Sunday, January 11, 2015

Illustrating, Sketchily, Our Part of the Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census

American Goldfinch, Great Blue Heron and Killdeer Along Manayunk Canal. Watercolor and Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Yesterday was the 29th Annual Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census. We've taken part for a number of years, probably around 10 or so. Though we'd been looking forward to it the predicted wind-chill of 0 degrees at 7 a.m. was a bit worrisome. And we were going to start off along the Manayunk Canal and Schuylkill River, which meant that it would probably be even colder. That predicted coldness probably got us off to a slightly later start than normal.

Still sun was predicted and that can make all the difference, both for being warm and for seeing active birds. We were on the road by about 7:30, after counting some yard birds, and finally got home about 4:30, with a couple of bathroom breaks and one quick lunch. I haven't totaled our species, since they include a number of locations as well as a few birds n the car along the way (well actually close to 300 since they included large flocks of Ring-billed Gulls, Canada Geese and European Starlings). My guess is that our total will be about 35 species.

The average total over the years for all species from all participants has been 92. With a number of warmer winters recently, really almost too warm for it to feel like a winter bird census, it will be interesting to see if this year's count is higher or lower than recent ones. I do know that in spite of the cold it was a beautiful day to be out. Days like this, especially when they include almost the entire day outdoors, remind me of just what an enjoyable season winter can be.

I took a number of photos along the way, mainly for documentary purposes, especially in the case of rare birds, as with the Green Heron a couple of years ago. The bird that we see the least over the years, and that we saw yesterday, was one solo Fox Sparrow. I took some bad photos of it. My guess is that none of our birds will be all that unusual, unless they are made rarer than usual due to the cold weather. Most likely the Killdeer we saw at Manayunk Canal and the Eastern Bluebirds at The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education will be our best candidates for rare birds for the count. Eastern Bluebirds are always around in winter but it often seems that they are hard to find.

In any case I'm not showing any photos. As you well know I don't find much excitement in them. Instead I'd like to portray or elicit some sense of the actual experience of being out birding, and seeing birds, for the count. The scene at top is a reality-based seen but not one actually seen. We saw the Killdeer, American Goldfinch and Great Blue Heron at the same time in the same spot.

But we didn't see them like this. The composition is an example of artistic license. It's hard to know what to call this watercolor. Is it an illustration? Is it art? Is it somewhere in between? It's an illustration in the sense that I'd like it to give a sense of yesterday's experience. But most illustrations, as the term is used today, include much more detail. It is art in the sense that formal concerns are important, especially the sense of composition and color. But it's also very quickly done, and it needs to be. I want to post it today, when the Philadelphia Mid-winter Bird Census, is still timely, not a week from now when I've been able to spend more time on both detail and artistry. Some would say timely deadlines make it closer to illustration than to art. It really doesn't make much difference. I think I'll just  call it a sketch.

I find such sketches very rewarding. I don't get lost in detail. And I often try new things. It's amazing to me how many more developed works stem from sketches like these. A year ago I did a fairly unsuccessful watercolor of a similar scene, a Killdeer and Great Blue Heron in the same location along the Manayunk Canal. Since then I've toyed many times with making it into a print. I think the temptation will be even stronger with this new sketch.

No comments: