A Field Journal System for Natural History Observations

Jeffrey A. Keay, Research Wildlife Biologist, National Biological Survey, Alaska Biological Research Center, Denali National Park, Alaska, April 1994, 24pp.


The tradition of a naturalist field journal dates back to the late 17th century. Linneaus kept a journal on his 1732 journey to Lapland. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark kept detailed journals during the Corps of Discovery to explore the Missouri River and the Pacific Northwest, 1804 to 1806. Charles Darwin kept a detailed journal of his voyage around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle which lasted from December 1831 until October 1836; it was published in 1839. Darwin’s field notes and the specimens collected were significant in the development of the theories of evolution and speciation. American naturalists throughout the 1800s, including many ornithologists and mammalogists, kept journals as part of their official duties. Joseph Grinnell, director of the Museum of Vertebrate Ecology, U.C. Berkeley, continued the journal tradition long after it had begun to die elsewhere.

Grinnell recognized the great value to the future of properly recorded scientific investigations and observations. They serve to document presence or absence of species in specific locations or habitats, they document animal movements relative to plant phenology or weather conditions and help to unfold the mysteries of animal behavior and ecology. Over the long term, trends may appear that otherwise would go unnoticed.

There is another, perhaps greater reason for keeping field journals. One might initially believe that the naturalist creates the field journal, but I firmly believe that it’s the field journal that creates the naturalist. It forces the development of self-discipline, increases observational skills and awareness, broadens one’s perspective, interests and understanding of the interrelationships of organisms and abiotic elements, and improves one’s memory as we are forced to think and write about the things we see.

By keeping a field journal, we make the time that we spend afield far more valuable than it otherwise would be. In a time of computers, remote sensing and radio telemetry as tools for the intensive study of “important” species, we tend to forget that we still don’t have accurate species lists for many areas, nor do we accurately know the local distribution of plants and animals. The surprising disappearance of many once common species could have been detected earlier had we been watching and recording more carefully. Similarly, the encroachment of invasive species onto the landscape is difficult to detect and could be greatly benefited by careful observers accurately recording their findings. Incidental observations, recorded in field journals, can provide much of the needed information, and properly done, can help establish the credibility of the observer and the reliability of the observation.

The purpose of this document is to provide a simple, convenient and systematic way to record field observations and make those records available and useful to the author and others.