Take the Opportunity

Recently I’ve been trying to expand on the social side of birding by going with others on the weekend.  But once the push for winter birds is over and I’m waiting through The Doldrums until spring arrives, I’ll be going on my own a little more often. And I usually take this time to study the local birds.

So this post is about something I have referenced previously and see infrequently in other blogs. And I really don’t think it gets enough attention.

Take Notes – Make Sketches.

Especially on your local birds so your ready for the occasional uncommon bird.

When you get a chance like I did in January to see an uncommon bird at relatively close distance, an Eared Grebe in this case, take the time to study it. And I don’t mean take a lot of photos and study them. Take notes in the field. Sketch the bird. It has been shown numerous times that if you write something down your chances of remembering it are much better. And if you have been taking notes and sketching on local birds you’ll know what to do when that uncommon bird shows up.

HOGR Sketch
Here is my sketch and notes on an Eared Grebe from early January 2016.
EAGR 010315 (1)
A photo of the same bird. I learned a lot more by taking notes and sketching then by studying this photo.

Looking at a photo of an Eared Grebe does help me learn the key features, but after sketching it I know them much better. And the other thing you learn by sketching a bird is that you must spend time with it as opposed to looking at a photo and moving on. The time spent with the bird will help you see how it looks when it moves and how it acts in different lighting and movements.  Something you can’t get with a photo.

Try sketching the bird noting the major distinguishing marks.  I’m no artist but a rough sketch of the Eared Grebe has embedded the key points in my mind versus a Horned Grebe.

And like most of the references state, start your sketching with larger birds of your area.  It will help you know what you are looking for when you move on to smaller or uncommon birds.

Before I went to Texas a couple of years ago I spent a hot Sunday afternoon with a couple of American Crows. I wanted to make certain on the off-chance I encountered a Chihuahuan Raven I could distinguish it from the American Crow. I think I saw 2 ravens but I was in a moving car, but by studying the crows I was much more sure than I would otherwise have been. But not that sure so the raven is still not on any of my lists.

AMCR sketch
An afternoon with a couple of American Crows to make sure I didn’t confuse them with Chihuahuan Ravens. 6/15/14

My favorite time to practice on the local birds is during the slower months of Jan/Feb and Jun/Jul – as opposed to the hectic months of migration. And if you are basically a weekend birder like me, taking a half hour during the week to sketch a local bird will help your skill immensely.

If you are interested in note taking here are a few links that can really point you in the right direction.

From the Pacific NW Birder –VOE and taking notes

From the ABA Blog –Howell on Field Notebooks at The Eyrie

And most intro birding books have a few pages on sketching and note taking – Sibley’s Birding Basics and National Geographic’s Birding Essentials for examplePlus Kenn Kaufman’s Field Guide to Advanced Birding has a nice section on note taking.


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