|Kurt Plinke, Artist and Naturalist
Between the Waters
life, Art and The Nature of things Between the Atlantic and the Chesapeake
It is Christmas morning, and the weather is warm here in Greensboro. At almost sixty degrees outside, the air is practically balmy for a late December day on Maryland's eastern shore. A few days ago we were thinking it might snow as we gathered around the wood stove to stay warm. Then the wind shifted, the rain fell for days (thanks that it was rain and not snow), and now we are enjoying a windy, spring-feeling day.
It almost doesn't seem like Christmas.
Looking through the window this morning, I saw seven bluebirds, perched all in a row along the picket fence out back. The damp gray wood was a suitable match for the blues, pale grays and reds of these striking little birds. As I stepped out the back door to try to photograph the perfect little line of brightly colored birds, they scattered, flashing cerulean and sapphire. Their glittering wings lifting them all to various points on nearby bare branches. Even their calls reminded me less of Christmas and more of Spring, when their song can be heard almost continuously while they check out the local nesting boxes for suitable sites.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Maryland is about as far north as bluebirds will regularly spend the winter. Any farther north and they migrate south as the winds begin to howl. Even so, I feel as though I don't usually notice as many bluebirds in the winter as I do on warm summer days. During the warmer times of the year, bluebirds mainly eat berries and insects. Winter fare includes berries of holly, mistletoe and juniper, as well as rose hips. They will occasionally come to the feeders, if we put out raisins or other dried small bits of fruit.
Bluebirds are members of the thrush family. This group of birds includes not only bluebirds, but robins, the veery and wood thrushes. Most of these birds are thought of as Summer birds, but many quietly spend all year poking about, looking for food in Maryland. The American Robin, often thought of as a signal that Spring has arrived, like the bluebird actually spends the Winter here as well.
It was certainly a treat seeing the long line of little blue bodies on the fence this morning.
Eventually, Winter will arrive here, and we begin to think about how best to portray in paint, that which is howling outside the doors of the studio. That is why I've chosen our next watercolor workshop (scheduled for January 24th) here at the studio to be another small year-round resident; a Winter Wren. As fluffy as they are, with their muted, mottled tones of brown, they are the perfect "winter feel" bird. We'll be painting this one on the remains of a goldenrod, including a gall on the stem of the plant. Galls are swollen sections of a plant, grown to surround a larvae of an insect, the Goldenrod Gall Fly.
I remember these galls from when I was a child in Wisconsin. Back then Tony, Frank, Matt and I would collect goldenrod galls before going ice fishing. Inside each of the brown galls was a juicy fly larvae... perfect bait for catching bluegills, crappies and perch through a hole cut in the ice. Those are great memories, brought back every time I tramp through an untilled field in winter. I happen upon a gall on a stem, and I am once again back on the lake, using an iron bar to cut a hole through to clear water, then jigging for panfish with my friends from the next farm. My mother always made anise cookies close to Christmas. I would always head to the lake carrying not only galls, but a pocket full of her wonderful homemade treats.
...and that feels like Christmas.
Recently, my wife mentioned that she had been seeing more and more bald eagles near the studio. At the time, I realized that I had also noticed an increase in eagle sightings. I told her I thought that it was probably the result of a combination of factors.
One factor is the recent harvesting of crops in the fields near the studio. Bald eagles often scavenge, and a lot of tractor activity in a field leaves remains in its wake. Tractors run over mice, rabbits and other animals in the fields, and eagles will find them. Also, with no tall corn or bean plants standing, it is easier to see eagles and other scavengers as they congregate around a food source in the middle of a cut field. Along the same vain, as deer-hunting season gets into full swing, there are inevitable lost shots. Some deer, wounded by hunters, manage to topple where the hunter is unable to find them. Eagles, however, seem to be able to locate this bounty with ease. Along with vultures, eagles will mass around a deer carcass lying in a field. On my way to Dover last week, I saw seven eagles and uncountable turkey vultures congregated around a lost deer carcass.
Eagles also are much easier to see as trees drop their leaves. Perched high in a gum tree along the river, an eagle would be invisible before the tree dropped its covering blanket of foliage.
I have noticed, as well, that I have seen quite a few eagle pairs in recent weeks. Eagles begin to nest in mid-winter. It is possible that in this area, we are seeing the beginning of pair bonding activities. As eagles begin to locate their mates, or find new ones, they are much more active. Flying in pairs, they wheel about overhead. It always amazes me how such a big bird can be so agile in the skies. As the light hits them, adult eagles are amazingly easy to identify, their white head and tail glowing in contrast to their dark bodies.
It may be that eagle numbers in general are also on the rise. It was not long ago that bald eagles were considered an endangered species. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the number of active nesting sites in Maryland had grown from a low of 39 nests in 1997 to 368 nest in 2004, the last year the study noted. As a part of that same series of reports, the number of wintering bald eagles increased in a similar manner. During the 1979 Wintering eagle survey, 44 bald eagles were noted. In 2008, that number had risen to 303 birds. That is an amazing increase.
Whatever the reason, my wife is right. Eagles do seem to be everywhere. If you haven’t noticed, look around as you travel from place to place. If you look, I’ll bet that you will see large numbers of our national symbol all around you… flying over Easton town square, cruising low over a Dorchester field edge, massed in the middle of a newly plowed field near Chestertown, or just sitting like a sentinel on the bare branch of a tree.
OTHER NEWS: If you had not noticed, we’ve revamped Sewell Mills Studio & Gallery’s website, adding a lot of new content, features and an online store where paintings, prints and cards may be ordered. Take a moment and wander through…
NEW WORKSHOPS SCHEDULED: A new series of workshops have also been scheduled in the studio. The first new workshop is set for Saturday, January 24th. We’ll be painting a Winter Wren on a goldenrod gall. It should be good... consider reserving a chair and attending.
Christmas is coming soon…
Kurt Plinke: About Life, Art and the Nature of Things on the Eastern Shore
I write about things I've noticed, places I've been, plans I've made and paintings I've finished or am thinking about.
See recent naturalist observations I have posted on iNaturalist: