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.