Tuesday 28 July 2009

Beyond the Notebook

A notebook (non-digital, and my apologies to potential google searchers gone astray) surely must be the pride of a birder.
I always kept one and I would use it to chronicle my days out and the birds seen, to make sketches and descriptions of my rarities that I was to report to regional or national records committees and also to casually show it to fellow birders e.g. to have them check out one of my field sketches that just so happened to be on the page right next to a super rarity I knew this birder had never seen in his life.

I don't keep one anymore.


Because I once lost it. Here's the story:

When I had returned from Namibia back in the late 1990ies and a friend asked me to come birding with him, I didn't find my German bird notebook as it was still somewhere in the cardboard boxes amongst my other stuff I had stored away while being out of the country for 6 months. Of course I did not dare leaving the house without a notebook, and so I took the African Thesis Data notebook along.

Then - after viewing a beautiful Red-breasted Goose at the coast - it started to rain and I got nervous as I hadn't copied my thesis data yet to ... well .. anywhere and I feared I might lose all my data by getting my notebook wet. So I stuffed it under my belt and kept it dry under the rain coat as we slowly walked back to the car.

We got into my friend's car and drove home where I noticed something was different, something was missing: there was nothing pressing against my belly anymore.

I had lost my notebook somewhere.

First, I searched the car.
It wasn't there.
However, the rain still was there, harder than before.
Then my friend drove back to the coastal marsh with me - in the rain - and we began to search the path we had taken before back to the car - while it kept on raining.

Finally there was my notebook.
It was on the road out in the open, but it was not in the rain.
How can that be?

Well, it was completely submerged in a huge puddle of rainwater!

The shock.
The horror.
The hours and hours spent with a pair of tweezers, soft paper tissue and a hair-dryer.

In the end, I saved most of my data and reckon I might have lost 5 % of it, so I was lucky.
But I also was a wiser man.

From that day onwards I did not keep a notebook anymore but decided to shift to a device that would still allow me to record my observations and chronicle everything but that was less vulnerable.
It is thus with great pride and pleasure that I present the safety-device for recording your field observations right where you make them: out in the field, with no risk of destroying a wealth of data when things go awry by losing your entire notebook.

This is it, the ultimate replacement of the notebook:

A sheet of paper, sized A4 or something comparable, squared in a 5 mm grid (or alternatively a 3467/7836 Inch grit - yes, I do believe that this is silly and the metric system is superior, how come you ask?).

Notice wrinkles around the eye of a young man who hasn't slept in 19 months, Corey and Patrick - this look is where you're headed, enjoy the ride!

An important feature - aside from the paper being squared - is that it is hole-punched.

To prepare our field note device, we'll first have to place it flat on a table and then fold it ...

... once ...

... twice ...

... three times.

Yes, it does look awkward but folding a sheet of paper three times is much easier with both hands when not simultaneously holding a DSLR in one hand.

This is how your field note device should look like when you're done, fitting nicely and comfortably into your hand.

Now all we have to do is attach a ball pen and we're ready to go get some birds - and write them down. Thanks for asking but my ring finger is perfectly normal, this is just a very strange perspective along its central axis.

As our field note device was folded three times, it is rather thick and stable (like writing on a pad 8 sheets thick) and easily allows us to write clearly while holding it in our palm. Notice that at first we record the date and weather (and also notice that I made it all up as can be seen by the unrealistic description of the weather, but the species recorded are a realistic estimate of an average day around the Great Lakes - and even though I write left-handed, it also works the other way around which I think proves how neat the concept is)

When the first "page" is full, we simply turn the field note device around and continue. Now, isn't that sweet?

Because the grid is so small and our "page" not much bigger either, it enables or rather ... well ... forces us to write real small and thus space efficient, which is good especially in productive birding areas where we can expect to see lots. Again, notice the nice assemblage of species to be expected around the Great Lakes.

Now comes the ingenuity of the device: when both "pages" are full, we don't need a new field notes device - no, all we have to do is fold it the other way and we have two brand new "pages" for even more field notes. Honestly, birding doesn't get much better than this!

Of course our field note device will experience some heavy duty in good birding terrain, being constantly written upon with greasy, sweaty fingers and stuffed in and out of a tight pocket, so our notes are at a constant risk of being abraded and destroyed- you'd think.

This is indeed not the case! By folding it the other way around as we have done in the previous step, the notes we have taken thus far will be protected "inside" our field notes device in perfect security and sheltered from the rough tides that characterize an average birding day.

So the day wears on and the birds get better and our notes get longer and suddenly even those new two blank pages aren't blank anymore but full, as can be seen above. What then?

All we have to do is fold it open twice, turn it around and re-fold it the other way ...

... once ...

... twice, and we're back to square 1, with four empty and blank "pages" for even more field notes and all our notes taken so far sheltered and concealed inside.

Being stable and handy, the field notes device also allows us to occasionally sketch birds we've seen but cannot identify out in the field, e.g. this strange warbler I ran into on one of my rambles through the Arb.

When counting incredibly large numbers of birds, I have found it quite practical to write the species down at the far left edge of the field note device and then note the number of birds in each group I encounter or - with birds that mostly occur as singles or in very small groups stretched out over a prolongued observation time - mark them with ... geez, how do you call that in English ... "bars" I add up in blocks of 5. Well, you'll know what I mean by looking at my example, in this case the Golden Eagle.

Eventually and on a good day out, even those new "pages" will be full and our sheet of paper, when unfolded, will look like this (notice that in this staged example, I eventually got a bit lazy in the upper left corner). What's next? Yepp, you guessed it, all we have to do is ...

... turn it around and fold it ...

... once (notice yet again the ingenuity of protecting your data inside) ...

... twice ...

... three times ...

And don't forget the ball pen!

This concept - in my humble and not quite un-biased opinion - surely deserves two thumbs up, but this is where I had clearly reached my limit without a tripod for my camera and one thumb up will have to do in this post. Feel free to admire.

And before I forget: of course you can also archive all your field notes devices conveniently by filing them away in a stable folder. This is why they have to be hole-punched.

All things considered.

This was post number 200 on Bell Tower Birding. Considering that I have been around since November 2006, I wouldn't really call it a milestone. Maybe a yard- or inchstone of some sort or maybe even something I should have shut my mouth about in shame but you know: it is what it is and it is number 200, so there you go.

Happy birding trails.
On quiet nights, I can hear the rustling of wings from the far North. Fall migration is coming!


Patrick B. said...

Is there a Nobel prize for engineering? Surely this is a contender.

Great... wrinkles to go along with my baldness. I'm going to become my dad.

Nate said...

I believe the word you're looking for is "tally". I also have an ingenious way to tally that was taught to me on my first CBC years ago by an experienced bird counter that blocks them off in groups of 10, surely saving even more space.

The first four birds are represented as dots in the shape of a square, the next four as lines connecting the four dots completing the square, and the final two X out the box from corner to corner.

Plus any remainder not in groups of ten is easily noted by the incomplete box.

I also use banding codes to list my species. Northern Cardinal is noted as NOCA, for instance.

I currently have several 3x5 spiral bound pads to list my birds, but when they get filled up, they get tossed in a basket and forgotten. I may have to integrate your technique to make these lists last a bit longer. Between your folding and my shorthand, I'll have the most compact bird list in history!

Jason said...

I've found a stack of 5-10 4x6 index cards with a binder clip works well. Clip holds my pencil while I wander and the cards are thick enough in the stack to be easy to write on. Back home, they go onto the computer and then tossed into a box. I suppose I'd scan them if I ever actually drew anything.

I like Nate's tally method, but have a feeling it wouldn't work well with my tiny writing and general messiness (is that a dot and if so is it mine or just dirt?). I've settled on the standard |||| then a horizontal line, but I'll go with = if I'm jumping to 10 immediately and often just add an X to mean "too many to be worth counting exactly".

Larry said...

Seems like good advice.I lost the handle to my tripod this weekend. How do I avoid doing that again?I can't seem to stay on a steady routine with notes. One day I'm like Charles Darwin with my notes and the next day I'm more like Soupy Sales or something.

Dan Huber said...

Love the idea, thanks for sharing. I'm just starting out, but have found the notebook tricky to handle, and used a bag to put it in and take out . this idea makes it much simpler


Jochen said...

@Patrick: thanks, you really think I should send the link to Sweden? And don't worry about the wrinkles: you'll have such dark eye rings that the wrinkles will be impossibly to see under normal circumstances.

@Nate: the box-counting method sounds very good! Thanks, I'm likely to follow it on my next bird counts!! I am not sure we have banding codes in Germany and I usually have my own codes for the most common birds. This is something I'll have to investigate.

@Jason: thanks! I also started with a pile of cards but have found that I am too reckless in the field and the pile held together with a binder clip often fell apart. This is why I switched to the single-page mode. I share your thoughts on Nate's counting methods but will try!

@Larry: oh yes, losing part of a tripod is almost something like "common birding practise" for me - I am sorry, I have no advise on that topic but need it urgently myself! In order to take field notes thoroughly, I have found it quite helpful to add "meaning" to my birding days by e.g. participating in certain bird counts. When I got to the Baltic coast near Greifswald in 1996 there was not much people locally knew about bird occurences and migration patterns, yet we (a team of 4 young students) soon found this to be one of the most productive birding spots in Germany. So we "made up" our own citizen science project of doing regular bird counts, meaning one of us (or all of us) would be out three days a week at the least and do regular and systematic counts, which of course we had to write down. Nowadays I don't take part in systematic counts that much anymore (what with being a busy father and stuff) so I only write down what I saw when it is significant for me or others. Works as well. In the end, this is our hobby and if we can add pleasure by keeping field notes - great. If not - that's great too.

@Dan: cheers, I am happy to see you like the concept and will try it out! Happy birding trails!!

corey said...

It looks like I have a lot to look forward to...wrinkles and spending hours taking pictures of myself folding paper! :)

By the way, I love the "typical" sightings...and that was a bachmann's warbler that you were drawing, wasn't it?

Jochen said...

Corey, you are my undisputed HERO, the only one who apparently noticed that I was not only bragging about the ways in which I fold paper but that I also tried - in vain as usual - to include some humour as well.

Now if your blog pal Mike would notice the "assorted moths on a huge chicken", Carrie would find the "blue-winged teal next to an onlooking Great Auk", Nate would stumble upon the "Summer Tanager-Cardinal", Charlie read the "Dickspiza" and someone else the "Nelson's Saltmarsh Sparrow", I'd be a very happy chappy.

But hey, you already made my day, mate.

And wrinkles plus taking pictures of yourself folding paper is just the tip of the iceberg - you'll see, har har har.

Christopher said...

F'ing brilliant!

This might even get me to start taking notes - something that I have been utterly incapable of making myself do on anything but vacations -and even then, it's a slog that evening in the hotel room trying to remember what was seen where.
I know, I know - I'm a bad birder. But I'll give this a shot and see if it helps!

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Being stable and handy, the field notes device also allows us to occasionally sketch birds we've seen but cannot identify out in the field, e.g. this strange warbler I ran into on one of my rambles through the Arb.

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