How to write convincing details

When Lewis & Clark were sent off to explore the interior of the United States, they were given specific and detailed instructions by Thomas Jefferson as to the records they were expected to keep. Neither of these men was an expert in natural history, yet much of the information they compiled was new to science.  Most of us are not called upon to explore a continent, but occasionally we might come across a detail about the world around us that others may find of interest and when combined with the observations of other might well prove to be important. The quality of the details written affects how seriously the record is taken. Practicing with field notes every day prepares the amatuer naturalist for the unexpected event.

There are 3 basic reasons to keep field notes:
1. To help you remember the birds (and other events of natural history) you encounter in the field and where you saw them.
2. To document unsual or rare species (often with the intent of submitting them for review and inclusion in a common data base).
3. To document behaviors or study differences among individuals.

The degree to which you take field note keeping is a matter of personal choice. Many people restrict their record keeping to lists of birds seen. Others keep lists and a journal. The most rigorous method for record keeping is the one prescribed by Grinnell which includes journal entries, species accounts and specimen catalogs.

The goal of this page is to identify the minimum requirements for documenting rare and unusual species. We will focus on what a review committee would look for in submitted details. The references at the end of this document will provide sources for other styles and methods of record keeping.

Any set of details should combine a written (narrative) description and drawings. Nothing advances the cause of a species description like a sketch. Most people will make the claim that they have no artistic capacity, but this is generally beside the point. Even a very rough sketch of a bird's shape that places basic colors and patterns in approximately the right places goes a long way toward helping a reviewer evaluate the details of your observation. Photographs are invaluable where possible, but in no way should supplant written details and drawings. You can never be certain about how a photograph will turn out and when you do know, it's usually too late.

Compiling details - the recommended minimum in detail writing (with links to official forms)

How to make sketches - a couple of quick lessons in producing field sketches


Durrell, Gerald. A Practical Guide for the Amatuer Naturalist. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

Forshaw, Joseph, Steve Howell, Terence Lindsey & Rich Stallcup. 1994. Birding. The Nature Company, Berkeley CA.

Gooders, John & Scott Weidensaul (ed.). 1990. The Practical Ornithologist. Fireside Books, New York.

Herman, Steven G. 1986. The Naturalist's Field Journal: A manual of instruction based on a system established by Joseph Grinnell. Buteo Books. Vermillion SD.

Copyrighted Material 1997 by Mike Patterson. All rights reserved. No part of this material (text or images) may be reproduced in any form or by any means without expressed written permission from the author.