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:

Sebastian Foster

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.



November 09, 2009

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.



November 04, 2009

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.

2 Ravens


November 02, 2009

Another recent watercolor, and ink painting. I'm not sure when this will be up an running, but looking forward to it as a resource Corvids.org. Happy Monday - caw caw!

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