Nature Journaling for Birders

Thursday 20th March 2020

On Thursday 20th March 2020, seven of us gathered at Durban Botanic Gardens. It is a gem of a public urban green space, with reliable birding from comfortable benches especially by the lake. Also, there is excellent coffee at the kiosk!

Thanks to the generosity of the Durban Botanic Gardens Curator’s Office, we started our morning in the Curator’s Boardroom. It is a modest venue, with all the amenities and a protected view of a small corner of the gardens. Many thanks to Jody Fuchs for making this space available and to Thami Mbhele who made sure that we had everything we needed. Here we were able to prepare ourselves before moving to the lake. 

Our goals were to relax, have fun and enjoy the birds using our nature journals. People’s interests in birding ranged from relaxing hobby to environmental education to conservation. All of us were self-described beginning birders. While field guides are invaluable for identifying birds, they do not come with operating instructions. Fortunately, there are books on how to bird, to be read with or before using field guides. “Basic Bird ID in Southern Africa” by Peter Ginn and Geoff McIlleron, and “Sibley’s Birding Basics” by Davie Allen Sibley are two examples to consider.

The advice of many birding experts is to use a note book and take field notes. 

“The aim of taking notes is not only to represent what you see in the field but ultimately also to

  • develop more effective observation skills and 
  • force you to look at birds in more detail and
  • remember details better. 

Keeping a notebook is undoubtedly the fastest (and arguably also the most satisfying) way to improve your birding skills.[i]

While field notes are invaluable, there is a notable lack of instruction on how to take field notes. Nature journaling fills that gap. 

We looked at examples of conventional lists: electronic and hand recorded, location-based from global to very local, and those with space to tick, to those with space for date and location. We enjoyed the weighted scoring method of The Bird Nerd Game in Faansie Peacock’s Field Guide for Children. His system assigns different numbers of points per species, based on ease of finding, ease of identification, endemics, and super-special and rare birds. For the 722 species in the book, there are 2,000 possible points! Here are examples of traditional lists.

Obviously, listing is a form of recording. However, it is usually used in a very limited way. We then looked at how nature journaling can enrich listing through text, images and numbers by including details, context and questions. We studied these examples of bird-focussed nature journal pages.

Nature journaling as a way of recording also improves the ID process by separating observations from possible or likely IDs. It introduces naturalist thinking such as distinguishing between observations, possible explanations, conclusions and encouraging the questioning of conclusions.

The prompts for beginning observation used were: “I notice… I wonder…. It reminds me of …”

One of the beneficial effects of nature journaling is that the process of recording slows down the pace of birding.

In line with the advice from Kenneth Newman’s foreword to “What’s that Bird?” –

“Most of us want to become proficient quickly in any new sphere we enter, but when it comes to identifying birds, speed can soon bring on a bout of ornithological indigestion. Birding, at all times, should be pleasurable, relaxing. If it becomes a chore, give it a rest. … It can be an absorbing interest. But don’t rush it.”

Nature journaling for birders can therefore also be aptly called ‘Slow Birding’.

We ended our indoor session by noting that BirdLife South Africa’s “Birder’s Code of Ethics” and “Code of Conduct for Nature Journalers” commit us to put birds first.

“We do not endanger the welfare of bird or other wildlife.” As one person said “We are here for the birds.” A practical example was drawn from Nature Valley Trust-BLSA’s poster on not disturbing shore birds. Bird eggs start to die if they get too hot. This can happen in 5 minutes. The poster below shows how long it takes for different species to re-settle on their nests. It also shows bird’s behaviours when they are stressed. We can all learn to recognise and respond to these behaviours.

We then walked to the lake where we had about an hour to put these ideas into practice. Here are two samples of our nature journal entries.


[i] p 24 Chamberlain’s LBJ’s: The definitive guide to Southern Africa’s Little Brown Jobs

Report by Cati Vawda

5 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m so excited that I found this post. Thank you thank thank for writing about exactly the topic I’ve been searching for. An avid birder and bird photographer for about a decade now, I’ve been eager to do more nature journaling since discovering this wonderful pastime about 6 months ago. I really love your approach and found this description of your group’s outing just delightful. Thank you!

    1. Dear Carol we are pleased you enjoyed this. What about joining the club. We are scheduling a NJ activity once a month and as a BLPN member you can attend free. Look forward to you joining us. regards Nicolette (Chair)

      1. Wish I could!
        I’d absolutely love to but I live in southeast Florida in the U.S. ☀️😎

        1. I realised just after I sent the reply. You are welcome to follow and the trip reports on the Nature Journaling will be posted once we are out of our National lockdown and normal activities resume.

      2. If you ever hear of similar groups in Florida, please pass it along ☺️. I’ve been looking for something similar near me for some time now.

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