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28 Minutes of September

Tuesday, September 15, 2020


 The morning started beautifully, at 8:17 AM with this spring's rose-breasted grosbeak, trying to sing. He'd gotten strawberry jam all down his front. Just kidding--he's coming into his first adult plumage, but it's gonna take a couple years. I love seeing them when they're just showing the first hints of their sex.

I went inside reluctantly, but I was due to be on a public radio fundraiser for WOSU with my dear friend Ann Fisher,  and I wasn't about to miss that! I am deeply honored to be asked to help with a fundraiser. Ann asks such wonderful, unexpected questions, and I adore her and hold her in highest regard. I feel like this narrow sort of nature savant, where she's a brilliant generalist who knows something about everything. I know I'm kind of a break from the news, and I like serving in that capacity.

Well, I'd no sooner hooked up the Zoom audio connection with the Columbus OH radio station than a little wave of fall migrants came sweeping into my yard. I'm inside sitting at my drawing table, all tethered by headphones plugged into my laptop, and all this is happening outside! 

11:09 am: A young female Blackburnian warbler peers quizzically through the birch twigs. 

There's warbler action everywhere. I see a little magnolia go flitting through, but I don't get my lens on another bird until 11:14 when a young bay-breasted warbler lands on the feeder post.

You can see the traces of bay on his flanks, which tells us it's a male. How beautiful!

Bay-breast is sometimes hard to tell from blackpoll in fall, but you can almost always see a bit of bay on the flanks. The bay-breast has lead-gray feet and legs, while a blackpoll has yellow-orange feet. And baybreasts have sweeter, plainer faces and cleaner striping on the back than do blackpolls, which always look a tetch mean to me. Blackpolls have a stern line through the eye, bay-breasts less so.

At 11:19, the bay-breast fluttered over to a birch, where it made a lovely sight.

At 11:27, a beautiful young Blackburnian warbler appeared. I got a bunch of blurry photos, but this one was at least acceptable. It's a classic Audubon pose, showing every field mark--the very wide white wingbars, the pale backpack straps, and the strong, long eyeline. This is probably a young female, as it has no hint of orange in its yellow face. It's a girls' club today!

At 11:28, an eastern wood-peewee caught a little moth. How do I know it's a peewee and not an eastern phoebe? It's showing strong cinnamon wingbars, which a hatch-year phoebe would display as well. I know by the steepness of its forehead, and the slenderness of its body. Weird, but true. An eastern phoebe would look more flat-headed, with a larger head proportionate to its body.

Keep in mind that as I'm taking all these photos, I'm trying to sound cogent and informed about whatever Ann asks about. Ha ha! By now, Ann knows to ignore the sound of my shutter clicking as we talk. Science Chimp's gotta do what she's gotta do.
And it only got better! Here comes a  female black and white warbler, at 11:30! One of my very favorites!

Black and white warblers creep all over trunks and limbs, like a nuthatch does. They're looking for spiders, crickets, moths, larvae; anything that hides in bark crevices.

Here are the wings that will take her to a Costa Rican shade coffee plantation. And look, please, at the beautiful undertail and rump feathers, herringbone black and white. I always try to get a look at those perfect chevrons. 

We know this is a female by the clear white throat. A male would have black striping there. See that long, long bill, for probing in the bark? Black and whites also have a very long and strong hallux, or hind toe, for hanging head-down! Just like a nuthatch.

Only two minutes later, at 10:32, along comes a Cape May warbler. You're going to have to trust me on this ID. There are so many things that factor in here, but one of them is that we get floods of Cape Mays in the fall, and I just know them.   But how, you ask?

Well, there is no other fall warbler except perhaps a young female Pine, that has this precise shade of olive-drab. A young female Cape May and a young female Pine are the drabbest fall warblers there are. 

The strong but blurry streaking on the chest and flanks is another good field mark for Setophaga tigrina, the Cape May, the little striped tiger.

And finally it displays for the camera its best field mark in any plumage--the lime green rump.

This photo was taken at 10:32, and the warbler wave was over. 

Almost. A young bay-breasted warbler came right up to the studio window to say hello

and ask if I'd seen its most beautiful wings? Look at those long, tapered jobs--the wings of a long-distance migrant, who is headed to Central America. This bird is built to fly, and fly he will. 

Even I am agog at all that happened in my Ohio yard in those 28 minutes, and I'm grateful to be able to share it with you just a couple of hours after it happened.

It is a comfort, as America lies sick and burning, battered by discord as it is by hurricanes and thick smoke, to know that beautiful birds are still hatching, fledging, and now on the move, headed for the tropics, still living out their small but important lives. The smoke from California and Oregon has finally made its way to Ohio, to steal September's blue, and turn the sun into a smudgy thumbprint. Ann Fisher invited me on the show to give her listeners a nature break, and I'm here to tell you that the fall warbler migration is in full swing, today, right now. Get out there and take it in! It'll save you.

If you'd like to listen, the show is archived at
If you'd like to give to WOSU, a $20 monthly sustaining donation will get you a subscription to Bird Watcher's Digest AND a fleece neck gaiter, too! 

Get out there and watch some warblers, will ya?

How to Paint a Bunting

Thursday, September 3, 2020


 I'm telling about the execution of my most recent Klamm Award commission for the Wilson Ornithological Society. Each year, the Society commissions me to paint something (a bird and associated stuff) for the winner. The recipient in 2020 is John Kricher, multitalented author of  the recently updated A Neotropical Companion, a classic in the natural history field, and now author of the just-published, lavishly illustrated Peterson Guide to Bird Behavior. 

John's wife, Martha Vaughan, was in on the secret award, and she selected a bird that's one of his favorites--a painted bunting! John and Martha are avid bird art enthusiasts, and they already own a few of my pieces, so I was thrilled beyond thrilled to paint something to surprise John.

I emailed Martha to ask if there was any particular setting she'd like me to use. Yes! She and John had lived in Sunbury, GA, south of Savannah, for parts of ten years and had fond memories of both the coastal marsh and of getting to know painted buntings. She asked for a " 'Georgia On My Mind' setting: a palmetto and some Spanish moss, a bit of tidal river marsh."

Well all right! But I wanted to get it exactly right, so I went back to Martha, asking if she might be able to lay her hands on any reference photos. 

"Luckily when we sold our condo and left Sunbury, GA , John gave me a big file of photos that he had taken over the times we spent there.  I uploaded that file and skimmed it for photos that give a sense of what you are looking for.  I have attached six photos that should help you get the ambience of the region and of our marsh, which we both dearly miss.  I included some that actually have painted buntings in them since John really liked them and getting photos of them."

She sent some real beauties. Here is one of John's photos of a painted bunting in palmetto. Now, the first thing I notice about this is the relative scale of bird to plant. Palmettos are big plants, and there's really no way to get an entire, recognizable palmetto in a painting of buntings, if the bird is perched in the palmetto. You can get pieces of palmetto, but that's about it.

And so began many days of thumbnail sketches, trying to figure out how to incorporate 
"a palmetto and some Spanish moss, a bit of tidal river marsh."

I was delighted to get a photo of a bunting next to Spanish moss, and some kind of oak or holly with more proportionately sized leaves. This would be an important shot, going forward. 

But first I had to bash away at palmettos. They are absolutely lovely plants. But they're just huge. 

I was so tempted by this gorgeous shot. But if it were sitting in a palmetto, the bunting would be approximately the size of the word "alamy" in this photo. How to do this??

I remember the evening when the epiphany hit me that I had to push the palmetto into the middle distance and use the broad-leaved shrub as their perch. That would take care of the morass I was in, of trying to figure out how to scale everything properly. I went to bed happy at last, slept on it, got up the next morning and drew the final composition.

I thought the Georgia marsh so very beautiful, and the few times I'd seen painted buntings, they were near great expanses of marsh and water. So I decided to make the marsh the co-star of the painting. 

As I wrote to John and Martha:

Putting it all together turned out to be the work of weeks, all internal, all thinking and stewing and throwing sketch after sketch into the circular file. The thing that was throwing me was scale. Palmettos are huge plants, and I loved the graphic possibilities of brilliant little birds against their massive fronds. If I drew that, though, I couldn’t figure out how to give “a bit of salt marsh” through them, and also include Spanish moss. I took those three elements: palmetto, Spanish moss, and marsh, and mashed them together in every way I could come up with. Thanks to the tiny-bird-large-frond issue, the palmetto always overpowered the composition and the birds, too. I realized that what I (and probably you) loved the most was the “bit of salt marsh,” that feeling of place, exactly where the birds make their living. So I backed up and started over. Composed the marsh landscape. Then figured out how to work in palmetto in the middle distance, and put the Spanish moss in the front with the birds, because it was in scale with the birds, at least, and wouldn’t take over the composition. I’m not sure what the shiny-leaved thing is—yaupon? Oak? It made a fine foil for the birds, so in it went.

As I often do, I started on the rattiest, thorniest, hardest part first: the Spanish moss. Ugggh! My moss wasn't looking very good. How do I do this??
I masked out the palmettos with masking compound, which makes them look yellowish.

Define, define, define. Take a break and paint a sunset sky. This sky went in in a matter of minutes. Since I knew there would be a big dark oak over most of it, I didn't worry too much about the right side. Just enough to suggest the continuity of colors behind the tree. Fun!

As long as I was on a roll, I decided to paint the marsh. Now you see where the masking compound comes in. 

To spotlight the palmettos, I worked in some darks behind them--coastal scrub.

Bringing the marsh greens and the dark coastal shrubbery up behind the Spanish moss sure helped tie the painting together. 
As a painter you just have to have faith that you're going to be able to pull your fat out of the fire.  Speaking of which, the palmettos...errgh. Time to peel off the masking compound and get painting on those.

Oh man, the nitty gritty interface of all those leaves and the dark background, cleaning up all the messy bits, figuring out who overlaps whom...

That part wrestled to the ground, the tree began to grow. 

And as it grew, a funny thing happened -- the sunset began to sing.

Running the dark line of trees beyond the marsh helped tie the scene together. And a few judiciously placed dark marsh edges defined the channel, which glows with the same colors as the sunset. Ahh.

Let's put a bird on it. No other bird in the U.S.  has the precise shade of sea-green as the female painted bunting. 

And needless to say there is no more colorful bird in the States than the male painted bunting. 

It is unreal in any setting. What a miracle it is! It would all be too much without the royal blue head!

More Spanish moss, please, and longer...

Now the humid breeze is blowing, and I am slapping greenheads.

The birds and the glowing channel, and the little catwalk we'd use to get out to the boat, if we had one.

I worked late into the night, cleaning up palmettos and Spanish moss...

I think it's done. As usual, painting the birds was the very least of it. From my letter to John and Martha:

 For me, it’s all about the setting, about the experience of seeing the bird. I could cop out and do a vignette with a washy background and some sprig of plant, but what would that say about painted buntings? What would that say to you? I wanted to take you back to the marsh view you loved and miss so much. I wanted you to feel the humid sea breeze, smell the marsh, and see the sunset again; to enjoy the lurid colors of painted buntings, colors found on no other birds in North America, and do all that without having to slap a single greenhead. I hope you get to go back in real life, but also hope that this painting takes you there each time you look at it. 

As framed by the Wilson Ornithological Society for presentation to John Kricher: 

With all that dark matting it looks to me like a window, looking out on a fabulous fantasy scene! 

Yes, I Still Paint Birds!

Wednesday, August 26, 2020


I am a very lucky bird painter. Every year, the Wilson Ornithological Society commissions a painting from me for their Robert and Nancy Klamm Award for service to the Society. The bird depicted is usually one that the receiving ornithologist has studied or just has a passion for. That's a thrill to me, to paint for ornithologists, to try to capture a scene that will say a lot about the species and, in doing that, perhaps delight them. It's a privilege to do it. 

I know I've done at least a dozen of these over the years, and probably more, but my memory fails me. I went back into my emails to 2015, and searched my computer for jpegs of prior paintings, and between that and my hazy memory, I came up with ten commissions that I remember doing and for which I have photos. An early one was this great tinamou from 2008. That was FUN. Just had to show those highly polished turquoise eggs that make NO SENSE whatsoever for a ground-nester in Neotropical Predatorville, but somehow still exist, persist, and produce baby tinamous. Maybe the eggs are so beautiful, like precious treasure, to make the bird stay invested in sitting on them nonstop so nothing eats them. A just-so story from my hazy mind. Who can say why tinamous polish their turquoise eggs?

I really enjoyed painting this prothonotary warbler in the rain, 2012. I was thinking about what would be nice with its glowing golden color, and I settled on a rainy gray day, because green just seems to compete. As I sketched, I wondered if they ever used red maple flower petioles in their nests. Eastern bluebirds, also cavity nesters, like them and use them as a springy mattress in their nests, and it seemed to me that would be a good nesting material for a swamp bird (red maples being swamp trees). So I took a gamble and painted a male tugging on one against a rainy, watery backdrop.  (First ascertaining that the male participates in nest building). Turns out, the award recipient knew that they DO use red maple petioles in their nests, and he was delighted with the little natural history factoid that informed the painting.

Sometimes the bird in question is one so deeply familiar to me that I have only to look out the window to sketch and observe it. Such was the American goldfinch pair, pictured in chicory on my own road. It was  done in 2013, in a looser watercolor style, and I had fun with it. 

I thought the recipient of a house wren, being an ornithologist, might enjoy an intimate, Baby Birds-style look into the nest, so I did a sort of decorative take on a nest that was in a box in my driveway in 2014. Pretty sure I painted this in 2017.

In the summer of 2019, I painted an American kestrel in a newly-mown field that I frequent. It's the monarch meadow, mown down in late June, before it springs back up to delight me and the butterflies in August. I felt I had to paint the kestrel in flight, though I struggled with myself, wanting to depict its ornate plumage close up, as in a sitting pose. Flying won out, because for me, it's as much about the setting as it is the bird itself. I wanted to paint a big space for that beautiful little dart to traverse. I have been playing with some of the more difficult colors in sky washes and having fun with that. Like, how do you make a blue sky grade to yellow without its going green in the middle? Well might you ask.

The answer is that you don't let the two colors touch enough to mix. You leave a sort of buffer of wet Chinese white, that serves to keep them from commingling and making a green band across the sky. The two colors kiss, but don't embrace. Chinese white is a solid body pigment and it settles into the paper and keeps the other pigments from spreading too much. At least that's how I think it works. Still, the effect is of a gradual gradation, and that's what I was after.

I loved doing the fieldwork for this one! Bobolinks, pictured with chicory and Queen Anne's lace in a place I know in McConnellsville, Ohio. 
I like the dreamy nature of this one. In each of my paintings, I try to do something new, to stretch myself a bit and learn something. That keeps it fresh and fun. That, and the fact that I do maybe two commissions a year.

One of the most special Klamm award paintings in my memory was this oversized piece featuring life-sized swamp and song sparrows for the late Jed Burtt, a great spirit, great teacher and a legend in Ohio ornithology. I raced the clock in late fall 2015 as his heart was failing, and got it done in time to send him photos  of it in progress and finished. He got to receive and enjoy the framed original too.  I remember picking colored black raspberry leaves and deertongue and bringing it into the studio before Thanksgiving. I had to be careful to paint the birds in fresh fall plumage, with that gorgeous buffy bloom, to match the autumnal state of the leaves. Sparrows are never lovelier than in autumn.

So that's a stroll through some of my Wilson Ornithological Society Klamm Award favorites. I thought it would be fun to give you a step-by-step of my latest, which was just gifted to a recipient who happens to be a friend.  I'll tell the story of how that painting evolved and came to be in the next posts.

Sharp-shin or Cooper's? ID Lesson and Reveal

Sunday, August 9, 2020


We're trying to hash out whether this is a sharp-shinned hawk (probably female) or Cooper's hawk(probably male). Female hawks are bigger than males, and that introduces a whole 'nother level of uncertainty in their ID. Is it a big female sharp-shin or a small male Cooper's? Who can say? 
Now that you've had a chance to look at these shots, I'll tell you what I see in each one. You can see if your observations match mine.

This first picture shows the hawk's overall build--small and light--and long, rather matchstick-like and spindly legs. They don't look very substantial, do they? Maybe even a bit sharp on the leading edge. I always check the legs on any mystery accipiter. If they look so thin that you could snap them with your fingers, I think sharp-shinned. 

Do this Cooper's hawk's legs look like you could easily snap them? Nope. He's got gams. He's also got big fluffy white undertail coverts. In Cooper's hawks, these are so long that they sometimes curl up over the top of the tail, especially in flight. In none of the mystery bird photos can you see any fluffy undertail coverts. This is not a diagnostic feature, but certainly a small piece of a confusing puzzle.

This angle on our mystery bird is dandy for ID. First, look at the way the black crown flows down back of the bird's neck, almost melding with the dark upper back. It's not a cap. It's more of a hood. Though there is a narrow lightish stripe between the hood and the back, this bird could not be said to have a pale nape, nor does it have a blackish round cap sitting atop the head, both typical of Cooper's hawk. This dark crown-hood, flowing into a dark nape, are sharp-shin traits.

Nice dark cap cutoff in this Cooper's hawk. Like it's wearing a little cap, not a hood. Super pale nape. Also note the wider white terminal tail band. Compare to photo above this one.

Now look at the tail in the shot above. There is a very narrow whitish terminal band. The tail feathers seem to be the same length throughout. In other words, the tail does not appear to be graduated, as a Cooper's hawk tail would be. Keep an eye on this in subsequent photos. You'll see a square-tipped tail, all the feathers seemingly of equal length: sharp-shin.

Here's a Cooper's hawk, with graduated (uneven length) tail feathers.  (This is a feature visible ONLY from underneath, however!) The tail is, by any measure, long for the size of the bird. It's also showing that squarish, hatchet-headed profile. Bill is substantial.

 Now let's look at the overall proportions of the mystery bird. The head, at least to me, seems rather small in proportion to the body. The tail is not particularly long in proportion to the wing and body. The bird is slender and lightly built. Sharpie males have a bug-eyed look; sharpie females less so.

Notice in all shots that the contour of our bird's crown is smooth and rounded. There is no hatchet-shaped crest off the back of the skull (a Cooper's thing). 
Note also how delicate the bill appears, protruding from a rounded forecrown, and how large the eyes. Cooper's hawks have a heavier, deeper bill,  which seems, at least to me, more a part of the hatchet-shaped head, not a little addendum like the sharpie's bill.

Cooper's hawk. Look at the squared off hindcrown, the abrupt end to the dark cap, and the entirely pale nape.

 This bird's tail looks to me to be on the short side. A Cooper's hawk has a long tail that often reminds me of a wooden spoon, since it's rounded at the tip. The feathers in a Cooper's hawk tail are graduated in length; the outer ones being shorter than the inner ones. Sharpies have a shorter, squarer-tipped tail.
Cooper's will also show a characteristic this bird lacks: fluffy white undertail coverts. No fluffy panties on this gal!

 Look, too, at the size of the bird relative to the cardinal.  Even though it's likely a female sharpshin, it's not that much longer than the cardinal--it's less than twice the length of the cardinal.

This closeness in size comparison was a limited time offer, as the cardinal was soon reduced to smithereens. 

And so, we'll bid adieu to this beautiful dark female sharp-shinned hawk, and wish her and her nestlings well. Tonight, they eat. 

I was delighted to be able to use photos to walk through this ID of a sharp-shinned hawk. What a gift, what a treat. And my first thought, as always, was to share the thought process with you. And that's been great fun. Except that, in endless  double-checking before publishing, I realized that I was wrong. The whole post above this line is basically wishful thinking. But I've left it just as I wrote it, so you can see the power of wishful thinking, of persuasiveness. Me, persuading myself it's a sharp-shinned hawk. Me, trying to persuade you that it's a sharp-shin.

 It's not a sharp-shin.

Every dang field mark seemed to point to sharp-shin. I was ready to post it. But I  knew that I had to be sure. So, like a good Science Chimp, I did some measurements.  

I can't tell y'all how long I have been at it, looking for things I could measure. When did I post the first installment? Friday afternoon...and it's Sunday now. Since then, I've been stewing and working on this. Feathers, beaks... I found one entire central tail feather in this shot (below), and then used my cardinal specimen for the actual length of a cardinal central tail feather. With those two numbers, I could then measure the hawk in the shot, and solve for X (total length of hawk).

Cardinal tail feather in photo  38mm  =    103 Cardinal tail feather actual
                        Hawk total length, photo       139 mm         X    Hawk total length actual

Using the tail feather as a known measurement, and solving for X, 

the hawk's total length would be 376 mm,  or almost 15" in life. 

I wanted another hack at it, so this time I went for a comparison of the total length of the cardinal to the total length of the hawk.

So I measured the cardinal's body and tail separately in this shot, and then extrapolated as if the bird were stretched out straight. I knew from my own specimen, made from a window-kill, that a stretched out cardinal is 215mm  long. 

Here's the equation for that.

      Cardinal total length in photo  68mm  =  215mm Cardinal total length actual
      Hawk total length in photo     133 mm       X       Hawk total length actual

Using this equation, I got a total length for the hawk of 420 mm or 16 17/32" 

Sharp-shinned hawk females measure from 290-340 mm (11 52/64" - 13 25/64") 

The largest female sharp-shin comes in around 13 1/2" 

Cooper's hawk males measure around 390 mm (15 23/64") 

Using either measurement, the hawk is too big to be a female sharp-shin. It has to be a Cooper's hawk. 

For me, this exercise was an incredibly time-consuming but very powerful demonstration of several things.

First is the power of wishful thinking. I wanted that bird to be a sharp-shinned hawk! Sharpies are declining; Cooper's are exploding, and I wanted to go back to the good old days in the mid-1990's, when I found two sharpshin nests in the pines just beyond our south property line. I was so happy to have them, even though they picked off baby bluebirds in my yard. So when I looked at that ambiguous bird, my hungry eyes searched for evidence that it was a sharp-shin. 

--Those thin legs looked spindly to those hungry eyes. But all hawk legs look spindly from the front and thicker from the side. It's how they're built-laterally flattened. 

--That long, dark cap extending down the nape looked like a sharp-shin's hood, not a Cooper's beret. Still does. I wouldn't call that a "pale nape." But there you go. Their plumage coloration varies.

--On the graduated (Cooper's) vs square (Sharpie) tail: To be perfectly honest, if you can't see the underside of a bird's tail, you can't say if the feathers are graduated in length or not, so we can throw that one out.

--No fluffy undertail coverts like a Cooper's? Well, I guess it just has them tucked up. It's not exactly relaxed while killing its prey.

Second is that this stuff--differentiating sharp-shinned from Cooper's hawk-- is HARD. This is, by any measure you choose, an ambiguous bird. Is it a large female sharpie or a small male Cooper's? Well, Phoebe and I got pretty darn good shots of it and I couldn't tell. I thought I knew! But in the end, I didn't. I hope that makes you feel better when you throw up your hands over a bird plucking something in your backyard. Honestly, it's easier to tell them apart in flight!

Third is that numbers don't lie. But photos can.

In this photo, before the plucking started, it looks like the cardinal and the hawk are practically the same size. 

Put them in profile, and ehhh--not so much. The hawk dwarfs the cardinal. Why couldn't I see that before? 

Because I wanted it to be a sharp-shin. Back to Tenet 1: the power of wishful thinking.

And that's why I did the analysis, because I had to be sure. I couldn't proclaim that this was a sharp-shinned hawk and that we were all going to learn something about raptor ID without due diligence. And that due diligence gave me data that forced me to reach a different conclusion--that it's a Cooper's hawk. Probably a male. Heck, I can't even say that for sure. But I think it's a male Cooper's hawk.

Presented with new data, I reached a new conclusion. If you don't remain flexible in your thinking; if you close your mind to new information, you're going to be wrong a lot.

I'll leave you with this shot of my cardinal specimen, made from a roadkill* in May, 1986. Just above its head is the skull of a male sharp-shinned hawk that hit the tower window in August, 2017. He'd been nesting nearby; I knew it because he was grabbing birds at the feeders all summer long, and I heard his fledged young keening in the north border. Look at the size of his skull compared to the cardinal's. They're practically the same size. Can we say that about the mystery hawk and its cardinal prey? Nope. We can't. Measurements don't lie, numbers don't lie, and neither does the Science Chimp. 

It's a male Cooper's hawk! 

*specimen beautifully prepared by Rob Braunfield

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