Monday, February 23, 2015

A Brief Thaw

Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser and Bufflehead on Schuylkill River. Watercolor and Ballpoint Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

As the cold weather has piled up recently it's getting harder and harder to find any open, i.e. unfrozen, water nearby. Almost all of the Manayunk Canal has been frozen for a week or more. Even the large Schuylkill River has gotten to the point of very little open water, at least within a few miles of our house. On Saturday we went out briefly to find the area of the Schuylkill where I'd seen the Common Goldeneye recently completely frozen.

But yesterday was supposed to get up into the 40s before heading back to 0 tonight. So I decided to explore the Manayunk Canal and the Schuylkill River that parallels it around Flat Rock Dam. Again almost everything above Flat Rock Dam was frozen. No Red-necked Grebes, as we found there last year, at least not until there is a real thaw. But in a tiny portion of open water right above Flat Rock Dam I saw a Common Merganser that looked different from the other two and didn't fly with them when I got within a couple of hundred yards. I figured it was a less cautious female than the two males that flew. But as I looked more closely I realized it was the first Red-breasted Merganser I'd ever seen.

Earlier I'd walked along the Canal and along the Schuylkill south of the dam. Though I still haven't figured out how one area is frozen one day and open the next it at least wasn't any surprise that if there was going to be any open water it would be below Flat Rock Dam. And it was open. Far more than I would have guessed. But no birds were taking any advantage of it other than Mallards and one lone Common Merganser.

Then I saw a small white object bobbing rapidly down the river. I assumed it was detritus and not a bird. But as soon as I looked with my binoculars I found a male Bufflehead. Soon I also saw the female. They flew upstream and downstream a couple of times as I viewed that area, hoping for some other birds. They were the first Buffleheads I'd seen this year.

I took a few photos while out and finally decided to try to put a sketch together showing at least the Red-breasted Merganser and the Bufflehead. But I've come to an odd conclusion about grouping birds: two rarely work together and sometimes three don't. My recent woodblock of American Goldfinch, Great Blue Heron and Killdeer I think worked fine but I think that's because there were three different sized birds. Today the Bufflehead were the same size so the composition seemed more like just two birds. I guessed that this would never work. And so I added the Common Merganers. It's actually about the same size as the Red-breasted but I hoped that perhaps its different markings and slightly deeper placement might differentiate it from the Red-breasted.

The Mergansers were in placid water above the dam whereas the Bufflehead were riding a fast and rough current. I tried to make the current a bit rougher in the back of the watercolor and pen sketch above but I'm not sure I succeeded. As with the GBBC sketches this is another quick one, meant more to illustrate something and test out a composition than anything else. Eventually though these type of sketches seem to turn into some of my best prints.

Oddly enough on Saturday I'd been looking through the many photos of birds I've taken, tempted as usual at this time of year to do some warbler studies, looking forward I'm sure to warmer and brighter days to come. But something always bothers me about this. It's too much like doing studies or practicing scales. I'll probably get back to it soon but for now I'm happy to be working with something that I just saw.

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