Making, Maintaining, and Using Serious Field Notes

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Sheldon Greaves, Ph.D.

If you want to study natural science on a casual basis, just look outside. Something is always going on that bears watching. But if you want to do serious natural science you have to keep good field notes. Before Lewis and Clark started their epic explorations of the American west, President Thomas Jefferson gave them explicit instructions about keeping field notes and journals, even requesting that they make copies of their notes during idle time to guard against the loss of data. Keeping a nature notebook was not just the province of scientists and explorers. For example, employees of the Hudson's Bay Company who worked in the field were required to keep journals of things they encountered in the wild.

This article is an update of a previous version I wrote in the Spring of 2004. A lot has changed since then. Small, mobile, data-gathering and sharing devices are everywhere, some with apps for recording and sharing nature observations. I am involved in a new venture called Volksdata, which is a new web-based system combining social networking tools and special tools to collect, analyze, search, and share just about any kind of nature observation imaginable. Does all this mean that it’s time to put away the hand-written notebooks and permanent ink? Absolutely not. In fact, these kinds of observations may prove to be as important as ever.

If you are serious about observing nature, I mean really serious, you should master a system of keeping and maintaining field notes used most often by professional naturalists. This method was developed in the early 20th Century by Joseph Grinnell, one of the period's most important naturalists. Grinnell's own journal began on 1 January 1894, and ended on 25 May 1939, five days before his death.

The Grinnell system is designed to facilitate scientific investigation and the publication of observations, something that amateur naturalists can do to make significant contributions to science. Moreover, Grinnell's system is designed to help you distill important facts from disparate data. It makes it easier to draw important insights from your notebooks whose data would otherwise lie inert. If you are working with others, the Grinnell system makes it much easier for your notes to convey information to other people even if they are not familiar with the system.

However, a caveat is in order. The system described below has a discernable learning curve and requires discipline to do properly. It takes time. It is labor intensive (for good reasons, as we will see). It is a system that will take some getting used to, but can yield rich rewards if you are willing to stick with it.

Still with me? Good. Now that we've gotten rid of the lightweights, let's get down to business.

The idea behind the Grinnell system is to turn you from a passive recorder of information into a participant in a dialogue with nature. Rather than just recording bits of data, you poke, explore and cross-examine nature in order to sluice nuggets of knowledge from what you see.

The Grinnell system has four main components:

1. The Field Notebook
2. The Field Journal
3. The Species Account
4. The Catalog

Each one has their purpose in the system and each one can be customized to meet your particular needs.

The Field Notebook
Go to school supply section of any supermarket, drug store, or office supply store, and get a simple spiral notebook (Figure 1). I prefer the 4" x 6" format. Other people prefer index cards, either 3" x 5" or 4" x 6". While you're there, get a good pen. My pen of choice is the Uni-ball "vision" pens. Their ink that is both fade proof and waterproof. My spouse Denise spotted the nylon cover shown in the illustration as part of some mail-in offer for a cheap tool kit that cost about $3.00. She got it mainly for the cover, which accommodates the spiral notebook perfectly. I've added an Eddie Bauer zipper pull that includes a thermometer and a small compass that I use to take rough readings of direction and temperature. I also include a miniature 3-foot tape measure in one of the pockets of the cover. The tape measure was purchased at a local dollar store.

Figure 1. Field notebook in nylon cover. Click image to enlarge.

The Field Notebook is where you collect the "raw" data. It rides in your pocket along with a pen. As you spend time in the field, make short but clear notes of what you see and the general conditions. Describe in terse but understandable terms where you went, when you went there, and what you saw. This notebook is not the finished product. It is simply a reminder for you to use when you put your observations down in the Field Journal at the end of the day. You can get the Field Notebook dirty or scribble unrelated items on it with no harm done.

Figure 2. Blank Field Journal page. Note special margins drawn in to aid placement of data. Click image to enlarge.

The Field Journal
My Field Journal consists of a 6" x 9.5" format loose-leaf notebook, available in most stationary stores. Although you can get bound hardcover journals or lab books, for these kinds of notes, most naturalists prefer a loose-leaf binder. You can use a larger or smaller format if you wish, but whatever you use, be consistent.

The Field Journal is the core of your notes. When you have finished your observations for the day, sit down with your Field Notebook and any other items (maps, etc.) pertaining to your observations. The Journal is where you expand your cursory notes and memory jogs into a (presumably) coherent account of the day's observations. A blank page for the Journal is shown in Figure 2. You will notice that this page has a distinctive format that includes the observer's name and the year. The date and location have also been noted on the page in Figure 3 in the usual Grinnell format. The Grinnell system does not use page numbers, but tracks pages chronologically. The format helps to ensure that if pages get separated the important "where" and "when" will not be lost.

Note how the location and date are placed on the page for subsequent observations.

Figure 3. A filled-in page. Note the use of horizontal lines to mark a change in location and/or date. Click image to enlarge.

Some other practices you should adopt in the Field Notebook and the Field Journal are:

  • Write on one side of the page only. This reduces the negative effects of bleed-through. If absolutely necessary, you have space to make additional "afterthought" notes on a left-facing page.
  • Dates should be written "historian style", that is day month year. Use leading zeros. In this format the Declaration of Independence was signed on 04 July 1776.
  • Use the 24-hour military time format that avoids the need for "PM" or "AM". Thus 7:25 AM is 0725, and 3:30 PM becomes 1530. It looks strange if you aren't used to it, but will quickly become familiar.
  • Try to use metric measurements whenever you can, although this might be cumbersome when referring to mileage driven, etc.
  • Names of species should be given as scientific (or "standard") names whenever possible. Underline all species names given as scientific names.
  • Avoid abbreviations, especially those unique to your writing style. Those who read your notes later won't know what you're talking about, and you may forget the meaning of your own abbreviations. Trust me, it happens.
  • Cultivate brevity. We are taught that expanded prose connotes erudition. There is neither time nor place for verbosity in your notes. Force yourself to pack as much information and clarity as you can into the fewest words. Omit needless words. Strive for economy and precision.

What should you write about?

Elliot Coues, one of the most important American ornithologists of the Nineteenth Century, offered the following advice in his Field Ornithology (1874):

"Now you know these things, but very likely no one else does; and you know them at the time, but you will not recollect a tithe of them in a few weeks of months, to say nothing of years. Don't trust your memory, it will trip you up; what is clear now will grow obscure; what is found will be lost. Write down everything while it is fresh in your mind; write it out in full -- time so spent now will be time saved in the end, when you offer your researches to the discriminating public. Don't be satisfied with a dry-as-dust item; clothe a skeleton fact, and breathe life into it with thoughts that glow; let the paper smell of the woods. There's a pulse in a new fact; catch the rhythm before it dies. Keep off the quicksands of mere memorandum -- that means something "to be remembered", which is just what you cannot do.... Be sparing of sentiment, a delicate thing, easily degraded to drivel; crude enthusiasm always hacks instead of hewing. Beware of literary infelicities; "the written word remains", it may be, after you have passed away; put down nothing for your friend's blush, or your enemy's sneer; write as if a stranger were looking over your shoulder." [cited in Steve Herman, The Naturalist's Field Journal. A Manual of Instruction Based on a System Established by Joseph Grinnell. Bueto Books, 1986. Second printing 1989, p. 29.]

Don't try to evaluate the significance of what you are looking at while you make your notes. Since most discoveries drawn from the Field Notebook only surface after the fact, consider that the moment when you make your notes is probably that point at which you are least likely to know their value. Keep in mind is that where notes are concerned, usually more factual detail is better.

Pictures? Sure. I like to include sketches and drawings in my notes. Even a simple diagram can add tremendously to the usefulness of my notes. A clipping from a topographic map--properly referenced--or cut from a street or highway map can convey information lacking in a simple set of GPS coordinates (although that is certainly useful as well) [Figures 4 and 5 below]. Drawings and field sketches are also a good idea, sometimes to be preferred over photos. Why? Figure 5 shows a page of watercolor sketches I made of some mushrooms from our yard (mushrooms are good for drawing practice--they hold still). The purple specimen was unknown to me at the time, but by rendering it on the page I was able to commit every detail to my otherwise faltering middle-aged memory. Later, when I got hold of a mushroom guide, I immediately knew that I had found an "Iodine Cort."

Figure 4. Mushrooms found growing in the gravel of our driveway. Graphite pencil on paper. Click image to enlarge.

Figure 5. Iodine Cort and other unidentified
mushroom. Pencil and watercolor sketch, annotated in ink. Click image to enlar

The proliferation of digital cameras makes it possible to print out and include photos in your Field Journal. If you include photos, include all the relevant data; where, when, which direction, camera specs, etc. If possible, print the photos on a color laser printer instead of something like an ink-jet that will become a chromatography experiment or modern art piece if the paper gets wet.

Now you are probably thinking, "wouldn't this be easier for me to type in on my iPhone or laptop?" Probably, but the object isn't to do this more quickly. The act of writing things down, and the requisite thought that goes into each sentence makes you think and digest what you have seen. I have seen software that aims to replace the loose-leaf Field Journal with a laptop or mobile device. I also welcome recent developments that can put field notes into massive databases and shared via the Internet. But my own experience is that unless you take the time to write things down and think about what you are writing, the benefit to your work is reduced. Remember, you are not just a passive recorder of data. The point is to absorb what you see, and in order to do that effectively, you have to write it down. By hand.

Don't get me wrong; when technology works, no one loves it more than I. But for the purpose of learning and thinking, it's hard to beat paper and pen. This system isn't just about gathering data, it's about mentally sifting it and making discoveries.

Another concern I have about digitized field notes is that they simply are not as robust as conventional written records. The recent takedown of Megaupload has some people questioning the wisdom of trusting digital records to the Cloud. But a greater problem is the way data formats change over time. The data might be safe and sound on that 5¼” floppy disk, but you’re going to have trouble finding a way to read it. Then there is the matter of storage media. CDs and DVDs can vary widely on how long they last depending on the materials used. Estimates range from 20 to 60 years, perhaps longer, but obviously no direct testing is possible.  And there is still the problem of changing data formats.

The bottom line is that if you want your records to really last, you want acid-free archival paper with a high rag content and notes written in quality, waterproof and fade proof ink. If stored at a regular temperature and low humidity, it can last at least 200 years.

Other Technical Aids
When contemplating doing serious field notes, the idea of dictating into a voice recorder invariably comes up. In theory it's not a bad idea, but in practice the recordings never seem to get transcribed or indexed. In theory, voice recognition software such as Dragon can solve the transcription issue. My own experience is that it’s still not reliable enough to use for field notes.

Figure 6. Species Account by Steven Herman, The Naturalist's Field Journal. A Manual of Instruction Based on a System Established by Joseph Grinnell. Bueto Books, 1986. Second printing 1989, p. 103. Click image to enlarge.

The Species Account
Years ago, I chided an acquaintance of mine who had a large bookcase in his living room filled with back issues of National Geographic. What good were all those magazines, I asked, since there are so many you could never find anything in them. Without a word, he bent down and from the lowest shelf pulled one of several previously unnoticed hardcover volumes and held it up with a smile. It was a ten-year index to National Geographic, which of course turned his mass of old magazines into a useful research tool.

A body of data improves when you index it. This can either be an external index such as you find in the back of a book or the catalogue of a library, or you can arrange the information itself in such a way that facilitates searching, as when a library arranges books on its shelves according to subject.

In the case of the Field Journal, this function is performed by the Species Account. It is essentially an index to your notes according to species observed. Suppose you are out observing and you spot a bird you have not seen before. You create a new page in your binder like the one in Figure 5. You note the time and location where you saw the bird. Each time this species appears in your Field Journal, make a short notation of it on the appropriate page of your Species Account. Use a horizontal line to mark each entry (See Figure 6), note the date, location, and a sentence of two of descriptive text to summarize what you saw. If you see a lot of species in a single session, this can take some time but it is worth the effort.

Years ago I was making regular observations of wildlife in the wetlands bordering the southern shores of San Francisco Bay and decided to make a species account for some of the species I was observing. One of these, the American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) is a stilt-legged waterfowl that feeds in the silt in shallow water along small streams and larger ponds. Upon reviewing my species account for this bird one evening, I realized that several observations of Avocet chicks disclosed a pattern of where the nests were located. I found that for the first few weeks of their lives, I had observed Avocet chicks only in small, sheltered ponds that would be relatively free of wavelets or currents that would otherwise endanger the chicks. Had I not used a Species Account, I would never have made this connection.

The biggest problem most naturalists have with the species account is that one can become overwhelmed. If you go out on a field trip and see fifty different species in one day, you are going to be up late updating your species account. One solution in such cases is to try and focus on species that are of the greatest interest, although this can cause problems if suddenly a previously unindexed species becomes significant. Do your best to keep a comprehensive species account, but if you just can't manage it, try to use your best judgment on the species you track.

Figure 7. Catalog, which I began keeping in 2002. Note how the last entry of the year is closed out. Click image to enlarge.

The Catalog
In the halcyon days of the Victorian naturalists, collecting was an integral part of the naturalist's craft. Today we do not have the luxury of building private collections of bird eggs, stuffed animals, study skins, and other items that require collecting animals. One can still collect plants or insects, but even here there are rare and protected species that ought not to end up in one's killing jar or plant press. Rock or soil collecting is still an option. Otherwise, it just isn't worth any benefits they confer on the collector and his or her work.

However, you will occasionally find things, or they will find you. Naturalists are natural accumulators of objects, samples of this and that. In order to maximize the benefit of what you bring home, you need to use a catalog.

The catalog tracks things you collect. When you find something and bring it home, assign it a number. Start with the number "1" and continue numbering samples successively until you die. Mark your sample with its catalog number and/or use a tag to record essential data. You should also create some small cards or tags on which to record collection data in the field. At a minimum, a tag should include your name, the collection number, the date, and the location. Leave space for identification later.

The business of preserving and storing specimens is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that you must make certain the identifying number is somehow physically attached or otherwise associated with your specimens. Specimens without identifying labels are useless.

Fill in the catalog in the manner shown in Figure 7 (above, right). At the end of each calendar year, close out the catalog with a notation, and start with a fresh page for the new year.

Using the Grinnell System
To recap, the Field Notebook goes with you into the field, where you make short notes to help jog your memory later. After your observing is done for the day, you expand and distill your observations in the Field Journal, making entries for species you spotted in the Species Account. Anything you picked up to bring home gets an identification number, a tag, and an entry in your Catalog.

The Grinnell system seems formidable, and it does have a learning curve before you can really reap the benefits of using it. But the biggest obstacle for most people involves procrastination. Try to form the habit of writing something every day, even if it isn't necessarily in your Field Journal. Take a page from the play book of a certain athletic shoe and just do it.

One nice feature of the Grinnell system is that it lends itself to customization depending on your interests and needs. For instance, there is no reason why one cannot use this system for the field study of paleontology, weather phenomena, mineralogy, astronomical observations, animal behavior patterns, or any other subject that demands time spent in the field accumulating large amounts of data. For example, I have, on occasion, supplemented the specimen Catalog with a photo catalog to keep track of pictures I take in the field. The Species Account can serve to index fossils, landforms, storms, etc.

No matter what your scientific interest, probably your most important tool is going to be your notebook or journal. Thankfully, it is one piece of scientific equipment that doesn't cost a lot of money. On the pages of your notebook you will shape your scientific education and career, so it makes sense to build and maintain your notebook with the same care you would lavish on any other vital piece of scientific gear. A well-kept notebook is nothing short of magic. Regularly using the Grinnell system or a variant of it for nature observing will quickly make you a competent and knowledgeable naturalist in less time than you'd imagine.

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7 Responses to Making, Maintaining, and Using Serious Field Notes

  1. Christopher Singleton says:

    Sheldon . . . well done indeed. The system is a little different from the lab book that I keep in my employment, but I will consider using this system for my outside scientific interests.

    C. Singleton

    • Sheldon says:


      Thank you. The use of loose-leaf binders among naturalists is an interesting difference from the bound notebooks used in the lab. I suspect they prefer bound notes because it’s more important for purposes of patents and the like. Not many field observations are likely to result in a patent.

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  4. Thank you sheldon for this timeless advice. I have some questions regarding what specifically about what goes in the fied notebook and journal. For example if i like to make some drawings, do they go in the notebook or journal? what about species seen that day, gps coordinates etc.

    Again, thanks for the best advice on note taking for fieldwork found in the internet.


    • Sheldon says:


      Thank you for the kind words! Good questions. For my part, when I make a drawing I try to use a sketch pad of a size that will let me remove the sheet and include it in the journal; the field notebook is too much in harms way out in the field. GPS coordinate should also go into the Journal. One naturalist I knew would clip out pieces of road maps, mark them, and past them into his journal (obviously, this was pre-GPS).

      Generally, I try to put everything into the Journal that can fit or be made to fit. For everything else–specimens, etc., there’s the Catalog.

      Drop us a line and tell us some more about your work; we’d love to feature it on the blog!

  5. Megan says:

    Wow, this was quite incredible! I am very interested in perusing a career in ecology and understand how important it is to log all of my observations. Thank you so much for your detailed description, I am going to do my best to get into a habit of logging specimens i find in the woods near my home! I am now going to ask my AP biology if she still has the journal she made while studying birds for her college thesis and see if she used the Grinnell system.
    Once again thank you! 😀

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