Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Nature Journaling, Birds at the Feeder

Every weekend for me (as I'm sure it is for everyone) is a careful balancing act (or a messy food fight) between the things that need to get done and the things I want to do.  For months now, I've been wanting to sit and draw the birds at the feeders outside our livingroom windows (yes, that is my idea of fun), but usually by the time I have a chance to catch my breath and relax for a few minutes, the afternoon shadows have grown long and the birds have flown off to find a cozy place to spend the night.

This past Saturday I finally made a point of sitting down and communing with the birds, sketch book in hand, while it was still bright and sunny in the morning.  It was the all-chickadee show that morning, except for a lone nuthatch who swooped in to steal a sunflower seed and then swooped out again, which made it easier to focus on one species' details.

Fortunately, chickadees like to hang out in the feeder, mulling over the seed selection, giving me plenty of opportunity to observe them.

Now, I know, generally, what a chickadee looks like--black cap, black chin, grayish back, wings and tail, whitish underside.  But the details, if I try to call them up in my head--what shape is the chin patch at the bottom?  What happens to the cap at the back of the head?  Is the belly white-white?  Or off-white?  Or gray-white?--eluded me.

So I sat, and watched, and sketched, until I had it fairly clear in my head, and then I tried a more finished, colored drawing (playing with my new colored pencils--whee!) completely from memory and observation (normally I do such a drawing from a photograph in a field guide, but this time I really wanted to do it from live birds--and now I totally get why Audubon wanted to shoot the damn things, so they would hold still a minute!)

My poor bird has no feet.
I even tried drawing one in flight, though I have no idea what the wings should look like, really; they move so fast!

I had so much fun (yes, I am an odd bird), that when the goldfinches came out the next day, I was back at the window, pencil in hand.

Again with no feet!

The goldfinch's winter plumage is so much less distinct than the chickadee, it was harder to focus on details and find shapes to draw.

I even got a brief chance at sketching another nuthatch, who once again swooped in and out.  An ancillary benefit of sketching birds is the opportunity to observe behavior--which birds travel in groups?  which seem more aggressive?  which hang out at the feeder picking over seeds?  which grab-and-go?  It's pretty cool and interesting.

I'd like to issue another invitation to you.  Find a place where birds congregate (a feeder outside your livingroom is handy, but if you don't have that, head to the park, a duck pond, the cafe where the pigeons beg, etc.), and take a few minutes to watch and draw what you see.  I went back to my feeders throughout the day, for a total of maybe an hour or more, but if you only have five or ten minutes, take it and run with it.

I'm in no way qualified to teach bird drawing, but I can tell you what I tell my kids.  Birds come from eggs, and they are made of eggs; specifically a big body egg and a smaller head egg.

 Once you get the egg shapes, in the right proportion (I always draw my head egg too big and have to go back and enlarge my body egg), the rest is just details.

(Please see Nature Journaling, An Invitation and Nature Journaling as Meditation for more on starting a nature journal, and come back here to leave a comment about your experience drawing birds, and/or a link to a blog post you write about it.)

P.S. Don't forget to enter my blog giveaway by Wednesday night (I know I said midnight Wednesday, but I meant the midnight at the end of Wednesday)!


  1. Okay. I'm going to sketch the crows, but in words. Thanks for the challenge (and the tip about eggs).

  2. I love how you find time to challenge yourself and create beauty.

  3. Loverly. Once upon a time I considered myself a sketch artist. My uncle still brings me supplies to encourage me. I like the technique of visualizing (and drawing) the subject in shapes. Thanks, as always, for the respite from hurried life.

  4. I love the suggestion for using two small eggs as the base! That's a great idea. I'm no expert on drawing anything--I so rarely do it, but I always like it when I do.


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