Tomorrow I leave for my annual trek to a little farm cottage in the wilds of a beautiful, unglaciated region of Wisconsin to kick off the New Year with some close friends and a healthy dose of nature. I can't wait! 2 years ago, I started engaging in the birder's tradition of the first bird spotted on New Year's day, becomes the theme bird for the next year. Last year the first bird I spotted and thus became my theme bird for 2009 was a White-breasted Nuthatch.
This year, the tradition will be the basis for a little painting giveaway:
I will be making an 8 x 10 inch watercolor of the first bird that I spot on New Year's day while in Wisconsin. By submitting your name either by posting to the comments section here (if you don't have a distinct username, please include your first name and initial of last name), or by emailing me directly (see profile for contact info) you can have a chance to win that very painting. I will collect names through January 3rd. The name that I draw from a box later that week, will be the winner and recipient of the 2010 New Year's Bird Watercolor. It's my way of saying thanks for supporting my work for the last year. It doesn't matter if you have just checked in to this blog for the first time last week or 2 years ago, everybody is welcome!
No, it won't be a Palm Cockatoo or a Bird of Paradise, but something common to the winter woods of Wisconsin such as a nuthatch, chickadee or some type of woodpecker. Who knows what I will see; maybe Sasquatch.
Ok good luck and Happy New Year!
*I will not be using the names for anything other than the contest, meaning not adding you to any mailing lists.
December 24, 2009
There is snow on the ground outside, and everything is covered in ice. When I say everything, I mean every tiny little branch and winter berry. As I was finishing wrapping gifts tonight, I could hear it sleeting outside. Despite the less than magical weather conditions, I still think it's beautiful. I can look out the window in to my backyard and see the web work of branches and trees offset by the snow. This is a little painting I made of another type of winter scene for my 100 year old grandmother- in-law. I will be seeing her tomorrow along with other family and friends. I hope you and your loved ones are safe and warm too. Happy Holidays from the Tiny Aviary!
Elephant Bird - Aepyornis maximus
December 22, 2009
One of the reasons I like volunteering at the Field Museum is that I get to see a lot of great behind the scenes objects, like this guy. This a a roughly 2 and a half foot tall, plaster sculpture that I have seen haunting the halls of the bird division for several years now. I love it so much. There is something very Dr. Seuss-like about it. Sometimes I worry out loud that it is lonely, and suggest to one of the ornithologists that it should come home to live with me. I am told no. Hmmm.
My buddy is an Elephant bird. Elephant birds are extinct ratites (ostriches, rheas, emu, kiwis) that were native to Madagascar. There is an extensive fossil record, and they are believed to be the world's largest birds. The known species are currently split in to 2 genuses: Aepyornis and Mullerornis, with each having 4 and 3 species respectively. The exact date of their extinction and the reasons are still being debated. Human impact seems to definitely have played a large role, but perhaps not the only one. Climate change could have been a factor as well. Elephant birds were up to 10 feet tall, with Aepyornis maximus being the largest.
December 21, 2009
Something that I finished up last week, inspired by starlings and victorian imagery. This latest round of watercolors is available at Sebastian Foster.I spent the weekend on a different creative endeavor: holiday cookies! I'm just about ready for Christmas, and that means I have a little time to spare to go in to the Field Museum tomorrow. In the meantime, here's a favorite artist to check out: Heiko Mueller.
Despite the usual holiday business, I fit in a couple of volunteer sessions at the Field Museum recently. Everybody in the bird division there was getting ready for their annual trek up to central Wisconsin for Christmas Bird Counts. For my part, I will be participating in a backyard feeder count on the 26th. Christmas bird counts have played a very important part in civilian science, and are family traditions for some. I am hoping that maybe next year I will have the time to start my own tradition, and participate in my first true Christmas bird count. In the meantime, I am finishing up another batch of paintings for Sebastian Foster. The last of which you see the beginnings of here. It's of a Musk ox, another favorite animal. Thanks to everyone that has been checking in to the blog, and has been ordering work. I'm so grateful, and in the coming days will be posting a little contest to win an original watercolor as my way of saying thanks. Stay tuned!
The Story of Cher Ami
December 14, 2009
Ever since I read a book on pigeons last year, I have been fascinated by the use of homing pigeons during the World Wars. One of the most famous of these homing pigeons was Cher Ami. Cher Ami, helped to save the Lost Battalion of the 77th Division. In the battle of the Argonne in October, 1918, 500 U.S soldiers were trapped in a depression behind a hill, and surrounded by German troops. Lacking ammunition and food, they were also suffering friendly fire from allied troops that didn't know their whereabouts. After just 2 days, only 200 of the original 500 remained.
The battalion released homing pigeons with messages asking for help. The first two pigeons were shot down. The last remaining pigeon was Cher Ami. Cher Ami was released with a tiny cannister attached to his leg, containing the message: We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven's sake, stop it! Cher Ami was dispatched and flew through a shower of German bullets. The battalion witnessed him being shot down, and then shortly thereafter rise again. Cher Ami flew 25 miles in 25 minutes, arriving at his loft with a blind eye, severe gunshot wound through the breast, and a leg hanging by a single tendon. Poor Cher Ami! The message cannister was still intact, revealing the battalion's location, and 194 lives were saved. Great effort went in to restoring Cher Ami to health. Even a little wooden leg was carved for him, to replace the one that was destroyed. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster for his heroic service, and died from his battle wounds on June 13, 1919.
This is a watercolor I just completed for our Dear Friend. For a little more pigeon love and lore, check out Andrew Blechman's book "Pigeons:The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird". Here's his New York Time's article.
More Antarctic Love
December 11, 2009
I love how having this blog allows me to share my work and connect with people I otherwise would not have an opportunity to meet. My last Antarctic themed painting "Antarctic Waters" was seen by someone that has spent a lot of time on that continent. He's been very generous in sharing some of his experiences of that place, and this has been providing ample inspiration for more watercolors. One story that came up was of Sir Edmund Hillary. Hillary had been one of the first to visit Shackleton's old hut at Cape Royd's . He claimed to have seen Shackleton's ghost. I'm someone that will tell you that I don't believe in ghosts, and then proceed to tell you about the one time I was absolutely positive that I did see one. The story made me think about what else could be haunting the Antarctic skies at night (which sometimes is 24 hours). Both Scott's and Shackleton's huts are now preserved and maintained by the British and New Zealand governments.
Next in my little series about THIS section of abandoned rail line in Skokie, IL is the Savannah Sparrow. Just last month I was seeing several of these darting in and out of the bushes that line the little open patch of scrubby habitat. Passerculus sandwichensis are generally insectivores, but in winter time switch their diets to seed. Although they are widespread throughout North America in open habitats, they are easy to overlook due to their secretive nature. You are probably more likely to hear their melodic, buzzing call, rather than actually see one as they favor hiding out in the brush. It's a modest looking bird, with dark, heavy streaking throughout its plumage, and a little yellow near the base of its upper bill.
Skokie Tracks #3: Mourning Dove - Zenaida macroura
December 09, 2009
Next in my little series about THIS section of abandoned rail line in Skokie, IL is the Mourning Dove. When I walk along the short stretch of rail line, I often see a single or pair of Zenaida macroura resting on a telephone wire or on top of a roof. I've always loved Mourning Doves, and their soft call is one of the first bird vocalizations I learned to recognize when I was little. Like the other 2 birds species I have posted about in relation to this patch of Skokie, it is another species that has benefitted from human landscape changes. They are generalists that tend to prefer open habitat over heavily forested. Like other members of the Columbid family, they feed their young with a secretion from their crop referred to as "crop milk". U.S. population estimates have been around 350 million.
2 New Giclee Editions in Etsy Shop
December 04, 2009
Alas no time for any new bird paintings or postings this week, but here's a quick note to let you know that I have 2 new archival inkjet print editions available in my Etsy Shop. They are for "Antarctic Waters" and "Darwin's Rhea", two watercolor images I have posted about previously on here. Also, if you are in Chicago this weekend, come by the fantastic Renegade Craft Fair Holiday Sale. I will have a booth, so stop in and say hi! Have a lovely weekend.
Go to Etsy Shop.
Wolfgang Müller - Séance Vocibus Avium
November 27, 2009
Some friends from Germany have been visiting for several days now, and as a gift they brought me a copy of a recent Wolfgang Müller project: Séance Vocibus Avium. Müller is a Berlin and Reykjavík based multi media artist. Müller got his start in the 80s founding the Berlin performance art group Die Tödliche Doris (The Deadly Doris). For the Séance project, Müller enlisted a group of artists to recreate the calls of extinct birds. Each of these artists was assigned a particular species and then provided with historical documentation to help recreate the call as accurately as possible. The result was released as a limited editon CD, and vinyl 7". Both are accompanied by a booklet containing sketches by Müller of each of the species.
In one regard, the recordings elicits nostalgia for a certain type of recording and documenting of species. I have a set of Roger Tory Peterson records from the 1960s found at a garage sale. They are 2 scratchy, well loved records containing the recordings of maybe a hundred species of North American birds. Before each call, Peterson says the name of the species. I love the warmth of the recordings, and sometimes even prefer listening to them over the "cleaner" and more recent recordings I can stream online. The Séance Vocibus Avium is in a way an homage to these older types of recordings.
What is different, of course, is that the bird calls on the Müller album are all made by human voice. There are 16 different artists representing 16 species of extinct birds, and each artist seems to embody each of their respective subjects to an almost possessed degree. All 16 species went extinct before any sort of sound recording technology was available, and thus recreation of their calls was entirely dependent upon written documentation. The fact that these are calls being recreated by human voice lends a little bitter sweet irony. The Séance recordings are extemely haunting and beautiful, and this is underscored by the discomfort in that these are all birds that either directly or indirectly were eradicated by humans. They are gone, and here we are decades (or more) later trying to call up their spirits again.
The last bird on the record is the Great Auk. The penguin-like Auks had no natural fear of humans, and so made easy prey. The last Great Auks were a nesting pair sighted on the island of Eldey off the coast of Iceland in 1844. They were killed (strangled) for their plumage on June 3rd of that same year by Icelandic fishermen Jón Brandsson, Sigurdur Isleifsson and Ketill Ketillson.
The CD format is sold out, but the 45 edition can still be found here at the Fang website.
Skokie Tracks #2: Killdeer- Charadrius vociferus
November 25, 2009
One of the birds that I have seen and heard the last several springs while walking HERE is one of North America's most widespread plovers: the Killdeer. Even though a shorebird, it often spotted far from shores or any body of water for that matter. Their preference is for dry, open upland habitat, especially farmland, lawns, sports fields and even construction sites. Once agressively market hunted, it is now possibly more common than at any other point in its recorded history. This is partially due to its ability to adapt to human wrought habitat changes. The Killdeers that I see along my little stretch of abandoned rail line are part of a northern population that is migratory. Southern US populations are resident within their ranges. Many people have heard the Killdeer's high, piping call of tewddew or "killdeer, killdeer". C. vociferus is also known for luring potential predators away from chicks and nest sites by making loud cries and pretending to have broken wings.
I hope everyone has a lovely Thanksgiving!
Skokie Tracks #1: Chipping Sparrow - Spizella passerina
November 20, 2009
This is the first bird as part of my series of posts documenting various species that I have spotted in THIS little stretch of abandoned railway line in Skokie, IL. Spizella passerina is a migratory songbird that prefers open woodlands and brushy fields. It's preference for foraging in scrubby, open habitat has allowed it to adjust well to human modified spaces. So, the little patch of abandoned rail line provides some usable habitat. It's a fairly common visitor and resident of summertime gardens as well. It's call is a single, sharp chip, hence its name. Its song, however, is a long, loud series of uniform trills.
New Painting Site
November 19, 2009
Hey folks, the new site where I will be making my latest paintings available has gone live. Currently there is work available from roughly 10 different artists. It's great group of creative powers that I am super excited to be sharing web space with. Check it out:
Currently, I only have 4 watercolors available, but there will be more in the coming week.
One Human's Abandoned Railway Line is Another Bird's Rest Stop
November 18, 2009
When I make my screenprints I use The Bird Machine, my husband Jay's print shop. For the most part I work from my home studio, but it's always nice to have the option to indulge in a little printmaking. The shop started in the basement of our Northside Chicago 2 flat, and then for several years was in a space in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. 3 years ago when we moved just north of the city, it was decided it was a good time to look for a space closer to home. After looking long and hard at various commercial spaces in the city and suburbs, Jay settled on a nice storefront in Skokie. Skokie? Yep, Skokie. Sorry Skokie, don't take it personally, but you seemed the same sort of sprawling, drab, urban planning of a nightmare that I grew up in: Schaumburg. Yes, I grew up in Schaumburg, and so I know I have no right to be pointing fingers at you, Skokie. At least you have a definable downtown area. Schaumburg? Does Ikea count as a downtown area? All things said and done, the shop location has actually worked out quite well. The price was right, and it was close enough to home to encourage bike riding as the main mode of transportation to and from the shop.
The days that I go in to the shop, I usually bring our trusty, adored greyhound Seth. One of my favorite places to walk Seth is an old, overgrown, abandoned rail line about a block from the shop. It's a line that at that particular section follows the CTA Yellow Line, otherwise known as the Skokie Swift. As you can see from the photos, there is nothing extraordinary looking about it. It follows a little industrial corridor in which many of the buildings are abandoned. There's a couple of cottonwoods off in the distance, and lots of scrubby, nondescript bushes. In the summertime there are some nice prairie plants that I am trying to identify, but there are also invasives like wild parsnip indicative of disturbed habitat. But even in this scrubby, neglected little patch of land, there is an impressive amount of diversity. In spring and fall migration seasons, I have been amazed at the variety of birds flitting about in the underbrush here. Most of us, when thinking of nature, still associate it as something to be experienced outside of our urban areas or even in places far away like the National Parks of the western US. But if you know where to look and how to look, you can see amazing things even in a sleepy suburb like Skokie, IL. So, to demonstrate this, the following posts will each be about a particular species of bird that I have observed there in the last year. If I knew more about botany and insects, I would write about that too, but as I don't, I'll mainly stick to the feathered creatures. I am not sure what Skokie has planned for the old rail line, but rumor has it that it will be cleaned up and turned in to a bike path. Ok, stay tuned for more.
Crabeater Seal - Lobodon carcinophagus
November 13, 2009
Yesterday when I went in to the Field Museum for my regular bird division prep lab shift, Bill Stanley (collections manager of zoology at the Field) was giving a tour. I love listening in when any one of the scientists is giving a tour, but especially Bill. He always speaks with great enthusiasm and clarity about his area of study, the collections and how they are used, and in addition brings out some impressive specimens to share.
For the tour yesterday, Bill brought out a skull of a really fantastic mammal: the Crabeater Seal, Lobodon carcinophagus. I've been recently posting a bit about my love and fascination with the Antarctic, and crabeaters are one of its most numerous inhabitants. Despite their name, Crabeaters don't eat crabs. Their diet almost entirely consists of krill and whatever invertebrates are happily floating about in those cold seas. And despite that they are one of the most numerous mammals on earth, relatively little is known about their habits. One of the unique features and adaptations of the Crabeater can be seen by looking closely at the photo of the skull above. Notice their unusual, multilobed teeth? Each tooth has small, tubelike, bony protuberances that look pretty threatening, but in reality their function is more benign than noshing on the hands of unsuspecting Homo sapiens. Crabeaters use their teeth like a strainer by forcing water out through the small spaces in between the dental lobes, and thus sieving krill and other invertebrates out.
When Bill isn't working with the collections at the Field, he's in the mountains of Tanzania gathering data on small mammals. If you can't make it over to the Field Museum, you can find a great little interactive video tour by Bill HERE.
For the last couple of months I have been trying to keep a list of every bird that I prepare at the Field Museum. I've been writing down the common and scientific names of each, along with their Field Museum collections number. Even though I have been going in rather inconsistently, in looking over my current list the variety of species are mind boggling. I work on a tiny sliver of what the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors bring in on a weekly basis to be catalogued, but even that tiny sliver can give you an indication of the diversity of avian life that comes through, and the impact of urban areas upon it. Fall migration season is winding down, and so for the winter the Collision Monitors will not need to wander downtown buildings again until spring. In the meantime, unfortunately, there are freezers full of birds that need to be catalogued and endless amounts of data to be assessed in their wake.
For a very brief period in spring and fall, the tops of the hackberry trees in the backyard are a flutter with the busy antics of these 2 small birds. They were here about a week ago, but now the leaves are mostly gone, and so are they. Kinglets are very small passerines that are sometimes classified as Old World Warblers, and are part of the family Regulidae. Regulidae comes from the Latin word regulus, which signifies "king" or "prince", and refers to the brightly colored crowns of the adults.
Work In Progress
October 28, 2009
I've been working on a batch of watercolors that will be available on a new website. I just started working on this one today. I'm fascinated by polar habitats, especially the Antarctic. I also love Antarctic exploration history and figures such as Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. A couple of Christmas's ago, I was given a really fantastic guide on Antarctic wildlife. I dream that someday maybe, just maaaaybe I will have the opportunity to use it in the field, but until then it is making a great reference tool for this painting and others to follow. Most of the bottom half is complete. The top will be fleshed out more with a sleeping explorer in his tent, and his sled dogs curled up outside.
Bachman's Warbler - Vermivora bachmanii
October 26, 2009
Last week I was giving a tour of the bird collections to a group of friends from out of town. Amongst the many rows of cabinets that house the collections, is a case that has been put together as sort of a show and tell. The main drawer in this case contains many different bird specimens, each chosen for a particular quality that highlights important information that can be gleaned from the collections. The drawer has a higher proportion of domestic species to foreign, and there are several specimens of extinct species such as the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, and the possibly extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Sitting towards the front of the drawer is a tiny yellow bird, which in giving past tours I had managed to overlook. It was pointed out this time by a little girl who really wanted to know what that tiny yellow bird was. I picked it up an looked at the very old label, and saw "Vermivora bachmanii", otherwise known as Bachman's Warbler.
I had heard of Bachman's, but knew very little about it. I know enough to know that it, like the Ivory-billed Woopecker, is sort of a Holy Grail for many birders. Named after a friend of Audubon's, its first recorded sighting was in 1832, and the last confirmed sightings were near Charleston, South Carolina from 1958 to 1961. Very little is know about it, and it would seem that it was never a very numerous species. It's breeding range covered a portion of the southeastern United States, and it wintered in Cuba and possibly parts of southern Florida. Like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, it has a history of being written off as extinct time and time again, only to resurface with some bread crumb of evidence that it is still with us. When a possible sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 2005 turned up in some video footage, I was in Germany when the news broke. At the time, it felt like a token of forgiveness from nature, but as years pass without another confirmed sighting, it now seems more like a haunting. The last whispers of evidence for Bachman's Warbler were a handful of possible sightings in Cuba in the 80s. One can only hope that little Bachman's is still holding out in some deep corner of a southern bottomlands forest, hidden from human eyes. Last night I listened to the only recordings of a Bachman's song. It was made in 1954, and it sounded more like a buzzing trill of a cicada than that of a bird. I hoped I wasn't hearing a ghost, but really, who can say?
*watercolor available in Etsy Shop.
October 19, 2009
I read a lovely essay recently by David Quammen about Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist that gave us binomial nomenclature that is still in use in modern taxonomy today. Although Linnaeus spent much of his time in Uppsala as a professor, he and his family spent many summers in their home in Hammarby. Supposedly you can visit this home and see his bedroom and study perfectly preserved. He had papered the walls floor to ceiling with beautiful botanical engravings. The engravings are very valuable for their own sake, as many are by Georg Dionysius Ehret, an artist whose work graces many of Linnaeus's most famous works. The prints are water stained, and could be peeled easily off of the walls, but they have been left in place as though Linnaeus was about to return at any moment.
Fall Reading - The Snoring Bird
October 16, 2009
This fall I picked up a copy of Bernd Heinrich's "The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey Through a Century of Biology". Heinrich is an accomplished naturalist (as well as writer), that is particularly well know for his studies of ravens. A couple of years ago I read his book "The Mind of the Raven", and was enthralled by Heinrich's accounts of his meticulous studies done on raven behavior from his little cabin in the wilds of Maine.
Heinrich comes by it honestly as his father, Gerd, was also a very dedicated naturalist. Gerd was obsessed in particular with ichneumons (parasitic wasps). Gerd fought in both world wars, and in between traveled the world collecting birds (the title refers to a very rare breed of rail of which he obtained a specimen) and ichneumons for museum collections.
The memoir begins in Poland before WWI at the Heinrich's large, farm estate of Borowke. Borowke is cast in an utopian hue, in that a life in intimate connection to the land and cycles of nature is described. It was a life that was eventually uprooted and destroyed by war. The politics, and motivations that led up to both wars is told through the personal experiences of the family, and in his recounting, Heinrich tries to remain as objective and honest as possible. Bernd was born in 1943, a couple of years before his family was forced to flee their beloved Borowke (due to the Red Army invasion of 1945), and beginning a harrowing journey west sustained by their wits and a lot of luck. They eventually end up in the Hahnheide forest near Hamburg, living in a tiny cabin for five years before emigrating to the states. I am about halfway through the book, and I can't put it down. It's a great mix of history at the personal and public levels, family, science, and of how a passion for the natural world is passed from one generation to the next. I can't properly convey the brilliance of Bernd Heinrich and the richness of this book (and his others), so you will just have to read it for yourself.
October 14, 2009
A while ago I did a watercolor portrait of Charles Darwin as an old man with Galapagos finches nesting in his beard. This is the image that is more familiar of him, that of the aged, bearded naturalist looking like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders and eyebrows bushy enough to sustain yet to be discovered ecosystems. Yet, in reading the Voyage of the Beagle, the voice that infuses that narrative is that of a very young naturalist, eager for adventure. I particularly loved his descriptions of Patagonia and the grassy plains of the Argentine Pampas. He became very interested in a particular avian inhabitant of this region. It was later identified as a new species of ratite. Ratites are large flightless birds which include ostriches, emus, cassowaries, kiwis, and rheas amongst the living, and moas and elephant birds amongst the extinct. There are 2 species of rhea, both live in South America: Greater Rhea (Rhea americana), and the Lesser Rhea (Rhea pennata) which is also known as Darwin's Rhea.
Red-billed Chough - Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
October 13, 2009
While in Germany I did not see one of these, but had a conversation about them. Another artist at the poster show event I attended in Hamburg, Nick Rhodes (you can view Nick's work HERE), turned out to have some affection for my favorite family of birds, corvids. Nick is from Great Britain, and we began talking about corvid species native to the UK. We went over rooks, and ravens, and then he described a species that is not common, but can be found around high sea cliffs near Wales. His description matched the Red-billed Chough specimen I had been admiring at the Field Museum some time ago.
The two species of choughs, Alpine and Red-billed, are closely related to crows and jackdaws. The Red-billed can be found in coastal cliffs of Great Britain, Ireland, and Brittany, as well and parts of southern Europe and Central Asia. There have been recent population declines in Red-billed due to habitat fragmentation and degradation. I loved the image I got when we talked about them: elegant, glossy black birds living on high cliffs, being tossed about by the wind over the sea.
Great Blue Heron-Ardea herodias
October 07, 2009
I'm back from traveling Germany. I will be posting a couple of drawings soon of common birds that I saw while I was there. I didn't have much time for sight seeing or bird watching while there, but had a fantastic time none the less.
Upon my return this is the first painting completed. It's a commissioned watercolor requested by a friend who is getting married in Minneapolis this weekend (congrats to Letta and Josh!). A couple of years ago I designed a tattoo of an Australian Fairy Wren for her, and she recently asked me to do a painting for her brother of a Great Blue Heron, a bird for which he has great admiration. It's a bird that one can see in the wilds and suburban areas of Minnesota and through out the states. They're one of the bigger avian success stories of the 20th century as they have seemed to have weathered the storm of human encroachment upon their habitats fairly well, and have shown themselves to be a highly adaptable species. They can be found in both marine, coastal habitats as well as freshwater, inland habitats.
We have a fresh water canal that runs near our house, and we see a few Great blues without fail every summer and spring, picking about in the shallows.
New South Pole Explorer Print
September 09, 2009
Brrr! It's getting colder out, but these two know how to stay warm! I'm a bit of a South Pole exploration, and natural history nut, and so have been wanting to do something that was a bit of an homage to figures like Ernest Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen and the fearless canines that were ever present on those journeys. This depicts a man that is very loosely based in appearance on someone named Tom Crean. Crean, described by one of his shipmates as "indestructible", joined the likes of Shackelton and Scott for several South Pole excursions. The dog is based on a sled dog, named Shakespeare, from Shackelton's Endurance expedition. I just finished this about a week ago, and it's a 3 color screenprint.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird -Archilochus colubris
September 01, 2009
I saw one of these the other evening while sitting looking at Lake Michigan. It flitting about the tops of trees. Ruby-throated humming birds are the Northeast's only species of hummingbird. It's late summer/early fall, and so I am sure it was on its way south to winter in Central America.
Right now, I'm in Seattle for the holiday weekend. I'm working at the Flatstock poster convention at the Bumbershoot Music Festival. If you are attending, stop by my booth and say hi!
Oak Moss - Evernia prunastri
August 31, 2009
I never thought I'd be writing about perfume on this blog, but I have been reading a book on perfume history and am finding the intersection of botanicals, our sense of smell, and science very interesting. More specifically, it has been interesting finding exactly what natural substances have been used historically (and currently) in fragrance, and how fragrance is extracted from their sources. Animal substances include musk (historically obtained from a gland of the male musk deer, now a synthetic version is used), civet (obtained from gland of civet), and possibly the strangest, ambergris (a solid, waxy, substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales). Some of the more common plant substances include jasmine, rose, lavender, neroli, bergamot, vertiver, labdanum, and oakmoss. Oakmoss and treemoss are types of lichens that can be found in Europe, North America and North Africa. Every year tons of these lichens are harvested for the fragrance industry. Compounds found in these lichens have the ability to "fix" fragrances, giving them longer staying power, and some of these compounds, such as one found in E. prunastri, have a distinct and complex aroma that is woody, sharp and slightly sweet. Oak moss is one of the traditional ingredients found in the fragrance family (or accord) known as chypres. One of the most famous chypres is Mitsouko. Mitsouko, created in 1919 by Jacques Guerlain, can still be found, however, due to recent regulations by the European Union deeming oakmoss an allergen, it has been reformulated sans it's mossy, forest like base notes.
*painting of oakmoss available in Etsy shop.
Black-throated Green Warbler -Dendroica virens
August 30, 2009
I worked on one of these at the museum a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I tend to see a lot of them there, as they seem to be prone to colliding with downtown buildings. I've been reading up a little on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website, Bird of North America. The introduction to D. virens' entry describes them as the eastern representative of the what is considered the widely dispersed D.virens superspecies. This group of closely related wood warbler species includes: D. virens, the Golden-cheeked (D. chrysoparia), Hermit (D. occidentalis), and Townsend’s (D. townsendi) warblers, and probably the Black-throated Gray Warbler (D. nigrescens). D. virens itself is currently divided in to two supspecies. It is often the most common breeding species of northern coniferous forests, and has a distinctive and persistent song. Apparently a male was recorded as singing it's song 466 times over the course of an hour.
The Lost Art of Naming the World
August 27, 2009
Recently, I read an article in the New York Times by Carol Kaesuk Yoon called "Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World". The article was accompanied by the image above by naturalist Ernst Haekel from his "Artforms in Nature", showing a profusion of hummingbird species. The article, which can be found here, is about the decline of the field of taxonomy. It goes on to explore the reasons for it's decline, the implications of that, and digs a little deeper into what is behind the human impulse to sort and name the natural world. Yoon laments ( and rightfully so I think) that by abandoning taxonomy we are losing a connection to and a place in the living world. Having an awareness of the variety of life around us affirms our place in it. So start your reconnection this weekend by finding an insect, and looking it up on here or a bird and finding it's name here. Make Carl Linneaus proud.
Cloud Forest Divinity
August 26, 2009
Yesterday, I read up on this magnificent bird, the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). Quetzals belong to the family Trogonidae. With 39 species, trogons can be found in tropical forests worldwide, but their highest diversity in the Neotropics. Within Trogonidae there are 6 species of the genera Pharomachrus and Euptilotis, which are the quetzals. Quetzals are brightly colored and subsist mainly on a diet of fruit and insects. The male Resplendent Quetzal is surely one of the most beautiful of this group. They are slightly larger than a sparrow, with emerald green body and wing feathers, and a ruby red breast. The most distinctive feature, however, is the male's extraordinarily long, green tail feathers. These feathers were so prized by the Aztecs and Mayans that they were used to adorn the the crowns of their chiefs. To obtain the feathers, however, the birds were captured and the feathers trimmed, as it was forbidden to kill them. Ancient Mesoamerican mythology revered the Quetzal as a divine spirit, and as a sort of manifestation of the god Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl was described as being "majestic of presence, chaste in life, averse to war, wise and generous in action, and delighting in the culitivation of the arts and peace." Not bad, eh? The first part of the name "Quetzal" is associated with sun, green and growing things, and supposedly in the Nahuatl language signifies a large, green feather.
These days the Resplendent Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala. It's range is within the montane cloud forests from southern Mexico to Panama, a rapidly disappearing ecosystem and hotbed of biodiversity. Being a symbol of ancient Mesoamericam divinity may not be enough to preserve its existence in the wild.
*painting in the Etsy Shop
Mourning Warbler - Oporonis philadelphia
August 24, 2009
Last week at the museum, I worked on a male Mourning warbler that in May of this year had come through the city and hit a downtown building. Mourning warblers, like almost all of the wood warblers (family Parulidae) are brightly colored and beautiful. They look very similar to the other 3 species in their genus (Oporonis), especially MacGillivray's warbler (O. tolmiei). Both species have the grey "hood", bright yellow breast and olive green wings and back. Looking at a map of their respective North American ranges, however, O. philadelphia is found mainly in the eastern and midwestern portions, while O. tolmiei is primarily found west of the Rockies.
*watercolor available in Etsy Shop.
Lichens on Stone
August 20, 2009
A friend of mine has a farm in the northwestern corner of Illinois. If you are not familiar with this part of Illinois, it's beautiful and very different from the rest of the state (save the southern portion down by the great Shawnee National Forest). It's part of the Driftless Zone that continues up in to the southwestern portion of Wisconsin. This is an un-glaciated area, in other words, not flat. The landscape is full of rolling hills, with craggy stone peeking out from the ground, hinting at the caves below, and ancient, twisted oak trees sprinkled across the landscape. The last time I was there, I took some photos, some of which were pictures of lichen covered stones. There are at least 3 different lichens on the stone in the photo above. I love the colors, and did a little watercolor study of a section of it. Have a lovely weekend!
I've recently become addicted to Science Friday. Every now and then I've caught a show on the local NPR station, but have never browsed their website. Now I can't stop browsing their site! The last video I watched on their was about a group of field biologists trying to collect data on the tiny Flammulated owl. Flammulated owls inhabit the montane pine forests of the western U.S. and Mexico. Despite their tiny size, they have low, hoarse voices, and they are highly migratory. As a result little is known about their winter range and foraging habits. You can watch the Flammulated owl video HERE. The watercolor of the tree hugging Otus flammeolus is available in the ETSY SHOP.
Magnolia Warbler - Dendroica magnolia
August 13, 2009
Last week when I went in for my regular volunteer shift in the bird division at the Field Museum, Dave had taken out four Magnolia warblers from the freezer for me to work on. The warblers, like just about everything that I work on, were window kills that had been collected back in May and the beginning of June. I spent the morning making study skins of them that would go in to the collections.
Magnolia warblers are extremely beautiful little birds in the family Parulidae. This group that I worked on was probably headed for nesting grounds in the boreal forest up north. The males, as you can see from the photo, have a bright yellow breast, heavily streaked with black.
Each bird that finds its way to the collections is given a number, and all sorts of information about that specific specimen is recorded on its tag that is tied around one leg: when the bird was collected, where, whether it is male or female, size of its gonads, body fat, was it molting, ossification of the skull (if it is a passerine), if a tissue sample was taken, and the name of the person that prepared the specimen. There are other details that are recorded that I have not listed, but the previous are the ones I am responsible for writing down on the labels. So in the case of the above specimen: it was found and brought to the museum on June 1, 2009, it had a trace amount of body fat, it's a male that had testes a size typical for the breeding season, a tissue sample was taken (and was frozen in a little tube with the same number that is on the tag, S09-1030), the skull was 100% ossified (indicating it was a mature bird), and no signs of molting were noticed and recorded.
Lichens In Their Unnatural Habitat
August 12, 2009
Last year for the holidays, one of my favorite gifts that I received was the giant tome "Lichens of North America". It was published in 2001 and is the most comprehensive guide on North American species of lichens and lichen biology. It's giant, and has mounds of gorgeous photographs. It came in handy recently for a rather strange project. In September I will be going to Hamburg, Germany to participate in Flatstock Europe to sell my gigposters. One of my fellow artists, Nick Rhodes from Manchester, is putting together an art exhibit that will coincide with Flatstock. Each participating artist, as we are all screenprinters, are submitting a squeegee that we have painted on or customized in some way. Seeing as I don't hand print any longer, and use a screen printing auto press, I had to scrounge up an old hand squeegee. I found a box of old ones at Jay's shop, and chose the "Joe Lally". Joe is a nice medium sized squeegee that has seen some better days. The name "Joe Lally" is the name of the bass player from the band Fugazi, in case you were wondering. After that I have no more answers for you. I looked over the squeegee trying to decide what to paint, and noticed the wood handle had splotches of ink on it that somewhat resembled lichen (yes, yes, I know; bit of a stretch, eh). Well I went with it and began covering it with paintings of lichens. Perhaps it is a desire to return the wood on the tired old squeegee back to nature, but more likely, it's just an excuse to paint lichens. Hmmmm.
Well hello! Yes I am still here, just spending more time outside than updating this blog. I'll start things off again by talking about what I've been reading recently. Right now I'm in the middle of a book of essays by one of my favorite writers, David Quammen. The collection, "Natural Acts" , (paperback edition has a section of an amazing Walton Ford painting) gathers up some his early columns (beginning in 1980) he wrote for Outside magazine, as well as some of his longer pieces for Esquire and Audubon, and more current work. Quammen is the first to admit that he is a layman in the realm of biology and natural history, but he has now spent decades around experts and in dusty libraries doing countless hours of research on subjects such as vampire moths, Montana grayling, Darwin, and island biogeography. Despite all of the towering knowledge and experience, his writing still conveys a friendly arm about your shoulders as if to say "Yes, yes, I am not E.O. Wilson, and nor are you, but we can try to understand this stuff in our own way can't we?", all the while being funny, clever, and never dumbing anything down. One of my favorite essays in "Natural Acts" so far is "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?" in which he ponders if a lot of crow antics can be attributed to boredom.
It's high summer and time again for the Pitchfork Music Festival here in Chicago! As usual there is a great line up music this year. Check it out HERE. In conjunction with Pitchfork is the Flatstock Poster Convention, where I will have a booth with my posters and some other artwork. If you are lucky enough to be attending Pitchfork (looks to be sold out, and the weather, for once, looks like it won't be soul crushingly hot), stop by my booth and say hi!
This Thrusday (tomorrow, 7/16) I will also be attending a book signing at Quimby's Book Store.The book signing is for a book by Clay Hayes. Clay is the founder of Gigposters.com, a site that has been instrumental in exposing the art of gig posters to a much wider audience and creating the community of artists of which I am a part. The book, Gig Posters Volume 1: Rock Show Art of the 21st Century, is a beautiful compilation of some finest poster art being made today. Even better the book has 101 perforated and ready-to-hang posters. Me and fellow Chicago artists, Jay Ryan, Dan Grzeca, Delicious Design and Steve Walters will be present at Quimby's at 7:00PM along with Clay Hayes to be signing copies of the book.The above image is the poster of mine that was chosen to be my "tear out" poster. So if you missed out on getting the real thing, you can get the 11 x 14 inch version in the book. Hope to see you there!
I'm a fan of Neko Case, and really love the new album, Middle Cyclone. Lucky me, I was given permission to create a poster for her upcoming show at Massey Hall in Toronto on 7/14/2009. Aside from having respect for her as an artist (musical and visual), I am also drawn to her love and understanding of nature and its inhabitants. Wilderness and the forces of nature are themes that consistently thread her songs, especially on the current album, and previous (Fox Confessor Brings the Flood). As she has been a advocate for the environment, it seems fitting to have a group of forest critters singing her praises. It's a five color screenprint, and will be available after the show date.
**Now available in Etsy Shop**
Anhinga - Anhinga anhinga
July 02, 2009
While at the Field Museum today I finally snapped some photos of a mounted specimen of an Anhinga, something I had been intending to do for some time. I've always been interested in the odd (and beautiful) Anhinga ever since I saw one snaking around in some pond down in Florida. It's body was completely submerged, with only its head and serpent neck slinking above the water's surface. Anhingas spend most of their life in water. When not in water they can be seen sitting on a branch, much in the same postition of this specimen, drip drying their feathers. Unlike other birds, Anhingas have dense bones, and feathers that can get fully wet. These adaptations allow them to acheive a neutral buoyancy in water. They will dive for prey, spearing fish with their razor sharp beaks.
I am planning on doing a large watercolor (30 x 40 inch) of an Anhinga, specifically of its back as I love the black and white plumage, and the way it drapes over the wings.