want to have to carry a notepad into the field" to  "I don't have time write a long description of the bird" or "I just want to go birding, I don't want to exchange time spent in the field for time stuck inside documenting the rarities that I find." Believe me, if you fall into one of these camps, you are not alone. Even those of us who do carry notepads and attempt to take detailed notes would much prefer to just keep birding rather than stop to make notes. Worse yet, we don't want to spend time crafting accounts that describe what we saw last week instead of being out birding this week!


Using a standard ink pen (you might want to carry a pencil), I produced this sketch of the head of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (a "review" species in Oregon) that I saw on 12 february 2011. This bird is an immature male, still showing much of its juvenile plumage. A sapsucker that still looks like a juvenile this long after it hatched, is by default a Yellow-bellied. My primary focus in drawing a sketch was to show that the bird's head pattern was mottled and did not have the strong black-and-white pattern one would see on an adult. This sketch and a couple others will accompany the written description that I send to the Oregon Bird Records Committee. 

Here are a couple of ideas that might make life easier for you. If you can't obtain a usable photo or don't carry a camera, perhaps you can draw an image that tells the story more quickly than you can by writing it down. Okay, I know, your next excuse is that you have the artistic talents of a cucumber. I feel your pain on that one, especially since I live with one of the more talented bird artists in the country (Shawneen Finnegan Art). Thankfully, artistic talent is not a prerequisite when it comes to producing a useful sketch. If you struggle to get birds in proper proportion or shape, I recommend checking out a helpful primer, which demonstrates how to create rudimentary bird sketches. It is published online by Mike Patterson. If you click on the photos at the bottom of the page at Mike's link, you'll find three easy-to-follow animations that show you how it's done. 

Alright, so you still don't want to draw or take notes. Have you ever considered carrying  a modest digital voice recording device in the field? I know folks who do this and they swear by it. Presuming that most of us talk faster than we write, it's safe to assume that we can verbally describe a bird faster than we can in writing. Imagine having a recorded dictation of what you saw in the field. In addition to describing field marks, size, and shape, you could easily include commentary that explains how you eliminated similar, more-expected species. When you finally sit down to write your report to a records committee, a real time recording captured during the observation will surely jog your memory and help you recall important details. If you own a cell phone, chances are it has some capacity to make video/audio recordings. Even if it is only capable of recording short--20-30 second--snippets (like mine), a few short recordings can be compiled into a reference that will come in handy later when you write up your report. If you still don't want to write or type, you can convert these recordings to digital wav files and send them on to your local rare bird review body. 

As stated in the original piece on this topic, I am a firm believer that any process which requires you to stop and think about what you are observing will ultimately make you a better observer. I've yet to meet the birder who is not striving to improve their skills in this regard. You don't have to be looking at a rare bird to practice and hone these skills. Just for fun, take a few minutes and try to sketch an American Robin or write a thorough description of one without referencing a field guide or looking at the one eating berries in your front yard. Did you remember to include the blackish streaks on the white undertail coverts?


Very good article.


May I suggest a simpler way, perhaps up Shawneen’s alley: make a combination standardized group of bird sketches (head, side, back and breast views) and a checklist of distinctive parts to be filled-in by the observer. Elaborately, this could be individualized for broad groups of similar looking genera.

Obviously, this could be easily overdone and become a bit obsessive (is that bad?), but, I bet that there are perhaps a dozen or so marks of critical importance that could be accommodated for various level birders on two sides of a field-guide size sheet. Maybe a booklet of such sheets could be sold as templates for photocopying as loose sheets into a birder’s pocket guide.


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