Join me for a fun day of exploring nature with watercolor on April 8th at the Chota Recreation Center, Tellico Village in Loudon, Tennessee.
Nature journals are the earliest source of information that we have about our natural world. Holding a journal in one's hand evokes emotion and awe because we innately relate to the sensory details captured in the artists words and images. The added bonus to creating our own journals? We see and enjoy more deeply and that comes with calming health benefits!
Join me for a relaxing day of exploring watercolor and nature. We will review helpful sketching techniques, use of values, basic watercolor washes, negative painting, representation of sky, clouds, rocks and trees, and choice of colors for the season. Using all our senses to enhance our observations, we'll leave our traditional artist fears behind and enjoy a day of exploring nature with watercolor.
A young bat who began rehab at 4 grams, emaciated and full of parasites. In the above image she is shown weighing 19 grams just before release. Photo credit: Ceacy Henderson.
What follows is a moving essay by Ceacy about her work with bats in Colrain, Massachusetts.
Masters of the dark
By Ceacy Henderson
For them, it is all about the dark. Safety is in the dark, freedom is in the dark; the crawling out of their hiding places, taking wing, spreading out those amazing membrane-covered bones, the hand wing, those tiny elongated bones reaching outward into the night, catching air, lifting upward, carrying their furred bodies into the realm of sound and speed, echolocation bouncing back the “unseen” world in details unimaginable. They are high-speed hunters, up to 40 mph, eating a thousand insects an hour, a thousand heartbeats a minute. They are, of course, bats.
In that blackness of a moonless night, bats experience the world in ways I cannot fathom, but I see them up close now as I take care of my big brown bat babies in my new role as a wildlife rehabilitator specializing in bats. I have had them for a month. In the beginning, at just 10 days old when their mother rejected them and I took over, they had just emerged from the darkness of closed eyes. Nearly naked, utterly unable to care for themselves, unable to stay warm, vulnerable in every way, they still instinctively shun the light, hide beneath the cover of a cloth in the tiny mesh enclosure I kept them in.
Slipping into tight places, sometimes hanging from their hind feet, sometimes lying horizontal beneath the fabric on the floor of their cage, they wait for night. In the beginning, I fed them every 2-3 hours all day until midnight, then started again at four or five in the morning; then every three hours, stretching the time between feedings until now I feed them only three times a day. All day they are quiet, nearly silent, biding their time, until I disturb them to feed them, then back to their resting. In the daytime you can walk into a room full of bats and not even know they are there, a quarter of an inch is all they need to slip into a crevice out of sight, away from harm.
Now at night my babies are learning to fly, trying to master the essential skill that distinguishes them from all other mammals. At 38 days they are leaping from one side of their enclosure to the other, hopping across the floor, scampering hither and thither, practicing those all-important hunting techniques. Two nights ago I caught moths and released them into the bats’ enclosure. At first they evidenced just curiosity at this fluttering insect, then suddenly, as if instinct instructed, one pounced on the moth. I could hear the distinctive crunching of insect being devoured, a sound I know well having fed these growing bats mealworms as soon as they could digest anything other than formula, a substitute for mother’s milk made from Similac, water, powdered egg whites and organic flax oil. I was ecstatic despite the late hour; my babies were growing up.
I was in my studio at midnight, not to feed the “juvies,” but to feed the newest baby, every 40 minutes all night long — the surviving twin of a pair that I had picked up at eight that evening, newly rescued from the deck of someone’s house. Perhaps their mother could not care for twins, perhaps she had never returned from foraging, fallen prey to the numerous other species that includes bat on the menu — owls, snakes, cats, hawks, or perhaps a victim of violence at the hands of their most dangerous enemy, humans.
So many people do not like bats. A surprising number of folks involuntarily shudder when I mention that I rescue injured, debilitated or orphaned bats. They almost pull away from me physically, as if the bats might emerge from my sleeves at any moment. A look of suspicion, almost mistrust, as if to love bats is to fraternize with the devil. But I don’t judge them . . .well, maybe a little, but I actually understand that bats are as alien to most of us as if they were from another planet.
Most folks are more familiar with lions or dolphins or polar bears than they are with the one of the most numerous mammals on earth. There are more than 1,300 different species of bats in the world, living everywhere except the polar caps. Yet, even in New England, where there are nine different species, most of us think all bats are pretty much the same. And why not? They only come out at dusk, and unless one gets into a building, usually frantically trying to find its way out, we rarely get the opportunity to see one up close. That is the way they like it — secrecy, obscurity, hidden in safety in groups, 10s to 100s, sometimes by the millions, in large caves or under bridges, in abandoned buildings, making their nightly migrations out to hunt for insects or nectar or fruit depending on the species. There are even bats that eat fish and, of course, there is the one species of bat that eats blood from animals. Not people. Despite the sensationalism of the vampire myths, and despite the Transylvanian origins of Dracula, the vampire bat lives only in South America. Still we fear them, tiny as they are. We fear this flying wonder precisely because it is superbly unique among mammals, the only winged mammal in the world, finely adapted to high-speed flight at night, precisely when we are least able to see them.
As a new rehabilitator, I have had to overcome my own fear of handling the adults with their needle-sharp teeth and inherent dislike of being touched and restrained by people. Although I am also astounded by their tolerance, these wild animals held captive for their own protection have no way of knowing that I mean them no harm, and yet they seem to understand when someone is trying to help them. They suddenly stop resisting, refrain from biting, give a warning when they are frightened or are being hurt before defending themselves, if the warning is not heeded. I have experienced this already. I was holding an adult bat while learning to do a health inspection, which involved extending each wing, when the bat lightly bit me twice, not even penetrating the nitrile glove I was wearing, until in my inexperience I managed to hurt him, so he finally resorted to a real bite, a message not to be misunderstood. I felt awful, not because I was bitten, even though later I couldn’t even locate the place where his tiny teeth had punctured my skin, but remorse that, despite his warning, I had hurt him in my ineptitude. The curse of being a beginner at this.
What impresses me the most is this new baby. He looked nearly dead when he arrived, a naked little bag of bones in a practically transparent hairless skin. Half the length of my thumb and not nearly as wide, an anatomy lesson on display, every bone visible in exquisite detail, bulging, un-opened eyes on his skeletal head. I gave him no chance at all. I had to locate his mouth using a bright light and a magnifying glass. His first meal consisted of no more than a drop of formula on his lips. Then given a drop every half hour to 40 minutes, a frequent glance at the nearly transparent skin on his tummy evidence that he had in fact swallowed some because you can clearly see milk in their stomachs from the outside. Each time I went to feed the little guy I expected to find him dead, but each time I could see him still breathing, his bony ribs rapidly rising and falling as he lay prostrate on the heating pad wrapped in a little square of polar fleece. Until sometime in the middle of the night when I went to feed him, he was no longer in his papoose but instead I found him crawling along the floor of his enclosure exploring his new world. Later on I found him hanging upside down, sometimes by both feet, sometimes just one; toe nails hooked into the soft mesh — his life force remarkable. Now that he associates me with food, each time I go to feed him he clicks and squeaks, clasps my hand with every toenail clinging on for dear life, desperately latching his mouth on to the eye dropper as I feed him his miniscule amount of milk every two hours and check his tummy to make sure I don’t over feed him.
His frantic survival instinct speaks volumes about what has made bats so successful. They may be small, but they are mighty, and although they are mightily misunderstood, things are changing. We are beginning to understand how important they are to our ecosystems — dispersing seeds, pollinating fruits, ridding us of crop pests and disease carrying mosquitoes.
So here I am, decidedly not a night person, staying up to all hours, marveling at one of nature’s miracles, masters of the darkness, messengers of the mystery of this fabulous living world in all its many remarkable incarnations.
Ceacy, shown below, is an animal rehabilitator specializing in bats.
Visit this Baby Warm link to contribute funds needed for an incubator to help save orphaned bats. Update! The total monies needed to buy an incubator for Ceacy's orphaned bats were raised soon after publication of this blog post! A big thank you to her generous contributors!
Some days are hummingbird days! These are days when activity at the nectar feeders so captivates our attention that we don't want to miss anything. Watching is irresistible. Nothing else gets done!
Ruby-throat approaching Royal Catchfly Photo by Vickie Henderson
Today was one of those days for me! Yesterday, I brought home a new native plant species hummingbirds love--Royal Catchfly (Silene regia). A native prairie plant, it gets its name from glands that secrete a sticky enzyme that attracts and captures insects. Though the plant is related to carnivorous plants, it does not benefit nutritionally from the insects.
Hummer and Royal Catchfly
The new flower species was only one change that attracted my attention and the hummers. I added a new feeder. The two males guarding the four feeders I had out were chasing all the juveniles away. No sooner would an approaching juvenile escape one male, than it would be intercepted by the second. Not nice--but typical hummingbird behavior.
A juvenile male waiting to approach a feeder.
I added the new feeder around the corner near a small garden. Wthin minutes of hanging it, Wow! Juveniles! Sometimes two or three arriving at the same time, reacting to each other with tails flared, face-offs and chirps. Very shortly, however, another male showed up. A beautiful male, breath-taking to see at such close range. I was sitting only a few feet from the feeder.
The male, pictured above, was showing some molting, replacing old feathers with new ones, his feathers getting ready for fall migration.
The tenacity of one of the juveniles was surprising He did not want to give up his feeder and challenged the male repeatedly. In the image below, the male is watching the juvenile and balancing to face him as he hovers and threatens.
When the juvenile landed on the feeder after the male departed, the male was quickly on him displaying shuttle dives, short repetitive U-shaped dives, coming very close to the juvenile at its lowest point. I have seen this display during courtship but never before witnessed it during aggression at the feeder. Serious stuff. So far, warnings, but getting close to the real thing.
To my relief, the juvenile retreated to the garden and perched on the plant stake supporting the catchfly. For a while, he sat very still, looking like one of the leaves, blending in with the foliage. The male went about his business and the confrontation ended.
Male juvenile, above, hiding in the catchfly, showing developing red gorget feathers as he looks up. Every day of their fast-paced lives holds a survival story!
Juvenile Ruby-throat with Coneflowers Watercolor by Vickie Henderson
This is the height of hummingbird season, the best time to see and enjoy them. The first juveniles are out of the nest, second nesting has begun, and northern hummingbirds have already begun migration.
For an extra treat this season, join us at the Wonder of Hummingbirds Festival at Ijams Nature Center, in Knoxville, TN, on August 20th to celebrate these magnificent birds! More information is found in the link below.
Links and resources:
Photo credits: All the photos in this blog post were taken by Vickie Henderson
Some days are truely magical from start to finish. This July 1st hike to Andrews Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains with three friends had that quality.
No one expects to find a day in the 60's in July in east Tennessee! Nor do you expect to drive to the Smoky Mountains National Park on a holiday weekend without throngs of traffic. We managed to enjoy both--low traffic and perfect weather! (It was 69 F degrees when we finished our hike at 3:00 pm!)
We started at Clingman's Dome and hiked the rocky steps, some natural, most constructed for visitor comfort, leading down the slope to Andrew's Bald. The trail takes you through pristine forest along the ridge edge, lush with native vegetation in various stages of maturity, thriving in the rich forest floor.
There is something truely magical about the ferns, algea and lichen that line the trail edges and thrive in the shade and water that trickles down the mountain face in numerous places.
Part of the fun is the curiousity stimulated by these plants. We stopped to take photos of some of them and wondered about their identification.
Small Purple Fringed Orchid, above and below.
Our ultimate goal was to see the Flame Azaleas on the bald and enjoy the spectacular view. We enjoyed that and more!
Above, the view from Andrew's Bald through a rare and spectacular clear atmosphere!
Though the azaleas are expected to be in full bloom in early July, their peek occurred earlier this year. Maybe that was due to our unseasonably warm May weather--I'm not sure how that works--but we were delighted to find blooms nonetheless.
The above beautiful blossoms were found on the shady side of one of the azaleas, showing a variety of color from pink to peach to orange.
The bald was a great place to relax for lunch and I checked out some of the bird activity around us. For the first time, I heard a breeding Dark-eyed Junco burst into song. Normally I see them in the winter months. The one below was hopping along the plank path and foraging along its edges. I also found Cedar Wax Wings and heard a Common Raven.
After lunch, Kara pulled a package of bubble blowing liquid from her pack! Of all the things I've seen someone pull out of their hiking pack, this was by far the most surprising. What happened next was delightful.
On the bald with us were two families from Houston, traveling together. The family members originated from Bolivia, France and Chicago. It was the children of these families that Kara invited to play with the bubbles. An unexpected entertainment for all of us in the higher elevation of the Smokies!
After the families started back down the trail, they encountered a bear foraging only ten feet from the trail! They also saw a deer! When we caught up with them only minutes later, the children could speak of nothing else. "We saw a BEAR, and a DEER, and DEER POOP!" I felt so happy for these children--an experience in nature they will never forget.
No, we didn't even catch a glimpse of a bear. I'm sure he was long gone by the time we passed the spot!
I am blessed with thrushes in my woodland yard. Eastern Bluebirds have just fledged their first brood from one of my nest boxes. Migrating Swainson's Thrushes were singing a week ago while I planted my hummingbird garden and I spotted one this morning, resting on a limb before dropping to the ground to forage. Wood Thrushes are singing all around the yard daily, establishing breeding territories.
The habitat here is perfect for nesting Wood Thrushes--shade, shrubby understory, moist soil and leaf litter--all contributing to an attractive habitat for nesting and raising young.
The thick foliage often makes it very hard to find a Wood Thrush even when it is singing right in front of you. (It also offers poor light for early morning photography.) Luckily they often fly from perch to perch while singing and that's when you can sometimes locate them for a good look.
Yesterday morning, it was movement of a different kind that caught my eye and allowed me to locate my singing thrush. He was flapping his wings vigorously, then stretched his neck, producing his beautiful flutey song. This was followed by another series of wing-flapping while dropping down onto the limb on his stomach, straddling his legs on either side of the limb, remaining there for a few seconds, then bouncing back up again to sing another refrain of his song.
He repeated this sequence numberous times--a phrase of his song, followed by wing-flapping, down to his stomach, up again and another phrase of his song, This observation helped to explain the seemingly long pause between phrases.
I have checked Birds of North America for this behavior and could find nothing that resembled it. I eliminated "brood patch" related behavior because the female is believed to incubate alone. My thoughts were these possibilties: scratching his belly, mating display, pre-coital practice (if there is such a thing), energy discharge.
I am interested in what others may know or speculate about this behavior or if you know of this behavior occurring in other species.
There is always something new to discover while watching bird behavior. May is an exciting month for bird activity. Keep your eyes open and ears tuned in!
Bird banding at Seven Islands State Birding Park sometimes brings surprises. Our banding session on March 27th, brought a special one. An American Woodcock was the first bird captured in our nets.
Above, Master Bander, Mark Armstrong holds the woodcock so the rest of the banding team can see him/her before release.
Mark described the woodcock's beak as "soft as a noodle" while he was removing him/her from the net, but as soon as he was free, the beak hardened again. The woodcock's beak is specially adapted for finding and digging earthworms in the forest floor.
This quote from Birds of North America describes some of the woodcocks unique qualities: "Several features help to distinguish this forest-dwelling shorebird from its more aquatic relatives (Scolopacidae): a long bill specialized for feeding on earthworms, a stout head with large eyes set far back for rearview binocular vision, a polygynous mating system, sexes monomorphic in color with females substantially larger than males, and plumage with mottled, leaf-brown patterns that blend superbly with the forest floor. Indeed, the body and behavior of this woodcock have given it many colorful vernacular names such as timberdoodle, Labrador twister, night partridge, and bog sucker."
The Woodcock is a game bird so we did not band or record this capture, we just admired it and released. No one expects to see a woodcock at such close range and this was quite a treat for all of us!
In addition to the their "penting" call during courtship, the male woodcock makes a rushing sound with its outer flight feathers.
Most of the rest of our banded birds were goldfinches, sparrows, cardinals and chickadees, but we did have one special catch at our last net run--a beautiful male Tree Swallow!
Tree Swallows have just returned to east Tennessee from their wintering grounds and they were flying in groups, all around the area, checking out the nest boxes.
It was delightful to listen to their calls and hear their chattering as they landed on the nest boxes and considered their options. Seven Islands has a nest box trail of about 50 boxes that provide homes for chickadees, wrens, swallows and bluebirds.
Ocean Trail at Palos Verdes Nature Preserve, California--2015
Bird-banding at Seven Islands State Birding Park--2014
Photo courtesy of Jody Stone
Bird-banding at Seven Islands
Photo courtesy of Karen Wilkenson
Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill!--2014
Photo courtesy of Blue Sky Expeditions
Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane banners and son, John--2014
The Incredible Muir Woods near Stinson Beach, CA--2014
Photo courtesy of Wendy Pitts Reeves
Me and Denali--2012
Photo courtesy of Bob King
For the Love of It...
...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals. Sendivogius (1750)
Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham