Sunday, October 26, 2008

More Shorebird Drawings

I finally got a chance to return to artwork today. As usual the first process is to figure out what medium I'm going to use. The three that I've used exclusively over the last two years are charcoal, pastel and watercolor. Right now I just don't have time to undertake anything new, like for instance printmaking. So today the first hour or two was spent deciding on a medium. I'd almost gotten out my watercolors to try to remedy a very bad watercolor I started a week ago of a robin in our crabapple when I decided that might be like throwing good money after bad. Instead I decided to return to shorebirds and charcoal instead.

I wrote on Museworthy's blog recently that I once spent three hours a night, five days a week doing figure drawing for a couple of years while living in San Francisco. I always did this after working at a very dull job and it helped to bring something creative to my day. Work certainly wasn't! I mentioned that I thought I was still influenced to a great extent by all of that figure drawing. And I think that is one of the appeals of drawing shorebirds. For some reason they seem to take more anthropomorphic poses than other birds, for instance warblers. Or maybe warblers do so but they just don't sit still long enough for you ever to notice. They're constantly on the move.

But shorebirds often amble along, like the Lesser Yellowlegs above, taking a somewhat human pose, and offering the artist a chance to capture that sense of movement. I hope that I have captured the movement here. Now I need to add a little background detail, hopefully without taking all of the life out of the drawing. Only time will tell.........

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What do you do, just listen?

This post is a quasi-anniversary for this blog. A little over two years ago the sight of an osprey at the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia was the impetus for starting a web site devoted to art, birds and nature. About nine months ago I migrated the contents of that web site to this new blog. Near the very bottom of this blog you'll find that post.

We had never found an osprey to be a regular visitor there. The only other time I'd seen one was the day after the general election of 2004. So it was a real surprise to find one again 2006. Though ospreys were in great decline in the 1950s due to DDT they have made quite a comeback. We see them frequently near large bodies of water, often the ocean, especially near Cape May, NJ, but also at the large water impoundments of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia. We had heard rumors of them being seen at the Wissahickon but we'd never seen any ourselves. When we did it was a momentous enough event to get me to start this blog.

Yesterday we took a 4 1/2 hour walk at the Wissahickon. This was a well deserved vacation after 6 days of stripping wallpaper, spackling, sanding and painting at home. Many of the same birds we saw in that post of two years ago appeared: ruby-crowned kinglet and golden-crowned kinglet, great blue heron, many downy woodpeckers, et al. But no osprey. Then we heard the full-throated whistle that accompanied the osprey two years ago. Examples of osprey calls can be found at the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Just search for 'osprey.' It has been awhile since we'd heard him and so I wasn't absolutely sure it was an osprey.

And so the title of this post, 'What do you do, just listen?' This refers to
another recent post, 'What do you do, just watch them?', in which I tried to explain many of the things that make birding/bird watching so exciting. But the sound of what might have been an osprey reminded me of something I'd forgotten: sound!

This is a bit hard to explain for someone who hasn't experienced it. But I've always found it thrilling to be able to walk into the woods, hear all sorts of bird calls, perhaps sprinkled in with the sounds of squirrels, chipmunks and who knows what else, and be able to stop and identify the source of each sound. This isn't perfect of course and I'm often embarrassed at my mistakes. But most of the time they are correct. Now why this should be so satisfying I can't say for sure. But I think at least part of it relates to what I said in 'What do you do, just watch them?': skill and the sense of being part of a world, and a somewhat orderly one at that, which is far different from the workaday world.

As we continued to hear the call I was certain that it was an osprey. And sure enough one soon winged by and down the stream in search of fish. My guess is that the ravine-like structure of the Wissahickon valley amplifies the sounds of birds there and makes them sound fuller than they might elsewhere. I think this is especially true of a larger bird like an osprey, compared to a smaller bird like one of the kinglets. The examples from the Macauley Library noted above are nowhere near as full and rich as what we have heard at the Wissahickon when we hear an osprey. In fact I couldn't think of another bird, at least that we're likely to see there, that has such a full whistle. And that's finally what made me decide that an osprey must be near. Fortunately he soon flew by to confirm this.

So sound can also be a very large part of birding. If you are interested in bird sounds there is a wonderful book by Donald Kroodsma called The Singing Life of Birds. It includes a CD with sonograms of various bird songs. This might sound just a little too esoteric for many but if you have any interest in birds, and especially if you also have an interest in music, I think you'll find it fascinating. After reading the first part of it, about the variation in the songs of song sparrows, I listened to our backyard song sparrow render over 10 different songs. The guidebooks of course mention the one song of most birds, but after reading this book you'll realize, and hear, that birds are individuals, just like you and I.

There was one other similarity between yesterday and our birding trip of two years ago when we saw the osprey: the great blue heron. They are much more frequently seen at the Wissahickon than are ospreys. And yet they're still not all that frequent, perhaps one out of every 5-10 times we go birding there. I just did a quick check to see if there had been a trout stocking there recently and could not find out. But trout are often stocked in the Wissahickon in the fall as well as in the spring. Perhaps that has something to do with the appearance of these two wonderful fish hunters.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Drawing for Film

In late June I received an email from someone I'd never met asking if I'd be interested in lending some of my abstract drawings for use in a short, independent film. Last Friday the drawings returned from their round-trip journey to the shooting in Georgia.

As the film's web site says: 'A PEACOCK-FEATHERED BLUE is the story of a 9-year-old boy who’s failing science. Marcel loves sketching and painting, but hates following the rules. When his mother finds out he received an F on his latest test, she threatens to take away his art supplies if he doesn’t come up with a winning science project...' For more on the plot check the above web site. Be sure to mouse over the kites to see the various links.

The screenwriter and director, Jenna Milly, thought that some of my drawings would work well to represent the type of creative drawings that Marcel does. The drawing above is partially finished drawing that Marcel is working on as the film opens. I created it especially for the film based on another drawing of mine that Jenna liked.

The drawings below are examples of some of the drawings that Marcel has done. They hang in his room at home. They were not done specifically for the film.

The film should be finished around March, 2009. In the meantime this site gives a sense of the scene during the shooting of the film. It's odd being part of something where you haven't met any of the other people involved or seen the finished product. At least now I know what they look like and get some idea of what filming must have been like. One photo includes Marcel and my half-drawn sketch. It should be exciting to see it when the time comes. Let's hope it does well and gets into some major film competitions!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Flocking Robins, Pleasures of Fall

This will be a quick post because I just wanted to capture a few photos of the beauty of fall in our backyard. For the first time ever, at least that we have ever seen, robins are rampaging through the yard gobbling down the crabapples from our one tree. We planted it 15 years ago in the hopes of atracting birds but it really hasn't been all that successful. Until the past few days. The tree has been covered.

As you may be able to see an insistent, young starling also managed to get in to the crabapple and steal some fruit for himself.
Each October our zinnias seem to look their best. They are such pure, rich colors in a world that is starting to fade. In one more effort to save the suet for birds like Downy Woodpeckers and not from thieves like squirrels, I put up a clothesline and put the suet on that. Hopefully the squirrels stay off and the birds enjoy the food and the beautiful view of the zinnias.

Our very last color in the yard comes from salvias. Below is the first sign of color on a Pineapple Sage. Our 'Tula' salvia has not quite started to show its blooms yet. Soon however they'll both be in bloom: the last glorious color before the grays of late fall and winter.

Monday, October 6, 2008

What do you do, just watch them?

One of my wife's co-workers asked this question a few years ago. I guess his curiosity just got the better of him. Or maybe it was just total mystification. I think he thought of us as smart, fairly reasonable people but he just couldn't understand what we did, or why, when we went 'birdwatching.'

We spent the last week at Cape May, NJ, 'birdwatching' about eight hours a day for five days in beautiful, sunny 70 degree weather. I can't think of a more enjoyable vacation than being at Cape May, NJ in migration season with sunny weather. The accompanying photos are all from that trip.

In some ways I think that the pleasures of birdwatching parallel those of flyfishing for trout. Good trout streams are often in very beautiful areas. They are often quiet and uncrowded. So part of the appeal of both is just being outside, enjoying some of nature's most beautiful, and most quiet areas.

There is also the sense of sport or game. I suspect that my wife's co-worker thought that birds just pop out and pose for you. That is almost never the case. They are often hidden by leaves, tree branches, other more common birds, or they just won't sit still, as in the Magnolia Warbler below.

Sometimes you can just see part of them and have to use your knowledge of them to make a good guess as to their identification, as in the same Magnolia Warbler in another view.

At other times, as in the photo below, identification is a challenge of a different type. Just what are those specks high in the sky? Even binoculars or scopes may not have enough power to identify them clearly. In this case the larger bird is almost certainly an Osprey. The smaller bird is probably a Mississippi Kite, a bird we'd never seen before. But we couldn't be sure of this. Various clues like the manner of flight, color, shape, and the knowledge that more skillful birders had recently seen Mississippi Kites in the same area led to our tentative identification.

In other words you need skills similar to that of flyfishermen to both find and identify many birds. But like flyfishing half the pleasure is just being outside in such a beautiful environment. This is particularly true at Cape May.

One of the other pleasures is just the beauty of the birds themselves. Especially when seen in magnification through binoculars or a spotting scope almost any bird is beautiful. Even the feather pattern of a House Sparrow can seem striking when seen through binoculars. And if the bird is more colorful than a House Sparrow, such as a Blackburnian Warbler, their appearance when seen in magnification is breathtaking. I'm sorry to say that we didn't see any Blackburnians on this trip. A watercolor of one we saw on another birding trip however, sits atop this page.

Sometimes it is a more simple, graceful beauty as in the Snowy Egret below.

Sometimes the excitement is in just seeing a bird that you've never seen before, as in the Lark Sparrow below. Tbere is always a sense of wonder and discovery in birdwatching. Sometimes it is in seeing a new bird. Sometimes it is in seeing new behavior, as when we say nine Great Blue Herons in flight over The Meadows at Cape May. We think that they were heading off to roost but still need to read up a bit on this to confirm it.

Finally there is the pleasure of feeling connected to a larger world than that in which most people spend most of their time: that of nature. The predictable timing of bird migration, something particularly noticeable at Cape May, exposes people to another sense of time. It is a pleasure to feel part of a world that has its own unique rhythms. All in all there is the feeling of being part of a much larger world. Perhaps in fact what is birdwatching for us is peoplewatching for them.