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…

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