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Art of science: Audubon sponsors atlas of Mecklenburg birds

By Amber Veverka

The golden-crowned kinglet leans over a sketched-twig perch, his bright eye peering out from the page at his creator, Leigh Anne Carter.

Carter, 27, is a scientific illustrator, a member of a storied profession whose practitioners – from famous naturalists such as John James Audubon to modern-day illustrators at the National Geographic Society – convey scientific data through the grace and power of art.

Carter’s drawing of the kinglet, a spry little bird with distinctive striping on its head, is one of more than 300 species of birds Carter is capturing with pencil and paper for part of a groundbreaking scientific research project underway in Mecklenburg County.

The project is the Mecklenburg Breeding Bird Atlas, and it will tell researchers, for the first time, precisely which species of birds still make their homes in the county – and how Mecklenburg’s rampant development may be affecting their populations. Some 125 species breed in the county, while others make it their temporary home. The collecting of data about the birds is being done in a scientifically repeatable way so that it will serve as a baseline for the future, to help birders and scientists document changes in a region where the human population is projected to jump by nearly 300,000 by 2030. The book also will include a section on the lost birds of Mecklenburg – species such as the passenger pigeon, which once fluttered through downtown Charlotte.

Such atlases have been done at the state or regional level, but it’s rare for a county to pull off such a feat, which relies on donated funds and dozens of volunteers – “citizen scientists” – to walk through neighborhoods, parks and city streets over the course of three years, watching for nesting birds and recording what they see.

“These animals represent the health of (the) overall habitat,” said Donald Seriff, “Breeding Bird Atlas” coordinator and conservation biologist for Mecklenburg Park & Recreation. “If you lose the bird, you lose hundreds of other species.”

Both the data and Carter’s drawings tell a story of loss and survival. There’s the barn owl, an elegant, ghostly species which once nested throughout the county but which is now reduced to a single bird. And then there’s the great blue heron, which disappeared from Mecklenburg County for more than 50 years – but now has rebounded so successfully that local scientists no longer worry about watching for its nests.

After the data-gathering is complete next year, the end result of the bird atlas will be a searchable database and a published book, with Carter’s illustrations enlivening every page.

Close-ups and detail

“An original illustration of any kind of plant or animal species that is done well adds a tremendous amount to any publication on plants or animals,” said Seriff. The atlas also will include photographs, but unlike photos, illustrations can “emphasize information with close-ups and detail,” Carter said, and provide a “lively portrait” showing the most typical examples of a species’ markings or form.

Carter, a Charlotte native, began a fascination with drawing and the natural world at a young age. Originally, she thought she might become a veterinarian, an ambition quashed after she sat in to observe a surgery on a cat – and quickly fled the room.

After undergraduate work in art and writing at UNC Wilmington, she studied science illustration at California State University at Monterey Bay. Then she embarked on a series of projects and internships around the country, leaving in her wake a trove of science art: watercolors of Appalachian salamanders, brochures for wildlife groups, a series of intricate flea beetle drawings for a Smithsonian scientist’s research and more.

“I was searching for a while to figure out what my calling is, and with art and the natural world – it emerged,” Carter said. “I can’t ask for anything more fun. It’s the best!”

That’s not to say science illustration is a field thick with jobs. “You have to make your own way in it,” Carter explained. That means looking for textbook producers who need diagrams, museums readying new displays, magazines that want maps or researchers needing someone to translate their findings visually.

For the Mecklenburg Breeding Bird Atlas, a project sponsored by the Mecklenburg Audubon Society, the illustrations will help highlight species that may be threatened in the future, and serve as a way to witness nature “through someone else’s eyes,” said Jill Palmer, president of Mecklenburg Audubon Society. “You talk to a lot of birders… (and they say) photos are good to document, but those exact field marks, you can’t always get from a photo. You need a good drawing.”

To begin capturing a bird on paper, Carter researches images, using field guides and other books to help her understand the bird’s body shape and key markings. Sometimes, working from a guest bedroom-turned-studio at the Charlotte area home she shares with her parents south of Mountain Island Lake, she’ll draw birds she sees flitting to and from feeders. On a hike in a greenway, she may snap photos of the species she sees and use them to make drawings.

Pencils, computer scans

Working from rough sketches, Carter then transfers the basic image onto coquille paper, a paper stippled with tiny bumps that give a picture texture.

She’ll then create the final illustration using black Prismacolor pencils, the tentative, delicate initial lines giving way to confident strokes. Carter will softly shade wing feathers, add shine to eyes, and cause shadow and light to fall over her birds in such a way that they look almost ready to wing away from the page.

She and Seriff confer on each batch of drawings so she can make necessary changes for accuracy, then Carter scans the pictures into a computer and uses software to adjust the exposure for optimum printing. Scott Rawlins, president of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, a national trade group, says digital tools are important to science illustration, but anyone in the field is going to need traditional skills first.

“Most contemporary scientific illustrators use digital technology to one degree to another. Almost all of them admit that mastery of traditional approaches to drawing and painting is critical to developing a digital style that is aesthetically pleasing,” said Rawlins, a professor of art at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. “Many illustrators begin their renderings with sketches, and depending on the setting – for example, an archaeological dig or a perch high in the rainforest canopy – a pencil and pad of paper are generally the best materials to use.”

The main thing, Rawlins said, is that science illustration strives for clarity along with aesthetic quality: “When the illustrator appreciates the value of an aesthetic approach, (he or she) can often convince the scientists that this is the way to go, thus preserving a certain classical look,” he says.

Carter, who recently began work on bird drawing No. 205 – a blue-winged teal – said she’s hopeful that good illustrations will draw in people who don’t think they’re interested in science. “You’re trying to show the public (science) might not be that difficult to understand if you look at it in a different way,” she said. “And hopefully drawings and paintings will get people who aren’t interested in being outside interested in it.”

For herself, Carter finds that a monthslong focus on drawing birds has her noticing all the creatures perching and flying around her.

“Every time I’m drawing something, I fall a little bit in love with it,” Carter said, “and after 205 birds, I’m not tired of them.”

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