Sunday, March 29, 2009

First of Spring Birds

The weather report promised temperatures in the 60s today with possible thunderstorms once the morning showers stopped. But at noon it was still only 50 and sprinkling. Nonetheless we decided to go birding at Morris Arboretum. It just seemed like the right time to be finding our first spring migrants, especially since Pine Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrushes and others were starting to be seen in Pennsylvania.

We weren't disappointed. Well maybe if we had counted on the Waterthrushes..... It turned into a beautiful day, sunny, no more rain and temperatures in the 60s. Among the first birds of 2009 that we saw were an Eastern Phoebe, a Kildeer, in watercolor pencil and waterbrush sketch at top, and many Tree Swallows.

Along with that it's mating season for woodpeckers and 4 downy woodpeckers, 2 male and 2 female provided us with much entertainment. I'd prefer to show some sketches of them but they were moving so quickly that these photos were the best I could do. I THINK that the males were fighting for territory and/or mates and weren't actually trying to find mates. But it was hard to tell. All the downies were in the same tree but the females seemed to be ignoring the feuding males.

As I mentioned above the Kildeer sketch is done with watercolor pencils and waterbrushes. It's based on some photos I took today. Since it was supposed to rain I left our non-waterproof scope at home. That meant if I wanted to do sketches from life I needed to lift binoculars to my eyes for a bit, while balancing the pencils, brushes and sketchbook between by elbow and side. Then put the binoculars down, and pick up the others and try to sketch what I'd seen. Well I tried it briefly...But I didn't get far. So I reverted to the camera.

If I'd had more time when I got home I might have tried real watercolors and brushes. They offer far more possibilities than do the watercolor pencils and brushes. But the latter are fine for doing something quickly. There is something special about nature rendered as a drawing or painting that just isn't matched by photos. Thus my quick Kildeer sketch at top.

When we got back home our bloodroots, which I showed in bud in a post of a couple weeks ago, were in full bloom. As I recall they will only be in bloom for a day or two. But while they are in bloom they are striking. Some wildflowers have a pure white that just can't be beat by any of the many colors of the spectrum. Bloodroots are among them. That coupled with their interesting leaves make them a really beautiful addition to our garden.

As I write I hear hail pounding against the house. I guess the threatened storms have arrived about 6 hours late. And I guess it's a good thing I took a photo of the bloodroot quickly. This hail has probably decimated them.................

Post-mortem on the bloodroot: not a single blossom left! Enjoy the photos because that's all that's left until next year, and of course the foliage.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Season of Dirty Hands

Yes, this is a bit of a trick title. Based on my last post about gardening and planting seeds you might expect that this post would continue in that line. And if I had all the time in the world it might. But I don't so I worked on this new charcoal drawing today. That leads to very dirty hands. There may still be time to get my hands in potting soil today but only time will tell.

It's been awhile since I've done any charcoal drawings. I think I'm more comfortable with drawing than any other artistic medium. Most of my recent work has been in watercolor. But today I just felt like working without thinking. I'm much more able to do that with drawing than with painting, especially watercolor painting.

This drawing is based on a photo of a Cooper's Hawk in our backyard this winter. It was only when I looked at the photo that I saw he'd caught something. Based on its size I'd guess a pigeon.

For anyone who's interested in my process I normally start off with vine charcoal. In this case I actually did a separate pencil sketch before beginning this charcoal drawing. I then proceed to compressed charcoal when I want finer lines and more shape definition. But compressed charcoal, particularly when you press down on it as hard as I do, doesn't erase well. So the next step is to bring out my array of erasers.

In the end most of my charcoal drawings become somewhat dark. It's very hard to keep any bright white of the paper. But I think in the end there is enough tonal contrast to make the drawings still seem bright.

I'm not sure if I'll do more on this work or not. I need to take a break and return to dirtying my hands in potting soil, nearly frozen soil, and clematis pruning(I know it's late to be doing so...).

A few days later.........Soon after I did this I realized that there was a problem. I'm not going to actually say what it was. But I'm sure it was related to working from a photo rather than from life. When working from life I think that you're much more likely to get gestures, movement, weight distribution, and alignment of various body parts correct. This may just be a matter of really feeling what you are seeing. It's easy to lose this when working with photos and that was the problem here. I've replaced photos so that this shows the new drawing with corrections.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hillbilly Potato Leaf, Cherokee Purple

Sheepnose Pimento,
Red Brandywine,
Beam's Yellow Pear,
Jimmy Nardello,
Early Jalapeno,
Ancho Gigantea....
I think that's what I've planted so far, though I may have forgotten one or two.

One of the problems of early spring, only made worse in full spring, is that there's just too much to do. Migrant birds are starting to arrive, flowers and other plants are showing life in the garden(Winter Jasmine, Hellebore, Bloodroot and Witch Hazel -- seen in photos below) as well as in the woods. And if like my wife and myself you grow vegetables and flowers from seed, it's time to be planting!

Plants bought at nurseries, plant sales, and elsewhere in late spring are generally far more developed than ours are at that time. So if we were to buy them we'd get edible vegetables and flowering flowers earlier. But we wouldn't get 'Sheepnose Pimento Peppers' or 'Hillbilly Potato Leaf Tomatoes'.

We've grown vegetables, herbs and flowers from seed for at least 20 years now. It's far more work. And now more than when we started it competes with birding time, hiking time, art time and gardening time. So I'm a bit late getting seeds ordered and planted. The photo ab top shows the first batch of plantings. These are all in the nightshade family: tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. These always seem to need the most time between planting and being transplanted into the garden: 8-10 weeks.

Along with the problem of finding time to order seeds and plant them, I need time to watch them and make sure that they're not drying out, or too wet. I need to transplant them when they get too large for their pots, and eventually they need to be transplanted into the garden. But it is worth it.

Most of the plants we grow are heirloom varieties. Many come from Seed Savers Exchange, though a good number are also from Johnnys Selected Seeds. We really like the idea of helping to keep alive types of vegetables that are rarely offered for sale. We're helping to keep seed diversity alive. And there's also the names, e.g. "Hillbilly Potato Leaf," "Cherokee Purple."

But mainly it's just the taste. You can't beat the taste of Brandywine, Green Zebra and Mexico Midget tomatoes, of Apple, Sweet Chocolate and Sheepnose Pimento peppers! Summer will bring all sorts of butterflies to add color to the already incredibly colorful Benary's Giant Zinnias. And of course the basil, parsley and other herb seeds will eventually lead to plants whose flavor will enhance every meal we eat from June through at least September.

So just as the first migrating Icterids(blackbirds) hint at the colorful warblers and other neotropical migrant birds of May, these tiny seeds and seedlings hint at the full richness of summer. It's starting to feel warmer and sunnier already.

I hope to return to art work soon. But planting was a necessary detour.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Redstart on Nest, Continued, And Questioned

I think that this watercolor of the male(see caveat below) American Redstart on nest is done. I've gotten to the point where I'm starting to be finicky and that's the time to stop, at least for awhile. I've added some richness of color but I may have made it a little more monotone in the process. So time to let it incubate.

Speaking of incubation I mentioned that it seemed odd to see a male bird on nest. But in my experience that's not really all that true. We've had two interesting experiences where a couple alternated on the nest. More interestingly each bird made a special whistle or call as it came in to switch places with its mate. In one case the birds were Blue-Headed Vireos in Shenandoah National Park. The other birds were Baltimore Orioles at our rented garden at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Though we couldn't actually see in the nest of the vireos we later found the vireo nest destroyed and we found them building a new one nearby. Whether that means that they actually lost the eggs and had to start anew or whether just the nest was started and no eggs had been laid yet I don't know. But it seems unlikely that there would be any need to switch places if they were just building the nest.

In the case of the orioles it's possible that they were just trading off food gathering duties and not incubation duties. A Baltimore Oriole nest is a bit like a hanging sock, with the birds deep in towards the bottom. So unless you're right on top of it, which is unlikely unless you're in the tree, you really can't see what goes on. The couple could have been incubating the eggs or they could have been feeding the nestlings.

In either case it was a treat to be able to watch this, particularly the vocalizations that accompanied the behavior. I just did a quick online search and found this article on Blue-Headed Vireos sharing parental duties throughout the breeding cycle. So this is fairly common behavior with Blue-Headed Vireos. Further searching indicated that it is very unusual for this to occur in American wood warblers There is one documented study of a male Redstart
brooding nestlings
. Given this it seems unlikely that this really was a male. Nonetheless it's hard to see how the photo upon which this painting was based does not show a male.

I guess this just goes to reinforce the notion that good field notes can be very valuable when birding. In January I took part in the Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census and saw an unusual sparrow amidst the White-throated and Song Sparrows. Fortunately I DIDN'T have my camera. Instead I had a notebook where I quickly noted down the buff-orange malars, wash on chest, fine streaking and gray nape. These detailed notes confirmed for me that it was a Lincoln's Sparrow. If I'd reached for my camera instead I probably would have ended up with only an indistinct blur instead. I might never have known that I'd just seen what is a fairly rare bird for Philadelphia in winter.

So today I might try to sketch the Redstart as well as photograph it, making sure to add pertinent id notes as I did so. If nothing else I'd be sure to note the sex!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Blizzard, Sausage, American Redstart

Like much of the Northeast we've been warned that we might have our first real snow of the winter. Actually it's not all that uncommon to get big snows in early March here in Philadelphia.

While waiting for it I decided to venture forth in watercolor once again, this time based on a photo I took of an American Redstart on nest in a Witch Hazel on Pocosin Fire Road in Shenandoah National Park. Anyone who knows redstarts will notice something odd. This looks like a male. This photo is old so I don't remember the details now. But I really can't find a way to turn it into a female. There is the yellow-orange on sides of tail but I believe male has that as well. And the upper body just seems too dark to possibly be attributed to shadows. So I think we have a male on nest.

OK, you might ask, but what about the sausage? Well I've decided to include five photos that show the work in progress. It also is not done but I've lost all natural light here so I'm stopping for today. Some of these versions aren't exactly attractive or very hopeful. It's the equivalent of watching sausage being made. Still I think some people, especially artists, might find it interesting. There are points here where it almost looks hopeless. But I think things did get better.

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I'd prefer not to work from photos. But there hasn't been much activity at our feeders and the weather isn't great for venturing outside to work. So I'm going through old photos looking for sujbect matter. This is very limiting, and often not too inspiring. On the other hand art is where you find it and sometimes you just have to make the best of what's available.

This is the last wersion for today. I'm not sure when I'll get back to it. But in this case I know that it's not done as it is. There's just no richness of color, and not much of tone. I hope that will appear in the next version.