8. What is the most odd or interesting bird behavior you have witnessed?
Once in early December I was standing alone on the beach at Cape May Point and an immature Double-crested Cormorant was flying by a hundred yards or so offshore, which is normal enough, but then this bird turned and flew in, landed on the sand about 30 feet away, then waddled right up to me, tilting its head to look up at my face. I just stood still, and after a few seconds it turned and flew away. That was odd.
But the oddest thing I ever saw was in Texas, I was watching and sketching some Black Vultures in a field, when a Caracara came in and started walking among the vultures, It walked up to a vulture, bent forward with its head down, and a vulture started to preen its neck! Then the caracara walked to another vulture and did the same thing, as if this was perfectly normal! I had never heard of anything like that – interspecific preening. Later I did find a short published note about one previous observation, but it was very bizarre.
9. What is your opinion about drawing a bird one has never seen in real life, through online images and study skins? In creating The Sibley Guide to Birds, did you ever resort to study skins, or did you observe each of those birds long enough from life to be able to paint them?
I used study skins a lot for research, especially for sorting out subspecies, studying ageing and sexing techniques, and testing ideas about distinguishing species. Specimens were the only way to compare species that don't normally occur together (like Pygmy and Brown-headed Nuthatches). They were very important for research, but I did not use specimens as models for painting. In the studio I used photos for reference material, along with my field sketches and notes, and notes from museum studies. The field sketches and experience provided the subjective impressions of the birds, and photos were there for the technical and analytical back-up. In fact I feel very strongly that field experience is the only way to really learn how to draw birds. I did have to paint a few species for the guide that I had never seen in life, and it was really difficult and ultimately not very satisfying, because I didn't know if I had done a good job. No matter how many photographs you have, you still need some first-hand experience to be able to interpret the photographs and choose how to turn those photos into a painting.
I should also say that taking your own photographs is no substitute for field sketching. You end up studying the camera instead of the bird in the field, and then only see the bird at home in the photos. If learning how to draw birds is your goal, leave the camera at home and just focus on watching and sketching while you're in the field.
Come back tommorrow for the final questions… 🙂