Birding Homework (live episode)

Do you ever give yourself nature journaling homework?  In this live episode of the Nature Journal Show, Marley shows us how to use birding homework to make us better nature journalers.  Follow along!  You will need: your nature journal, a writing utensil of your choice, a bird guide book, and your computer.

“Whether you’re in the field learning or at home learning – the nature journal is the perfect place to make your learning so much easier, your work so much better, and improve your memory so much more.”

Marley comes prepared with an agenda:
  1. First, he sets up his page so his information stays organized.

    Marley sets up his Sparrow Study
    Marley sets up his page for the sparrow study, using a grid to separate and organize the information for each species.
  2. Second, he uses the bird guide to draw quick sketches of the birds he wants to study.  Marley’s tools of choice:  Pilot Futayaku gray and black brush pen (his favorite!). Tombow brush pen in pale gray.  Pentel waterbrush size large. John Muir Laws’s custom watercolor palette.
  3. Third, he reads the descriptions in the bird guide and adds notes to his journal.  Here, Marley references the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.
  4. Fourth, he listens to the birds’ songs on Dendroica and creates a sonogram of what he hears.
Marley uses Petersons for his Sparrow Study
Marley uses a bird guide book to find and write characteristics and details about the sparrows in his birding homework.

Why do homework this way?

Why not simply read about the birds in the guides or on a website?  What purpose does it serve to write all of this down when it’s not even your own field notes?  Marley has an answer for this: by writing down the information and interpreting it into your own way of thinking, you remember it better.  This is not busywork – you are training your brain to remember these details so they will serve you when you are out in the field.

Marley notes that it’s important to write down your sources for this information: “Think of it as your metadata!”  It is OK to copy from the book as long as you are not selling your work – but you should always credit your sources.  That way, if you need to revisit or modify the information, or if someone else wants to study it too, you know where it originally came from.

Using Dendroica's spectrogram
Marley uses Dendroica’s spectrogram feature to help him “see” the birdsong

A few extra tips

  • When you’re doing your birding homework, don’t worry about making your drawings perfect.  This is practice, and getting hung up on perfection might make it harder for you to complete the exercises.
  • Some birds, such as sparrows, have different dialects depending on where they are from. For example, a white-crowned sparrow from your area might sound very different from a white-crowned sparrow who lives somewhere else, so try to find a song sample that’s from your region.  If you can’t, try listening to multiple song samples from different areas and seeing where the similarities in them fall.
  • Use “it reminds me of” when you are listening to bird songs.  You can liken a particular note of the song to an instrument, or even to words.  Many birders hear phrases inside the songs that help them to remember their rhythm and cadence.
  • Listen to the song more than once.  Really slow down, and use the spectrogram to help you “see” the song.
  • Drink coffee.
birding homework sparrow study
The birding homework is done! For today…

Now that you’ve done your birding homework, go out into the field and try to use what you’ve learned!  You can always go back and add notes when you’ve learned something new, or do more birding homework to further improve your skills.  Interspersing homework with field study might just be the way to go.  Don’t forget your binoculars!

 

To meet another nature journaler who is also a birder, check out Marley’s interview with Christina Baal.

Are you new to nature journaling? If so, then this post has the basics : How to Nature Journal in 10 Steps

Do you need help choosing nature journaling supplies? In that case check out Nature Journaling Supplies: What You Need and What You Do Not

Birding and Nature Journaling: Special Technique

Let’s combine birding and Nature Journaling  to see more birds, learn faster, improve our memory of field marks, and go deeper with each bird. In this video I show you how to use a secret technique to have more close encounters with birds. This approach can help you whether you are a birder or a nature journaler . You might be surprised because it is not what you think.

“The watched pot never boils”

Everyone has heard the above expression. However, not everyone knows that it applies to birding. In fact, the expression could be “the watched bird never does what you want.” Many times the watched area may not produce birds at all. Most birders and animal lovers have had this experience in nature. This experience can be especially difficult for bird photographers and artists. As soon as you see the bird it will turn away or leave. How can we solve this problem?

Secret Technique for Birding and Nature Journaling

  1. First, we are going to pretend like we are not looking for birds.
  2. Next choose a location that is comfortable and of varied habitat.
  3. Bring a comfy chair, binoculars and nature journaling supplies.
  4. Start drawing a tree or painting a landscapito.
  5. After about 20 minutes I find that the birds start to come to you. Be sure that you have your binoculars ready.
  6. Create a sidebar or reserve a blank area next to your tree drawing or landscape painting for recording your bird observations.
What if I’m new to nature journaling?
  • Nature Journaling is not focused on drawing pretty pictures. If you focus too much on pretty pictures or you have unconscious expectations about prettiness you will struggle more.
  • Focus on what you notice.
  • Turn your drawing into a diagram. This takes pressure off the art.
  • Trace shadows. If you are afraid to draw a tree, try sitting under one and tracing cast shadows on your page.
  • Trace leaves. This is another low risk method you can try.
  • Remember that nature journaling uses 3 languages: words, images, and numbers. Try to use them all.
  • Experiment with your own ways to combine birding and nature journaling.
What if I’m new to birding?
  • It is ok if you cannot identify birds at first. Sometimes you can notice more about things when you do not know their names. Just write down or sketch the features you notice about them.
  • Try looking up birds when you get home.
  • Try going with friends who are more experienced birders. Maybe introduce them to nature journaling.
  • Experiment with other ways to combine nature journaling and birding.

birding and nature journaling combined can help you learn more about common birds and enjoy drawing them. This is an example of a nature journal page where I focused on a common "trash bird" in Costa Rica that most birders would have not paid much attention to.

For more fun how to nature journaling videos.
For an in-depth guide to drawing birds check out this video from John Muir Laws.
See how nature journaling can make you a better birder.

I’m Working Hard and Loving It

I include a lot of my thoughts, feelings, and routines on a roadtrip to teach at the Monterey Bay Birding Festival. I talk about my growing conviction that this kind of work is part of my mission in life. I am working to build this mission into my own career and my own way of contributing to the world. This video is dedicated to Robert Laws and John Muir Laws my mentor. And even though I did not know Robert Laws personally If it weren’t for him and the lineage through Jack, I would not be half way as far along the path that I am on.

Nature Journal Field Trip to Sacramento Valley

On June fourth I will be participating in the Bay Area Nature Journal Club field trip with Jack Laws! I’m always excited to go Nature Journaling with Jack. Last time I went with him we saw four peregrine falcons including a dramatic hunt and kill.

For this month the trip will be to the Sacramento Valley Rice Country for some exciting bird action!

The rice farmers of the Sacramento Valley have worked closely with bird conservation groups to maximize the wildlife potential of the fields. In springtime and early summer rice fields are thriving bird nurseries. The Nature Journal Club will be the guests of the California Rice Commission for a rare behind the scenes tour of Sacramento Valley rice farms. We will search for nesting birds and learn about bird friendly agricultural techniques.

The program is open to all ages and ability levels. No registration necessary. $20 suggested donation.

Seeing and Not Seeing

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

–Sherlock Holmes

Have you ever revisited somewhere that you have been many times and seen things that you didn’t notice or never paid attention to before?  I know that I have.

Have you ever noticed that after shopping for one type of a shoes or reading about one type of animal all of a sudden you are noticing them everywhere? I know that I have.

It is easy for the conscious mind to come up with faulty explanations for these occurrences, such as, “Wow. Everybody is getting the same shoes as me now.”  But the truth is usually not in the outside environment but in one’s own perception.

When I was a kid, growing up in Southern California, I was very observant and I noticed more things in nature and saw more animals than the average kid my age and much more than the average adult. However, I was an untrained naturalist for the most part and when it came to birds I knew few by name. When it came to local birds of prey I knew even fewer by name. The name that I definitely did know was red-tailed hawk. And sure enough, the only raptors that I remember seeing were red-tailed hawks.

Later, when I moved to another part of the state for college, I had the good luck of taking a natural history class where I learned about five different local birds of prey and learned to identify them frequently in the field. My first interpretation was: “Wow, there are so many more raptor species here than in Southern California, there must be some environmental reason.”

In subsequent visits to Southern California however, I started seeing many of the other species of raptors. Apparently, some of what had been “red-tailed hawks” turned out to be red-shouldered hawks, and some were probably even accipiters, while surely many of the other birds had just gone un-named and therefore un-noticed.

The field of cognitive science has learned a lot about perception in the last few decades and much research has been focused on vision. Most people take what they see for granted as an unadulterated, objective view of reality. As it turns out, what we see is vastly mediated by what we know, what we think we know, and what we expect or don’t expect.

If you only know the name of one kind of bird you might not see much else besides that bird. But if you read a whole book about the elusive Cooper’s hawk you will probably start seeing them (and hearing them) all over the place.

The morals of the story are:

  • What you see and what you don’t see is shaped by what you know and don’t know.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions about environmental reasons for what you see or don’t see.
  • You can train yourself to see more

 


I will be adding more related articles about observation in small digestible segments.

 

Tracking Birds

Many animals do not leave tracks in easy to read substrates such as sand and mud. Some animals climb trees, swim under water, or fly in the air. Other animals burrow under the ground or slide across it on a mucous-lubricated peristaltic stomach-foot (snails and slugs).

Are these animals impossible to track?

I take a holistic approach to tracking and would argue that everything leaves tracks including fish in water, birds in the air, and slippery slugs. It is often necessary to change your perspective or think outside the box to see or infer these “tracks.”

I recently wanted to see the tracks of a bird that I have never seen walking on the ground. It is a common bird that prefers to perch on branches or fences, flying out to catch insects on the wing. There were a couple popular perch spots near my house and I decided to create “tracking traps” on these spots. I simply sprinkled some fine dust on the flat surfaces (cheap white flour works well (unless the animals are gluten-intolerant)).

Phoebe Tracks - 3

Luckily one of the perches was on the edge of a wine barrel so there was plenty of flat space to put the dust. I knew the bird perched on the very rim of the barrel. I tried to get dust on the rim but I also hoped that the bird might venture a footstep or two onto the flat area.

Immediately, the dust began recording interesting information. A variety of marks were being made in the dust, some clearer than others. One added benefit was I could tell which scats were new because they were on top of the dust.

Phoebe Tracks - 1

While I have yet to get the footprints that I hoped for I did get some perhaps more interesting and important tracks. Tracks are not only made by feet and in this case the tracks appear to be made by the other set of appendages that birds have, the ones they fly with. Look closely at the photo to see the marks left by an extended wing. You can even see the individual ridges on the feathers if you look closely.

Phoebe Tracks - 2 bigClick on me

This experience has several embedded lessons:

First, all animals leave tracks. They might be vortices of air or thermal disturbances that we usually can not see. Or they might not be what we think of as tracks and we might not know how to interpret the pattern.

Second, you can manipulate the environment to accelerate your learning. You don’t have to travel 50 miles to sand dunes or riparian areas that have the best substrates for tracking. You can sprinkle flour or rake out a good spot of dirt in your yard.

Third, be prepared to notice and learn what you weren’t expecting. Even though I was hoping to get footprint tracks I got something else. If I had been so fixed on seeing footprints I might have missed the subtle tracks left by the bird’s wing. Often times this unexpected lesson is the thing you really need to learn about more than the thing you were looking for.

 

Guessing Game: If you think you know your bird scat and habits try to guess what species this is. I will reveal the answer in a future post 🙂