Introducing WildCounts Shorthand
I’m like a stenographer of the wild. Court stenographers transcribe everything happening in a court case; I do it with the wild. Here’s how.
written May 18, 2018 (last updated Sep 8, 2021) • by Jon Sullivan • Category: Count methods
It can take lots of counts to reveal the stories of the wild. To make wild counting a habit, it’s got to be super quick and easy.
I’ve spent the last 15 years refining a method I can use to quickly count a standard suite of species everywhere I go. I flirted with app forms with clever buttons and dropdown lists. In the end I couldn’t beat the speed of typing condensed shorthand text.
I’m now like a court stenographer, transcribing everything happening in a court case. Instead, I do it outside with the wild.
This shorthand has become the WildCounts shorthand. Here’s an introduction on how it works.
Let’s start with some examples. Each of the following is a complete line of WildCounts shorthand, with the first examples containing fewer details than the later examples.
||I see one New Zealand bellbird/korimako (Anthornis melanura,
||I hear it singing (vocalising,
||The sex is male (
||I first see it mid-distance (
||When I geotag my location, it's near (
||It is to the southwest (
||I took a photo of it (
||It was definitely a different bird (
||Optional notes can be added in parentheses (
I use a few other letters and keyboard characters to code for other important features of my observations.
||"Flying by" is indicated with
||That can optionally have a flight direction, like circling (
||If two of the same species are together (within 20 m of each other), I combine them with an asterisk (
||If the observed individual is joined by another individual, or if I hear a second animal singing while the first is still singing, then I combine these observations with
||When I am travelling, I use
I built a Filemaker Go app for my iPhone that automatically stores the time, date, and location for every one of these shorthand observations. I then import that file into my computer and everything gets automatically translated out into separate fields in my database.
That tech stuff is optional though. When I first started developing this shorthand, it was written on paper, as observations made along standard routes between timed landmarks. Writing down shorthand code like this was also the quickest way I’d found to do things with paper.
That’s introduced my count shorthand. But wait, there’s more!
A different kind of WildCounts shorthand is used to note the flowering phenology of some plants species. For the plants I watch, I record all of this season’s flowering stages currently present on the plant, and which stage is most abundant.
In the Wildcounts shorthand, semicolons separate the species name, the count information (which can use any of the count shorthand used above), and the flowering phenology information.
Here’s an example.
kowhai; n_sw1i$; fb-FL-im;
That’s a kowhai tree near to the southwest of me, with flower buds, mostly flowers, and some immature fruit. The capitalised
FL means that flowering was the most common stage on the plant, and it also had flower buds (
fb) and finished flowers/immature fruit (
$ indicates that it was cultivated. The other options are
$^ for “possibly cultivated” and
^ for “definitely wild” (wild is assumed when I don’t include any of these codes). As with my earlier bellbird example, the
n_sw1i$ indicates that I made an image (photo).
A third kind of WildCounts shorthand is reserved for roadkill.
Roadkill gets recorded as its state (one of intact
frag), its age (
fresh, being the first sighting of a carcass <24 hours old,
old), and its location on the road relative to the direction I’m traveling (left
l or right
v, or road
r, and mid road
Here’s an example.
hh rv old sq
That’s an old squashed hedgehog (
hh) on the right verge of the road.
Each line of WildCounts shorthand is always restricted to the observation of one species, at one place and time. The earlier example,
bellb 1xma*1j, showed how to connect together different individuals of the same species when found at once. In this case, that was an adult male bellbird with a juvenile bellbird.
Associated observations of two different species can be connected using a separate connecting line. For example,
kowhai; n_sw1$; fb-FL-im;
These are two observations, the first of an adult male bellbird, seen near to the southwest, and the second, of a cultivated kowhai tree that is flowering (and has flower buds and finished flowers/immature fruit). The bellbird is associated with (
*) the kowhai tree as a flower visitor (
fl) of (
o) the kowhai tree. Hence
Interactions have a direction, specified by “of” (
o) and “by” (
b). In above example, the bellbird is a flower visitor of (
o) the kowhai tree. The same interaction could have also been written with the species in the opposite order.
kowhai; n_sw1i$; fb-FL-im;
In this case, the kowhai tree has flowers visited by (
b) the bellbird. So it’s
*flb and not
Several interaction types are available, all of which are abbreviated by two letters. These are decomposition (
de), epiphyte (
ep), flower visit (
fl), frugivory (
fr), hemiparasitism (
hp), herbivory (
he), infection (
in), parasitism (
pa), parasitoid (
pd), predation (
pr), and seed predation (
se). Pathogens are included in “infection””. For cases when the type of interaction isn’t clear, there’s also host (
Note that these abbreviations are the first two letters of a word, except when two interaction types would otherwise have the same code (so only parasite is
pa and parasitoid is instead be
pd), or when that second letter is “o” or “b” (to reduce the chances of an unrecoverable typo).
I maintain a list of all my abbreviations for each of the species I regularly record. You’ve already seen that
bellb is bellbird and
hh is hedgehog.
kowhai means Sophora species. That’s the genus, not a species, since cultivated kowhai can be a jumble of species and hybrids that can need detailed examination to identify to species.
For plant species that I count a lot, I often use the botanical six-letter code of the first three letters of the genus and species names. For example, I use SOPmic for Sophora microphylla, Canterbury’s native tree kowhai, which is easy to identify when it’s in wild places far from gardens.
Each species needs a short name that’s unique in your shorthand and is easy to remember and quick to type. Your short names don’t need to be universally unique, as they get expanded out to the full species name before the data is shared. It’s important to maintain an up-to-date list mapping each short name onto a full scientific name.
The WildCounts shorthand, plus my Filemaker Go WildCounts app that datetime-stamps and geotags each shorthand line, has allowed me to turn my life into one big transect. My counts are recorded in a combination of typed shorthand and spoken audio notes (which then need transcription, but that’s another method). This lets me average over 3,000 observations a week. I am now the stenographer of my local wild.
I imagine this might all seem a little overwhelming at first, but you don’t need to use all of the complexity, especially at first. What’s important is that it’s very fast to enter. Just like a court stenographer, I’ve been doing this for long enough that my fingers know it all and I can quickly enter in wild counts as I go.
To dive in to the complete WildCounts shorthand vocabulary, see wildcounts shorthand.
[8 Sept. 2021: I have R scripts that expand WildCounts shorthand into data in CSV and JSON formats. I’m working on cleaning them up for general use. Once I’m done, I’ll make them available on the site.]