Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A new kind of birding book! "The Birding Life—A Passion for Birds at Home and Afield"

I was very excited when Carly from Clarkson Potter Publishers asked me if I'd like to review "The Birding Life—A Passion for Birds at Home and Afield," by Laurence Sheehan. The book sounded unique. It was about birding, but focused on birds as artistic muses and home decor inspiration! Could a description be any better? I couldn't wait for the book to arrive...

The cover alone is mesmerizing. I love vintage bird art...

When I cracked the spine, I knew I was sold. The first page I opened to was "Birds by Design: The Genius of Charley Harper," and a beautiful photo of his flying Northern Cardinal was staring back at me. Charley Harper is known worldwide, but he produced his art in Cincinnati, and to birders and nature lovers here he's something of a folk hero. He was involved in the local nature scene and helped support the Hamilton County parks, the Oxbow, the Cincinnati Zoo, and the Cincinnati Nature Center with his art. So, if Charley was in the book, it had to be good...

We grew up with Charley Harper's art. I was happy to see a chapter devoted to his unique vision.

...if that wasn't enough, I did a quick page flip and landed on "Field Trip, Magee Marsh, Ohio—Warbler Capital of the World." I've been to Magee Marsh and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) and love it there, so I was happy to see a story about Kenn and Kim Kaufman who tirelessly work to bring the phenomenon of spring migration along Lake Erie to the world. Kenn is the author of "Kingbird Highway," one of my favorite birding books, and myriad well-known field guides (I think I have them all), and Kim is the executive director of BSBO. This book just kept getting better and better...

Spring migration at Magee Marsh and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory

...but don't worry. The entire book is not about Ohio birders and their art, although you do get a glimpse of Julie Zickafoose's art studio and Bill Thompson's library—it's about bird lovers all over the United States and how birds enhance their lives and inspire their art and home decor. You'll find a bit of history too, with entries on Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon, and Roger Tory Peterson.

...however, it's not all good. I might have been better off NOT knowing what James Prosek's studio looks like, because now I'm green with envy...

With over 200 photographs and interesting text, "The Birding Life, A Passion for Birds at Home and Afield," by Laurence Sheehan, is sure to be a favorite of birders and avian art lovers...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bonaparte's Gulls at Cowan Lake

Yesterday, Matty and I drove up to Cowan Lake. It was warm and gorgeous, and we wanted to enjoy the last of Indian Summer before the expected cold front sweeps in bringing rain and possibly snow...

Painting 199. Bonaparte's Gull at Cowan Lake, Field Sketch 2
(watercolor)

A small flock of Ring-billed Gulls and Bonaparte's Gulls were flying and fishing across the lake when we pulled into the parking lot by the dam. A Common Loon and Pied-billed Grebe were swimming and diving too. We hoped they would come in closer, but they had other ideas. Bonaparte's Gulls are so polite and refined...and cute! I loved watching them fish. This was the first time Matty and I had ever driven up to Cowan Lake, and we're definitely going back...

Painting 198. Bonaparte's Gull at Cowan Lake, Field Sketch 1
(watercolor)

November is a good time to see Bonaparte's Gulls in our area. They are migrating through and will spend some time at the larger lakes. Since they are not scavengers like other gulls, you usually get to see them doing a lot of fishing.

Yikes! What kind of photo is this? It's bad, but you can still pick out the identifying field marks for a Bonaparte's Gull in non-breeding plumage—the black spot behind its eye and the cute, cute, red-orange legs!

...same for this photo....bad, but the bird is so cute, and I wanted to show how easily it is to see the spot behind the eye. We were at the dam and the birds were fishing far across on the other side of the Cowan Lake. Good thing I had my paints to capture the moment, because the camera wasn't up to it!

In addition to the gulls, we saw lots of other birds, including a very sweet mixed flock of Brown Creepers, White-breatsed Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, and Carolina Chickadees. We were sitting on a ridge on the Lotus Cove nature trail looking out on the large American Lotus colony (now withered and brown) when the flock descended. The Brown Creepers were first, their tiny peeps and musical chatter caught our attention, and we watched as they went from tree to tree, starting low and spiraling up through the branches.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Go Green on Cyber Monday—it's Green Gift Monday now!

This Cyber Monday, November 28, 2011, join the Nature Conservancy and pledge to give a gift that is good for the planet!

The Nature Conservancy is sponsoring Green Gift Monday this Monday, November 28, 2011. It's the second year of the program, and it's growing by leaps and bounds. Join conservationists and bring awareness to family and friends of how you can impact the health of our planet by donating to a charity or cause (click here for ideas) or by buying eco-friendly products as gifts.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

A watercolor painting of a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)
Painting 197. A Tufted Titmouse Outside my Kitchen Window on the Eve of Thanksgiving
(watercolor)

...and a poem for autumn:

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry's cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I'll put a trinket on.
Emily Dickinson
"The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson," pg 124

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Have your Dark-eyed Juncos arrived yet?

Our first contingent of Dark-eyed Juncos made an appearance two weeks ago on November 8. The little gray beauties with the sweet pink bills blew in on a cold north wind, bringing excitement with them as they announced the change of the season. These are our winter birds. We only get to see them when the snow flies and the skies turn gray. Having them back in the yard is always a happy day. Their chatter and twittering is almost fairylike, and their dark gray feathers are pretty. If it has to be cold and gray outside, thank goodness we have our little gray birds out there to brighten things up! Every year Rick and I have a little contest to see who will spot the first Dark-eyed Junco of the season. I won this year...

Painting 196. The First Dark-eyed Junco of the Season
(Watercolor)

Painting 195. Here Comes Winter--a Dark-eyed Junco is in the Backyard!
(watercolor)

Monday, November 21, 2011

More Cedar Waxwing studies...

You might recognize a couple of these Cedar Waxwing paintings from a post I did for Birding is Fun, but I kept adding to them through the week, so I thought I'd post the rest of them here. Most of these paintings were inspired from a few sketches I did on November 5 at Fort Ancient (the largest prehistoric earthen hilltop enclosure in the United States). Crunching through drifts of yellow and red leaves by the Mound Trail, I was making so much noise I had to stop every now and then just to hear! Eventually a familiar sound filled the woodlands, and I heard the tinkling, metallic high-pitched “srees” of a small flock of Cedar Waxwings...

Painting 194. Cedar Waxwing on the Mound Trail
(Red and Black Conte crayon painted over with a waterbrush)
I've just recently started using conte crayon again. I love it....it's so quick; no pencil sketches or under drawings are required.

Painting 193. Cedar Waxwing on the Mound Trail...No Berries
(Red and Black Conte crayon painted over with a waterbrush)

Painting 192. Cedar Waxwing in Autumn Color
(Oil Pastel)

Painting 191. Cedar Waxwing at Fort Ancient
(Watercolor heightened with charcoal)

Pencil Sketch of Cedar Waxwing at Fort Ancient


Painting 190. Cedar Waxwing Looking for Berries
(Watercolor)


Painting 189. Cedar Waxwing at Fort Ancient
(Watercolor)
...this is how I usually see Cedar Waxwings--eating berries from the mulberry trees as I look on below. This is the finished painting. On the Birding is Fun post, I had just started this painting.


Painting 188. Cedar Waxwing with Bittersweet Berries
(Watercolor heightened with colored pencil)
...from a winter memory when I found a small flock of Cedar Waxwings eating bittersweet berries.


Painting 187. Two Cedar Waxwings--Plain for Rick
(Watercolor)


Pencil Sketch for Two Cedar Waxwings--Plain for Rick
(Watercolor)

These paintings are all quick studies for the 100 Painting challenge. Only a handful to go! I might finish early this year. Last year, I finished Painting #100 on New Year's Eve...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Baby Midland Smooth Softshell Turtles bury themselves in the sand, finishing with a shimmy...

…along the banks of the Great Miami River herpetologist Paul Krusling found several baby Midland Smooth Softshell turtles (Apalone mutica mutica). I videoed them burying themselves in the sand, capturing the little "shimmy" they perform when they are finished digging. When they decide it's time to go underground, they move fast...



Baby Midland Smooth Softshell turtles bury themselves in the sand. You can identify these as Midland Smooth Softshells (Apalone mutica mutica) by the dot and dash pattern that shows in the carapace.

For photos of Apalone mutica click here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

An Anhinga sitting on a nest...

I almost missed this male Anhinga sitting on a nest. With his dark head held skyward, he bordered on invisible. You would think a big black and white bird would stand out in a sea of green leaves, but he didn't. His upward tilting head must have tricked my brain into thinking it was a branch and his dark feathers were shadows, but I was lucky because it was a hot day, and the fluttering of his gular pouch gave him away. The movement, made to help regulate his body temperature, was just enough to bring my eye back to his location....and there he was. Wow! My first nesting Anhinga at Pinckney Island...

An incredibly beautiful bird, this male Anhinga sat patiently on the nest incubating eggs. Males have mostly black body plumage. During the breeding season they develop a shaggy crest and mane, which are not apparent in this photo, but you can see the "filoplumes" on the sides of the face and neck. These feathers are silky and almost hairlike.

Anhingas are aquatic birds that do their hunting under the water. With their necks coiled back, they hold their bills open a little, so when they do strike with those sharp and pointed bills, they leave two puncture marks. After Anhingas eat, they climb up on a branch and open their water-logged wings to dry.

The ability of an Anhinga to strike out with lighting speed to impale its prey on its sharp bill while underwater is because of a hinge-like mechanism between the eight and ninth cervical vertebrae, and a keel on the underside between the fifth and seventh cervical vertebrae that muscles attach to. When this hinge-like mechanism is sprung, the muscles propel the bill forward like a spear being thrown (similar to herons and egrets). I wanted to see what this looked like and found a very cool drawing of a skeleton of an Anhinga's neck showing the muscles and hinge from 1913--click here for the drawing (sources: "National Geographic Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America," Mel Baughman, pg. 64--one of my favorite reference books, and a Wikipedia article on Darters, here.)

Note: The drawing of the Anhinga's spine is from "Die Vogel: Handbuch der Systematischen Ornithologie, Volume 1," by Anton Reichenow. Click here for a link to the book. If you speak German and like old pen and ink drawings, you'll like looking through the book.

A female Anhinga perches on a limb. Females and juveniles have buff-colored heads, necks and chests.

Look at those feet! I would never have guessed that Anhingas could climb trees, but they can. Their webbed feet are equipped with powerful claws that let them climb from the ground up to their nests. Anhingas build their nests over water, but not high in a tree. They like to keep them low enough so they can climb up into them. This nest was located about 15 feet off the ground. We don't have Anhingas here in Cincinnati. They are a strictly a southeastern bird, so I don't get to spend a lot of time watching them and had never seen one climb up a tree. Within two weeks of hatching, baby Anhingas can fall out of the nest into the water below them. To get back to their nest, they climb up the trunk using their claws (source: Baughman, pg. 65).

Water Turkey!
Because an Anhinga's tail feathers resemble a turkey's with a striped pattern and a pale tip, they've been given the nickname of Water Turkey (very fitting for this time of year...).

Hanging the feathers out to dry...
Anhingas, like Cormorants, do not apply waterproofing oils to their feathers to make them waterproof. Instead, the unprotected feathers absorb water, which allows them to stay submerged and swim easily under water.

Feathers that absorb water lose their insulating properties, which causes Anhingas and Cormorants to lose body heat, so when we see them hanging their feathers out to dry, they are also using the sun's heat to stabilize their body temperature. Most of us already knew this, but what I didn't know was Anhingas have a very low metabolic rate and become chilled easily. They are dependent on the sun's heat to ward of hypothermia. As a result, they can spend up to a third of their daylight hours sunning (much more than a cormorant). It also explains why we often see Double-crested Cormorants in Ohio, but almost never see Anhingas (I've never seen an Anhinga in Ohio). An Anhinga's normal territory is the subtropical southeast
(source: Baughman, pg. 65).

Snakebird!
Since the Anhinga's feathers are not waterproof, when they get wet, they look shiny and very smooth. When you couple that with a submerged body, a long skinny neck, and a slim head, instead of looking like a bird in the water, it looks like a black snake swimming along, which leads to its second nickname, Snakebird!

I took these photos on June 8, 2011 at the Ibis Pond rookery on Pinckney Island NWR in Hilton Head, SC, except for the last photo, which I took on March 22, 2011 at the Ding Darling NWR.


Video of a male Anhinga sitting on a nest showing gular fluttering in the heat.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Spotted Cucumber Beetle eating a Common Pokeweed berry...

"Green bug with black spots on its wings" is all it took to find this little bug in a Google search. It's a Spotted Cucumber Beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata), and it's really common. I've seen it a lot in the past, but never knew its name. I found out it's a native species but can be quite a pest. Wikipedia says,
"...it looks very much like a green ladybug. However, unlike the ladybug, cucumber beetles are not considered beneficial insects. They are sucking invaders which harm crops and ornamental plants."
"Sucking invaders?" Did I read that right? It's not the usual language you see on Wikipedia, and it made me laugh, but after reading more about them, I found out they are no laughing matter and can cause extensive crop damage on anything from cucumbers, melons, and squash (all members of the cucurbits family) to corn and beans. Adults favor stems, leaves and buds of all members of the cucurbits family. They attack and overwinter in corn and bean fields, and the larva, known as the "corn rootworm," eats the roots of corn, peanuts, small grains, and wild grasses (source: The Center for Integrated Pest Management, North Carolina State University, here).

...all that...and the only reason I started photograph him was because I thought his yellowish-green and chartreuse wings looked cool against the dark purple of the Common Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) berry...

Hey, Spotted Cucumber Beetle, what are you doing on a Pokeweed berry? You should be on a cucumber...or a pumpkin, a gourd maybe, or a watermelon...or any other type of squash!

I watched this guy for quite a while, and he was definitely eating this berry. Every now and then he would wander away to another part of the plant, but he would always return to this berry. It was the only berry with a hole in it. I don't know if he created the hole, or if our resident Catbird poked a hole in the berry and the Spotted Cucumber Beetle was taking advantage of a good thing...

You can't really tell, but after he lifted his head out of the hole, he was covered in purple Pokeweed berry juice and had to take time out to clean his antenna and face.

I tried to find out if the Spotted Cucumber Beetle had a predisposition for Pokeweed berries, but I found nothing. I did however, learn how just how poisonous a Pokeweed berry is to a humans. According to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (click here), eating just 10 berries can cause headache, abdominal pain, and severe diarrhea...so don't eat Pokeweed berries any time soon! The roots are the most poisonous part of the plant, followed by the leaves and stems. The berries are the least toxic. Eating large quantities of the plant can result in death from respiratory failure (source: Ohio Perennial & Biennial Weed Guide, here).

...yum! Going in for more!

The Spotted Cucumber Beetle isn't the only creature that likes Pokeweed berries, Gray Catbirds love them. Pokeweed started popping up around our yard about 3 or 4 years ago...and the Gray Catbirds soon followed. Last year and this year a pair visited our yard daily, sitting in the tall pokeweed plants singing and plucking off the berries one at a time. Maybe the catbird punctured the berry and the cucumber beetle benefited, or maybe this little bug really digs the fruit and created his own hole. I'll watch next year and see if any more show up and chomp away at the pokeweed berries...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Paintings of Sanderlings

Shortly after I did the post a few weeks ago on the Sanderling who "forgot to run," I remembered I had a drawing in my sketchbook of two Sanderlings I did back in March when we were in Captiva for spring break. Since Sanderlings are one of my favorite shore birds, I decided to do a series of practice paintings from that sketch. I concentrated on the two poses I had captured in the drawing...with lots of variations!

Painting 186. Sanderlings Foraging
Watercolor (12x16)

Painting 185. Captiva Sanderlings
Watercolor (9x12)

Pencil drawing of Sanderlings from my sketchbook (Captiva Island, March 2011). Florida birds are so amazing. Just sit and watch, and they will come right up to you!

Painting 184. Sanderling in Black and Blue
Watercolor (9x12)

Painting 183. Sanderling Pose 1...Again
Watercolor (9x12)

Painting 182. Sanderling Pose 2
Watercolor (7x10)

Painting 181. Sanderling in Orange (my favorite)
Oil Pastel (7x10)

Painting 180. Sanderling Pose 1
Watercolor (7x10)

...these are all quick studies and practices to help me get familiar with the bird. I only get to study them when I go on vacation to the ocean (which is never enough...). Eventually I'm going to work up to a complete painting where I concentrate on value and light. Until then, it's sweet and simple. My favorites are 181, 182, 184 and 186. I continue to plug away on the 100 Painting Challenge. I'm right on schedule. I should reach 100 by Dec 31. (This is my second year of a five-year 500 painting challenge.) If you want to see other Sanderling posts, click here.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Close-up photos of an American Bald Eagle...great references for artists

If you're a bird artist, you're probably always looking for ways to study birds up close, but it's hard to sneak up on an American Bald Eagle in the wild, so if you're an artist looking for close-up reference images of an American Bald Eagle, feel free to use these.

This American Bald Eagle was part of an education program from Back to the Wild, a volunteer, non-profit wildlife rehabilitation and nature education center located in northwest Ohio. I was at the Midwest Birding Symposium in Lakeside, Ohio when I saw their tent set up in the vendor area. Just like RAPTOR, Inc. (from my previous posts), Back to the Wild's primary mission is to rehabilitate and release injured, orphaned and displaced wildlife back to the wild...

...a closeup of an American Bald Eagle. Nothing beats that profile...

I had just come out of a lecture and didn't have my big camera with me, so I took these photos with my little Panasonic LUMIX DMC-257. For being such a small camera, it has a nice little zoom. I always regret not taking my Nikon with me wherever I go, but I had no idea these gorgeous birds would be working that day.

...another closeup. It's almost the same shot, but the there is a subtle shift in his head tilt. The down-tilted angle changes the mood captured in the image, creating a more aggressive feel. It all centers around the line of his brow. This photo can help artists see how a tiny shift in the angle of the eye creates a not-so subtle shift in the mood...

A quick bit about the boney ridge above the eagle's eye...
The fierce glare of an eagle is all because of the oversized supraorbital ridge that makes up the eagle's brow. This boney ridge makes the bird look tough, formidable, and no-nonsense, but really the supraorbital ridge is only there to block the sun and eliminate its glare so the bird has an easier time hunting. As humans, we interpret the look as a scowl that denotes power and strength, because in our faces, emotions can be deciphered from a shifting brow—a downward slanted brow indicates concentration, anger, or attack. The eagle can not change the position of the supraorbital ridge, and he doesn't have an eyebrow to move around freely, but as artists, we can shift the position of the head to make the slant of the supraorbital ridge a bit deeper, which then creates mood and emotion for the viewer. (Click here for previous posts on the supraorbital ridge.)

...this angle is more contemplative. We equate this gaze as far reaching and noble. The supraorbital ridge is exactly the same, but we perceive the angle of the brow and chin as a mood shift. It's strange how we can pin human characteristics to a bird to create a mood in art, but it's not surprising...

...it also explains why so many sports teams choose hawks and eagles as their namesakes instead of owls and ospreys. How many times have you heard someone shout, "Go Owls!" The owl is every bit as powerful a hunter and can inflict just as much damage as an eagle or hawk, but because it lacks the oversized supraorbital ridge, it carries a different "expression" on its face. Without the scowl, aggression does not register in the viewer and no fight-or-flight adrenalin is produced either. Owls are considered "wise" and hawks "tough," and the poor ospreys, even though they can rip flesh apart with the best of them, they seem to have a perpetually "surprised" look on their faces. "Go Ospreys!" Intellectually, we know what's what, but artistically, emotion can be produced in a glance, and there's nothing we can do about it...

...a full-bodied shot of an American Bald Eagle. This photo is certainly not going to win any awards. Yuck, it's out of focus and people and cars are in the background, but an artist can use it to spark an idea or refer to it for proportion. When I look at this photo, I see an eagle perched on the edge of a nest looking towards its mate approaching with prey...

...artists can get lost in the beautiful and intricate patterns that show in an eagle's wings. Since the wing feathers are so large and pronounced, the pattern is striking.

I always feel sad when I see birds that have been injured so badly they can't heal well enough to live in the wild, but it's nice to know that most of the birds recovered by Back to the Wild are rehabilitated and released and go on to live out their lives in the wild. I also feel like I'm cheating when I photograph these birds. They are tethered and can't fly away, but I know these close-up photos are a great way for artists to study raptors. (Click here for close-up photos of RAPTOR, Inc.'s birds of prey. Artists can also use these photos as references.)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) at Fort Ancient

A few weeks ago I spent a little time hiking through the meadow by the Mound Trail at Fort Ancient. The grasses were brown and dry, and what was left of summer's bounty crackled and rattled with each breeze that worked itself through the tumble of spent flower heads and stalks. Autumn had drained the green from the landscape, and even the yellows had faded from the fields, but oranges and reds were still around to be found on the dry and cracked Common Milkweed plants...

An adult Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) is surrounded by all five of its instars. The adult is at the top. It is the largest and has usable wings. Instars are nymphs, or immature versions of the bug. Instars differ in size, color and pattern. They also lack usable wings.

Large Milkweed bugs molt five times (nymphal instars) before they become adults. During these stages the nymphs look similar to the adults; however, if you look closely you can see each instar has its own color (from deep red to orange) and pattern. During the middle instars black wing pads start to form, but the wings are not usable until the fifth instar molts into an adult.

...also unique to the adult is the flame-red pattern on its face between its eyes...

...the adult Large Milkweed bug has a striking pattern of orange and black on its wings. Here you can see the veins that carry the hemolymph through the wings. On the final molt, the adult Milkweed bug pumps hemolymph through these veins to unfurl the wings. To see an adult who failed to open his wings, click here.

...a fifth instar almost looks like an adult, but lacks the defined face pattern, usable wings, and the eyes are much less "buggy!" Look to the right for a glimpse at an adult's eye.

One adult and several fifth instars mass together to form a color warning on an old Common Milkweed pod.

Since Large Milkweed bugs eat Common Milkweed sap, which contains toxic alkaloids, they do not taste good. A young bird only has to taste this bug once or twice to learn to avoid orange and black bugs! Large groupings of this color combination warn birds away. You may already know of another orange and black insect that has the same type of protection--the Monarch butterfly. Just like the Large Milkweed bug, Monarch butterfly caterpillars feed on Common Milkweed plants and concentrate the alkaloids in their tissue. When the caterpillars metamorphose into Monarch butterflies, they are toxic and also taste bad.

Another tidbit...I read on this site (click here) of an easy way to distinguish between a male and female milkweed bug--the female Milkweed bug has one black strip and two back dots on her abdomen, while a male has two thick black strips. I didn't know that before and never flipped one over to look. Next time I see one I'll take a peak.

...close-up of two later instars.

...close-up of an adult Milkweed bug--love the face tattoo.

This guy is not going to be hanging around much longer. These bugs migrate! Just like the Monarchs, they head south for the winter. Shorter days in autumn trigger diapause in the adults, which shuts down the reproductive system (source: "Migration: the biology of life on the move," by Hugh Dingle, page 139, click here to read more.). Shutting down the reproductive system saves energy and allows the Large Milkweed bugs and Monarch butterflies to migrate south for the winter. The same adult Milkweed bugs that overwintered in the south then migrate back north in the spring to lay the eggs of the next generation.

If you want to learn more about the Common Milkweed plant and all the insects that feed on it, check out this post by Marcia Bonta. I stumbled across it a few weeks ago and thought it would fit in here. For more photos of Large Milkweed Bugs, click here for an earlier post.