Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Highlights of the Natural Year - 2015, Part 4

Black and White Warbler. Photo by Ken Januski.

As I finish off this roundup of the natural year in Philadelphia in 2015 I'm reminded of one of the more interesting warbler facts: there seemed to be far more in the fall than in the spring! We did spend a few days at Cape May in the spring and might have missed a few because of that but I think that in general warblers were just missing in action in the spring. So it was great to be able to see so many in the fall, including the common Black and White Warbler pictured above.

Great Blue Heron and Common Yellowthroat. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

CommonYellowthroat at Houston Meadows. Watercolor and Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Far more common than the Black and White Warbler in Philadelphia is the Common Yellowthroat. And yet, at least in NW Philadelphia where we do most of our birding, there just didn't seem to be many. So when they finally started appearing in numbers in September all was well again with this species. Above is a sumi brush pen field sketch that served as the basis for the watercolor and pen painting done later that same day.

Common Buckeye. Photo by Ken Januski.
Blue-headed Vireo. Photo by Ken Januski.

Along with warbler came many butterflies, dragonflies and other birds. Though it's hard to beat being out on an early May morning seeing birds in particular, it's almost as exciting being out as mornings start to cool in September and finding vireos, warblers and other birds as well as both dragonflies and butterflies. One of the most common butterflies this fall and many falls is the Common Buckeye, pictured above. Though like dragonflies their flatness makes them hard to work into an artistic composition. One bird we always love seeing, largely because it used to nest outside our cabin at Shenandoah National Park, is the Blue-headed Vireo. And each year the same thing happens. I keep trying to puzzle out which warbler it is, until I figure out that it isn't!

Marbled Godwit at Heinz NWR. Photo by Ken Januski.

We don't see many godwits anywhere so when one or more Marbled Godwits hung around Heinz for more than a day we had to go down and look for them. Hardly had we started walking through Warbler Woods, looking out to the impoundment to the right, than we say this one. This definitely was a highlight of the year. Soon after one or more Hudsonian Godwits were also found I believe but we weren't able to get to Heinz to look for them. Three is only so much time in the day.

Pectoral Sandpiper at Morris Wetlands. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor Painting by Ken Januski.
Another shorebird that we don't see all that often is the Pectoral Sandpiper. Above is the first one we ever saw at Morris Arboretum. It stayed for a couple of days, when the wetlands water level was extremely low, and turned out to be the last shorebird we saw in Philadelphia in 2015(barring a Killdeer I think, and they can be here all year long).

Purple Finch in Sweetgum. Photo by Ken Januski.

Well I have to say that Purple Finches are a highlight of both this year and last year. After years of rarely seeing them anywhere, most particularly in Philadelphia, we saw them everywhere we went in NW Philadelphia for a 2-4 week period in October of last year. We hoped that would happen again this year but I believe we saw them just once, at Andorra Natural Area, feeding with American Goldfinches and their rarer cousins, Pine Siskins. As I said a real treat!

Sharp-shinned Hawk in Backyard. Photo by Ken Januski.

November and December really are the months for woodpeckers and raptors. It was very hard to choose what to show. That mature Bald Eagle flying over our heads as we got into our car at Morris Arboretum? The Red-shouldered Hawk at the Manayunk Canal? Any of the many Pileated Woodpecker photos I've taken during the last two months? Finally I decided on this much more common bird, mainly because it's such a nice photo I think. This adult Sharp-shinned Hawk was all over our backyard and that of our neighbors hunting our feeder birds. Even with the extraordinarily warm weather I think we will continue to see Sharpies and Coopers for the next few months.

What a great year it has been and how lucky those people are I think who can take enjoyment from the cycles of nature.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Highlights of the Natural Year - 2015, Part 3

Male American Redstart. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.
Well it's true that most migrating warblers are gone by early June, and this year they were largely missing in action even in the month of May. But the breeding birds remain and one of the ones most frequently seen is this handsome male American Redstart. Since I posted few if any warblers photos in the last post it seems like a welcome corrective to add one here.

Soon after I posted this on this blog last June I realized that I'd forgotten to include a warbler that also breeds here and can often be seen less than a mile away at the Wissahickon. That is the Louisiana Waterthrush seen below. Oddly we really saw few, and heard even fewer, of them this spring. One of the most predictable signs of spring was gone: the unmistakable song of the Louisiana Waterthrush. I'm still puzzled as to the reason though it may be that we currently bird less frequently at the Wissahickon, where they are most likely to breed, than we used to.

Louisiana Waterthrush and Snake. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.
A few youthful experiences with snakes has forever left me I think as not one of their biggest fans. Still it was a nice surprise to run across the Milk Snake below while doing the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education's Breeding Bird Census last spring.

Milk Snake at the Schuylkill Center. Photo by Ken Januski.

June really is the month of breeding birds such as Acadian Flycatcher, Baltimore and Orchard Oriole, Eastern Wood Pewee, Willow Flycatcher among others. As the first of season arrives it is like welcoming an old friend. That is soon followed by watching them build nests, care for young etc.

I think because I've sketched and photographed them so often I actually did few sketches and took few photos this year. But I did do a number of works based on one of our favorite backyard breeding birds, though by the time they get to our yard in mid-June I believe that they are post-breeding birds. They are of course the endlessly fascinating Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Below are two versions of them, both done this summer. One is a watercolor with sumi brush pen. The other is a fairly complex woodcut. In both I was much more interested in portraying the actual experience of hummingbirds than I was in a photographic likeness. That's ususally the case with me but it is particularly so here.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird on Monarda. Watercolor and Sumi Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Turkey Vulture and Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

We are very fortunate in that hummingbirds were in our backyard from mid-June until mid-October. What a treat they are. One other bird that breeds here, particularly at the Manayunk Canal, is the Green Heron. But they are departing much sooner after breeding than they used to. Perhaps this is due to the abnormally cold winters in 2013 and 2014. They may have learned this is not a safe place to be when cold weather rolls in for good. Or perhaps all of the construction/destruction along the Manayunk Canal has just been too much for them. In any case below is a woodcut, one of my favorites, of three young ones that I did from the 2014 brood. One of the things I like about it is that you have to hunt a bit to find all three of them.

Three Young Green Herons at Manayunk Canal. Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Among the many birds and bird families that both Jerene and I are particularly fond of are rails. So when Soras, along with quite a few other interesting birds, seemed to take up residence at Heinz NWR we had to pay at least one visit. Below is another watercolor and sumi brush pen painting of two Soras seen at Heinz.

Soras at Heinz NWR. Watercolor and Sumi Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

It's tempting to add photos of the immature Little Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets at Heinz NWR, as well as two beautiful Tri-colored Herons seen at Heinz on the same day as the Sora and herons but there just isn't room. The beautiful and always welcome Orchard Oriole will also have to miss this summary. That's not to mention numerous dragonflies and butterflies. But there is only so much room and it is almost time for confusing fall warblers, vireos and flycatchers, many of which are migrating in August. Below is another sumi brush pen and watercolor painting of just that experience at Morris Arboretum during the last week of August. As with the Ruby-throated Hummingbird I'm more interested in the experience than in any photographic likeness. One reminds me of actually being outside seeing things; the latter reminds me of being inside looking at photos. Which would you prefer?

Confusing Fall Warblers and Vireos. Watercolor and Sumi Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Highlights of the Natural Year - 2015, Part 2

Killdeer, Song Sparrow and Singing Red-winged Blackbird. Pencil Sketch by Ken Januski.

I mentioned in part one of this summary of the natural year in Philadelphia that I'd move on to spring, warblers, etc. But in looking back at posts from March I found this sketch of the first singing Red-winged Blackbird of spring. Some blackbirds can be found somewhere in Philadelphia almost all winter long but there comes a time when you start to see a lot. When you hear them singing then you know that spring has begun. I never did anything more with this sketch but I still like it so it still has possibilities.

Yellow-rumped Warbler. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.
The day after I did the Red-winged Blackbird sketch we stumbled upon our first warblers of 2015. Often they are Pine Warblers but this time there were numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers, found in an area we almost never bird, except when we're looking for the first Pine Warblers of the year! At this time of year, mid to late March, it is generally cold and gray. When we do find warblers it almost seems wrong, like someone's given them a bad printed schedule to follow. But they are right and soon enough it really is spring.

Palm Warbler, Black Squirrel, Mourning Cloak. Crayon Sketch by Ken Januski.
The more we've been outside the more 'Black' Squirrels we've seen, especially this winter so far. They are really Eastern Gray Squirrels but with different pigmentation. Still their rich black always makes them striking. When coupled with the first expected warbler of spring, the handsome dipped-in-butter Palm Warbler and the first butterfly of spring, the Mourning Cloak they form a colorful grouping that is almost impossible to pass up if you're an artist. The woodcut that resulted from this is currently the header for this page. My guess is that most viewers of my work, either here or elsewhere, will prefer the more detailed Yellow-rumped Warbler watercolor above. But for me there is more excitement and reward in picturing an actual scene, as here, even if the individual subjects are much more sketchily done.

Bloodroot in the Wissahickon Valley. Photo by Ken Januski.

I see that I'm getting caught up in every single interesting sighting of spring and at this pace will need about 3-4 posts just to cover spring. So it's time to start editing what I post. Still the highlight of almost every year is the first appearance of Bloodroot, especially when it blooms. The brilliant white, whiter almost than snow it sometimes seems, is thoroughly emblematic of early spring. It would be a sad spring that did not include some blooming Bloodroot. Fortunately for us it blooms in our yard so we have a very good chance of seeing it there if nowhere else.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Carpenter's Woods. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Black-billed Cuckoo at Houston Meadows. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.
May is of course the time for warblers. And they are probably the most thrilling birds to see. But cuckoos are a bit rarer, or at least harder to find. So when I found both Black-billed and Yellow-billed at different locations in a period of just a day or two that was a real high point. I can't say that I've done them justice in these watercolor sketches but there's always another day and another art work.

One of our most sought after warblers is the Yellow-breasted Chat. We've yet to see one in Philadelphia. This May we saw many, at least 4 and possibly as many as 6-8 in Cape May. I did field sketches of them but since I didn't see them in Philadelphia I'm not going to include them here. Still they were a real high point. And like the cuckoos we knew they were around from their calls and/or song. Each year the increase in our ability to find and identify birds by their sounds makes birding all that more exciting. As I've often said it is something that just seems to grow in richness year by year. One other element of birding knowledge is learning, mainly through experience, what habitats certain birds prefer. That again helped with finding both chats and cuckoos.

Variable Dancer. Pen and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Warbling Vireo. Photo by  Ken Januski.

Gray-cheeked Thrush. Photo by Ken Januski.

Spring is of course the most exciting time of year so it's very easy to let this post go on forever. As I look through my photos I notice all the birds we saw in a week at Cape May, especially the many Red Knots at Cooks Beach. But this is about Philadelphia, not Cape May. So for my last three photos I've chosen two that are somewhat common, but still representative of spring. The first is a Variable Dancer, seen at Morris Arboretum, one of many damselflies and dragonflies that we saw there, especially in summer. This is in ballpoint pen and watercolor. The original post talked about how difficult it is to use dragonflies in compositions. They are just so FLAT!! But it is a challenge that I continue to work on. The next photo is of one of the first Warbling Vireos of the year, seen at Morris Arboretum a great spot to see them. They are among the dullest of vireos and yet also the most endearing, possibly because of their innocent expression. For us personally though the Blue-headed is the most endearing, due I think to the combination of song, appearance, and the fact that they used to nest outside our cabin when we used to vacation in Shenandoah National Park.

And finally, the somewhat rare but somewhat nondescript Gray-cheeked Thrush. I almost never can get a good photo of them. This year was the first time I was able to get a  number of decent photos, enough to say without a doubt, ' Yes that really is a Gray-cheeked Thrush.'

So this ends part two, the time of colorful neo-tropical migrants. This year surprisingly it was more subtly colored birds, insects and so on that were most memorable. At least in Phialdephia.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Highlights of the Natural Year - 2015, Part 1

Ebony Jewelwing. Photo by Ken Januski.

Over the last couple of years I've ended the year on this blog with a post about my best reading of each year. Delacroix's Journal was near the top both years as I recall. Though I'm tempted to do the same year I'm instead going to show some of the highlights of the natural year, experiences in nature that were most memorable.

For whatever reason one of the most striking was a huge hatch of Ebony Jewelwings seen at Morris Arboretum. In one corner of the Arboretum, between the Wissahickon and Paper Mill Run, a tributary of the Wissahickon, every step I took brought up 3-5 new damselflies. They've always been one of my favorites but I generally see just one or two at a time. In this case there were easily 100. The only somewhat comparable experience was a wealth of Autumn Meadowhawks at John Heinz NWR it the fall. But this isn't the first time we've seen many of them in the fall, most notably at Magee Marsh near Toledo, OH, so they weren't quite as striking. Still they do illustrate one of the many wonders of nature: not rarity but almost the opposite, fecundity.

With that introduction to this post made I'll now move on to a more chronological list.

Hundreds of Snow Geese Flying over Morris Arboretum. Photo by Ken Januski.

I didn't really intend to continue the fecundity theme but it turns out that one of the earliest natural highlights was the momentary appearance of hundreds of Snow Geese over Morris Arboretum on January 25, 2015. I chose this photo not because it looks like much but because it does give an idea of the numbers. I believe that I counted a total of 225.

Peregrine on Church Steeple. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

As I've written before we don't see many Peregrine Falcons. The most memorable have been at Cape May, NJ and at Forsythe NWR also I NJ. Then we heard that they nested very close to where we live, less than a mile away actually. Since then we've seen them more and more frequently, especially when they are actively feeding the young and when the young are just starting to fly. It is always a great thrill to see and hear the young ones briefly fly high above our backyard. But I was particularly surprised to find this one, perched on the same church steeple where they nest, on the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count, on February 13, 2015. This is a small watercolor I did of it.

Red-breasted and Common Merganser with Bufflehead. Woodcut by Ken Januski

Red-breasted and Common Merganser with Bufflehead. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Soon after seeing the Peregrine I saw my first ever Red-breasted Merganser at Flat Rock Dam in the nearby Schuylkill River, along with two Common Merganser and two Bufflehead. I did the watercolor sketch soon afterwards and then eventually used it as the basis for the woodcut. Despite my best intentions the woodcut did not turn out as well as I had hoped. But my prints often involve experimenting with something new, moving on rather than consolidating knowledge and skill. So perhaps I bit off more than I should have.

Long-eared Owl. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.
Though we've birded quite a bit over the last 20 years we haven't seen that many owls. So when Long-eared Owls were reported at John Heinz NWR in SW Philadelphia and they seemed to stay there for a few days we just had to take a chance and head down to look for them. Though there was only one left and it was buried in a tangle and thus hard to see or photograph I did manage to make this quick watercolor sketch based on some of the photos. As birders often don't seem to recognize the need not to intrude on unusual birds, especially owls, we didn't stick around as long as we might have with some other birds. Still it was a great thrill to see the bird. Recently I received Scott Weidensaul's new book on owls and the photos remind me of the orange face which we only briefly saw. How nice it would have been to be able to see and capture that in paint. Perhaps next time.

We have been fortunate enough to see and hear Great Horned Owls numerous times this year in Philadelphia so our luck with owls seems to be getting better. Though we rarely saw them we used to go to sleep to Barred Owls calling when we regularly vacationed at Lewis Mountain Campgrounds at Shenandoah National Park 10 years or so ago.

Canvasback and Hooded Merganser. Charcoal Drawing by Ken Januski.

Canvasback and Hooded Merganser. Ball Point Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
One of the ducks I've always wanted to see but haven't is the Canvasback. I'm sure I read somewhere of it being called the Aristocrat of Ducks. It's easy to see why with that seemingly noble forehead and beak, not to mention the striking colors, especially in the drake. We saw our first ever at the Manayunk Canal in early spring then saw the drake above at Morris Arboretum where it stuck around for at least two weeks as I recall. And with him were numerous Hooded Mergansers, perhaps the Crown Princes and Princesses of Ducks. When I saw the two drakes together I couldn't resist a large charcoal drawing, shown above as well as a woodcut. The also offered one of the first chances, along with the Long-eared Owl, for field sketches in 2015.

Next it will be time for the first warbler of 2015. That means spring and probably the time for a separate installment of this post.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Most Important Thing in Wildlife Art...

Osprey in Tree. Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

is getting a sense of the life and movement of the subject. A bold statement I suppose and one that many would argue with. But for me I'll quickly say that if I can't see the whole bird, animal, insect or whatever in a piece of wildlife art I'll quickly surmise that the artist is working from a photo which does not in fact show the entire subject and he's loathe to try to imagine what he can't see. It's easier to just crop everything out and hope that the flat, abstract design will be appealing enough to counter the fact that the artist has not shown how the weight of the subject is distributed, where the body is moving, where the eye is glancing, etc. It almost never is enough to counter that huge loss.

I say this mainly because I'm very familiar with it. It is the problem that stopped me cold when I first started wildlife, specifically bird, art. I was completely unsuccessful working from life, mainly because birds wouldn't sit still. And my own photos, the only ones that it seemed right to work from, almost always left part of the bird hidden. Even today it's a great treat to be able occasionally to be able to see the whole bird. I think that is one of the appeals of shorebirds. Often you can see the entire bird. As a bonus it often sits still.

In any case this lack of knowledge of the entire bird still stops me from choosing to work from over 50% of the photos I've taken. The only mitigating factor is that I now have about 7-8 years experience sketching from life and I've learned enough about birds to make a good guess as to how the bird fits together, even when I can't see everything. But the most thrilling photos I take are the ones that show the complete bird in an intriguing posture. Those pictures are irresistible and I want to try to capture some sense of the movement in them.

So when winter comes and I spend much less time outside, especially sketching outside, I often will concentrate on doing sketches from my photos which show the full subject, mainly birds, but often insects and other subjects. All of the brush sketches on this page were done in the last week or so. And in almost all instance I did them because I could see the entire subject.

For me this will always be far more exciting, whether in my work or in some one else's, than the most elaborate reconstruction of feathers. It is the life of the subjects I see that I want to understand and portray, even when I work abstractly, and I just cringe when instead I stumble upon well delineated feathers and feather tracts. The latter may be beautiful but rarely does it have any sense of life.

American Copper, American Lady and Common Buckeye. Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Osprey in Flight. Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Purple Finch Eating Crabapples. Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Red Knot. Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Red Knot and Semi-palmated Sandpiper. Brush Pen and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Zabulon Skipper. Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Continuing On With the Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird in Tangle. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

I had no intention of moving from the sumi brush studies of the Northern Mockingbird, posted the other day, to standalone watercolor. But as I looked at some of my mockingbird photos I kept thinking that I ought at least try one watercolor. Maybe the freer use of the brush used in sumi would rub off on the watercolor. I also wanted to try out a small Isabey travel brush, which I thought might act a bit like a sumi brush.

In fact it did act that way to some degree but I would have needed a larger brush I think to have kept the identity of many of the brushstrokes here. The 300 pound Arches cold press paper just ate up the brush part way through all but the thinnest of strokes. Nonetheless I think it turned out well. In any case it may get me to experiment with a larger watercolor brush in future and see if I can accentuate at least some of the brushwork, as in sumi painting.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Writing Ideas

Northern Mockingbird. Brush Pen and Sumi Sketches by Ken Januski.

...Several times we have had occasion to allude to the careful and spontaneous styles. Let us now turn to this important matter.
The opposition between these two styles is a reflection of the opposition on a deeper level between two extreme attitudes possible for an artist: academic realism and free expression of mood. Technically speaking, the two styles are made possible by the extraordinary versatility of the Chinese brush, which can range from a quill-like hairline to the broad slashing of flying white or splashed ink -- all executed with the same brush. In Chinese the careful style is called kung pi, meaning roughly 'industrious brush' or 'laboring brush.' The spontaneous style is hsieh yi, literally 'writing ideas.'

Fritz van Briesen, The Way of the Brush: Painting Techniques of China and Japan,p.179-180, published by Tuttle Publishing.

The above quote isn't immediately relevant to the sketches pictured above, mainly because I'm a rank beginner at brush painting, with actual sumi brush or with the much more modern brush pen. But reading this excellent book has crystalized to some extent my thoughts on brush painting and on my goals in a more western type of painting, especially in regards to nature and wildlife. After reading this passage this morning I deliberately painted the sketches on right above with just a sumi brush with the purpose of illustrating my own, very amateurish 'spontaneous' style.

As will probably be obvious to anyone who's read much of this blog I lean much more in the direction of the spontaneous style. And most wildlife art, especially that shown in the US leans, quite heavily toward the academic style.

I studied Chinese brush painting for one semester a few centuries ago in San Francisco. Its appeal has always stayed with me though I haven't pursued it. My recent foray into brush pen sketches was precipitated by a desire to vary my lines in the prints I create, much as the sumi brush can and does. That started about six months ago I'd guess. But once I started I got seduced first by the brush pen, and just this week, by an actual sumi brush, though one too large for the paper I'm working on.

Eventually I do hope that exploring the richness of line in brush painting of China and Japan will lead me to richer and more varied lines in my prints. For now I'm happy to keep experimenting with both brush pen and sumi brush.