If you want to make a birder laugh, pull out your Altoids tin, and instead of offering a mint, use it to paint a bird. That’s how I spent five days at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, Texas last week: cracking up other birders and sketching birds.
For the dedicated birder, a field sketch doesn’t have to be beautiful, but it can serve at least one useful purpose: bird identification.
Scenario 1: you’re walking alone in the fall woods and a migrating songbird wave breaks around you, with dozens of warblers, vireos and tanagers snapping up the last bugs like shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving. No time to leaf through the field guide, but you don’t need it; just watch and draw. You can identify those confusing warblers later.
Scenario 2: you’re in the Peruvian rainforest and encounter an irritatingly diverse mixed flock of unknown birds. Now it’s dinner time and you sit down to a simple (but satisfying) meal of platanos and beans while thumbing through the tattered pages of your (huge, heavy and left behind in your room) field guide. Sketchbook open, you shovel food in your mouth, compare your drawings with the illustrations in the book, and start to figure out what the heck flew by today.
Here’s another motive for field sketching: cheap travel souvenirs
Scenario 3: You are at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, in the company of a sharp-eyed group of festival participants, under the wing of superb, expert tour guides who know every flash, chip-note and understory scuttle; I.D. is no problem here, but you pull out your pencil and catch a great kiskadee in the top of a Spanish-moss-draped oak. Okay, so you missed the buff-bellied hummingbird, but you got a cool sketch of a big, really jazzy flycatcher.
I suppose that’s the one downside of sketch-birding: you won’t see as many birds as the rest of the group, but the birds you see, you’ll see really well. You’ll retain a memory of its shape and field marks a little better, and might even have a treasured keepsake of your tour. (But try to be aware of time and space; keep out of other birder’s lines of sight and, above all, keep up with the tour group. Have fun and expect to hear cackles of amusement when you pull out the Altoids)