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?

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

Wildlife Art: Grama Tortoise Glass Beads And Sculpture

One of the great things about helping my sister Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan (aka Grama Tortoise) at the Best Bead Show in Tucson is getting to see her latest work. Since we live in different parts of the country, I hear about her new lampwork glass pieces long before I get to see them. Her photos on Etsy are wonderful, but there’s nothing like seeing them in person. Here are some of the pieces that caught my attention this year.

Cleo is known for her owl and raptor beads, but she also makes other birds, including chickens and geese.

Sultan chicken bead by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Sultan chicken bead by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Canada goose glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Canada goose glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan

Her interest in animals has also lead to a line of romance horses in unusual colors. These borosilicate horse heads have loops on the back for stringing and make surprisingly comfortable necklaces (I got to wear one while I was in Tucson).

horse_web

Cleo has also added glass sculpture to her repertoire. Some of her pieces can be treated as cabochons: worked into bead embroidery, or wired into a necklace or brooch. Others, like the Yoga Frog and the Canada Goose, are designed for display on a shelf or in a case.

Hawk's bill sea turtle glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Hawksbill sea turtle glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Yoga Frog: Tree Pose, glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Yoga Frog: Tree Pose, glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Tortoise, glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Tortoise, glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan (This guy is tiny. He can sit in the palm of your hand.)

She also makes cute little furry animals: rabbits, mice, squirrels, even possums and sloths, but I’ve run out of room for pictures. You can see more of her work at her website and in her Etsy store. Definitely take the time to go look through her galleries. I’ve barely scratched the surface of her latest work here.

Fiber Fun: Megan Nedds and The Woolen Wagon

Those who’ve been here before know I usually put up knitting or crocheting projects on Friday, but I’ve decided to branch out to another form of fiber art today: needle-felting.

Megan Nedds makes realistic sculptures of animals and birds using needle-felting techniques. Her creations have wire armatures that allow them to be posed in many different ways, adding to the impression that they are alive.

Siri the Cheetah, by Megan Nedds
Siri the Cheetah, by Megan Nedds
Edgar the Raven, by Megan Nedds
Edgar the Raven, by Megan Nedds

Nedds taught herself how to needle-felt, although she has taken a class or two to help her refine her skills. I’ve done a little needle-felting and am in awe of her skill. I love the amount of detail and expression she achieves in her pieces. Those baby elephants look eager to play.

Kara and Chloe the baby elephants, by Megan Nedds
Kara and Chloe the Baby Elephants, by Megan Nedds
Katie the Chipmunk, by Megan Nedds
Katie the Chipmunk, by Megan Nedds
Dakotah the Gray Wolf, by Megan Nedds
Dakotah the Gray Wolf, by Megan Nedds

Nedds sells her work on Etsy and you can contact her there to get a commission done, but the place to see more of her work is The Woolen Wagon on Facebook. Check out the photo album “Meet The Animals” to see all her creations. Scroll down the main page to see process photos that show the underlying armature and just how much work it takes to create these enchanting creatures.

A Day in the Rockies: Little Critters

Our day in the mountains was full of wildlife. When we weren’t busy seeing big mammals, we enjoyed the birds and the small animals of the woods. Dad and Kurt got a lot more bird pictures than I did, but I still managed to catch a few. While Mom and I sat at a picnic table by Lily Lake, a song sparrow landed right in front of us and sang long enough for me to snap a picture.

Song sparrow

Another Lily Lake show-off was a ground squirrel who has clearly been fed in the past. He came out and posed for me.

Later, when we were searching Rocky Mountain National Park for elk, a stellar jay landed in a tree right next to us, and we all took pictures of him. Unfortunately, the memory card in my camera maxed out right then. I only got two shots of him.

Tomorrow: plant life that caught my eye (and wound up in my camera).