Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I had an opportunity to visit the LA Natural History Museum the other day with a birding friend of mine who volunteers there skinning bird specimens. Now before you get freaked out, let me explain. In the old days of birding, birds were shot and taken as specimens because photography was either not available or not practical and they felt specimens needed to be taken for study and to confirm species. Although I don't entirely agree with that practice, the specimens from over 100 years ago are nonetheless still tucked away in many museum drawers, and it is quite a boon for an artist. Shooting birds is against the law now, and today the birds are brought in by people who find them dead or they die in zoos. They are then frozen until they can be skinned and preserved.

While my friend skinned the Royal Tern we found injured last week that later died, I had access to the collection of skeletons and bird skins to sketch. It is a amazingly large collection and kind of bittersweet to see the birds reduced to small boxes filled with their tiny bones. But what a wonderful opportunity to be able to look at them and really see what's inside a bird!

The above bird, A Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus), was one of the birds I wanted to take a closer look at as I was intrigued by the structure of the bill. I did some sketches of it from all angles to get a better sense of it in three dimensions. I was surprised to find a definite ridge on the top of the bill (maxilla). It was a great exercise drawing it and I will be able to use what I learned when I do a painting of one of these birds.

As can be seen by the Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) skin above, I have a way to go to get this bill right. I orignally did this sketch from a photo, but I missed the bill shape. It's a real challenge to draw it and not get it too upturned, but that slight upturn is what distinguishes the nuthatch bill. Boy, this specimen was old, too--from 1887! The colors were real faded but it was amazing to see how well preserved it still was.

This Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) was a study in pure research. We ran out of time and I didn't get a chance to look at any skins at the museum, but I went to the Cornell website to read its natural history. Then I looked at a lot of different photos to study bill shape and to see how the feathers lay in patters over the bird. And the irises were a surprise--dark brown, rather than black, which ultimately really made this image come alive when I painted it. (The actual size of the painting is 3 1/2" x 2 1/2" and I used a #000 brush for some of the detail.)

I used to rush through a drawing or painting and not really consider much what I was doing; I only knew I wanted to paint a particular bird. Sometimes they turned out okay, but mostly they didn't. And I think it was because I was careless and lazy, and didn't take the time to know the subject. I think getting older has made me a bit more patient and willing to slow down!

By taking the time to study bird anatomy and their natural history prior to drawing and painting, it enhances the work and makes it more interesting rather than a rote experience. Along the way I am learning more facts about each species, which adds to my enjoyment when I see them in the field.

[I listened to Green Isac and the soundtrack to The Last Samurai while painting the jay photo last night]

Friday, March 20, 2009


And Nature, the old nurse, took
The child upon her knee,
Saying, ‘Here is a story-book
Thy Father has written for thee.

‘Come wander with me (she said)
Into regions yet untrod
And read what is still unread
In the manuscripts of God.’

So he wandered away and away
With Nature the dear old nurse,
Who sang to him night and day
The rhymes of the universe.

And whenever the way seemed long,
Or his heart began to fail,
She would sing a more beautiful song,
Or tell a more wonderful tale.


Thursday, March 19, 2009


A friend called Tuesday afternoon and suggested we go hunting for two rare seagulls that had been reported in our area--a Glaucous and Thayer's (sounds like a gull law firm!), so off we went after I got home.

We arrived at the creek (the modern cemented version) that outflows to the ocean. There is a raised mudflat during low tide and it is a well-know gull loafing area. We found the Thayer's, but the Glaucous eluded us.

We did see all manner of other interesting birds though:

  • Western Gull (both adults & immature)
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Green-winged Teal (many pairs)
  • Great Blue Heron (3 adults and one immature)
  • Great Egret (5)
  • Snowy Egret (5)
  • Mallard
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper (15)
  • Willett (3)
  • White-throated Swift (6)
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler (2 in the eucalyptus tree along the bike path

We also found an injured Royal Tern. A couple nearby said they had removed a fish hook and some fishing line from around its neck. It didn't look too good, and obviously was on its way out. My birding partner took it home to try and save it, but it died early that night. She voluteers at the natural history museum skinning birds, so she will take it there and it will become part of the museum's collection. A sad fate for the poor bird, but it was better than leaving it there to die alone and become carrion (in my opinion--others will probably disagree).

From that tragedy I snatched a creative moment though; I spent some time learning more about Royal Terns and decided to start sketching and painting them, as they are lovely-looking birds. My first watercolor try is above. I've been locating photos to get details of their anatomy and coloration, which is a fun process. Probably the most interesting fact about Royal Terns (and is probably true for other tern speicies as well) is that within days of hatching, the young collect in a big mass of chicks called a creche. The parents manage to find their own chicks to feed amongst all the others by their cries. Quite a feat when you realize this is a group of hundreds of chicks!

Monday, March 2, 2009


"Silence creates an opening, an absence of self, which allows the larger world to enter into our awareness. It brings us into contact with what is beyond us, its beauty and mystery. Silence is not the absence of sound, but a way of living—an intentional awareness, an expression of gratitude, to make of one’s own ears, one’s own body, a sounding board that resonates with the vibrations of the world." [Kathleen Dean Moore]

This is an amazing article:

In Search of Silence:
One man’s quest to find the quietest places on earth and keep them that way