Field Notes: A Modern Perspective

By Marisa Ishimatsu

Data capture is at the heart of all science. Whether it’s recovering photos from camera traps, collecting eDNA samples, or recording species observations, the collection of reliable data that can be easily interpreted and analyzed is essential in every discipline. For centuries the standard has been the trusty field notebook. From Darwin to Stebbins, notebooks have been an essential tool to record findings, observations, and musings during field work. These notebooks are often works of art with doodles in the margins, and or the occasional pressed leaf, flower or feather in the pages.

Manuscript page by Meriwether Lewis, 24 February 1806, with his sketch of a eulachon, or candle fish, Thaleicthys pacificus. (American Philosophical Society)

The notebook, at its heart, is a tool and a tool is only as useful as the person who wields it. Reading and interpreting the data contained therein can be an exercise in frustration. Illegible handwriting and incomplete, or inconsistent data collection can be the bane of any analysis. Additionally, the implications of incomplete data in the consulting industry can literally spell trouble. Was that a BUOW or BUOR call that was heard? It’s all letters and numbers until lawyers are debating if your survey results indicated that a burrowing owl was present on site or if it was a bullock’s oriole.

Marisa Ishimatsu, WRA’s Compliance Monitoring Team Lead, uses Wildnote while performing compliance monitoring on an active construction site in Oakland, California.

As technology has advanced, tools for data collection have become more sophisticated. There are many data collection products available now, each for a specific niche. In the consulting world, Wildnote has been purpose-built for our industry’s work products. Wildnote minimizes time spent reviewing forms while maximizing quality and quantity of data taken. Accessible by anyone with an Android or iOS device, Wildnote’s electronic forms are fully customizable and can include photos, videos, documents, and GPS point locations. Wildnote also has built-in species data dictionaries from a variety of sources, including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, American Birding Association, U.S. Department of Agriculture, California Invasive Plant Committee, and regional U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wetland Plant Lists. Data may be collected without Wi-Fi or cell signal, though internet connection is required to sync completed forms. Once uploaded, the forms are immediately accessible to office-based staff, and can be exported as a PDF, Word document, kml, Excel pivot table, or photo form.  

To date, WRA has used Wildnote on more than 30 projects throughout California. The forms generated in Wildnote have customized to projects requiring construction/compliance monitoring, marine mammal monitoring, herring spawn observations, wetland delineations, nesting bird surveys, and long-term mitigation monitoring.

Examples of labeling tools within Wildnote’s data collection system.

Though modern technology does tend to lack the romanticism of the field notebook, Wildnote provides a pragmatic and data-driven solution that any scientist can appreciate. Bringing data collection into the 21st century has enabled WRA to produce consistent, comprehensive, and accurate deliverables in a fraction of the time of transcribing hand-written forms, saving consultants time, and their clients money. WRA is proud to be a Wildnote Beta testing partner and will continue to work with Wildnote to find innovative adaptations that best serve consulting’s dynamic landscape.


You can read Wildnote’s case study about our experience using the app at a mitigation bank in southern California here.