Wild Side: Records help refresh and enrich memories

Notebooks or computer files, it doesn't matter. Just make sure to record data somehow, somewhere.
Photo by Matt Pelikan

Notebooks or computer files, it doesn't matter. Just make sure to record data somehow, somewhere.

If you’re reading this column, you probably enjoy watching wildlife. But I’m curious: do you keep any records of what you observe?

I’m hardly a compulsive record-keeper. Often, on an outing that has no particular purpose, I don’t make any written notes at all, and my memory is the only place where what I observe gets recorded. Happily, solid recollections often persist: individual birds, if I worked hard to find them or experienced them especially strongly, persist for decades as vivid recollections of sight, sound, and circumstance. And years of informal observations have added up to an intuitive sense of the rough timing of bird migration in our region, or when particular butterflies can be found.

But I’ve always augmented my memory with written records, especially when working on a specific project, and I’ve accumulated field notes and checklists going back about four decades. These range wildly in purpose, level of detail, and probably accuracy: records for checklist projects, studies of single species, intensive surveys of single locations, birding trip checklists, marked up maps, and Breeding Bird Survey data sheets, in forms ranging from spreadsheets and word processing documents to digital sound files to notes scrawled with a pencil stub on the back of a fast-food receipt. All my important trips and studies are there, along with notes from countless casual visits to local natural areas. When I look through this archive, countless enjoyable moments come alive.

I was introduced early on to the habit of keeping records. When I was about five years old, my father initiated a bird “yard list” as a family project. Each day, after dinner, we’d report sightings, to be checked off on a list written first on graph paper, then later on photocopied chart templates. Each morning, first thing, my father filled the bottom of the day’s column with the temperature and sky condition, plus the maximum and minimum temperatures from the past 24 hours. (The thermometer that supplied these data is still mounted on the porch of the family home.)

When my father died a couple of years ago, he left behind a four-inch stack of data sheets, within which lies documentation of changes such as the arrival mockingbirds in Massachusetts, the decline of broad-winged hawks as a breeding bird in the Boston suburbs, and a steady rise in annual temperatures. No single day’s record ever seemed especially important, but in hindsight, those check-lists add up to a portrait of decades of change and continuity.

The collection of records is certainly not a necessary part of enjoying the natural world, and for every outing I have documentation for, there are surely several for which I didn’t bother to write down anything at all. And record-keeping shows its worth only with the passage of time. But the process of keeping records has steadily enhanced my understanding of the natural world, making me a more careful observer in the present even as it lends precision to how I see the past.

Perhaps more importantly, keeping records alters how I think of myself as a naturalist. Take field notes, and suddenly you’re no longer just a passive observer: you’re a creator of information, with goals that transcend mere enjoyment to encompass understanding and protecting the natural world, and helping others do the same.

There is no single right way to keep records. The form in which data are recorded can (indeed, should be) shaped by the particular purpose. Some of my records are organized by species, others by location, still others by time. Moreover, the detail (and consequently the labor involved) in my records varies according to my level of interest: these days, I’m a casual birder and rarely keep bird records, but I’m still logging virtually every butterfly I encounter with a date and specific location.

In step with the rest of the civilized world, I’ve left behind the small three-ring binder that held my notes as a teenager, and for years I’ve entered or transcribe field notes into computer files. I’ve begun contributing to the massive databases that are now prevalent on the Internet, services like Cornell University’s eBird (www.ebird.org — check it out!). Such services work for personal record-keeping but also pool reports from thousands of contributors; they can produce sophisticated maps and charts almost instantly, for any user.

But the principles of record-keeping remain the same: bits of information gradually add up to a larger picture. Start small, if you’re interested in trying this approach, and simply begin taking notes on whatever wildlife you find interesting and accessible. For example, a daily checklist of birds in the yard, like I started with, will quickly reveal species that are regular in your area. You’ll likely find that enhanced attention to one question will soon have you curious about other threads in the fabric of nature.