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On the Benefits of Birding by Sketching

posted by Utah Birders Guest Blogger at
on Thursday, December 22, 2011 

I have often related bird ID to facial recognition, especially in birds of prey. The multiple factors that contribute to making a bird recognizable are similar, but unique. Much like the face, these variables all contribute to creating a wide variety of distinct but similar patterns. The challenge in identifying birds comes from this diversity, and so the birder is charged with the daunting task of in depth study and practice to learn each bird not only by sight, but sound as well.

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.

Field Kit

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.

Loggerhead Shrike

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.

 Sage Thrasher and Horned Lark

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.

Winter Raptors

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.

Bryce Robinson


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Anonymous Jerry Liguori said...

I love your artwork! Great post!

Yes raptors...you know it!

I use to draw but suck at it, I have some original artwork from other artists though and I love them more than any photographs.

December 22, 2011 at 10:29 PM  
Anonymous Jerry Liguori said...

Forgot to mention...I agree that sketching stuff in the field is a great way to learn and notice things.

Good post, and thanks.

December 23, 2011 at 8:08 AM  
Blogger Bryce said...

Thanks Jerry. Artwork is an incredible way to interact with birds. No matter your skill level, it is always rewarding. I feel like anyone would love reviewing their birding journals years down the road when it is full of illustrations and annotations of what they saw. I have stuff from when I was a kid that I will keep forever. I really appreciate the opportunity to post. I love the blog.

December 23, 2011 at 10:40 AM  
Anonymous m is for mike said...

Hey Bryce, It's always enjoyable spending a day in the field with you and your sharp eyes, but I've been meaning to ask- do you prefer your field kit in a 8x42 or 10x42? ;-)

December 23, 2011 at 12:16 PM  
Blogger Bryce said...

Ha! Wish I had a preference Mike. I'm not wealthy enough to have a choice. I take what I can get with my 10x42, which makes the passerines a bit of a challenge, I must say...

December 23, 2011 at 1:40 PM  
Blogger Oliver Hansen said...

Very Cool.

December 24, 2011 at 1:49 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Bryce, awesome post! When I first got into birding I did a ton of sketching and drawing to help learn and ID stuff. Before I had a camera I would try to watch and sketch birds as well. It really made me study the field marks and was invaluable in improving my skills. I must say you post really made me think back to the days before I had a camera, when I drew a ton. Now everything I do is on a digital camera, or created in an illustrating program on my computer. I don;t remember the last time I used a sketchbook and pen to create an image of a bird.

After I read you post I went digging through some boxes in storage to see if I could find some of my old sketches, and drawings. I think I will have to a do a post about this, and must say thank you for putting the idea in my head.

Again, a great post, and an awesome addition to the Utah Birders Blog!

December 27, 2011 at 10:47 AM  
Anonymous diane coleman said...

Your sketches are lovely! Wish I could do as well, but I think you're right about using a bit of color while you're watching the birds to remember what they looked like and identify them better later on. Since we figured out how to squirrel proof a bird feeder, we have a bit more variety of species stopping by and I'd love to know what they all are.

February 16, 2014 at 2:35 AM  

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