Speaking of Field Guides…

My mind is very much on birds right now: drawing them, watching them, and learning about the ones I hope to see in the tangled viney depths of the Amazonian jungle, sometime very soon in fact. And that brings me to the subject of field guides.


I have a goodly collection of them, mostly of the tropical bird variety. Over the years I’ve collected guides for trips taken and trips wished for, and sometimes just for the artwork alone. A friend in California sent me a box heavy with old field guides and ornithology textbooks he’d inherited from a friend who’d just passed on, an ornithologist named Thomas Howell, who’d birded just about everywhere, and retired on the Mendocino coast. His well-used guides cover the globe from the Falkland Islands to the Indian Sub-continent, and include a rare copy of Guide Des Oiseaux De La Nouvelle-Calédonie Et De Ses Dépendances, personally inscribed by the author Jean Delacour with Best Regards. Check-lists and notes flutter out when opening the pages.

Striped Owl, initial sketch for Birds of T&T
Striped Owl sketch for Birds of Trinidad and Tobago

I’m now working on a field guide as well (Birds of Trinidad and Tobago), and paying better attention to the ones filling my bookcase. I’m looking at them with a more carefully considered eye. It’s interesting to see how different illustrators see the same bird, how different artists produce a particular characteristic or even just draw the feet. It’s only my opinion, too, but I really feel that a good field guide should go beyond field identification- it should inspire dark cravings in the heart of a well-addicted birder. The best ones should have you checking airfares and getting yellow fever shots.

Second sketch, showing the field marks to better advantage with this pose

Which brings me to the new Field Guide to Birds of Peru (Princeton University Press). This is a magnificent and thorough book that just came out last year, and as for that other thing, well, let’s just say it’s been allotted nearly 3lbs of my 42 lb. baggage weight limit (I saved 6 whole ounces by peeling off the hard cover and replacing it with clear plastic). Conceived and co-authored by John O’Neill, and illustrated beautifully by O’Neill and a team of equally fantastic artists including Larry McQueen and Barry Van Dusen, it’s THE field guide to have, it’s a beautiful armchair traveler’s dream-book, and now it’s my field guide to how-to-illustrate-field-guides.

Striped owl: filling out the rough sketch, finding the center of gravity, getting the attitude.

11 thoughts on “Speaking of Field Guides…

  1. Pingback: Via Negativa
  2. Ken Januski says:

    Great drawings Motmot,

    That last one is really striking. Yours is one more recommendation for Birds of Peru. I can’t picture myself going to Peru any time soon but you’ve convinced me that I ought to take a look at the book anyway.

    I guess there comes a point for artists and birders where it becomes perfectly natural to buy a guide for somewhere that you really don’t have any plans of visiting. I’m getting near to that point, though I’m not sure how I’ll explain the expenditures to my wife……….

  3. Sherrie Y says:

    That’s one spanky owl sketch there. Makes we wanna reach out and bury my fingers in its fluffy feathers. Right before it grabs me with its nasty toes, to hold me down whilst it bites me in the tenderest bits. (Yup, voice of experience.)

    You’ll send postcards, won’t you?

  4. F.Gagge says:

    First of all congratulations for your blog is one of the most interesting ones I have visited. Your drawings are amazing and really similar to their subjects. I´m 21 years old and I’m from Uruguay in south america, you have inspired me to start drawing and sketchin birds.
    PD: Excuse my english jaja

  5. patricia ternahan says:


    this entry grabbed hold and nourished my inner bird,
    which is most certainly full of dark and bright avian cravings –
    the day and night dreams of endless weightless flight,
    the eyes’ desire to behold iridescent colors and display magical feather forms,
    the heart’s longing for exuberant and melancholy poems of joy and longing –

    no-thing brings more inspiration.

    thank you.


  6. Beverly says:

    It is the discovery of sites like yours that I absolutely adore “I and the Bird”. Suddenly I have cravings in my heart to go find the owls in my neighborhood, too.

    Lovely! Thank you so much,

  7. bevson says:

    I also have many Field Guides to places I have been and those still on the list. My copy of the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago is the classic ffrench version. Based on your fabulous sketch, I look forward to the new book coming out.

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