On Christmas morning, with a temperature of 25, I headed down from the foothills of the Gold Country to the flats of the Central Valley. My goal was to practice digisketching: the act of sketching with the aid of a spotting scope. I also wanted to experiment with digiscoping, which is the art of  capturing an image with a camera through a spotting scope. I failed and succeeded in equal measures.

The area around my mother’s house offers many sketchable vistas. The epicenter is Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, just north of the Sutter Buttes. I headed there with scope, tripod, journal, watercolors, and pencils.

The advantages of using a scope for field sketching are numerous, including bringing wildlife much closer than binoculars, providing richer details, and  creating the ability to sketch animals in  a more “natural”, relaxed posture (because you are so far removed from your subjects).

As I neared the wildlife area, the fields and skies filled with birds. As the the retort of shotgun blasts punctuated the soundtrack of the mew of tundra swans and the bugle of flying Vs of snow geese, I attached my scope and tripod on a turnout of a two-lane country road.


Winter skies above Gray Lodge are filled with snow geese.


Thousands of snow geese over-winter in California’s Central Valley. It is estimated that a million ducks and half a million geese spend the winter in the valley. This is a mixed flock of snow and Ross’s geese at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.


Digiscope shot of an adult bald eagle at Gray Lodge. The field sketch of this eagle is the featured image of this post. The spotting scope brought the far off eagle close so I could add the bird to my sketchbook.


Practice makes perfect. Digiscope shot of a group of sandhill cranes in fields south of the Colusa Highway.

Wildlife field sketching is really about letting go of the pretty picture. These are drawings that are not intended to be framed and displayed or even shown to friends. The end goal of these sketches are self knowledge and improving the eye and the hand when representing an animal in real time. It is a pursuit where mistakes are an opportunity to learn and improve. As I tell my students, “Always make new mistakes”.



Digiscope shot and digisketch of a juvenile bald eagle seen and sketched on Matthews Lane.  It was later joined by another juvenile for a little duck hunting. They both returned empty-taloned. The vignetting on the left is a downside to the process but this image provides great visual notes that can be used to create studio sketches.


An easy lesson learned, sketch a bird at rest, they make obliging subjects. This is a common merganser resting on a pond near my mother’s house.



The stunning tundra swan overwinters in flooded fields in the Central Valley. The top sketch was of a bird off Matthews Lane and the digiscope shot was of a swan off of Jack’s Slough near Marysville.

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