Monday, November 4, 2013

Sketching the Natural Wealth of Cape May, Part Three

Tri-colored Heron and Palm Warbler in Goldenrod. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Continuing on an old theme here I'm showing some field sketches from a recent trip to Cape May. Sadly it seems each trip produces fewer field sketches even though my skills are better each time I visit. This time I can blame it partially I think on the colder weather of this time of year, though even then we had some days of weather in the high 60s/low 70s, quite a warm temperature for late October/early November.

Above is a Tri-colored Heron, fishing at Fish Dock Road I believe it's called though I normally just call it Two Mile Landing for the restaurant at its end. We don't see Tri-colored Herons that often so they are always a treat. This pose was particularly striking for the way the heron was stretched out just about to pounce.

We of course see many Palm Warblers, though more in spring than fall. And we're fortunate to get the golden yellow ones rather than the blah brown/gray ones of the Midwest. But I like this one perched and feeding in the goldenrod along the beach at Cape May Point State Park. Unfortunately I only had time to get his head before he moved.
Black Skimmer, Gadwall, Tri-colored Heron. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

We were fortunate to have a motel room facing the ocean and at very reasonable prices due to the time of year. From there I could set up my scope and scan before breakfast. One morning I saw over 30 Black Skimmers, though at a distance. Scoter were also visible in the distance. Then one morning as I scanned the gulls on the beach I found something different, a handsome Black Skimmer. That is him at top, just before he flew. He's the first of Birds with Too Big Bills in this post. Not shown here, sadly is one of the many Northern Gannet that appeared the morning that we left. I had no time to try to capture at least one of them on paper.

Ducks were everywhere and I wish I'd sketched more of them. Above is jut one attempt at a Gadwall in the pond at 'The Meadows.' Beneath him another sketch of a Tri-colored Heron at Fish Dock Road. As I sketched him a long-billed bird swam in front of him. I couldn't place him then realized it was a Clapper Rail as it climbed up on shore. I called over Jerene to see one of her favorite birds. As she looked in the scope another rail appeared and the two squabbled among themselves before disappearing. So sadly I lost the chance to sketch them.
Brown Thrasher, Ring-necked Duck, Northern Harrier. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

One morning at Higbee Beach we were treated to numerous Brown Thrashers, many of them at the beginning of the trail. I was thrilled to be able to see them so long and do a good field sketch, until I looked at what I'd done that is. How had I managed to make such an elegant bird look so dumpy? One thing was that he seemed to have almost a hunched back and I tried to capture that. But overall his elegance is completely lost. Perhaps I'll regain it in a print or painting. Later in the day we saw our first Ring-necked Duck of the year. I haven't checked but I think this sketch probably looks almost identical to the one I did a few years ago a the same place, the pond in front of the hawk watch platform at Cape May Point State Park. Again I have to ask how the bird ended up so dumpy!? Still they, and all the birds we saw, were thrilling to see.

There had been a somewhat rare Swainsons Hawk seen at Cape May a day or two before we arrived. I wasn't really thinking of it as the lanky bird at bottom of page moved slowly toward us. At first I thought it was an osprey, though I thought most had already left. As he got closer I saw the colors were wrong. Then I noticed the white/light breast and very dark head and throat. That combined with lanky wings, and a bit of wishful thinking, convinced me that the Swainsons Hawk had returned. But I was still a bit cautious. When I got home and looked at our guides I realized too many things just didn't add up. Finally as I looked at Richard Crossley's recent Raptor ID Guide I saw a picture that pretty much matched what we'd seen and I'd sketched: a Northern Harrier seen directly from below, and much higher than normal. That explained why the throat was dark and not light as it should have been.

While we were out we ran into all sorts of birders who would call up an app on their phones to check the ID of a bird. It was alarming. These apps have  so little information, at least from what I can see as they show them to me. I wonder how many birders would have used them to turn our Northern Harrier into a Swainsons. One thing I find so fulfilling, and Jerene does as well, is really looking at birds and figuring out what they really are, not what we want them to be. For that sketching is invaluable.

Many birding books suggest never looking at a guide after seeing a bird. First really look at it and take notes so you can trust what you have seen. Then look at a guide to help determine the ID. Phone apps seem even worse for tricking people into the wrong ID. They get just a hint of something and then go find something vaguely similar and label the bird. I really don't see the point of these apps but then I don't really see the point of cell phones period so I suppose it's no surprise. Even with my bias against them though its hard for me not to think that they do more harm than good. Perhaps some day someone will convince me otherwise. In any case the instance of the Swainson's Hawk turned Northern Harrier seems to me a good example of why you should first observe and then take notes before you begin to pin a label on a bird.
Northern Shoveler. Photo by Ken Januski.

Last year I did a small watercolor based on three Northern Shovelers that we'd seen at Brigantine/Forsythe NWR. I only had a few photos and even fewer field sketches to go on. And the bills just seemed abnormally large in the finished painting. This time we got to see quite a few Shovelers. It was a great surprise to see how small a duck they really are. This surprised us day after day. There larger appearance I think is really caused by their bill, one that I think the photo above shows at its true size, one even larger than in my watercolor!

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