Tips for Taking Field Notes

While digital cameras have helped to improve our ability to capture a site visually, photos cannot provide a record of experience.  You cannot determine the smell of a sub-alpine forest from a photo.  The feel of the wind or the temperature of a certain day cannot be conveyed with a photograph of the area.  Detailed field notes can capture observations and experiences at a site that cannot be preserved any other way.  A photograph can show what a soil profile looked like, but a detailed drawing shows what a soil profile looked like to you.  Properly written notes can give full access to feelings and observations, even years and decades after they have been forgotten.  Just as important, or even more important, is the fact the other people, who have maybe never been to the site where you took your notes, and have maybe never even heard of it, can experience the same things that you did, by reading your detailed, well written notes.

Detailed, properly written field notes can be the difference between  being able to write that report in a year or two, and not.  They can be the difference between proving that the bug you saw really was a silver-headed watzitcalled beetle, or not.  However, taking those detailed, properly written field notes is an art, and in this age of clipart, word-processors, and digital cameras, it seems to be something of a dieing art.  This article will present some tips that, hopefully, will help you to keep better notes.

What to Write

  • Even before leaving for the field, make of list of things that you need to look for to fulfill your purpose for going out into the field.  For a soil study, this list might include topography, parent materials, time, biota, weather, and anthropogenic impacts (the six soil forming factors).  Observations on all six of these should be necessary in a soil study, so they would all go on your pre-list.  If you are keeping a birding journal, and your purpose in going out in the field is to see birds, your list would include things that you should notice about the behavior, location, and setting of the birds you see, that you might forget to make observations about if you don’t have a list.
  • Note the time, weather conditions, location, elevation, and the people in your field party at the top of your notes.  All of these things can affect the quality and quantity of your notes.  When it is cold or wet, I take fewer notes.  When my wife and son are with me, I take fewer notes.  When I am on a steep slope, I take fewer notes.  Written comments about these things can be important later, when looking back at your notes, to help you understand the reasons for the observations that you made and the things that you wrote (or didn’t write).
  • Record your location(s) in your notes.  Exact locations are very important because they allow your observations to be replicated, and they give meaning to your observations (i.e. seeing a penguin in Africa, which is special, as opposed to Antarctica, which perhaps is not).  Use a GPS, mark your location on a map, or give directions and distances from permanent landmarks (i.e. 153 meters directly West of BM5326, etc.)
  • Write down what you see when you see it.  Don’t rely on your memory, or your digital camera (or your friend’s digital camera).
  • Include observations that are obvious to you, but might not be obvious to someone else.

When to Write

  • Observations and drawings of a specimen should be made before consulting field guides.  A thorough, accurate written description can be used to identify the specimen, and as proof of identification.
  • One idea when observing wildlife is to spend all of the time the animal is visible in observing, and then writing observations down after the animal is gone.  While there are many advantages to this method, there is also a great chance that something will be overlooked, or forgotten in the space between seeing and writing.  Sometimes scribbling while watching gives a better chance of recording all observations.
  • Spend some time when you get back from the field going over your notes.  You will be surprised at the number of things that you remember, but that you didn’t write down, and at the number of things that you thought that you wrote much clearer.  Spend some time filling in things that you missed, fixing any errors you made, and editing for understandability.

How to Write

  • When you want to record a high resolution of detail, a hierarchal outline is often much better than prose.  Sentences smoosh ideas together, often with little thought for relationship, and make them hard to find.  A hierarchal outline will keep your ideas together relationally, and will make them easier to find and understand later.  Also, outline points are often much easier and quicker to write out than long sentences.
  • Leave extra room in your notes between points.  When you come back to your notes when you are back from the field (see the point above under “When to Write”), it can be very helpful to have space to add all of the things that you remember, but that never got written down.

Drawings and Figures

  • Use drawings and diagrams as much as you can.
  • Draw at least one overhead map, and make a profile sketch of your site, even if you have topographic maps and air photos.  Maps and air photos generally show only a very course resolution.  Hand-drawn maps can often be drawn at a larger scale, with a much finer resolution.  Use mapping tools such as a pocket transect and measuring tape, if you have them.
  • Can’t draw?  Don’t worry, neither can anyone else.  The key is to draw what you see, and not what you would like to see.  Practice is very important.  Don’t just practice drawing, though.  You must practice drawing what you see.
  • A good way to start practicing drawing what you see is to copy pictures out of a field guide.  Trace if you have to.  It may feel like cheating, but if it helps you to get a feel for the relative shapes and sizes you are looking for, it certainly seems worth it.  Pay attention to detail.  Copying out of field guides not only gives you practice in drawing what you see, but it gets you familiar with drawing the things that you will be looking to see, such as particular species, or landforms, or minerals.  As you get better at drawing what you see, check out the book []Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain by Dr. Betty Edwards.
  • Drawing and diagrams should be kept as simple, and easy to read as they can be, while still maintaining accuracy.

 Where to Find More Information

While many of these links are to birding sites (I am not a birder), and tutorials on keeping birding journals, the information in them applies pretty well to most situations in the field.


Image Credits: Creative Commons Photo uploaded to Flickr on April 26, 2008 by Dvortygirl –