“In order to see birds, it is necessary to become a part of the silence.” Robert Lynd
I have always enjoyed birds. My grandparents kept bird feeders around, and when I was old enough to have my own home, I added a bird feeder also. (Or four! As you can see in the photo above. Husband says I need an intervention.) It was a joy to entice wildlife right up to my doorstep and a privilege that they would be grant me viewing privileges.
Over time, I began to notice different personalities emerging amongst the species. Some species were more skittish than others; some more vocal. Some preferred the seed on the ground; others preferred to cling and feed.
But that was the extent of my birding knowledge until a few years ago. It wasn't until I began nature journaling and sketching that I noticed an even greater disparity between the species and even individual birds.
Keeping an illustrated birding journal has been an extreme education in birding, because the most important thing one has to do when drawing and journaling about a bird is not just see the bird, but watch the bird for as long as possible.
"To see a wren in a bush, call it 'wren,' and go on walking is to have seen nothing. To see a bird and stop, watch, feel, forget yourself for a moment, be in the bushy shadows, maybe then feel 'wren'— that is to have joined in a larger moment with the world." Gary Snyder
Observation with the intent to record forces a bird watcher to go way beyond a spreadsheet or a checklist. All of a sudden, proportions matter, and so does feather placement and individual markings. Learning a bit of basic bird anatomy (what type of toe arrangement does an osprey have?*), behaviors (do all songbirds eat worms?**), and even flight patterns (birds soar, right?***) can be extremely beneficial when keeping a bird watcher's journal.
My birding journal is also a record of our lives at the moment— what our children thought of the bird, what was going on in my life when I spotted it, who we were with, and more. For example, I sketched a Red-shouldered hawk in my Washington D.C. travel journal. Several were riding the thermals and calling high above us as we walked the city streets. What a memorable moment!
In other words, a birding journal, just like any other journal, is personal. It's a recording of an emotional experience like a diary. And I'm proof that you don't have to be an artist or an expert birder to keep a birding journal. Just like one has to learn the species to participate in bird watching, one also has to learn how to sketch birds to keep an illustrated birding journal. And one can learn!
But if your bird sketches need some serious practice, please don't fret and sketch anyway. When it comes to sketching, I'm the queen of epic fails. Keeping a birding journal is not about skill, being scientifically precise, or even about being correct— it's about documenting the experience.
Bird Watcher's Digest has an excellent article on the specifics of keeping a bird watching journal, and John Muir Laws has a wealth of free resources and learning aids (including an excellent book) on how to draw birds.
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Birds are fascinating creatures, and since birding is an extremely popular hobby, resources for learning are endless! Bird watching is also a great activity to do together as a family, and I have some wonderful, kid-friendly nature journaling resources listed here.
Below are answers to a few questions I've been asked about my birding sketches.
Do you ever draw from photos?
Oh my, yes! Birds move very quickly. (A friend once said she needed a bird freeze ray. Want it!) I try to observe for as long as possible. I'll often jot a few notes or do a quick ID search. If I'm lucky, I'll have time to do some really rough sketches. I've never, ever had time to complete a drawing of a bird in the field. Photos are excellent references for study and journaling!
What do you use for ID?
One word: Merlin. This handy app is my birding ID bestest friend. And it has saved my back because I don't have to carry around heavy field guides.
What supplies do you use?
I've linked to many of my favorites here. I'm currently using a Pentalic Aqua watercolor journal as my designated birding journal and love it. It works great with pen and watercolor, which is all I use. (You can read my full review here.) A cheaper alternative that also works well with ink and watercolor is the Strathmore Visual Journal with watercolor paper.
What information do you include?
It varies, but I nearly always put the date, time, location, weather conditions, and the Latin name of the species. I have printable journal pages here that you are welcome to use as a checklist of sorts.
What is your journaling process?
I totally wing it. Really. I'm not great at planning pages or sketches. I usually find a reference photo that speaks to me, and then I lightly sketch the bird to see how it works on the page, and then go from there. You can see an example in this time lapse of my Red-bellied woodpecker page.
Is this the only way you log your birds?
My birding journal is simply a creative outlet and birding diary, so to speak, so I do keep a spreadsheet with the cold, hard facts: bird species; location, date and time sighted; major identifiers (sight, call, etc); and certain behavior keys, if observed. Yep, I'm a birding nerd!
Do you keep any other designated sketchbooks or journals?
Gosh yes, I'm kind of addicted to art journaling and nature study. :) Along with a general sketchbook and the birding journal, I currently keep three other designated sketchbooks: an illustrated Bible study/prayer journal, a daily sunrise journal where I do a 5-minute landscape every morning, and a mushrooming/mycology field journal. You can view my mushrooming journal here and more birding sketches here and at the links below.
*Ospreys have four toes and are zygodactyl, meaning they have two toes facing forward and two facing backward. However, ospreys can rotate their outer toes back and forth, and they often perch with three toes forward.
**No, some songbirds like the American Goldfinch are strictly seed eaters, so don't draw one with a worm in its mouth!
***Birds have a wide variety of flight patterns, and only select species actually soar. For example, ducks can't stay airborne without constant flapping.