Nature Journaling for Birders – Nov 2019

Wednesday 20th November 2019

Eleven of us gathered in Farrier Hall at Palmiet Nature Reserve. The group was inspiring and engaged. We had wide age representation: bird enthusiast 10-year-old Emily and super spotter 7-year-old Miko joined by their parents Ingrid and Neil; a retired couple; as well as a father and adult daughter inspired by a previous generation in their family (grandfather/father-in-law). Nature journaling for birders certainly brings families together! 

Despite the gloomy weather, we enjoyed a lovely morning learning the basics of nature journaling for birders. 

The What 

While the term ‘nature journaling’ was new to all, the practice was familiar to the experienced birders. Nature journaling is a personal, private form of field notes. It is most often defined as the hand recording of observations, thoughts and feelings while experiencing nature. However, a fundamental shift was needed to this definition and to the commonest approaches to birding and nature journaling. One of the participants, Ingrid, is blind. Her participation enriched the workshop experience greatly, extending our limited focus on the visual and written to include hearing and spoken recording.

The Why, Where and When

Nature journaling is fun, relaxing and refreshing. Plus, it improves mental and physical health. By reviving the practice of keeping field notes, nature journaling helps develop essential birding skills:

  • Observation, recording, and communication 
  • Naturalist’s way of thinking
  • Improves memory
  • Cultivates curiosity
  • Learning about nature from nature

Observation skills are greatly improved with verbalisation, and hand or voice recording. These activities process sensory information by forcing the observer to translate looking into seeing, listening into hearing, thinking into understanding. 

Recording “downloads” observations and feelings which frees mental space to think about observations, to ask questions, and more. 

Neil gave the example of how this works for him in problem-solving. He keeps a notebook close to hand. 

It can be done anywhere, at any time. 

Nature journaling can be a family hobby that brings together members with interests in different aspects of nature, be it birds, butterflies, plants, fungi or nature generally. Those niggly pulls in the family about what to do together can be put aside. Those who are more inclined to draw or paint, than to watch and identify birds, can be enjoying the same place at the same time. It can also be done alone, or without leaving home. 

Nature journaling ticks all the boxes of BLPN’s mission: enjoyment, understanding, study, conservation and code of conduct. 

The How

There is no single correct or ideal method. The best approach is what works for you. The process presented at the workshop was based on John Muir Laws’ teachings ( ), which prioritises naturalist thinking and nature stewardship through accurate, thoughtful observation, intentional curiosity, and detailed written hand recording in words, sketches and numbers. 

The purpose of this approach is to deepen our personal connection to nature through compassionate attention, noticing wonder, cultivating curiosity, improving memory, and sharpening naturalist and scientific ways of thinking. 

The process is incredibly simple. However, it is also profound and effective when applied with focus and curiosity. We discussed sketching. For some people this was the draw card to nature journaling, for others it began, but did not end, as a non-starter. Research shows that:

  •  Sketching is a skill that you can learn, with patience, deliberate practice and learning mindset.
  • Sketches are visual notes not “pretty pictures”
  • Drawing is better for recall than writing lists or repeated writing.
  • The quality of drawing did not change this result.
  • Younger people had better recall, but “drawing reduced age-related differences.”

We put our learning into practise, by each creating a nature journal entry as part of an observation activity. 

Everyone left with a plan to include nature journaling in their birding and other nature activities. Cati will be producing a resource booklet for those who attended, as there was more material available to take this practice forward than could be presented.

It was also hoped that BLPN will find a suitable way to incorporate nature journaling into its activity programme. “One of the biggest differences between the expert birder and the novice is that the expert has spent years training to see details. The beginner must literally learn how to see them.  The challenge of seeing and interpreting details in birds is complex, and all of the issues are intertwined. A patient and deliberate approach and an absence of distractions are prerequisites. 

Active study asking questions while observing, is important. Anything that promotes detailed study—such as sketching or taking notes—is also very helpful.[1] Sibley, David Allen. Sibley’s Birding Basics. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

The following pages contain a selection of the nature journal entries presented as examples.

Cati Vawda

One Comment Add yours

  1. This is such a valuable post for me…. I really enjoyed the way you described each person’s approach and how much you gained from one another. I’ve been following Paula Peters’ wonderful blog and I’ve also become a big fan of Jack Laws and watch many of his terrific videos ☺️. Thanks so much for sharing!

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