Thursday, January 16, 2014

How to Draw Field Sketches When You're Not a Good Artist

I have only birded outside North America once, in 2006.  I had just finished a winter ski-bumming in Aspen, Colorado, and I was flush with cash from a winter spent hustling vacationers as one of those on-mountain photographer guys.  My friends were also flushed, and we decided to go on a trip.

One of my friends knew a guy in Ecuador, and tickets were cheap, and so we went.

My friends were not birders, and we were not going to a particularly birdy part of the country.  In fact, although it sounds unbelievable for a country containing more than a thousand bird species, I came home after ten days in Ecuador only identifying 56 species.

I bought the enormous Ridgley Field Guide to the Birds of Ecuador before I left, but had not nearly enough time to really get a handle on what birds I might see in my travels.  Plus, the book weighs like 10 pounds and was too much to carry around with me.  Instead, when I'd sneak off to go find birds, I'd bring along a little notebook and make quick sketches of things I saw, returning home to figure out IDs later (I didn't have a camera, did I mention that?).

I expected to be frustrated by my lack of knowledge, but this kind of birding was far and away the most fun I've had birding maybe to this day.  I didn't know what to expect, I wasn't jaded to anything.  Every bird needed to be examined for possible differences from other, similar birds.  It was birding again for the first time.

I recently found my notebook in a box of old things and wanted to share the crappy little drawings I made.  They're a far cry from the detailed, shaded, dog-bottle watercolored (!) images that real artists can produce, but I think there's a certain charm in my rushed scribbles.  The pictures didn't scan very clearly, sorry, but click to enlarge.

The airline lost my bags on the flight to Guayaquil, and my buddy and I were stuck for three days shuttling back and forth between the airport and the beautiful Iguanazu Hostel that we picked at random (I think it's changed since 2006, those rooms are a lot more expensive than what we paid).  All the waiting around provided some good opportunities for birdwatching.  The page above contains birds I saw from a little outdoor seating area on one end of the airport.  Nothing fancy, but I remember being dazzled by the Saffron Finches and enjoying seeing the first of what seemed like a million similar-looking kingbirds.  

The Hostel grounds were fantastic: up on a forested hillside overlooking the city.  I didn't make a lot of sketches there because I was able to lay in a hammock all day with the field guide on my chest taking a good look at the birds I saw.  The Pacific Hornero was cool, as I'd never heard of them before.  The hummingbird I remember not feeling great about the ID...and looking at photos now it doesn't seem to match my drawing.  Ah well.  

Ah, Montanita.  Our destination was a dusty little surf town on the coast.  It was ... fine.  Not of us were very good surfers and when we arrived we took one look at the huge waves and backed off.  We spend our days laying in hammocks, reading books, wandering the beach, running away from packs of stray dogs, drinking, not being able to communicate with anyone, and eating pineapples and ceviche.  Each morning, before it got too hot, I'd sneak off and walk to a little patch of forest that I'd found, and look for birds.  I was always a little apprehensive - I didn't speak the language and I was probably trespassing, but the birds were great.  I'd sketch them or write down what I saw, return him and flip through the field guide to make the IDs (or try, anyway).  Thick-billed Euphonia! Collared Antshrike (I remember liking this guy the most)! Golden-olive Woodpecker

And more!  Long-billed Starthroat

Masked Water-tyrant (I remember being stunned by this guy, black-and-white seemed out of place when everything else was so colorful)! Short-tailed Field-tyrant (look at his little legs!) Variable Seedeater!

I made a quick stop at Isla de la Plata (aka the Poor Man's Galapagos) and saw my first albatross, Waved, and a ton of frigatebirds and boobies and tropicbirds, then it was back for a night in Guayaquil (where I picked up Ecuadorian Thrush and what is now called Whooping Motmot), before taking the long flight home.  My crummy little sketches were made during the heat of the chase, and even though I saw fewer species than the typical Ecuadorian birder identify from his bedroom window, it was birding at its most pure and most fun.  


Max said...

These sketches are wonderful! I've done this (you're much better at sketching tho!), but now I use a little mobile phone that let's me record my notes. What's really great is even though you "only" identified 56 species, you OWN those species!

JR said...

I love this post. There's nothing like looking at a bird without already knowing what it might be. More birders should do this, even for the common birds.

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