Sometimes, birders become lazy observers. If you’ve ever dismissed an American Robin, then you’ve been there. It’s human nature: Once we think we know what we’re looking at, we mentally fill in the gaps and move on to the next thing. By pushing yourself to record observations in a journal, you will learn to see more and, at the same time, improve your study of birds in the field.
A nature journal is a durable, bound notebook where you can document, describe, and explore all your wildlife sightings and nature discoveries. In its simplest form, it is using words, pictures, and numbers to record your observations, questions, and thinking.
Journaling is a skill that anyone can learn. It refines your ability to notice details and remember what you see. The practice also helps you develop curiosity and creative thinking. You do not have to be an artist or a naturalist to keep a nature journal, but if you make it a part of your regular birding practice, you will become both.
Get a notebook and a pencil or pen. That is it. You are now ready to go. As your journaling develops, you many want to add a set of colored pencils and a measuring tape. Keep the supplies handy and bring them with you in the field.
Start with What's in Front of You
You can journal about anything that catches your interest. The more you practice, the more you will find your curiosity piqued. You do not need to visit a national park or to find a lifer bird. You can find wonder in the sprouting onion in your pantry, a wilting houseplant, or the postures of the blackbirds at your feet. Journaling helps you find new aspects of things you have seen a thousand times before. Ultimately, it is not where you look, but how you look.
Put Pen to Paper
Make a small journal entry at the beginning of your day. Writing the date and location is a great way to start. Once you break in the page, it is easier to keep adding to it as the day progresses.
Use words, pictures, and numbers to record your observations. Each of these modes of data collection will stretch your brain in different ways; they are fundamentally different and complementary.
Writing is a functional and specific shorthand for collecting information and crystallizing ideas. Your writing may be in labels, lists, bullet points, or sentences and paragraphs. But writing alone will only take you so far. Using pictures opens up different worlds. You may use sketches, maps, diagrams, detail insets, cross-sections, cartoons, or symbols, arrows, and icons. Numbers also are an essential piece of nature journaling. Count, time, and measure the world before you. Where you cannot count, learn to estimate. The numbers will reveal patterns that you otherwise might not notice. Each of these techniques helps you not only describe but truly see what is before you.
Don’t worry about perfection or making pretty pictures. These are field notes. The more you work at it the more you will develop skills in writing, drawing, and using numbers.
Practice Attention, Wonder, and Connection
Close observation is the starting place of all journaling. Document as much as you can about an observation. When you think you have it all, try saying what else you see out loud. You will be surprised at how much more is there. Then get that down on paper, too.
Look for relationships and connections between what you see and everything else you know. Creativity is making useful connections between seemingly unrelated things. Remember the three nature-journaling prompts: “I notice. . . ," "I wonder . . . ," "It reminds me of . . ." Stop and ask yourself: How is this like other things I have experienced, felt, or studied? Then ask: How is it similar or different and why?
As you work, notice where your curiosity is pulled. If you find the frayed edge of a question, write it down in your journal and begin to tease it out. Lean into the questions and the unknown. Should you get caught in the web of a good mystery, you might lose yourself in it and not come home until darkness falls.
For more information see the books: The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling and How to Teach Nature Journaling.
You can find hundreds of hours of nature-drawing resources at johnmuirlaws.com, including a free download of How to Teach Nature Journaling.
There are Nature Journal Clubs around the country and around the world. Find (or start) a club near you.