Sunday, April 29, 2012

Common Goldeneyes in January...

I've been remiss at posting paintings for the 100 Painting Challenge! These paintings go all the way back to January when I saw the gorgeous Long-eared Owl near Caesar Creek State Park (click here for that post). After we saw the owl, we headed up to the Caesar Creek Lake boat launch to look for a few winter ducks. Nothing was close, but through the scopes, a few beautiful black and white ducks with large white spots on their faces (cheek patches) and bright yellow eyes were easy to see...

Painting 219. Common Goldeneye Before the Storm (oil pastel)
A storm was moving in as we watched a few Common Goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) on the lake. To top that, night was falling which all but squelched the iridescent greens that show in the feathers on their heads when in the sun. 

Painting 218. Common Goldeneye in the Ice and Rain (oil pastel)
We wanted to stay longer to watch these beautiful ducks, but along with night, ice pellets and slushy rain were starting to fall. To avoid diminished driving conditions, we hit the road. The Goldeneyes bobbed on the water as we packed up our spotting scopes, diving now and then, not at all worried about the deteriorating weather conditions...
Painting 217. Common Goldeneye at Caesar Creek (watercolor sketchbook page)
This is a page out of my sketchbook -- even though I wrote 2011 in the was 2012 (I'm usually pretty slow on the uptake of the new year in January!). When I got home, I did this quick entry in my sketchbook to remember these beautiful ducks. I did the oil pastels over the next few days.

If you're an artist looking for a challenge, join up at the 100 Paintings in a Year Challenge hosted by Laure Ferlita.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A bee curls up in a flower for the night, and a long-nosed bug keeps him company…

As I was walking the Little Miami Trail the other evening, a small stand of one of my favorite spring flowers, Appendaged Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum), caught my eye. Its papery and delicate petals of lavender were lit just right in the early evening sun, so I stopped to snap a few photos. As I trained my camera lens on the blossom, I noticed two types of bugs. I could see one was a bee curled up behind the stamens, seemingly tucked in for the night, and one was a strange-looking bug with a very long nose, scurrying around checking out every part of the flower. On closer inspection, I noticed his antenna seemed to be positioned half-way down his “nose,” which added to his cool factor. After going home and checking in my insect field guide, I learned the long-nosed beetle was some sort of snout beetle (weevil) in the family Curculionidae, and the “nose” was actually an extended part of the head that ended in a mouthpart aimed at letting the weevil bore into fruit, cotton bolls, wheat, and other vegetation.

A bee is curled up in an Appendaged Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum) blossom...and just above the flower, a tiny weevil is scoping out the area.

This clump of Appendaged Waterleaf was in the shadows behind the first patch I saw. I noticed the same type of bee was hanging out in the blossom, but another species of weevil was crawling around on the blossom. It was larger and darker than the little yellow-striped weevil I had just seen on the first blossom.

The warm evening sun highlighted this bee as he readied himself for the night. Male bees often do not return to the hive in the evening, spending the night in the protection of a flower blossom instead.

...let's zoom in on this furry little beast (although, if he is a male drone, he's not much of a beast because drones don't have stingers!). I love those little balls of pollen sticking to his legs...

...up pops Mr. Weevil! His super long "nose" or snout is called a rostrum (Latin for beak) and is really a downward curved extension of the head that ends in saw-like mouthparts that can bore into nuts, fruit, plants, etc. Notice how his antenna are located halfway down the rostrum (strange and cool...).

...not the greatest photo, but it does show his pattern and coloration. He's black with yellow or yellowish-green stripes and tiny dots and dents. According to my National Audubon Society's "Field Guid to Insects & Spiders," pg 612, snout beetles and weevils (family Curculionidae) are "hard-bodied beetles" that make up the largest family of insects, coming in at 40,000 species worldwide and 2,500 species in North America (now I don't feel so badly not know what species this guy is).

Appendage Waterleaf blossoms are busy places in the evening!
Most weevils are plant specific, e.g., "Acorn Weevils" feed on acorns and lay their eggs inside an acorn. The infamous "Boll Weevil" feeds on cotton bolls and lays eggs in the boll, destroying the crop.

Here is a video from National Geographic that shows an Acorn Weevil busy at work:

Thursday, April 12, 2012

How to make a ceramic pottery bird's nest (with removable eggs) out of clay!

If you're like me you probably enjoy adding little pieces of bird art to your home or office's decor every now and then. Here's a simple clay project you can do to make your own little piece of bird art! I created this bird nest design a couple of months ago, and it is fun and easy--anyone can make it, whether you're artistic or not! It's the perfect time of year to bring home a little bird's nest with eggs...

Iron Bird stands guard over a little ceramic pottery nest with eggs. The nest is fun to make and looks cute just about anywhere. The eggs are not attached, so you can pick them up and move them around--interactive art is fun! When Rick saw this nest sitting on the piano a few weeks ago he asked me where I bought it. He thought it was really cool. That's the ultimate complement--it's good enough to sell in a store! :-)

How to Make a Ceramic Pottery
Bird's Nest (and Eggs) out of Clay

Step 1. Start with a ball of clay.
You don't need a lot of clay, just enough to fit in your palm. After you've formed the ball, use your thumb to press a hole in the center...

Step 2. Create the nest shape.
Continue pressing into the clay to create a small bowl. You're basically making a small pinch pot...

Step 3. Refine the nest shape.
Flatten the bowl out a bit so it starts to take the form of a nest...

Step 4. Wet down a clay extruder tool.
You can get hand-held clay extruders at any pottery supply store for about $10.00. You can also use a garlic press...or maybe a Play-doh press if your kids have one. Wetting down the extruder makes it easier to extrude the clay and keeps the clay moist...

Step 5. Roll out a "snake" of clay to put in the extruder.
You can also just push globs of clay into the cylinder, but it's quicker and easier to create a snake of clay and slide it in. You might not get as much clay into the extruder by snaking it in, but for this project you want to extrude the clay in small batches anyway...

Step 6. Create the "nesting material."
There are lots of end cap disks that come with the extruder to create various extruded forms. I use the mesh disk to create the nesting material. All you have to do is depress the plunger and tiny clay "grass and twig" noodles are extruded out...

Step 7. Build the nest!
This is the fun part! Take the extruded "twigs" and apply them to the clay nest. Since you wet down the cylinder of the extruder before you extruded the clay, the tiny noodles of clay are moist and adhere to the sides very well. No scoring is required. I've never once had any of my nesting material fall off during the firing process by not scoring. ("Scoring" is where you rough up both edges of the clay and apply water to form slip to help the two pieces stick together. )

Step 8. Continue to build the nest one batch of twig noodles at a time.
After extruding the nesting material, immediately adhere it to the clay nest form. If you create several extruded batches of noodles and set them aside, they dry out too quickly and won't adhere correctly. Take your time building the nest. A light hand goes a long way, because keeping the nest airy is important. If you push the noodles into the clay too hard, they flatten out and the nest looks heavy...

Step 9. Don't be too neat with the nesting material!
Don't be tempted to make everything perfect. Let the tiny clay twig noodles overlap each other and zig back here and there. I usually adhere noodles to the rim first, then fill the inside cup, then adhere noodles to the outside. Vary the pattern and leave spaces...

Step 10. Roll out small round ball shapes for the eggs.
Getting these little balls the right size takes a bit of practice, but once you practice a few times, it's easy to create the right shape...

Step 11. Gently roll and depress at one end of the ball.
Creating an egg requires a bit of finesse. It's easy to do, though. Just start rolling the ball and depress gently at one end with your fingertip. You'll see the egg shape form before your eyes...

Step 12. Test out the proportions.
Place the eggs in the nest to make sure they fit the nest and are about the same size--unless, of course, you want to show that the nest was parasitized by a Cowbird and make one egg larger! ;-)

Step 13. Wait...
It can take up to two weeks for a clay piece to completely dry. Your teacher will bisque fire it when it's ready. Bisque firing changes the clay into ceramic material. When it comes out, it will be hard and white...ready for glazing.

Step 14. Glaze the nest and eggs.
You can glaze the eggs any color you'd like--maybe Robin's Egg blue, or you can look up egg patterns and copy one. In my nest, I glazed the eggs with Potter's Stone Buff. It gives the eggs a soft cream color with spots of brown. For little effort, it creates a convincing egg! You can use any glaze to create the nest. The simplest glaze is Amber Ash. That's what I used to create this nest. It is translucent, so you can add dark-brown underglazes here and there and then top it with the Amber Ash.

Step 15. Fire it again!
After you glaze your piece, your teacher will fire it again. This final firing will melt the glaze (powdered glass suspended in water) and fuse it to the bisqueware. After the glaze firing, your nest is finished! (Make sure your teacher fires the eggs separately from the nest during the glaze firing. If you fire them together, the eggs will stick to the nest--unless that's the look you're after. Maybe you don't want the eggs to be able to be picked up.)

You can never have too much bird art! Have fun making this little love the removable eggs.

Finding a Pottery Studio
A quick Internet search should help you locate a pottery studio near you. I've been going to the "It's Just Mud Pottery Studio" for 11 years. It's located in Liberty Township...about a 25-minute drive for me. If you're in Cincinnati, call Pam Ives at the studio for information, 513-887-2657. Pam is a master potter and wonderful teacher. You will have fun at her studio! The hands you see in the photos above belong to Pam. I had her model each step for me so I could photograph the process! Thanks, Pam!!

I hope you find a studio. If you do, print out this post, take it with you, and show your teacher or the studio owner. He or she will help you get the right materials. The little bird nest with eggs makes a great gift too. I've created lots of birdy designs over the years, and they are all easy to make. I will try to get a few more designs up (click here for another clay bird project I posted a few years ago).

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica mutica) from the Little Miami River

Up where I live, the Little Miami River is speckled with rocky beaches and is held captive by cliffs and towering hills of woods and dolomite outcroppings. Near its headwaters upstream, it flows through even steeper gorges carved out by glacial meltwater. The dolomite cliffs at Clifton Gorge in Yellow Springs are so steep they create a microclimate that allows hemlock trees and white cedars (boreal relics from seeds swept down and deposited by the Wisconsinan continental glacier 10,000-15,000 years ago) to thrive in the cooler, shaded forests of the gorges. Further down the river, near me, Fort Ancient is the largest ancient earthen hilltop enclosure in the world, perched on land that rises 240 feet above the river, and its narrow rocky and muddy corridor keeps the water moving along swiftly, but after the river flows past the stretch I walk and canoe or kayak, its banks and bottom slowly start to change until mile after mile, the gorges disappear and the land flattens out. As it flows through Cincinnati and nears its mouth at the Ohio river, the Little Miami widens and the banks and river bottom become more sandy, and sandbars can be found here and there too, moving and shifting each year with the rains and currents. This newer habitat creates an ideal playground for Midland Smooth Softshell turtles...

Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica mutica)

A male Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle rests in the sand along the Little Miami River at Armleder Park in Cincinnati. Here, where the river nears its confluence with the Ohio river, the river bottom and banks are sandy and support a population of smooth softshell turtles. Paul Krusling knows where the smooth softshells live in the Little Miami, so two weeks ago I met up with Paul and Joe at Armleder to photograph this guy.

Last summer, Rick and I kayaked and canoed the Little Miami river many times always hopeful we'd see a Midland Smooth sunning on a log, but we didn't. The habitat was not right. The rocky, muddy corridors and river bottoms do not appeal to the smooth softshells. Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtles, however, love the parts of the Little Miami we paddled on, and we saw well over 30 turtles. There is just enough sand mixed in with the mud for them to thrive, but two weeks ago, I finally saw my first Midland Smooth Softshell in the Little Miami (up until then, all the smooth softshell turtles I photographed were from the Great Miami River, a much larger and sandier river). Paul and Joe were heading to Armleder Park, so I met up with them to photograph the Smoothy.

At first glance, the two softshell turtles look a lot a like. They are both flat like pancakes (and are sometimes commonly called pancake turtles) and have carapaces with no scutes--thus the "soft shell" (scutes are the armored, bony plates that make up a turtle's carapace--the upper shell.) You can also see the carapace bones through the soft shell of both species, but when you look closely, differences emerge and are easily recognizable.

Midland Smooth Softshells (Apalone mutica mutica) have an apricot or peach-colored stripe that runs from the nose, through the eye, and down the neck. Eastern Spiny Softshells (Aplone spinifera spinifera) have a yellowish stripe. I was surprised at how "peach" mutica's stripe really was!

...another color to look! If you turn a Midland Smooth Softshell turtle's foot over, you'll find a blue pad. It's quite a surprise!! Here Paul held the turtle upside down so I could snap off a quick shot. The brave turtle didn't seem to mind.

...and talking about feet. Look at that webbing! Apalone mutica mutica is a very fast swimmer--the fastest swimming turtle in our area. Of course, the Spiny softshell has webbed feet too, but not quite as extensive. The Spiny Softshell turtle can bite and is more aggressive than this Smooth Softshell turtle. Maybe being just a little faster in the water makes up for the more passive nature of the Smooth Softshell turtle, which doesn't bite. Another noticeable difference...Smoothys have less noticeable markings on their legs.

A very visible difference between the two species relates to their namesakes! As you can see here, the Smooth Softshell turtle has no spines or ridges at the edge of the carapace. It's smooth! The Spiny Softshell turtle has spines and bumps (click here to see the spines of a Spiny).

...and last but not least, the carapace pattern visible on males and young Midland Smooth Softshell turtles is much different than the pattern that shows on Spiney Softshells (click here for the Spiney Softshell carapace pattern of dark circles called ocelli). Smooth Softshells have dots and dashes. This is an older male Smooth Softshell so his pattern is a bit faded (click here to see a very visible pattern on a baby Smoothy). The females of both species develop a similar pattern. Sherman Minton, Jr. in "Amphibians & Reptiles of Indiana" refers to the pattern as "lichenoid," which perfectly describes the blotchy, lichen-like look (click here to see a female softshell turtle's carapace pattern).

I have more photos of this fellow and a video of him swimming away in the water too. I'll work on getting them posted soon.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A mama Great Horned Owl feeding her baby...

This afternoon Rick and I headed over to Lake Isabella to check in on the nesting owls. I was hoping to get a glimpse of the baby who has already started popping its head out of the nest. When we arrived, the park attendant told us another egg had hatched and there were now two owlets being tended to by the parents! We walked over to the viewing area to see if the baby was awake. Soon the mama picked something up in the nest and turned toward us. It looked like dinner was about to be served...

A female Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) owl lifted a half-eaten bird out of the nest for her owlet...

...within seconds the baby popped up, ready for dinner! Look at that little one's mouth open up wide.

Only one of the two owlets popped up for dinner. If the other was eating, it was not visible from our angle.

...maybe the mama was feeding the other owlet here.

...sated, the baby soon closed its eyes and slipped back down in the nest to sleep.

...but before nodding off, the owlet stretched its little wings, giving us a glimpse of the feathers just beginning to emerge from the cylindrical feather sheaths.

Owls do not build their own nests. Instead, they take over nests built by hawks, herons, crows, or even squirrels. They also will nest in hollowed-out tree cavities that are large enough, and will even take advantage of man-made platforms and other types of nests, such as this old metal tub. This tub has been at Lake Isabella for a long time and has hosted many owl families over the years!

(It was nice having Rick along with me. If he's not careful, he might lose his old blog name of Rick the Reluctant Birder!)