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.

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.

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.

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.

Creative Exercises: Waste Of Time Or Valuable Experiment?

The last time I took a writing class, I was the world’s crankiest student. My teacher would assign homework in the form of exercises, and I would sneer or balk. When she asked us to practice writing opening sentences for a short story, for example, I wrote smart-alecky stuff like this:

“Do you think he intends to use that?” Lady Winifred asked her sister, gesturing with her half-full porcelain tea-cup towards the wild-eyed man in fatigues who had just burst through the French windows and stood staring at them, a toaster in his hands.

The other students were amused, but I’m not sure the teacher was. She intended for us to learn something from the exercise, but I refused to take it seriously. In my mind, any sentence could be the opening to a story. What decided if it worked or not was what came after. To just write opening sentences out of context was useless.

I feel like this about most writing exercises. They seem trite or pointless to me. Writing prompts are just as bad. It’s “write about your summer vacation” all over again. I don’t think I know everything there is to know about writing, but random exercises and prompts feel like a waste of time. I’ve got novels to write. I don’t have time to goof around like this.

When I signed up for a drawing class, I was once again given exercises to try. These require use of specific media in specific ways, and often include suggestions of what to draw. The remarkable thing is that I sit down and do them without questioning a thing. The closest I’ve gotten to rebelling was our latest assignment. I wasn’t excited by the idea of painting fruit and vegetables so I was going to do flowers instead. Once I started the project, however, I saw that my flowers were too complex to fit in the grid, so I wound up following the directions.

Rebel says: Draw these!
Rebel says: Draw these!
Rational mind says: Stick with the given assignment. (The grid has 2-inch squares which are not very big. Those roses need big.)
Rational mind says: Stick with the given assignment. (The grid has 2-inch squares which are not very big. Those roses need big.)

I am still astonished by this change. What happened to my snarky, rebellious inner artist? She’s still there, but I don’t think she’s as strong when it comes to drawing and painting. I feel like an utter beginner. I’ve drawn a little in the past, but never had instruction, and haven’t really practiced. Working with colored pencils or watercolors feels new, and having suggestions to follow is refreshing since I don’t know what I’m doing. I am open and ready to learn. I’m willing to experiment even though I might fail. Exercises are not seen as a waste of time because the suggestions provided are as good as any ideas I have of my own.

Many times over the years, I’ve tried to achieve this same beginner’s mind regarding writing exercises. To become a better writer, I need to practice, and writing exercises are one way to do that. But achieving beginner’s mind is no easy feat. When that doesn’t work, which is most of the time, I turn to two other ideas that have helped me embrace writing exercises a little more willingly.

The first is adapting the exercise in question to my current project. I use characters, settings, and situations from my novel that fit the requirements of the exercise so I can play around with the story I’m already working on. While I am still off track as far as writing my draft, I’m at least developing a better understanding of the work I have in hand. The experimental writing can apply to something I care about, and I’ve actually learned important things this way.

The second is remembering Pat Schneider’s explanation of the proper use of writing prompts (in Writing Alone and With Others). She says a prompt is not meant to be the subject of your essay. It’s meant to be a starting point. You write about whatever comes to mind, whether it is triggered by or unrelated to the prompt itself. The goal isn’t to write about the given topic. The goal is to write. The prompt is just a way to jump-start your mind and help you find something to write about.

Both of these tricks are going to be helpful with my drawing before too much longer. That desire to draw something other than what was recommended was a warning sign. The rebel in me merely slumbers. She’ll be up and kicking as I get more comfortable drawing. When I no longer feel like a beginner, I’ll start applying the given exercises to the projects I’m interested in, or paint whatever comes to mind as a result of the suggested subject. Experience has taught me this is one way to make these “useless” exercises have value for me and I expect it will work for drawing as well as it does for writing.

How do you feel about creative exercises? Are they useful lessons, meaningless wastes of time, or somewhere in between?