Friday, February 25, 2011

Second Try

Once again we have snow in the valleys of western Oregon – a treat for me and another try at photographing snow on the backs of waterfowl. We head to our local duck pond.

Assuming they did have it, most of the geese and ducks have shaken the snow off; but one pair of geese still has a little blanket of snow on their shoulders … just what I want. Dale stays inside the car to keep the camera dry while he photographs the pair. I hop out with my “write-in-the-rain” paper.

A stillness surrounds me. Big, fluffy snowflakes drift down from a grey, windless sky. Cars off in the distance are muffled, making my world smaller and wilder. I can almost forget I am in a city park. I walk over to the second pond. Lots of nearby goose chatter; a killdeer calls from across the pond, “Killllldeeeer”; a string of trees are reflected in the gray water. I savor the mix of quiet water, silent snow, and the morning greetings of the geese.

It isn’t even freezing now, but did last night. All is frosted in white and starting to drip even as more snow falls. Coot come out on land to feed and soon gather short blankets of snow on their dark shoulders and sprinkles on their black heads. My paper is getting covered with slush … but the snow just keeps getting better and better.

Note: “Write-in-the-rain” paper isn’t stocked on art store shelves. It is designed for biologists, loggers, and such who have to work out doors. I decided I don’t use mine often enough. It was perfect for the soggy conditions. I started by trying to sketch with my fountain pen, but it was only slightly better than trying a pen on wax paper – really weak lines. The trees sketch has a little ink, but mostly a graphite pencil. It was barely snowing then so this sketch stayed cleaner.

I wanted stronger values so I next tried a very soft graphite pencil. I quickly realized the soft lead gathered water and was splotching, but it did give a loosey goosey effect …. Pun intended.
Finely I switched to a simple mechanical pencil with a harder lead. I had more control with the harder lead …. But by then the slushy snow was falling so quickly I was pushing snow around on my page! Wiping it off didn’t seem to be an option without smearing the lines.

The drawings are nothing to brag about but the memory is delicious. How better to capture the magic of the moment than to be right out in it?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Snowy Breakfast

We don’t get much snow here in the western valleys of Oregon. Darn little. So when I woke up this morning and saw the yard blanked in white and big fluffy flakes drifting down, highlighting every twig and needle, I immediately wanted to grab the cameras and head to the duck pond. Could I be so lucky as to find a goose still sleeping with its back blanketed in snow? Hope! Hope! Get dressed, Make coffee. Take toast and a banana. Grab cameras, husband, and sketch book. Too much delay.

Well poo! The pond is only a mile from our house, but snow is turning to drizzle. Still I’d rather munch on my toast and savor the snowy scenery rather that eat at home. There is hardly a duck to be seen. Strange. A few geese hang out, but no snow on their backs. Guess it has to be colder and I’d have to get here sooner.

Sometimes Dale just has to humor me. He loves the outdoors as much as I do but if it is too late to photograph geese blanked with snow, why eat cold toast in the car and sprinkle crumbs on our shirts when we are only a mile from home? Very grey light too. But I want to stay awhile now that we are here.

Look! There is a big wake on the pond .... an otter! A dark head pops up and he floats for a moment on the surface of the grey water. He slips back under water, first his head, then his body and tail roll into the water. I watch his wake. Where will he go? At first I have a sense of his direction, a slight ripple on the surface. Gradually the ripples soften Oops! Up he pops, off to my left, not where I expected.

I’m getting better at at anticipating where the otter will pop up, or maybe I should say I soon learn I need to keep my search pattern large. He can go a long way underwater and often changes direction.

His is zigging and zagging. High speed. A boil of water follows his underwater path. Half way across the pond he pops to the surface. No fish, but I’m sure he was chasing one. It doesn’t take long before he has a rather small one, about six inches. The otter floats on the surface while he munches.

The otter stays on the pond for about an hour before disappearing. Finally we realize we haven’t seen him for awhile, and now the ducks are coming back. Usually there is a nice mix of mallards, scaup, wigeon, teal, even a pair of wood ducks. The geese don’t seem to by chased off by the otter, but it looks as though the smaller waterfowl leave when he otter is here.

Two hours after coming Dale’s fingers are numb (from holding the cold camera) and my toes are cold. That’s what happens when you sit in the car with the windows open and watch snow melt.

Once again we headed out the door this morning with a goal in mind, and once again I’m thankful we don’t get too focused on the goal. Watching the otter hunt has been a treat. We even got lucky and had stayed put so long the local coot got used to us. A half dozen came out of the water and grazed on tidbits of greenery peeking up through the snow. Coot remind me of a bunch of fussy ladies, with feet that are way too big and green to be respectable.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Weaner Lives!

Feb 3, 2011: This is a follow-up to my two elephant seal posts, both posted last month, "Making Whoopee in the Sand" and "Return to Shell Island."

The sun has just slipped beneath the horizon. Thin wisps of cloud catch orange, bright against turquoise. Soon the clouds will grey and the sky deepen, but for now color is reflected in the half flooded Coquille Valley. I’m scrunched in the back seat of our little RAV, Dale drives, and our friend Eleanor sits in the front with him.

The Coquille Valley lies flat, about half a mile wide and several miles long. Occasional farms snuggle into the forested hills lining the valley. During wet winters, such as now, the cattle are brought to high ground and ducks take over the pasture land – puddle ducks (mallards, shovelers, teal, ring-necked ducks, pintails, etc). These are the ducks that feed on submerged vegetation. Great egrets come here to winter too and a few great blue herons. At least sixty egrets strike picturesque poses as they hunt for frogs, tadpoles, and any minnows that have strayed from established waterways.

Eleanor Solved a little mini mystery for us today. Two days ago I was loading the car when a new song caught my attention – but what was it? Soft. A couple of sweet notes and then garbled gurgles. I knew our four black-capped chickadees were flitting about in the dense ivy, but this didn’t sound like a chickadee.

But it was! Both Dale and I found one tucked amongst a canopy of ivy leaves. He sat quietly, quite fluffed, and singing his heart out. How could we have never heard this before? Virtually every place we have lived we have had chickadees in the yard. It is a very soft song. Easy to miss.

Eleanor Pugh, Oregon’s grand dame of bird recordings, now enlightens us. We did our best to describe this soft, rambling-on song to her, and that we were surprised it came from a chickadee. She knew immediately -- “Whisper song.” This is the time of year when young males are tuning up, learning how to sing. Not just chickadees, but several species of birds experiment with sound before they launch into their normal sound patterns. What a perfect name for this quiet melody.

It has been a good day. We came to the coast to check on birds and to check on the baby elephant seal we first saw a little over a month ago at Shell Island. At first we could only find eight adult elephant seals including the beach master and two, possibly three very small pups. No sign of the ‘weaner,’ the pup we hoped would survive the high tides and high surf that drown most pups born here.

Just as we were preparing to leave we talked to two of State Park Naturalists and they pointed out another place to look. Sure enough. The weaner is doing just fine. He was snoozing on the beach. He has ballooned out since he was born on or before Dec 31. Frankly I wouldn’t dare to call it the same pup, but the park has been keeping track of him. He may well weigh over 200 pounds now. His mother has abandoned him as all good elephant seal moms do; but, before she left, he filled out and now looks well prepared for two months on the beach by himself before he heads out to sea.

As we left the coast, late afternoon sun still reached the weaner. We drive home happy, thinking about how this pup now has survived the first big hurdle of his young life.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Looking for Eagles

Finley National Wildlife Refuge: Feb. 09, 2011

Dale and I drive north to the Fern Ridge Reservoir near Eugene, Oregon and on to Finley National Wildlife Refuge, near Corvallis Oregon. If we have a goal, it is to find eagles. Fortunately we aren’t very goal orientated. The mature bald eagles seem to have left the Willamette Valley. At least all we see is half a dozen immature eagles. Eagles nest early so the adults may well have gone to their nesting territories. Or perhaps they left because lambing is over and there are no delicious scraps of afterbirth to tempt them.

As we near Finley National Wildlife Refuge we see several flocks of cackling geese in the air. Also a few Canada geese, but not nearly as many. For years ‘cacklers’ were considered to be Canada geese, but recently the three smaller subspecies of Canada geese were separated into a separate species, ‘cackling geese.’ It is a good name for them. Their honking is fast and higher in pitch than Canada geese. Quite different.

We eat lunch where we can watch an immature eagle perched high in a Douglas fir. A harrier hunts in the open field in front of us. Harriers are the figure skaters of the raptor world, whereas peregrines are the speed skaters. The harrier flies low over the green meadow, swoops up and turns on a dime. After several passes and swoops he finally drops to the ground. He has something, probably a vole. I’m a little surprised the eagle doesn’t help himself to the harrier’s dinner.

A flock of cacklers fly in and land behind the far rise in the field. While I’m drawing the geese are often quiet, then a few or even a few hundred rise up and mill about, calling. From where I sit I can’t see any unless they are in the air.

We move to a new spot. I have been busy drawing the gnarly tree when I hear something and look up, thinking a car is coming up the gravel road. No. It is the cacklers calling again, this time it is the roar of hundreds, no thousands, of geese. Their calls meld into a continuous, sky-filling concert. String after string of geese are lifting up from grass fields hidden beyond the nearby ash forest that meanders with the river. Some settle back into the fields where they have been feeding. Others head to a nearby lake, open water where they will spend the night. Many of the flocks fly over me.

We’re still at Finley, but at a different spot. It is nearly sunset. The late afternoon light glows warm. The evening chill comes quickly as long shadows send fingers across a pond and small opening. A great blue heron rests at the edge of the pond. His long breast plums blow ever so gently with the barest stirring of air. Sunlight catches on the heron and on long strands of canary reed grass which rise higher than he stands.

Eight mallards and Five ring-necked ducks feed along the far edge of the pond. The mallards tip, tail up, each time they reach down into the water to grab aquatic vegetation. The ringnecks briefly slip beneath the water surface as they forage. The geese have quieted. Time for us to head home.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thoughts on Keeping a Journal

I’ve been intending to write a blog post on journaling and sketching on location – the raw material for my blog posts. The day has come, partially inspired by a wonderful new blog, “Artists Journal Workshop” hosted by Cathy Johnson, a long time journaler. She has a book coming out on the journals of several artists and is sharing in-dept interviews on her blog. For more on that go to:

Many, many years ago I started a carefully crafted journal in a beautiful leather binding and with pages I could take out and rearranged to my heart’s content. It was intended to be carefully thought out and reflect the highlights of our life. I always seemed to be a year behind. Finally I just gave up.

Almost ten years later, in 1976 I started another. This time my plans weren’t nearly as grand. I just wanted a notebook in which I kept ideas for paintings, what flowers bloom in May, when do the sage grouse strut, what birds did we see, lots of sketches and even some painted ideas. I happened to start out in a 8 ½ x 11 hard bound blank book. Little did I know that keeping a journal would become a way of life. I’m now in the middle of volume 37. My journals get hard use. I frequently thumb through them to look for information, or just to enjoy where life has taken us.

Soon I realized I wanted to capture more than just simple notes: watching beaver storing their winter food supply at Schwabacher Pond in Grand Teton National Park; or the five minutes of orange light when the rising sun first hits the Douglas Firs on the western edge of Klamath Lake -- Moments in time I want to remember forever.

It didn’t take long before I realized I had developed a format which works for me:

1. Keep it personal, but not private. I enjoy letting others peek into my journal
2. I want all the art in my journal to be my original work. Prior to digital cameras and the computer the art was all done on location. Now it is a mix of on-location work and at home work. I can download the camera onto the computer and start a drawing a few minutes after coming home – while the excitement of what I just saw still has my juices rumbling. I may draw some published (magazine) photographs for practice, but never in my journal.
3. Preferably entries should be done right now, not the next morning or even that night. Better to write while the action is in front of me rather than trusting my memory to catch enough important details. Sometimes it is too dark to see my page, but I still scribble away, just dropping my finger down to pick a lower spot for the next line of writing. Too often I busy photographing a ‘happening’ but I start writing as soon as possible, or jot down phrases between shots or paint brush strokes.
4. It is a ‘working journal,’ not an end product. I feel free to scratch out words, whole sentences. I stop drawing if the bird has flown and I don’t remember what its tail looks like. I dare to try a difficult pose even if the odds of it turning out well are slim. It is such a joy when a field sketch works.

5. I am hard on my journal. I put it in the car, usually on my lap, nearly every time we get in the car. I learned early on a hardbound journal lasts longer if I put a cloth cover over it right away.

One day it dawned on me how handy it would be to have my drawing equipment right there with me too …. So I added pockets to my journal cover. I sew a good sturdy cover out of denim or light canvas and add the pockets. That cover goes from one journal to the next until it is too frayed to continue on. Meanwhile each finished journal gets a simple cover made out of a different piece of fabric. Bozeman, Montana has two wonderful fabric stores where I find most of my cover material.

Key items in or on my journal:
1. Six inch ruler (clipped on so it doesn’t slip out)
2. Assortment of pens, pencils, and ‘click’ eraser
3. Waterbrush ( a paint brush with an internal reservoir of water)
4. Elastic band to hold page open when it is windy ( black band on back cover)
5. “Reserve Pocket’ (Tied down pocket -- I’m always losing a pen so I try to keep an extra set of pens and pensils here).

About a year ago I added a fountain pen to my everyday work materials …. But fountain pens pose problems. We often drive from one elevation to another. Unless the fountain pen is stored with its nib upright, the pen will bleed ink. To solve this I made a little leather pouch to hold it. The pouch stays either hanging on my neck or hanging from a knob on the dash of the car. No more bleeding ink.

My paint is the simplest part. I have an ancient metal box of Pelikan pan watercolors that once belonged to my mother. When a pan is used up, I can just squish more tube paint into the pan and give it a day or two to dry. I even added a four more pans for more favorite colors.

Brushes I keep in a rather flat plastic box. I drilled holes in the lid so the brushes will dry, and I pack some tissue next to the handles so they can’t rattle about and end on their noses. The box even has room for more pencils – water soluble graphite is one of my favorites.

When I hike I want to travel light. I’m usually carrying a camera so I put my art supplies in a fanny pack. It is just big enough to hold a 6 x 9 spiral bound sketchbook with better paper, my brush box and paint box, a little jar of water, hat and gloves.