At the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen last week, super-quick field sketches caught these birds on the move- except for the egret, I drew them through the window of a bus rolling through Texas scrubland; color splashes from a mint-tin watercolor kit and written notes serve to fill in the details.

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.

Yes, please- I'll have the burnt sienna. My kit: an Altoids Smalls tin, tube watercolors squeezed into and dried in empty plastic half-pans (available from Daniel Smith Art Materials), a Niji waterbrush and a Canson Field Drawing Book.
Altoids in action at Santa Ana NWR, Rio Grande Valley, TX. Trying to nail down a green jay at the visitor center's busy feeders. Photo by Amy K. Hooper/
Side-by-side comparison of two similar species- Red-crowned and Red-lored parrots, Harlingen, TX. Fabulous flocks , flying through the neighborhoods at dusk and raising a lovely ruckus. A happy bunch of birds and jubilant birders dancing in the street below, myself included.

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.

The facial pattern on the green jay is amazingly weird to figure out in the field. It's likely meant to break up the outline of the head- and it's pretty, even if it doesn't make a whole lot of sense in terms of feather tracts or anatomy.

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.

A fast-moving mixed flock in northern Peru nearly gave me a stroke trying to draw them all, but at least I could sort them out later at leisure. Pretty field sketches are not essential- swift notations and a few coherent lines get the job done. Even unpretty sketches have their own pleasing aesthetic. That evening, a more experienced birder verified the uncommon Lafresnaye's piculet from this drawing. He even told me how to pronounce it (hint: the first 's' is silent). Thank you, More Experienced Birder!

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.

Who doesn't love a kiskadee? The one at the bottom was heading into the wind, lengthwise on an oak limb. It appeared to be branch-surfing.

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)

In five days at the festival I saw 125 species- not bad for a sketch-birder- and 21 were lifers, including a dozen or so least grebes pumping out the cuteness vibe on an oxbow pond at Sabal Palm Reserve near Brownsville, TX. We sat in a blind on the water and there was no problem getting long looks- and drawings. Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

21 thoughts on “Binoculars…bugspray…sketchbook?

  1. zeladoniac says:

    Thanks for the comments- the tin is very comfortable to use. The five colors are: burnt sienna, alizarin crimson, winsor yellow, ultramarine blue and phthalo blue. We have Barry Van Dusen to thank for helping come up with that combination. Gets a lot of mixes, including a very bright green, lots of nice grays, and a couple of rich blacks. If I could have one more color it would be cadmium red or cadmium orange. I never did work up to the vermillion on the vermillion flycatcher, sigh.

  2. Stefanie Graves says:

    Oh, you’ve made my day!! Now I want to try this out with my own little altoids box. The colors are exactly as I would choose, those being the main colors for most of my watercolors as it is. Now I just need to learn to draw more quickly and accurately!

  3. zeladoniac says:

    Time spent on each drawing varied from five minutes to half an hour at the outside, including the color washes. I spend most of the time nailing down the drawing, then the color washes are playtime.

  4. Ken Januski says:

    I always admire your tree and rock drawings as in last post Debby, but the type of work that you show here is something altogether different at least for me. Like the first birds of spring after a particularly long and bleak winter. They just sing!!

    And a color palette bonus to boot. I can’t tell you how nice it is to see you doing this type of work again.

  5. Amelia Hansen says:

    Your drawings are so fresh and alive . . . and yet so accurate. Could you please talk a little about your line drawing tools? Are you using pencil in combination with ink or just pencil alone? What grades of lead are you using? I like the dark black line of the softer pencils but quickly lose the point (plus they smudge so easily). What sort of sharpener do you include in your field kit? Thanks for any info. I’ll think of you the next time I attempt to capture a quick-hopping, flash-flying little blob of color out in the field! Your work is inspiring!

  6. Fran A.H. Alvarado says:

    Hello Debby
    The sketches you have done are very beautiful. The comparison between the parrots is a fantastic job. Very interesting the material used to draw: the box with five colors and the brush with water tank …

  7. will says:

    Your bird sketches are wonderful. They are full of life, reflecting your plein air approach, and even more your talent.
    Sketching animals outdoors with a very light, portable equipment like you do is a dream to watercolourists interested in encapsulating Nature into images, far more telling than photographs in my view.
    I try pursuing this dream with horses – you are welcome to visit my blog where I post some sketches about horses and few other subjects.
    PS: I love the blues and greens of your jay!

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