Thursday, July 2, 2020

Blackburnian at Bigfork

Oil on Panel, 4 x 4 inches

          The word that comes up over and over in bird books that describes the male Blackburnian Warbler’s striking good looks is fiery. It’s an appropriate description. When you spot one, its identification is unmistakable and always fiery, especially against the forest’s greenery.
          My first sighting of a Blackburnian Warbler was in Lion’s Den Gorge in Grafton, WI. It was springtime and the park was teeming with migrants, and it just so happened that I photographed both the male and female Blackburnian Warblers in the trees during a morning hike. At the time, I wasn’t experienced enough to recognize the female, but later a friend’s birding book provided me with its identification. Seeing both the male and female species of one particular warbler on the same outing isn’t all that common for me. I usually see the males, most of which are easier to identify due to a lot of them having bolder colors and singing more frequently than the females.
          This painting depicts my second sighting of a male Blackburnian. Located in Scenic State Park near Bigfork, Minnesota, author Robert B. Janssen describes this park in his book Birds of Minnesota State Parks with the following sentence which summed up my experience as well. “June birding is a real treat at Scenic State Park when these boreal species are at the height of their song period during the breeding season.”
          Upon my arrival, the sheer number of birds that could be heard from the parking lot alone was noticeable and lovely; and after just a few minutes of walking, this Blackburnian flew across the walking path in front of me not far from the main lodge. It stopped to sing about 20 feet up on a branch in the dense canopy of shade. It was the first time I’d heard its song. A gentleman asked me what I was looking at. I replied with little confidence, “I think it’s a Blackburnian Warbler.” Later, after verifying what I thought I knew, I breathed a sigh of relief. A few moments later, a young woman walked towards me with a large dog. She apologized for interrupting whatever I was looking at. Oh, heavens no, I thought. I wasn’t feeling interrupted at all, and made sure I told her so. I never expect anyone to stop what they’re doing on account of me staring at a bird, especially in a state park. Besides, the patience and habits of a birder can sometimes elicit a non-birder’s eye-roll. I’m aware of that and don’t expect much more, so I appreciated this woman’s unexpected kindness.
          As I walked further along the trail, bird activity seemed to decrease. The deeper into the woods I walked, the quieter it got; the Fire Tower Trail was especially quiet. Approaching Pine Lake, sightings were scarce at best, but I was glad to have explored just for the sake of knowledge and experience.
          Blackburnians are a medium to long-distance migrant, traveling from their wintering grounds in South America to the northern reaches of the eastern United States and into the southern provinces of Canada to breed. They are rare in the western half of the United States.
          If you’re looking for a reason to love this bird for more than just its good looks and migratory prowess, consider its role on the coffee bean farms in Central America. In the environmentally friendly, shade-grown farms of Costa Rica’s Central Valley, the Blackburnian Warbler is known as an insect-eating wizard, one of a few birds helping to rid their crops of la broca, a coffee borer beetle. Just by eating insects, a study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Columbia University found that a single bird can save from 23 to 65 pounds of coffee per hectare on a farm every year. So, if you’re thinking about upgrading your morning joe, consider purchasing coffees that display the Bird Friendly Smithsonian certification mark. These 100% organic coffee beans come from growers that have met strict criteria in regards to shade-grown, plant diversity, and more. 
          For more information on bird-friendly coffee, click here.

Axelson, Gustave. "Coffee Made in the Shade Can Be More Profitable, Thanks to Birds." Living Bird, photographed by Jeffrey Arguedas, vol. 38, Issue 4, Autumn 2019, pp. 20-22.

Janssen, Robert B. Birds of Minnesota State Parks. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 2015.

Kaufman, Kenn. Audubon Guide to North American Birds. Blackburnian Warbler. July 2, 2020. Retrieved from

National Geographic Society. (1999) National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. (3rd ed.). Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Gone Too Soon

Oil on Panel, 4 x 4 inches

Black Lives Matter.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Barred Encounter in the Minnesota Arrowhead

Oil on Panel, 36 x 24 inches

On January 5 of last year, I noticed crows gathering and squawking outside of my kitchen window. I dropped everything and grabbed my winter coat, hat, gloves and camera and headed out the door. The temperature was in the 20s. For Duluth’s standards, that wasn’t too bad. Not far into the woods, I came upon this Barred Owl sitting on a branch about fifteen feet high. Over the next several moments, after the crows left and the Chickadees quieted, it was just me and the owl. The snow depth was around 12-18 inches. Everything about this owl indicated to me that my presence wasn’t bothering it. How was I so sure? I’m never sure when it comes to wild animals, but its posture was relaxed and its demeanor calm. It simply wasn’t paying any attention to me, other than when it first turned its head after I said hello. As close as I was and with its back towards me, I felt it was the polite thing to do. That may sound strange to you, but I purposely and thoughtfully wanted to use my voice as another form of salutation in addition to my approach. I believe birds, as well as other animals, recognize calm, non-threatening human voices from those that are not. 

I spent a long time with the owl in the woods, and soon it was time for me to go. Just when I was ready to head back to the house, the owl’s posture changed. It bobbed its head and stretched its neck. Its eyes were wider than wide. Then, it flew right in front of me and landed in the snow just to my left, around 20 feet away. It was hunting! I was astounded. During the time it took me to get a better view of the owl’s landing site, I wasn’t able to see whether or not it had captured its prey. If it had, it was most likely a vole, a common rodent around my home. After several moments in the snow, the owl flew high up into a spruce tree, tucked itself near the trunk, preened for a couple of minutes, then began to fall asleep. This is the story behind the painting, and I am very fortunate to have had this experience with a friendly Barred Owl.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

One More Before I Go

Oil on Panel, 4 x 4 inches

On March 20th of this year, a small flock of three Cedar Waxwings landed on my pin cherry tree and enjoyed a few berries that had remained on the tree all winter. It was sunny, breezy, and around 25 degrees F. The berries were frozen, but that didn’t stop the birds from eating them. Robins were enjoying them, too, more so during recent cold spells or spring snowstorms when the ground wasn't clear to hunt for worms. Cedar Waxwings enjoy all types of fruit which is their main diet source, but they do eat insects, too. If you want to attract Cedar Waxwings to your yard, plant trees or shrubs that produce fruit. The biggest flock of Cedar Waxwings I’ve ever seen was a flock of at least 32 in the Bailey Tract, Florida in 2012. (photo below)

Cedar Waxwings in the Bailey Tract, Florida, 2012.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Island Gull

Oil on Panel, 4 x 4 inches

     Ring-billed Gulls are one of the most easily identifiable gulls because of the black stripe on their beaks. Personally, my gull identification is not strong, but I keep learning and getting better. I'm sure that if I lived on Lake Superior, which is the closest lake nearest to me, my skills would sharpen in record speed. I never, in a million years, would've thought my warbler identification would be stronger than gulls, but such is the case. Improving upon my knowledge of midwestern gulls is going to be a strong focus going forward this year.
     With recent attention on Covid-19, I feel compelled to say that I was so disheartened to hear of a recent movement to turn on Christmas lights as a gesture of people wanting to feel connected during this time of isolation due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Just when I was thinking birds might get a break from artifical lights during migration since so many businesses are shortening their hours, now their journey northward might be even more perilous than ever before. This is the absolute worst time to add more lights to the evening skies, outside of the fall migration. Birds' attraction to artifical lights is called ALAN (artificial lights at night), and I wrote about it in my September 19, 2019 post. Please, humans. We are facing a pandemic. There are other ways to feel connected instead of turning on Christmas lights outdoors. Keep those lights on the shelves and in their boxes until November and December when birds aren't migrating.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Moth Hunter

Oil on Panel, 4 x 4 inches

     On August 9, 2019, I observed this female Black and White Warbler on the trunk of a red pine, just moments after it snapped up a white moth in the grass below. If this were a male, its cheeks would have a black patch, and its chin and throat would be black also. These warblers spend their summers throughout much of eastern North America and into Canada after wintering in Florida, Mexico, and South America. They’re one of the first warblers to arrive in Minnesota, and my first sightings of them have been in mid-May in Duluth. If you’re looking for this bird, keep your eyes peeled to tree trunks. Similar to Brown Creepers, this is where they do a lot of their insect hunting. Below is my photo of this same bird with a moth in its beak.

Photo of a female Black and White Warbler with moth

Friday, March 6, 2020

Sweet Magnolia

Oil on Panel, 4 x 4 inches

     This is a painting of a female Magnolia Warbler. 
     Last night, while watching the news, I noticed a flying insect rise from the lampshade across the room. My immediate thought? It was heading my way to bite me. Deciding against running out of the room screaming after losing sight of its location, my second thought turned to springtime and the thawing out of everything. 
     Living in Duluth, Minnesota, I generally don’t see a single insect for a good five months, minus the occasional spider that crawls out of the woodwork every now and then. For that reason, late fall and winter are my favorite times of the year. And with two feet of snow still on the ground, one would think insects would be hanging on hard to winter. But like it or not, they’re starting to emerge. 
      Last week, the first larder beetle of the year made its appearance in my kitchen. Grrrr, I’m not a fan. Generally, it's the biting kind that I don't care for, but warblers, such as this Magnolia Warbler, primarily feed on insects. They need insects to survive. Sounds simple enough. Okay, sure, I love bugs, just as long as they stay away from me. I envy entomologists. If there ever was a profession that is completely opposite of what I’d ever be, it might be that. With every bug I see from now on this spring, I’m going to say out loud (or maybe to myself if there are other people around), “I love you, little bug.” But if it bites me, just remember. Love is a fickle thing. 
     With spring on the cusp of arrival, three cheers to the warbler migration. They’re coming!! Bottoms up everyone. Let the insect feast begin!

Friday, February 28, 2020

Zenith City Falcon

Oil on Panel, 4 x 4 inches

     In only eight seconds, a Peregrine Falcon can accelerate from 100 mph to over 200 mph in dive formation when chasing prey. I didn’t see this falcon capture its prey, but I did observe it tearing apart a gull on top of a streetlight on February 1st in Duluth’s harbor. On an adjacent streetlight, another Peregrine Falcon waited, appearing calm, puffed out, and complacent. Nearby, two red-tailed hawks were perched atop of an old steamship getting dismantled for scrap. Around a dozen pigeons were hanging around, too. They took flight when one of the hawks changed its location. Birds of prey were busy in the harbor that day.
     To measure the speed of the Peregrine Falcon, would you conduct a scientific experiment by going skydiving with one? Sounds a little crazy, but that’s exactly what pilot and master falconer Ken Franklin did. In 2005, Ken plunged from a Cessna 172 at 17,000 feet above sea level. With his trained, female, Peregrine Falcon “Frightful” at his side, released just moments earlier and flying alongside the airplane with his dad at the controls, Franklin and his team clocked the falcon’s speed at 242 mph while diving towards a lure dropped to simulate prey.
     To be clear, the experiment was much more elaborate than simply skydiving with a falcon. An altimeter/computer was attached to the falcon and measured how fast Frightful descended within a specific timeframe, while other altimeters were used to compare and verify the results.
     With speeds over 240 mph, could there possibly be a bird faster than the falcon? Terry Masear, author of Fastest Things on Wings, referenced hummingbirds as the title’s subject. The book, one of my all-time favorites, dives into the flight of these tiny birds, but it is hardly a book about flight alone. It is a love story, an appreciation for these small creatures we all adore. That aside, the author writes, “Although diving peregrine falcons can reach a higher speed in miles per hour, when measured in body lengths per second, hummingbirds travel almost twice as fast, making them the fastest things on wings.”
     So, are hummingbirds faster than peregrine falcons? As with so many situations, there are two sides to every coin. It all depends on how you look at it.

Barba, L. (2011, Oct. 7). The fastest animal on Earth “The Peregrine Falcon”. Bio-aerial Locomotion 2011.

Harpole, T. (2005, March). Falling with the Falcon. Air & Space Magazine.

Masear, T. (2015). Fastest things on wings. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Barn Swallow

Oil on Panel, 4 x 4 inches

     Barn Swallows have extraordinary features that not only make them worthy of a Sunday afternoon thriller if you’re looking for bird watching that ranks amongst the best representation of flying daredevils on the planet, they have pageantry in their blood as well. These birds not only show off their flying ace skills, they exude magnetism simply by sitting on a wire. This latter part I notice a lot because birds are expressive in their presence alone. A bird that sits on a wire gives me time to study and appreciate its personality, and these birds have personalities to boot. 
     Barn Swallows have perhaps the largest wings relative to their body mass amongst all birds and are described as an intrinsically maneuverable species. That means they fly with fixed wings more often than flapping, just like vultures, bald eagles, ospreys, hawks and condors, to name a few. They are known for spending considerable amounts of time gliding through the air versus flapping. Conversely, most small birds flap their wings constantly to stay aloft. These birds are referred to as facultatively maneuverable.
     Swallows are also known to take advantage of the ground effect, a term used to describe reduced drag when flying close to the earth, whether over land or water. When these birds fly low, within one wing-length from the earth, they experience increased air pressure under their wings, making it easier for them to fly. So, the next time you see barn swallows foraging low to the ground, just know they’re reserving a lot of flapping power and saving precious energy for those times they need to fly up, over, and around big obstacles (like me!).

Warrick, Douglas R., et al. "Foraging at the Edge of the World: Low-Altitude, High-Speed Manoeuvering in Barn Swallows." Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, vol. 371, no. 1704, 2016, pp. 1-11., Accessed 22 Feb. 2020.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Red-eyed Vireo With Berry

Original, Oil on Panel, 4 x 4 inches

Three birds distinctively remind me of my childhood in Wisconsin: Whip-poor-wills, Red-eyed Vireos, and Eastern Wood-Peewees. I'm glad the vireo is a reliable summertime companion in Minnesota, where I live now. These days, there isn't a single bird I take for granted, so I'm quite happy when I hear it return every year.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Mirador's Award

"Mirador," my oil painting of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, took 3rd Place this past weekend at Wolf River Art League's Mid-Winter Art Show in New London, WI. It was nice to see such a good turnout over the weekend, despite Sunday's snowstorm. This hummingbird will be waiting a while to return north. Thank you to everyone who attended and supported WRAL at Crystal Falls.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Accepted into Arts North International

"Blackbird on Washington Island"
Original, Oil on Linen, 24 x 36 inches

25th Arts North International 2020
1111 Mainstreet, Hopkins, MN 55343
Exhibition Dates: Jan. 9 - Feb. 15, 2020
Reception: Saturday, January 11, 2020, 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Light Refreshments and Cash Bar
Free and Open to the Public

Come to the show! My oil painting "Blackbird on Washington Island" has been accepted into the 25th Arts North International exhibition in Hopkins, MN. The exhibition received over 900 entries, of which 173 works were chosen by jurors. For those of you that follow my work, this is the same work that was selected into the internationally acclaimed "Birds in Art" exhibition of the Woodson Art Museum. If you weren't able to attend that show, here's another opportunity for you to see this work. Happy New Year, everyone!