Stalking the Wild Big Bird in Big Bend National Park: A Digital Sketchbook

Peg Callihan, placesandplatypie.com

I am a birdwatcher, not a “birder.” I like to watch them and draw them, not count them. I will never have a Big Year.1

Peterson’s, A Field Guide to the Birds. This was my dad’s bird book. I love the way he tabbed the various sections for quick reference. It was copyrighted in 1934, and this copy was printed in 1960.
Peterson’s, A Field Guide to the Birds. This was my dad’s bird book. I love the way he tabbed the various sections for quick reference. It was copyrighted in 1934, and this copy was printed in 1960.

By the time I was 19, I was already out there –  binoculars around my neck, walking the parks and nearby marshes looking for birds. It provided a calming pleasure that has never left me. (My mother would say, “I can always tell when something is bothering you, you go out and watch the birds.”) Early on, I realized that I would never be a “real birder”, I enjoyed watching their antics too much. The broken wing routine is a big favorite, along with fish stealing and once I  swear I saw two swifts do it in midair just before they dropped into my parent’s chimney. At least I  think that’s what they were doing.

Many birders graduate from watching the startling red cardinals, raucous blue jays and adorable black-capped chickadees they always enjoyed on their backyard feeders to plowing through the frozen sands of winter beaches in freezing sleet to see an off-shore Eider Duck. Others will muck their way through mosquito infested swamps just to catch site of a new bird for their LIFE LIST2. They seek out the rare sparrow, believe they will find the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (extinct?), or catch site of a Colima warbler.

St. Louis Zoo: Stick child was in fact sticky
St. Louis Zoo: Stick child was in fact sticky

For me the whole sport is definitely better with the big birds. I can’t even get binoculars on a warbler, much less draw one in the wild. My eyes are not on the sparrow – they seek something much bigger, a bird that I can actually see and attempt to sketch.Heronssnow geesepileated woodpeckers  and now large white-winged doves – these I can do.

When I draw in my Moleskin or my larger sketchbook, I often write on the drawing about what’s going on around me, or what I need to do next – be it buy a bottle of Chardonnay on the way home or go down to the creek tomorrow and try to draw those pesky Pyrrhuloxia.

I have no hopes of ever drawing like guidebook authors David Sibley or my hero, Roger Tory Peterson. Nor do I want to. I am slowly getting better at a capturing my feathered friends. IMHO, the strangely abstract birds of Audubon are the best. Of course, he shot them and drew from their posed dead bodies. I shan’t be doing that either.

In this brief Digital Sketchbook, you can hit the pause icon and stop the page turning in order to read the text. (I don’t know where I got the nerve to post this…)


1 A birding Big Year is seeing or hearing as many different species of birds as possible in a calendar year. The rules are complex, but you can view the standings for 2015 here. (It’s a thriller so far this year. Neil and Sandy are tied for first, with one bird still be approved and John is breathing down their necks.) If you like Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, Jack Back and birds, then the movie, The Big Year is pretty good. The book, by Mark Obmascik is available on Amazon.

Life List: A list of all the birds a person has seen The list often has many subsections: House List, Yearly List, State Lists, Trip Lists and Wish List.

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