Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Democracy of Birders

Bay-breasted Warbler and other birds. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

American Redstart and other birds. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

Horned Lark and other birds. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

Magnolia Warbler and other birds. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

Prothonotary Warbler and other birds. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

I had a hard time deciding on a title for this post about field sketches of birds seen at Magee Marsh in Ohio last week. The most notable thing I think for just about anyone who was there was the number of birds, though there was in fact one very quiet day. For me the high point might have been when a woman who had wandered up to watch me sketch a Blackburnian Warbler from life said something like "You've made my day. This is even better than the birds, especially with all these cameras." What she meant I think was how refreshing it was to see someone sketching and by inference interacting with the birds amidst all the people with their cameras, and whirring motor drives, and flashes, and big lenses, and big tripods.

Since I value field sketching so highly it was easy to make that the title of this post. Instead though I chose "A Democracy of Birders." I did this because I think it is interesting philosophically. It is very easy to get frustrated at Magee Marsh this time of year, perhaps even more so during The Biggest Week in American Birding , an organized event that has gone on for about the last 10 days there. It surely adds to the crowds.

Between rude and oblivious photographers who think nothing of plunking their huge tripods in the middle of the boardwalk and then planting their 200 plus pound selves behind them so that no one can get through and drivers who have to stop for every Canada gosling on the causeway to the boardwalk turning each two minute trip into at least a ten minute trip it's easy to get frustrated. But I think most people feel it's well worth the frustrations because of the wealth of birds to be seen, most at such close range that most people can only dream about.

If you listen to the conversations you soon realize that the level of skill and experience is almost infinite, from the most expert to the most beginning and everywhere in between. And as far as I can tell the excitement and joy of seeing so many birds so close, most of them neo-tropical migrants, makes up for everything else. Barriers between old-style birders and technology-loving birders, experienced and inexperienced birders seem to disappear, or at least be greatly sublimated, in the experience of seeing so many striking birds in so many numbers and at such close proximity.

So that's the nature of the title. The last week, The Biggest Week in American Birding, really did show a democracy of birders, a democracy in all its varied and sometimes uncomfortable or even unwelcome( I'm thinking of big lenses and tripods when I say this) diversity.

The diversity of birds however was as welcome as could be. So from the top I'll enumerate the birds portrayed. They are only some of the many we saw.

Page one: Blue-winged Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo, actually seen here before the trip, and a Bay-breasted Warbler on left and a Nashville Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and American Woodcock on right.

Page two: Red-eyed Vireo, and a distant sparrow viewed through scope and finally identified as the familiar Swamp Sparrow on left, and male American Redstart, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and head of an American Woodcock on right.

Page three: singing Yellow Warbler and subtly beautiful Warbling Vireo on left and Horned Lark and Least Sandpiper on right.

Page four: Least Flycatcher, Magnolia Warbler and horrible rendering of Sandhill Crane in flight on left and Black-throated Blue Warbler and Ovenbird on right.

Finally on page five: Black-throated Green Warbler and Northern Parula on left and Blackburnian Warbler and Prothonotary Warbler on the right.

Given the plethora of some of the world's most beautiful birds all within close range it's hard to know what to do: enjoy them, soak them in, keep staring trying to capture all that's there in your memory, take photos, sketch. Though I've always tried to do field sketches when you have this seemingly once in a lifetime opportunity it's easy to try to preserve it in film. I'm sure that explains much of the sense of camera-driven birders. But my own experience is that the results are always lacking in emotional resonance. Even on this trip I succumbed to taking quite a few photos. But when I did I was no longer engaged with the bird.

To get around this I started off each day sketching. Only when I'd done a satisfactory sketch or felt it was such a rare view of a bird did I take the camera out of its case and start shooting. For myself I have to say it's been tremendously satisfying not just to see these birds but also have these sketches of them. I just wish I could stay there for a month or so to truly do them justice.


anna malcom said...

I find it hard to stop to take the time to make a sketch when there are so many birds around. It's good to remember that sometimes the quality of the look is a important as the number of looks or photos.

Ken Januski said...

Hi Anna,

At the end of all of our birding trips, especially the longer ones, it's always the quality of the looks, or perhaps seeing new behavior, that is what sticks with us. The number of bird seen seems completely unimportant.

For me part of the quality of the looks is also the ability to then make a sketch. It's only when I actually get a good look at a bird that I feel like I know enough to sketch it.

I also find it hard to make a sketch with so many birds around. But over the years I've learned that making sketches,even ones I'm later disappointed with, gives me the impetus to look harder next time I see the bird. In that way I both end up with a better sketch and with a better understanding and appreciation of the bird. It's one thing to ID a bird and something completely different to understand it well enough to sketch it.

All in all a great way to spend one's time I'd say!