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More Prairie Birds, and an Auction

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

There’s a dry, insect-like bzzz bzzz bzzz that echoes in the silverbush and sage. It comes from the clay-colored sparrow, a bird I tried to photograph in Wisconsin with blurry results. This little bird was a lot more cooperative, whiling away the minutes on a barbed-wire fence. Such a pallid, pretty little thing, with stripes within stripes on its crown.Though there’s much talk about distinguishing it from a chipping sparrow in the field guides, there’s no mistaking the bird once you’ve come to know it. When I ran across one in a flock of spring chippies in Oak Hill, West Virginia two years ago, I called it without hesitation. It’s like the pale gray ghost of a chipping sparrow.

Here’s one of the real prairie gems—the black tern. Although it does eat small fish that it catches in the larger lakes and potholes, the black tern takes most of its food in insects. Imagine, that gorgeous streamlined tern body and wings employed to catch insects. We happened upon a colony of black terns that were just re-laying their eggs after having been flooded out. They were in a bit of disarray, milling about. Only two pairs that we could see were on eggs. We set up the scope on a nest and watched as the male and female politely exchanged incubation duties every ten minutes or so.
Oh, they are gorgeous, these terns in negative, pewter, smoke and coal. Rare is the bird whose underside is black, darker than its top. Why would a black tern not need countershading? All the other terns I can think of have darker mantles than bellies. (Countershading is what happens when an animal with a dark top and lighter belly is viewed at a distance, and kind of flattens out and fades into the background. It's thought to be protective coloration, helping animals avoid detection.) Black terns turn that formula on its head. I don't know why, but I'll think about it.

I did some sketches, and Bill wheedled until I agreed to do a painting, to be auctioned off the same evening for the benefit of the festival. The only problem? I didn’t have my watercolors with me. (We'll overlook, for the moment, that key phrase, "to be auctioned off the same evening."It was about 2:30, and the painting and I had to be ready at 5:30. Oh, and I had to give the keynote too.) Our friend Ann Hoffert came up with some watercolor pencils, which are supposed to create a watercolor-oid wash when you run clear water over the colored pencil-like marks they make. I decided to give it a shot, though I had never held one in my hand and was deeply suspicious, as many old artists are, of new-fangled things. When we got home, I had about three hours to prepare for my keynote that evening, get clean, and create an original work of art worthy of auction. Eek. “Painting” with watercolor pencils when you’re used to the drip and flow of washes is…well, let’s just say that I told the kids to leave the kitchen because they shouldn’t be hearing what was being muttered and occasionally blurted as I struggled to make something worth being held up in front of a festival crowd. Bombs were dropped.

Immediately upon bringing the piece to fruition, I tore apart my keynote address and inserted a bunch of North Dakota bird photos. Having your talks on a laptop is both a blessing and a curse. Nobody in their right mind would tear apart a slideshow right before giving it, trying to tailor it with still-wet photos from the specific area, nay, the very afternoon, of the talk. We computer-lovin' people glory in doing stupid things like that, just because we can. It's part of what makes us such a delight to be around, such surpassingly bad company. We stare and tap at our little silver boxes, mutter and hiss, and get way too involved with them.

I did not take a picture of the black tern creation as I sped out the door, trailing still-smoking laptop, artwork, colored pencils, hairbrush, lip gloss and hastily bathed and dressed kids. Despite my bad artistic karma, it came out just fine.

And went for a tidy sum at auction, for the benefit of Birding Drives Dakota. Picture Gomer Pyle, saying, “Gaa-aaw-leeeee.” Paul B., you rock. Birdchick, thanks for sparking the bidding. I don’t know if it was altruism, mercy, or partial blindness, but I am grateful. Maybe it helped that Bill was the auctioneer, sweet Phoebe was taking it around, showing it to the audience, and Liam was doing impromptu fancy-footwork dances in an attempt to whip the placid crowd into a bidding frenzy.

I resolved at the moment Bill's imaginary gavel fell at the auction never to travel anywhere without my paints and some decent brushes and paper. You’d think I’d know that by now. Durn camera. It’s too easy and fun to take pictures. Harder to make them. I spent part of this afternoon squeezing paint into tiny pans in my travel kit, and packing up a few brushes. Should the Muse or my husband, Thumper, call upon me to paint something on our next trip, at least I won't be teaching the kids new combinations of familiar old words.
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