Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Bird Count Sketches 2013-2014

Scenes from Christmas Bird Count. Ball point pen sketches by Ken Januski.

So as winter begins our low last night was 64!!! Yesterday was also the Christmas Bird Count for Wyncote Audubon in the Northeast section of Philadelphia and surrounding areas. We are often bundled up in the warmest clothes for eight hours out in cold, gray, often wet weather. Though we started off with some pretty warm clothes I ended the day with my sleeves rolled up, skin exposed to weather in the high 60s.

The oddest thing this morning was to look out in the back yard and see no white - the snow was gone. So we've gone from what seems to be the most early December snow in Philadelphia in my 25 plus years to what may be record-breaking temperature this weekend!

All in all though I'm not sure, at least for us, that the weather made much difference in terms of the number of birds and bird species we saw. I haven't tallied the number of birds yet, but I'd guess 200-300. Generally though if we have a high total count then we have a low species count. Yesterday was 33 species, including the House Sparrows of the back yard. That's always the more exciting number to us, and 33 is about average I think for us and the areas we cover for the Christmas Bird Count.

I brought along my sketchpad and did just one sketch, a Golden-crowned Kinglet with a Great Blue Heron in  the background at the Manayunk Canal. That's the basis for the sketch above done with ballpoint pen on two pages of a 8.75x11.75 inch Stillman and Birn Epsilon sketchbook. The rest of the sketches are based on photos I took: Herring Gull with newly caught fish at Flat Rock Dam, Great Blue Heron with Mallards also at Manayunk Canal, and at bottom left some Common Mergansers seen on the Schuylkill River near Flat Rock Dam where it meets up with the Manayunk Canal.

Due to the pressure of covering a number of areas and seeing as many birds as possible there wasn't much time for sketching. But I'm happy that I got at least one in. Sketching is like exercise or anything else: you need to keep at it to get comfortable with it, to the point that it's a pleasure rather than a chore.

I've recently run across two online reviews from online friends on books with bird art of some sort or another as their subject. Debbie Kaspari at Drawing the Motmot recommends The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds by John Muir Laws, Drawing and Painting Birds by Tim Wootton and Capturing the Essence by William T. Cooper. Tim Wootton in turn on his blog recommends The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina Van Grouw, who spoke recently at The Free Library of Philadelphia.

I can recommend both Tim and Katrina's books and I've written about both of them here over the last couple of years. I've not read either of the other two, though I've heard many recommendations for the Laws book.

But I'd like to add another book for anyone interested in birds or bird art: Looking at Birds: An antidote to Field Guides by the artist and author who first convinced me you could actually make vibrant art with birds as the subject, John Busby (in his earlier Drawing Birds).

This is a very brief book, with very few words. But I think it is less a book to be read than a concept to be understood: an antidote to field guides. Early on he says:

It is a bonus to come face to face with a rare bird of course, but the adrenalin rush when encountering a rarity can narrow my observation down to diagnostic text - 'has it or hasn't it, got greenish-buff legs.'
Busby's book argues for sketching the unusual and surprising things that occur when you do more in looking at birds than find the markings that allow you to check them off a list. Right before the quote above he mentions getting excited about Blackbird shapes and the fun of collecting them.  There is a short chapter on preening birds and sketching them. Basically this book is about renewing an often jaded interest in birds, so that they are always interesting to look at.

There is almost nothing in the way of technical instruction. But with all the bird art out there that seems indentured to photography its nice to see one that instead focuses on getting your own experience  of the bird down, instead of  the feather count.

The sketch at top is a nod in that direction. I hope it captures some of the experience of the birds and the day.

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