Background Switcher (Hidden)

Happy Two Year Gotchaversary, Curtis Loew!

Friday, February 19, 2021


 We're a pair, and it's a damn good thing, because living alone this far out in the country, snowed in for weeks during a pandemic isn't for sissies, or extroverts, for that matter. Just knowing there is someone else in the house, even if he's hairy, has a cold nose, and doesn't talk, helps. But that someone is Curtis Loew, a dog of great character and kindness, and that makes all the difference. 

                                                           You are hairy too. Just in patches. 

Love between two humans can sustain, enrich, swell, fade, wrack and rend, and that many-splintered thing, wonderful or heartbreaking or somewhere in the gray zone between, can go on for many years. But dog-love is constant, a bright flame we get to kindle and cradle in our hands for but a decade and change, and then it must go, be replaced in a different way. I've started with Curtis mid-decade. He's five now, and I treasure him all the more for it. He's a specimen and a half, in his prime, and I am delighted to be here for that stage of his beautiful life.

"Everything you love is very likely to be lost, but in the end, love will return in a different way." This quote by Franz Kafka is often reworded to say "a different form," which is a little more direct. Kafka could, of course, have been writing about dogs. Yes, I miss my little black inkblot every day, but Curtis does a fine, fine job of filling that sweet, achy cavern in my heart.  He's love, too, in a different form. 

 Curtis Loew is anything but Chet's reincarnation. He is a separate nation. Independent, self-contained, focused primarily on his freedom to do his work in the woods. He accompanies me, at least partway; humors my primate need for long hugs and ridiculous endearments, and shares a bit of my every meal with the slightly stunned, wide-eyed look of someone who's just won the Ohio Lottery. 

on the ride home from the shelter Feb. 19, 2019, his IV patches still shaved from neutering surgery; wide-eyed wonder in every line.

What this dog came from, chained out for most of his four years in the deep south of Ohio, and what he's landed in...Lord, Lord, he's a brindle Cinderella. Yet he earns this champagne and knucklebone life with every swish of his eloquent tail. 

He delights, comforts, warms and amuses me. He worries me to death, plunging off after unseen scents, and gone for hours on end. I have to remind myself, each time, every day, that he knows what he's doing and he will come home. Curtis was sent to teach me how to love without clinging, to hold on loosely. It shouldn't be that hard for me to do; that's the kind of love I'd like to have, too. 

Oh give me land, lots of land under starry skies above

Don't fence me in!

Let me ride through the wide open spaces that I love

Don't fence me in!

Let me ride to the rim where the West commences

Gaze at the moon 'til I lose my senses

I can't look at hobbles and I can't stand fences

Don't fence me in! Just turn me loose... let me wander over yonder 'til I see the mountains rise...

 Curtis is my spirit animal, without question. 

Two years ago today, I filled out a questionnaire, signed a bunch of forms, and tearfully said, "I do!" to the soulful gold-brown eyes of an unknown but hopeful and polite cur-dog at the CHA Animal Shelter in Columbus, Ohio. 

Happy Gotchaversary, Curtis Loew!  I threw my arms around him after writing this, remembering him in a cage, waiting so patiently for the right person to come along. It made me cry to think of him
discarded. Who could just get rid of a soul like Curtis?

photo by Shila Wilson, taken five days after his adoption and I'm already besotted. Curtis baby, no more chains or cages for you. Just soft beds, willing rabbits, table scraps, and a million kisses.

And two years later:

With my deepest thanks to Kelly Ball for bringing us together, for knowing she'd found my next dog the minute she met him.

The Mysterious Sapsucker

Monday, February 15, 2021


 I’ve been watching an immature female yellow-bellied sapsucker since she showed up in my yard in November 2018. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers don't breed in my part of Ohio; they only show up in fall and winter, thrilling us for a short time and then pushing farther north in early spring to their breeding grounds from western PA on north.

You can tell this bird is an immature because its markings are so indistinct, with a brownish wash, and you can tell it's a female because her throat is white, with no red feathers coming in. Males have red thoats. 

Nov. 25, 2018*

This is a male yellow-bellied sapsucker, taken out the same studio window on April 2, 2019. STOP MY HEART. I've probably seen 40 subadult yellow-bellied sapsuckers for every adult male I've seen. Lordy dordy. What a bird!!

Unless you particularly like sapsuckers, you’d think she was nothing special to look at: dingy, brownish, her feathers indistinctly marked, with very little color on her head—but I adored her. She drilled holes in the birches and Chamaecyparis evergreens around my big bank of studio windows for months, staying from November into late January 2019.  All day long she visited her wells, lapping away at the sap. She delighted me, but also frustrated me. With birds all around her using the feeders, how could she ignore the delicious offerings at the feeding station just a few feet away? There was suet; there were shelled peanuts, sunflower hearts. And all she seemed to want was sap. How could she survive the winter on thin sugar water? EVERYBODY EATS AT CASA ZICK! Didn't she know that??

 I thought back to the mid 1990’s, when we had not one but two yellow-bellied sapsuckers fighting over the peanut feeder most all day long. Why would this one so stubbornly refuse to investigate other foods?

Nov. 25, 2018--drilling a little sap well. How sweet!

And so I set out courting this bird. I decided to hang a little mesh onion bag of suet crumbs and roasted peanut halves in a Chamaeyparis, right next to her bank of wells. She looked it over and went about her business. Her shoulder would brush the suet bag as she worked on her wells. Chickadees and nuthatches carried the food away right under her beak. She was a hard nut to crack.

 Dec. 6 2018. She loved this particular spot for hanging out. It's literally three feet from me as I sit at the drawing table. 

I was about to give up courting this bird when I remembered something I’d seen long ago. I rummaged around in the garage until I found a bizarre-looking  metal feeder, designed for suet. It consists of two aluminum plates, densely perforated with round holes, set in a frame. The idea is to keep raccoons and opossums from stealing suet, and it works beautifully. As I think about it, it'd probably work well with Zick Dough, too, except that you'd be filling it every ten minutes in winter...It's called the Lifelong Feeder, and it's made in Lancaster, Ohio, and sold by its inventor!

For any one with rapacious squirrels and raccoons, who likes to feed suet to woodpeckers, this is the best thing going. You don't even need to baffle it, because nothing but a bird can get to the food. It. Is. Awesome. 

 The holes perforating the plate look so much like sapsucker workings, I thought they might pique her curiosity. I stuffed the feeder with suet and hung it on the main feeder pole. Clearly, it's attractive to woodpeckers--here's a trifecta of downy, hairy and redbelly all at one time.

I could hardly believe my luck when I saw the young sapsucker fly over and hitch down to the feeder. She probed in the holes and came out with suet! Eureka! I had succeeded in thinking like a sapsucker! Being a bird, and good at synthetic thinking, it didn’t take her long to figure out that she’d seen some of that delicious white stuff in the little onion bag I’d hung up. Breathlessly, I watched her lapping at her sap wells next to the onion bag that same afternoon. And I suppressed a squeal when, out of curiosity and finally putting two and two together, she lashed her long tongue out and licked the suet. She leaned forward and teased a bit of suet out of the mesh. Next, she tried a peanut half. And we were off! 

It had literally taken weeks for this young sapsucker to get the message that feeders held treats, but once it sank in, she was hooked. She found the peanut feeder and became a fixture on it, jabbing at cardinals and other woodpeckers wanting to join her. Throughout her journey into the feeding station life, I’d taken photos of her. I was fascinated by her slow but sure acceptance of unfamiliar food conveyances, fascinated to see her adapt to different kinds of feeders and new foods. I was sure that the odd little suet feeder, with its rows of round holes, was the wedge that finally invited her into my world. From there, she expanded her thinking and learned to adapt. 

Now let's let a year go by, and it's December 6, 2019. Could this be the same sapsucker? It's hard to tell. I'd have thought she'd get more red in her crown by now. Jury's out on her identity, but this little gal is enthusiastic about the feeders, and doesn't need to be courted, coaxed or taught.

The 2019 female sapsucker was a total suet freak, and here she's hanging out with a hairy woodpecker! Pretty cool to see that they're the same size--the hairy might have a little size and certainly some heft on her! 

Look at her with a downy woodpecker for comparison. Those Hairies are Huge. Downies are Dinky. (Thanks to BT3 for that one).

Dec. 6, 2019

Whether or not this is the same bird from 2018 through winter 2019, I have a Very Good Feeling about a bird that has shown up intermittently this snowy winter of 2021. Now, maybe this Chamaecyparis is just a good place for a sapsucker to hang out, or maybe this is the little gal from 2018 and perhaps 2019, coming back for some peanuts and suet?

Feb. 11, 2021*

I asked my Ornithology Guru, Bob Mulvihill, Ornithologist at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, if he might be able to tell me how old my 2021 sapsucker might be. 

Robert S. Mulvihill
 my feather guru, is it possible to age this little gal? I have my idea about how old she is based on behavior but know little about their plumage progression. 
  • Like
  • Reply
  • 2d
  • Hi 
    ! Based on what I can see, uniformly dark primaries and secondaries, I feel pretty confident that she is what banders would call an ATY, or after third year female. That would mean she hatched in 2018 or before. But, if we could see her primary coverts, we might be able to determine age even more precisely. If she lacked any worn brown (retained juvenal) pcovs, then we could even age her A4Y, i.e., a 2017 or earlier hatch date. Regardless, she's a beauty! 
    • Love

Well, if she's After Third Year, that would mean she hatched in 2018, which is the year a female turned up as a rank brown baby of the year and got herself taught how to use feeders by one besotted birdwatcher in Whipple, Ohio.

She uses the same two resting perches outside my studio window that the 2018 juvenile did, is not afraid of me in the least, and enjoys suet and peanuts. I have a strong hunch, based on behavior and now plumage evidence, that it's the same bird, back to say hello and stock up for the winter. I notice she's not drilling many sapwells. I guess she's graduated into freeloader status. With a little help from her friend.

But there are other mysteries...who is this sleek lady, feeding at the peanuts in November, 2019?


Nov 29, 2019

Just another sapsucker passing through? Or our bird? 

And while we're into mysteries, I still haven't figured this female yellow-belly out. What's with the black crown? I recognize my gray birches; I'm sure this photo was taken in my yard sometime in the winter of 2007-2008, but I have no idea why a bird at this advanced age, with a beautiful black chest crescent, would have a black, rather than red, crown. 

I dug around a little by Googling images of female yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and found this from woodpecker expert ornithologist Lawrence Kilham:

“In the course of studying sapsuckers over 25 years and finding 69 nests, I have encountered 12 females that were black polymorphs having black or nearly black crowns. Attempts to find consistent differences in their breeding behavior have been unsuccessful.” This suggests the black crown may be present in 1 of 6 females indicating polymorphism, not mutation. 

Thrilled to have captured one in my yard! Birds. The more you know, the less you can be sure of.





What's a Cur For?

Monday, February 8, 2021



I will admit that when I brought Curtis home from Columbus Humane Society’s Animal Shelter, I did not know what I was getting into. I knew he was smart, intuitive, handsome and kind. I didn’t yet know what he was, and I didn’t know what he was made for. 

Literally one of the first of 10 million photos I have taken of this dog.


It’s important to know what a breed was made for. I had lived in the lap of luxury with Chet Baker, Boston Terrier, for almost 12 years. Because Boston terriers are made for lovin’,  keeping people company, and making them laugh. They weren't bred to kill anything, herd anything, guard anything...they were just bred as fun little pals. Chet hung on my every word and move, and he believed his highest purpose in life was to keep me company. (here, he's helping me sign books at a show). Boy, did I need that then. He was the perfect dog for me, a busy mom trying to keep my career afloat while caring for three other people. Chet never wore a collar because he never strayed far enough from me to need one. The only time he was ever on lead was in town, and that wasn’t very often.

Photo by Jenny Bowman at the Midwest Birding Symposium, 
Lakeside, OH, 2013. Bandana by Jen Sauter!


Because I hadn’t yet figured out Curtis’ breed, or if he even was anything other than mixed, I didn’t know how to work him. Work, as in David Byrne, asking, “Well, how do I work this?” I decided to trust him, and I let him out of the car without a leash on his first approach to his new home, and he peed on the forsythia bush, where he pees to this day, and walked up the sidewalk to the front door as if he understood perfectly that here he would live for the rest of his life. That night, I took him out for a pee before bedtime, and he perked up his ears and headed into the backyard, me close behind with a flashlight. And he was gone, running pell mell through the ruined orchard, crashing and leaping. And that, as Lyle sings, was when I made my first mistake.


I called and yelled and hollered and he didn’t come back. Oh boy. I’ve done it now, stuck my foot in it bigtime. He eventually appeared, eyes glowing in the flashlight’s beam, a wide grin on his face. 

Runs After Things in the Night. Check.

Ignores Frantic Calling When Running After Things in the Night. Check.

Needs to be Leashed After Dark. Check.


By the next afternoon, I’d done some thinking about how to work this animal. I had to know what he was made for. I decided he was far too delicate in structure to be a pitbull mix. I thought he looked like some kind of southern cur-dog, so I started by Googling Catahoula Leopard Dog, then “brindle cur.” Bingo!  I had a Mountain Cur, more specifically Treeing Tennessee Brindle. I had never even heard of the breed, but it seems I had rescued a hunting dog! Well, dip me in chocolate. Wonder what that'll be like?


Being a hunting dog means a lot of things. First, he’s a fine companion, and he seems to be able to read my mind. He loves to go out into the woods with me, but he doesn’t  stick close by my side, the way Chet did. He leads! He has a job, and that is to find edible things. Things made of meat.  Curtis might have written the line: “If God didn’t want me to eat animals, why did He make them out of meat?”


Now, this strike-out-on-your-own tendency Curtis has normally manifests with a lot of chasing and very little eating; high, excited yelps; crashing through briars; stripping himself of collar attachments such as tags, bells and trackers; and a resultant need to wear said tracker at all times. As I look back, I have been remarkably sanguine about the possibility of losing this dog. Something in me has known from the very start that he’s too smart to run willy-nilly, in a straight line, headed for the next county. That’s not who he is or what he's made for. He does, however, run after meaty things. If they can climb, he trees them, and tells me with excited barks just what he has and where it is.  Being human, I have been slow to awaken to the part he wants me to have in all this, which is to come join him, raise a gun and shoot the coon, possum, squirrel or what-have-you that he’s found for me. Then, in Curtis’ ideal world, we feast.


It is said that this is the breed that helped settle America; part hound, part Staffordshire terrier--which is where the brindling comes from--, part Indian village dog--which is where the brains come from. The mountain cur was bred to track and hunt anything, his highest mission to put food on the table for his family. And so when he trees a squirrel, he circles the tree, harassing and herding it around to my side, to give me the best shot. And still I don’t shoot. Poor Curtis must think I am either very stupid or very well-fed, because he keeps trying; it’s in his DNA to try. He wants to work with me, wants to be a team, but I just walk along with my head in the clouds, binoculars on my chest, and a trek stick in my hand, when I should be packing a thunder-stick.


I like to think I hold up my end of the pact pretty well, even if I don’t dispatch his quarry. I do take him out every morning without fail, and we are rarely gone less than three hours, rarely roaming less than three miles, either. He, of course, traverses far more ground than I do. I will linger in certain places, gazing around, and that’s when my wonderful companion invariably takes off. But only yesterday did I figure out why this happens again and again. I think that in stopping to gaze, I'm inadvertantly sending him the signal to go find me something to shoot.


I was standing at the overlook, the mile-long trail to which I have laboriously cleared this winter, enjoying the shifting light as it broke through high clouds and started raking the snowfields. I was peering, looking for the castle my neighbors are building to the east. It was vanishing in and out of the morning mist. Curtis, of course, had just ditched me, gone on a toot. Suddenly, the wooden fireworks of a startled flock of wild turkeys exploded deep in the valley to the east. Three, four, five, seven, they flapped noisily and then planed out over the holler. It was a stunning sight. For maybe ten seconds I simply stared at the silvery sunlight hitting off their bronze backs. They were too far away and I had only my phone, but I dug it out of my pocket and hit Video anyway. And so it was that I had my iPhone SE out of my pocket, turned on, and horizontal, even! when THIS happened.  

Of all the videos I've taken recently (and ask my laptop and it'll respond with a small, choked sound that means "a lot"), this is my favorite. It's perfect, perfectly focused, and perfectly unrepeatable. And I have Curtis to thank. Because it was NOT an accident that those five wild turkeys flew right the hell past my face. It was Curtis' plan. His design. This is how this dog works, and I have been too dumb, to asleep, to even know that.

Here he came, immediately on the spurred heels of those turkeys.

Had I had a gun on my shoulder, or even a goshawk on my fist, we would have eaten for a couple of weeks. 

Curtis tries, again and again. It's what he was made to do, and he is damned good at it. He emerged from the brush, glanced at me, knowing I would have blown this PERFECT SETUP AGAIN, WILD TURKEYS FIVE OF THEM MY GOD WOMAN WHY DON'T YOU SHOOT?? then shook off his disappointment and came to join me. Imperfect, clueless me, who he somehow manages to love anyway, because I love him so much. 

I'm no Annie Oakley, but we're a pair. 

Making a Summer Day

Wednesday, February 3, 2021


Lest anyone think that the only thing I've done during the past two years is rip out invasive vegetation, I'm happy to say that 2020 has been a super-painty year for me. I took an 18-painting commission and knocked it out from August-December. I should have been working on it all year, but I couldn't focus in the first five months of the pandemic. My kids were home and I felt this frantic need to hold them close and do stuff with them and serve Sunday best meals every dang night. I'm so glad we did that--took the hikes and the bike rides and shared the incredible meals. We picked flowers and vegetables from the garden. We raked mountains of lawn clippings. We raised a song sparrow named Dustin and took long walks and played with Curtis. 

And then August came and they had to go back to their lives, and with the house quiet and nobody "needing fed," as we say in Appalachian Ohio, I could finally get going on those paintings. 
Wish I could show them to you, but like all my works for publication, I can't, at least until they're produced. Oh, I had such fun! and I can't wait to show you the paintings. I was working so hard and fast I didn't take progress photos, but it'll be fun to show them to you when I am finally allowed.

Still feeling fairly well-oiled from that experience, I was delighted to start a 9.5 x 12" watercolor. I'm happy to be able to share the process of creating a paeon to the monarch butterfly, and to my favorite stand of milkweed on the planet, property of my good neighbors on the ridge. For those who don't know the story, this is a field, thick with common milkweed, that, when I discovered the problem, was being mowed down at the absolute height of caterpillar abundance. All I had to do was work with the landowner to adjust the mowing schedule to mow right after the flowers faded, and then not at all until after frost, and BOOM we had a going proposition, absolutely cranking out monarchs. Soo satisfying, and the rewards flutter over by the dozen in August and September. I've been loving and studying this field since about 2009. It's the biggest contiguous stand of common milkweed I've ever seen.

So I've cobbled together a composition with a milkweed plant as the star. I've drawn it all out, transferred it to the watercolor paper, and taped the paper down sopping wet. As it dries it stretches taut, so it doesn't buckle when I lay a big wash on it.  I tackle the big milkweed plant first. 

It's important to notice the big difference in local color of the leaf tops and their undersides. Thoe pale undersides, and the little veins on them, give a sense of movement, transition, and sinuousness to the plant. They are the grace notes that lead the eye around the form.  I paint some shadows in on the leaves, and then start on the field proper. Painting masses of plants is always a little tricky, but I'm trying not to get too wrapped up in it. I figure I'll do a few milkweed plants that you can identify as such, and then get less specific with the understory.

The understory is all red clover, so I decide to put some drops of masking fluid down to reserve the paper for their pink blossoms. Once that's dry, I can keep painting all the jumbled greens right over it.

I keep plugging, painting in milkweed leaves. It ain't easy, making sure every leaf goes to a plant, but I'm still having fun. 

Now that I've got all the milkweed in, here comes the understory of clover foliage. It's a darker green than the milkweed. 

This is fun! I'm creating an army of vegetation! 

When I'm satisfied with the meadow, I rub away the drops of dried masking fluid with my fingers and expose the white paper beneath. Then I get to paint lots of red clover. It's important to vary the shade of the blossoms, to give the impression of changing light, distance and depth. 
I decide to go ahead and paint the sky right afterward.  It's very fast and dashy.  Even so, I have a little trouble controlling the wash--the paper is drying too fast, dang it! Ack! I have to finish it all before it dries! I'm slapping paint and water around but in the winter, with low humidity in the house, you don't have much time to tarry. Oh well--that's watercolor skies for you! You can see that I've run the wash down into the tops of the trees behind the barn. That's important to avoid hard edges where the washes meet. 

Here come the trees behind the milkweed. Their darks will help anchor the composition. 

I knew that once I got some darks in there, the painting would come to life. With the sky of blue and the anchoring darks, you can finally feel the sunshine pouring down! I got wound up painting the flowers and buds and forgot to take progress shots. 

There's a hard line between the trees and sky that I don't like, so I soften that by scrubbing the paint off and sucking it up with a damp brush. Then I run a wash of Chinese white over it to dull it out further, and push it well into the background.  Compare the treeline in the photo above to the one below.

Now it's time for the barn! When the black shadow goes in under the roof, that's when the sun really comes out. I'm telling you it's shining by the intensity of that shadow. That's how you suggest strong light--by deep shadow.

You may recognize it as the Shadowbarn! And you may recognize the wee companion, too. 

Sept. 7, 2014

OK. It's butterfly time! 

I haven't painted an ornate butterfly in awhile. Every time, I gain new respect for painters of insects. Whew. So many tiny details, and they all have to be in the right places, or it doesn't look accurate.

Same for the caterpillar, hiding on the lower left. I had to figure out the color sequence before I could paint it. It goes black yellow black white black white black yellow black...Mix that up, and your caterpillar isn't going to look right. 

This post compresses three days of actual painting. Each morning, I'd get up thinking I'd finish it that day, but it turns out I only have so much painting in me in a given day. I'd go out, cut brush for three or four hours, then paint, and before I'd know it, it would be dinnertime. What a good way to spend a few days!

I always feel best when I'm getting lots of exercise and painting, too.  When I'm painting a scene, I get to live inside it as I work. When I paint ivory-billed woodpeckers, I'm seeing them, alive, and I'm living in their habitat. When I paint a monarch fluttering at a milkweed, I'm there in that meadow, kneeling, sweat and all. There's nothing quite like creating a hot summer morning out of nothing, especially when it's dreary outside. It's the closest thing to a time machine that I have.  And that's what I love about painting, after the obvious continuous challenges of striving to attain some kind of mastery over the medium. Nah. Wrong word. Mastery being denied, I'll settle for control!

If you've enjoyed this step by step, just look up in the far left top corner of this blog homepage. Click "Search Julie's Blog" and type "watercolor" in the search box. Free tutorials for years. Been doing them since 2005!


[Back to Top]