Saturday, February 27, 2010

Mood Adjusting Wild Turkey

It's impossible to sketch this face without smiling!
Yesterday, I plugged away at my taxes, not an activity my personality is well suited for. The previous night I created the pencil sketch for this art in my sketch book. It waited for me patiently on the kitchen table while I took on the less savory task. I could take breaks, work on the sketch a bit, feel refreshed and go back to my tax work. For the creative spirit, this is like an oasis in a desert. I will share turkey photos and tell you all about my visits with these funny creatures soon. But for the moment, I just wanted to share the fun they've brought me.

No matter how you're feeling when you begin, there is no way to hold onto a grumpy mood while you're sketching a turkey's face! And if it's the last thing you do before going to bed at night, you're certain to fall asleep smiling.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Secret Lives of Ducks

Head-bobbing is a delightful nuptial display to witness. Two Blue-winged Teals are pictured below, the female on the left with her neck contracted, the male on the right with his neck stretched, alternating these movements in perfect rhythm. (Click images to enlarge).An instant later, the male stepped onto the female's back and she disappeared. It doesn't take a rocket-scientist to figure out what's happening here. "She's going to drown!" I heard myself say. Then came the quiet response from local naturalist, Charlie Corbeil, "Maybe she can hold her breath." Hummm. "Maybe...." I had to laugh at myself. The whole sequence spanned less than 60 seconds and was followed by the female's energetic bathing, wing-flapping and preening.Thus began my not-so-subtle introduction to the secret lives of ducks, one of several close-up encounters at Viera Wetlands with Charlie Corbeil, Master Naturalist and photographer. Then followed my field workshop with the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival two days later. Other than general recognition, I knew zero about ducks prior to my experiences in Brevard County, making it a special treat to view them along side experts.

Here we are, below, in the Space Coast Festival's field workshop, the "Secret Life of Ducks", on Black Point Wildlife Drive, Merritt Island NWR, ready to see some ducks.
And below is what we found--thousands of ducks along with an enormous collection of foraging wading birds (only partially represented in the photo), among them, an Eurasian Wigeon, Roseate Spoonbills, and my first look at American Avocets.
Our patient and knowledgeable instructors on this field adventure are pictured below, Bruce Anderson, front scope, and Murray Gardler, just behind and slightly forward, both delightful in their leadership, their enthusiasm and their patience.
Seeing a duck through a scope is not always easy. They move. And sometimes they disappear before you have a chance to spot them. And when they're resting and preening they are often in groups, meaning you have to sort through ducks to find the field marks for the one you're searching for. But what a triumph when you succeed. Not only is the 'whole world' waiting, but they celebrate with you--you, your duck-spotting buddies and two genuinely enthusiastic instructors, all of which made for a warm and gratifying experience.
Blue-winged Teal sketch in progress

I learned tons of interesting facts about ducks, too many to absorb all at once. But I will share one duck life secret with you. Have you ever considered how all those ducklings in a brood happen to hatch out at the same time so they can swim along with mom? The female lays her eggs over a period of days, but she doesn't begin incubation until every egg is laid. Hatch timing is determined by the number of days incubated rather than the date the egg is laid. Smart ducks!The top series of images were taken at the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands in Brevard County, Florida, with guide, photographer and Master Naturalist, Charlie Corbeil. Click the link and visit Charlie's beautiful photography.
Also visit the website of Master Naturalist, and photographer, Vince Lamb. Vince and Charlie were two of my guides while visiting Brevard County's beautiful places and wildlife during my January visit.
Visit Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival and mark the 2011 dates on your calendar.
And David McCree's festival reports at Blog the Beach will give you interesting information about the 2010 festival activities.
Also visit Space Coast Eco for informative descriptions of key natural areas and field trips for your visit to Brevard County. These excellent field trip posts are created by my Brevard County hostess, Marge Bell. You will also want to visit Space Coast Beach Buzz and FloridaBeachBasics for more visitor and wildlife information.
To view all my posts about Brevard County's Space Coast Birds and the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, click here.

Linked to Bird Photography Weekly #78, at to celebrate the conservation of our world's birds.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The KINGfisher that Keeps on Impressing

This wasn't the first time I'd seen a Belted Kingfisher, but it was the first time I had observed one in action. I photographed this male at the Viera Wetlands, in Brevard County, Florida. (Click images to enlarge.)
What I lack in lens power, I can sometimes overcome with my focus and ability to track a subject even when I can't see what's happening. And this always lends itself to surprises. But before I tell you more about this particular kingfisher, let me fast forward to two days later and a well-timed classroom presentation, "Kingfishers and their Allies", at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.
Meet Jeff Gordon, the presenter, bird tour leader, consultant, blogger and personable birding expert. As a fellow blogger, I know Jeff through the Nature Blog Network and have enjoyed his help with bird ID's on several occasions. It was a special treat for me to meet him in person at the festival, along with his wife, Liz.

Below is Jeff's photo of a female Belted Kingfisher, the more colorful gender in this species. The male lacks the rufous belly band.
Female Belted Kingfisher by Jeff Gordon

Besides introducing me to a whole class of beautiful kingfishers and related birds from around the world, Jeff's presentation was packed with fun facts and images of the Belted Kingfisher. As if burrowing in dirt banks to create a nest cavity for their young isn't curious enough, two more bits of information about these birds stood out for me--the interesting structure of their feet and their special style of preparing a meal.
Kingfishers have small, weak feet designed only for perching, similar in function to those of hummingbirds. In addition their toes have a curious syndactyl arrangement, a term meaning fused or webbed. A kingfisher's middle and outer toes are partially fused as shown in the sketch above in the lower right corner. Syndactyl toes, strong, coarse bills, and short, stocky necks are key body characteristics for this class of birds.The Belted Kingfisher is a specialized plunge diver whose primary food is fish. Spotting prey from a high perch, he dives and plunges to capture prey, sometimes hovering prior to the plunge. He then carries his prey to a perch. The size of the fish doesn't seem to matter. Besides having special enzymes in his throat to begin digestion as he swallows, the kingfisher pounds his prey against the perch, "Blam, blam, blam!", as Jeff so aptly put it, a behavior that both kills the prey and 'tenderizes' it for swallowing.Armed with all this new information, I returned to Tennessee and, for the first time, browsed through my kingfisher images. What a surprise. While following this male with my lens, hoping to capture some sort of sketchable image, I had no idea that I had witnessed a dive, nor that my subject had resurfaced with a fish. And look. There it is, just as Jeff described it. Blam, blam, blam!
And then it settled on me, the height of this kingfisher's perch, the speed with which he descended. To spot a fish moving underwater, dive with precision, plunge and come up with a fish, all in a matter of seconds--my awe of the Belted Kingfisher magnified in leaps.

One more fun tid bit--kingfishers teach their young to dive. When fledglings are ready to fish, parents drop dead fish in the water for their young to practice retrieving! Wouldn't that be a fun event to witness!

The Belted Kingfisher was one of the many species that I enjoyed while visiting the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands with guide, photographer and Master Naturalist, Charlie Corbeil during the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.

Visit Jeff Gordon's blog and Flickr Albums to read more about Jeff's activities and view his excellent photography.

David McCree's festival reports at Blog the Beach will give you lots more news about the 2010 festival activities. Also visit Space Coast Eco for informative descriptions of key natural areas and field trips, and Space Coast Beach Buzz and FloridaBeachBasics for more Brevard County visitor and wildlife information.
To view all my posts about the fun I had while visiting Brevard County's Space Coast Birds and the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, click here.
And if you aren't familiar with the Nature Blog Network, visit the link to find the Top List in nature blogging.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Wood Stork--Sketching a Curious Face

While sketching this Wood Stork, I couldn't help but wonder what these facial characteristics were all about--scaly bald skin, all those wrinkles, that enormous beak. What is it about this bird's life style that makes these features so important?Though related to vultures who also have bald heads, carrion is not a typical food source for Wood Storks. They are primarily fish-eating birds that also eat crayfish, shrimp, reptiles and frogs, and even small mammals. Sibley's Guide to Bird Life and Behavior says the stork's feeding habits are the key to understanding these peculiar facial features.
Wood Storks are wading birds with a specialized type of foraging called tactile feeding or "grope feeding". They don't have to see their prey but rather can catch prey by dragging their open beak in shallow, murky water where prey is concentrated, snapping their bill shut when prey is contacted. This automatic trigger-like reflex is said to be the fastest movement of any known for vertebrates, clocked at 0.025 seconds.

Wood Storks walk as they forage, sometimes foraging in groups and raising their wings, maneuvers that help to stir prey movement. But it's the shallow, muddy water that holds the key to their baldness, according to Sibley. A bald head is easier to clean than a feathered one after muddy foraging.
The Wood Stork is an endangered species in North America. Though Wood Storks are found in other areas of the world, the North American population "plummeted from an estimated 150,000 individuals in the early 1900's to about 15,000 today." (Sibley) The single most dramatic impact has been disturbance of natural water level cycles in the Florida Everglades, an area that formerly supported the majority of our North American Wood Stork population.
Fortunately, the species has shifted some of its breeding activity to more northerly wetlands in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, but wetland preservation and close monitoring continue to be vital to the survival of this species.
I observed this particular Wood Stork at the Viera Wetlands, during my visit to Brevard County Florida and the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife festival in January. It was a thrill to view this bird at close range before he flew to rejoin his flock mates and showed me his pink feet! (Click image above to enlarge)
Wood Storks were one of the many species that I enjoyed while visiting the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands with guide, photographer and Master Naturalist, Charlie Corbeil.
You will find more about Wood Storks and related information by visiting the following links:
Audubon's Wood Stork --ecology and status; Audubon Everglades Preservation
Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival and David McCree's festival reports at Blog the Beach.
Visit Space Coast Eco for informative descriptions of key natural areas and field trips, and Space Coast Beach Buzz and FloridaBeachBasics for more Brevard County visitor and wildlife information.
Click this link to join current political action designed to help protect wetlands.
To read about my first encounter with Wood Storks, click here. And to view all my posts related to Space Coast Birds and the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, click here.
Linked to Bird Photography Weekly #77 at, to promote the conservation of our world's birds.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Florida Scrub-Jays--A Specialist Species

The first time a bird lands on your head, you don't know what's happening. Your hand automatically reaches up to check it out. When you hear a jay flutter away, it's an 'aha' moment.
The next time you're ready and you can't help but giggle. It's a delightful experience. And when a Scrub-Jay lands on your hand and politely looks at you with expectance--unforgettable. This was the nature of my introduction to the Florida Scrub-Jay. (Click images below to enlarge.)
My guide on this occasion was Vince Lamb, Master Naturalist, photographer and Scrub-Jay expert. We were visiting the Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary, a 160-acre preserve in Rockledge, FL, made possible by Florida's Environmentally Endangered Lands Program (EEL).
The Florida Scrub-Jay is the state's only endemic bird, occurring nowhere else and found mostly in Central Florida. In addition, this species requires a very specific habitat, oak scrub with only a scattering of tall trees. This habitat emerges in sandy soils that were once coastal dunes and its biodiversity is dependent upon natural fire cycles that prevent over-growth.
Scrub-Jays are omnivores, feeding on insects, acorns, small reptiles and amphibians. Vince pointed out another habitat that often adjoins scrub habitat, the Wet Prairie or savannah, pictured below. These prairies are characterized by low, relatively flat, treeless, and poorly drained coastal plains that support a variety of frogs, reptiles and other species that Scrub-Jays depend upon for food.
The specialist Scrub-Jay is also one of few bird species known to live in small family groups, usually consisting of a breeding pair and several of their off-spring. Group members have specific duties that they alternate, such as 'sentinel duty' and feeding young during breeding season.
The jay you see perched above is taking the job of sentinel duty seriously. While on watch, he/she sits alert and vigilant, watching for predators and intruders, untempted even by a handy meal until relieved of duty by another individual. Specific calls indicate whether an intruder or predator is present and even what kind of predator. A different call denotes a hawk overhead or a snake below, and family members are alerted to action, whether to hide or collectively mob.
Above you see four members of a family. The jay third from left holds a peanut in his mouth. Only a limited number of naturalists have permits to offer peanuts to these birds (my guide, Vince, being one of them), otherwise feeding them is illegal. The reason for feeding permits-- banding, a crucial method of periodically capturing and monitoring a bird population, helping biologists track the relative health and rise and fall of this threatened species.
In 2004 only two Scrub-Jays inhabited this sanctuary. Today their numbers have increased to thirty. Statewide, in 1992, the Scrub-Jay population was estimated to number 9,500 to 11,000. As human development encroaches on scrub areas and natural fires are suppressed, scrub habitat is rapidly disappearing, causing further decline in Florida Scrub-Jays and other scrub dependent species. This, of course, makes saving scrub habitat and closely monitoring the wildlife dependent upon this habitat even more crucial.
For more information about Florida's Scrub-Jays and related information visit the following links:
Vince Lamb (Top image of me with Scrub-Jay courtesy of Vince Lamb.)
Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary with field trip information provided by Space Coast Eco, and Location Map
My blog posts about Bird Banding and Space Coast birds.

And just a note about the above sketchbook image. One of the values of photography and especially sketching is the opportunity to intimately study a subject, its color patterns, expression and shapes. Learning happens while you work. Many of my photographs make the Scrub-Jay's cheek patch appear dark, charcoal, even black. This is also how the Florida Scrub-Jay is illustrated in my copy of the Peterson's field guide, Eastern Birds. But closer inspection of images and additional study in the Sibley's field guide, show these facial feathers to be blue, a color that seems to fall somewhere between cobalt and cerulean on the watercolor palette. Lighting changes how these colors appear to the eye, and of course, there are variations in individuals with some having more gray feathers mixed in with the blue. A close look at the cheek feathers is provided in image #four above.

This is one of the fun parts of sketching, chasing down the details, wrapping your mind and your eye around the subject and remembering all you experienced in the process. Besides being a fun way to record encounters in nature, the sketchbook gives you an even deeper appreciation for any species that has sparked your curiosity and imagination!

Linked to Bird Photography Weekly #76 at to promote the conservation of our world's birds.
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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...

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