Starlings: Metallic Rainbows

February 24, 2017

Starling

Starling

Ink sketch of starling

Ink sketch of starling

“From a distance he looked black, but from up close he glistened in sheens of metallic green, purple, and blue.  The feathers on a starling’s breast, head, and neck are purple, and those on its back are green. . . . just below the purple of his neck the feathers were tipped with light yellow, as if individually dipped in cream. . . . he looked like a metallic rainbow.”
— Bernd Heinrich, One Wild Bird at a Time

“To be a starling is to perform airborne dances with myriad others, tracing elaborate syncopated flight patterns in the sky.  We call these gatherings ‘murmurations.'”
— Bernd Heinrich, One Wild Bird at a Time

Starling

Starling

Ink sketch of starling

Ink sketch of starling

“Starlings are painted like oil slicks, layered with shining purple, blue, magenta, and green.  Iridescence in feathers is created through structural changes in the feather surface that makes them appear vibrant at certain angles — microscopic bumps and ridges on the barbs and barbules refract and scatter light. . . . When starlings molt in the fall, many of their fresh iridescent feathers are tipped with white, giving the birds their celestial pattern. . . . the starling’s white tips wear off in winter, leaving the birds glistening black in the spring.”
— Lyanda Lynn Haupt, from Mozart’s Starling

Starling portrait, ink sketch

Starling portrait, ink sketch

Lynda Lynn Haupt’s new book, Mozart’s Starling, will be released April 4th.  It is true that Mozart lived with a pet starling, and this became the idea for Haupt’s book.  She adopted a 6-day-old starling orphan and lived with it as part of her household in order to better understand what it meant for Mozart to live with this particular bird.

Starlings are almost universally reviled by birders and ecologists, as they are non-native to the United States and are an invasive species.  And yet, the possibilities of kinship and love do happen at the individual level, as Haupt discovered when her starling became a beloved pet.  She said, “Starlings are shimmering, plain, despised, charming, collectively devastating, individually fascinating.”  Her story and discoveries show that “these individuals are not ends in themselves but a kind of window onto the totality of existence.”

Starling in watercolor and ink

Starling in watercolor and ink

 

Skagit swans at sunrise

Skagit swans at sunrise

“Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air —
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A Shrill dark music — like the rain pelting the trees — like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds —
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black  leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, I your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed you life?”
— Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems and Prose Poems

I went to the Skagit Valley to see snow geese, but they were not in their usual places.  Instead, I saw swans — trumpeter swans, I think, although both trumpeters and tundra swans overwinter here.  Mary Oliver’s images — white crosses in the sky, black feet like dark leaves — capture the swans’ presence so perfectly.

Swans like white crosses

Swans like white crosses

Those relatively large black feet look like rudders!

Those relatively large black feet look like rudders!

Sketchbook, line drawings of Skagit swans

Sketchbook, line drawings of Skagit swans

 

 

 

The white streak is a flock of snow geese -- so distant. I could not get closer.

The white streak is a flock of snow geese — so distant. I could not get closer.

“The sound of geese in the distance,
is wonderful:
in our minds
we rise up
and move on.”
— Robert Sund, “Spring Poem in the Skagit Valley”

Snow geese, Skagit Valley

Snow geese, Skagit Valley

The snow geese rise up, then settle again.

The snow geese rise up, then settle again.

“Wild Geese Alighting on a Lake”
by Anne Porter, from Living Things

I watched them
As they neared the lake

They wheeled
In a wide arc
With beating wings
And then

They put their wings to sleep
And glided downward in a drift
Of pure abandonment

Until they touched
The surface of the lake

Composed their wings
And settled
On the rippling water
As though it were a nest.

Snow geese in a field near Anacortes

Snow geese in a field near Anacortes

“Wild geese fly overhead.
They wrench my heart.
They were our friends in the old days.”
— Li Ch’ing Chao, translated by Kenneth Rexroth

I didn’t have much luck photographing snow geese on my most recent visits to the Skagit Valley.  I saw only a couple of flocks, and they were in distant fields.  I could not drive closer.  I love to witness big flocks taking to the skies, whirling around, and settling again.  How do they swarm and yet not run into each other?  I am always reminded of M.C Escher’s prints of birds:

M.C. Escher, Sky and Water, 1938

M.C. Escher, Sky and Water, 1938

In past years, I’ve gotten closer and came away with some photos that captured the breathtaking whirlwind of wings.  One of my snow geese photos was chosen for the cover of Bearings Magazine‘s Autumn 2016 issue (it’s a publication of the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota).

Snow geese in flight, Skagit Valley, 2012

Snow geese in flight, Skagit Valley, 2012

 

 

What We Need Is Here

November 26, 2016

Skagit Valley snow geese

Skagit Valley snow geese

The Wild Geese
by Wendell Berry

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

Flock of snow geese in the Skagit Valley

Flock of snow geese in the Skagit Valley

 

Watercolor painting of Skagit Valley snow geese

Watercolor painting of Skagit Valley snow geese

New October display at the Greenwood Library

New October display at the Greenwood Library

The new October display is up at the Greenwood Library.  I scanned my crow paintings and used them to decorate the bulletin board and surrounds for the interior book drops:

Book drop surround

Book drop surrounds

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Painting Crows

September 27, 2016

Recent watercolor paintings of crows

Recent watercolor paintings of crows

“All that is wild, is winged.”
— Jay Griffiths

I’ve been painting crows in preparation for some October displays at the library where I work.  I have plenty of models — I bet I see at least one crow every time I step outside.  With my hearing loss, I no longer hear the high-pitched tweets of many songbirds, but I still hear the raucous call of cawing crows.  I’m thankful for that!

They are ubiquitous, as noted in the following poem.  I love how Mary Oliver calls them the “deep muscle of the world.”

Crows
by Mary Oliver

From a single grain they have multiplied.
When you look in the eyes of one
you have seen them all.

At the edges of highways
they pick at limp things.
They are anything but refined.

Or they fly out over the corn
like pellets of black fire,
like overlords.

Crow is crow, you say.
What else is there to say?
Drive down any road,

take a train or an airplane
across the world, leave
your old life behind,

die and be born again —
wherever you arrive
they’ll be there first,

glossy and rowdy
and indistinguishable.
The deep muscle of the world.

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Purrfectly Happy Reading

August 19, 2016

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