birds

Birds of the month, etc.

watercolor and white gel pen in beige toned Nova sketchbook

As I was finishing my sketch of Mr. Black Headed Grosbeak, I caught myself thinking like a bird (?) “Oh you are a handsome fellow!” Something debonair in the way you. . .oh really!

These two were my picks of the month from our monthly Gals Go Birding audubon group of sage women bird watchers at Millersylvania Park in Olympia. I tag along with them each month for the thrill of it, since I would see not a fraction of these birds along with trail without their skills and generosity.

Honestly I am happy as a clam just to explore a different PNW park each time, always with water and sky and . . .

the dense forest carpeted with wildflowers and ferns, under the towering sentinel trees. Birding gives an excuse to walk slowly, stop a lot, attuning all the senses to nature’s cues and clues.

red black ink, dip pen, watercolor, white gel pen

Meanwhile back home the pink peonies out front had started their metamorphosis, losing petals and gaining a new kind of pod-beauty resembling a jester’s floppy hat, which I almost prefer to the flower!

Geese at the old brewery

I’d come to sketch the historic brewery across the water at Tumwater Historical Park, but first the Canadian geese were putting on such a show of preening, with feathers and beaks going in all directions while also holding stiller than usual. . . so how could I resist?

fountain pen and watercolor on 9 X 12″ Canson Mixed Media paper

Of course that meant putting my stool down in, well you know what happens around flocks of geese. The two standing characters in the show actually held their posture for a good 20-30 minutes, leading me to think they must be the sentries, watching over the preeners.

I sort of remembered getting waylayed by the geese (or ducks) last summer when I was intending to focus on the brewery. See that sketch here. So, determined to have another go, I got a drawing and photo done and worked on that at home.

fountain pen, black brush pen and watercolor in Travelogue sketchbook

And I’ll happily give it another go another time. Maybe it will be an annual thing, a way to show my fealty to my new home town.

Marsh Wren and more

watercolor, white gouache, white gel pen and brown ink fountain pen in Nova beige toned sketchbook

Such a funny little songster, the Marsh Wren. What I like about them is you can see them close up in the marshes and watch that beak open alarmingly wide while the strangest squeeky sounds emerge, plentiful and varied.

On that same walk on the Chehalis Trail here I can stop now to gaze at the osoberries and salmonberries and honeysuckle climbing out of sight up towering trees. The moth was in my backyard where I’m making an effort to appreciate insect life as well, in hopes that most of these tinier residents are the beneficial ones not eating my vegetables. At the moment it seems rather unfair that the hungry green-eaters are focusing on my spinach and chard while the abundant “weeds” in the yard are given a pass. 

Birding and sketching: Scatter Creek Wildlife Rec. Area

watercolor, gouache and gel pen in beige toned sketchbook

Memorial Day didn’t look like it was going to be a good barbeque day with rain forecast as it is every day here in the northwest, but it was great for birding! The choruses of birdsong were particularly symphonic in this open prairie land carpeted with wildflowers, grasses and gorgeous invasive Scotch Broom bushes. While the experienced birders identified the birds by their unique songs and often found them with binoculars, sharing them with us all, I also stumbled along the trail with eyes on the wildflowers and ears enjoying the songs in happy ignorance.

Our leader Kathleen bore the high powered scope and tripod on her back and seemed to know when to set it up. So we got to see Cowbirds copulating in a tree some distance away! The Tanager above was so striking in color that we could follow its movements in and out of the foliage, rarely seeing the whole bird at once. But that much was surprisingly satisfying.

So yesterday I returned with sketchers Jane and Ineke to enjoy the walk, the colors, the rapidly changing skies and to plant ourselves among the grasses, now grown about 2 feet in one week’s time, to sketch.

direct watercolor in Travelogue sketchbook

Plunging right in with watercolor

I’ve discovered that this new sketchbook (hand.book journal co. 90# w/c paper), a lighter version of the last one I was using (also hand.book with 140# w/c paper) This lighter one handles wet watercolor very poorly, probably not the best for direct watercolor painting. So, I’ll be going back to 140# 100% cotton paper when I want to paint skies like these!

Same problem here resulting in sky, tree and puddle muddle. Blame it on the paper, haha! But while I was painting I was thinking, “I should come out here every day to paint in this place!”

So I’ll end on this note. Just get out and do it, and enjoy the process. Don’t you just love the feeling of paint coming off your brush!?

North Carolina

Just back from a week in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina visiting my son Ben. He lives in a little town outside of Asheville. To my utter delight his apartment overlooks a marsh which is teaming with birds and other life. Behind that is a green strip of woods and an open green meadow where a white horse grazes and behind that, a red barn and behind that, many layers of blue mountains dissolving into a tapestry of billowy clouds and blue sky. I have to describe it here, because I had very little chance to paint, sketch, or journal, though I have been playing a bit of catch up today. 

w/c in 5″ X 7″ mix media spiral sketchbook

Due to travel delays I had a whole day to myself before Ben joined me. He recommended I head over to the U.S. National Whitewater Center not far from the Charlotte airport. So I spent a sunny warm day watching white water rafters, kayakers, rock climbers, zip liners, and other sports I have no name for. . . listening to shrieks of delight. . . chatting with other observers, eating delicious food and occasionally trying to sketch the action. Finally Ben arrived to join me.

Another day we drove to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, this time with me watching him doing his elegant white water maneuvers, holding my breath at times when he rolled under, before popping back up again. Whew! The water was so cold that my bare feet could handle only half a minute before the chill became an ache.

It takes skill to kayak safely in rivers like these, so I wasn’t about to try it. But watching the zip liners flying across the water, and feeling the spray of the rubber rafts bouncing along the rapids, I thought, another time. . .yes, I’d try that!

w/c and white gouache in beige toned Nova sketchbook

From Ben’s balcony we watched Barn Swallows, brilliant Cardinals, noisy Red winged Blackbirds, melodious Mockingbirds, Yellow Warblers, and one night listened to (what the Merlin app identified as) a Yellow-breasted Chat, that carried on for hours in what must have been courting behavior!

The river otters were another day. Stay tuned for more about the week.

Yellow’s the Color!

watercolor and white gouache on beige toned Nova paper.

Yellow was the color of the lovely little birds I spotted on Monday at McLane Creek Nature Trail, with significant help from the veteran bird watchers in the Gals Go Birding monthly meet up. You can imagine how effectively these tiny birds are camouflaged now in the spring green forests. The Common Yellowthroat is not the least bit common with his black mask and neon yellow breast! And the Wilson’s Warbler has that adorable black toupe setting off the vibrant yellow body. So sketchable. But don’t go imagining I sketched these from life!

There are so many glorious distractions to draw ones attention away from the spring bird spotting – like the wildflowers in the forest floor, and the newts swimming in the shallows of the pond and making their way across the path.. . in search of mates? We walked, and then stopped and listened, when the group heard a familiar birdsong, and stood quietly til we saw movement in the tall trees. (The trees here are very tall!) Then whipped up the binoculars. I’m finally beginning to get the hang of focusing with my binoculars a bit quicker, but am still often the last to see the bird. But can you tell? I enjoy every minute!

Oh, but perhaps the biggest treat was the Mallard mother with her 13 baby ducks parading right by us at the pond. They scrambled to keep up, clumsy in their rush to follow, running across the lilly pond leaves and plunging in and out of the water. Ahhhhh!

Pileated Woodpecker

I do love going out with the bird watching gals, though it remains a humbling experience. The combination of my inexperience and poor eyesight frequently result in my finally getting the binoculars focused on the right spot just as the bird flies away. Last week it happened within five minutes on the trail when everyone got to see the Barred Owl except me! An owl, no less. My favorite.

Not that these wonderful ladies didn’t do everything they could to help me zero in on the right branch. “See that tree to the left of the tallest one? Now count down three branches below where the clump branches off and. . .”

But this time (with substantial help from my new friends) I got a really great view of the pileated woodpecker in the distant treetop and watched him for a while as he worked his way up with an unobstructed view. That’s what I’m talking about!

w/c and white gouache in beige toned sketchbook

Easily satisfied at this point with simply learning to recognize a bird, I am delighted with any more tidbits of behavior and lore to remember. Here’s what i found online: “[Pileated woodpeckers} represent steadiness and loyalty. If you’re feeling like giving up on a difficult task or work assignment, the Pileated woodpecker may present a good symbol for remaining steadfast and continuing until your task is done.” I’ll take that as a personal lesson, at least for this week when I may have once or twice wanted to give up on something difficult. Ahem.

Now I can be found stopping on the walking trail practicing with my Merlin app, identifying the birds I can’t see by their song. I stop every so often to try this, or to identify blooming plants with the Leaf Snap app. Have you tried these? Instant knowledge of the sort that our little phones are so good at, and they’ll even record the results so that you don’t have to tax your memory!

My Friend Flicker

Not the horse. (That was My Friend Flicka.) My friend Flicker arrived at the bird feeder station outside our dining room window when I got back from California. He was attacking the suet with savage intensity. But each time I snuck up to the window to take a picture surreptitiously, he bolted.

Meanwhile there was this new random sound coming from somewhere in the house that sounded like a metallic drilling. Loud! Bob noticed the same sound coming from the neighbor’s roof. It was Mr. Flicker playing woodpecker on some metal flashing. Go figure.

watercolor, white gouache in beige toned nature sketchbook

I thought at first it was a Sapsucker, but one of my new birdwatching friends was adamant that Sapsuckers only go for the insects in the sap of the tree and would not go for suet. Flicker’s a big flashy bird with a polk dotted chest and black dickie, and when it flies you can see the bright orange underside of its wings!

I’m a sucker for birds these days, though I couldn’t quite explain why I get so excited to see a new species. And yesterday I spent an hour practicing very quick-capture sketches of birds with the engaging John Muir Laws (online) in preparation for actually sketching them live and in motion. His steps 1-2-3 are supposed to make that possible. We’ll see!

Meanwhile there are other signs of spring of course. Like orchid frogs!

You might think I applied some kind of photo filter on my phone when I took this picture. I was walking across the lawn and saw something move.  This little guy measured about two inches long and was a master of camouflage. An hour later he’d changed colors to match the ground cover where he’s moved.

I would attempt to sketch him into my nature journal, but would I be able to even come close to those colors?! I was immediately catapulted into memories of the years I spent with two little boys, hunting tadpoles, frogs, toads, butterflies and more. So I borrowed my 2+ year old friend Ellis across the street to do some frog watching and hopping.

On Becoming a Birder

My willingness to hang out with the bird watchers here has been challenged, not by waning interest, but by freezing cold (and damp) temperatures. I thought I’d be willing to bundle up and meet on the waterfront at 8:30am, but when it comes right down to it, my warm house prevails.

However last week’s field trip on the waterfronts in Olympia with the Black Hills Audubon Society afforded the option of showing up two hours late and still getting in on the last hour and an opportunity to see the flock of Trumpeter Swans on Capital Lake, a few Tundra swans, and some pretty flashy ducks. My enthusiasm even leaked into my husband Bob, who came along, and my sketch friend Jan. 

fountain pen, gouache in beige toned sketchbook

Of course it’s a thrill to be able to spot these remarkable creatures and focus on the brilliant feathers and amusing behaviors observed with magnification of binoculars. And learning to identify and name the species is a fun discovery game to be played with others. Being so far behind the others in spotting and identifying I decided to try and catch up in the way that my memory works best, by sketching them.

I am no John Muir Laws, who balances binoculars and paint brush to render them in the field. And I don’t have a camera lens or all the gadgets to take a magnified photo unless the birds are close to shore. But I can go home and find pictures to study and draw and paint in my nature journal. And this Green Winged Teal duck was a first for me, so I slowly explored every part of its body with my pen and gouache and am not likely now to forget it.

gouache in beige toned sketchbook

From a distance the Bufflehead is a striking black and white, and quite easy to identify. But with the light just right, the iridescent greens and reds shine. And look at those bright orange feet!

I’m not sure how this one got labeled Ring-Necked, since the ring appears more on the spectacular beak. Can you see how much fun I’m having with the thick creamy gouache application?

Coots are another easy identification. Black body, white beak. That’s when they’re swimming. But oo-la-la those enormous green feet that look like they belong on a bird twice the size and make its movements a comedy act.

I was wondering how the expression “you old coot!”, used in modern times in an affectionate way towards elderly men, came about. It was first used in the 1700’s to refer to a harmless simple person. because the coot bobs its head as it walks and swims, similar to some (other) elderly people.

I was having such fun with the creamy gouache paint that I treated myself to this luscious new 24 color HIMI paint set, only $30 on Amazon. The problem with gouache is that when it dries it often cracks and crumbles on the palette. With this set you peal off the foil on each color and seal the whole palette back up with the lid when you’re done, so it stays creamy and ready to go.

fountain pen and watercolor

Back to watercolor again here. Sometimes when eating lunch I get to watch this trapeze artist. He’s willing to do all sorts of gymnastics to chow down on the birds’ suet block, while swinging wildly back and forth. The peanuts I sometimes throw on the ground don’t last very long. And I wonder if the challenge of the swing adds to the appeal anyway.

Precarious

Precarious is the word for the season. It’s how we feel about our health with a new variant blasting its way through our illusions of safety. It’s how I feel when I go outside and encounter the slippy-slide-y snow and ice. It’s the extreme-weather-economic-social angst and a million other things in the news every day.

And it’s what I feel for the birds in their frenzied visits at our feeders.

One day when the birdseed supply had almost run out, I noticed a particular pattern of bird prints in the snow at the edge of our front door portico. Had they seen me emerge from there, even though it’s not visible from the feeders? I got the message and filled the feeders directly. They didn’t wait for me to depart before they started eating.

15 color medium point Posca Pens

So when I finished trying out all the flavors of Posca paint pens in my gift set, the birds outside my window jumped into the picture along with their tracks!

The problem was the hummingbird feeder, which froze solid so the Annas were out of luck. I should have melted it down each morning, but it was so cold I thought it would just freeze back up.

But then I saw a couple Annas on the feeder and realized I’d better try a little harder. Next morning was sunny and when I put the feeder out again with fresh nectar, I had a couple customers.

Next day though I found a one tiny body in the snow below. The heart gone from its 1263 beats per minute to 0, wings no longer beating 80 times per minute but now motionless.

Precarious. . .the life of such a small creature in the frozen world.

one male Annas hummingbird from three angles

Found you,  my tiny iridescent flasher

Beneath the feeder on a pristine pillow.

Did a snow clump fall and knock you out?

Did the cold stop your heart?

Did you, desperate with hunger, drink too much too fast?

Or did it the nectar come too late, after days of starvation and freezing?

My grieving took the form of an afternoon of study of this miraculous little body with the tiniest iridescent feathers that shone electric when in just the right light, but otherwise had become a dull gray. I hoped with my attention to unlock some secret of bird survival in a kind of artful homage to a valiant life.

Or was it a contemplation of the precariousness of life.