5 Reasons Drawing Nature is Worth the Bother

In a world where everyone carries a camera everywhere they go, taking the time to stop and draw the natural world can seem like an old-fashioned and even pointless pastime. Snapping a picture takes a few seconds. Drawing takes a few minutes at least, and a lot longer in some cases. Besides, a drawing is less accurate than a photo and can’t capture all the information a photo can. So why bother to draw?

1) It forces us to slow down. This supposed drawback to drawing is actually one of the benefits. When I draw, I am in one spot longer than I would be if I just took a photo and moved on. As a result, I get to see more and learn more about the animals I watch. Because I spent nearly an hour sketching at a prairie dog town, I got to see a burrowing owl chase a prairie dog that got too close to its den. Similarly, I got to see barn swallows feed their chicks while I was drawing their nest.

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My nature journal entry with observations of how the parents feed their young (drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

2) It makes us really look at what is in front of us. On a hike, I sat down to draw a wildflower so I would be better able to identify it when I got home. Shortly after I started, I realized what I thought was eight petals was really four large overlapping lobed petals. I would never have been able to identify this evening primrose if I hadn’t taken the time to draw it.

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Drawing by Kit Dunsmore

3) It increases our appreciation of the natural world. In our day-to-day observations of plants and animals, we tend to gloss things over. We see a bird, think “That’s a robin” and we’re done. In fact, birds vary from one another as much as humans do, as I discovered when I was painting the barn swallows that grew up on our porch this summer. Every time I draw the horse skull I own, I am in awe of the amount of detail and complexity in the bony part of a horse’s head. Nearly every drawing of nature I do leads me to a greater appreciation of the wonder all around me.

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Painting by Kit Dunsmore

4) It helps us to be in the moment and to remember what we saw and heard. Flipping through my sketch books, I remember vividly where and when I made a drawing, other things that went on around me, the individual animals I drew, even the people I was with. When we draw, we can look like we are removed from our surroundings, but it makes us aware in a special way, one we can appreciate when we look at our drawings later.

5) It is a great opportunity to improve our drawing skills. I have drawn cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens for the first time in my life this year. My brain thinks it knows what these animals look like, but it is wrong. Seriously wrong. This is the essence of drawing from life: getting past our know-it-all brains, connecting our hand movements directly to what our eyes see. Taking the time to draw the world around us gives us more practice developing these skills.

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A few of my more successful goat sketches (drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

What are your reasons for bothering to draw?

Nature Journaling at Home: Barn Swallows on the Porch

There is a barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) nest right outside our front door, on top of the porch light. We had swallows last year, too. I would hear their chittering song through the open window, but I didn’t really watch them. This year, I was ready to try nature journaling. I made an effort to draw them daily. As a result, I learned a lot.

July 2: Barn swallows nesting on our front porch. The parents are flying around and chittering at me and sitting on the neighbor’s roof.

The babies are pretty big before I even notice them. I see their heads poking out over the edge of nest and point them out to Kurt. He takes pictures. I stand on the porch as far from the nest as I can to draw the nest. It’s surprising how fond I am of these grumpy looking birds. Their white frowns and slanting brows give them a permanent angry scowl. I love them anyway.

July 4: The nest is like a layer cake of straw with white fecal frosting. Feeding: Mom and Dad fly in one at a time. All the babies open their mouths, but the parent already knows who will be fed. They are in and out in an instant. One of the parents came in at least three times before realizing I was here. Now they are calling and the babies have hunkered down to hide. Mom and Dad were on top of the wind chimes. Flew off when I moved.

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The “nest” page in my nature journal. (Art work by Kit Dunsmore)

The parents do not like it when I’m on the porch and take off whenever they see me. I’m afraid I am keeping them from feeding their family, so I keep my sketching sessions under thirty minutes and draw as fast as I can. We stop going out the front door. Keeping the birds’ stress level low is one of our priorities.

July 5: The babies are flapping! Extended periods of beating their wings while sitting on the edge of the nest. Getting ready to fly. Note: sit inside with the door cracked. Better view of the nest and the parents don’t mind.

It’s a challenge to draw the birds because they move so much, but I do my best. Looking through the cracked door or the front window is makes it easier to draw the birds, but I still keep my sessions short, because I know that they can see me. These are wild birds. I don’t want them to get used to me. Some people will be kind to them, but some won’t, and how are they supposed to tell the difference?

July 6: They look like hoodlums. Waiting for food from Mom and Dad — and snapping on their own at any insects that come close.

I read about people knocking swallow nests off their cabin porch with the helpless nestlings inside. I am horrified. There is a downside to swallows on the porch: bird poop everywhere. But it’s not really everywhere. Mostly the mess is directly under the nest and their favorite perches. We usually live with it, but it’s bad enough that I scrape and wash the porch before company comes. While I think the work is worth the joy of sharing my porch with swallows, I start thinking about ways to make this job easier in the future.

July 7: This morning at 8 AM, one of the fledglings was on our porch bench. Haven’t seen any of them out of the nest since. More wing flapping today despite the crowded nest — they will stand on a sibling to do it!

I can’t get over the fact that there are five baby birds in such a little nest. Our field guide says barn swallows lay from three to seven eggs at a time. I try to imagine seven birds crammed in that little cup and can’t do it.

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The most detailed drawing I’ve done of the nest so far, with the little bandits peeking out. (Art work by Kit Dunsmore)

July 8: The fledglings are leaving the nest. I saw them fly as far as the neighbor’s roof and then back again, but their favorite destination is our wind chimes.

July 9: The fledglings have been flying all over today, spending more time out of the nest than in. Preening, stretching, and begging.

With the birds out of the nest, I do my best to capture their shape and colors. I experiment with my new watercolor paints. I’m still learning how things work, just like the birds I am watching.

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Trying to capture the look of the birds in watercolor. (Art work by Kit Dunsmore)

July 10: Woke to an empty nest. Are the barn swallows gone for good?

My heart breaks when I see the empty nest. The grumpy faces that have been making me smile every day are suddenly nowhere to be seen. There’s a quiet hole where feathered lives used to be. It reminds me of the hush in the house after a beloved pet dies. The empty air where I expect to see a dog wagging her tail — or a nest full of swallows — feels like a cold vacuum.

I share my dismay on Facebook. Friends assure me the swallows will be back next year, and I know they are right. Last year, the swallows managed to raise two clutches of eggs in a single summer. Secretly, I cross my fingers, hoping for more nestlings before this summer is over.

July 18: Lots of activity at the BARS* nest on the porch this morning which is unusual because the kids have been gone for a week or so. Wondering if the breeding pair have new eggs…

There are only two swallows, so I assume the parents are back to try again. Because of the height of the nest, I can’t see into it without help. I have to stand on a step stool and use a telescoping mirror to check for eggs. I take the time to find the tools I need. I must be hopeful because I also buy a plastic tarp to lay on the door step so it will be easier to clean up the mess.

July 22: There is one brown-speckled tan egg in the barn swallow nest on the porch!

When I look out, the mother swallow is usually sitting on the nest, watching me warily. On the rare occasions when she’s off foraging, I check the nest. The female lays one tiny egg a day, until she has a total of four. Now she is on the nest more often than not, so I know we will have hatchlings soon.

I can’t wait for the fun to start all over again. I wonder what else I will learn about them?

*The American Ornithological Union has a list of 4-letter codes for North American bird species, which can make keeping lists of birds in your journal quick and easy. BARS is the 4-letter code for barn swallow.

UPDATE: August 10: I finally got to peek in the nest this morning, and the eggs have hatched! I think the babies are a few days old at most — pink, gray, bald, and tiny. I’ll be keeping a close eye on them and drawing again as soon as I can see them without the mirror and stool.

3 Things Nature Artists Need to Remember About Social Media

Earlier this month, our dog Dory killed an immature desert cottontail rabbit. In the past, I’ve felt despondent over these little yard deaths. Even though I know these animals do not live long and many of them die young to feed the coyotes, foxes, and owls, I was still sad. This time, however, I did something besides leaving it in the tall grass to return to dust: I drew it. Documenting what I saw seemed like a kindness. Instead of treating this life as a throw-away, taking the time to really look at it and record it in my sketchbook honored the short life it had. I suppose it doesn’t help the rabbit any; it’s still dead. But it helped me to accept the death, and to feel that the rabbit’s life wasn’t negligible.

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Sketches of an immature desert cottontail (drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

Thanks to the drawing class I took in May, my drawing came out really well, so I shared it on Facebook with a group interested in nature journaling. The responses I got really surprised me and taught me some important things to remember about social media.

1) Context is critical.

Someone thought this rabbit was a rare or endangered hare and that I had let my dog run loose in its habitat. That person lives in California. I live in Colorado. Perhaps it’s rare in California, but the desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) is abundant in the neighborhood where I live. This little rabbit lives fast and dies young; few individuals live beyond two years, and they reproduce like, well, rabbits, in order to make up for it. Adult females can have up to four litters in one year and females born in the spring can have their first litter before the end of their first summer! It’s hard to imagine how a place wouldn’t be overrun with these guys.

Also, Dory caught this rabbit in our fenced-in back yard, which is the only place she goes off leash. I wouldn’t dream of taking her for a hike in a park or natural area off-leash. I am determined to keep any wildlife in the area safe from her (she thinks she’s a wolf) and her safe from the wildlife (she only weighs 13 pounds).

2) People can speak with authority and still be wrong.

I was told rather bluntly this animal was a hare, not a rabbit. I hadn’t thought about the difference, so I was grateful someone brought it up. One person insisted rabbits are domestic (raised and bred in captivity) and hares wild. Another argued that hares are from Britain, and rabbits from America. Curious as to who was right, I went through the books* in my house looking for an answer.

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Desert cottontail (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

The “experts” were wrong. The animal I drew is definitely a rabbit not a hare. There are two main differences between rabbits and hares, but they are not the ones I was given. Physically, hares have longer ears and longer hind legs than rabbits. (Despite their name, jackrabbits are actually hares, which unfortunately confuses the issue.) Another way to tell them apart is based on their reproductive strategies. Rabbits bear naked, blind (altricial) young while hares have fully-furred, open-eyed (precocial) young. This difference means baby hares can move around and eat vegetation as soon as they are born, while baby rabbits are initially helpless.

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Black-tailed jackrabbit, which is actually a hare; check out those ears and hind legs! (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

I am glad someone challenged me on this, because it made me educate myself. But it also reminded me I can’t take someone else’s word for these things. I have to verify what they’ve said.

3) Not everyone agrees on what is acceptable to draw.

Some people were shocked and disgusted that I would draw a dead animal. I should have seen this one coming, right? But I didn’t. I thought people who were interested in spending time outdoors drawing wildlife would understand that, for an artist, a natural death is an opportunity to see details close up and record them. Historically, naturalists collected their specimens with guns and traps, then identified or described the species after the fact, when they could easily examine the animal close-up. While I would never kill anything for this reason, I have spent time drawing skulls and taxidermy in order to learn more about the animals I’m interested in.

I’m not alone. Some artists did chime in, saying that they also drew the dead birds and animals they found in their yard. But there were a few who responded with a short and clear “yuck”. In the same way, there are people who do not want to see your drawings of nude models, so it might be better to post a questionable image in the comments and include a warning in the main post out of consideration for others.

Have you ever gotten an unexpected response to a Facebook post? What did you learn from it?

*References used for this article:

  • The American Heritage Dictionary. Fifth Edition, 2011.
  • Fisher, Chris, Don Pattie and Tamara Hartson. Mammals of the Rocky Mountains. Lone Pine Publishing, 2000, p. 244.
  • Halfpenny, James C., and Elisabeth A. Biesiot. A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America. Johnson Printing Company, 1986, p. 46.
  • Burton, Maurice and Robert Burton, editors. The International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1969

Multi-Basking: Layering Interests Increases Drawing Pleasure

Last week, I went to a local natural area so I could draw the prairie dogs that live there. I’ve wanted to do this for years, but haven’t felt able to tackle the task until now. The online drawing class I took in May (Roz Stendahl’s Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects in Public ) prepared me well. I knew what to take, I was comfortable drawing in public, and I didn’t let my moving subjects frustrate me. While the class is responsible for the success of my trip, it was multi-basking that made it such a wonderful experience.

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

When I arrived at Coyote Ridge Natural Area, it was almost ten in the morning. Afraid that I was too late to see any prairie dogs, I was relieved to find that they were busy feeding and watching for danger. To my delight, there was also a pair of burrowing owls. (I love their grumpy expressions.) Burrowing owls use abandoned prairie dog burrows as nests and I’ve seen them before in really large prairie dog towns. I hadn’t realized that the local colony was big enough to support them.

I set up my folding seat on the gravel path that runs along one edge of the prairie dog town and sat down to sketch. I watched both the prairie dogs and the owls. The owls sat fairly still, making them excellent subjects to draw, but the prairie dogs were often closer and easier to see. As I sketched, meadowlarks and horned larks sang nearby. Occasionally, hikers would pass behind me. A few even stopped to ask what I was looking at and I took a moment to talk with them.

The owls spent their time between two different mounds, which I assumed were the front and back doors of their burrow. At one point, a prairie dog came quite close to one mound. The owl standing watch dove at him, wings spread and beak open. The owl kept up the attack until the prairie dog had scurried away. The interaction left me wondering why the owl was so defensive. Do prairie dogs eat owl eggs? Or was the owl aggressive due to the higher hormones that go with breeding season?

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A few of the quick sketches I drew at Coyote Ridge. (Drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

When I left an hour later, I was feeling elated. Part of my joy came from the excitement of finally getting to draw prairie dogs at Coyote Ridge. Part of it was due to the pleasant surprise of getting to draw burrowing owls as well. But I soon realized there was much more to it than that.

The reason I felt so happy and fulfilled by a simple hour of drawing was because I’d managed to smoosh so many interests* into one activity. My main goal was to draw, but I made it richer by drawing live animals outdoors in a natural setting. I combined my love of the outdoors, my love of animals, my love of learning, and my love of teaching with my love of drawing. I learned some things I didn’t know and came away with questions I’d like to answer. I talked to strangers and helped educate them a little about the animals of the prairie. And of course, I got to draw and spend time watching the animals do their thing.

It seemed like a type of multi-tasking, only more effective and more fun. I was really multi-basking — letting myself enjoy many different things all at the same time. I recommend it highly.

Do you ever multi-bask? What activities or interests do you find go together well?

*”Smooshing interests” is a strategy discussed in How To Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want To Be When They Grow Up by Emilie Wapnick.

7 Frustrating Truths About Birding

Back in March, I spent a week in southern Arizona birding. While I have looked for birds while hiking in the past, this was my first trip dedicated to birding. I discovered that focused birding is both wonderful and frustrating. Here’s what I learned.

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Black-throated Sparrow (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

1) Birding can be intense. Knowing I might see something I’d never seen before made me vigilant. I concentrated and was alert whenever I was outside. Eventually, every little movement got my attention and I found myself gazing at a spiderweb glinting in the sunlight or a leaf shivering the in the breeze. Given how many leaves there are out there, it’s not surprising how tired I was by the end of the day.

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Acorn Woodpecker: Looks like a clown, acts like a king.  (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

2) You need to take your binoculars everywhere. I missed a good look at a raptor that might have been a new bird for me because I left my binoculars in the car while I went to the bathroom.

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Painted Redstart, one of the easier birds to identify (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

3) That bird you saw so clearly? It isn’t in the field guide. This happens to me all the time. My favorite on this trip was a big black bird I saw with rusty patches under the wings. I scoured the hawk pages, certain these “distinctive” marks would be easy to spot. Nothing. Then I saw Kurt’s photo of the same bird, and discovered it was a raven. Which brings us to

4) You will see more common than exotic birds. 99 times out of a 100, that hawk you saw was a red-tailed hawk, not one of the rarer hawks in the area. Unless it was black. Then it was probably a raven.

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Red-tailed Hawks. Just because they are everywhere doesn’t mean it isn’t a thrill to see them. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

5) Birds are tricky. Even though it was only March, most of the trees had already leafed out where we were, which meant the birds had plenty of places to hide. It was surprising to me how often I could hear a bird without laying eyes on it. You’d think the singing would give its location away.

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Mexican Jay: we thought we were hearing a flock of house sparrows until we finally saw these guys, which took an amazingly long time given their size. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

6) Birds are really tricky. They have either figured out how to travel through wormholes or have cloaking devices. Whichever it is, I can’t count the number of times a bird was right there and then just as suddenly wasn’t.

7) Check every bird in the flock, just in case. Often, different birds will flock together. At a reservoir in New Mexico, I saw one Ross’s goose hiding amongst a bunch of snow geese. Another time, I was certain there were at least three species in the flock of sparrows I was watching, but they all turned out to be Lincoln’s sparrows.

While birding was more work than I expected, it was worth the effort. I picked up 37 new-to-me species and got to see some birds that are Mexican natives. The rarest bird we saw was the streak-backed oriole. We also saw birds that are common to that area but were new to us, like Mexican jays, bridled titmouse, painted redstart, and acorn woodpeckers. Common or rare, moulting or in full breeding plumage, every one of them was a beauty.

Beyond Birds: Other Animals at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

During our visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, my sister and I saw raptors and lots of other birds, but there were plenty of animals to observe as well. While the museum’s focus on species that are native to Arizona limits the number of exhibits, there’s a sense that the animals are very much at home in their botanical garden setting. Many of them come from the same habitat and go together as a result.

The promise that we would be seeing wildlife was given to us as soon as we got out of the car. The parking lot had several of these unusual “do not feed the animals” signs.

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We didn’t get to see any coyotes that day, but the bighorn sheep were out. They were so focused, that I never got to see the ram from the front end.

Bighorn sheep, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Bighorn sheep (ram), photo by Kit Dunsmore
Bighorn sheep, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Bighorn sheep, photo by Kit Dunsmore

Thanks to the unusually warm weather that day, many of the mammals were napping in the afternoon. The gray fox was coy, with his tail over his nose, but the mountain lion was keeping an eye on us all.

Gray fox, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Gray fox, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Mountain lion, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Mountain lion, photo by Kit Dunsmore

Not all the animals were furry. I spent some time watching frogs in the riparian exhibit. I never realized just how odd they look until I tried to draw them.

Frogs (I forgot to write down the species!), photo by Kit Dunsmore
Frogs (I forgot to write down the species!), photo by Kit Dunsmore

Looking at my photos from the visit to the ASDM, I keep thinking two things: I should have taken a lot more pictures of this remarkable place and its wonderful inhabitants and I am eager to visit again some time soon.

Have you ever been to the ASDM? What’s your favorite zoo and why?

Raptors Fly Free at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

While I was in Tucson in February, I was fortunate enough to spend a day that the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Despite the name, the Museum is really a bunch of things: botanical garden, zoo, aquarium, and museum, all dedicated to species that are native to Arizona. I’d visited once before when I was living in Phoenix in the 80s and what I remembered were the remarkable aviaries — huge netted areas you could walk through, observing the birds up close. But this trip, I was struck by the birds that truly fly free.

The Museum has two Raptor Free-Flights a day, and they are exactly what they sound like. The birds fly into an open desert area and perch on the trees and cacti there, encouraged to do so by trainers who leave them treats.

An ASDM trainer sets food on a natural perch to entice a raptor to land there.
An ASDM trainer sets food on a natural perch to entice a raptor to land there. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

There are no nets, no jesses, no hoods, nothing to constrain or hold the birds in any way. The only fence is a railing to keep people on the section of path that the raptors fly over. Visitors are warned to keep their hands and cameras below their heads in case the birds come near, and it was good advice. The birds swooped right over us, close enough to touch.

During the Free Flight we watched, they let out a barn owl, and then a family group of Harris’s hawks.

A barn owl perching during a Raptor Free Flight.
A barn owl perching during the Raptor Free Flight program. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
One of the four Harris's hawks that came out for the Free Flight.
One of the four Harris’s hawks that came out for the Free Flight. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

While one of the trainers told us about them, the raptors perched nearby, flew overhead, and otherwise captivated those watching. The birds sleep in cages, but are let out daily. Sometimes they come out, sometimes they don’t. They aren’t forced to do anything. They are fed well, live comfortably, and given the chance to fly away and never return on a daily basis. But they don’t. Some were raised in captivity, but others started out wild, became injured and were rehabilitated. The trainer who spoke after the Free Flight was over told us that the birds have it cushy and know it. Apparently their instincts aren’t strong enough to inspire them to leave the museum for good.

A Harris's hawk with a trainer, free to come and go as she pleases.
A Harris’s hawk with a trainer, free to come and go as she pleases. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Just because it’s comfy in their cages doesn’t mean the birds come back right away. Occasionally, a bird will hunt and spend a few hours on top of a saguaro picking at the kill, or will spend an entire night sleeping out in the desert, ignoring the signal that tells the raptors that invites them to return to their home base.

I was awe-struck by the faith the trainers showed in the raptors. They let them choose what they will do and trust them to come home again when they are ready. Watching the hawks circling together overhead and sensing how natural it was for them only made the fact that they do come back day after day all the more remarkable. They clearly love to fly. But life at the Museum is not to be discarded lightly. As long as they keep getting time to fly free and hunt if they wish, the raptors are content to return to their cages when day is done. They seem to know that the choice is theirs.

Harris's hawk perched on a saguaro.
Harris’s hawk perched on a saguaro. Photo by Kit Dunsmore