Thursday, June 26, 2014

Happy Summer!

Black-chinned hummingbird-male
Summer is here!
The garden is alive with activity and I am as busy as the honeybees and hummingbirds that are gathering nectar among my flowers and veggies. Because I plant early and have a long growing season I am already harvesting many things. Every day I go out and pick something fresh and healthy from my little garden patch. Lately, it's been pea pods, broccoli, zucchini, strawberries and raspberries.
View of my little garden
My garden is not terribly large, but I pack a lot into it and I have been blessed with abundant harvests. I usually have enough to can or freeze, eat fresh and even share with friends.
Antlers and succulents...YUM!!!
 My new pup, Balin, has been helping me in the garden, mostly by digging holes, destroying plants he deems are dangerous, chewing holes in the broccoli and cabbage leaves and helping himself to the raspberries. So when I'm not picking produce I'm chasing around a rambunctious puppy! 
Needless to say I have not had very much time for art. But in a quiet moment when Balin was asleep I grabbed my sketchbook and did a quick study of a rufous hummingbird using a new medium I'm trying out.
Female rufous hummingbird in casein

 The medium is called casein (pronounced kay-seen) and has actually been around for centuries. It is a milk based pigment that was used in cave paintings and frescoes. It is a water medium and similar to gouache in that it is opaque, but can be thinned down and used like traditional watercolor and after it dries becomes permanent like acrylic. It has a wonderful matte finish and a unique smell. 

I enjoyed my first little experiment and think that I could come to like this medium. In most examples I've seen the medium has been used in a loose and painterly manner in portraits and landscapes like many oil paintings are done. I didn't handle it quite that way, but did like the way it blended and that I could paint over the top once it was dry and not have my underlying paint lift and muddy things up. I hope that I will get a few more opportunities to try casein again throughout my busy summer!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Kestrel Spring Part 2

A page from my sketch journal

I was on "nest watch" now for awhile, but there was not much to see. I had no way to visibly check inside the nest box to see if there were eggs, how many there might be or the status of their hatching. Research I did told me that the incubation period was 26-32 days and babies stayed in the nest another 25-30 days or so and “chittering” noises could often be heard by the 16th or 17th day. I estimated that babies might hatch the first part of May so I waited anxiously, visiting the site every few days. Whenever I was there I usually saw the male standing guard on his flag pole or bringing food to the female. He would come in with a vole, call to her and she would come out and eat. The male was a great provider and protector. One morning I saw him attacking a red-tailed hawk that had come into the area. Looking like a jet fighter attacking a B-52 bomber the male would dive at the larger bird repeatedly from above until the larger bird sought out safer and quieter skies.

Male kestrel attacking red-tailed hawk

Around the 18th of May I found the female perched in a nearby tree, but no sign of the male. Though this seemed a little different than what I had been witnessing I didn’t give it much thought until I looked at the nest box. There was a small, red, needle shaped object with a bell shape on the end sticking out of the bottom of the box. My first thought was perhaps the park rangers or a biologist might be monitoring the box for sounds of hatching and this was a small microphone. Something about it and the female being out of the nest a long time just didn’t feel right though, so I found a park ranger and asked if anyone had been officially monitoring the nest boxes then told him what I had seen. I was shocked when he told me the red object was most likely a dart from a blow gun! Of course, there was nothing to be done about it because there was no way to know who did it.

Now I was really mad and really alarmed! I began to wonder if this dart caused damage to anything inside the box. Information I found on blow guns said darts could penetrate ½” thick plywood and were used to take small game. I wondered if the absence of the male indicated he may have become a target for this stupid act as he was highly visible on his flagpole and within easy range for a blow gun. I searched the areas beneath the flagpole for possible signs this may have happened, but could find no evidence. I feared that the whole “science project” was lost by this senseless act.

A few days later I got a call from another birder who was also watching the nest. He let me know that he head seen the female taking a vole to the nest. There must be babies! This was encouraging and on a few other days he let me know that he had seen both a male and female in the area so perhaps all was not lost. For the next few weeks I only observed a female in the area, but never saw her bring food to the nest and I never heard any noise coming from the box to indicate any babies were present. Her continued presence in the area was all I had to encourage me to keep watching.
Sketch of two female kestrel chcks

Finally, on the 2nd of June I saw what I had been hoping for….a baby kestrel was visible in the hole of the nest box! Of course, that morning I had walked up without my camera because I hadn’t been seeing or hearing anything to indicate that babies were present. The baby looked fully feathered and ready to leave the nest. Now I was torn. If I stayed put I might witness the babies fledge, but not be able to record the event. If I left for the camera I might still have a chance to take photos after the fact, but miss the magical moment when they took to the skies for the first time. After a few agonizing seconds I opted to run, really fast, to retrieve my camera from my truck, praying the whole way that after all this watching and waiting I wouldn’t miss this part. Returning to the nest my heart was pounding so hard I could hardly steady the camera. I had not missed a thing and spent about an hour photographing them and waiting to see if anything was going to happen. I saw at least two chicks stick their heads out one at a time and peer around. There was at least one male and one female, but I never heard any “chittering” going on inside. After a while I had to leave them and fully expected to never see them again.
Male kestrel chick

They did not fledge that day or the next, but when I checked on the 6th of June I found two females in nearby trees. I could not find the male, but suspect he was close by. Mama was calling from the flagpole and shortly Papa flew in with a vole. He was calling excitedly and landed next to one of the babies. However, he did not like my presence there and after stashing his vole he came back to warn me off. Swooping low over my head and cussing me out he convinced me my study of his family was done.

It has been an incredible learning experience! I have taken loads of photos and documented as much as I could in my sketchbook. I had no idea when I started gathering reference photos for those paintings I wanted to do that it would lead to all this, but I consider myself exceptionally blessed. I have a couple of more ideas for paintings that I'd like to do using all this information that I've gathered and with a little luck and determination I will get started on those soon. In the meantime, I wish "my" little kestrel family well and pray for their survival, but know it will be a tough life for them out there in the wild.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Kestrel Spring Part 1

For the past two months I have been focused on documenting the nesting behavior of a pair of American kestrels. I had not intended on spending my spring this way, but as I was gathering reference photos for some paintings I was planning on doing their story began to unfold before me and I found myself caught up in their struggle to bring new life into this world. This is part one of their story.
My observations began in March, shortly after completing my first painting of a pair of kestrels. While trying to photograph a male kestrel in flight for another painting idea I watched him hover and stoop on his prey. Each time he would catch a mouse or vole and fly off. In a few minutes he would return and catch another. By the third time I realized he was not eating the voles. If he had, by now he would be so heavy he couldn’t fly! But I was curious. What had he done with the voles?

A few days later I observed a pair of kestrels checking out a nest box. Kestrels are cavity nesters and will often use nest boxes. The male chooses the site and invites his lady to check out the real estate. Apparently, she approved because she entered and didn’t come back out. This was just the beginning of their courtship and in a few more days I had answers to where all the voles were disappearing to.

The next opportunity I had to view the pair was the most interesting and exciting. That morning I watched the male hunting again. He caught the first vole and flew to some evergreen bushes. In just moments he returned to hunting, not enough time to consume a vole. Soon he came back with another. This time he flew to a leafless tree and I watched him stuff the vole into an old, empty birds nest and fly off! The third time he returned with a vole he flew to the nest box and went partially in. I heard a whole lot of words exchanged. The lady was not very hungry, I guess, or perhaps she was doing some housekeeping and didn’t want a dead vole messing things up because he hastily retreated to another tree where he stashed his catch.

I went back that afternoon and she was in a better mood. The male flew to that last tree, retrieved his vole and flew to a perch near the nest box. He called softly and the female appeared at the door. She joined him and he presented her with his gift of slightly aged vole which she took and hungrily devoured.

 After dinner she was much more receptive when he flew over and they mated. That was quite a feat to do while the two balanced on a narrow twig. I noticed he was very careful to keep his toes curled in such a way as to not stick her with his talons which I’m sure she appreciated. This was not something I would have ever considered about birds of prey mating. If they didn’t keep their talons curled under it would be a very dangerous act, indeed! He then flew off and caught another vole for her and a bug for himself.

In doing some research on this I learned that “American kestrels are monogamous falcons that establish pair-bonds. Courtship begins early in the breeding season, after a nesting site has been established. Copulation can be initiated by either sex, and usually takes multiple attempts before fertilization occurs. Pairs bond with courtship rituals, such as aerial displays and courtship feeding. After a relationship is developed, it becomes strong and usually permanent. Most pairs return to the same nesting sites for consecutive years."

I continued to watch for several days and my observations supported the research. As time went on I continued to visit the nest site nearly daily as it was on one of the trails I use when I'm out on my walks. For awhile there was not much to document except the male bringing food to the female and softly calling for her to come out and receive it. Then, some things changed.

I will post the rest of the story in a day or two so be sure to check back to see how their story ends!