Scientists at Work


October 29, 2010

Recently, I have been really enjoying The New York Times "Scientists at Work" blog. It's a blog in which you can follow various world wide field expeditions. It's great, because it provides a nice glimpse in to the work of field scientists as they recount their experiences directly from the expeditions. You get to see the wonder and beauty, as well as the drudgery and danger that can be involved with this type of work. I've been following Chris Filardi's expedition in the Solomon Islands (his writing is really wonderful, in addition to some great photos of rare species of birds and other critters), Noah Snyder-Mackler's expedition in Africa studying the strange gelada (a savannah and mountain dwelling baboon-like monkey), and Doug Stotz's expedition in Peru's northern Amazon area. Doug is an ornithologist at the Field Museum. I don't know Doug well at all, but see him every now and then around the bird division's prep lab. Have a great weekend!

House Sparrow - Passer domesticus


October 27, 2010

Once upon a time in 1851 New York City, a certain Mr. Nicholas Pike purchased 100 Passer domesticus for the sum of $200 from England. Mr. Pike was from England as well, and was apparently lonely for the fauna of his homeland. The birds were released in Brooklyn, and have been spreading ever since. These sparrows, being tenacious little cretins, are one of the most successfully introduced species to North America. Their preference for human modified habitats (farms, suburbia, anyplace there are houses) has largely aided this success. They like what we like.

I find the male plumage of this species to be quite handsome, but my praise ends there. Their agressive character that has aided their success, wreaks havoc on our native species of birds, especially blue bird populations. They will invade the nests of native species, peck the eggs or even kill and remove nestlings. I have been dwelling on this a bit lately as it is fall, and I have begun to fill my feeders again. To my delight I have 3 species of woodpeckers that visit the suet feeder, and a red-breasted nuthatch, chickadees, and an occasional Rose-breasted Grosbeak that come to the black oil sunflower seed feeder. To my dismay, all are overwhelmed by the hoards of House Sparrows that swarm the feeders. They gorge themselves until it seems they couldn't possibly fly away. I have switched the suet from a rennet and seed cake to a rennet and insect cake. House Sparrows like seeds, and will less likely ransack the insect cake. I stopped refilling the sunflower seed feeder for a few days, hoping the sparrows will eventually move on. In the meantime I worked up a watercolor of one as therapy. And if you want a fat Passer domesticus, it's in the STORE.

Eurasian Wryneck and Edward Donovan


October 26, 2010

I was recently tipped off to the work of self-taught, British naturalist Edward Donovan. Donovan was active during the earlier part of the 19th century. I have a very small collection of natural history prints. I am sure there is nothing there that any serious collector would consider valuable. I buy what I like, and what fits my very modest antique print budget. Donovan's work fits my requirements perfectly, as it is generally very reasonably priced. And so I have become the proud owner of one of his small, hand-colored engravings.

Seeking out Donovan's work not only provided me with an opportunity to learn about another naturalist artist, but also to learn about a species of bird with which I was not familiar: the Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla. I was immediately drawn to Donovan's rendering of this strange little bird, and before purchasing the print, I did some research on the species.

Wrynecks belong to a suborder of Piciformes called Jynginae. Piciformes include woodpeckers, and although wrynecks are not true woodpeckers, they share some of their physical traits (long tongue and arrangement of foot tendons) and foraging behavior. One of their most distinctive traits, however, is also their namesake. Wrynecks have the ability to turn their heads almost 180 degrees. When disturbed they can use this snake-like neck movement and hissing as a threat display. As a result, these poor fellows were often used in witchcraft as a way to put a 'jinx' on someone (and who knows what that entailed. Christine O'Donell? What?).

When I went in to the Field Museum last week, Dave Willard indulged my curiousity and pulled a few wryneck specimens from the collections for me to photograph. The first image is of my Donovan print. The second is of a few Field specimens of Jynx torquilla. You can see how well Donovan captured their bark-like plumage in his rendering. The second photo is of a Jynx ruficollis, a species of wryneck that dwells in African forests. You can view a little clip of a wryneck displaying its snaking neck antics HERE.

American Camp, San Juan Island


October 20, 2010

I have been working on this watercolor since my trip to the San Juan Islands last month. On the southern end of San Juan Island there is an area called American Camp which is part of the San Juan Island National Historical Park. It's a beautiful part of the island with huge swaths of golden prairie over looking the massive Strait of Juan de Fuca. It's beaches are sandy and full of giant pieces of driftwood. It's a great spot to bird and whale watch, or just spend the day reading. In the mid 1800s war almost broke out over a dead pig between the United States and Great Britain. The Pig War as it became to be known, was settled without bloodshed. You can read about it by clicking on the link.

Both the American Camp and the British Camp to the north, still harbor some remnants of their former military inhabitants. A few structures remain, but there is also the flora and fauna that, for better or for worse, was introduced to the island: mainly rabbits. American Camp is overrun with bunnies. Sometimes when we have walked the praire at dusk, it is so spotted with rabbits, it feels like we're in the middle of Watership Down. The rabbits were brought by the U.S. military for food, but once the camp was abandoned the rabbits did what rabbits do best: multiply like crazy. Then sometime in the 1970s (I think?) red foxes were introduced to the island to control the feral rabbit population. The foxes, like their rabbit prey, have also multiplied. This last trip, within a half hour window, we spotted four red foxes. Their colors ranged from red, brown, silver, to black. Once we saw a silver one sitting in a field, surrounded by lots of strangely unwary bunnies. He sat looking sated and like he was about to fall asleep. It was as if he was bored and overwhelmed with such bounty.

*The watercolor is available in The Store.

BibliOdessy: Chinese Bird Prints


October 18, 2010

Hello and Happy Monday at you. BibliOdessy is one of my favorite blogs to browse, find inspiration from, and generally just drool over. Recently they posted these beautiful Chinese qouaches of birds. I had to share. The entire collection of the gouaches can be viewed online at the Royal Digital Library of Belgium.The album also includes exquisite gouaches of butterflies. Enjoy!

Birding in Hyde Park, New Print Available in Shop


October 06, 2010

A couple of weekends ago, I did a little fall bird watching with my friend Renate at Wooded Isle, down in Hyde Park. Renate and I had gone a handful of times in the spring, and so it was interesting to see what would be around in the fall. The first painting documents what we saw on a day in May. The second painting (the one with the noticeably fewer birds in it!) documents what we were able to spot in late September. One of the challenges that became quickly apparent about fall bird watching, is that most of the adult birds have molted out of their flashy breeding plumage and in to their more drab non-breeding attire. In addition, to make things even more confusing, there are a lot of first year birds that have not yet grown in to adult plumage. So, even for the more seasoned pairs of eyes amongst our bird watching group, there was a good amount of guesswork involved in terms of trying to identify specific species. If the sightings were slim that day, there was no disappointment from my end. A few birds sighted, walking in one of Chicago's more beautiful parks, good company, and a great meal afterwards was more than enough to satisfy all of my appetites.

Some of you had asked if I would be making a print edition of the first painting, back when I initially posted it to the blog in May. I decided to take you up on it! It is now available as an 8 x 10 inch, limited edition of 30, archival ink jet print. It is beautifully printed on Hahnemuhle archival (and sustainable!) bamboo paper by the fine folks at Iolabs in Rhode Island.

The print is available HERE

Black Oystercatcher - Haematopus bachmani


October 04, 2010

While staying on the San Juan Islands, I saw quite a few Black Oystercatchers. They were easy to spot: they are about the size of ravens, and their bills and eyes are a striking tomato orange. They were also fun to watch as they foraged the many intertidal pools around the islands for mollusks. I often spotted them in pairs, and just recently found out that mating pairs bond for life. Black Oystercatchers belong to the Haematopodidae family which consists of all species of oystercatchers. The only two North American species are H. bachmani (named by J. Audubon for his friend Reverend John Bachman), and the American Oystercatcher - H. palliatus.

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