It’s been quiet here, but I haven’t been slacking, I swear! Lots of energy and time is going into a new venture that I think you’ll like: Birdseed.
Since March, I’ve been painting familiar birds each week, and posting them along with small natural histories. I figure everyone knows at least ten birds already, but the more the merrier! And I get plenty of painting practice while I’m at it!
So if you like things like this:
Skip on over and check the rest of them out! You can subscribe if you have a Tumblr account, or you can check back each Monday morning for each week’s post. Hope to see you over there!
You may have noticed that I like to get close to things. Perhaps it’s because I’m nearsighted, but I love to examine the patterns and details that only reveal themselves at the macro scale. A few weeks ago, I visited the New-York Historical Society to see the first installment of a three-year exhibition of John James Audubon’s watercolor paintings. I was flat out delighted to learn that the museum lends patrons a magnifying glass to get up close and personal with the birds.
I have a recent copy of Audubon’s masterwork, The Birds of America. The original book was made from prints of Audubon’s model paintings, some of which are on exhibit now. Considering the technology available at the time, the prints are a gorgeous accomplishment. But the process of turning the paintings into prints masked exquisite details perceptible in the original art. The magnifying glass brought them into focus: the delicate watercolor wash as cream fades to paper white on the face of a chickadee; the rainbow of colors that make up a crow’s midnight plumage; the precise pencil tracings that describe the vanes and rachis of each individual feather on a duck’s wing, painstaking work all but invisible from a distance. The paintings invite close, loving study.
Audubon taught himself how to paint. He taught himself how to observe birds and record their behaviors, and the result of that alchemy was a body of work that changed the way artists and naturalists looked at the world.
Since I saw the paintings in person, I’ve been taking pictures with an imaginary Audubon at my shoulder. I pulled out my crusty old watercolors and pristine paintbrushes, and doodled a few birds. I’ve wondered, scrubbing my brush across the paper, whose work did Audubon study to learn his art? And I’ve been thinking a lot about how he watched the speedy little featherbullets before the days of high-powered optics, as I frantically fire my camera at vanishing sparrows and dodgy blackbirds.
This summer, I’m going to spend a week on Hog Island in Maine studying birds and learning to make better art, thanks to a scholarship from the National Audubon Society. It feels very full-circle-y for me to be moved by Audubon’s art and his example, and in turn to be hosted by the society his art inspired to save the birds in the first place. In a year, I’ll go back to the Historical Society to see the next crop of Audubon’s birds; by then, maybe I’ll have a modest flock of my own.
Back in the throes of March, between snowstorms and soggy showers, I craved color with the pining of a thousand lost loves. Since the woods were as grey as a dirty lint trap, I plugged in the TV one night and snuggled down with a bowl of popcorn to watch the HBO documentary, Birders: The Central Park Effect. It was exactly the right medicine, and I think it’ll hit the spot for anyone who is still as greedy for summer as I am.
The film explores a phenomenon known as the Central Park Effect, a quirk of geography and development that makes the Big Apple one of the prime spots to find birds in the Northeast. Birds follow ancient migration routes up the east coast of the continent, flying by night and stopping over during the day to fuel up for the next leg of their journey. Those who follow the Eastern Flyway are funneled by the Appalachian Mountains and the coastline toward the dense development of New York City, which you might imagine offers little respite for hungry birds. And yet, smack in the middle of Manhattan, Central Park stretches out like a green welcome mat to millions of migrating birds year round. In fact, over 200 different kinds of birds have been spotted in the park throughout the year. And the birds’ biggest fans are just as easy to spot, toting their foot-long lenses through the thickets and along the bike paths of Central Park.
My summer-starved heart would recommend this film for the eye candy alone. If you’re not usually a bird watcher, you may never have seen some of North America’s most vibrant birds. You’re in for a treat. The videographers recorded footage of colorful warblers, tanagers, ducks of all shapes, sparrows and wrens, and many others who are usually gone before you know they were there. Birds wearing lemon yellow, birds streaked with black and russet, gleaming true blue, splashed with green and crimson and orange. And film offers the added treat of watching these tiny birds flit around in all their vivid alive-ness, an advantage over the two-dimensional, static depictions in field guides (or fruitless shrub scanning for those of us packing our own binoculars).
The story of birds in New York City isn’t complete without the human element, and the people in this film are as interesting as the birds themselves. The fervent bird chasers are insightful, well-spoken and funny. They’re definitely good company. Be sure to watch their eyes during the interviews — you’ll be able to tell exactly when a bird is flirting off camera.
My only quibble: Though all the human characters are introduced throughout the film, none of the birds are named. The documentary is available online through HBO with a subscription or for a fee for non-subscribers. Or you could request it from your library, which is what I did. HBO offers a PDF brochure with names and information for each of the birds, but I especially liked the extra features on the DVD. If you can, watch the 10-minute reprise of all the bird footage with their names. I kept a tally of all the species I ID’ed correctly. Not that I’m competitive or anything…
In the liner notes, director Jeffrey Kimball writes, “Upon seeing my nearly completed film, my sixteen-year-old son turned to me and said that he finally “got it,” he understood why I spent so much time wandering around outside with binoculars looking at birds.” This documentary had the same effect on me, and I already carry a pair of binoculars around in my handbag.
Have you seen this film? I’d love to hear your thoughts!