iPhones and White-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis)


February 24, 2009

Last New Year's I began engaging in a birder's tradition of "Bird of the Year". Meaning, the first bird spotted of the new year becomes my theme bird for the rest of the 365 days. For the past four years, me, my husband Jay, and a couple of friends have headed up to a quiet farm cottage, surrounded by fields, forest, and ravines in the wilds of Wisconsin for New Year's Eve and day. Activities usually involve lounging/napping by a fire, sledding, hiking, petting Kirby the Miniature Donkey (and now a recently acquired pot-bellied pig we have named Pigvestigator - don't ask.), and eating absurd amounts of warm, homemade bread and farm fresh eggs.

This year, I was joined by my new iPhone. Now, I am no ludite. Yet, when our cellphone plan expired this summer, and Jay made a convincing argument as to why we should upgrade to iPhones, I was skeptical. Did I really need a gadget with which I could talk to my mom, text my friends, check email, watch Youtube, and use GPS, and all at once if I wanted ? Well...not really? I think I was worried that was too much access for me: too much access to email and the internet, and thus more distraction. I still kind of feel that way, but when I discovered that there was iPhone software for a Birds of North America field guide, iPhone and I became buddies. I downloaded the software, and geeked out over how each specie's page had an audio file of its vocalizations.

So while on a hike up at the cottage, I was at the bottom of a ravine, standing in 2 feet of snow, gazing up at the creaking, bare oak trees, when a White-breasted nuthatch flew off in the distance. I reached for my phone and looked up Sitta carolinensis in the guide to read up on a couple of details, and then hit the audio button to hear its call. Shortly thereafter I heard the nuthatch echoing the vocalization that was emitting from my iPhone. I hit the button again, and again the nuthatch answered repeatedly, all the while flitting closer and closer, until it was right above me. It creeped up and down the tree trunk, the branches, and stopped every now and then to size me up as I stood still. It was so close! I was entranced, but then felt a pang of guilt as I realized that I had unintentionally confused this little bird with some sort of false alarm, and interrupted important winter foraging. I put my phone away, and began my hike back up and out of the ravine. I am not sure that this was the very first bird that I saw in 2009, but definitely the first memorable encounter. So, happy 2009 little Sitta carolinensis.

Aguirre: The Wrath of the Screaming Piha ((Lipaugus vociferans)


February 19, 2009

I am fan of Werner Herzog films, not least of which is Aguirre: The Wrath of God. For those of you unfamiliar, it's a film about a group of Spanish conquistadors in the middle of the Amazon, and their decent into madness via the main character Lope de Aguirre (played with seething and sinister precision by the late Klaus Kinski). I've always been drawn to Herzog's relationship to nature in his films, especially in this one and in Fitzcarraldo. The Amazon rain forest isn't just a back drop for these stories, it is a character thrumming with fecundity, and impartial to the whims of man. Love it or hate it, Aguirre has been tremendously influential (Apocalypse Now, for one), and is almost as famous for the well documented histrionic tensions between its director and lead actor.

Why post about this here? Well, for years I have been obsessed by a bird call that can be heard prominently in many of the scenes of Aguirre (and Fitzcarraldo). These are the scenes, usually, in which Kinski twists to face his comrades, falling silent with the pall of madness over his face. You can almost hear all of the other conquistadors think "Hoo boy. It's OVER!!!". Instead, though, you hear the call of this bird: the Screaming Piha or Lipaugus vociferans. Perhaps I would have figured this out sooner had I ever been to South America, as it is a pretty common bird, but I had to wait until I saw it in David Attenborough's "Life of Birds". Screaming Pihas are small, rather drab birds of the upper canopy. Though drab in appearance, they have one of the most piercing, extraordinary calls. It's so loud and piercing that you begin to wonder if that is what finally pushed Aguirre over the edge. Kinski faces the camera as if to say "Will someone PLEASE, turn that bird off!"

For your listening pleasure and own decent into madness, here is a LINK to Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library natural sound and video archive. Just search under "Screaming Piha" and you will turn up a number a recordings. Audio recording ML 62564 is particularly good.

Morris's Nest and Egg Engravings


February 18, 2009

So, in the previous post, I wrote about my trip to Edinboro, PA and the etching was able to make at the university's print lab there. The etching was inspired by an engraving hanging in the house of my host. Someone that read that post and my description of said engraving is a natural history print collector, and was kind enough to send me (thanks Bill) a little information about it. The original engraving (which I have posted a picture of above) is from an entire series from an 1875 edition of Francis Orpen Morris, A Natural History of the Nests & Eggs of British Birds. Many of the images of these can be viewed HERE (and purchased as well). Image courtesy Panteek.com, a natural history print dealer.

Also above, is an image of my latest proof of my etching. I added the text across the bottom " T. migratorius, American Robin" and printed the nest plate in a sepia ink rather than a graphite which the last was printed. For those of you that have asked about its availability, I will be selling it though my main site and Etsy shop as soon as I am able to edition it; hopefully in a couple of weeks!

Egg and Nest Etching


February 13, 2009

Greetings from the print lab at Edinboro University, in lovely Edinboro, PA! A couple of years ago I was invited by Egress Press, a printing house run by John Lysak (fine art faculty member at Edinboro) to make an etching. This year my husband was invited to make a couple of lithos, and they generously let me tag along to sneak in and use the etching lab again. I just finished a new, two color, copper etching today of a robin's egg and nest. We've been staying with John and his wife Helen at their cozy home not far from the university. It's a lovely rural area nestled in a valley with a big waterway called French Creek running through it (currently flooding many of the roads!), and it's supposedly one the most bio-diverse watersheds in PA. John and Helen have all sorts of beautiful artwork hanging in their home. One engraving hangs above their mantle. It's an old natural history print of an egg suspended above a nest. I've seen many of these prints before. Its composition purely serves a scientific need to show what type of egg goes with a specific nest. Like John, however, I've always been a bit mesmerized by how the eggs eerily levitate above their nests; there's something almost metaphysical about it. So, I decided to take a couple of old copper plates and etch my own version and homage to these images. One photo shows a proof with the two copper plates (one plate has the blue egg etched on it, and the other the nest), and the other image is of a final proof. It's all ready to ink up and edition, and that's what I'll be spending the day doing tomorrow. Happiness!

Visit Egress Press.



February 10, 2009

Hi there! Sezio.org was nice enough to interview me about my paintings. We talk a bit about the recent album art I did for Andrew Bird, and how the natural world figures into my work in general.

Go to interview.

Pigeons, Doves, and Their Latin Roots.


February 09, 2009

Today, I was delighted to receive an email from a friend that had Wordsmith.org's daily word post. Today's word was "columbarium", and you can read about it here. I was intrigued for many reasons. For one, I had just found a monotype intaglio print that I did on a steel plate of two domestic pigeons with "Columbidae" written across the bottom. Columbidae is the avian family that includes pigeons and doves, and along with corvids (ravens,crows,jays), is one of my favorites. "Columbarium" is defined as a room or wall with niches for funeral urns to be stored. It's origins are 18th century from Latin, literally meaning "pigeon house", the root "columba" meaning "pigeon or dove". The post highlights how bird references in language are so often used to denote negative things: bird brains, sitting duck, dodo etc. To counteract this a bit they posted a link to a couple of videos that demonstrate the extraordinary intelligence of corvids. But what species of bird is more maligned than the pigeon? The "rat with wings" to which they are often referred says it all. It seems like human nature is to revile the creatures that we share the most space with, and to a large degree our existence is the very reason for their flourishing (rats, mice, pigeons, cockroaches). It's as if we don't like to have the mirror held up to our faces, and we certainly don't want the competition. Anyway, bit of a tangent there...Throughout ancient history doves (and doves are a nice name for pigeons) were greatly revered and cherished. It was standard practice for nobility to keep large dovecotes. Last year I read Andrew Blechman's "Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird". I was never a pigeon hater, but the book definitely upped my respect and admiration for this family of birds. Check out Columbidae Conservation as well.



February 07, 2009

Haeckel plate of radiolarians

Louis Sullivan ornament detail

What are radiolarians? I will leave that to Radiolaria.org to answer that one, but ever since I saw the illustrations of naturalist Ernst Haeckel I have been enchanted. While Haeckel's illustrations from a purely scientific perspective are less than accurate, aesthetically they are sublime. He strove for visual symmetry which made for exquisite renderings of neat little sea creatures, but nature in reality is not so neat and tidy! When I look at the intricate, organic, and geometric shapes, I can see how architects like Louis Sullivan would have been influenced by visual patterns in natural world. I'm posting about this now, because I just found a stack of etchings that I had made a couple of years ago. I found a monotype I did of some radiolarians. I drew and etched images of radiolarians on the copper plate, inked it and ran it through an intaglio press once, and then flipped the plate and ran it through a second time on the same sheet of paper, creating a "ghost" image in the print.

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