Saturday, January 26, 2013

Yellow-Shafter Flicker

The Northern yellow-shafted flicker is not an uncommon bird by any means. We had them in our yard when we lived in Ann Arbor, and we see them frequently around our property now. But it is less common to have them come to the feeders, so when they do I make that made dash for my camera.

The light was really nice, a bright but cloudy day. The suet was pretty much depleted, due in large part to those pesky starlings, who are pretty but quite a nuisance.

I just love this bird, and need to do a new drawing of one. I drew one years ago, 2007 or 2008, one of the first I did in pen and ink and colored pencil. My style has come a long way since then!

Such a tapestry of color and shapes. Each breast feather is dotted with black. The black bar coming off its mandible indicates that this is a male.

A nice look at the bright red "V" on the back of his neck, and how he's using his tongue to pick up bits of suet.

I was watching him through the lens try to swallow a large piece of suet. I was totally unprepared for when his tongue came whipping out of his mouth and snapped around his head like a lasso. I kid you not, it had to be at least 4 inches long. This was all I managed to get. He did it twice, and neither me nor my camera could catch it at its full length.

Flicker tongues really are 5 inches long!!

After going over the images I shot that day, I think I have my pose for a new piece.

I am heading to Florida this morning, a road trip with my mother to visit my father's mother, who turned 90 last November. I know that each trip could be the last time I see her, so I have to resist the urge to spend all my time stalking shore birds and waterfowl in the wildlife refuges and spend time with her. We will spend a day at Merritt Island NWR, and take a trip down the coast to Archie Carr NWR, and might stop at Pinckney Island NWR in South Carolina, where one of my favorite bloggers, Kelly at Red and the Peanut, spends a lot of time. Here's hoping for a life list bird or two!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Red-breasted Nuthatch ID

The Red-breasted nuthatch is one of my favorite birds. I know, I know, I have a lot of favorites. How can I not? Such wonderful creatures, birds are. But the RBN is such a cheerful fellow, and a bird we only see in the winter, so we have to fill up on them while they're here. To find them in the summer I have to go to the Upper Peninsula. But this time of year they spend their days plucking peanuts from the feeder in the back yard, and I have a front row seat in my studio from which to watch and photograph them.

Male Red-breasted nuthatch.

One can tell most bird species' sex by its plumage--females tend to have vastly different plumage, usually drab to help them blend in while on the nest. There are exceptions, of course, like Blue jays, where both the male and female share color and markings. In other species the difference are subtle, and easily missed if you're not really paying attention, or don't know what to look for.

Nuthatches fall into the latter group. It was only recently that I learned how to tell male and female White-breasted nuthatches apart--the male had a black cap, while the female's is gray. While I watched an RBN the other day I wondered if the same applied to the male and female of that species, and indeed it does.

Overall the male red-breasted is more brightly marked--black on top of the head, brighter sides/belly, and more blue on its back.

Silly face--birds look so odd when seen straight on.


 Classic nuthatch pose.

The female shares the male's coloration and markings, but is overall duller in color, with a gray cap, pale sides/belly and more brown on her back and wings. Both have that distinctive black eye line.

Compare her to the male, shown again below.


Here's a better look at her back and cap.

So there you have it, Red-breasted nuthatch ID!


Monday, January 14, 2013

Carolina (Wren) On My Mind

We have lots and lots of birds visit our feeders every day. At any given time you can look out the window and see cardinals, goldfinch, chickadees and titmice, nuthatches (red and white-breasted), doves, jays and juncos. For the most part the birds are the same as the ones who were here yesterday, and will be the same as those who will come tomorrow.

But every now and then we get a bird who is not so common, like the Golden-crowned kinglet we had last week, or the beautiful male flicker who paid us a visit yesterday.

A few days ago, late in the afternoon, I spotted a Carolina wren checking out the suet.

Carolina wren.

Not a wholly uncommon bird here, it is a winter visitor, and I've never seen more than two at once. Some winters we don't see one at all.

He needled away at the edge of the suet.

Big feet for such a small bird!

Fast and twitchy, they are still easier to photograph than titmice and chickadees, who like to swoop in, grab a seed, and swoop out. This rusty fellow showed himself from all angles.

I noticed the leading edge of his flight feathers are ragged, like an owl's.  I wonder if he has need of silent flight?

After a few minutes a downy flew in, and the wren departed...

...taking refuge in our Christmas tree, which will live out the rest of the winter on the balcony to provide the birds with a little extra shelter.

The wren's patience finally ran out, and he executed a sneak attack, flying under the radar and sidling past the downy, who was now fully engaged with the suet.

Such a sweet face--I hope to see him again soon.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Artwork--"The Fisher King"

Whew! Just in the nick of time. I have a show application due tomorrow that I really wanted this piece done for, so I've been cramming this week to get him done.

"The Fisher King"  20x15, colored pencil and ink on Bristol board.

When thinking about a title for this piece I was first throwing around "marsh queen" or some such thing. Then "fisher king" popped into my head. Herons obviously eat fish, which is where I was going with it at first. But having read and written a paper on T.S. Elliot's The Wasteland in college, and having been a fan of Arthurian legend for many years, the name really struck me.

Accounts of who exactly the Fisher King was vary, but generally he is the guardian of the Grail, a wounded king whose health is linked to the health of the land. As the king is wounded, so too the land. He is also a very mysterious and enigmatic figure, and the great blue heron was always that for me. As a child growing up on a lake, I would often see a heron standing on the end of the dock. But if I even thought about going outside it somehow knew, and it would spread those huge wings and lift itself into the air, vanishing around the point.

This is a bird I photographed two years ago in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. You can see some more images of the bird I drew this piece from in my post "Heron Yoga" 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fit for a King(let)

A year or two ago we got the idea to attach a suet feeder to a block of wood and fasten it to the balcony railing, to allow the birds who are not so good at grasping and dangling by their toes greater access to the suet. It was intended mostly for bluebirds, but I have yet to see one on it. We have seen any number of other birds, from downy woodpeckers and flickers to Carolina wrens, using it.

The other day I was passing through the living room and glanced out the doorwall to the balcony. I saw a lone bird on the tray feeder, who looked much like a goldfinch at first glance. But a dark stripe on its head made me pause. As I looked closer I realized it was a golden-crowned kinglet!

I scrambled for the camera (yes, this happens a lot around here). By the time I got back over to the doorwall, the bird was no longer on the feeder. Poop. But then I leaned to my left and saw him on the suet. Yay! I started snapping pictures through the screen, as this is a bird I had seen only once and had no photos of--I wanted to make sure I got something.

Golden-crowned kinglet. I kind of like the sparkle effect the screen gives the highlights.

After about eight shots I moved the camera over to shoot through the glass. He had hopped down and was trying to reach the suet from the side.

His short insect-nabbing beak made it hard to reach the suet.

 He posed oh so prettily for one good shot, then was gone.

Two days later, at about the same time of day, the same thing happened. There he was, going at the suet, the only bird on the balcony. I wonder, maybe he doesn't like the crowds? At any rate, I was able to get a few more photos before he was off again. What a sweet face!