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.

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