Tips for improving birding skills usually include the suggestion to carry a notebook and take notes or draw sketches in the field. Your first thought might be, “I can’t draw, and what could I write?” but this misses the point. It doesn’t matter what you write or what your drawings look like. The value of drawing and note-taking is in the process, not the product.
The reason is simple — these things force you to look at details, to become actively engaged in observation. And it doesn’t have to be writing or sketching; just being an active observer has rewards.
A recent study of perception and memory found that when students went to a museum and took snapshots of artwork, they remembered very little of it. In fact, they remembered less than students who did not take pictures. But students who photographed specific details of the artwork remembered more, even details they hadn’t photographed.
If simply taking a few seconds to choose what part of an object to photograph can have a measurable impact on memory, imagine what a minute or two of actively observing a bird can do.
“It doesn’t have to be writing or sketching; just being an active observer has rewards.”
For example: You’re walking along a path at your local patch, and a Song Sparrow appears in a spot where you’ve seen Song Sparrow dozens of times before. You could just continue walking without a second thought and might not remember at the end whether you actually saw a Song Sparrow that day. On the other hand, if you stop to watch, ask a question, and pick out some details, you will remember seeing the Song Sparrow and those details, as well as other details that you didn’t even focus on.
It can be fun and enlightening to come up with one question for the day and ask it for every bird you see. Taking the time to look for foot color, or tail movements, or head shape, or something else on every species you see will lead to lots of interesting discoveries.
Ultimately it doesn’t really matter how you engage. All you need to do is take a minute or two to watch and wonder.
This article was first published in the September/October 2017 issue of BirdWatching magazine.