|Kurt Plinke, Artist and Naturalist|
Thoughts About life, Art and Nature on the eastern shore
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.
We have an Aucuba in our back yard, a handsome speckled shrub. Standing about six feet tall, this particular Aucuba, or Spotted Laurel, has begun to encroach upon the path leading to a gated garden. As my wife and I looked at how to cut it back, she noticed a nest in the shrub, about four feet off of the ground. (she always spots that sort of thing before I do)
There were eggs in it, so trimming the shrub was set on hold. I put the loppers away, and we went to examine the nest more closely. I could tell from the shape of the nest that it was made by a house finch. I had seen many of these nests in our yard... the house finch, with it's raspberry-colored head, is one of the more common birds near the house. We peeked into the nest, and saw that there were two pale, almost-white eggs in the nest, and two eggs, dotted with brown flecks. A third pale egg was wedged into a branch just below the nest.
I hate when I see this in a nest. I shouldn't, but I do. I knew right away that one of the Cowbirds we see at the feeders had been there, and had laid several eggs in the House Finch's nest. The Cowbird had also probably pushed the one finch egg out of the nest, as well. I get mad when I see this, because Cowbirds do this to so many native songbirds. There are some species of birds that are seriously parasitized by Cowbirds. That's why I get mad. It doesn't seem fair. On the other hand, Cowbirds are also a native songbird. They even actually have a pretty song, sort of a liquid tumbling song. If they weren't such parasites, they'de be pretty.
Brown-headed Cowbirds, Molothrus ater, are, as I said earlier, native to North America. They frequent open land, and their range has spread from the prairies as we have cleared land and made the eastern United States more open.
Cowbirds are a species of blackbird, relatively small, but stocky, with a large head. The brown-headed Cowbird male is dark, nearly black, with a brownish head and nape. The female is lighter, resembling a large House Sparrow, light tan and brown, sometimes with very pale streaks on the back.
It is the female Cowbird that waits to place her eggs in the nests of other birds. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds, (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/brown-headed_cowbird/id), different Cowbird females tend to lay eggs in only one species of bird. Some might chose a Yellow Warbler, while the one in my back yard choses to lay eggs in the nests of House Finches. Not all Cowbirds are so choosy, it appears that a few will lay their eggs in almost any nest.
Sometimes, the female Cowbird pushes the nesting species' eggs out of the nest as she replaces them with her own. Other times, the young cowbird, which hatches quickly, pushes the other eggs out. In either case, the result is that the single remaining young is a Cowbird. The nesting birds feed the young cowbird as though it is their own. The female Cowbird is long-gone, and does not have any association with her young. Seeing small songbird, like a Yellowthroat or Chipping Sparrow raising a baby bird that is twice the size of the "parents" can seem almost comical, even though it is, at the same time, sad.
Some species, such as the Kirkland's Warbler, are so seriously effected by Cowbirds, that they are endangered. Some birds, like the Yellow Warbler, differentiate between the eggs, and build a new nest on top of their old one, trapping the cowbird eggs deep beneath the new nest. Yellow Warbler nests sometimes are a stack of nests, one on top of the other, each containing cowbird eggs that will never hatch.
House finches seem to be among the large group of birds that raise the cowbird young as their own, although I have discovered several cowbird eggs under the finch nest since first finding this particular nesting site. It may be that the female House Finch pushed out the uninvited eggs. According to Cornell, Cowbirds sometimes return to the nest, and finding their eggs gone, destroy the nest altogether.
Despite the risk to the nest by an angry Cowbird, I want to intervene. I want to remove the cowbird eggs myself, helping out the finch family in my yard. So far I am refraining, allowing nature to take it's course. It will be interesting to see what happens.
my magnet tree.
What the heck is a Magnet Tree? I have one in my yard. It's a red mulberry tree that attracts birds by the score this time of year. Early in the morning, just after sunrise, there doesn't seem to be a twig on the entire tree that isn't dripping with birds. Mulberries, plump and ripe, hang in clumps from every branch. As I walk past the tree on the way to my truck, I must walk through a dense carpet of berries that cover the ground. Fermenting among the grass, it reminds me of young wine. Not good wine, but still...
Not all magnet trees are mulberries. Some are nut trees, or maple trees, or any other tree that bears fruit. I've never heard anyone else call these special trees magnet trees, but the name fits. These lone trees seem to draw birds from all over as they feast on the bounty of the magnet tree.
My magnet tree stands by itself, but not far from a dense wood. As soon as the snow melts every year, I begin thinking about my tree. I watch as the leaves unfurl, and then as the fruit begins to form. Each berry starts as a hard white little mass. Beginning in late May, the berries begin to swell and turn first pale green, then red before becoming succulent, ripe purple fruit. This particular mulberry tree hangs over our parking lot, and stands about forty-five feet tall. As I pull my truck under the tree in spring, I know that soon I won't be able to park there. As the berries ripen, they fall like rain from the canopy, leaving large purple stains anywhere they land.
I don't mind losing my parking lot each June, though. Because as the berries ripen, the birds arrive. First a woodpecker or two, then a lone robin appears. Within days, the tree is a cacophony of sound. Flapping wings, warning calls and chirps of delight fill the air. Behind it all, the sound of berries falling to the ground is a constant, like rain dripping from a roof on a dewy morning. After a few days, the buzzing of all sorts of insects also join the bird sounds. Bumble bees, wasps, yellow jackets, hornets and all sorts of buzzing creatures are attracted to the fallen fruit. Butterflies by the scores flutter about the branches, sipping sweetness from the ripening bounty.
My main interest, though, is always the birds. I sit outside the studio, drawing them quickly as they land, gorge on berries, then fling themselves heavily into the sky. Sometimes, they eat too many over-ripe fruit. Then they tilt crazily, sitting sideways on the ground, looking like little feathered winos who've gulped too much from a paper bag.
My favorite birds among the many visitors are the bright birds of summer... orioles, tanagers and goldfinches. We get both Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles visiting the tree. Sometimes, there may be a dozen orioles in the tree at one time. Often, half a dozen tanagers can be seen at once near the tip-top of the tree. The bright flashes of screaming red and black startle my eye as the male tanagers move deliberately among the leaves.
Pileated woodpeckers are among the flashiest birds that vist the tree. We are lucky enough to have three pairs nest nearby, and at times, six of the big birds are in the tree at one time, chasing each other with wide, flashing wingbeats. Sometimes, there are up to five species of woodpeckers in the tree at once. Along with the big pileateds, we have regular visits from red-bellies, downey and hairy woodpeckers as well as yellow-bellied sapsuckers.
I love my magnet tree. I wait for it to fruit every year, looking forward to the myriad of species that it draws to my yard. I hope you can find your own magnet tree, and enjoy it as much as I do mine.
Cranefly Orchid, Tiliparia discolor, Winter foliage, 3/10/2013
Spring begins along the Choptank River with little spots of green, before the riotous outbreak that will shortly fill the bottom lands with color. I explored the leaf litter on Sunday, looking for some of those quiet green splashes.
I found a few, including the leaves of Cranefly Orchids, laying flat against last fall's fallen leaves. Green above, a deep reddish-purple beneath, these leaves will soon disappear, replaced in late summer with foot-tall spikes, topped with a spiral of small flowers. We have several orchids in the woods along the river, but I think that the Cranefly Orchid is my favorite. Not as showy as Lady's Slippers, not as plentiful as Puttyroot Orchids, the Cranefly rewards those who look for it with delicate flowers atop a purple stem. The violet-white flowers are pretty, and resemble small insects in flight to me.
Another plant that can be seen early in Spring is Ebony Spleenwort. In the sandy soil on slopes leading to the river, these small ferns can be found year-round, although at this time of the year only the sterile fronds, set in a whorl near the ground, can be seen. Before any other ferns have even sent up their first fiddleheads, Spleenworts are already there, preparing to unfurl their own fertile fronds as the days warm. I love the rich reddish-brown rachis on this little fern, shining up from among the leaf litter.
Sterile fronds of Ebony Spleenwort, Asplenium platyneuron. 3/10/2013
These little victories over the waning winter drabness make walks along the water more and more fun as spring begins here on the Eastern Shore. At the same time, a number of creatures become more active, and several species begin annual migrations to the Choptank. While I couldn't get a camera focused on any, several hermit thrushes perched briefly overhead as I walked the woods on Sunday. A gray fox ran off as I first headed down the path towards the river, and as I approached the river below the spillway, an otter splashed into the water. Red-shouldered hawks called overhead as I looked for the beginnings of Spring Beauties, which have not yet begun to poke through the bare soil near the river.
Mourning Cloak butterflies flitted among the bare branches overhead as I caught the first Yellow Perch of spring on Sunday, a nice little 10" male, brightly colored. Soon the river will be full of perch, herring, shad and rockfish. Eagles, osprey and herons will fish the river, as will dozens of fishermen, all looking to snare as many of these fish as they can while they are in the shallows to breed. This is a great time of the year.
First, I have to say that I found a wonderful website, devoted to animal and plant identification. I was looking for information about the Carbonated Swamp Warbler, one of those "mystery birds" painted by Audubon. The bird was a one-of-a-kind, which Audubon claims to have collected and then painted. He is the only person to have identified the little bird, and the only one to have illustrated it.
The first place I went to was the New York Historical Society's collection of Audubon's original watercolors, sold to the society by Audubon's widow, after his death in the 1860's. I read up on what the society had to say. I wanted more information however, so I continued to search.
I read a segment of a treatise written by Alexander Wilson, a contemporary of Audubon and considered to be the father of American ornithology. In it I learned a bit about what others at the time thought about the bird Audubon allegedly found. From there, I wound up at a very cool site, a blog set up and run by David Sibley. Most of his large site is devoted to the sale of his wonderful guides, but his blogsite is a little different. In his blog, Sibley posts identification hints, regular quizzes about identifying birds, and many of his thoughts and drawings. I find that I can not stop scanning his posts. You can find his blog here. I can't say enough about it.
...On to other things. As I drive across Caroline County every weekday morning, I am finding that at 6:30 am, I can finally once again see the countryside around me. As I head away from home, the sky begins to change from deep purple to streaks of red and orange. Driving down River Road has become a treat over the past few days, as the tide is low in the Choptank each morning right now, and the orange glow reflecting off of the flats is breathtaking through silhouetted trees. I will have to paint it soon.
Yesterday, in the dark of early morning and for the second time in a week, I have almost been struck in the face by sex-crazed woodcocks in my backyard. There seem to be a lot of woodcocks in the area this year. I don't recall hearing or seeing this many of the fat little birds in years past. I'll have to see if there is population studies being done, and if this cool little bird is on the upswing. However, why I mention woodcocks again is something I noticed as the birds whizzed past my head. As they approached out of the dark, I heard a weird noise that I had never noticed before. From about five or six feet way, I could distinctly hear the woodcock "chattering" as it flew. I've hear them twitter as they make great circling flights before in their mating display, but this was different. Honesty, each time they passed, it sounded as though the cartoon characters Bevis and Butthead were mumbling to themselves. I've never heard anything like it before. I think this one little thing I've discovered now firmly cements the woodcock as my favorite bird.
Eduard Monet, Hayricks, 1865
Today, the local weather reports predict snow. The prediction is perfect for next weekend's workshop, in which we'll be painting mallards on ice. The same is predicted for tomorrow and Monday, as well. If it comes, (and that's a big if) this will be our first actual big snow of the 2012-2013 winter. I used to like snow and cold weather, but as I get older, I seem to see less and less that I like about the fluffy white stuff.
However, there are a few things that I still find fascinating about the cold covering we expect over the next few days. My favorite thing about snow is how it changes the landscape so dramatically, and how it allows me to reinterpret what I see through my paintings. Being a sometimes-landscape painter, I love the way the changing of seasons and varied conditions allow me to explore how I see and record the effects of color, light and shadow in my watercolors.
Monet did this better than anyone. I'm not comparing myself to one of the great impressionists, but I am building from what he and others did as I venture out into the snow, or the sun, or evening dim to paint what I see at the moment. One of Monet's recurring themes and subjects was the effect of seasonal change upon haystacks. He painted hundreds of images of the tall French piles of hay and straw. Every painting was the same yet each was different, each unique. He painted them in early morning light, hazy blue and violet. He painted haystacks in the bright of day, in the spring, in the summer and in the fall. My favorite is the painting to the right, in which he painted several haystacks near nightfall, as the warm late summer sun set behind them. His use of horizontal bands of shadow and light make this painting calm and peaceful. Any modern interpretation of the same image could use his colors, his composition and his ideas, but could do no better.
Again, I am not comparing myself to Monet. However, I can make a connection in that I love painting the same subject, under different conditions. Often my landscapes depict the same subject. One of my favorite of these is an old house not far from my studio. The house on Holly Road, between Greensboro and Ridgely, was moved to it's current location from a nearby field years ago. I remember when it was moved, because I never understood why the owner of the house moved it. Since it's relocation the home has stood, abandoned, it's doors and windows boarded shut. Trees have grown up around it, and now it is difficult to find from the road because of the surrounding small pines, brush and vines. I have painted this old place at least a dozen times. Sometimes the paintings have been colorful, but most often the paintings I complete of this particular subject are stark, nearly colorless scenes, making them radically different than Monet's, and closer in feel to many watercolors by Andrew Wyeth.
In these two examples, I've used the same view and the same composition to create two glimpses of the same subject. The painting on the left is the old house in winter, The painting on the right is the same view in late fall. In these paintings I spent less time looking at the effect of light and shadow than Monet. Changes in value in these two paintings allow for the finished images to give the feel of seasonal change.
Speaking of seasonal changes and snow, this month's watercolor workshop here at the studio will be a landscape wildlife painting depicting several winter mallard ducks, sitting on an ice shelf in the river. I call it a landscape watercolor because we should plan to paint some environment in the painting, as well as just the waterfowl. We'll be looking not only at how to create the appearance of detail in the birds, but also at how to paint light and shadow on snow. It should be a good experience for new painters and experienced watercolorists. I hope to see you there.
Paint something today.
The special workshop we had today in the studio, looking at composition to make good-looking watercolor paintings was a great success. We learned about the concepts of design, compositional methods in creating a painting, and planning a soundly put-together watercolor. It looked to me as though everyone who attended learned a lot, and planned some great paintings. While no one finished a painting, a lot of thinking occurred. (actually, very little painting was done, because everyone was so intent upon creating movement in their work, looking for unity and a little variety, and placing their focal point. They just ran out of time. It was a great day!
While we were together, one of the participants asked about a workshop on perspective. She complained that she could never make her landscapes look like they had any depth. Last year about this time, we held a perspective workshop here at the studio, and it was very well received. But almost everyone at at today's workshop said that they would love to have another perspective day int he studio. So, I checked the calendar and we scheduled another perspective workshop for April 9th here at Sewell Mills Studio.
We spent a lot of time at the last workshop looking mainly at classic linear perspective, using one-point and two-point perspective to make buildings appear to back in space. This time, we're going to do look at linear perspective again, but also spend more time on the ideas of atmospheric, or visual, perspective as well.
LINEAR PERSPECTIVE was developed during the early Italian Renaissance, using mathematical principals to allow painters to dive their paintings the illusion of three dimensions.
Artists like Perugino created paintings like The Delivery of the Keys (in this case using one-point perspective), almost to show off their new-found understanding of how we see things. When we see paintings like this, we can begin to understand that it is not impossible to make our own work seem to go back in space. Perugino's use of a grid in this painting show us the way to complete our own paintings using his methods.
Hopper painted this using two-point perspective to show us a view of the lighthouse at an angle, and from below. At first, as you explore linear perspective, you'll feel the need to lightly draw a horizon line, add vanishing points and carefully render lines before you begin to paint. Soon, however, linear perspective will become second nature. You will find it easier and easier the more you practice.
Atmospheric perspective, however, is not quite so geometric, and easier for some to understand. Atmospheric perspective is just a series of observations that seem to be true in most cases. These observations include,
As things go back in space:
Once we understand these observations, we can include these ideas in our work. One of the obvious mistakes I see in so many watercolors is the misuse of the ideas of atmospheric perspective.
I'm looking forward to April's workshop. It should be a great refresher for many, and new information for some who attend. I think I'll try my hand at making a video of parts of the day, and posting the video here on my blog. We'll see how it works.
See you soon in the studio.
Well, not a good day. I was on the way to a show in Chestertown when my car decided to quickly burst into flames. I had my display system as well as over fifty watercolors loaded in the Dodge Durango when something happened to the drive train, and I had to get out in a hurry.
Most of the paintings were at least damaged, and many were completely destroyed. I know I'll have to cancel my next few shows, because I don't have much left. Needless to say, I had to miss the show in Chestertown. I will probably have enough new paintings by spring for regular shows again. Ouch.
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: