|Kurt Plinke, Artist and Naturalist|
Thoughts About life, Art and Nature on the eastern shore
They laugh at us from the clouds ...and from the fields, and from the parking lots and the Boardwalk. It's as though the heavens constantly mock and tease us, practically wherever we are on the Eastern Shore.
This is a blog on one level that is about wildlife on the Shore. On another level, it highlights the subject of June's workshop in the studio. But it goes deeper than that, beyond some words describing a species of bird called the Laughing Gull. These birds and their echoing calls are so much a part of what life on the Eastern Shore is about that it would be hard to imagine what this place would be like without them. Their call sort of seeps into everyone here, a constant reminder that while many are farmers or spend every day in a building and not on a boat, we are never far from water... just to the East the Atlantic, just to the West the Chesapeake.
I remember moving to the Shore from Ohio a few decades ago, and being in a state of constant amazement at the clouds of bright gray and white noisy birds with the black heads, dancing high overhead. They always seemed to be there. Other times, as a disk or plow turned the ground in some field, I watched as gulls followed the tractor like billowing fluffs of dust, all the while drowning out the motor with constant stuttering laughter. Coming from Ohio, where we called them all "Seagulls," (as opposed to "Gulls") seeing clouds of Laughing Gulls out in a farm field was a cultural and locational shock.
Even at the big box stores or fast food places in Denton, Easton or Dover, walking from your car to the door can sometimes seem like an obstacle course as gulls loiter nearby or run around near your feet, hoping that something edible is dropped. They hang around in little gangs, like street toughs, looking to accost anyone who looks sideways at them.
Of course, Ocean City and the surrounding beaches are filled with Laughing Gulls all Summer long. If you are brave enough to buy some Thrasher's french fries up on the boardwalk, you are surrounded by them, laughingly demanding that you toss a fry into the air. Seeing their insistent begging, every child has to try to feed a gull. Only once, though. They innocently and happily throw a piece of hotdog bun or a fry upwards, and then the mayhem begins. first two, then four, then hundreds of gulls flap in a mass around the child, each one loudly demanding to be fed. The scene is straight out of a Hitchcock movie. Eventually, the cloud of gulls melts away, two or three at a time to go back to their regular stations in the sand, while the now-wiser child stands on the boardwalk, just a teensy bit fearful of the ubiquitous black-headed beach birds.
What would really frighten a child, however, would be a stroll through a Laughing Gull rookery. These birds, along with Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Skimmers, Terns and a few other communally-nesting species gather on isolated small sand spits in the Chesapeake Bay and in the back bay between Atlantic barrier islands and the mainland. On these islands thousands of birds nest, packed together beak-to-tail. Their constant flitting and flapping and their deafening calls make the island seem almost like a living being, settled low to the water. Once eggs have hatched, the young birds cover the sand as parents ferry small fish, crabs and scraps from the beaches to their hungry youngsters. Soon the new gulls are able to fly, and head to the beaches, fields and parking lots, looking for food on their own.
In the Fall, Laughing Gulls lose their high-contrast headgear as they molt their Summer feathers for more drab winter dress. The once-dapper flocks then leave the Eastern Shore for warmer weather. Some settle in Florida, while others go farther, sometimes all the way to northern Central America. It's strange to suddenly no have laughter echoing from the sky. They leave at about the same time other calls begin. Canada Geese, Snow Geese, and Tundra Swans all have distinctive calls, each dong their part to fill the void left by the absence of the Laughing Gull.
For me, the honking of geese just can't replace the raucous laughter that drifts from the clouds of Summer. Farmers in the fields notice the absence, the large blacktopped lots seem just a little barren, and the beach is a lonelier place without them. Laughing Gulls are one of the things that Make the Eastern Shore it's own place. Their echoing laughter and cackling from high overhead tell us where we are... and in a sense, who we are. Without them, we might as well be in Ohio, or Kansas, or Oklahoma, where the tractors just raise clouds of dust, and children who drop a bit of sandwich in a parking lot don't feel the amazement as a flock of black, gray and white creatures swoop down to boisterously bicker over the sudden treat.
"Painting a Summer Gull" This month, if you participate in the watercolor workshop at Sewell Mills Studio on June 28th, you'll get a good idea of how to paint a Laughing Gull, taking home a representation of an icon of the Eastern Shore heritage and way of life. During the workshop, we'll all paint a Summer Laughing Gull, perched on a post. The clean white and gray feathering will present an interesting challenge; how to add subtle texture to the virtually smooth birds. The challenge is not insurmountable. In fact, people new to watercolors will quickly see that a bit of layering will give their paintings a feeling of volume and form, all the while giving their gull just the right amount of "feather feel." I hope to see you there.
Summer Plein Air: Over June and July, I'll be taking part in several plein air painting competitions. I plan to post daily blogs during these events; what I've painted and what I've seen. It should be an interesting Summer.
The Ospreys are back. Let's paint them. (News about my Summer painting plans, too.)
This entry is about several things, including:
But first, a bit about Ospreys:
I recently wrote an entry about one of my favorite birds of prey, the Red-Shouldered Hawk. I like this bird for lots of reasons, including their call, the way they have they courtship flights over the house in the springtime, and their beautiful coloration. Red-Shouldered Hawks are amazing birds.
They really are amazing, as well as interesting and another of my favorite birds. However, they appeal to me in different ways than the Red-Shouldered.
Ospreys do not have majestic, screaming calls. They sort-of twitter and tweet. They do it loudly, but still...
Ospreys, like Red-Shoulders, do have an amazing mating flight, during which they soar and dive repeatedly while calling. When the male Osprey dives, it is something to see.
Ospreys are not brightly colored birds. Mainly dark brown and white, they do not have the gorgeous colors of a Red-Shoulder or a Red-Tailed Hawk. Even so, they sport a sort of dapper elegance in their clean colors.
Ospreys, more than anything, are amazing hunters. Feeding almost entirely on fish, Ospreys hunt from the wing. While Red-Shoulders tend to sit passively while hunting, Ospreys soar overhead, scanning the water for for fish near the surface. If they see a fish, they often will hover in one spot over the fish, a neat trick for a bird as big as an Osprey. Suddenly, they plummet towards the water, feet and talons first as they hit the water, sometimes completely submerging as they grab for their prey. Once they have secured the fish in their long, curved talons, the Osprey swims with it's wings to burst from the water, flying to a nearby perch or to their bulky nest in a tree to dispatch and dismantle the hapless fish.
Another thing that I really like about Ospreys is a bit more personal, and played out again this year as I was fishing in the upper reaches of the Choptank River. A shallow, bubbling wide creek at this point, the Choptank is full of delicious white perch in mid-to-late March. I like to fish for them early in the morning, before most other fishermen have arrived.
There is always a rising fog coming from the water, and near horizontal shafts of golden morning light cut between the trees lining the banks. I am alone there as I fish... almost alone, that is. Always on those mornings, several Ospreys join me, cruising at eye-level above the water, sometimes only yards from me as their long wings push them along. Then, almost without warning, they will seem to stall in mid-air before dropping with a spray of water into the river. Invariably, they rise again, clutching a fat perch in their talons. Usually they fly up into a tree above my head, peering down at me as they eat the freshly caught fish.
This is what I like most about Ospreys. the memory of how each Spring we meet down at the river, each for the same reason. It almost feels like a planned meeting, and one of my favorite spring events.
This month, on April 16th, we will feature Painting an Osprey portrait in watercolor at the studio near Greensboro. We won't need a broad range of paint colors in order to finish this classic portrait study. We will learn a lot about how to layer texture, how to develop clean, distinct patterns, and how to create an "attitude" in a portrait. It should be a great workshop, easy for beginners but challenging for more advanced painters. I hope you can be there.
Easton In July!
And now for some exciting news, at least for me. I've been juried into the Easton Plein Air Festival, set to take place starting on the 10th of July. From then until the 17th, you'll find me in various locations along with some of the best plein air artists in the country, painting views of the Eastern Shore.
Also, don't forget to go see all of my new paintings at the Oxford Fine Arts Festival in Oxford, Maryland on May 21st and 22nd. There will be lots of great art there, as well as the festival's famous Strawberry Short Cake.
The title makes it sound as though this will be about a sunny early summer day at the beach as blisters slowly start to form on exposed shoulders. But it's not. It's more about first notes of Spring. For some people, the first notes of spring are actual notes, the jubilant bubbling calls of songbirds that warble from beaks and bills in the trees around the house. For others, it is the first brave little frog, poking a nose through the surface of vernal pools to begin repeated little peeps in hopes of finding a mate. For others, it might be the roar of air coming though an open car window when it finally becomes warm enough to drive with windows open again.
For some, certain smells call up the memory of Spring. Farmers might recall the fresh smell of newly thawed dirt, almost ready to turn. Some people think of Spring when they smell cold rain on sunny pavement. Still others think of sweet-smelling hyacinth blooms, the heady fragrance drifting across the early garden.
I can think of nothing that reminds me more that Spring has broken Winter's hold than a two-noted scream, floating from the sky. Living here along the Choptank River, The dominant hawk is the Red-Shouldered Hawk, a medium sized Buteo with chestnut-red shoulders and a striped tail. In the spring, the male Red-Shouldered Hawks court the females with an amazing series of diving, looping flights and loud, repeated screams. It seems that as I first begin pulling small greening winter weeds from the garden beds, I almost always hear the Red Shoulders dancing in the clouds above.
They have cries that carry. Sometimes, I can pinpoint the place in the sky where their calls are coming from, but locating the birds visually is tough. Eventually, with a hand shielding the early spring sun and plenty of squinting, I can make out tiny dots looping high overhead. Despite the distance, their calls are loud and clear, as though they are soaring close overhead.
Red-Shouldered Hawks have amazing courtship displays that take place in the sky over a period that spans several weeks. During these displays, the pair of hawks alternately circle each other while they repeat their two-note call. Then they take turns diving towards each other, looping as they zoom past.
When I was younger and living in Wisconsin and Ohio, I thought of the Red-Shouldered Hawk as a rare bird. Where I lived, the bigger Red-Tailed Hawks were our most often-seen hawks. Sitting on telephone poles, fence posts or on the craggy branches of dead trees, they looked so majestic looking across the landscape. Red-Shouldered Hawks were a declining and threatened species. (as were many species of Buteos) This was due, in part, to pesticides and poisons that were used routinely by farmers and homeowners. With the banning of specific pesticides, most notably DDT, the numbers of these birds have been making a steady comeback.
Frogs, small snakes, mice, voles and insects make up much of the Red-Shoulder's diet. More of a woodland species that the Red-Tailed, these raptors wait patiently on a low-hanging branch, their heads tilted to catch any movement below on the forest floor or along the river's edge. Then quietly, they drop on their prey before carrying it back to the tree.
Their early-spring calls and sky dances lead to nesting. Red-Shouldered Hawks typically nest for life, and while some migrate, they typically return to the same nesting area every year. Their compact but bulky nests, made of branches, usually hold three or four eggs. The female spends more time on the nest than the males, although male Red-Shoulders are good providers, carrying food to the nesting female and young.
With the wooded river edge and large closely-set woodlots along the Choptank corridor, This bird can almost always be seen circling high overhead or perched on a heavy tree branch. But most of all, they call to Spring, beckoning it's return with their two-toned love song to the season.
Sometimes the value of a thing does not correlate with the amount of money spent on that object. I have found this to be the case time and time again. Some of the things accumulated in my life that I really would never want to be apart from are not what have emptied my wallet.
Paint brushes are often those kinds of things. The most expensive are usually not those that I find the most useful in the long run. And it seems that these particular brushes, the ones I have loved the most, when first seen showed their special nature right away. Like love at first sight, it's as though they were destined to be special.
It's easy to spend an awful lot of money on a watercolor brush. The first good brush I owned, I bought at The Letter Shop in Lancaster, Ohio, in the early 70's. I had just enrolled in a watercolor class taught by LeLand McClellan at the local YMCA. On his supply list for the class, he suggested a Winsor Newton series 7 # 8 round brush. I remember it well, not only because it had a gleaming black handle and beautiful polished nickel ferrule, but also because it was so expensive. I can still recall the price... $33.00. Back in the day, that was a load of money. And I have to say, it was a really nice brush. Hand-made in England, Winsor Newton series 7 brushes are arguably the best watercolor brushes that can be bought. A brush like it today sells for well over a $100.
It's strange though... I don't consider that long-gone brush to be one of my favorites. And what is stranger... None of my truly favorites cost anywhere close to that much.
Probably my all-time favorite brush is an old beater one inch flat I bought when I was in college. A blue-handled student-grade Grumbacher, I purchased it for five dollars at the Bowling Green State University book store in 1977. I've used that brush ever since, softly washing watery backgrounds on many hundreds of sheets of Arches, Waterford and Winsor Newton paper. The supple snappiness of the long nylon bristles are always predictable, leaving a smooth as satin sheet of water in its wake. Each time I reach for that battered blue handle, I know what I'll get... a lovely layer of clean wash. About ten years ago, the pewter-toned ferrule wiggled it's way loose from the handle. If it had been a lesser brush, I would have tossed it, using the handle to mark a garden bed. But I loved this brush, and even in two pieces, I couldn't bring myself to discard it. Instead, I wrapped a couple of turns of masking tape over the end of the battered stick, and twisted the ferrule back into place. Amazingly, since then I have only had to replace the tape once.
Another flat, this time a two-inch Robert Simmons with a burnt sienna-toned handle, is my other favorite always faithful wash brush. I found this one on sale in a huge cardboard box of close-out brushes in the back of the Ben Franklin craft store in Easton, Maryland. The box was about as big as a washing machine, and I dug through it one day about fifteen years ago. The handwritten sign on the box said, "all brushes, 2.99." When I saw that sign, it felt like Christmas. I found about twenty brushes in there that were spectacular. This big flat was the best of them. Most of the others, approaching an equal caliber, I gave as gifts to artists I knew would appreciate them.
I think I like this particular flat so well partly because it was such a great deal, and partly the way the leading edge of the bristles are cut. Usually a flat is cut cleanly, leaving an edge like a knife. This one, though, is just a tiny bit ragged. It was that way when I found it. That ragged edge, when half-loaded with pigment and dragged lightly across a page, leaves the most amazing textural trail behind it. Those subtle little streaks add so much interest to a painting and really can bring unity to an entire composition as they can be faintly found across a painting. A good flat brush is something special.
I must say have had some very expensive round brushes, but none of them matched the black-handled Robert Simmons long #12 that I also found that day in the close-out bin at Ben Franklin. My first Winsor Newton Series 7 #8 Kolinsky Sable brush perhaps came close to being as good as this old reliable Robert Simmons. Over the years, the tooth of every piece of cold-press paper has taken its toll, and the fine tip on the old RS brush is long worn away. Even so, all of the part-sable hairs on this brush remain flexible and wonderfully adept at going where they should with a tiny wrist flick or roll. I love that round. And it was only $2.99 on close-out.
I don't even remember how I came into possession of another of my favorites; a small stick-handled French quill brush with what I assume is squirrel hair that makes up the head of the thin little detailer. I like it because it was a surprise to find, and because the soft barrel holds a ton of paint, while still allowing a hair's-width line to flow from the tip. The handle could perhaps have been a little thicker for my pork-chop hands, but the rough natural feel of the stick/handle in my hands make up for the narrowness. Plus, the tip, held in place by a goose quill and twisted copper wire looks awesomely cool.
Another "brush" I reach for all the time is actually one of many like it that I made myself. A chop-stick handle on each, trimmed bits of sea sponge were affixed to the former eating utensils with waxed fly-tying line. Technically, I suppose these are not brushes, not having any hair. But they are wonderful mark-makers. Dragged across a surface, they leave very un-brushy smudges, perfect when painting a fallow field or autumn tree line. I should probably make lots more, patent and market them.
My other two favorites are liner brushes. One is longer than the other, with a slightly thicker barrel. Both, because of the length of their flexible heads, hold a lot of liquid, making them great for tiny technical marks. Weirdly, I also use them a lot for drybrush and scumbling, dragging them side-while across rough paper, The smaller of the two, a Robert Simmons Expressions #2, is probably my smallest brush, and unlike the the French quill brush, has a huge fat handle. I love grabbing for that brush, because I know it will never fly loose and add streaks of paint where I did not intend on an almost-finished piece. It's not just the easy to hold ball bat handle that I like, though. While the turquoise-green handle is massive, the head is delicate. I've found that if I load this petite little package of hairs just right, I can paint miniature rat whiskers by the dozen without having to re-load. I'm not sure why I would ever need dozens of miniature rat whiskers painted, nut it's nice to know that I could, if the need ever arose. At least as long as I have that little # 2 liner with the giant handle.
There are other brushes I love... maybe almost as much. A 3/4" filbert rake I bought at a decoy carver's show years ago quickly comes to mind, as does a cat's tongue detailing brush that I often seem to reach for when I need variable-width lines. If I thought about it, I could name more. But even though I have hundreds of brushes, each with a minor tale to tell, the seven, with their minor little stories, are destined to always be my favorites.
A Little Brown Bird in the Weeds... the subject of January's watercolor workshop at Sewell Mills.
In the tangle of brush, trees and vines between the studio and the river the small brown birds have made themselves at home again for the winter. White-throated Sparrows, Juncos, Fox Sparrows, Tree Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows and Song Sparrows all compete to see who can make the most commotion as they rustle through dry leaves, looking for seeds and small cold insects. I look for them as the leaves drop, but now that Winter is here and the cold nights drive us indoors, little packs of sparrows become more and more noticeable.
Of these little brown bundles of sparrow energy, I think my favorite is the Song Sparrow. This dapper little bird is gorgeous shades of burnt sienna, sepia and gray. His white breast and flanks are heavily streaked with dark jagged lines, forming a dark blot on the middle of his breast. His cap is a mix of reddish-brown and gray, and his face sports a distinctive set of light and dark stripes.
Song Sparrows were not named for their jaunty little set of feathers, however. The name, Song Sparrow, is more reflective of their distinctive call, a warbling series of variable notes that almost always begin with a few regularly-spaced single notes.
Song sparrows are not like many other sparrows, who only visit the Eastern Shore during the cold winter months. Song Sparrows call the shore home year-round, and I often find their nests in brushy areas along the edges of farm fields across the county. Usually I notice their nests after the leaves have fallen and the landscapes turn gray and brown, like the Song Sparrows themselves. Their nests are mainly woven grasses, loosely constructed and about nose high off the ground in a twiggy joining of small branches.
At the feeders, Song Sparrows are not the most numerous of little birds. White-throats and Juncos outnumber Song Sparrows at least ten to one. This makes me like Song Sparrows even more. Usually one or two of them will show up at the feeders at any one time. Active, these little streaked birds stand out among the other ground birds, who generally tend to move more deliberately.
These are the birds we'll be painting during our January watercolor workshop at the studio. We won't be painting a feeder or a tangled bunch of grasses, just a simple study of a Song Sparrow tightly gripping an interesting Winter seed head. If you've never painted a small bird with watercolors, this workshop would be a great place to start. The markings on this little guy will add just enough challenge to keep anyone interested, but the painting will be simple enough to make success all but guaranteed.
If you'd like to sign up for this workshop, check out the workshops and classes page of this website. But attend the workshop or not, look for Song Sparrows every time you hear the leaves rustle this time of year.
CONSIDERING WHY I PAINT AND WHAT I PAINT
FOR YEARS, I CONSIDERED MYSELF A WILDLIFE ARTIST. And really, that was what I was... a person who painted birds, and occasionally other wild creatures. I liked doing that. It was what interested me, what surrounded me and what, really, I lived. Over the past few years, however, I kept finding myself drifting away from just painting wildlife. A landscape, an abstract, even an occasional portrait crept onto a piece of watercolor paper in my studio. But these seemed to be no more than brief passing fancies. For a short time, I considered abandoning watercolors and moving completely to a different medium for the majority of my work. I was restless. Always a bit (or more than a bit) on the ADD continuum, I supposed I just quickly lost interest and was looking to snag the flittering butterfly outside the window.
I mean, I was just grasping at random thoughts and images. If it was something I saw or was intrigued by, I painted it. Or at least I considered how I would paint it. There was no real rhyme nor reason... just a series of semi-unrelated images flowing from brushes in my studio. Some I liked, and will probably paint more similar to them in the future. Others I have never even showed anyone, and probably never will. They were experiments.
Each time I branched out and painted using new techniques, new subjects or new colors, I felt as though I were looking for more than just a set of paintings, I was looking for a new theme.
It seems as though over the past months, I may have finally settled upon a theme for my work, besides just painting birds. But before I put a name to it, I need to explain a little. First, a theme is an underlying idea or message in a painting or a body of paintings. My theme has always been sort of The Wonder Of Wildlife. I say sort of, because really my paintings have always been almost illustrations in most cases. I once had a professor tell me that I was not an artist, I was an illustrator. I argued with him at the time, and still disagree, that illustration is Art. But that is not the point. My paintings were essentially illustrations of various species in their natural surroundings. And I am not saying that these do not have worth. I am saying that the theme of all of these paintings make up a group of works that I need to expand beyond; that I need to move in a direction with what I paint which has more personal meaning.
That was why I started painting landscapes, abstracts and experimenting with different mediums. I wanted to paint something with deeper meaning and I did not know where to go with that desire. For a while, I essentially stopped painting. I was at an end of having something to paint about.
As I considered what to paint, almost purely by chance, I began occasionally hanging out at a couple of places near to the studio. These were places like an old dairy beside the school where I teach. The dairy no longer functions as a local dairy, and may soon see perk test tubes in the fields surrounding the old barns and few remaining cows. Another is a swatch of land, barns and people who have become collectors of unusual hobbies. Here, falconing and small plot farming are the norm. Still another is the entire town of Greensboro, the town near where I live. All three of these places have something in common, and have lead me to a theme. All three places are grounded in the past, and struggling with a future full of change. The dairy is passing into history... a sad way to deal with change. Opposed to that, the land and people nearby have formed their own little island, a place to insulate themselves from change, to preserve old things and old ways of doing. Greensboro (like every small rural town) itself is in ways embracing the change, and in ways grasping at a past that is fading. And that, I recently realized, is what I want to paint... the changing history around the Eastern Shore that is happening right now. This is a theme that I feel has enough import to hold my attention, and can be expressed in a number of ways. Sometimes I am disheartened as I see our past falling away, like the roof of an old abandoned farm building as it collapses. I can paint those feelings. Sometimes I love how some things are constant throughout the passing of time, like decoys in the back of a truck or a bucket of fish freshly caught along the river. I know that these things, too, are changing. It seems that every year, fewer people spend a spring day fishing, or a cold wet morning in a duck blind. And it saddens me that these things may fade. As the Eastern Shore and it's people transform from an insulated group of rugged souls dependent upon the land and waters, it is inevitable that the place must change.
So in the end, I have come to a point where I am to be a historian, documenting the slow grinding of the wheel, the change from one way of life to another. My paintings, full of the things that satisfy artists, such as composition and movement and repetition, also are a sort of illustration... a documentation of the story of our times here in Maryland. Our Eastern Shore... a place where change has traditionally happened slowly, is beginning to catch up with those on the other side of the bay. Reluctantly, we are slowly modernizing. And in this modernization, this accelerated and sometimes unwanted change, there are poignant stories. My paintings are beginning to document these changes, these stories of people and place.
This does not mean I will abandon wildlife. The small things in nature that surround us here on the eastern shore still have fascinations for me, and still have stories to tell. I suspect that these paintings may include more and more of the interactions between the natural world and the changing human practices that are emerging or fading. After all, we still live on the land here, and we all still, in some ways, are connected to the natural eastern shore that continues around us.
If you want to see some of these stories of change, memories and growth of ourselves, of our homes, come to Summerfest in Denton in mid August. I'll have a collection of these stories there.
Sometimes, I look out the window and swear that I see dinosaurs in the garden. Not Triceratops or T-rex or anything. Just common, everyday dinosaurs. Smallish (for a dinosaur), dark, long-legged and primitive.
When I was a kid, the idea of dinosaurs in the woods behind the barn always lurked in the back of my mind. I could clamp my eyes shut, focus my thoughts and there they would be... not big scary dinosaurs, but gentle creatures, almost like pet dinosaurs, hiding behind the big burr oak trees on the hill. Still wild, mind you, but not the dangerous kind of wild. At least, that's how I imagined modern dinosaurs; huge, gentle creatures with long necks and long legs.
As a child, I grew up in several parts of the country. But most of my clearest memories from my younger years were on a farm in southern Wisconsin. I had great friends there, and we roamed and played across the woods and fields near Whitewater Lake. Mostly we pretended to be soldiers, or cowboys, or explorers. We dug caves out of the hillsides, built cabins from old fallen tree branches and chased long-gone deer by following their tracks in the snow. But when my friends were not around, I dreamed of dinosaurs. I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up, just so I could somehow bring dinosaurs back, to be able to really see one. Occasionally I would find a small fossil in the rocks on the moraine hills behind our big barn. These excited me to find more. On a trip to the Milwaukee Museum of Natural History I saw huge fossilized dinosaur bones and entire skeletons, held together with wires, bronze-brown and ancient looking. These were even more amazing to me as I imagined unearthing entire skeletal creatures from ancient bedrock and then painstakingly reassembling them. But old fossils were not enough. I wanted to see them in the flesh, walking around, doing what dinosaurs do. I hoped that someday I would discover a way to recreate these big beasts and give them a chance to live again. As I got older, those thoughts faded and I became more interested in the living things that surround us all... the birds, mammals and other creatures.
When that movie about the dinosaur park came out and then the sequels, I was instantly returned to those dreams, however. The idea of real-life dinosaurs roaming the countryside again sprang up in my head, and I discovered that the notion of recreating dinosaurs still hides in a mind corner of mine.
And then, once in a while I actually, really, truly see one; strolling across my yard, under the fruit trees, in the garden, or peaking from the underbrush at me. The round, scowling little bead of an eye, the long sinuous neck, the primitive walk all tell me I am looking at a dinosaur.
I saw one this morning, first slowly strolling across the front lawn. Then she reappeared beneath an apple tree, looking for insects in the shaded meadow grasses of the orchard.
easily wend their way through blackberry brambles, greenbriers and other dense undergrowth. I have come upon turkeys along a path, and not seen them among the dense path-side thickets until I am almost on top of them.
Turkeys, in fact, are very similar to dinosaurs. Bot the wild turkey and the Tyrannosaurus Rex share a furcula, a special bone that most other creatures do not have. (http://www.livescience.com/32228-what-do-turkeys-and-t-rex-have-in-common.html) A furcula is a wish-bone. In fact, it is a fusion of the collar bone and the sternum. Velociraptors also had a furcula.
The turkey that ambled through the back yard today, however, did not look so much like a velociraptor as it did some other small dinosaurs. Animals like the dinosaur called Anzul, pictured in the photo of the skeleton above, probably looked a lot like turkeys in many ways. In fact, scientists now believe that dinosaurs like the Anzul and even velociraptors wore feathery coats.
It may be that turkeys, ambling through the woods behind the house, are as close as I'll ever get to seeing a real live dinosaur. That's probably good. I'll just keep imagining that they are dinosaurs, living relicts from eons past, stalking across the primeval Maryland landscape.
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…
Pileated Woodpeckers visited regularly.
First, I wanted to remind you about a couple of workshops at the studio this week. We'll be painting a plein aire scene on Wednesday, and then on this coming Saturday, we will create a small painting of several baby wood ducks on a nesting box. Both should be fun and informative. check the Shows and Workshops page on my website for more information.
In an earlier post, I wrote about a tree in the back yard near our studio. It is a Mulberry Tree which stands alone over a section of the parking lot. Every June, the tree fills with berries, and attracts birds like a magnet. The berries have just about disappeared, and I wanted to post a final visitor's tally for this incredible tree. This list is a compilation of species that were seen visiting this tree from June first to July first, 2013. I think you'll agree that this Mulberry Tree is truly a special tree when it comes to it's ability to attract birds. (gray squirrels also frequented the tree)
This list includes species' common names, and does not reflect numbers of individual birds of any one species.
I think you will agree that a lot of birds were attracted to this tree over the month of June. From my notes, at least forty species of birds used this one tree ove the course of thirty days. The list would be more impressive if I could include numbers of individual species, but it was impossible to determine how many different individuals visited. I know that there were at least six different Pileated Woodpeckers visiting the tree, because I saw that many at one time. Likewise, four Scarlet Tanagers, Two Baltimore Orioles, and five Red-bellied Woodpeckers.
One of the most interesting observations I made involved both the Great Crested Flycatcher and Kingbirds. I had always assumed that these birds were entirely insectivores. What I saw this past month, however, is that both species of flycatchers eat a considerable amount of fruit. The Great Crested Flycatcher, especially, gorged on berries frequently.
I plan to watch this tree again next year. Perhaps we can add to the list. If you have a magnet tree or shrub, or even a water feature in your garden that attracts varied species, think about keeping a list. It could be fun.
Kurt Plinke: About Art and Nature 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: