There are many helpful hints and techniques to enhance the birder's skills, some better than others. I would like to touch on one technique, neither new nor unusual, but often overlooked, The practice of field sketching has become extinct in most regards, due mainly to the advances in photography. The camera is an invaluable tool, and has done incredible things for the birder and bird world alike, but it fails to serve in educating the birder as well as the pen, brush, and paints. By slowing the process of birding and truly digesting what flits and flutters around you, learning to recognize birds by impression will become effortless and natural.
Due of the role of color in bird identification, I would encourage anyone interested in bettering their birding to add watercolors to their sketching kit. I simply put some paints in a tin container with a small vile of water, and threw them in a nap-sack along with my pen. You do not need to use watercolor paper for you journal, but remember to use less water and paint to get your desired effect when recording your sightings.
Because I am currently working as a field technician on winter raptor surveys, I spend a great deal of time in the high desert. My sketching lately deals with the birds I have seen in this landscape. These birds are not the most difficult to identify, however the practice of sketching can still prove valuable even for the most common bird. Take the time to sit and watch. You will need to stay in one place long enough to see enough of a bird to sketch it properly.
Pay attention to what stands out, and record your first impressions. Do not worry about the quality of the sketch. As an artist I struggle with this, as it is hard to fight the urge not to make the sketch as perfect as possible. Whether your artwork will win an award or not matters nothing for what is being accomplished. It is the process that matters, so don't get hung up on what your sketches look like. Also, be sure to make notes about what you notice that makes the bird unique. I have included a few examples that show how I sketch.
Because I took the time to really look at the Loggerhead Shrike, I was able to pick up on the differences that led me to recognize a Northern Shrike soon after. Another bird I have recently become much more familiar with is the Sage Thrasher. When I found the bird appropriately sitting on a sage branch, I took the opportunity to record the bird and learn what makes the Sage Thrasher recognizable and unique. Notice on my sketch that the colors are not quite accurate, and the most helpful hint, the light yellow eye, is not enhanced in the illustration. I made sure to make a note that this was a helpful hint, not necessarily for future reference, but to go through the motions to help me retain the information and solidify the birds image in my mind.
As I mentioned before, the purpose for my time in the field lately has been wintering raptors. Raptors are an incredible group and can present some of birding's biggest challenges. The trick to raptors, and in reality most birds, is birding by impression. The easiest way to speed up the learning process in my opinion and experience is sketching. Raptors have so many exceptions to the rule of ID with color morphs, subspecies, and hybridization. Begin sketching the birds you see and you will soon begin to recognize what makes each bird unique, and when the chance arises that you happen upon a strange or abnormal bird, you will be armed with the knowledge and skill to pick apart what might lead to a positive ID with little help and council from more experienced birders.
I absolutely love reviewing my illustrations and annotations. I find so much satisfaction in the process of creating my own images, no matter the quality. I also admit that I am enthralled with the work of others. I would love to be exposed to a wide variety of creativity in respect to the bird world. In the future, I hope to see many sketches accompanying long lists of birds on UBird. Till that day, happy birding.
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