Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Bald Eagles on Nest Brush Painting

Bald Eagles on Nest at Tinicum. Brush Painting by Ken Januski

I've fallen into a deep hole here with Chinese brush painting, or at least my version of it. The cold weather of January and February often finds me working from my photos, much as I dislike the practice. The same is true this year except that I'm using brush and ink or a brush pen. And, I'm processing the photos through my understanding of Chinese brush painting, limited though that may be.

It has proved very satisfying. Eventually all of this work will manifest itself in either woodcuts or linocuts. Most likely they won't look much like this. But winter for me is often a time for studying and practicing, trying to learn birds better and in this case also learn Chinese brush painting better. One day I hope it will all make sense.

Above are two Bald Eagles, one of them on nest, seen at Heinz NWR a few days ago. Bald Eagles have nested there for many years now and it remains a thrill to see them there and at other places throughout Philadelphia.
Fall Female Yellow-rumped Warbler. Brush Painting by Ken Januski.

An observant reader will have noticed that the last three paintings use subjects whose name starts with 'Y'. That's because I'm working my way through my collection of photographs, seeing what strikes my fancy, and I've gotten to the end of the alphabetized collection. Above and below are fall and spring Yellow-rumped Warblers. also done as Chinese brush paintings.

Spring Male Yellow-rumped Warbler. Brush Painting by Ken Januski.

And last but not least one of the birds we most enjoyed seeing last year, the Yellow-breasted Chat. We saw quite a number of them at Cape May last spring. And accompanying them a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron, seen along the Manayunk Canal many years ago in the middle of summer. These drawings are done with a brush pen. It of course doesn't have the tonal richness of brush and ink but I do like the way it forces me to simplify birds into just a few lines.

Yellow-Breasted Chat at Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Brush Painting and Brush Pen Painting

Adult and Juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Brush Painting by Ken Januski.

I continue on my seemingly never-ending digression into Chinese brush painting and painting with a Sumi brush pen. I had originally tried a brush pen last summer because I wanted to experiment with line weight and shape in my woodcuts and linocuts, a la ukiyo-e woodblocks.

I soon found though that to create variety in line weight and shape using a brush requires a mastery far beyond me. I had to just stumble along. In the process I got more and more interested in brush painting itself, though more in the Chinese tradition than in the Japanese surprisingly.

As I looked more at Chinese brush painting in particular I appreciated how often rich almost coloristic paintings could be made with just the black ink of an ink stick and various amounts of water. But this then becomes much more of a painting than a drawing, as much or more about areas of ink as lines of ink.

The two drawings at top, both done today, have Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers as their subject. The one on the left is an adult male. The one on the right is the far less colorful immature sapsucker. But the richness of color, especially the dirty dishwater 'yellow' belly, is what convinced me to use a brush, with its various values of black and gray, rather than just line. I almost certainly will never use what I've learned in a print, mainly because it is so painterly. But the beauty of ink washes was just too much to resist.

In the western tradition artists as varied as Rembrandt and Richard Diebenkorn were masters of wash drawings, and I've always loved them. It is amazing what you can do with black and white and gray!!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Bartram's Garden. Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Most of my work of the last week or more however has been done with a brush pen. Here line is king and it is very useful to force yourself to see birds or any other object strictly in terms of line. I do think this type of linear drawing is at the heart of most art of most cultures. Because ink is so unforgiving you either have to get the line right the first time or find some convincing way to either repair it or make it seem unimportant. This type of drawing can be a bit nerve-wracking since it is so easy to make mistakes. But it also forces you to take chances, to force yourself a bit further than you want to go. I've never been a big believer in the True Art Involves Taking Chances philosophy but in moderation it is often both useful and invigorating. Above the subject is a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher seen at Bartram's Garden.

The rest of the brush pen drawings below are pretty well explained by their captions. Most are done in less than five minutes. This is almost inevitable when you're using a brush pen. The lines move incredibly quickly and if you let your pen rest on the paper you'll soon have a blob rather than a crisp line. So the drawings/paintings move very quickly.

Snowy Egret at Jake's Landing. Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Spotted Sandpiper. Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

In the drawing above I've tried to capture something that I always notice when looking at Spotted Sandpipers, their relatively thick and blunt bill. That's really all I was trying to show here, along with the combined horizontal lines of the front leg and the back underside of the bird. Sometimes something as simple as that seems worthwhile trying to get down on paper.

Juvenile Tri-colored Herons at Heinz NWR. Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

FOY Warbling Vireo in Paperbark Birch. Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski

Above I was interested in showing how the first of year Warbling Vireo was making a very common bird movement, wiping the side of his bill on a branch. If you've seen many birds you'll realize how common this is. As well I like the visual element of all the catkins and tried to capture that.

In the drawing below my only real goal was to try to capture the oversized legs of the Willet. I think I was successful at that but I made the torso itself a bit short and out of proportion. Still it looks like a Willet and so I decided to show it.

Willet at Reed's Beech. Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Wilson's Snipe at Ottawa NWR. Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Finally one of a number of Wilson's Snipe seen on some cold and wet days at Ottawa NWR a couple of falls ago right before thecongressional Republicans shut down the government and the nation's wildlife refuges. I do remember that Mr.'TrustTed' Cruz!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Birding by Snowshoe

Myself along the Manayunk Canal. Photo by Ken Januski.

A year ago I broke down and bought some snowshoes, then a short time later bought some more for my wife Jerene. I knew that this would almost guarantee that we would get no snow last winter and probably for the next 5-10 winters. But no, we were able to get out a few times last year. At other times just the poles by themselves proved helpful when hiking icy ruts.

Jerene along the Manayunk Canal. Photo by Ken Januski.

Unfortunately we were not able to get out during our recent snowstorm/blizzard. Then finally today we made it to the Manayunk Canal, where unlike many areas, there was still a lot of snow on the ground. Above you see both me and Jerene. The camera was misbehaving so they're not the best photos but at least they show some documentation of our snowshoe birding.

Though we'd hoped to see some winter waterfowl, especially along the Schuylkill River, there wasn't anything unusual. But we did see four Common Mergansers and three Hooded Mergansers, the first of 2016. Seeing them is always a sign that winter really is here!

Ruddy Turnstone at Stone Harbor jetty. Brush Painting by Ken Januski.

Just as we've been too busy to enjoy the snow I've been too busy to do any artwork. But I found an hour a day or two ago to do this brush painting of a Ruddy Turnstone seen on a jetty at Stone Harbor, NJ last May. I continue to enjoy working with a Chinese brush and ink stick.

Friday, January 15, 2016

More Brush Paintings and Philadelphia Mid-winter Bird Census

Common Mergansers on Schuylkill River. Chinese Brush Painting by Ken Januski.

Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Flicker Eating Poison Ivy Berries. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Last Saturday was the annual Philadelphia Mid-winter Bird Census and we took part once again. Unseasonably warm weather, and a totally overcast day, made for an odd count. Outside of seeing and hearing a Common Raven flying over the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education we didn't see much unusual and to some extent we didn't even see the usual.

But we did see our first Common Mergansers of the year, pictured above riding the waves of the Schuylkill River. We also saw four species of woodpecker eating poison ivy berries from the same tree, around which the poison ivy had wound itself.

I'm still stuck on Chinese brush painting, not a bad thing to get stuck on, but something that I don't want to make a lifelong detour from my other work. But for now my idiosyncratic, and some might just say bad, combination of western style and Chinese brush painting style seems a useful and informative way to make pictures. My hope is that eventually what I've learned from brush painting will manifest itself both in my prints and in my watercolors. And hopefully I'll get better at it in itself, though given that you could spend your life studying it I don't have high expectations.

The mergansers are painted with ink made from an ink stick and water, which allows me a variation of blacks and grays. I used a small Chinese calligraphy brush and a larger sumi brush for it. The Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Flicker was painted with a Kuretake Sumi Brush Pen. The virtue of it is that the ink is carried in a reservoir, like a fountain pen, but it cannot easily create more than one color, a deep black.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2016 - Year of the Raptor

Bald Eagle at Dixon Meadow Preserve. Chinese Brush Painting by Ken Januski.

Northern Harrier at Dixon Meadow Preserve. Sumi Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Well at least it seems like the Year of the Raptor, based on the birds we've seen in 2016: a Bald Eagle at Andorra Natural Area and Dixon Meadow Preserve, probably the same bird; a Northern Harrier twice at Dixon Meadow Preserve; two American Kestrels at Dixon Meadow Preserve; and an accipiter(either Sharp-shinned or Coopers Hawk) in our backyard over the last two days.

American Kestrel at Dixon Meadow Preserve, Chinese Brush Painting by Ken Januski.

Bald Eagle at Dixon Meadow Preserve. Chinese Brush Painting by Ken Januski.

I hesitate to talk about Oriental brush painting, Chinese brush painting or sumi-e, since I know so little about each. What I do know is that I used a brush called a Kuretake Sumi Brush Pen in the painting of the Northern Harrier. When that pen ran out of ink and I didn't have time to refill I switched to a brush pen of another brand, Pentel I think, but possibly Pilot.

I also know that I did take a one semester course in Chinese Brush Painting many, many years ago. I greatly enjoyed it, and realized how complicated it is and how much skill is involved. And I know I never have studied sumi-e, which as far as I can tell, is the Japanese equivalent of Chinese Brush Painting. But I could very well be wrong since it seems to accentuate a simpler and more spontaneous use of the brush. Perhaps it is just one type of Japanese Brush Painting.

Who cares you might ask? Well anyone who actually knows something about sumi-e or Chinese brush painting probably does. So I'm trying to be as accurate as I can be, given my slight knowledge. When I did study Chinese Brush Painting I do recall that I preferred Japanese brush painting as far as I could tell. Japanese seemed bolder and less conventional, harder than the softness of Chinese brush painting. Today my tastes have changed and I'm more appreciative of Chinese Brush Painting, again with the caveat that I don't know much about either.

To further complicate things my recent interest in both stems largely from ukiyo-e printmaking, again a Japanese art. As I looked at some of it over the last few years I've realized how  elegant and rich the black outlines of so many of the shapes are. Those outlines are rarely just one undifferentiated width. They are light and dark, thick and thin, etc. This gives a real vitality to the prints, which often also have very strong colors. But the color is less important to me than the line. In particular this interest in ukiyo-e led me to the drawings of Hokusai, a master of the brush. He truly is someone who is  a master of rich line.

All of which leads me back to the work above. I've been using Sumi Brush Pens for almost a year now I think. I greatly enjoy them. But I have been bothered a bit by the fact that the ink cartridge can only hold one color, generally a rich black. It is difficult to get the rich variations of black and gray that characterizes brush painting of both China and Japan.

So over the last few months I've been experimenting with various sumi brushes and real sumi ink made from a sumi stick and capable of infinite gradations of gray and black. The first two sumi brushes I bought were far too large for my paper and created nothing but blobs. Finally I bought a very small Chinese calligraphy brush. It is the right size though probably not as flexible as a painting brush. If I could have found a small Chinese painting brush I would have bought it. In any case three of the four paintings on this page were created with it and sumi ink created from using an ink stick and water.

I realized that this is probably an impossibly convoluted explanation of how and why I did these paintings. But for the few people who read this and know something about Japanese and Chinese brush painting it will probably make sense. And, EVENTUALLY, I hope what I've learned will show up in my prints. For now though I'm still completely enamored of the brush painting itself, though I also realize what a rank beginner I must seem to those who actually know something about it.

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.