The Value of a Good Field Notebook

One of the most powerful tools of a prairie manager is a field notebook.  There’s no substitute for recording observations and ideas as they happen.  Memories can fade, but notes don’t (as long as you don’t drop them in a stream).

There are multiple roles for a field notebook.  First, just writing a paragraph or two a year about each management unit, combined with a couple of photos, can form the backbone of a very nice basic monitoring system.  Additional data are nice too, of course, but it’s really helpful  just to note the general appearance of a site and the apparent impacts of management treatments and weather.  I try to visit every site I manage late in the season to make these observations, and then use those thoughts and ideas to help guide my management planning for the next year.

Sometimes photos can be important companions to field notes as a way to better describe the appearance of a site. This photo of a second-year prairie planting does a much better job than I could have done with text to capture the abundance of annual sunflowers. The photo is especially interesting to look at now, when the planting has matured (it's now 7 years old and has a well-established and diverse prairie plant community.)

Second, it’s important to record any interesting sightings of species or species behavior.  Sometimes those observations are important by themselves because they can indicate changing conditions in your prairie.  For example, seeing your first Henslow’s sparrow might indicate that a management strategy to provide more thatchy habitat is paying off.  Other times, the observations might be mildly interesting at the time, but become even more valuable later, when you look back and realize that they were part of a larger pattern of change.  After multiple seasons, for instance, you might notice that a particular species was present or especially abundant in years with a management treatment or weather pattern.

Third, tracking the impacts of specific management actions is critically important, especially when you’re trying something new.  When I conduct formal experiments, I collect data on separate datasheets and store them as part of a larger file on that research project.  However, most of my experimentation is much less structured, and my field notebooks are full of observations and thoughts about the impacts of various little trials. Looking back at those observations has helped me hone our techniques over time.  For example, I’ve tried multiple variations on our standard prairie seeding rates in little corners of most of our restoration sites.  Recording the results of those, and then looking over those cumulative records has helped me adjust our strategies over time.

Finally, if you’re like me, many of your best management and restoration ideas come while walking around the prairie.  Capturing those on the spot can ensure you don’t lose them, and can also help record whatever observation or circumstance led you to come up with the idea in the first place.  Of course, writing down those ideas is only helpful if you look at your notes later…

I used to just keep my old field notebooks in a drawer, tossing them in as I filled them up.  Several years ago, I decided to type them into a word processing program to save them in a more useable way – and so I wouldn’t lose them.  It took a day or two to transcribe all the notes, but mainly because I kept stopping to reflect on observations I hadn’t thought about for years.  Now, whenever I fill up a notebook (about every year or two) I try to type it up before I throw it in the drawer.  I find that doing so helps me revisit what I’ve seen and learned over the last year, and etches those observations and ideas more firmly into my mind before I put the notebook away.  Having my notes all in one digital document also makes it much easier to find notes from previous years when I want to.  I can do searches for key words to see what I’d seen or thought about a particular species, technique, or site in earlier years.  I also keep photos of each site I manage organized in digital folders by site and year, so I can scan through those occasionally to remind myself of what things looked like, and what has changed.

If you’re interested, here are a few examples of some of my field notes (in italics) over the years, and a brief discussion of why/how they might be valuable, either now or in the future.

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5/20/2002.  Derr Sandhills Prairie.  Orobanche in unburned sandhills living off of green sage.

Orobanche fasciculata, aka broomrape or cancer root, is a neat little parasitic plant that mooches off the roots of sage plants.  I’d seen it near the Platte River much further west in Nebraska, but had never seen it on our properties on the Central Platte.  More importantly, I haven’t seen it since.  Reading this note recently reminded me that I’d seen it, and that I should go look to see if it’s still there.  I also want to see if I can find it on any of the green sage plants growing in the restored (reconstructed) sandhill prairie we seeded directly adjacent to the site.  If I’ve only found the species once in the twelve years we’ve owned that prairie, it can’t be very abundant – or it only appears occasionally – and that makes me want to know more about it. 

Cancer root (Orobanche fasciculata)

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September, 2005.  Dahms 1997 East restoration.  Spiranthes blooming.

9/1/06.  Dahms 1995 restoration.  Spiranthes.

9/12/07.  Dahms 1999 restoration.  Spiranthes blooming in burned area!

These, and several other observations of ladies tresses orchids (Spiranthes cernua) finally convinced me that we really were getting those orchids to establish from seed.  I’d been told that we wouldn’t be able to get them to grow in old croplands for various reasons, but we harvested seed and threw it out anyway.  After the first couple of observations, it become clear that their establishment was more than just a fluke – it was really working.  I wrote a post on this subject last year.

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4/26/2007.  Two days after a 6 inch rain, some wetland swales are full of water, others are dry.  Why?

This note went on to list half a dozen sites and what I’d seen there.  When we convert cropland to lowland prairie, we often try to recontour the site and create the kind of swale/ridge topography that is present on nearby remnant prairies (floodplain prairies).  The swales (or sloughs) created by old river channels often interface with groundwater, creating sedge meadows or other wetland habitats.  However, just because there is swale/ridge topography in a remnant prairie doesn’t mean the swales contain wetland communities.  Some sites are high enough above groundwater that the swales are just dry gravelly areas.  At other sites, the swales intersect more closely with groundwater and are wet enough that they are dominated by wetland grasses, sedges and rushes.

When we excavate swales in our prairie seedings, we dig down until we get to groundwater and then shape the swales with varying depths – hoping that some portions will be wet most of the time and others only when groundwater is high.  For the most part, things turn out as we expect, but a few swales have never had the wetness we’d hoped for.  We’ve tried to figure out whether it makes a difference whether or not we put topsoil at the bottom of those excavated swales or just leave them sandy.  On April 26, 2007, I had an opportunity to note the swales – natural and constructed – that held water after a big rain.  While I still don’t completely understand what’s going on with those wetlands, it does appear that substrate doesn’t make any difference.  I’ve gone back to those notes several times since then as I continue to think about our wetland work, and I’ll be using them again this summer as we begin a new restoration project.

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Occasionally, I scan back through my notes to see if I can identify patterns or oddities.  Often, a year or two of observations won’t turn out to be very meaningful by themselves, but when combined with many other years can stimulate very interesting questions.  Here is an example of a question that came out of various observations over the years.

Sand lovegrass (Eragrostic trichodes) is not grazed very intensively in restored prairies under patch-burn grazing.  It’s not one of the first grass species to be grazed, and when it is grazed, is rarely cropped very close to the ground.  It doesn’t seem like it would be stressed by that kind of grazing.  So why is it such a rare species in most remnant prairies along the Platte River? 

I’ve only seen sand lovegrass in a handful of prairies along the Central Platte.  Those prairies tend to be sites too small for grazing or roadsides.  I’ve heard from others that sand lovegrass is easily grazed out of prairies, and assumed that was true based on where I have found it.  It establishes very readily in our seeded prairies and seems to persist, so the species seems well adapted to our area.  However, when we graze our sites (using patch-burn grazing) cattle don’t really seem to target sand lovegrass as much as other grasses, and don’t typically graze it very hard – even in intensively grazed burned patches. 

A photo from the burned portion of a restored sand prairie under patch-burn grazing. The light green bunchgrasses in the photo are sand lovegrass - they've been grazed (most are 4-6" high), but are certainly not cropped down to the ground. The white prairie clover plant blooming in the photo has not been grazed at all. This is in contrast to big bluestem plants (not pictured) elsewhere in the burned patch that were grazed to an inch or two in height.

Is there something about patch-burn grazing that changes the way cattle interact with sand lovegrass?  In our system, an individual grass plant is likely to be grazed only once every 3-4 years, which should help it persist, but even when it IS grazed, it just doesn’t look like the cattle are hitting it very hard, which makes me wonder why they do (IF they do) in other sites.  Maybe it disappears from other pastures because it is grazed annually and, while not cropped really short, is prevented from ever making seed?  I’ve seen it in a couple of hayed prairies, so it can apparently take regular defoliation, but maybe it can get enough regrowth after haying to flower and produce seed – at least in some years.  Does sand lovegrass fade from grazed prairies for reasons other than chronic grazing, such as from competition from other species better adapted to regular intensive grazing?  I don’t know the answers yet, but they’re really interesting questions.

This photo of my field notes shows you another good reason for me to type them up and save them as digital files. If I didn't, no one but me would be able to READ THEM! These are notes I took in July 2011 while looking over one of our re-seeded prairies that was being managed with patch-burn grazing.

The notes shown in the photo above were taken last summer as I was walking in a 2002 prairie seeding that was being managed with patch-burn grazing.  There is a lot of information contained in these two pages.  The left page describes what I saw in the burned patch, which was being grazed less intensively than I had anticipated.  The  grasses at the site were not being grazed very uniformly and many plants were still pretty tall.  In addition, cattle were grazing the tops of Illinois bundleflower plants but not prairie clover.  Annual sunflowers were abundant in the grazed area, but not in a several-acre-sized exclosure that had also been burned – I clearly thought that was interesting…  It was a striking response to grazing that I still don’t understand completely because the sunflowers would have germinated before cattle came in to the site, and none of the site (exclosure or otherwise) was grazed the previous year.  It was thought provoking – and thus worth noting.

The right page is a description of the unburned portion of the same site.  Cattle had access to it, but were grazing it very little.  Regardless, they had clipped the flowers from a number of sweetclover plants (a species that has always been fairly abundant in this restored prairie since the year it was seeded).  The cattle had grazed many of the Canada milkvetch plants earlier in the season but had since allowed them to bloom.  Also, the lack of annual sunflowers in the unburned (but grazed) area added to the puzzle I’d noted on the previous page.

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I feel very strongly that field notes are an extremely important part of effective land management.  They certainly help me record, remember, and use observations and ideas I glean from my sites – and they have improved my knowledge and abilities as a land manager.  I hope they will also be useful as a vehicle to pass on what I’ve seen and learned to those that inherit the prairies from me some day.  It doesn’t take much time to make a few notes now and then, and a notebook takes up very little space in my pack or pocket (right next to my camera).   If you’re not already in the habitat of taking some periodic notes, I’d really encourage you to get started.  I think you’ll find it worthwhile and, if you’re willing to share, so will those who follow in your footsteps.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
This entry was posted in General, Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Value of a Good Field Notebook

  1. “Memories can fade, but notes don’t (as long as you don’t drop them in a stream)”— here’s a product you might find useful… :)
    http://www.riteintherain.com/

  2. James C. Trager says:

    Really good essay on the value of field notes! When I was younger, I seemed to have complete recall of field experiences, and never took a note. I still don’t have very good habits in this regard, but oughta, because my memory seems to be shot now.
    Appropriately reminded (shamed, really), I will make a point have notebook in pocket when I see you later this summer!

  3. George W. Shurr says:

    Chris~ Thanks for this post. Field notes are critical for observations and ideas about earth science as well as life science, as your comments about the wetlands demonstrate. The important thing is to get out there to look at stuff and think about it. The field notebook is really a critical piece of appropriate technology equipment. George Shurr

  4. Kent Fricke says:

    Chris, a book I’m sure you’d enjoy:

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