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How to make and use a nature journal to record your wildlife observations

Keeping a nature journal is a great way to record any nature you see, from plants in the park to a spider in your living room.

Here we provide simple craft instructions so you can make your own journal, but you could also use an empty notebook or collect the information digitally.

If you keep up the habit, you will quickly build up a record of your local wildlife and surroundings.

Your findings could even help scientists monitor wildlife changes.

Crafting your own nature journal

You will need:

  • recycled card
  • paper
  • hole punch
  • stick
  • rubber band
  • scissors

Assembling your journal:

  1. Fold the card in half and cut it to the same size as your paper.
  2. Place a stack of paper inside the card.
  3. Punch two holes through the card and paper.
  4. Cut or break your stick so that it is longer than the distance between the two holes.
  5. Thread one end of the rubber band through a hole and loop it over the stick.
  6. Repeat with the other end of the stick.
  7. Decorate your journal and write your name on it.

Now you are ready to record your plant, animal and other nature observations.

Observing nature

Record what interests you, in your own style. If you would like to contribute your findings to biological record databases to help scientists monitor wildlife changes, include:

  • What was observed
  • Where
  • When
  • Who made the observation

These are what will turn your observations into a useful scientific record.

A page from a nature journal, showing drawings of beetles and text

Your journal will reflect your interests, such as these detailed pages on beetles from a Museum trainee

Ways to use your nature journal

There are many ways to record your nature observations. Your journal will be unique to you, reflecting your personal style and interests.

Perhaps you like to include images - whether simple sketches, more detailed colourful drawings or photos that you've taken and printed out. You might prefer to write long, detailed descriptions or include a more diary-like account with records of feelings and emotions.

You can even stick in small collected items that you find or add pressed flowers. Use whatever tools work best for you.

Wildlife observation ideas

What kinds of observations should you make? Again, this depends on your interests, where you are and the time you have available.

You could note down:

  • The birds you see and hear in your garden
  • Wildlife you spot from a window in your home
  • A list of species you find on a favourite walk
  • Animal behaviour, such as insects mating, fighting and pollinating plants
  • Changes in trees or plants - when they bud, flower and fruit

You could actively search for and examine animals in your garden by making a pitfall trap to catch insects and other minibeasts or making a light trap to spot night-flying insects.

Please remember to adhere to current UK Government advice on staying at home and away from others.

Insects and their behaviours can be fascinating to study. This ruddy darter dragonfly (Sympetrum sanguineum) was spotted in the Museum's Wildlife Garden.

The importance of amateur biological recording

Even as an amateur, your observations can be valuable to science, says Steph West from the Museum's Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity.

'The UK's National Biodiversity Network Atlas holds nearly 226 million records, covering over 45.5 thousand species, with most of those records coming from amateur natural historians.

'That wealth of data, supplied primarily by people volunteering their time and effort through watching wildlife, means that we understand our biodiversity far better than we ever could through the efforts of researchers and scientists alone.

'It is vitally important, particularly at a point where we know that our environment is changing rapidly that we continue to collate these records.'

Steph emphasises, 'Any record that includes who [made the record], what [was recorded], when and where is of value, no matter how common the species is. In fact, our common species are very often some of our most under-recorded species, simply because people don’t bother to record them.'

Sharing your observations of nature

If you'd like to share your biological records, there are many databases and schemes that you can contribute to.

Recording databases and apps

  • iRecord is a tool for managing and sharing your UK wildlife records. It is the most regularly used biological recording tool in the UK. Observations are verified then fed to the appropriate National Biodiversity Network. Data can be uploaded via the website or a mobile app.
  • iNaturalist can be used around the world. Your uploaded images are checked by an AI photo recognition tool to assist with identification, then verification is crowd-sourced from other users. Scientists use the database for their research. Data can be uploaded via the website or a mobile app.

UK Recording Schemes

The Biological Records Centre hosts a number of UK biological recording projects, from amphibians and reptiles to fungi. Find a scheme that appeals to you and start collating your records.

You can also contribute data to numerous citizen science projects, from garden birds to slugs. See the box at the bottom of this article for UK projects.

Getting identification help

If you are struggling to identify things that you've seen, there are various ways to get help:

  • The Museum's Identification and Advisory Service can give advice about wildlife, fossils and other natural history specimens.
  • The Museum has a range of ID guides and keys that you can use.
  • The iNaturalist app (Google Play or App Store) or AI photo recognition tool can be very helpful to get an idea of what you are looking at. Just take a photo, make sure your location is correct and tick whether the specimen is wild or cultivated. Accuracy can vary, so use with some caution.
  • Organisations such as the RSPB and Woodland Trust have guides for their species of interest.

The sketchbooks of Olivia Tonge (1858-1949) are full of delightful drawings and notes from her trips to India and Pakistan.

Keep being curious

How can you maintain your nature journal habit? 'First and foremost, be curious,' says Steph.

'All of the most notable natural historians, including Pliny the Elder, Gilbert White, Charles Darwin, Dorothea Bate and David Attenborough have one key thing in common - they were and are endlessly curious about the world around them.

'As you can so often see from David Attenborough's films, that curiosity doesn't have to be about the new, rare or exotic, but can come from the most mundane, common species, if you only take the time to watch, listen and observe.'

If you'd like to grow your interest, there are many groups and societies around the UK, such as the Wildlife Trusts, which run walks, talks and courses where you can meet other people who share your interest and learn from them.

There’s plenty you can do online too. Facebook has many pages run by species-interest groups where you can get advice and help with identification, or follow interesting hashtags like #wildflowerhour on Twitter.

UK citizen science projects

Many organisations run citizen science projects. Their online resources often make them a great way to start recording. Some have already developed long-term data sets that help us to understand how our wildlife is changing, including:

  • The Garden Butterfly Survey run by Butterfly Conservation is a great excuse to sit in your garden at least once a month on a sunny day and spot the butterflies that fly past, while contributing to critical research.
  • The UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme run by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is a mini-experiment testing which pollinators are active in different parts of the country and which flowers they are visiting.
  • For those who prefer tracking slower, slimier creatures the Cellar Slug Hunt run by RHS is attempting to assess whether the yellow cellar slug is displacing the green cellar slug.
  • Working out any disease threats to garden wildlife is exceptionally important in our modern, mobile society. If you spot any ill or dead wildlife, you can report it to the Garden Wildlife Health project so they can track the spread of pathogens.
  • If you want to study phenology (how wildlife seasonal events - such as trees blossoming - change from year to year), the Woodland Trust runs Nature's Calendar. You can choose to monitor just one event each year or you can monitor all sorts of plant and animal seasonal events.
  • The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch is a great introduction to garden birds. It creates a snapshot of our garden visitors as well as tracks changes from year to year.
  • The next step up from the Big Garden Birdwatch is the British Trust for Ornithology's Garden Birdwatch. This survey is carried out once a week, every week, so it builds a year-round picture of bird activity
  • For those of you who like to get out at night, the National Bat Monitoring Programme has developed a suite of projects you can get involved in to help study some of our least understood mammals.

Stuck indoors? You can use your computer to take part in a wide range of digital projects. Project Plumage uses images of the Museum's bird collections to help scientists better understand the extraordinary diversity of colour seen in feathers. 

Or check out the Zooniverse site for over 50 active projects, from watching penguins to hunting for asteroids.

We hope you enjoyed this article…

... or that it helped you learn something new. Now we're wondering if you can help us.  

Every year, more people are reading our articles to learn about the challenges facing the natural world. Our future depends on nature, but we are not doing enough to protect our life support system.  

British wildlife is under threat. The animals and plants that make our island unique are facing a fight to survive. Hedgehog habitats are disappearing, porpoises are choking on plastic and ancient woodlands are being paved over. 

But if we don't look after nature, nature can't look after us. We must act on scientific evidence, we must act together, and we must act now.

Despite the mounting pressures, hope is not lost. Museum scientists are working hard to understand and fight against the threats facing British wildlife. 

For many, the Museum is a place that inspires learning, gives purpose and provides hope. People tell us they 'still get shivers walking through the front door', and thank us for inspiring the next generation of scientists.

To reverse the damage we've done and protect the future, we need the knowledge that comes from scientific discovery. Understanding and protecting life on our planet is the greatest scientific challenge of our age. And you can help.  

We are a charity and we rely on your support. No matter the size, every gift to the Museum is critical to our 300 scientists' work in understanding and protecting the natural world.  

From as little as £2, you can help us to find new ways to protect nature. Thank you.