Even before The Sibley Guide to Birds was published in 2000, people would sometimes ask if I considered myself an ornithologist first or an artist first. I always wished I had a simple answer for them, but the truth is that the two things—science and art—have always gone together for me. The process of drawing is the best way to learn what something looks like, and drawing was an essential tool in my study of birds, as well as the best means of recording and conveying what I learned.
Watching and drawing birds has been my principal passion since I was very young, and I could list many reasons why I find it so compelling, but they're probably all post hoc explanations and not specific to bird-watching. I simply liked it.
One of the most enduring attractions for me is that it gives me a chance to learn about an entire system (the natural world) by simply watching and getting to know the birds. When I can name a bird that I see, or notice subtle differences in appearance or behavior, that information gives me access to a store of knowledge about the species' habits and preferences. I know where its travels might have taken it, what type of food it's looking for, if it's likely to be alone or part of a flock. In short, I know that bird and have a sense of how it fits in the world around it.
My greatest satisfaction in bird-watching comes from forming this network of knowledge, understanding the relationships of the species to each other and to all the different aspects of their environment. Ultimately, this understanding allows me to put observations into a context of larger patterns. And there's a strong sense of reassurance in all of the repeating patterns of nature. The sun rises and sets, the moon cycles, the birds come and go with the seasons, that sound from the chickadees means a hawk is nearby, the cardinals are always the last birds awake in the backyard....
Now that I have published several field guides, each with thousands of paintings and thousands of words, people still sometimes ask me whether I'm mainly an author or mainly an artist. The answer is the same: I do both because the information I am trying to convey requires both.
I write (and paint) with the simple goal of teaching people how to identify birds and trees, so that people can know the names of the species they are seeing. On a deeper level, I'm trying to represent, in a book, some of the larger patterns of the natural world, and to help readers see the big picture so that they might experience the same satisfaction that I feel in knowing more about the living things around us.
I consider this sort of like making an introduction: “Reader, meet River Birch, it's a small tree that likes riverbanks, and I think you'll enjoy getting to know each other.”