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Making Field Notes and Sketching Birds Have Deep Roots

Sketching birds can enhance your understanding of their shape and field marks. When a rudimentary sketch of a Grasshopper Sparrow is made, for example, the bird’s flat head, short tail, and yellowish-orange lores are cemented into one’s mind (photo by PAUL NICHOLSON)

When I reflect on the history of bird watching, I trace back some current practices to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A Scotsman named Alexander Wilson emigrated to America and started documenting the birds he saw, and through the early decades of the 1800s, John James Audubon did the same. Audubon’s drawings, paintings, and field notes are still important birding references.

While some practices such as shooting birds to create a collection of specimens or raiding nests for their eggs have been abandoned, the long tradition of sketching and journaling has continued.

At many bird festivals such as Point Pelee National Park’s annual Festival of Birds, there are workshops on these themes that birders can enrol in. There are also stand-alone courses that interested birders can take.

For example, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers popular web-based courses such as “Nature Journaling and Field Sketching” and "Drawn to Birds" that are led by Liz Clayton Fuller, a scientific illustrator. “Nature is all around us, but we often pass it by too quickly to take notice. When you take the time to pause and observe, you open yourself up to countless discoveries,” she says.

I have found that by drawing and painting some birds, I learn more about particular species than by simply observing them through binoculars. While creating a sketch or drawing, I must focus very clearly on the shape of a bird and the size and shape of its beak as well as its field marks. There is no glossing over the details.

Similarly, using a notebook while birding in the field can enhance the birding experience. Most obvious for me is recording detailed bird observations while conducting bird surveys such as breeding bird counts or point count surveys. If I was simply trying to rely on my memory, the accuracy of the data that I uploaded would be adversely affected.

Point Pelee National Park naturalist Sarah Rupert has led nature journaling and bird sketching workshops at the park. Ian Shanahan is an expert Ontario birder who does bird art to enhance his skills and birding enjoyment. Birds Canada has posted a number of YouTube videos about sketching birds featuring Megan Hiebert.

London’s Peter Burke leads international birding trips for Field Guides Birding Tours and he has taken bird art to another level altogether. His paintings are included in numerous popular birding field guides including the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

But for drawing or journaling, you don’t need advanced skills. In fact, Liz Clayton Fuller encourages bird enthusiasts who think they don’t have adequate artistic skills. “I’ve taught many total beginners.” She says it’s easy to get past the terror of the blank page.

If you need a “reason” to get started, why not create an image of a Northern Cardinal? To celebrate the announcement in June of London’s new official bird, Bird Friendly London is sponsoring a city bird art competition. Submitted artwork and photography will be featured on Bird-Friendly London social media feeds and posted on a dedicated page on this website after the competition ends. The submission deadline is Sept. 17, 2021. Details are on Bird-Friendly London’s City Bird Competition webpage.

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