I got in to birds in 1985 when I was 17. I was on holiday in our caravan with my Mum, Dad and Sister near Arisaig in Scotland. On the night of the 3rd August I dreamt about birding and the next morning I caught the train to Mallaig to buy my first bird book, Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, and I was hooked.
I went to Durham University soon afterwards and began travelling long distances to see rare birds with a group of friends I met there. My first twitch was in 1987, a Pied-billed Grebe at Kenfig National Nature Reserve in South Wales. Some of my birding highlights since then have included seeing Double-crested Cormorant, Golden-winged Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Black-browed Albatross, Ancient Murrelet, Black-billed Cuckoo, Cedar Waxwing, Siberian Thrush, White’s Thrush and Grey Catbird.
I’ve always been in awe of bird artists, people like Ian Lewington, Killian Mullarney, Szabolcs Kokay, Juan Varela, Richard Johnson and Barry Van Dusey and have longed to improve my own drawing ability. When I first started trying I was pretty poor and although I’ve improved over the years it’s never easy and sometimes you can get a little dispirited especially when you compare yourself to people like those mentioned above.
I’ve now seen 444 species of bird in Britain travelling more than 50,000 miles and along the way I’ve seen almost all of Britain’s butterflies, orchids, dragonflies, grasshoppers & bumblebees. In my blog I’ve included some of my earlier twitching stories which I love to look back on as you quickly forget so much of the detail which makes these trips so amazing and exciting.
When drawing moving birds many artists suggest that you should draw as fast as you can and suspend judgement allowing your pencil to move as quickly as possible. I can see why this is good advice but personally speaking I found that I couldn’t retain the visual image long enough and so I was guessing shapes and angles and that usually went wrong. I later came across some great advice from Nick Derry which really works for me. Based on his comments my approach is that the subject needs to be seen well and it’s not about being speedy and sloppy it’s about having a strong mental image of what you’re going to draw, drawing it immediately and then stopping, not fiddling if you’re unsure. Drawing what you see is a lot better than drawing what you think is there. Make sure the shape and proportions are correct before adding details and if the bird moves start a second drawing, revert to the original sketch when it readopts the position, the drawing you get furthest with is the most common posture of the bird.
Although it’s difficult I firmly believe that you can get to a good level from a very basic starting point with effort and determination. I’ve had a few images published over the years and provided the artwork for the Dorset Bird Report when it won UK Annual Bird Report of the Year.
My approach is to fully finish the field sketches in pencil while out in the field (no bridge camera or photos used) and I then apply some watercolour or gouache when I get back home. This means I can get away with carrying less. I find that an angled telescope is better as you can look through the scope and at your sketchbook at the same time without moving your head, this means that the gap in time between seeing and sketching is reduced.
Since 1985 I’ve taken a few pauses from birding, when my two daughters were young and after I left my full time job with Lloyds Bank to set up my own business teaching Landscape Photography (purely a hobby until then). When I returned back to birding more seriously in 2018 I also picked up my pencils and paint brushes and started sketching again.
In 2019 I set myself the target of seeing 250 birds in the year and sketching as many of the rarer ones as I could get good views of. I reached this target on 16th October with the Blue Rock Thrush on St Marys, Scilly and I finished 2019 with 263 species.
I’ve reached the 250 milestone only once before, in 1996 when I ended the year with 289. It’s unlikely that I will ever beat 289 as this involved trips to Scotland, the Farne Islands, Cumbria, Tyne and Wear, Cleveland, the Scillies twice, Cheshire, Cornwall 6 times, Devon 5 times, North Wales 3 times and Norfolk twice. Also more ‘local’ visits to Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire, Kent, Somerset, Staffordshire, South Wales, Dorset, Surrey, Sussex and Wiltshire. I don’t think I can face doing all of that again!!
Chris Button, January 2020