Steller's Sea Eagle - Haliaeetus pelagicus

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December 22, 2008


Sometime ago, I had a request to create a painting of a Steller's Sea Eagle, and I finally completed it. The banner has the person's name on it, but I photoshopped that out for privacy reasons. I was excited to have an opportunity to paint one of these magnificent birds of prey. This is one of the largest eagles in the world, rivaled only by Harpy Eagle and Philippine Eagle. Wing spans range from an incredible 7 to 8 feet, and females (larger of the 2 sexes) can weight between 15 and 20 pounds. They feed mainly on fish, such as salmon, but will prey on other water dwelling birds, and mammals as well. They live in the eastern parts of Russia, and winter a bit south of there in Japan.

In order to create the painting, I had to rely on various random photographs, as the collections at the Field Museum do not have any specimens of Steller's Sea Eagles. A few weeks ago while in for my regular volunteer shift, I asked Dr. Willard if I could look at one, and I got a flummoxed look. He ran off to check the records, and sure enough, it was one of the few things that the collections lack. He wryly commented that the next time he finds himself on the Kamchatka peninsula, he would pick one up for me. I decided not to wait.

Black-throated Sparrow - Amphispiza bilineata

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December 04, 2008


I did a painting of this sparrow on a whim, as I have never seen one in the field or worked on one in the prep lab at the museum. As the range of this species mainly encompasses the southwestern parts of the United States, and going up as far north as Washington, it would be highly unusual to come across one of these in the Midwest. Throughout its range it tends to favor, dry, semi-open habitat. It's a seed eater, but has been known to forage for invertebrates during the breeding season. Male and females have similar plumage. During courtship, the male will sit on a nearby perch singing, while the female constructs a nest below in cactus or desert shrub.

I've always thought them a very striking and handsomely marked breed of sparrow. Black-throated belong to the family Emberizidae. It's an avian family that for the most part includes all species of North American sparrows, juncos and towhees. It does not, however, include the common House Sparrow. House Sparrows are an Old World species that were introduced to the states. Like other Old World sparrows they belong to the family Passeridae and are not closely related to Emberizidae.


Painting available in Etsy Shop

Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Reserve

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December 02, 2008


The weekend before Thanksgiving, I piled into my car along with 3 other volunteers from the Field Museum's bird division for a very welcome road trip. We were hauling it over the border to Indiana to view thousands of Sandhill Cranes flocking to the Jasper-Pulasksi reserve, only an hour and a half away. We were all delighted to be able to witness such a spectacle of nature so close to home. One early spring, years ago, Jay and I drove all the way to Kearney, NE to see the massive stopover of Sandhills along the Platte river at the Rowe Sanctuary and Audubon Center. It's the only true birding trip I have ever taken, and was well worth it. We creeped out to a blind at 4 in the morning with a group of other bird nuts and a guide. Clutching our coffees and hot chocolate, we waited, and then the sun began to rise. The shallow Platte was slowly revealed in the pink orange glow of dawn, along with the tens of thousands of Sandhills standing in the middle of it. At Jasper- Pulaski me and my cohorts showed up at the reserve around 3:30 PM. A large viewing platform was already full of other onlookers. The platform looks out onto a large, marshy field, where as the sun set, wave after wave of Sandhills descended upon it to roost overnight. It was peak fall migration, and an estimate of 13,000 was made of roosting cranes that would soon be on their way to wintering grounds in Georgia and Florida. We drove home on a small state highway in the pitch black of the rural landscape with the ancient, trumpeting calls of cranes in our heads. For my part, I was just satisfied knowing that I didn't have to drive all the way to Nebraska anymore to satisfy my Sandhill cravings. I still love you Nebraska, but for now, Indiana's got my back.

Brown Creeper - Certhia americana

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November 30, 2008


Brown creepers are one of my very favorite birds. I was so delighted when I started being able to spot them, even in this urban habitat. You would think that with its cryptic plumage, and tiny size, they would be more difficult to spot. Maybe it is just that I know to look for them now, and where, but I see them all of the time. I have a couple that have been frequenting my yard. I love this description I found on Birds of North America Online quoting W.M. Tyler from 1948:

“The brown creeper, as he hitches along the bole of a tree, looks like a fragment of detached bark that is defying the law of gravitation by moving upward over the trunk, and as he flies off to another tree he resembles a little dry leaf blown about by the wind."

Creepers do exactly as their name would suggest, and they love the vertical life. They flit up to the base of a tree trunk , and as soon as they alight, they hop up the bark (or yes, creep), sometimes as though the tree were a set of spiral stairs. All along the way, they glean tiny invertebrates with their delicately curved bills. Once reaching a sufficient altitude, they fly off to another tree trunk to repeat the process again. They tend to make their nests behind loosened flaps of bark on dead or dying trees. Their range reaches from Alaska, central Canada, all across the United States and as far south as Nicaragua. The Chicago area lies within their winter range, and so it is no surprise that I have had a couple show up in late fall. I expect, just as last year, they will be sticking around to tough it out like the rest of us.

*Original watercolor available in Etsy Shop

New Prints in Etsy Shop

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I just posted two new editions of archival inkjet prints to the Etsy Shop. The prints are limited editions on 15 each, and printed with archival, pigmented ink on beautiful, sustainable Hahnemuhle bamboo paper. Thanks, and I hope you all had a lovely holiday weekend!

Thick-billed Parrot - Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha

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November 25, 2008


I have a bit of an obsession with parrots that have adapted to temperate habitats. For example, I am fascinated by New Zealand's flightless, nocturnal parrot, the Kakapo; an extremely rare, large, stocky, green Psittaciforme that waddles through the moss covered undergrowth of New Zealand's forests. Thick-billed parrots aren't quite that unconventional when it comes to parrot behavior. They fly and are very social, gathering in large flocks. Their habitat preferences are the old growth conifer forests of northern Mexico, as their diet consists mainly of pine nuts. Thick-billed, along with the extinct Carolina Parakeet, are the only species of parrot whose natural distributions once included parts of the continental United States. Their numbers have always been strongest in the the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico, but until the mid-twentieth century the species still occurred in the mountains of southwest New Mexico and Arizona. Most likely these northern populations were extirpated due to heavy hunting. More recently their numbers in Mexico have been dropping dramatically due to massive logging in the Sierre Madre Occidental.

American Redstart - Setophaga ruticilla

1

November 24, 2008


Last week at the museum, I worked on creating 5 study skins. Much of what Dr. Willard had taken out of the freezer that day were American Redstarts. Redstarts are small, highly active, acrobatic warblers. Males are striking for their bright orange patches against black on their tail feathers and wings. Females tend to be a greenish grey with yellow patches on tails and wings. Redstarts will often flash these bold color patches by fanning their tails and dropping their wings. This behavior aids in flushing out insect prey. Male redstarts resemble females in plumage until their second fall when they begin to acquire the distinctive orange and black feathers. Setophaga favors second growth deciduous forests, with lots of brush. I actually saw my first Redstart in the field on a Lake Michigan beach in a rough patch of bramble a ways back from the water's edge. It was a male hopping rapidly from branch to branch, flicking and flashing his tail and wings.

* this painting along with a few others are available in the Etsy Shop.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes

3

November 21, 2008


There is a small, but extraordinary exhibit currently up at the Field Museum. I have already visited the little gallery that contains it three times, and plan to go more. Fuertes was one of the greatest natural history illustrators of the twentieth century. Although he painted mammals as well as birds, this exhibit focuses on a batch of bird watercolors he produced for a 1927 research trip to Abyssinia. Not only are they remarkable for the fact that many were produced in the field without the convenience and comfort of today's technology, but they are also remarkable for the way Fuertes seemed to be able to capture the soul and fierce spirit of his subject matter. His brushstrokes, especially when rendering feathers, are precise without being sterile and overdone. Capturing the gestures and postures specific to each species was the result of his careful observations, and a near photographic memory. I prefer these field paintings to his more finished pieces for their directness and spontaneity. Shortly after returning from Ethiopia, Fuertes was tragically killed by his car being hit by a train. His wife survived, and in addition, all of the Abyssinian paintings were miraculously thrown clear of the wreck. They were later donated to the Field Museum, and are a beautiful tribute to African wildlife and one of our most gifted wildlife artists.



The Painted Bird: Louis Agassiz Fuertes
September 12, 2008—January 4, 2009

Greater Bird of Paradise - Paradisaea apoda

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A big thanks to everybody that came to the Exquisite City opening! It was a fun night, and it was great to see such a big turn out. I think the diorama aspect to a lot of the work brought me back to being a kid running around the Museum of Science and Industry. Many people brought their children to the opening, and it was fun to see them scamper about with wide eyed looks of wonder.

Do excuse my blogger slackerness, as I haven't had the time to post much lately even though I have a lot to post about. I just finished a big illustration job for an album that is being released at the beginning of 2009 by an extremely talented Chicago musician. I don't know that I can mention specifics just yet, but I will say that I'm a big fan, and am genuinely excited about the music, and the work that I created for the cover art. There is sort of a natural history theme threaded throughout the album, and so of course I was very enthusiastic about collaborating. This is one of the pieces that I created for it. It's a male Greater Bird of Paradise in all of his flailing, flamboyant splendor to send you happily off on to your weekend.

New Paintings for Exquisite City Exhibit: Common Nighthawk, Chimney Swift

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November 05, 2008



Well, I'm still reeling a bit from the emotional rally I attended last night in Chicago for Obama, but here are two more paintings that will be included in the Exquisite City exhibit at the Viaduct theatre.

VOTE!!!!!!!

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November 04, 2008


Okay, I generally try to leave any overt politics out of this blog, but this is just far too important. Go Vote! And from one Illinoisan to another: Go Obama!

The Exquisite City

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October 30, 2008




Chicago artist Kathleen Judge invited me and other local artists to participate in a show that she is putting together and opens November 7th. Kathleen is one of my favorite poster artists. Most of her designs for her screen printed posters begin as scratch board drawings, a technique that yields excellent texture and line quality.

I am particularly excited about the main idea behind this exhibit. Each of the participating artists were asked to design and construct a city block out of cardboard. All of the pieces will then be put together in the 3000 square foot space of Chicago's Viaduct Theatre. I, however, will not be making cardboard buildings. Instead, Judge asked me to submit some of my bird paintings. I will have 5 watercolors of birds that, in one way or another, are connected to Chicago's urban environment. I chose species that either nest here, or migrate through, and that most people are probably not aware that they share space with in a big city. I also wanted the species to represent how birds are negatively impacted by cities, and how some have adapted. My first two completed paintings are of specimens from the Field Museum's collections, and were collected downtown ( I think the sapsuckers were collected on Wacker). I chose Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and American Woodcocks because we tend to get high numbers of them colliding with buildings during the migration seasons. The other three paintings, which are in progress, will not be of specimens, but of species that have adapted on some level to living in amongst the skyscrapers:Common Nighthawk, Chimney swift, and Peregrine Falcon.

So, if you are in Chicago and are looking for something to do next week, come on out! Hope to see you there.
Here's the info:

THE EXQUISITE CITY & EXQUISITE WINDOWS
07 NOVEMBER 2008 - 12 DECEMBER 2008
THE VIADUCT THEATER • 3111 N. WESTERN AVE., CHICAGO IL


OPENING RECEPTION NOV. 7, 2008 - 6pm-Midnight

Save Kentucky's Hemlocks Show- Update

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October 25, 2008


I posted earlier in the week about a show that I am involved in that is happening in Lexington, KY. I didn't have the specifics at the time, but now I have all of the info. If you are in the Lexington area, please do come out and show a little love for a very important cause: saving Kentucky's hemlocks. I don't know who designed this sweet looking logo, but it shows a Black-throated green warbler, a species closely associated with eastern hemlock forests.


Tsuga Art & Music

Friday, Nov. 21st, 2008
Old Tarr Distillery - Manchester St., Lexington, KY
Free Group Art Show @ 5-9pm | Music @ 8pm
All Ages Show

Please join us for a celebration of eastern hemlock trees on Friday November 21st. Come learn about the threat facing hemlock trees, view artwork from over 25 artists and listen to three of the finest bands from Kentucky. All proceeds benefit Save Kentucky’s Hemlocks. More information at http://www.kyhemlocks.org/tsuga_event.html.

Blue Tit - Cyanistes caeruleus

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October 21, 2008


I spent a good amount of time in Germany last month while traveling. Jay and I and two other poster artists had a gallery show in Dusseldorf, and then in Hamburg we attended the Flatstock Poster Convention (part of the Reeperbahn Music Festival). This was the third year that Flatstock was happening. We went the first year, and it was our main reason for going to Europe this year. I really like Hamburg. It's a good balance of urban and laid back, and we have been fortunate enough to make some really wonderful friends.

We stayed with Bernd and Christiane. They have a lovely flat on a quiet tree lined street in northwestern Hamburg. Their company, Most of Cider, creates really amazing, gourmet hard cider. We got to know them a couple of years ago because Jay designed a label and poster for a special edition cider they released that year. Their flat has a balcony overlooking the street. In the morning we'd hang out there for a bit and drink our coffee. We quickly noticed feisty, brightly colored little birds flitting from one potted plant to the next, and then diving into the trees and ivy lined walls. I made a quick mental note of their markings and color, and when I got home I figured out that they were Cyanistes caeruleus.

Blue tits (and don't think that I am not snickering when I type that name) are passerines belonging to the family Paridae. In the States this family includes our several species of chickadees such as Black-capped and Carolina, and titmice, such at the Tufted and Bridled. Cyanistes is a common garden visiter throughout Europe and western Asia, and is for the most part a resident bird, meaning it does not migrate. A rather aggressive little puffball, it fearlessly defends its nest, even pecking at curious fingers, earning it the nickname "Little Billy Biter" in England. As far as nests, it will shack up in any hole in a tree, post, wall or nest box, even competing with bullying House sparrows. I wanted to show in the watercolor that they are also very adept avian acrobatics, often hanging upside down to get at whatever food they're trying to get at. There were quite a few nest boxes set up on balconies on Bernd's street that probably get plenty of use in the breeding season.

*chirp! painting in etsy shop.

Northern Parulas and Eastern Hemlock Forests

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October 20, 2008


Well, hello again! I returned from my travels a couple of weeks ago, and have finally managed to get back into my "normal" routine, so that means back to posting on Tiny Aviary. Fall is a busy time of year for Chicago area birders (and birds!) as so many species are coming through on their way south. While walking my trusty greyhound, Seth, one morning last week I saw my first Yellow-bellied sapsuckers. I've seen plenty in the prep lab at the museum, but this was my first time seeing them live and in the field. More about that in another post.

I want to start things off again by talking about a show that a friend of mine is organizing to benefit Kentucky hemlock forests. Ancient hemlock forests in areas such as the Smokey Mountains, and the Shenandoah valley are rapidly being turned into graveyards of dead trees by a species of insect introduced to the States decades ago; the Woolly Adelgid. The adelgids feed voraciously on hemlock needles and reproduce rapidly throughout the warm seasons. The infestation and devastation of eastern hemlock forests is being compared to chestnut blight and the *extinction of the American Chestnut tree.

The first sighting of the Woolly Adelgid in Kentucky was in 2006. Since then a new organization was formed, Save Kentucky's Hemlocks. The show will directly benefit this group. There will be original work by a wide range of artists (including yours truly) available for sale, as well as live music. I was asked to make a watercolor of a species of bird that is closely associated with Kentucky hemlock forests. Many species depend on hemlocks, but Northern Parulas, and Black-throated green warblers in particular. Right now I don't have specifics for the show (date, exact location etc.) , but as soon as I do I will post that information.

*since 2005 a few mature American Chestnut trees have been discovered, the locations of which are often kept secret. For more information visit the American Chestnut Foundation.

Erm...extended Tiny Aviary Vacation

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September 11, 2008

Well, yes, I haven't been posting since returning from Seattle, because I am about to leave for Europe for more poster event related craziness. I return in October and fully intend to get things rolling again on Tiny Aviary. Also, I have temporarily closed the Etsy shop. Thanks for checking in, and I will be back in fall!

Tweet tweet! Tiny Aviary Vacation

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August 19, 2008


Well it's that time of year. Little birds everywhere are fattening up to begin their fall journeys to their winter homes. It's time for me to travel a bit as well. Every year around this time I go to Seattle to participate in the Flatstock Poster Convention that is part of the Bumbershoot Music Festival. Jay and I love it there so much we always extend our stay and try to visit the San Juan Islands up by Vancouver. This time we are treating ourselves to a little sea kayaking. So, Tiny Aviary is going to take a little rest. I'll be back in the beginning of September. Until then, enjoy the rest of summer, and I will be back with more bird nerdness in no time!

Eastern Screech Owl (grey phase) - Megascops asio

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August 18, 2008


Painting just completed of Eastern Screech Owl. I did one of a brown phase not too long ago, and now wanted to try a grey.

Northern Pygmy Owl -Glaucidium gnoma

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August 15, 2008


I have been wanting to do a watercolor of one of these wee fellows for some time now. I didn't work on one at the museum. They are native to areas west of the Rockies, and most of what I deal with are local species of birds. A friend of mine from when I worked at the Newberry Library contacted me recently and wanted to commission a painting as a gift for someone. He wasn't sure what to request, and we came to the conclusion that it's hard to go wrong with owls.

One of the interesting aspects of pygmy owls is that they have a pair of false eye spots. They have two dark patches rimmed in white on the rear of their heads. According to the Birds Of North America site, there isn't a whole lot that is known about pygmies other than that they are probably North America's smallest species of owl (measuring 6.75 inches from head to tail), and that they are fearless and very aggressive hunters of small passerine birds and mammals.

Denver: Our New Buteo jamaicensis Buddy

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August 12, 2008




Last Thursday, a rather large tour group was coming to view the Bird Division. The group was so large that I, along with another volunteer was asked to help. I was given the task of talking about the prep lab and then taking smaller groups into the dermestid beetle room. This may seem a dubious honor to some, but I have come to really appreciate the little guys, and their thankless work. I will admit that there may be a veeeery teeny tiny part of me that enjoys bringing a well polished group of nice suburbanites into a room full of carnage. Although I have sung their praises on this blog before, if you are not familiar, dermestids are colonies of carrion eating beetles (nothing live holds any interest, just the dead stuff). Museums often use them as they are the most natural, chemical free, and thorough method for cleaning skeletons.

Also part of the tour was Denver the Red-tailed Hawk. Denver's human is Mary Hennen. Mary has been working in the Bird Division for roughly 12 years. In addition, she has been a major part of Peregrine Falcon conservation in the Chicago area. Peregrines had disappeared from the area by the 1960's due to DDT use, but thanks to the ongoing efforts of experienced biologists like Mary and other dedicated volunteers they have been successfully reintroduced to the Midwest, and are carefully monitored. So, a little bit about Denver. Denver is what is known as an imprint bird. Imprints are birds that were exposed to humans at an early stage in their development, and as a result see humans as their own kind. This is why in many avian conservation programs that involve captive breeding (California Condors, Whooping Cranes), young birds are reared using either hand puppets, or in the case of Whooping Cranes, by humans in full body "crane" suits. An imprint such as Denver cannot survive in the wild, since he does not know how to hunt properly and he will not recognize other hawks as potential mates. He now lives with Mary. This is a huge commitment on her part as he can live up to 30 years (he's currently 18), and she has had to construct a proper outdoor living facility for him. There is also the matter of the frozen quail that must be shipped in on dry ice for his food. There are permits and legal issues regarding the keeping of a wild animal, and part of keeping Denver is that Mary must use him for educational purposes. Tours groups and taking him around to schools are the perfect opportunity to fulfill this obligation.

Denver arrived in a pet carrier that had all of the windows blocked out with tape. Keeping him from too much stimuli aides in keeping him calm and relaxed. She blocked out an area near the lab with tables so that people would not be able to get too close to him, or walk around behind as he doesn't like people standing in his blind spot. He was placed on his perch, and to my amazement, he remained quite calm despite the steady stream of human gawking. Mary is the only one he will let handle him. She also mentioned that she is "courted' by Denver once a year. I am not sure what this involves exactly, but she did say that one thing he likes to do is preen her shoe laces. What a guy! He was molting a bit, as you may be able to see in the photo. If you look at his tail feathers closely you can see that some are shorter than others. The shorter are the new feathers coming in. I sat and sketched Denver for bit. He obliged by being his perfectly handsome, well behaved self. In one of the photos above, Mary is actually blowing on Denver. She would give a quick puff, and he seemed to like it as he ruffled out his feathers.

Midwestern Wild Habitats Series

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August 10, 2008




I was recently hired to create a triptych of works that are going into a new hotel that will be in the Chicago area. The hotel will showcase the work of many Chicago artists. I was excited about the opportunity to follow through on an idea that I have had for sometime. I've been wanting to create a number of pieces that honored the wildlife and landscapes of the midwest. These are limited edition screenprints that will be going into a number of rooms at the hotel. The first image is a cross section of a tallgrass prairie, with a coyote and some underground inhabitants. The second is of a marsh with cluster of Sandhill Cranes, and a peak into the watery environment surrounding their island. The final is of a bald cypress swamp of the sort that can be found at the very southern tip Illinois in the Cache River State Natural Area.

These are available in the ETSY Shop.

Red-winged Blackbirds - Agelaius phoeniceus

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July 28, 2008


I will admit, these are not my favorite birds. The male of this species breeding season territoriality encourages it to dive bomb anything it sees as a threat to its harem of up to 15 females; including Homo sapiens. A museum employee recently strolled into the zoology prep lab complaining about a Red-winged that had set up shop along a museum campus sidewalk, and was aggressively swooping innocent pedestrians, of which she was one. She half jokingly suggested that it might make things better if she attached a Red-winged study specimen to her head. If it were a male specimen, that would probably make things worse!

Faulty deterrents aside, I was sympathetic to her irritation. Last year, whilst staying at a friends farm, I stepped out for an early morning jog along one of the many winding, rural roads. I watched my shadow, and to my dismay, about every 50 feet watched another small, bird-shaped shadow swoop in over my head. Male Red-wings had stationed themselves quite evenly along my route, and sat perched on electrical lines waiting for any intruder (me) to dare enter their territory. They cawed and flashed their bright red wing epaulets in warning before diving within range of my noggin. I can't blame them for being protective of what they perceive to have rightfully claimed, but it's hard not to take it personally. Geez.

So, when I was commissioned to do a painting of one of these suckers, I hesitated at first. How can I paint my sworn avian enemy?! I then realized that in a two-dimensional state, there was no threat of it going after anyone. Red-winged blackbirds belong to the family Icterids that also include (until DNA evidence proves otherwise) grackles, meadowlarks, bobolinks, orioles, and cowbirds. A highly polygamous species that can be found throughout North America, it exhibits a high sexual dimorphism with the adult males being a glossy black with bright red and yellow wing epaulets, and females being brown and streaked. Kamikaze antics notwithstanding, it's a handsome species worthy of our respect.

Drawing lessons and an Accipiter cooperii

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July 15, 2008


I went in the museum an extra day last week to indulge in some painting; something I have not been able to do much of lately. I wanted to work a little bigger than usual, and rather than working from a static study skin, I looked for mounted specimens. There was a decent mounted specimen of a Peregrine Falcon I have been eyeing for some time, but I settled on what looked to be a juvenile Cooper's Hawk or Sharp-shinned hawk. It looked too large to be a Sharp-shinned. In any regard, I treated it as a Cooper's and altered the plumage coloring to reflect that of an adult. Dave helped me to locate an adult specimen to used as a reference. He pulled out a male from a drawer and I was taken aback by its rather petite size. I then remembered that the males of this species and of Sharp-shinned are considerably smaller (by several inches) than the females.

Drawing from a three-dimensional object seems so much more difficult for me than drawing from memory or a photo. I would draw a line and glance up at the hawk, only to have it stare back as if to say "Don't you think my wing is a bit too short? Grrrrr!" Observing and drawing in this manner is an exercise, and if not done on a regular basis I find the skill will quickly languish. My first couple attempts to sketch the creature were a bit rusty, but I eventually got it worked out well enough. I painted for 3 hours, and relished the luxury of sitting in the quiet meditation of observation, and drawing.

7/22 - Just posted to the Etsy Shop.

Blackpoll Warbler - Dendroica striata

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July 08, 2008


Last week at the museum, one of my specimens was a male Blackpoll warbler. Dave handed it to me with an apologetic wince: it was extraordinarily fat. Dave stated normal weight for a spring Blackpoll was around 12 -13 grams, but this fellow logged in as 17. No big shakes for a species of our size, but for this tiny fellow, that's a huge difference. Birds with large amounts of fat can pose a bit of challenge to creating a clean, and neat study skin. As much fat as possible must be removed from tissue, otherwise, its oils will soil the feathers, discoloring the specimen over time. Despite the amount of fat that had to be removed, my specimen turned out relatively clean.

As I was finishing up for the day John Bates, Zoology Chairman and Associate Curator of Birds, wandered into the prep lab and said "Oh a Blackpoll! Do you know about these?". My blank stare encouraged him to lead us to the zoology office, where he swiped a rather faded world globe from the desk. The globe had worn out areas on it, presumably as a result of just what John proceeded to do. He pressed his forefinger into Alaska, stating Dendroica striata bred there and throughout the boreal belt line. He then dragged his finger down to North Carolina and paused. He explained, while proceeding to drag his finger down to Venezuela, that there is evidence that Blackpolls on their way back south pause in North Carolina and other areas of New England. They gorge themselves and double their body mass before making an extraordinary 3000k, 88hr nonstop flight over water to their wintering grounds in northern South America. There is no evidence that the little birds stop on any islands along their herculean ocean trek. Somehow, by John using a physical globe to illustrate the migration path and length, it was made more impressive than if he had pulled up Google Earth.

Following up at home, I found data stating Blackpoll non-fat weights ranging from 8 to 11 grams, and their fueled up state tipping the scales at roughly 22 grams. My 17 gram fellow, being a spring bird, was on his way north to a boreal breeding ground. Poor fellow, he had crossed oceans with energy to spare, only to smack into a downtown window. On the brighter side, what I love most about volunteering at the museum is having a brief conversation such as the one above that will forever illuminate a previously unfamiliar species, and spark again my utter awe and wonder at the natural world. At the very least I was inspired to get a globe for the home studio. I opted for raised relief, and "natural" coloring; no pink and purple countries for me. I stuck with the home town team: Chicago's own Replogle.

*painting is in Etsy shop.

Of Cranes and Herons

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July 02, 2008


I've been asked by my lovely, butt-kicking, just returned from bike tour of Maine friend, Christy, to clarify the difference between herons, and cranes. This is something that has come up several times recently, and I even heard Dr. Willard explaining it to someone on a tour of the bird collections a couple of weeks ago. The assumption would be, because they look similar, that they are closely related, and from the same family and order of birds. This is not the case. While they share many similarities of appearance (long neck, legs, and spear-like bill), and even some types of habitat, these similarities are largely superficial.

Let's start with taxonomy. Cranes belong to the family Gruidae. Gruids have 15 species worldwide, two of which are native to North America: the rare Whooping, and the Sandhill. Gruidae fall under the order gruiformes, which include rails(family Rallidae), and the lone Limpkin(family Aramidae). Herons, egrets and bitterns, belong to the the family Ardeidae, which fall under the order Ciconiiformes, **which also includes the New World Vultures, spoonbills, and storks. You can take an order like the Gruiformes, and upon first glance at the various species, there is much morphological diversity. For instance, rails, such as the Virginia Rail, are small, secretive, water loving birds, whereas cranes, such as the Sandhill, are very large, gregarious, and prefer the wide open habitat of prairies, farm fields and meadows. Despite these differences, however, molecular evidence would suggest that they are, in fact, somewhat closely related.

Herons, egrets, and bitterns are quite solitary, and pretty strict carnivores; spearing anything that moves (fish, frogs, and sometimes the chicks of other species of birds). Cranes tend to congregate in large flocks, have pretty complex mating and territorial rituals (cranes are famous for dancing) and are more omnivorous. The most easy distinction to note between a crane and a heron, or egret when in the field is that cranes fly with their necks outstretched, whereas herons and egrets will tuck it in. Even when not flying, one can see the distinctive snake-like, s-curve in the neck of heron and egrets; a feature that allows them to strike prey with lightening speed and precision. While crane necks are also long, elegant and do curve, they don't curve or crook quite the way a heron's neck will.

So, those are the basics. From there you can get into suborders, subspecies, fossil records, molecular evidence, and so on, but the short answer is despite outward appearances, herons and cranes are not closely related. While I can take no responsibility in regards to the accuracy of the information contained in this post, I can safely say this: they both eat frogs; lots and lots of frogs. That's for you CP


**7/27 update - It looks as though recent DNA evidence would show that vultures are more closely related to hawks than storks.

Sandhill Crane -Grus Canadensis

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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

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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

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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! Yeah...no. 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

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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

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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

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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.

Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora pinus

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May 29, 2008


For some time now I had been going into the museum on Wednesdays. They are probably the busiest day of the week in the bird prep lab in terms of sheer numbers of volunteers. I went in today instead due to a heavy work load earlier in the week, and quite enjoyed the more tranquil atmosphere. Bob, a usual Wed. volunteer was in too, and he was stationed at the sink cleaning skeletons coming out of the dermestid beetle tanks. He had just returned from a trip to North Carolina, which included some pelagic bird watching. Josh, who spends a good portion of the year in Cape Town, South Africa as a birding tour guide, was in as well, making a study skin of a Scarlet Tanager.

Dr. Willard had taken out 4 different kinds of warblers and one Indigo Bunting for me to make into skins. Everything had been collected last week by one of the local bird collision group monitors that go around to various Loop buildings to gather up migration casualties. One of these was a Blue-winged Warbler. I was confused at first, thinking it a Pine Warbler from just looking at its scientific name, Vermivora pinus, when in fact Pine warbler is Dendroica pinus. Bob wandered over looking at the Blue-winged, saying that it was not very common. It was an adult male, as signified by the bright patch of yellow on the crown, which females lack. For the most part, both male and female are bright yellow underneath, and olive yellow on top, with the wings being a dusty, blue-gray. It is closely related to, but very different in looks from, Vermivora chrysoptera, the Golden-winged Warbler. Hybrids of the two species can be found. Pinus benefitted initially from settlers clearing land for agriculture as it prefers open, brushy habitat, but numbers have been declining in recent years due to urban sprawl and forests reclaiming abandoned farmland. I'm beginning to feel like that could be a mantra for this blog: declining numbers due to sprawl, declining numbers due to loss of habitat, and on, and on.

This painting is for sale in the Etsy shop.

Indigo Bunting - Passerina cyanea

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May 28, 2008


This week's painting commission is a male and female Passerina cyanea.

Red-headed Woodpecker-Melanerpes erythrocephalus

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May 23, 2008


This week when I went into the Field Museum, Dave Willard had set aside two woodpeckers to work on; each interesting (and beautiful) in its own right. The first was a Pileated Woodpecker. I had worked on a Pileated before, but this was unique in that it was collected in La Grange, IL. Typically these are denizens of old growth forests, and you would be hard pressed to find them in Cook County. You would be much more likely to spot one in Wisconsin, Minnesota, or down in Southern Illinois near the Cache River, or areas along the Mississippi (Mississippi Palisades). They need old trees, with large circumferences to support their nesting cavities. This specimen was a female (looks like she had died from a head wound, as her skull was cracked) that was found in the Desplaines River corridor. La Grange being an "older" suburb may have some suitable habitat for Pileateds.

The other specimen I prepared was a Red-headed Woodpecker. I just had one pay a visit to my backyard last week for a couple of days. It would forage on the ground. Their large, bold patches of red, black, and white, create a striking appearance. There is no difference in plumage between males and females, and so they are indistinguishable in the field. According to the Birds of North America site, for such a conspicuous bird, surprising little is know about it. Part of the reason for lack of data, is its preference for nesting in precariously located spots in old snags, and dead branches. Recent declines in numbers were initially being linked to nesting competition from starlings, but recent studies have shown that there actually may be no direct link between the two.

This painting is available in the Etsy shop. Have a great holiday weekend!

Coyote in the Hood- Canis latrans

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May 22, 2008


A couple of nights ago Jay and I were returning from a night out with some friends. Jay was still in the garage as I approached our house, and got my keys out to open the side door. Just then I looked up to see a dog run past our front gate. There was something about its manner of walking, its body language, that instantly told me this was not somebody's pet on the loose. I called (read: string of whispered cusses) to Jay and we crouched down in our front yard, and saw it run south down our block. It then turned around and ran past our house again and towards the park along the canal. It was a rather robust looking coyote. I knew that there are coyotes living in suburban areas, but this was a first seeing one on my block! We decided to follow it to what I refer to as "Watership Down" park, due to its high number of bunnies. We arrived at the park, and sure enough, there it was in a clearing presumably looking to make a meal out of the park's main inhabitants. It regarded us cooly for a moment, and decided we were no threat and went about its business. It was quite a site, but I guess with mountain lions making it into Chicago, I shouldn't be so surprised. Coyotes are quickly occupying predator niches once occupied by wolves in areas from which they have long been absent. A friend of ours volunteers at Wolf Park, a canid research facility in rural Indiana. He pointed the following blog out to us. I am in no way advocating coyotes as pets, and nor is this woman, I believe, but there are some great photos and insights regarding the raising a wild animal: Daily Coyote.

Golden Oriole - Oriolus oriolus

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May 19, 2008


I've been so immersed in an illustration job, that I haven't even had a moment or two for Tiny Aviary. I have a little more breathing room this week, and so I just finished this commission of a Golden Oriole. Unlike New World orioles, such as the Baltimore Oriole, the Golden Oriole belongs to the family oriolidae, rather than the icterids. Icterids include the New World orioles, grackles, meadowlarks, and blackbirds. Oriolus oriolus is not native to North America, but can be found in parts of Western Asia, and parts of Europe. Last week I had a male and female Baltimore Oriole hanging about our yard. They are similar looking to this species, except the yellow is a deep, bright orange. That's where the similarities end, as icterids and oriolidae are quite unrelated other than in looks. This painting is going to someone that lives in India.

Well, I am hoping I can add a couple more updates this week to Tiny Aviary, but, I probably won't be able to get to it until next week. So have a lovely week!

C.F. Tunnicliffe

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May 04, 2008


I couldn't go into the Field Museum last week, and have the sinking feeling I won't be making it in this week. I've a big illustration deadline coming up, and it's going to be a long week. I have plenty to post about, though, from my last volunteer shift of two weeks ago.

Assistant Bird Collections Manager, and master taxidermist, Tom Gnoske, showed up in the late afternoon. After helping me out with a hybrid Northern Flicker I was working on (and will be posting about later) he showed Andria and I a copy of a book by British wildlife artist C.F. Tunnicliffe. I was shamefully ignorant of Tunnicliffe's work. The book he brought in was all watercolor and gouache studies of British birds, and the renderings were masterful and astounding. After doing a little internet research I found the Tunnicliffe Society. Tunnicliffe died in 1979, and in addition to paintings, was also a printmaker; a man after my own heart. His etchings and wood engravings are tremendously skilled. I've posted a wood engraving of a Barn Owl up above. Even his lichens are amazing! Ah, something to strive for.

Lichen

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May 01, 2008


Ever since I saw a photo of a hummingbird's nest, I have been enchanted by the tiny, mysterious beauty of lichen. The nest was covered in at least a couple different species of lichen, the majority of which was a type of shield lichen (see link below). I rode my bike over to my favorite book store,Bookman's Alley, and haunted the natural history section hoping to find a used lichen field guide. No such luck, so I broke down and bought a new copy of "Lichens of the North Woods" by Joe Walewski, and its been difficult to keep my nose out of it. Lichens are actually 2 (sometimes 3) different organisms living cooperatively: algae and/or cyanobacteria, and fungus. While algae can exist on its own, the specific species of fungi that have developed the ability to "lichenize" cannot. It's gets more complex, but that is a very, very basic explanation of a lichen. Lichens can also act as bio-indicators of air quality, as they are collectors of airborne substances. Good air quality may be signified by the lichen diversity in a given area. While walking the dog a couple of days ago, I picked up a small fallen branch and identified Powdery Goldspeck, and Mealy Rosette Lichen (not 100% sure about that). Wee! The painting above is of Cladonia fimbriata or Trumpet Lichen. For more information, and photos of lichen mentioned in this post:

Lichens of North America

Mourning Dove - Zenaida macroura

2

April 30, 2008


A friend of mine was taking down a hanging planter basket in his yard when something fluttered out of it suddenly, giving him quite a start. He peered down into the basket and saw a scraggly tumble of twigs with two little eggs in it. He looked up, and a ways off in the distance saw the previous occupant, a Mourning Dove. He immediately hung the basket back up, went inside the house, and called his birdie 911 - me. Paul is a robust 6' 2" -ish, he wields large power tools on a daily basis, has been known to shove malted milk shakes into the faces of those who dare insult his friends, and yet, I could hear the guilt bubbling up and threatening to crack his voice on the other end of the line. What if the dove doesn't come back?!? What do I do? What if the eggs don't hatch?!? How would I know?!? I told him to wait, and chances are, when the dove figured out all was well again, it would return. And indeed it did. Now that the panic has subsided, Paul tells me he is "creeped out" at how the bird sits so intent and motionless, even as the basket sways in the wind. Some would call that its Zen-like focus on hatching those eggs. He claims the dove stares him down out the corner of its eye. Paul's a little paranoid. Paul is reading this. Paul did some online homework on Mourning Doves and learned that it takes roughly 15 days for the eggs to hatch, and 15 more for the squabs to fledge. Doves like other species in the family Columbidae drink water by immersing their bill entirely and sucking in through the nostrils. They feed their young a rich substance called crop milk, and both male and female share in nesting duties.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Tyrannus forficatus

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And...another commissioned painting. I love seeing these when I get far south enough.

Hyalophora cecropia

1


This is another commissioned piece of a giant silk moth, Hyalophora cecropia. It was interesting reading up on the moth family Satuniidae, of which one my favorite moths belongs, Actias luna. One characteristic of the Saturniids is that the adult moths do not have mouths, and so do not eat. They live only to breed, and rarely beyond a week. Painting the intricate patterning in the wings of this beauty was more difficult than I anticipated, but was a welcome little challenge.

Big Brave Bear

1

April 21, 2008


This is a commissioned piece I just finished of a big ol' grizzly.

Giant Orange Rooster - Gallus orangina giganticus

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I know I have been bragging about some of the little migratory visitors to my back yard recently, but this one takes the cake.I couldn't believe it when this very rare, unusual species showed up on my door step demanding to be fed (they are known to be very bold) this weekend. This particular species hasn't been spotted in the Chicago region since....well...hmmm, never? I put in a rare bird alert to the local Audubon chapter, and they hung up on me (what do they know!). He seems to deem my studio space as ideal habitat, and so for the time being (as long as we can meet the demands of his enormous appetite for Orangina), he has become the resident mascot of Tiny Aviary.

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