Friday, March 7, 2014

Wigeon at the Manayunk Canal

American Wigeon at Manayunk Canal. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

This winter has been one of surprising waterfowl. They aren't surprising I imagine to local birders who bird large bodies of water, e.g. the Delaware River. But we don't see too many in the small water areas close to home that we bird.

Just today I read of a possible irruption of Red-necked Grebes in Pennsylvania. Right after we saw one last weekend I noticed that they were being found all over Pennsylvania, sometimes in numbers of 10 or more. But the only reason we saw ours in the Schuylkill River is that we've started to expand our birding territories to include more of the Schuylkill, both on the Philadelphia County side and on the Montgomery County side.

Waterfowl we've seen include Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Red-necked Grebe, Common and Hooded Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Greater Scaup, and today an American Wigeon. All but the mergansers are the first we've seen in the northwest section of Philadelphia. Surprisingly we've found three species, American Wigeon, Bufflehead and Common Merganser, in the Manayunk Canal, a small canal that parallels the Schuylkill River. I'm not sure if we're just getting to be better birders or if more likely the cold, snowy winter has brought more waterfowl to the local waterways.

In any case we've enjoyed it. I was hoping to find a Red-necked Grebe in breeding plumage today, as others have found recently, but we couldn't find one in any plumage. But as I looked at some of the local mallards, in fact looked at them is an overstatement, one of them seemed wrong. When I actually focused on it I realized it was a handsome male American Wigeon.

I took a few photos, debated about trying to do some sketches but finally decided not to. The small and quick watercolor sketch in a Stillman and Birn sketchbook is based on one of the photos. Once again though I was reminded of how paralyzing photos can be for an artist. Faced with the detailed beauty of an American Wigeon, and there is no doubt of its beauty, it is hard to know what to do. It's so easy to be seduced into portraying every little charming detail of the feathers. They are hypnotizing.

But in doing so all sense of proportion, of animation, of everything except the surface detail is lost. It's a  price I'm not willing to pay. So this like so much of my work just tries to get a sense of the bird, to portray it's beauty in large strokes, avoiding the siren song of duck detail. It is a quick 30-60 minute study.

It is another unambitious work. I'm spending my time these days mulling which direction to go next. I keep thinking it should be toward greater abstraction. But so far I've been reluctant to take the plunge. In the meantime I keep doing these studies. That will change one of these days, hopefully sooner rather than later.

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