Winter Wren

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March 31, 2007


It's barely larger than my thumb! I didn't realize that we had these coming though the Chicago area. They don't nest here, but pass through in Spring and Fall. They're cute, tiny, tough little birds that have extraordinary vocalizations. Several years ago, I was fortunate enought to be back country camping in the Olympic Rain Forest in the Pacific Northwest. My husband and I moved along the thickly ferned trails, and at one point could have sworn we were being followed by a mouse. We stayed still for a bit, and the culprit revealed itself to be a Winter Wren flitting about in some brush. Their song is a complex series of very high tinkling trills (like the tiniest wind chimes you can imagine), and thin buzzing.

American Woodcock

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Woodcocks and snipe are a little alien looking to me. They're chubby, with sort of awkwardly sized bills, and their eyes are set back far on their heads (all the better to see a predator with!). To accommodate the placement of the eyes and ears, their brains are flipped inside of their tiny skulls. They feed mainly on earthworms. Although considered a shore bird, woodcocks are typically found in damp, brushy, wooded habitat. During the Spring, meaning riiight about now, the males will begin their very elaborate displays. In a nutshell, the male will choose a clearing for his performance and begin by making a series of "peeeents", afterwhich he flutters up into the air, reaches his chosen apex, circles, then divebombs back down while see-sawing back and forth, and then repeats until some female is duly impressed or takes pity. There is a better description in Aldo Leopold's great "A Sand County Almanac". If you have any interest in nature, conservation, and especially if you live in the Midwest, you must read Leopold's prose of the prairie.

Great Horned Owl

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One time I was driving home from college downstate in Urbana back to Chicago along highway 57. The sun has just begun to set, and the sky was pink and orange. I glanced to the side of the road at one point and was stunned to see the largest bird I had ever seen, sitting on a telephone pole. I stopped the car to take a closer look and then saw the large ear tufts and yellow eyes as it rotated its head ala Exorcist style to look at me. Is there anyone that doesn't think owls are kick ASS? Show them to me, and I will show you a liar! Having the opportunity to prepare one as a specimen was a privelage, and gave me an intimate look into how it has evolved to be a creature of beauty, stealth and power. An interesting fact about Great Horned Owls is that they are one of the few beings that will actively hunt skunks (not so great if you happen to be working on an owl that just had one for lunch.).

Red-tailed Hawk

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If you have recently driven along a highway and spotted a very large hawk perched on a fence post or in an old snag, most likely it was a Red-tailed. Like other species in the Buteo family, Buteo jamaicensis exhibits quite a bit of geographic plumage variation which can sometimes complicate identification. Adults have the reddish-sienna tail of their namesake, whereas the juveniles are lacking this characteristic. The hawk that I prepared was lighter in color, lacked the red tail, and initially it was thought to be a less common subspecies: Harlan's Red-tailed hawk. Upon further examination, it turned out to be a juvenile common Red-tailed. Harlan's plummage lacks the brown tones of the more common, and its overall appearance is more blackish and white.

Tiny Aviary's Tiny Vacation

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March 13, 2007

Hello my dear fellow bird nirds. I will not able to post to Tiny Aviary for a couple of weeks as my other illustration work has called me away on business. There are few things that I would rather be doing than making wee watercolors of birds, but I am in Austin for the Flatstock Poster Convention that happens in conjunction with the SXSW music festival. So far I've seen tons of Boat-tailed Grackles, and White-winged Doves. I have a list of birds that I look forward to posting soon after I return after the 25th of March. It's going to get busy at the museum as spring migration has begun. This Monday past I walked into the Bird Division to find Dave Willard seated and labeling 30 Song Sparrows that he had collected from that morning alone from the base of McCormick Center.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

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March 12, 2007


Sapsuckers are picaformes (woodpeckers) that drill small sap wells in trees. These wells are created in regularly spaced rows and columns on tree trunks. While sap consists of roughly 20% of their diet, they also eat insects, berries and fruits. Males and females will announce their presence by a distinctive drumming pattern. It's a staccato drum roll that is often preceded and followed by gradually slowing, clearly separated taps. Like most other woodpeckers they have zygodactyl feet (2 toes in front, and two in back) and stiff tail feathers that aid in support. The specimen that I prepared was a male. He had a red throat patch, whereas females have white in that area.

Blue Jay

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March 06, 2007


Blue Jays belong to one of my favorite families of birds: Corvidae. Corvids include crows, ravens, magpies, along with all jays. Crows and ravens especially, are highly gregarious birds with somewhat complex social structures. Corvids are also renown for their opportunistic behaviour and unusually (for birds) high intellingence. When I get to prepare a crow or raven, I will use that opportunity to blather on and on about the intelligence of those creatures. Recent biochemical evidence has shown that crows and jays are part of a large evolutionary radiation that orginated from a common crow-like ancestor in Australia. Jays are omnivorous in that they mainly eat insects and mast (nuts and seeds that accumulate on the forest floor). Blue Jays are found in most forest and scrub habitats south of the great Canadian boreal forest. They have a harsh screaming call along with some whistled phrases, and can easily mimic raptors.

Northern Cardinal

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Well, thanks to the fine people over at Apple, my hard drive has been replaced and all is well again in my universe. This post and the following are two species that I did not prepare, but these paintings were done as commissions. I decided to toss them up, as this is all I have right now! To anyone that lives in the Chicago area, Cardinals are a pretty common sight year round. Even in winter, males are often seen as a stain of red against a backdrop of snow. Cardinals belong to the family Cardinalidae, which also includes buntings, grosbeaks, and Dickcissels. All species within this family are seed eaters, as noted by their strong, conical beaks. With a couple of exceptions, all species are monogamous, with strong sexual dimorphism in plummage. Even though the female Northern Cardinal is more subdued and cryptic in color, I find them to be just as stunning as the males.

Like a Turtle Knocked on Its Back...

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March 04, 2007

I am helpless! Aside from having a crazy week of job deadlines and having to leave my beloved museum early last Monday, my computer crashed this weekend. So, if you noticed the lack of new paintings posted, that is why. I hope to be up and running again in a few days. Tomorrow I head over to the Field to have, hopefully, an uninterrupted day of specimen prep and a new list of birds to paint. In the meantime, say a prayer for my hard drive. Sigh.

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