Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Solstice!

Today is very special in that it is both the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year (and the official first day of winter) and the first time that a total lunar eclipse has occurred on the solstice since 1638. Those of you who did not get outside to watch the eclipse will unfortunately have to wait another 84 years for the opportunity.

In honor of the once-in-several-lifetimes event, I thought it would be fitting to share some of John Burroughs' musings on winter. Burroughs did not limit his appreciation of the natural world to special occasions, of course--one winter day was as worthy of attention and exploration (and the accompanying joy) as the next. Still, I think reading his work today is a good way to celebrate (that, and a good long walk in the woods.)

"If the October days were a cordial like the subacids of fruit, these are a tonic like the wine of iron. Drink deep, or be careful how you taste this December vintage. The first sip may chill, but a full draught warms and invigorates. No loitering by the brooks or in the woods now, but spirited, rugged walking along the public highway. The sunbeams are welcome now. They seem like pure electricity--like friendly and recuperating lightning. Are we led to think electricity abounds only in summer when we see in the storm clouds, as it were, the veins and orebeds of it? I imagine it is equally abundant in winter and more equable and better tempered. Who ever breasted a snowstorm without being excited and exhilarated, as if this meteor had come charged with the latent aurorae of the North, as doubtless it has? It is like being pelted with sparks from a battery. Behold the frostwork on the pane--the wild, fantastic limnings and etchings! Can there be any doubt but this subtle agent has been here? Where is it not? It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it. When I come in at night after an all-day tramp I am charged like a Leyden jar; my hair crackles and snaps beneath the comb like a cat's back, and a strange new glow diffuses itself through my system.

"It is a spur that one feels at this season more than at any other. How nimbly you step forth! The woods roar, the waters shine, and the hills look invitingly near. You do not miss the flowers and the songsters or wish the trees or the fields any different or the heavens any nearer. Every object pleases. A rail fence, running athwart the hills, now in sunshine and now in shadow--how the eye lingers upon it! Or the straight, light-gray trunks of trees, where the woods have recently been laid open by a road or clearing--how curious they look, and if surprised in undress! Next year they will begin to shoot out branches and make themselves a screen...

"He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter. It is true the pomp and the pageantry are swept away, but the essential elements remain--the day and the night, the mountain and the valley, the elemental play and succession and the perpetual presence of the infinite sky. In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of more exalted simplicity. Summer is more wooing and seductive, more versatile and human, appeals to the affections and the sentiments, and fosters inquiry and the art impulse. Winter is of a more heroic cast and addresses the intellect. The severe studies and disciplines come easier in winter. One imposes larger tasks upon himself, and is less tolerant of his own weaknesses.

"The tendinous part of the mind, so to speak, is more developed in winter; the fleshy, in summer. I should say winter had given the bone and sinew to literature, summer the tissues and blood."

-from John Burroughs' America: Selections from the Writings of the Naturalist (pg. 122-23)

John Burroughs (L) and John Muir, rockin' out.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Woody the Woodpecker

My latest project for the Nature Exploration Area at BNC:

This is a pileated woodpecker, painted life-sized (16.5-18", according to various field guides) on a piece of wood salvaged from the tree crew's efforts. You can still see the marks where the chainsaw bit into the soft wood--the surface is therefore much more difficult to paint on than a canvas or panel, but I sand all the pieces first and put on a coat of polycrylic (similar to polyurethane, except water-soluble and non-yellowing), which prevents the paint from being absorbed into the wood so rapidly. I love having the bark as a "frame" of sorts!

Here's a close-up of the face:

I was using a mismatched collection of paints; the red was glossy but all the other colors were matte, which explains why the crest and malar stripe are so shiny--sorry about that!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chicks and Sticks

I did this small watercolor as a gift to one of the naturalists at Brookside Nature Center, who recently left in pursuit of higher goals (such as world travel!) I learned a great deal from her in the year that we worked together, and I'll be forever grateful for her tutelage.

This is a Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) in a Sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum.) The bird is approximately life-sized, around 4" from head to tail, painted in watercolor with gouache highlights on BFK Rives (printmaking paper). I could rhapsodize about the merits of this delicious, cream-colored paper for hours. (It does come in other colors, but this one is the best!) If you ever find yourself in a fine art store, find where they keep it and run your hands over it and you'll see what I mean!

Bluebird and Redbird

More pieces for the NEA! The cardinal, obviously, is a directional marker, now installed on the path leading up the hill from the nature center.

It doesn't look it, but this tree cookie is massive--a real pain to lug up and down the basement stairs and hill! (You can only get away with rolling the tree cookies when there aren't small children in the way, which, given that it IS a nature center, there usually are!)

The second piece is a bluebird, painted approximately actual size (about 7" from head to tail) on another scrap of wood. This will be mounted, like the owl and the flying squirrels, somewhere in the NEA for a little extra color.

I haven't been doing too much in the way of painting for the NEA, since my current project is digitally coloring those pond brochures I did last year--they're going to be made into signs for a small display down by the pond! I'm having fun exploring Photoshop and using Frans' Wacom tablet, but am still rather baffled by all of it. Nothing beats traditional media!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Great Front Yard Bird Count

It's amazing to think that mere weeks ago, the DC-metro area was covered with 3+ feet of snow. This was the view from our front porch:

And here's one of the feeders we have hung from the fruit tree in the front yard. To get an idea of how deep the snow cover was, keep in mind that I whang my head on that feeder on a regular basis. Therefore, it is approximately at least 5 feet off the ground.

Most fortuitously, the Great Backyard Bird Count overlapped part of that snowbound week, and was a great excuse to gaze out the window all day long.

A mourning dove peers at me from his perch in the feeder tree. I love the look of soft little bird-bellies!

As you can see, the blizzards afforded us with plenty of birdwatching opportunities. Not only were we stuck in the house for a week (three days of which we didn't have power, and only survived thanks to the newly-installed woodstove), but the birdies needed plenty of extra sustenance, which I was happy to provide.

Fortunately, CatTV does not require electricity:

(Here Yoda studies the delicious sparrows, as if choosing prime cuts at the deli counter. I always point out that House Sparrows are the most delectable--imported from Europe!)

The only time Yoda and Audrey will tolerate each other's close company is while they're watching Primetime in the front yard. At these moments a sort of peace settles over the household and we all enjoy the sport of birding together, as a family.

By far the coolest bird to grace our front yard with its presence was this hawk, which landed in the red maple in the yard just steps from the front door. (You can bet the cats stopped salivating when they saw it....a raptor makes for no easy snack.)

Excuse the blurry pictures! Understandably, it remains unidentified. (I've asked all the naturalists at Brookside to weigh in, and everyone's still undecided as to whether it's a red-tailed or a red-shouldered hawk.) ID or no, it was still a breathtaking event, and not a bad way to commemorate my first Backyard Bird Count.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wishing for Warblers

I've only seen four species of warblers in my life--the palm warbler, the common yellowthroat, the American redstart, and the yellow-rumped warbler. I'm also almost positive that I once observed a magnolia warbler in nonbreeding plumage, but was too inexperienced to make a positive ID then; it's only from my sketches and notes I took at the time that I'm able to deduce the identity.

I started birdwatching less then a year ago, but was quickly enchanted by the charm of these diminutive little songbirds. It's easy to see why birders become infatuated with the group. I'm hoping to brush up on my skills and add many more to my list in the spring. In particular, I would just about die of happiness if I were to see a Blackburnian warbler:

Charcoal pencil and soft pastel on paper.

It's the name that so instantly captivates one while flipping through the index of a field guide, and no one could argue that these are one of the most striking and brilliant of the warblers. Unfortunately they don't too frequently visit my neck of the woods, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I might get lucky enough to see one during the New River Birding and Nature Festival coming up this spring in West Virginia.

Friday, January 1, 2010

More works on wood, in the woods

A few new installations for the Nature Exploration Area at Brookside Nature Center! These are a pair of plaques that I painted on chunks of red oak that Jenny salvaged from a fallen tree. They're installed in the NEA high off the ground, to simulate where someone might observe a screech owl or flying squirrel in real life.

Here's the Eastern screech owl (gray morph), painted approximately life-sized--about 8" head to tail:

A close-up of the face:

The work-in-progress (note the cool bug holes, probably made by ants):

And here's the pair of Southern flying squirrels. The nature center has a pretty active population of these guys; you can attend flying squirrel programs with the naturalists and have a pretty good chance at seeing these unobtrusive, nocturnal critters. (They are impossibly cute.) These, too, are approximately life-sized (about 5" for the body, 3-4" long tails):

And a side view, to show the neat curve of this particular piece of wood: