Sandhill Crane -Grus Canadensis


June 29, 2008

Several weeks ago, Jay and I joined our friends Tom and Elizabeth from Milwaukee on a little road trip up to the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI. I first learned of the foundation through yet another Peter Matthiessen book, The Birds of Heaven. They are a breeding and conservation organization for all species of cranes, and amongst other things, are on the forefront of bringing back the Whooping Crane from the brink of extinction. When we made our visit, it was breeding season, and the cranes were, uh, a bit surly and defensive. The ample amount of space between the path and their outdoor pens, was quite necessary and welcome. One species in particular, upon seeing us, ran with feathers fluffed out towards the fence. It growled and proceeded to rattle it's beak on the fence. Didn't think birds could growl? Think again. Despite all of the aggressive avian posturing, and the absurd amount of ticks, it was well worth the visit.

Cranes, like ravens, figure into the mythologies of many different cultures. Aldo Leopold spoke eloquently of them in the Sand County Almanac. When I go hiking north near the Wisconsin border, I savor their rattling call across the prairie and farm fields. Five years ago Jay and I made the drive out to central Nebraska to witness one of nature's greatest spectacles: the migration stop of millions of Sandhill cranes along the Platte river on their way north to Canada, Alaska and even Siberia. In any regard, it was high time that I made an image of one. This is a five color screen-print and it is available, along with two other screen-prints in the Etsy Shop: Snow Leopard and Darwin's Finches.

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia


June 24, 2008

Ever since reading Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, I have been drawn to these most enigmatic of mammals. They are so mysterious, and elegant, it seems an obvious sentiment. Who wouldn't be drawn to these gorgeous, almost mythic cats? Very few people have been fortunate enough to view them in their native high, Himalayan habitat. Matthiessen's book was written in 1973, and relates a trip to Dolpo he took with the great zoologist George Schaller. Schaller was going to the Tibetan plateau to observe the bharal or Himalayan blue sheep, and in addition, hopefully glimpse the elusive feline that preyed on the bharal. The book beautifully documents the culture and natural history of the area, as well of the inner journey of Matthiessen, a Zen Buddhist. At the time Schaller was one of two Westerners to have seen Uncia uncia in the wild since 1950.

Since then, the leopard continues to live up to its secretive reputation, as well as dwindling in number. How much so is difficult to say. Getting a head count on an elusive creature that favors dangerous, rugged, and often inaccessible terrain must involve a good amount of guess work. In the Planet Earth series, there was footage of a leopard hunting, and no doubt was the result of many months of agonizing patience, if not more. The last issue of National Geographic had a feature on Snow Leopards. The photographer had set up various cameras that would be triggered by cats slinking through their territories. The resulting photographs were on par with finding visual evidence of the yeti. Camera flashes illuminated mountain spirits haunting craggy cliffs. Their tails are so large and fluffy, that in addition to serving as a counter balance to aid in navigating steep terrain, it can be wrapped around its sleeping owner to protect from chilly weather. I felt it time to make a Snow Leopard screen-print.I haven't finished signing the edition yet, but the print should be available in the Etsy shop in the next day or two. A portion of the sales from this print will go to benefit a wildlife organization, but I haven't settled on which one yet. It will be specified in the Etsy posting.

Lichens and getting lost in the Field


June 17, 2008

After my lunch break last week, I decided to wander a bit. For all the time that I put in as a volunteer at the Field, I have done surprisingly little wandering about the exhibits, which was, um, kind of the point of going in the first place. I decided to take a stroll through the botanical wing. All of the displays were framed in dark stained wood, and the lighting was low. In some ways it was like walking through a dense forest. I love all of the old, odd, beautifully crafted models of plants, especially the diorama for this weirdo: the welwitshia. There were also models of ancient, giant horsetail that used to grow in Illinois, based on fossils found at Mazon Creek. Horsetail, on a much smaller scale is still very abundant in Illinois. I remember Jay and I taking a bike ride along the old tow path for the I&M Canal, along the Illinois River, and the trail was lined with horsetail (and water snakes!). I also visited with the cycad models. Cycads are some of my favorite plants. Fossil records date them appearing roughly around 300 -325 million years ago. They look like they are related to ferns or palm trees, but in fact are more closely related to evergreens. I was first introduced to them through Oliver Sack's wonderful book The Island of Colorblind. Chicago 's Garfield Park Conservatory, has at least a couple of specimens in the fern room that are rumored to be around two hundred years old.

I finished up with my wandering and took a stairwell off of the botanical wing up to the third floor (where the bird prep lab is), and got completely lost. It was the botanical department, but I couldn't figure out how to wind my way through the maze of offices and labs, and back to the Bird Division. I did, however, find where they keep the lichenologists! Heh. I glanced at a couple with eyes pressed up to microscopes, as I walked past back to the stairwell to "reset" my museum compass. I had the thought that I could start volunteering in there too! Instead I came home and did a painting of Lipstick Powderhorn lichens (in Etsy shop), a rather sassy looking cladonia lichen.

Kentucky Warbler - Geothlypis formosus


June 16, 2008

I went to the Field Museum last week and worked on about 5 different birds, one of which was an extraordinarily beautiful Kentucky Warbler. I don't think I have seen one before, and Dave said that we only had a couple come into the museum this migration season. I got the sense that in general they are not very common, but especially so around these parts. Birds of North America site states that tropical deforestation may be a key factor in the reason why numbers of this species have been declining. A ground nesting bird, they inhabit dense deciduous forests of the southeastern US. The male ( shown in the painting) has a bit more black and dark grey on its crown than the female, but both have the bright, saturated yellow breast. I was a bit confused when trying to look up the scientific name of the species to write on its label. When creating a study skin, a label is made for the specimen. The label has a number that gives some indication as to where the bird was collected, a date when it was found, sex, size of the gonads, amount of fat present, and if it is a passerine type bird then the ossification of the skull is recorded and this gives some indication as to how old the bird may be. In the Sibley guide and on Birds of North America the Kentucky is listed as Oporornis formosus, but Dave had written up a leg tag for it as Geothlypis formosus. When I asked him if it was a mistake, he said no, but I wasn't able to gather the specific reasoning behind using Geothlypis instead of Oporornis. He said Geothlypis species included the Common Yellowthroat, so maybe there is some recent DNA evidence the these birds are somewhat closely related.

Not a Bluebird of Happiness


June 09, 2008

Well, today I got an unfortunate example of nature red in tooth and claw, and the effects of an aggressive, invasive species. The painting above was done as a commission. The person that commissioned the piece from me, did so as a gift to his parents. His parents had put out a bluebird nesting box on their property. Bluebird populations had been dwindling for sometime, but this year they were delighted to discover a nest in their box, and it's dedicated parents. That's when this painting was commissioned. I had just shipped off the painting today, when I got an email stating that his parents had noted some House Sparrows trying to get into the nest. They seemed to be successfully staved off for awhile by the bluebirds, but alas, to no avail. They had been out of town, and when they returned, they checked the nest box to find the bluebird chicks pecked to death inside. I had heard of this kind of House Sparrow behavior before, but never quite believed it until now. It's hard not to anthropomorphize such behavior sometimes. I once heard Julie Zickefoose in an NPR interview allude to some of her culling practices for House Sparrows. I was mildly apalled. Even though I know the havoc introduced species like starlings and House Sparrows can wreak on native populations, I don't have it in me to be killing the little buggers with my bare hands, or by any means, for that matter. After today, well...hmmm.

Satin Bowerbird - Ptilonorhynchus violaceus


June 08, 2008

Recently I engaged in some barter. A friend of mine is an avid birder (hard to believe, I know), and runs a landscaping consultation business. He basically will assess your yard, and suggests how to make it more attractive to our feathered friends. I offered TJ a painting of his choice, in trade for his expertise in the aforementioned matters. I found out that what is basically good for us is good for the birds: shelter, food, and water. He recommended: creating a brush pile (as many birds find that useful for protection from the elements and hungry raptors), myriad types native plantings (cardinal flowers for hummingbirds), trees that create small berry-like fruit (such as Service Berry), and having plenty of shallow water about. As he went over this, he would stop every now and then and cock his head and say "Hey wait, I hear a...." After that happening several times, TJ and I grabbed our binoculars and geeked out for about 20 minutes. He proceeded to identify all of the following: Magnolia warbler, Yellow warbler, American Redstart (another type of warbler), Yellow-rumped Warbler, and some type of flycatcher we were unable to properly identify. So, apparently the birds think my neighborhood is pretty good already. It helps that we live near a major migration flyway (Lake Michigan), and additional water source (North Shore Channel), and that many of the yards in my neigborhood have large specimens of what TJ referred to as "junk" trees: Hackberry, and Chinese Elm. Those "junk" trees are a little birdie buffet of invertebrates.

TJ requested a painting of a Satin Bowerbird. I was happy to oblige as it was a good excuse to do a little research on this very unusual, and charismatic family of birds. Bowerbirds (native to Australia-New Guinea), get their namesake from the courtship behavior of the males. The males create elaborate constructions (bowers) made out of twigs, and adorned with various natural and manmade items, in hopes to attract the ladies. The male Satin Bowerbird in this painting has gathered bits of blue plastic and feathers to adorn his bower. There is a David Attenborough segment in which another species of bowerbird collects piles of nuts, beetle shells, and flowers. In research for this painting I went in to the collections at the Field Museum. When I asked Dr. Willard to pull a Satin Bowerbird for me to look at he quipped, "You could just do a painting of a Common Grackle and nobody would know the difference!" Ah...ornithology humor. Anyway, Dave took out several specimens, and noted that he thought the females were quite beautiful. I agree, though drab in overall color, the plumage patterning is beautiful.

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