Friday, September 23, 2016

Botanical Illustration III - Scratchboard

I completed the third and final class of introductory botanical illustration last evening.  The eight students attempted scratchboard, something I had never tried before.  There's no erasing; no correcting errors.  My results appears at the head of the post.  The instructor and I agreed that I had probably done my best work in the red section of the largest leaf.

I now know that I am sufficiently capable of drawing to tackle other projects, but I'll probably have to wait until I retire to take this up again.  I don't think I'll attempt scratchboard, though; it was frustrating and unforgiving.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Kali dispersing common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds
On Sunday afternoon, September 18, Kali and I joined about 20 other guests at a natural area called the Paunacussing Preserve owned by the Natural Lands Trust (NLT), the largest regional land trust in eastern Pennsylvania.  This guided walk was for long-term NLT supporters and was led by Preserve Manager Preston Wilson supported by another NLT staff member and a volunteer.  Sunday afternoon was very warm, humid, and cloudy with thunderstorms in the forecast, but the very much-needed rain held off until Monday morning.

The 100-acre Paunacussing (named for the creek that rises on the land) contains active agriculture, farmland converted to native meadows, meadows undergoing active afforestation, woodlots, and a large pond.  Topographically, it is fairly level and walking was easy. 

We set off on paths cut through native goldenrod meadows in full bloom.

Old fence post festooned with Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Cooperative azure damselfly perched in the meadow
Thistle gone to seed exposing its silvery underbelly
All afternoon long, the sky was full of vultures.  The light wasn't good, the birds weren't close enough for me to get a good "naked eye" view, and I hadn't brought my binoculars, so I couldn't tell if they were Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) (the more likely) or Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus).

From the meadows, we moved to the pond on the property.  When the preserve was privately owned and used as both a weekend retreat and as a farm, the owners maintained a fairly sizable pond fed by four springs.  When NLT acquired the property, the land managers decided to reduce the size of the pond and to begin to accelerate its inevitable transition to freshwater marsh.  (Ponds constructed at the headwaters of small streams are ecologically damaging since they create large expanses of water exposed to the sun.  The water discharged from such ponds is much warmer than water in streams should be, altering the entire ecosystem downstream.)
The pond
The land managers excavated through the berm that was damming the creek and lowered the water level considerably.  This exposed large areas of mud that were quickly colonized by emergent aquatic vegetation.  The remaining pond is only about four feet deep.

Beavers have colonized the pond.  Preston explained that he didn't want beavers in the pond because they were cutting down trees and because they were blocking up the outlet channel and the agri-drain system that NLT installed to allow land managers to manipulate the water level.  He said that he had been in contact with the Pennsylvania Game Commission about removing the beavers.  Kali and I do not believe he made a compelling case for removing the beavers.
A beaver's handiwork at the edge of the pond
Cattails (Typha spp.)
Cattails and green-headed (or cut-leaf) Coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata)
A moss-softened path
From the pond, we ventured into a small woodlot where NLT had erected several fenced exclosures to demonstrate the impact of white-tailed deer.  The enclosures were too new to show much difference in vegetation between areas accessible to and protected from deer browsing.
Preserve manager Preston Wilson (light shirt) explaining the deer exclosure
When we emerged from the woods, I found that I had acquired a new arthropod companion on my lower leg.  I gently coaxed the caterpillar onto a Southern arrow-wood (Viburnum dentatum) leaf.
Note the dense auburn hairs plus the much longer, less-dense lighter hairs
The last part of the tour wound through meadows under active afforestation.  NLT plants tree seedlings in plastic tree shelters.  Over the last few years, they have planted nearly 3,100 trees in the preserve in an effort to join woodlots into large blocks of forest.
Afforestation area with an Eastern Bluebird nesting box
Finally, as we neared the end of the walk, we came across a view of this tree (below) sporting a dozen resting vultures.

Botanical Illustration II

I promised I would keep you posted on my progress in my introductory Botanical Illustration class.  During the second class, we tinted the drawing we made during the first class using colored pencils.  One of my fellow students decided not to color her original drawing, explaining that she didn't think the color would enhance the drawing much.  I was inclined to think the same way, but decided to color my drawing anyway (1) to explore the coloring process and (2) because my drawing wasn't a "masterpiece" anyway; so what if I screwed it up?  I'm neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with the result (above).  Kali said that the coloring was pretty subtle, but the colored pencil "leads" were hard - I really had to push to get the color to show.
After we colored our previous week's drawing, we explored drawing on paper tinted with watercolors.  We moistened watercolor paper, dabbed on some color, and encouraged the paint to run and bleed.  The instructor ironed our paper to dry it, then told us to select a spot on which to draw another leaf.  The result appears above.  I'm still not comfortable with the stippling technique; I'm going to have to work on it to achieve the results I'd like.

Tonight: scratchboard.  Stay tuned.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Botancial Illustration

My father had a real talent for drawing; I was always envious of his abilities.  I considered my own talents to be limited.  In fact, I once drew an old grist mill as an illustration to accompany an article I had written for my organization's newsletter, and someone (who did not know that I had drawn the the mill illustration) commented, "I wonder whose kid drew that picture?"  If that wouldn't put the kibosh on any artistic aspirations I don't know what would.

However, since I've inherited half my father's genes, I've often wondered if I could improve my drawing skills with some coaching and practice.  Plus, with retirement looming, Kali questions me constantly about how I'm going to fill my time after I stop working.

So, when a retired high school art teacher offered to teach a three-evening introductory botanical illustration class for my organization, my program planner and I readily agreed to put it on the schedule, and I signed up.  Last evening was our first class.

The instructor asked the students to find a relatively simple leaf as a subject.  Then, we retreated from the oppressive heat and humidity to an air conditioned conference room and set about with plain, old Staples-brand No. 2 pencils to draw the leaf.  The instructor told the students it was perfectly acceptable to trace the leaf, but I decided to try to draw it freehand.  Once we had the basic form and venation on paper, we took fine-pointed markers and inked the outline.  Then, the instructor asked us to highlight features of the leaf in stippling.

My representation of a sourwood leaf (Oxydendrum arboreum) and my subject head this post.  Kali said that she liked my drawing, but didn't think it was a very accurate representation of the subject.  I'm not completely satisfied either (I'm a bit disappointed with the stippling, in particular), but I don't think I've tried to draw anything since my grist mill fiasco.

Next week, we add color with watercolors, and the third week we'll attempt a scratchboard project.  I'll post my results of each.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Murmuration

Though perhaps I personally notice it more during the warmer months of the year because I'm out later in the day than I am during the winter, an avid birdwatching friend assures me that (even in the winter) every evening just before sundown, American robins (Turdus migratorius) stream toward a wooded area adjacent to but separate from my preserve.  For 30 minutes as the sun is setting, robins streak across the sky - some singly, some in pairs, and others in large, loose flocks of up to 20 birds.  They are all flying toward the southwest.

The birds seem to materialize out of nowhere in the sky because they are flying relatively high, though I know they are just gathering together from scattered locations where they have been foraging all day.  They are silent - black specks all streaming determinedly in one direction.  It's easy to count hundreds of birds in only a few minutes of watching.  If they were all lumped together, it would be a spectacle, but since they're spread thinly in time and space, they constitute more of an imagined spectacle.  Nevertheless, I'm impressed every time I take a late evening walk.
Last week, I was treated to a real spectacle - only the second one I have ever observed in my life.  Looking over toward the roosting forest, the robins were swirling in the air in an amazing cloud of coordinated flying called a murmuration.  It only lasted a few seconds - alas, too short for Kali, who has weak eyesight, to get a fix on it - but I saw it happen and was transfixed for that moment.

(The images accompanying this post are borrowed from the Internet.)
My municipal historical society's newsletter recently republished a recipe for pigeon stew that first appeared in the local newspaper's October 18, 1873 edition.  The recipe concludes with the sentence, "Robins are delicious cooked in the same way."  Is it any wonder Passenger Pigeons are extinct?     

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Late Summer

Sunset thunderhead
I know that I've been very negligent in posting, but truth to tell, Kali and I really haven't been doing much of anything that's worth writing about.  The last few weeks have been miserably hot and humid, so we haven't even ventured out onto the trails of my preserve let alone go anywhere else.
Long shadows
However, the seemingly unending heat wave finally broke on Sunday evening with a round of rain that ushered in the passage of a real, live cold front.  On Monday, the humidity was pleasant and temperatures rose only into the low 80s (instead of the mid- to upper 90s we had been suffering through).
The birds missed a few ripe black cherries
A friend posted on Facebook that he had participated in a nighthawk watch in a state park not far from my preserve and had seen 25 Common Nighthawks - one of my favorite birds and a sure harbinger of autumn when they begin to pass through on their way southward.  So, after dinner last night, to enjoy the salubrious weather and to look for migrating nighthawks, I got Kali to lace up her walking shoes and take a short hike through our late summer meadows.

At one point, the setting sun was shining directly through some of the meadow grasses and thistles, so I thought I'd make some "artistic" shots.  The following two images were the result; I boosted-up the contrast on both images a lot, so they're not strictly what the camera "saw."  I'm not sure if I like the result, but I thought I'd share them. 
Thistle, backlit
Indian-grass flower head, backlit
We didn't see any nighthawks (I usually see them during the last week of August and the first week of September, so if we had seen them, they would have been early).   But we did enjoy our first walk in the preserve in quite a few days.  I'll go out again this evening in search of nighthawks because the weather is still delightful.
Kali, heading home

Thursday, July 28, 2016

New Hampshire: Day 5. Chesterfield Gorge and On Home

At the head of Chesterfield Gorge (note man in lower left for scale)
On our way to our friend's/host's house in New Hampshire, we passed a tiny wayside just after we crossed from Vermont into New Hampshire.  A sign said Chesterfield Gorge State Natural Area.  But it was already late, we'd been driving for about five hours, and we had four hours more to drive, so we passed it up.

Before we left our friend's house to head home, though, I'd already decided to check out Chesterfield Gorge as we drove back.  That, and the fact that I had Googled Chesterfield Gorge to find out that it likely was worth a half-hour break. 
Upper middle gorge
The gorge is very scenic but modest in scale - perfect for kids to explore in places but not too dangerous as long as the adults are careful.  The gorge was carved by Partridge Brook, a tributary of the Connecticut River.  The water in the stream was not crystal clear, so I suspected that the watershed was at least partially urbanized, but when I did a little investigating, I found that Partridge Brook is the outlet stream for Spofford Lake, which is ringed with residences.  The lake is probably at least somewhat enriched, and the creek quality reflects that eutrophication.
Lower middle gorge - the most impressive section
There's a path on each side of the gorge, which is about a quarter-mile long in total.  We crossed the wooden footbridge at the head of the gorge, walked down the east side, crossed the footbridge at the bottom of the ravine, and climbed back up the west side.

I did notice one really strange (to my eyes, anyway) feature of the natural area:  the deep, dark woods surrounding the upper end of the gorge were completely bereft of understory vegetation - completely bare.  I don't know if the forest was so dense that the meager sunlight that managed to get through the canopy couldn't support shrubs and small trees, whether the deer population is so high that they've eaten all the low vegetation, or if there was some other explanation.  Lower in the gorge, the surrounding uplands did support some understory growth.

Lower gorge and plunge pool
There's a visitor center near the parking lot, probably staffed by volunteers, but Kali wanted to get back on the road so I didn't go inside to investigate further.

One last aspect of our vacation.  Our route back home required that we travel through or near New York City.  My first inclination was to take the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson about 25 miles north of New York, but our friend had cautioned us that the Tappan Zee is being replaced with a new bridge and traffic is usually bad as a result, so I was inclined to bite the bullet and drive through the heart of New York over the George Washington Bridge on I-95.  As we approached the New York metropolitan area, there was a curt, enigmatic electronic sign along the road warning drivers to seek an alternative to the Tappan Zee Bridge - bad construction traffic, I assumed.  I assumed wrongly, as it turned out.  What had happened was that a construction crane on the new bridge had fallen onto the old bridge at noon, completely closing the bridge in both directions.  All traffic had to find alternate routes.  The next bridge north across the Hudson is a long way north, so most drivers decided to come through New York.  Needless to say, traffic was a nightmare.  We inched along for nearly 13 miles before getting to the George Washington Bridge.  Our already long drive back (9 hours without traffic) took us 11 hours.  Another good reason to avoid New York!