Tag Archives: birds

Central Valley, CA sketch by Chandler O'Leary


I’ve written about California’s Central Valley before, and I have a feeling it’ll come up again. But there are just so many things to love about the place. Perhaps the best part of all is the birdwatching.

Central Valley, CA sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The Central Valley is a main thoroughfare along the Pacific Flyway, and hosts thousands upon thousands of both migratory and native birds every year. The best time to birdwatch is in the late winter, when the valley is otherwise at its most drab. While most of the human tourists are in more “interesting” places like the coast, the avian tourists are literally flocking to the Inland Empire.

So while most folks might consider the valley to be a flyover region that’s beneath their notice, birders might just find it to be heaven on earth.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

American ruins

This is the third installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

San Juan Capistrano is the jewel of the missions—seriously, it’s hard to think of a more beautiful place in all of California. I ended up finishing off the whole rest of my sketchbook there, because every time I blocked out a rough composition, I’d look in another direction and see something else I just had to draw.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Founded in 1776, Mission San Juan Capistrano contains the oldest building in California still in use. But the thing everyone comes to see is the large portion of the complex that lies in ruin.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

If you come to the mission from the north, the first thing you’ll see is the relatively brand-new mission basilica. The building is gorgeous, but was only built in 1986. Still, it follows the design of the original mission church—

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

—which is on the the other end of the property, and looks like this. The church was built in 1806, and flattened six years later by an earthquake. The ruins are where the famous swallows nest and return each year—though these days, that’s not so true anymore. I was there a month too soon anyway, so I saw a grand total of one swallow. But thanks to recent factors like increased development in the town and possibly climate change, the huge flocks just aren’t coming anymore. In the past 20 years or so, only a few birds have been coming home to roost each spring.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Hearing about the swallows was certainly a disappointment, but I was too enamored of the buildings themselves to be sad for long. What they most reminded me of was my time living in Italy. The cloister archways were one thing, but seeing the ruined stone church transported me right back to the Roman Forum.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The other thing that reminded me of Rome was the light—it was the kind of place where the “magic hour” seemed to last all afternoon.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I picked a good day to visit, too—despite the perfect weather, I was there in the off-season.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So even though I’m sure the place is packed to the gills during swallow season, there were only a handful of visitors there with me that day.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So that allowed me to choose whatever vantage point I wanted, and spent plenty of uninterrupted time sketching—just me, the mission, and all that Mediterranean light.

Owl sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Bird- and beastwatching

Whenever I travel closer to home, where the flora and fauna are familiar to me, my birdwatching sketches look a lot like any other in my sketchbooks: full scenes, with plenty of time taken to get the details right. (And if my subject should happen to wander away—well, if it’s something I’ve seen before, memory can usually fill in the rest.)

Big Bend National Park wildlife sketches by Chandler O'Leary

When I was at Big Bend, however, the combination of excitingly “exotic” wildlife and an insane amount of it made my drawings just a jumble of frantic chicken scratches and field notes.

Big Bend National Park wildlife sketches by Chandler O'Leary

I felt like a student in art school again, concentrating hard to commit my subjects to paper in just a few seconds, drawing and redrawing everything again and again to try to nail down anatomy and details in real time.

Big Bend National Park wildlife sketches by Chandler O'Leary

As you can probably guess, I like having more time to “finish” a sketch… but I also love that life drawing in a place where I don’t know bupkis keeps me on my toes.

Cut Bank Penguin sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Tuxedo twins

Bless their hearts, these birds aren’t quite so elegant as the Topeka Wren, but that’s no reason not to stand proud and proclaim their purpose.

Actually, even that is a little muddled here. Maybe Cut Bank really is the coldest spot in the nation… just don’t tell International Falls, MN. Or, you know, the entire state of Alaska.

Yard Bird sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And Washington’s famous Yard Birds store? Well, it’s defunct. But that’s okay—the 60-foot namesake (12th bird?) is alive and well, and standing for something, at the very least.

Wawa Goose sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Wild goose chase

Wawa is the Ojibwe word for “wild goose”—a fact the town of Wawa, Ontario would prefer you didn’t forget.

Wawa Goose sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And just to make sure the lesson hits home, there is a veritable flock of giant geese waiting to welcome you.

Wawa Goose sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I just hope these guys don’t get the notion to fly south for the winter—then we’ll be in trouble.

Topeka Wren sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Wrented wings

I’m always up for the hokey and awkward when it comes to roadside attractions, but every now and again you find a true masterpiece.

Case in point: the Topeka Wren (formerly the mascot for WREN radio in Lawrence, KS) nearly took my breath away. This bird is a couple decades older than your average roadside statue, so that may explain the difference in style. But what I love is how true to form the sculpture is. The sweeping bill and tail defy the parameters of what concrete can achieve, and the pose is incredibly lifelike.

I know, I know—it’s completely nuts to wax poetic about giant concrete birds. But if roadside sculptures were oil paintings (which is a comparison I often make, heaven help me!), I’m pretty sure this is the one DaVinci would have created.

World's largest prairie chicken sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Chicken Little

Of all the “world’s largest” giant fiberglass animals out there, this isn’t exactly one people make cross-country pilgrimages to see. Yet for some reason, it’s one of my all-time favorites.

Actually, I think it’s because with the help of the surrounding landscape, this chicken would make for one hilarious monster B-movie.

If only Ed Wood were still alive…

Giant prairie chicken sketch by Chandler O'Leary