(This is the fourth post in a 5 part series especially geared for participants in the Young Birder of the Year contest. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. –ed.)
by Steve N. G. Howell
Fact: Careful observations and sketches help you really learn birds. What color legs does a Kentish Plover have? Well, the field guides in the 1970s and 1980s would say black or gray, but my notes said “dark gray-blue legs and feet, almost appearing dark pinkish gray or greenish gray against different backgrounds and in varying lights” (Image 4a). Do I trust my eyes during an hour of observation, or the field guide? My eyes for sure. And by careful observation I got to see where the guides were not always accurate, or perhaps didn’t have space to convey the variation inherent in any species.
In my late teens I got to know bird artist Laurel Tucker, which taught me how little I really knew about drawing birds, especially about bird anatomy. Anyone who wants to draw birds should examine and even dissect all the dead birds they find, to learn how feather tracts fit together – especially the wings and scapulars. It’s pretty clear from my sketches in 1981 (Image 4c) that I had no idea how scapulars were put together and the pictures of juvenile Little Gull and Little Stint are terribly wrong!
I also did more traveling at this time, to other parts of the UK, including ‘twitches’ (trips to chase an individual rare bird). My notes on the bird in the front of the notebook weren’t much to look at: Location, date, species and number/age/sex, but usually I spent one to three hours watching the bird and writing a description, making sketches, etc. (Image 04b). It’s fun to look back now and see my descriptions and sketches of my first Belted Kingfisher (about the size of Green Woodpecker and flies a bit like a Hoopoe!), or of Killdeer, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lark Sparrow, etc, all vagrants in Britain.
Around that time I started a ‘commoner birds’ notebook, in which I made notes and sketches of things that weren’t really rare, to try and help me learn them better – things like the silhouettes of sleeping ducks, the shapes and feeding behaviors of different shorebirds (Image 4c). When I started birding in the New World I did the same thing, even making notes on American Crow and House Finch! One day in Florida I spent an afternoon watching and sketching a mixed flock of Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers in non-breeding plumage (Image 4d). I found all sorts of ways they differed, and after an hour or they weren’t so difficult to separate – but who has the time for this these days? And when I found something really obliging I would sit and sketch it for an hour or two, like Henslow’s Sparrow (Image 4e).
It’s a bit scary to see how much patience I had then, and how carefully I observed things. Nowadays I’m often lazy and just snap a few pictures. But that Arctic Warbler back in September 1981, by the time I had watched and sketched it, I really knew what an Arctic Warbler looked like (Image 4f). So when Peter Pyle and I found an Arctic Warbler in Mexico 10 years later (Image 4g) the identification was ‘easy’ (of course, since then it has been shown that ‘Arctic Warbler’ comprises 3 species, best told by voice – sadly we did not hear that bird call, but if we had I would have made detailed notes on the voice, and perhaps would be able to determine if it was a Kamchatka Leaf Warbler!).
If you get more serious about sketching, then you may have a field sketchbook and even carry around a set of colored pencils or a box of watercolor paints (Images 4j-4k). It’s easier to match colors in the field than later, from memory. Some people run away from a dead bird, but the poor thing is dead and it can be very valuable even after death. A fresh road-kill or window-kill in good condition is a great chance to learn about structure, and it’s much easier to draw or paint a dead bird than one that’s flitting around (Image 4l).
Now you have an idea of what could go into a field journal. Part 5 will summarize some things it can be useful to record as you keep field notes.