Have you ever been in the out-of-doors and seen something that pricks your curiosity? Then, later, you wish you had taken better notice of it because you cannot remember some of the details? This is one of the purposes of the wildlife field notebook.
A typical wildlife notebook may consist of a small 8 inch binder filled with loose-leaf paper. Waterproof paper is better. Also, the pen or writing instrument should be permanent such as an indelible pen or permanent ink pen. Writing should to be legible, but may be either cursive or printed. Nowadays, computers have made the old traditional process of applying ink or lead to paper somewhat obsolete —for especially younger people. For those of us old timers who often cling to the traditional and familiar ways of recording wildlife field observations, some ideas are presented below. For those of you who are wed to your electronic device, adapt this to your own specific situation as you wish. Video cameras and recording devices may be substituted as per your situation. Remember, “Wildlife” includes plants as well as animals.
The purpose of the wildlife notebook is to record anything of interest while outside or, “in the field” as some would say. Some seemingly unrelated observations may become of value later on. I had a good friend many years ago, James Bee, a complete naturalist who thrived in taking nature walks in the environs of Kansas University in Lawrence and in eastern Kansas—he filled 80 + field journals with his observations and insights; no details in nature were too small to escape his sharp eye and pen. He was the consummate naturalist.
Especially before and during the last century, natural scientists focused on studying wildlife directly in the out-of-doors. Skin and skulls of animals were kept and carefully measured, along with sex recorded and localities documented. Museums were established with thousands of specimens maintained in permanent collections. Individual scientists who were studying single species would regularly visit different museums to evaluate collected specimens and compare them, often to determine naming or nomenclature (genus, species, subspecies, etc.). Botanists collected plants, dry pressed them and then preserved them in herbariums in an orderly and systematic manner for later reference.
In your nature walks, such items as color patterns in an unrecognized bird, dust bathing by a ground squirrel, antler abnormality in a whitetail buck, paw print of an unknown mammal, an abandoned nest, colored eggshell pieces, and/or the flowering color, shape and pattern of a bright newly blossomed plants—all are acceptable field book journal entries. Scientists and naturalists fixated on specific kinds of wildlife need to be aware of all aspects of the local environment. A single observation may lead to the unraveling of a previously erroneous understanding in scientific knowledge. It is not true that science already knows everything about all plants and animals. New knowledge of the natural world continues to come forth regularly, often from unlikely sources. Your observations might solve one of nature’s heretofore unknown riddles. When anything arouses your curiosity, write it down, sketch it, photograph it. You can research it out later on in the library. Time spent in nature is valuable and should be used 100% of the time observing and recording. Carry a camera and photograph interesting wildlife sign and/or make drawings along with writing or recording.
Hall and Kelson (1959)* described field notebooks that mammalogists (scientists who study mammals) use a number of years ago that still apply. They suggest notebooks be divided into three parts: 1) the Catalogue, 2) the Journal or Itinerary, and 3) Accounts of Species. For your purposes, the journal alone will probably be the one you will want to use.
The Catalogue is a summary of measurements of collected field specimens, sexes (for animals), along with collector name, exact location and date. The catalogue will probably apply to only a very few of you reading this piece.
The Accounts of Species consists of observations of anything about only a single species. The name of the species should be placed at the top of the page, with date and exact location at the beginning of each entry, and the author’s initials, surname, year on the next line—this is to be located above the lines on the upper far left margin. Write and underline the date and location which precedes written observations. Always write full notes, even of information you may consider trite. Again, one never knows when a snippet of information may become very useful later.
The Journal or Itinerary will probably be the most useful portion of your field notebook, so write “Journal” in top center. At the top left, place your first name initials then last name and underneath, the year. At the top of the page, write exact location (such as 0.2 mi south 8 mi. west of Courthouse, Paris, Bear Lake County, Idaho) and altitude. The date extends out into the right margin. Every entry should have this basic information–underlined; update every time you make an entry if either location or date change. Location information is very important, so be very careful to be as exact as possible. GPS coordinates are okay, but in the past, geological Sections, Townships and Ranges have been the preferred locality descriptions. If you are not sure of the exact location, estimate it to the best of your knowledge based on nearby road distances using primary directions of north, east, south, and west of the local courthouse or other permanent landmark. Many of the same kinds of things written in the Accounts of Species are written here, with no separate page for each animals or species observed; all observations of any number of different plants/animals are recorded all together in this section. Remember to note weather conditions at the time of writing.
Write such things as vegetation description (identify plants by keeping leaves/flowers), nature of ground, slope exposure, drainage, underground burrows—possibly noting burrow contents, burrow height, width, and length, overhead drawings of burrow meanderings, especially following floods, fires, overgrazing, tree cutting, road building, etc.
There is no limit to what you may write. Just begin now!
*1959. Hall, E. R. and K. R. Kelson. The Mammals of North America. The Ronald