Mourning Dove - Zenaida macroura
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.
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.
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.
Yellow-rumped Warbler - Dendroica coronata
April 18, 2008
Well, I thought it only fair that if I did a painting of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, that I should do one of the other species that has been hanging about in the large hackberry tree in my back yard. When I initially spotted these, they were moving so fast that I had a difficult time getting some good field marks. I quickly noted the dark streaking, and the yellow on the breast sides, and the rump. I was told that these are very common warblers, but hey, it's the first time for me! And I didn't have to burn a bunch of fossil fuel to go scramble around somewhere else trying to catch a glimpse of it. Backyard birding is good for my carbon footprint. There are two variations of Dendroica coronata: Audubon's and Myrtle. The Audubon has less white than the Myrtle. This is a painting of a male Myrtle, which is what I had in my yard. Have a lovely weekend, and I hope that it's spent outside.
Why You Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!
April 17, 2008
Yesterday was an atypical day for my museum activities. Dave Willard had taken out several frozen bags of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker skins. These were birds that he had removed all of the viscera from, but never had the chance to stuff and mount. They had been sitting in the freezer for almost a year. There just isn't enough help and hours in the day, and so this is not unusual for things to sit around for a year or two before someone can get to it. I thawed out the sapsuckers in water, dried the feathers without drying out the skin too much, and then stuffed them. For skins that had been in the freezer for so long, they came out quite nice, and there was something satisfying about seeing a couple of rows of mounted specimens of a single species. You could really notice the subtle and not so subtle variations in plumage. I wish I had remembered to bring my camera. Many of them were young birds that were in the process of molting. I was there for 8 hours and managed to get through 12 of them (there are 22 total), and so will probably finish up the remaining skins next week. I was tempted to finish the last 3 of the 15 Dave had taken out that day, but when 4:30 rolled around, I thought of the northbound rush hour traffic, the 70+ degree weather outside, and called it quits.
I've done a painting of sapsuckers before on this blog, but wasn't really happy with it, and so here is a new one. Sapsuckers don't breed in this area, and are just passing through thank you very much. I've seen multitudes of them in Field collections, but have yet to see one in the field. This painting is of a female, as she lacks the red throat patch that the males have in addition to the red on the crown.
Today was crystal clear, and the air while warmed a bit by the sun, still had a cool nip to it. It's my favorite kind of early Spring climate. Migrating birds are coming through in waves. Hermit Thrushes appeared a couple of days ago, some maybe coming from as far south as Mexico and Guatemala. I see them foraging the underbrush lining the canal in the arboretum, gathering more fuel before they travel on to the northern hardwood forests. Yesterday, while standing in my back yard, I stared up into the upper canopy of the hackberry tree to see a group of tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and a pair of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting about. Then my eyes drop down the trunk to see a Brown Creeper winding its way up. I jogged to the video store and paused at a scrappy corner patch of someone's backyard and saw Golden-crowned Kinglets picking through leaf litter, and then over to the canal to see a Belted Kingfisher. The neighborhood is alive with the calls of woodpeckers: Northern Flicker, Hairy, Downy, and Red-bellied. I loved the silence of Winter, but now it's time again to train ears and eyes to all the twittering life.
Last Wednesday at the museum, I worked on some Broad-winged Hawks from the Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources. The two I skinned were juveniles. It's been a while since I had worked on anything of that size, and was sorely out of practice. The feathers and skin on one of the legs of a Broad-winged I had worked on was twisted a bit out of place. Tom Gnoske spied it immediately walking through the prep lab. I felt the air suck out of the room a bit as I inwardly cringed. I and hawk were gently corrected. Tom is the Assistant Collections Manager in the Bird Division, and by far, the best skinner. His study skins are flawless. Flaaawless. He not only works on birds. Sometimes I have wandered into the lab to find an enormous wolf collected from the MDNR on the prep table, and told it's for Tom (ancient proverb: do not mess with the man that messes with wolves). He wiggled the hawk leg back into place, while giving me pointed tips and refreshers. I looked on as he deftly tugged at feathers and tissue until the bird relaxed back into position without a single feather out of place; not a one.
Pine Grosbeak - Pinicola enucleator
April 05, 2008
Well, I think Spring has finally arrived in the Chicago area, at least that is what the birds and my allergies have been telling me. It's a beautiful day today, and tomorrow is supposed to be even warmer. I was too lazy to make it out of bed this morning, but tomorrow I hope to get up early enough to scramble up to Illinois Beach State Park and do a bit of hiking and birding.
In addition to the Henslow's Sparrow I worked on at the Field Museum this week, I was also given a number of Pine Grosbeaks that had been collected from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Occasionally we will have birds that have come in from there, and it's usually something pretty interesting. Many times it is a species that is rare in these parts, or doesn't frequent at all. Aside from the odd sighting here and there, this is the case with Pinicola enucleator. Pine Grosbeaks are rather large finch-like birds that inhabit the pine and fir forests of the North. We are situated a wee bit too far south for their ideal range. In the winter time they can be found foraging in flocks for berries. They are often described as a rather slow moving, and sometimes surprisingly tame bird. There were about 6 grosbeaks that had come from the MDNR, and between myself, Andria, and a another volunteer we made study skins of them all. The coloring on each was gorgeous, but not typical of what I have seen depicted in bird guides. I have thought of the Pine Grosbeak as a having a more overall rosy plumage, but these were, for the most part, largely warm gray, with bright patches of russet on the head and rump. This plumage is more typical of the females, and many first year male and females. I recall that there was a pretty even mix of male and female in our batch, and most were probably window kills. Several of the specimens had broken leg and wing bones.
Henslow's Sparrow - Ammodramus henslowii
April 04, 2008
This Wednesday in the Bird Division prep lab, was a busy one. There were a at least 5 to 6 volunteers in working on various projects. It was a pretty busy, gregarious atmosphere. And although sometimes it seems to spiral to levels that threaten concentration, I find it to be a welcome anecdote to my quiet home studio. Many of the volunteers are retired and well into their 60s, but they tend to be the raunchiest repeat offenders in terms of general levels of silliness. This week there was a bit of a coup in the prep lab. When birds come into the lab, they are cataloged and then sorted as far as if the specimen will be made into a study skin, or will be prepared to be made into a study skeleton. You can't obtain both from one bird, it has to be one or the other. So, when I arrive in the morning there are usually several birds set aside for me and the other skinner to prepare, and on a separate table there are many birds that have been set aside to be made into skeletons. Birds being made into skeletons have to have all of their feathers removed first, before their tissue can be cleaned away by dermestid beetles. This Wednesday, one of the birds awaiting to be made into a skeleton was a tiny, lovely, Henslow's Sparrow. I had never seen one so close before. I was somewhat familiar with them as the location where I used to bird on a regular basis, Glacial Park in northern Illinois, was rumored to have a breeding population of this somewhat rare, inconspicuous sparrow. They're a secretive species, that are not easy to spot due to their preference for weedy fields, and are easily confused with similiar species: Grasshopper Sparrow, and LeConte's Sparrow. Often times a bird will be made into a skeleton because the bird's plumage has been damaged in some way. This little fellow, however, was in perfect condition, and as a result there was a wave of gentle outrage amongst the volunteers as to its fate as a skeleton. Granted it was something that had been frozen since 2005, and this can sometimes lead to freezer burn and complications in terms of removing the skin without damage. Dr. Willard had set it in the skeleton pile for this reason, and he felt the collection could really use a Henslow's skeleton more than a skin. He was eventually cajoled by our shear numbers to think otherwise, and I was allowed to create a study skin of it instead. He was later heard grumbling "I am quickly losing control of my lab!"
2 new paintings posted to the Etsy shop: Henslow's Sparrow and Pine Grosbeak.
HMS Beagle Project
April 02, 2008
For some time now, I have been working on developing a new logo for the HMS Beagle Project. This is an organization that is raising money to build an exact replica of the ship on which Darwin sailed. The replica will be a state of the art research vessel and will sail the route of the former HMS Beagle in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday. This is a project I really believe in as I feel that more than ever it is important for people learn about Darwin, his theories, and natural history. We decided that Darwin should be depicted as a young man, which is what he was when he sailed in the HMS Beagle. The two birds flanking his head are a Galapagos finch, and Galapagos mockingbird. Underneath his hand that cradle the HMS Beagle are a bundle of a Brazilian orchid Sophronitis purpurata.