Friday, July 29, 2022

MacRostie's 30th Annual Juried Exhibition


MacRostie Art Center's 30th Annual Juried Exhibition
August 5 - September 30, 2022

405 NW 1st Avenue
Grand Rapids, MN 55744
218-326-2697

Opening Reception
Friday, August 5, 2022, 4 - 7 pm

Regular Gallery Hours
Monday - Saturday, 10 am - 4 pm

Showing "Barred Encounter in Minnesota's Northland"

The exhibition is free and open to all



Art on the Edge, 16th Annual Juried Art Exhibit

 


Art on the Edge: 16th Annual Juried Art Exhibit
August 4 - August 27, 2022

101 2nd Avenue
Bigfork, MN 56628
218-743-6670

Opening Reception:
Friday, August 5, 5-7 pm

Regular Gallery Hours: 
Thursday, Friday, Saturday 10 - 4

Showing "Mirador" (Ruby-throated Hummingbird) and 
"The Kingfisher and the Unquiet Willow", first time showing!

The exhibition is free and open to all.


Friday, July 22, 2022

April's Bounty

Oil on Panel - 4 x 4 inches

Rhynchokinesis. Now there’s a word you don’t see every day. When learning about the American Woodcock, the bird depicted in my latest painting above, rhynchokinesis was an attribute of this bird. What is rhyncho- (pronounced rink-oh) kinesis? It’s the ability of some birds to turn their upper mandible upward as they probe for food. For a couple of days, I watched this American Woodcock hunt for worms in my front yard during this year’s snowy April. Little did I know rhynchokinesis was a characteristic of beaks, let alone a thing. Yep, it’s a thing. 

So, there’s your geeked-out, bird word for the day. Not that you asked for it, he he, but throw that word around a few times and you might raise some eyebrows. The curious ones will want to know more. 

Another interesting tidbit of the woodcock is that the male plays no part in rearing its young. Typically, four eggs are laid by the female, and the male has nothing to do with his offspring other than breeding with the female. Does the song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon come to mind? 

You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free 

Additional traits of this bird, perhaps a bit more famous, include its courtship display and its boogie. Hoping to catch the eye of a female, the male will launch 50-300 feet into the air (that’s a wide range, but my research found all sorts of numbers) before zig-zagging back down to the ground where it struts its stuff like a miniature turkey. I have never seen this display in person, but it happens at dusk in the springtime and can continue into the night. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to see it. 

Its boogie has an entirely different meaning. When hunting for worms, the American Woodcock rocks its whole body back and forth, as if it doesn’t know whether to take a step forward or backward. It’s suspected that this motion may cause earthworms below to blow their cover and become dinner. For us humans, that’s hard to imagine, but let me try. One earthworm weighs approximately 0.008 ounces, and a woodcock weighs close to 10 ounces. That means woodcocks can weigh up to 1,250 times that of an earthworm. Can an earthworm, lying just millimeters beneath the ground’s surface, feel a 10 ounce earthquake? Thinking about it another way, 1,250 times my weight is about the weight of the ol' space shuttle when empty. Would I hear that, or its vibration, coming my way? I think I would. 

Seeing the woodcock for the first time, and in my front yard nonetheless, was thrilling. It’s one of those birds I thought I’d never see without having to take a special trip somewhere. American Woodcocks are the only woodcock species found in North America; seven other species can be found throughout Eurasia, China, the Philippines, New Guinea, and Indonesia.

In other nature news, Northern Flickers are calling alongside cicadas during these hot July days, and thistle has flowered pink. Swamp milkweed has matured in the ditch, topped with pink blossoms by the mailbox. Valerian is abundant, white and huge. Mulberries, juneberries and currants are ripe, and black elderberries are in full bloom. Wild raspberries and blackberries will arrive shortly. Soon, goldenrod will be the star of the show.

Backyard birds hanging around include Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, Downy, Red-bellied, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Red and White-breasted Nuthatches, Northern Flickers, Rock Pigeons, American Robins and Crows, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Purple Finches, American Goldfinches, House Wrens, Chipping Sparrows, Common Yellowthroats, Mourning Doves and Song Sparrows. A Gray Catbird sings infrequently from across the street. Deeper in the forest, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, Veeries, and American Redstarts are common. Occasional Broad-winged Hawks, White-throated Sparrows and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks make appearances, and the Mallard hen can be seen with her babies, but she’s mostly secretive. 

I hope you’re all enjoying summer and the birds in your neck of the woods. Thank you for taking a moment of your time.


References

Arlott, N., Van Perlo, B., Rodriguez Mata, J., Carrizo, G., Chiappe, A, Huber, L. (2021). The Complete Birds of the World. Princeton University Press, p. 106.

Cassidy J., & Scheffel, R. (1990). Book of North American Birds. The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., p. 480.

Information from the All About Birds website, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Woodcock © Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved July 22, 2022.

Information from the Audubon website, https://www.audubon.org/news/10-fun-facts-about-american-woodcock. Retrieved July 22, 2022.

Information from the HowtoPronounce Pronunciation Dictionary. https://www.howtopronounce.com/rhynchokinesis. Retrieved July 22, 2022.

Information from the Songfacts website, https://www.songfacts.com/lyrics/paul-simon/50-ways-to-leave-your-lover. Retrieved July 22, 2022.

Kricher, John. Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2020, pp. 63, 231.

Mahnken, Jan. (1989). Hosting the Birds. Storey Communications, Inc., p. 118.

Vanner, Michael. (2003). The Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Barnes & Noble Inc., p. 149.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

House Wren On the Go

Oil on Panel - 4 x 4 inches

This year seems to be moving fast. At least for me. One of my latest paintings shown above is a House Wren popping out of its birdhouse after feeding its young. I have two birdhouses for wrens, one near my garden and the other closer to my home. Each year, one pair produces two broods and they utilize both bird houses. I love to cheer them on when they're flying bugs to their babies.

Winter dragged into spring and summer's here. When spring rolled around, tree planting was in full swing over Memorial Day weekend. It’s been an annual event since 2015. One of my favorites this year is the mulberry tree. It has grown from a twig to around four feet tall, and already has berries. Other trees that were planted include jack pines, oaks, maples, and more. Compared to last year's drought, this year’s rain has been steady and welcomed, but when it doesn’t rain for a while, I haul around 40 gallons of water using my yellow wheelbarrow to keep the saplings well nourished. It takes several trips to quench their thirst in one outing; most days I don’t mind the chore. I’ve heard it’s hard to over-water a young tree. So far, that’s been the best advice I’ve ever received concerning successful tree planting, besides protecting them from deer-browse. 

As for the birds, there’s always something exciting going on. I saw my first Snowy Owl on January 15th of this year. (I know, I know, I should've seen one by now.... !!). Anyway, I finally got photos of one up in Sax-Zim Bog. Yeah, I'm a little embarrassed, but as they say, better late than never.

Snowy Owl. Photo 1/15/2022. Sax-Zim Bog, MN

Closer to home, a few new species were added to my yard list. A White-winged Crossbill sang beautifully atop my spruce tree in the early dawn on January 24th. Because I didn’t recognize its song, it got my attention. And if I hadn’t heard it singing, I never would’ve looked up to the tippy-top of that spruce. In fact, its song was the main identification factor that helped me differentiate it from the Red Crossbill because my photos were too dark to see anything but an outline. Photo-editing software helped lighten up my picture and identify it as a male, but there wasn’t enough detail to differentiate between the White-winged or Red Crossbill. Only its song did that. 

Male White-winged Crossbill. 1/24/2022, Duluth home, MN

Spring migration brought an American Woodcock, another yard list first. It was spotted on April 6th when there were still several feet of snow on the ground. It probed for insects with its long bill and pulled up worm after worm, finding lots of food in my south-facing front yard where snow was thin. I found it mesmerizing and watched it for hours, even late into the night on one occasion. It fed until at least 11 pm before I got tired and went to bed. It stayed for a couple of days.

American Woodcock with a worm in its beak.
Photo 4/6/2022, Duluth home, MN

Male and female Blue-winged Teals were spotted on the pond May 9th. They palled around a male Mallard, as if they were friends. The teals didn’t stay longer than an hour or two. Most ducks, except for Mallards, stay less than 24 hours before moving on. 

Male/female Blue-winged Teals with Mallard.
Photo 5/9/2022, Duluth home, MN

A female, White-winged Crossbill visited on April 17th and enjoyed seeds from a heavy crop of spruce cones. It was a banner year for spruce cones, they were all over my yard. She fed for several hours on the ground, gorging on seeds. 

Female White-winged Crossbill.
Photo 4/17/2022, Duluth home, MN

An Eastern Towhee was spotted on May 9th, another yard list first. 

Eastern Towhee. Photo 5/9/2022, Duluth home, MN

Two weeks later on May 25th, I photographed a Connecticut Warbler well hidden in deciduous trees on a calm, overcast morning at 8:40 am. It was just about to rain. It’s the second time this bird’s song has led me to a sighting at my home. The first time was May 24th, 2017, when it was singing from a mix of pines and deciduous trees. 

Connecticut Warbler. Photo 5/25/2022, Duluth home, MN

May 20th and June 9th brought extra-special sightings of a hungry river otter to our pond. My husband, Terry, first noticed it on May 20th. When it came back on June 9th, assuming it was the same one, I sat nearby and watched it. Eventually, it noticed me and swam over to take a look. From 8:23 to 8:27 pm, that otter’s eyes were locked on me hard. I felt a little strange, slightly uncomfortable, but when it got bored with me, it went back to hunting. A water specialist, it brought several prey up to the surface to eat, probably frogs.


River Otter. Photos 6/9/2022, Duluth home, MN

A storm toppled a tree sometime overnight on May 30th. The morning of May 31st, I photographed seven Wood Ducks perched on it. Perhaps that tree provided the perfect reprieve for those storm-weathered gents. 

Seven male Wood Ducks. Photo 5/31/2022, Duluth home, MN

Currently, there are lots of baby birds around. Last night, Downy Woodpeckers, House Wrens, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were all feeding their young at dusk. Juvenile Common Grackles have been abundant at my feeders, as well as Red-winged Blackbirds. As I write this, Black-capped Chickadees are high up in a birch tree feeding their young.
 
Father (lower) feeding son (above), Downy Woodpeckers.
Photo 7/5/2022, Duluth home, MN

Northern Waterthrush. Photo 5/15/2022, Moose Lake State Park, MN


Male Scarlet Tanager. Photo 5/22/2022, Carley State Park, MN

 
Juvenile Tree Swallow. Photo 7/4/2022, Western Waterfront Trail, Duluth, MN

The first half of 2022 has brought thrilling wildlife sightings my way, many of which I didn't include out of fear of writing too long of a blog entry. Stay tuned for more postings, I've been a little behind this year. A couple of finished paintings are waiting in the wings, so there are more to come soon. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I hope you are enjoying the wildlife in your neck of the woods. Don’t forget to check out an art show or two this summer. Be well, everyone.



Saturday, April 2, 2022

Superior Reflections

 

Oil on Textured Linen Panel - 12 x 24 inches
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), Lake Superior, Duluth harbor

Of all the birds that have visited my yard, two stand out as being extremely reactive to my presence, almost always noticing when I stand at the window closest to my bird feeders. It doesn’t make a difference if my approach is slow and methodical, or sloth-like; even when I try to peek around the corner showing only my head and one eyeball, my cover is blown just about every time. These two species are the American Crow and the Rock Pigeon. For this writing, I will be focusing on the Rock Pigeon. 

For the first five years at my home, Rock Pigeons had never found the spoils of my feeders, even though they were breeding only blocks away atop buildings. Unbeknownst to me, my feeders were a well kept secret. That all changed on July 27, 2019 when I saw the first Rock Pigeons in my yard. 

Rock Pigeons thrive in urban developments, and my home is close enough to urbanization for me to know that once the pigeons found my home, they were here to stay. With each passing year, commercial buildings encroach ever closer to my neighborhood, overtaking residential homes and stamping out treed plots of land. It’s a stubborn, unmitigated and curious trend given that Duluth’s population is no bigger than it was at the beginning of the 20th century. But, urban sprawl is another topic for a different day. 

First, let me just say that I had an internal dialog with myself when pigeons discovered my feeders three years ago. I asked myself: Was I going to love ‘em or loathe ‘em? For me the answer was easy. I wasn’t going to loathe them. I was going to understand them. But if you’re wondering what you’d do, may I pose a question? At what point in life do you throw your stink eye at the negative and lean on the positive? Negative news is front and center these days, we all know it, but behind all that negativity, science is moving forward at breakneck speeds. And as it turns out, there’s a lot of positive news out there. All you have to do is look for it. Case in point: the Rock Pigeon! 

Remember not too long ago when the Covid pandemic took off? It was only 2020, although it seems like eons ago. Well that year, a behavioral study about Rock Pigeons, Columba livia – the same species that visits my yard – was published in the March edition of Learning & Behavior, a journal devoted to the experimental and theoretical contributions and critical reviews concerning fundamental processes of learning and behavior in nonhuman and human animals. The news was positive. 

Research from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences from The University of Iowa and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, University of California, Los Angeles (Victor M. Navarro, Edward A. Wasserman, and Piotr Slomka) determined that Rock Pigeons are extremely good at recognizing what they see. Well, of course they are. Aren’t all birds really great at seeing? Most are, but there are some exceptions such as New Zealand’s flightless kiwi. Rock Pigeons, however, have excellent vision. They can tell the difference between extremely complex objects, pictures, and photos. Their vision allows them to pick out a Monet from a Picasso, differentiate letters of the alphabet, recognize human expressions, and discriminate between benign and cancerous human breast images. I saved the best for last there, did you catch that? But researchers already knew this stuff, which means you might have just learned a little bit of old news. Don’t feel bad, I just learned it, too. 

What this most recent study found, and in character with sorting out breast cancer images, researchers discovered that Rock Pigeons can also differentiate between healthy and diseased heart muscles. So, in addition to reading mammograms, they’ve also been taught how to read stress test scans of the heart. Pigeons as heart disease specialists? Now that’s something that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. 

For a short explanation, a person is often given a stress test to determine if they have coronary heart disease. Pseudo-colorized images are then created to show how well blood flows, or doesn’t flow, throughout the body. A cardiologist reads those visual images to determine the presence of coronary blockages. Rock Pigeons were taught how to read those same images (myocardial perfusion single photon emission-computed tomography, or MPS) and were able to discern between a healthy heart and a diseased heart. And they were pretty darn good at it, too! 

Why is this important? To understand that, it’s helpful to know how reliable humans are at reading MPS scans. “The best achievable individual observer accuracy is about 86% and inter-observer agreement by Board-certified cardiology experts is about 87%” (quoted in Navarro, Wasserman & Slomka, 2020, p. 10). So, if you knew that your cardiologist was only 87% accurate in reading your MPS scan, there’s room for improvement, right? Hey, pigeons aren’t so bad after all. 

Now, just in case you’re imagining a pigeon standing next to your cardiologist in the doctor’s office interpreting your MPS test, I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen. So, here’s the meat and potatoes of the experiment. Because Rock Pigeons have a remarkable trait whereby they can extract information from extremely complex visual stimuli (superb visual cognition), pigeons may simply be able to see things better, or differently, than humans. Since medical science would like to improve upon doctors being able to successfully read coronary test results, Rock Pigeons may be able to help. Using pigeons’ models for scoring tests may “identify visual features that can improve both human and computer performance” (quoted in Navarro, Wasserman & Slomka, 2020, p. 10). 

Pigeons have adapted extremely well to our human environment and provide us with enormous learning potential to help our own species. “This bird may have no particular knack for medical diagnosis, yet its eye and brain endow it with sufficient perceptual and cognitive equipment to provide researchers with practical methods for assessing human and machine performance” (quoted in Navarro, Wasserman & Slomka, 2020, p. 19). 

I hope attitudes improve about pigeons, especially given their lowly reputations. To think differently about them may take a whole host of reasons to change public opinion. Self-reflection, i.e. asking ourselves why we feel the way we do, can also be helpful. Positive news and time wouldn’t hurt either. Providing arguments for consideration to help reconstruct our way of thinking occurs when each one of us learns and grows through knowledge.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health provided support for the Rock Pigeon research cited below.


Reference

Navarro, V.M., Wasserman, E.A. & Slomka, P. Taking pigeons to heart: Birds proficiently diagnose human cardiac disease. Learn Behav 48, 9–21 (2020). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-020-00410-z



Monday, February 28, 2022

Evening Grosbeak

 

Oil on Artist's Panel - 5 x 7 inches

Once or twice a year, rarely more than that, Evening Grosbeaks travel through my neck of the woods. They parade my neighborhood in very small flocks, or family units. I’m glad for their calls or else I’d probably miss them. I almost always hear them first. They never stay long, sometimes a few minutes, sometimes an overnight, and sometimes a few days. Seeing these birds always reminds me how beautiful wildlife is and how empty my life would be without it.

This colorful male visited my hopper feeder for black oil sunflower seeds on May 9, 2021 just after 9 am, a very short visit.



Thursday, January 20, 2022

Ballyhoo

 

16 x 12 inches, Oil on Belgian Linen Board

I saw this Great-horned Owl in my snowy woods on February 6th, 2020. When we locked eyes, I had less than three seconds to capture this image before it flew off to a different location. It wasn't surprised by me because I'm sure it saw me coming from a mile away, but I was definitely surprised by it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Dickcissel at Blue Mounds

Oil on Artist's Panel - 4 x 4 inches

     This is an oil painting of a breeding male Dickcissel singing atop a wild plum at Blue Mounds State Park in Rock County, Minnesota. There was an abundance of Dickcissels this year, perhaps an irruptive year, and I had no trouble finding them even closer to home in June at Sax-Zim Bog. A drive along any country road with grassy ditches and open fields yielded good sounds and sightings. Their population levels are known to occasionally spike, and I have a suspicion this was one of those years. 
    Dickcissels are dependent upon grasslands for reproduction, and with so much of North America’s grasslands having turned to crops —mainly corn for ethanol— will the sound of the Dickcissel one day be a thing of the past? As mentioned below in my blog about Bobolinks who breed in the same areas as Dickcissels, it’s estimated less than 4% of the nation’s grasslands remain. The Dickcissel hasn’t suffered a 50% reduction in the last 50 years like some other grassland birds, but its decline has been severe and it’s listed as a species vulnerable to extinction. 
     As for this bird’s wintering range, almost all Dickcissels spend seven months of every year in Venezuela foraging on rice and sorghum. Many farmers in that country view Dickcissels as pests. Frequently shot, eaten or deliberately poisoned, the overall Dickcissel population struggles to return to pre-1966 levels. Fortunately, their numbers seem to have stabilized, albeit at a much lower number. 
     Depending how much reading and research is done on birds, being a bird lover these days can be downright depressing. On many fronts, the news is grim, especially when it comes to the declining numbers of birds on the whole with many at risk of extinction. This past summer, having experienced a high number of Dickcissels in my neck of the woods, it was a welcomed sight. I’ll take it. 
     On a side note, below is a photo of my buckthorn eradication efforts this fall. It isn't even close to the amount that needs to be removed, but every fall, I keep at it. Now in my fifth year of busting buckthorn, each year the piles get bigger. Sadly, control is mitigated without neighbors addressing their own property infestations. I’ve heard that’s not an uncommon scenario, but frustrating nonetheless. The pile has grown since the photo was taken, wink wink, yes I'm proud of my work. New gloves are purchased every year to stave off those dastardly thorns.





References

 

Bird Pop! Extra Rain Is Nothing for Dickcissels To Sing About. Nov. 12, 2020. https://www.birdpop.org/pages/blogPost.php?id=58. Accessed Oct. 25, 2021.

Carpenter, Tom. Treasures in the Grass. Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, July/August 2018, Vol. 81, No. 479.

Nickens, T. Edward. Vanishing Voices. National Wildlife (World Edition), 15455157, Oct/Nov2010, Vol. 48, Issue 6.

Temple, Stanley A. Dickcissel. Birds of the World.org. March 4, 2020. Text last updated January 1, 2002. https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/dickci/cur/demography. Accessed Oct. 8, 2021.




Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Prairie Savannah

Oil on Artist's Panel - 4 x 4 inches

Here’s a small oil painting of a Savannah Sparrow near Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota. Perched alongside the road on a barbed-wire fence in June, this bird sang frequently. Its buzzy, insect-like song indicated it was a male, and its song is associated with guarding its territory, courtship, and communication. I spent a long time observing this bird, and was perceptive of it becoming comfortable with my presence. Occasionally, it rested on one foot, the other tucked up into its body. Other times, it retreated to a nearby fence post to broadcast its song. 

Savannah Sparrows are part of a group of birds that produce “soft songs,” a trait found in almost half of the birds in North America. Meaning low amplitude, soft songs are used for a variety of reasons, such as defending one’s territory, courting, and signaling danger. For Savannah Sparrows, soft songs are associated with the highest level of aggression – an attack on a rival during a territorial dispute. 

In a study conducted by researchers from the University of Windsor and the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, it was determined that the most reliable predictor of an attack by a Savannah Sparrow were its soft songs. Compared to other signals of aggression such as wing waving, broadcast calls, or chip calls, territorial males, just prior to attack, sang significantly more soft songs than non-attackers. 

This begs the question: if I’m a bird, why wouldn’t I sing as loudly as I could to let my competitor know I mean business? The answer may lie directly in the bird’s physique. When a Savannah Sparrow belts out its songs with its head tilted back and beak wide open, that posture may prevent the bird from seeing its rival clearly. In order to chase an intruder away, a nearly-closed beak compared to one that is wide open is advantageous. It allows the bird to keep an eye on its challenger, resulting in a productive chase. For a bird, tracking an intruder relies heavily on eyesight; and what bird can do that if it’s singing at the top of its lungs? 

So if you’re out and about in a field of Savannah Sparrows and you’re skilled at picking up a Savannah Sparrow’s soft song, listen for numerous occurrences. A high number of soft songs is an excellent indicator that the bird is about to show another bird who’s boss.


References

 

Moran, Ines G. & Doucet, Stéphanie & Newman, Amy & Norris, Ryan & Mennill, Daniel. (2018). Quiet violence: Savannah Sparrows respond to playback-simulated rivals using low-amplitude songs as aggressive signals: XXXX. Ethology. 124. 724-732. 10.1111/eth.12805.




Monday, October 4, 2021

MPSGS - Annual Exhibition


Three miniature oil paintings on exhibit.
88th Annual Exhibition of Fine Art in Miniature
The Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers Society
of Washington, D.C. (MPSGS)

The Mansion at Strathmore
10701 Rockville Pike
North Bethesda, MD 20852
 
Nov. 21, 2021 - Jan. 8, 2022


Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Seduction of Miss Lilly

18 x 24 inches, Oil on Belgian Linen Board

When I saw that empty beer bottle, I just wanted to spit. But I didn’t even know how to spit, not that I cared to, but at that moment, I wished for a proper spit, one that was accurate in its aim, with the bullseye on the bottle. If I’d been a baseball player, my spit would’ve been accurate. Go figure. One small group of society that still spits, and not because they’re irritated. 

I climbed a few steps past the litter and upwards into the field. I was thankful the ditch was dry. Still, I had been prepared to sink into the muddy grass. When I reached the top of the mountain, the mountain of prairie that is, it wasn’t as far as my eyes could see. Sadly, those places rarely exist anymore. "Urban sprawl and conversion to cropland have left this once expansive landscape, originally spanning across 14 states from Texas to Minnesota, at less than 4% of its original size."1 Farms, homes, crops, utility poles and roads dotted the landscape near and far, but as I stood in the land of Bobolinks, I knew this place was special. 

Just like the faded Budweiser label, the trails in front of me were barely visible. After sorting through a few obscure possibilities, I picked one that paralleled the high ridge, away from the quiet country road. Because Bobolinks nest on the ground, the last thing I wanted to do was accidentally step on a nest full of eggs. The trails were narrow, not more than eight inches and became less visible when the wind blew, therefore my pace was slow, calculated and cautious. My goal was to learn more about Bobolinks, obtain a personal connection with their homeland and photograph them in their natural habitat. 

The best part about Bobolinks, besides their gorgeous plumage, is their song. In the distance, I heard computers. The wind sometimes picked up the sound waves and made my ears perk up even more. Inflections of data were insulated beneath blades of grass, computations unknown and invisible. The sound made me giddy - another language, so foreign yet so familiar. 

My childhood occurred before computers became ubiquitous, but I had never heard Bobolinks in the wild before. I wonder what I would’ve thought of them before the recognizable beep-bee-bee-boop-weeps of a computer, which I probably first heard from an original Star Trek episode in the 1970s. R2-D2 from Star Wars has been compared to the noises of Bobolinks. Right on, I thought, as I stood in a patch of sci-fi surround sound. Ten-thousand years from now if humans and Bobolinks are still around, will we ask which came first: the computer or the Bobolink? Perhaps that’s a far-fetched question, but humans have short memories and are oftentimes distrustful of historical data. 

I unwrapped my collapsible chair and sat down to observe the Bobolinks in the prairie grassland. I took it all in — the warm spring air, the tall grasses, the morning sun, and the Bobolinks. Males hovered in mid-air above females hidden below, then retreated to higher perches after checking on them. Sometimes these perches were simple twigs, other times just blades of grass. Occasionally, a female would pop out long enough for me to get a glance, but rarely long enough for a photo. They were undercover and elusive. Males chased females here and there before disappearing into the field, gone in a flash. Off in the distance, Ring-necked Pheasants discharged their scratchy calls alongside the bouncy trills of Field Sparrows. Each were infrequent but regular contributors to the chaotic sounds of the Bobolinks. 

I have fallen in love with the prairie ever since my first visit to Glendalough State Park in western Minnesota in 2014; and of the four biomes that exist in my state, the prairie is my favorite. To some of you, that may come as a surprise because you know how much I love trees, so it’s entirely possible that if I lived on the prairie, I’d eventually yearn to be closer to trees. However, the grasslands have stolen my heart from the coniferous forest biome where I currently live. I hunger to return. 

Departing the land of Bobolinks, I exited the same way I came in, slowly and carefully. Towards the road, that old beer bottle pierced my eyeballs once more. American journalist Sydney J. Harris once said, "When we have 'second thoughts' about something, our first thoughts don't seem like thoughts at all - just feelings." My initial feelings about that piece of trash lying in the ditch had changed, and my second thoughts altered my point of view. No longer was that bottle an eyesore. Birds don't always cooperate when you want them to, so I considered it a good luck charm in my pursuit of the Bobolinks. I picked it up and took it home, where it serves as a reminder of my intimate perspective gained in the company of Bobolinks. Taking a negative object and turning it into a positive memento seemed like the perfect ending to a successful outing. 
 
This painting is of one of the male Bobolinks I saw that day, all decked out in his breeding plumage. Before migrating, they molt into feathers that more closely resemble the brownish-yellow females. Bobolinks are currently traveling to their wintering grounds in South America. Theirs is one of the longest migrations of any songbird in the Americas. 

The title of this work is named after Lilly, wife of famed Adolphus Busch, producer of Budweiser. Bobolinks are a declining species.




References 

1The Nature Conservancy, "Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve." https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/tallgrass-prairie-preserve/ Accessed Sept.16, 2021.


Adolphus Busch. Sept. 16, 2021. Adolphus Busch. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolphus_Busch


Brainy Quote. Sept. 16, 2021. "Sydney J. Harris Quotes." https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/sydney-j-harris-quotes

 

Information from the All About Birds website, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bobolink/overview © Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved Sept. 16, 2021.


Thursday, September 9, 2021

Opus Eclipsed

Oil on Artist's Panel - 4 x 4 inches

Described as sounding like the English equivalent of ee-oh-lay, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind about Wood Thrushes is their beautiful song. Usually, Wood Thrushes can be heard off in the distance in mixed forests and deciduous woods, and if you have them in your neck of the woods, you know how lucky you are. There is simply no other sound quite like that of a Wood Thrush. These birds breed in the eastern half of the United States and need large tracts of forest to survive. Sadly, they’ve suffered a two-percent decline every year from 1966-2015. 

The Wood Thrush is "listed as a Tri-National Concern species and is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. The Wood Thrush is one of the most prominent examples of declining forest songbirds in North America.”1

Last June, I encountered this bird, its mate, and their nest in an understory about 13 feet high, not long after dawn. One of the Wood Thrushes had insects in its mouth and the other was flicking its left wing at me from a low branch. This was all by chance, mind you. I hadn’t sought out this bird and wasn’t even birding at the time. As I stood on a seldom-traveled path observing the pair in sparkling rays through the trees, I soon discovered their nest. Realizing how close I was, I immediately backed away from my position and observed the pair from afar. Later, I retrieved my camera and took some photos, some of which are below. 

Wood Thrushes are one of many forest bird species susceptible to an ecological model called source-sink dynamics whereas these birds will inhabit both high-quality (source) and low-quality (sink) environments to breed. The source for Wood Thrushes is identified as a large tract of forest which allows for a high probability of reproductive success. The sink is a low quality habitat, such as a small woodlot. The sink population can survive, but their offspring will not, resulting in nest failure. To the casual observer, one might deduce that their small woodlot containing a Wood Thrush nest is indicative of a healthy population, but in a sink dynamic, no young ever fledge the nest. Without the protection of forest cover, predators such as crows, grackles, parasitic cowbirds, and squirrels are more likely to find their nest. In addition, cats can easily take these birds while they forage on the forest floor, their primary source for food.

Acid rain may be another factor contributing to the decline of the Wood Thrush. “A byproduct of burning fossil fuels for our vast energy needs, acid rain occurs when nitric and sulfuric acids combine with water in the atmosphere and return to earth as rain, snow, or mist. Acid reaction with the ground depletes soil calcium levels, leading to a host of forest ills. A calcium-poor diet can easily lead to egg shell defects and a smaller clutch of eggs. Both of these factors may contribute to breeding failure not only for the wood thrush but also for a variety of other songbirds."2 It's important to note acid rain's effect on wildlife warrants further research, but evidence suggests it may play an important role in the decline of some species, notably the Wood Thrush, primarily due to its calcium-rich diet.

Specifically, Wood Thrushes need approximately one or two forested acres to survive in their ideal habitat. The acreage from where I observed the pair of Wood Thrushes was sizable, however partially fragmented. It wasn’t apparent they were in their source habitat; and it wasn’t a slam-dunk they were in the sink either. Not more than a stone's throw away, there were open, non-forested areas on three sides of the nest. On the other hand, the birds had a fairly direct route of forested landscape to the east and southeast of their nest. 

My photos revealed at least one baby’s beak rising above the top of the nest, so it was obvious the pair had reproduced provided it wasn't a cowbird's beak, but I did wonder whether there were more babies in the nest. I chose not to get better views of the clutch size simply because I didn’t want to disturb the family any more than my presence already had, but I was definitely curious! 

I can only hope the trees remain standing for generations to come in the location where I discovered this Wood Thrush family. The realist in me, however, has a heavy heart. When I see homeowners chipping away at treed acreage all around my community, commercial development expanding further and further from the city, and the shocking images of expansive land-clearing from here to eternity as shown from online mapping resources, I am disheartened. I ask myself, when will it stop? How much do humans need? Why do we need so much? As a positive step forward, we have begun to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, so perhaps acid rain will one day become a thing of the past. It is my fervent belief, however, that these actions alone will never contribute towards a sustainable planet for all creatures here on Earth unless human population control is also part of the equation.

Wood Thrushes are currently migrating to the tropical forests in Central America, another area of shrinking songbird habitat.

My photo of a Wood Thrush with suspected flea beetle, crane fly,
and green lacewing. Special thanks to Jim (James) Walker,
M.S. Entomologist, Department of Entomology,
University of Minnesota, for insect identification.
Photo ©Becca Mulenburg

My photo of a Wood Thrush nest. Look closely to see
the yellow-colored beak rising above the nest.
Plastic was used for some nesting material,
which is not uncommon for this bird.
Photo ©Becca Mulenburg


References 

1Information from the All About Birds website, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wood_Thrush/lifehistory, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved September 9, 2021.


2McLane, Eben. "The Disappearing Wood Thrush." https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100519715. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2021.


Graham, Sarah. "Acid Rain Linked to Bird Decline." Aug. 13, 2002. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/acid-rain-linked-to-bird/ Retrieved Sept. 9, 2021. 


Kricher, John. Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2020.


Ralph S. Hames, Kenneth V. Rosenberg, James D. Lowe, Sara E. Barker, André A. Dhondt "Adverse effects of acid rain on the distribution of the Wood Thrush Hylocichla mustelina in North America"  Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2002 Aug 20; 99(17): 11235–11240. Published online 2002 Aug 12. doi: 10.1073/pnas.172700199 PMCID: PMC123239. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2021.


"Source-sink dynamics." https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100519715. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2021.






Thursday, July 29, 2021

Serendipity on Lepin Road

 

Oil on Panel - 10 x 10 inches

While photographing the Sandhill Crane migration in Nebraska this spring, this unassuming Killdeer walked out of the cornfield towards me and stopped for a while, probably to check to see if the coast was clear before continuing on. Following close behind was its mate. Surprise moments like these are pretty special, especially when birding for another species. It's the unexpected that is oftentimes more meaningful and emotional. That was certainly the case for me, and if you're a birder, you know exactly what I mean. For this Killdeer to be in a cornfield wasn't unusual, but the only birds I was paying attention to were the Sandhill Cranes... that is until this little beauty came out of nowhere and quietly stood just feet away.




Wednesday, June 23, 2021

On Auggie's Stage

 

Oil on Panel - 4 x 4 inches

Word to the Winter Wren:

You bounce and chat with rotund roundness, my imagination cups your smallness in my palm, secure and warm. One hand envelops the other. Gently. Your feathers are soft and beautiful, as is your music. Will you sing your sweet melody one last time? Oh, how my invitation rests upon the eleventh-hour, forgive my thirst. As you stand on Auggie’s stage amongst Lil’ Red’s pinecone beads, I’ll endorse his offerings and bid you a fond farewell, too, for I know the way out has arrived. No curtain call is without reservation and October isn’t for the sluggish. Are you packed and ready to go? Where benevolence resides, all things in time, but if Auggie holds the caption, winter possesses the period. Good fortune and easy travels, little one.



Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Arbor Day Pine Warbler

 
Oil on Panel - 4 x 4 inches

    Minnesota’s Arbor Day was April 30th of this year. It’s an occasion seldom marked on calendars and celebrated with little fanfare, media coverage, or huzzah. The date on which Arbor Day falls is specific to each state, so each year I make a note on my calendar when Arbor Day occurs. April 30th is considered a little too early to plant trees in Duluth because we are located in the northern part of the state, but May is right around the corner when it’s prime planting time. 

     This year I took a walk around my yard on Arbor Day and photographed birds and plants that looked interesting to me, in addition to snapping photos of the jack pine stand. Almost all of the initial 25 jack pines from 2015 have survived, and the conifers are growing nicely. Disappointingly, one of the larger jack pines bent over last fall and I thought it was a goner, but I decided to pull it upright and stake it. I figured, why not take the chance to help it? Lo and behold, it’s still upright after a long winter and looking good. A week ago, I noticed a small bird fly into that exact tree and not leave. Upon closer inspection, I saw a Chipping Sparrow sitting on its nest about 6 feet high. Well hidden on a branch against the trunk of the tree, I was absolutely thrilled to see a nesting bird in the very tree I helped rescue.

     Back to Arbor Day… marsh marigolds were emerging, the morning cloak butterfly was visible deeper in the woods, and the chipmunk, which I first heard on March 5th, was available for the photo shoot. Later in the day, I noticed a Pine Warbler at my suet feeder, a yard list first. This painting is a depiction of that bird when it was on the ground with its foot propped up on a pine cone. Arbor Day didn’t disappoint this year and the Pine Warbler made it special. 

     Over twenty young trees were planted in May, including white and red oaks, red maples, Chinese chestnuts, and a mountain ash. The highbush cranberries in my front yard are currently in full bloom and swarming with pollinators. The dragonflies have been putting on quite a show in the evenings when it’s easy to see their prey in the dimming sun. The hummingbirds are buzzing, fawns are prancing, and the first bear sighting of the year occurred this morning just after breakfast. 

     During today’s afternoon walk, I heard Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstarts, House Wrens, Red-eyed Vireos, and a Broad-winged Hawk. These singing birds define my home in Duluth during the month of June, in addition to American Robins, Black-capped Chickadees, Goldfinches and the occasional Veery. Purple Finches seem quiet and sparse this spring, and this was the first year I didn’t see any Harris’s Sparrows during spring migration. In addition, there were less than a handful of Redpolls or Pine Siskins that came through, an extremely low number compared to other years. 

     I hope you all enjoy the summer and check out some art shows when you get a chance. 


These jack pines were planted in 2015.
Compare with photos below. Photo 4/30/2021

Same jack pines. Photo April 2019.


Same jack pines. Photo May 2017.


Chipping Sparrow on nest in "rescued" jack pine. Photo 6/8/2021

The "rescued" jack pine.
The Chipping Sparrow's nest is approximately
6 feet high in this tree, about mid-height. Photo 6/8/2021

Mourning cloak butterfly. Photo 4/30/2021.

Emerging marsh marigold. Note winged bug at tip of rear leaf.
Here come the bugs, aka bird food! Photo 4/30/2021.

Chipmunk on bird bath. Photo 4/30/2021.

Elderberry buds. Photo 4/30/2021.

First bear sighting of the year. Photo 6/8/2021, 7:39 am.






Plant trees. 

Plant pollinators. 

Save forests. 

Reduce plastic usage. 

Curb development.

Do something.

Peace.






Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Can I Get a Witness?

Oil on Panel - 4 x 4 inches

During the winter months of 2020, I started feeding a White-throated Sparrow that was stranded at my home here in Duluth, Minnesota. Unsure of when I first noticed it, I suspect it was late October or early November, a time when fall’s lifeboat becomes unmoored, and creatures that don’t belong here are left with few options for survival. White-throated Sparrows have short migrations and don’t need to travel very far come wintertime, but each day the bird remained carried it further into a tunnel with a dimming light. I was sad to see it hanging around and wondered about its circumstances. Predicting this little bird's future was impossible and I grew bothered by stories that seeped into my head uninvited. So, I concentrated on what I could do to help it. Perhaps by making sure this bird was well fed, one day it would fly south to join others of its kind. That’s what I was hoping for. And on the double, too! I figured if I gave it plenty of nourishment before the onset of winter (which in all honesty seemed like it was already here), it might stand a chance. 

If there was a reason the White-throated Sparrow was stranded, weather may have been a major factor. That October, both snowfall and temperature records were set in Duluth. It was the second snowiest October ever (12 inches) and the second coldest from October 16-31st. The sparrow was frequenting two areas for shelter; one was a covered, outdoor wood pile enclosed on three sides (this was its favorite hangout), and another was a depression underneath an unused sauna about fifty feet away. Neither of these areas were heated, but at least they provided some protection from the wind and snow. Once I knew where it hung out, I tossed it seeds every day, but only by the wood pile. Each time, it responded by coming out for food. 

Compared to the Arctic Tern which has the longest migration of any bird (from the Arctic to the Antarctic), the White-throated Sparrow’s migration is short. All this bird had to do was make it to the Mississippi River near Minneapolis to reach its northern-most safety point, a mere 150 miles south. Yet each day that it remained, the hurdles towards its survival grew higher. 

December arrived, and I was still feeding the little sparrow. I enjoyed watching it sunning itself on a stump by the woodpile, all fluffed out and absorbing rays. November and December weren’t terribly cold, but on December 23rd the first blizzard of the season rolled in. It brought heavy wet snow and 55 mph winds. I was worried about the sparrow, especially because I hadn’t seen it for days, but eventually it showed up and I was relieved. Still, my sense of relief was fleeting, there were three or four more months of winter to go. When it comes to nature, I am a realist, a pessimist, and an optimist, all rolled into one. I know how cruel nature can be, and despite feeling encouraged that it had made it through one-third of a Duluth winter, plenty of obstacles remained. The coldest nights brought me the most worry. 

Days turned into months and by mid-January I was growing ever more hopeful this sparrow would make it to April. After all, it survived a blizzard and several nights of below-zero temperatures. Would this be the first White-throated Sparrow to ever survive a Duluth winter? Probably not, but I envisioned the stories it would tell its friends, and the happiest of reunions come spring. I was feeling very optimistic. 

My one downfall was that I hadn’t considered predators, at least not the flying kind. Sure… I’d thought of the red squirrel who owned the woodpile, but it was a nuisance at best, not a predator, and only showed up occasionally. Besides, the sparrow’s best defense was that it could fly and its hiding places were secure, or so I thought. But birds of prey are tenacious and patient, they will wait for the perfect opportunity to strike. 

The White-throated Sparrow that I worked so hard at keeping alive through that Duluth winter died on January 18, 2021, when it was killed by a Northern Shrike – the bird represented in this painting. Little did I know that sparrows are among its favorite food. I first noticed the shrike when it flew up into our apple tree near the sauna. Not even thinking of the White-throated Sparrow at the time, my focus was on the shrike and its behavior, but I soon realized there was more going on than just a shrike in my apple tree. It was keeping an eye on a White-throated Sparrow it had likely attacked just moments earlier. 

Located in a depression at the edge of the sauna, the sparrow was injured and dying. Occasionally, the shrike flew down to the sauna to observe the bird before flying back up into the tree. At one point, it flew a short distance to my feeders looking for more prey, but after finding none, it flew back to the apple tree and eventually down to the sparrow. Was it the same sparrow I was trying to save? Undoubtedly. There were no other White-throated Sparrows around and I never saw that sparrow again.

Northern Shrikes are winter birds the size of American Robins, and my personal observations of them have only been in winter. Interestingly, I’ve noticed them most often during the onset of a cold front preceded by a heavy snowfall. It can be calm or windy, sunny or overcast, but I stand a fair chance of spotting a Northern Shrike during those conditions. 

During wintertime, their food sources are typically small birds and mice; whereas they’ll eat large insects, voles and other small rodents at other times of the year. Also known as butcher birds, Northern Shrikes impale their prey on sharp objects or secure them in a crotch before eating them. Sometimes their prey is left for a later meal. Other times, shrikes kill more than what is needed. 

One of my friends asked me why I painted one of my not-so-favorite birds, especially the one that killed the little sparrow; and did I consider putting a big black "X" through the painting after I painted it. 

I try not to give in to my emotions when it comes to nature because there are many ways of looking at what happened to the White-throated Sparrow. Easier said than done, though. Yes, the sparrow’s death saddened me, but it didn’t take away from the fact that Northern Shrikes like to eat small birds. As much as I wanted the sparrow to survive a Duluth winter, the shrike had found an attainable food source, one of its favorites nonetheless, and acted upon it. Sure, I wish the shrike had found mice or voles instead, but vole tracks were slim pickings this past winter, the fewest I’ve seen in years. As for mice, our indoor traps caught a few, they know where to hide. 

I’m glad the Northern Shrike eats mice, voles and insects, but wish it hadn't preyed upon that adorable stranded sparrow. I’ll just leave it at that.


The White-throated Sparrow sitting in
its favorite spot. Photographed January 5, 2021.


Thursday, April 29, 2021

Barkers' Beauty

 Oil on Panel - 4 x 4 inches

     This isn’t one of Bob Barker’s beauties from the game show The Price is Right, this is a painting of a female American Redstart that I photographed last September from a visit to Barkers Island in Superior, Wisconsin. It was a spur-of-the-moment excursion that turned out to be a fantastic couple of hours of birding, and unexpectedly, too. 
     Barkers Island was recently renovated to reduce storm water runoff and protect Lake Superior’s water quality, so I was curious to see the changes to the shoreline of Superior Bay and maybe photograph a bird or two. Even though September ushers in prime fall migration, my previous visits to this area weren’t productive, so I wasn’t expecting much. On this particular trip, I think I just got lucky. 
     To have gotten great photos of this lovely and lively Redstart sitting still was divine. For me personally, I don’t know of too many birds in my neck of the woods that are harder to photograph besides Redstarts and Kinglets, but practice over the years has paid off. So, when this bird sat on a branch longer than two seconds after following it with my lens for several moments, I held my breath and started shooting. 
     Other migrating birds seen on Barkers Island were a Common Yellowthroat, Tennessee Warbler, Song Sparrow, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, American Goldfinch, Belted Kingfisher, a Least or Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and a snapping turtle (ahem, not a bird). All of these were found in a very small area along the paved walkway near the entrance, except for the snapper which was crossing the road closer to the marina. 
     It’s true what they say about the burgeoning hobby of birding. Birds are everywhere! Sometimes they turn up in unforeseen numbers when you least expect them. And this, my friends, is just one of the many things that makes birding so much fun.


Snapping Turtle, Barkers Island, Superior, WI. Photo 9/11/2020.