How often have you been in the field and seen something a little unusual – some quirky behaviour, a nest in an odd place, or a bird eating something it really ought not to be eating – when a companion has given you a nudge and said, half in jest, ‘that’d make a good Note to BB’? Taking a look back through old volumes of British Birds, nearly half the contents of some issues are devoted to Notes. BB’s Notes section is, in many respects, a space for documenting observations. Notes lack the trappings of a full paper, not least due to the fact they don’t require a discussion or a conclusion; yet they still detail something that unequivocally happened, and they set the observation in the ornithological record.
Some Notes have detailed the bizarre – from Great Crested Grebes Podiceps cristatus catching and eating hirundines (Brit. Birds 111: 402–405) to a Tawny Owl Strix aluco landing on water (Brit. Birds 114: 40–41); and then there’s the now-infamous escalation of Notes on the diet of the Turnstone Arenaria interpres, starting with bread (Brit. Birds 54: 325–326) and culminating with the species feeding on a dead sheep (Brit. Birds 58: 438), a dead cat (Brit. Birds 59: 39) and… a human corpse (Brit. Birds 59: 307). Notes aren’t always so quirky, though, and many have proved to be the start of something bigger – behaviour that had hitherto gone unnoticed (or unrecorded) but was found to be more widespread or worthy of further study, or a comment on plumage that led to the cementing of a new identification feature. April 1970’s Notes section (Brit. Birds 63: 173–180) is a typically mixed batch, with observations on Common Starlings Sturnus vulgaris mobbing a Grey Heron Ardea cinerea, a large gathering of Common Snipes Gallinago gallinago, Black-headed Gulls Chroicocephalus ridibundus eating catkins and acorns, food-stashing by corvids, a Song Thrush Turdus philomelos eating bird faeces (disgusting feeding habits have clearly proved to be a popular topic over the years), a description of an ‘Orphean Warbler’ Curruca hortensis/crassirostris ringed in Cornwall, the calls of migrant Firecrests Regulus ignicapilla, and the song of the female Dunnock Prunella modularis. The breadth of topics covered in Notes published in BB is second to none.
The list of authors of past BB Notes is almost as varied as the topics they’ve covered – from eminent ornithologists to first-time writers. Indeed, my own first contribution to BB was in the form of a Note, and it is often the first published piece of writing for many amateur ornithologists. The Editorial team and the Notes Panel here at BB will always do what we can to help with getting something published if the author requires assistance.
Notes, however, are becoming a threatened species. Never mind filling half an issue; sometimes, we’re hard pushed to fill more than a page or two. There’s also a tendency for Notes to be a little longer than they were in the past, with a shift towards more discussion and firmer conclusions – but this needn’t be the case. The cut and thrust of scientific papers – with their structure, their referencing and need for justification of every sentence – need not apply to Notes. Where a behaviour is new, a simple ‘I saw this doing that’ or ‘I saw this eating that’ suffices.
It might seem that just about everything about everything has already been published; but, as recent Notes on the nesting habits of a Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus (Brit. Birds 115: 103–104) and the diet of an Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus (Brit. Birds 115: 293) show, there is still undocumented behaviour for even the commonest species. With so many people now carrying a camera, these behaviours can easily be documented, either for the first time or perhaps building on a trait that is poorly known or has not previously been documented with images.
Consider this a call to arms: firstly, to take a look through BB’s online archive at the impressive amount of information that first came to light via a Note; and, secondly, to take seriously the suggestion from your mate that ‘that’d make a good Note to BB’!