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Field Note- Summer 2023

By Nina Balagula

As both an art and science, wildlife tracking skills are honed through experience and often benefit from a familiarity with each of the species that play a role in forming the ecological communities in a local region. As part of my Wildlife Identification and Sampling course at UMass Amherst this spring semester, I focused on strengthening my skills in wildlife identification through an intimate exploration of almost 100 northeastern wildlife species. From skull morphology to track pattern to song spectrogram, we focused on the physical characteristics of wildlife identification while also considering how the ecology and behavior of an organism may influence where and how we detect these animals in the environment. To truly understand each species, I knew that rote memorization of scientific names and fact would not align with my learning style. By putting pen to paper, I found that I was able to associate a wildlife species more effectively with its key identifying characteristics whether that meant noticing the almost human-like print of Procyon lotor (Raccoon) or the incredibly long rostrum (snout) of Alces alces (Moose).

Sketch by Nina Balagula. Photo citation: “Raccoon | State of Tennessee, Wildlife Resources Agency.”,

Drawing of a typical face mask as well as front and hind tracks of the Common Raccoon (Procyon lotor). Also included in this entry are some of the key ecological and behavioral traits that can aid in track identification.

When beginning an entry in my field notebook or sketchbook, my process begins with first writing down all the general information on the species such as relative body size, overall color, distinguishing features, or markings, as well as preferred habitat types, diet, mating structure, degree of territoriality, etc. After learning about the species, I look up references of skulls in online databases, such as Digimorph or Sketchfab, and find any distinguishing features that stand out to me, and then make note of it.

Skull rendering of Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Note the large sagittal crest (outlined in orange) which enables the relatively powerful bite force of North America’s only marsupial species although they are much more likely to play dead! Sketch by Nina Balagula.

Usually when I start drawing, it’s always nice to have a show or some music playing in the background just to keep everything light-hearted and fun. Then I proceed to mark up the skull drawings with key details in colored inks just to make sure I don’t miss it, like the sail-like sagittal crest of opossums, or the slender shape of the long-tailed weasel’s skull to aid in entering tight crevices and burrows of their prey. For the bird species, I made sure to include images of the birds’ bodies with and without their wings spread out. This ensures that if I do come across such a bird in nature as it is flying, I can make out the patterns and wing shapes to make an accurate identification of the species. Along with that, I included sound visualizations or spectrograms of bird songs and calls so that the viewer can interpret if the bird is extremely variable in their songs, or if the species tends to be more redundant or monotone.

Skull rendering and photographs of gait pattern and scat for River Otter (Lontra canadensis). Sketch by Nina Balagula Scat photo citation: “File:North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis) Feces – Killarney, Ontario 01.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons. 12 Oct 2020, 03:53 UTC. 1 Jul 2023, 11:38,_Ontario_01.jpg&oldid=487403973. Track photo citation: “River Otter Tracks – Wildlife Illinois.” Wildlife Illinois,
Comparison of identifying characteristics, ecological traits of the Eastern Bluebird (on left, Sialia sialis) and Red-breasted nuthatch (on right, Sitta canadensis). Song spectrograms can be viewed at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Macaulay Library

Even if it means having graphite smudges on your hands or having your fingers stuck together after gluing down photos into your notebook, creating these connections, and breaking the rules on conventional studying is what makes learning possible and even fun. And the best part? Sketching does not mean being confined behind the desk, but one can sketch outdoors!

When observing wildlife in nature, taking photos and rough sketching immediately into a pocket-sized journal creates a deeper understanding beyond textbooks. It allows one to personalize their connections in studying wildlife. The next time you are cramming for an exam or need to prepare a project, don’t let your learning journey feel mundane and unsatisfying, but rather personalize it with just a bit of color and doodling.

Article/Field notebook copyright 2023 Nina Balagula all rights reserved

 Nina Balagula is an undergraduate student at UMass Amherst majoring in Natural Resources Conservation with a concentration in Fish Ecology and Conservation. In addition, she also participates in the Five Colleges Consortium’s certification program for Coastal & Marine Sciences. Ever since she can remember, she has always had a passion for both drawing and learning as much as she can about wildlife. As someone who grew up in both Florida and Massachusetts, Nina was constantly enamored with what she could find outside in nature, and this sparked her curiosity to study wildlife ecology and conservation. If not working indoors and studying, one can most certainly find Nina exploring in the woods, taking many pictures of what is to be found and drawing what she finds to be fascinating. And that is just what she did with this sketchbook that she is very proud to share with all who come across it!

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