Sketches used to identify fleeing avian suspects

Everyone's seen a bird before. But how close do you actually look at them?

This question also applies to people who make it their hobby to watch birds.

"We are rather sloppy observers," said John "Jack" Muir Laws, of San Francisco, a naturalist and nature sketch artist. "Once we can identify something, we stop really looking at it."

A large part of Laws' bird watching involves drawing them. He says sketching helps a birder see so much more. "How long is the beak, the pattern on the chest, what is the difference of color?" he said. "All sorts of things you wouldn't notice otherwise. And the memory of what you see is improved."

Laws is bringing his expertise to Mariposa. He will teach a hands-on bird sketching techniques workshop for the public from 9 a.m. to noon Friday at the Agriculture Complex conference room, across from the Mariposa County Fairgrounds.

The class is for people who enjoy drawing and want to sharpen their identification skills, said Holly Warner, a coordinator for the Upper Merced River Watershed Council, which is hosting this event with the Yosemite Area Audubon Society.

It's also for people who don't think they can draw.

"There's this mythology that some people have the gift of being able to draw -- that's not true," Laws said. "It's a skill. Get yourself doing it on a regular basis."

Nature sketching is more common in Europe than it is here, he said, adding that in the United States art and science are often kept separate.

Kris Randal, president of the Yosemite Area Audubon Society, said she hasn't seen many birders in her area use sketching as a method.

But it really can help new birders' education or bird watchers who don't have their field guides with them.

"If you see a bird you don't know, sketch it out," she said. "Then you might write something about it -- what time you saw it, what it was doing, the color, the habitat. Then you can go home and look it up."

Laws said he was always interested in natural history as a child and kept notes of his observations. But he was dyslexic, which made this practice more difficult.

So he started taking notes with more drawing and some writing -- which made expressing himself easier.

He doesn't just draw birds, he likes drawing nature in general. "But I have spent a lot of time carefully looking at birds," he said. "The most important? Getting down the shape of the body -- the basic shape, posture and proportion.

"If you don't have that basic shape, it won't look right."

His experience has led him to publish "The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada," with more than 2,800 illustrations, and "Sierra Birds: A Hiker's Guide."

And he's been a popular presenter at Mariposa nature-related events, said Len McKenzie, program chair of the Audubon Society and president of the Mariposa County Resource Conservation District.

Those who can't wait until Laws' drawing techniques workshop can see his free presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday evening titled "Exploring the Sierra Nevada as a Naturalist and an Artist."

It will be held at Mariposa Methodist Church.

Laws plans to also discuss sketching as a method of watching at this event.

"I think it's a powerful tool, to learn to look," he said. "Even animals you see around you all the time. Many people discover they've never really looked at a scrub jay."

Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at (209) 385-2472 or

If you go

WHAT: Bird sketching techniques hands-on workshop

WHEN: 9 a.m. to noon Friday

WHERE: Agriculture Complex conference room, 5009 Fairgrounds Road, Mariposa

COST: $25 per person. Sign up in advance -- space is limited

For more information or to reserve a space, call (209) 966-2221 or e-mail