Archive for the ‘Birds and Their Stories’ Category


Last summer I spent six weeks paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. There were many purposes for taking this trip. I wanted to spend time alone. I wanted a grand adventure. I wanted to test myself. I wanted to study the birds.


 I returned last August and quickly became busy with life–teaching school and catching up on summer chores missed during my trip.

Though I began two large carvings I never really settled in and got to work. Finally, late last week, I began to pore over my journals and bird lists to draw and plan a series of the birds I experience on the trail. From this work I’ve produced the first six carvings of the series.

  1. Wood Duck Drake
  2. Common Merganser (Carving Pictured Above)
  3. Northern Parula
  4. Blackburnian Warbler (Study Pictured Above)
  5. Ruffed Grouse
  6. Ovenbird

Photos and descriptions to follow.

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This weekend I participated in Marsh Madness, a birders’ gathering, at Goose Pond in Linton, Indiana. I joined a group of Hamilton County, Indiana, artist who support the mission and work of the Friends of Goose Pond.

We go as a group and spend an artists’ weekend at a friend’s lakefront cabin.

I never had a chance to bird last year. I was too busy and had no transportation (We are a one car family and I laft the car at home — a politically sound move.)

I didn’t expect to bird this year.

Greg had done some scouting and drove us into a great area peppered with small holes that were filled with ducks. The light was in our eyes, making is difficult to see, but we identified lesser scaup, common and hooded merganser, bufflehead, northern pintails, ringneck ducks, mallard and Canada Geese. Of in the adjacent grasses an Eastern Meadowlark called.

We drove back around to an area where whooping cranes had been reported. The grounds were covered with sandhills and whooping cranes are often associated with sandhill flocks.

Whooping cranes are one of the rarest birds in North America. In the 1940s the entire population was reduced to less than 30 birds. There were two unsuccessful attempts to restore numbers before researchers were met with success. Numbers have increased to nearly 400 wild birds and continue to increase.

Find two of 400 birds is a successful day for any birder!

We observed this pair for over 40 minutes as it fed, interacted with neighboring sandhills and ignored neighboring sandhills. As the sun set, these birds took wing, circled the field twice and left. It was really a terrific experience!

Every bird has a story and I carve those stories.

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I was interviewed yesterday for an article in Travel Indiana Magazine.  I like interviews.  I like talking about my work, inspirations and my creative process. (That’s why I have this blog.)

There are two questions, that I’m asked a lot, that cause me problems-

  • How long does it take to make a bird ?
  • What’s your favorite _______?

The first question is no longered answered.  Ever.

My projects begin with field work and book research and end with a painted and mounted bird.  Sometimes there are many steps and sketches and patterns and trials.  Sometimes I sit down and knock it out in a few hours.   In some cases, like the skin-on-frame cardinal, this process took years.  How long is difficult to quantify in a way that is meaningful.

When folks get an idea of the time involved in producing a piece they begin to calculate the figure in terms of profit and wages.  Without understanding the lifetime of acquiring a specialized skill set, maintaining a studio, building show displays, research, travel, lodging, meals, printing, bank fees and taxes it is impossible to understand and interpret the time/wages/profit relationship.  Folks still try so I don’t supply the numbers.

Quick aside – My wife recently had many serious eye surgeries (She’s better, thanks.) and spent five or six hours under the knife.  It would be crazy for me to think I could figure out how much the doctor made each hour.

Learn more about this here.
I’ve no logical or ethical reason for disliking the second question.  It’s just hard for me to answer.

I don’t pick absolute favorites.

I don’t have a favorite movie.  I don’t have a favorite book.  I don’t have a favorite song.  I don’t even have a favorite ukulele.

My interests change with my projects.  My interests change with my research.  My interests change with need.

My favorites are lists.

Yesterday I was asked what my favorite bird was.  I gave an answer, but not just one, because it was expected — the common crow and the belted kingfisher.

I present here a list of favorite birds.  It’s in no particular ranking and birds may move on and off the list as my projects and experiences evolve.

  • Common Crow –  This is a sound memory.  My happiest moments of childhood — foggy Maine mornings — include a soundtrack of crow calls.  Once I was touring a college campus with my family.  My wife turned and found I was gone and asked the group if they had seen me.  One observant woman reported that I had wondered off talking to the crows.
  • Belted Kingfisher – A wonderful, resourceful, chattering clown.  this bird did play a minor role in my Maine summers, but moved onto the favorites list when I observed one outwit an attacking Cooper’s hawk.  The bird nests in long underground tunnels.  Pretty cool!
  • Blue Jays –  I’ve a love hate relationship with blue jays.  Every time I hear one I am returned to my grandparents’ wooded Philadelphia yard — another favorite childhood place.  One a couple of occassions I’ve witnessed blue jays killing other birds for no apparent reason — once dropping from a tree onto a boat I was building.  A few years ago I could not spot a blue jay.  This went on for months.  I heard them, but never saw one.  I’ve added peanuts to my feeders and now have loud daily visits.
  • Baltimore Orioles – This is about aesthetics.  I’ve few early memories of orioles.  They are pretty.  I’ve always like black and orange and it all comes together on the oriole in grand style.  I’ve not seen an oriole nest, but if I do it’ll be another reason to love them.
  • Red Winged Blackbird – These guys let me know that spring is here.  Like the oriole, I love the red winged blackbirds’ colors — black, red and yellow.
  • Penguins – I don’t know much about penguins.  I’m not driven to learn more.  But, boy are they cute!  I loved watching the penguins at the old Indianapolis Zoo in Washington park.
  • Bufflehead Ducks – Many years ago my step-daughter gave me a gift certificate at a local woodworking retailer.  On a complete whim I purchased Antique-Style Duck Decoys: Contemporary Techniques to Carve and Paint in the Folk Art Tradition by Tom Matus.  This book may be the reason I eventually began to carve birds and is without a dount my inspiration for distressing my birds.  I was hooked on waterfowl and began to haunt areas I thought should be full of migrating waterfowl.  I never found anything but cold and wet grass.  Last year I was driving by a modern suburban neighborhood and spotted some tiny ducks.  I stopped the car and identified a pair of bufflehead and a pair of redheads.  These were my first really good ducks!  I’ve since learned where to look and see great ducks every week. This week I’ve seen goldeneyes, buffleheads, redheads and hooded mergansers.
  • Chickadees – I remember a tiny window feeder in my boyhood bedroom.  From my bed I could see chickadees visiting, taking one seed, flying away to eat and returning for the next.  It’s probably the first time I learned a specific bird feeding behavior.  I love their friendly call, ” chick-a-dee-dee-dee!”  It wasn’t until a few years a go I learned that my Indiana chickadees weren’t the same as my Maine chickadees.  In central Indiana we’ve Carolina chickadees.  Maine has black-capped.
  • Double Crested Cormorant – From our Maine front porch we’d watch these sleek black birds fish.  They stayed under for, what seemed, an eternity and swam several dozen feet.  On take off they beat their wingtips on the water leaving a traing of concentric circles on the surface.  I was taken completely by surprise the first time I saw one in Indiana.  I was canoeing tiny Cicero Creek below Morse Reservoir in Noblesville when one surface adjacent to the canoe.  I’m not sure which of us was most surprised!
  • Osprey – Another Maine regular.  When I was young most osprey were gone from the Maine waterfront.  When DDT was banned and it worked its way out of the foodchain osprey made a speedy recovery.  From our front porch you could watch three nests.  Their calls were heard all day.  It was hard to believe that they had ever been rare.  I see them regularly when canoeing White River in Hamilton County.

This really just scratched the surface.  I could name another ten with no problem.  heck I could name ten waterfowl or passerines!



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As I filled my birdfeeders this morning I thought I might take a moment this weekend to write about my feeding stations and routine. I still might, but the neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk trumped the post.

I’ve always maintained that feeding stations were for the usual guests — wrens, cardinals, bluejays, woodpeckers. You know the list. But I also think that birdfeeders are there for the birds of prey that are attracted by feeding birds.

My oldest daughter’s middle name is Cooper — named for an ancient Quaker ancestor and original settler of Philadelphia — so Cooper’s hawks are kind of special. (My other daughter is Phoebe.)

I was walking through the kitchen and caught a fast diagonal blur past the feeding stations. A quick glance let me know that they were abandoned. There on the board fence was the Copper’s hawk.

This was one of the few times that a camera was at hand and I quickly shot a dozen, or so, frames. (Do we still call them that?) In the photos it’s pretty clear that the hawk nailed a female northern cardinal. So it goes. Another adventure at the bird feeder.

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Yesterday I reported my first indication that spring is right around the corner.  I took about thirty minutes to walk Ritchey Woods, a local birding spot (Central Indiana) at sunset and heard a red-winged blackbird.  I tracked him down to the top of a bare tree and shot s decent photo of him.

Since I posted this piece, last evening, two other blogging friends blogged about recent sightings of spring arrivals.

Les Houser, serious birder in Southwest Ohio, wrote in his blog A Birder’s Notebook, about birder’s in his region reporting the PEENTs of the American Woodcock.  The PEENT is a call associated with the woodcock’s interesting mating ritual and occurs in late February and Early March in his region.  (If you have not witnessed a woodcock mating flight you must!  Contact a local bird group and they can clue you in.)

Greg Adams, my willow bending and birding friend, wrote in his blog Willows by Greg, about flocks of northbound sandhill cranes flying over as he cut willow in Markleville, Indiana.  I’ve seen huge flocks of sandhills at Goose Pond in southern Indiana, but never the large flocks in flight.  Ernie Mills, a photographer and travel companion, got some great shots of flocks flying over Noblesville, Indiana on Wednesday.

We’ve not had much of a winter, but it looks like we’re headed for the other side.

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This great video features some of my favorite artists at the Bloomington Handmade Market. I get a chance to talk about 50 Little Birds at the end.

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“Birds?  Why birds?  You never liked birds,” asked an aunt on a recent visit.

It seemed condescending.  Hell, it was condescending.

My inner dialogue ranted.

“What are talking about?  Do the few weeks we saw each other at Christmas and in Maine over 20 years, or so, you an expert on ME? And so what if you didn’t know I had a thing for birds.  I don’t need your approval to become the obsessed bird carving and drawing man that I am now.  Dammit!”

The last part is true.  I don’t need her approval.

So being the reflective guy that I am I reflected and was more than a little surprised to discover that — on the surface — she was right.

It wasn’t until fairly recently, after I got serious about carving birds, that I began to pore over field guides, antique references and spend time in the field systematically watching birds. I was never a bird watcher, but I did watch birds.

I grew up in a pair of birding paradises.  I split my formative years between two different houses in very different environments.  When school was in session we lived on the edge of a large and overgrown tract of Indiana hardwood forest.  Our house stood on a rare central Indiana hill with a bubbling creek wrapped around the base.  Just a few hundred yards upstream was remnant of a field, now in mixed tall grasses and mint.  Willow trees and young sycamore lined the creek as it split the pasture.

I spent my summers on a Maine coastal island.  The cottage was perched on another, not so rare in Maine hill, a few dozen feet above a secluded cove opening into a large tidal river.  This river was over a mile wide where we lived and opened into the Atlantic less than five miles to the south.  Behind this little house on the hill was the edge of the great northern forests extending across the Canadian shield and to the tundra.  My little corner bedroom had two windows.  One opened onto our little cove and the other into the dark spruce and pine forest (I could also look down into the neighbor’s kitchen.  Unfortunately the view into the kitchen was limited to late night card games, cigarette smoke and drinking. )

Anyone who has spent any time in the field watching animals knows that margins often the place to be.  Animals have related but different requirements for finding food, rearing young, resting, traveling and finding shelter.  Both of these locations provided amazing and varied margins.  In Indiana birds moved from creek to forest to pond to field.  The Maine cottage offered the same mix (but a very different forest) and the addition of salt water.

Even more important than the great locations these homes provided was my own freedom.  This was the 1960s and 1970s.  It was a safer time, folks were friendlier and it was just a lot less crowded.  I was allowed to roam.  I spent my days exploring and pretending and playing and studying.  I’ve always liked to be alone and I took long walks upstream or downstream or across the uncharted woods.   In Maine many of these adventures took to the water in small sailboats, rubber rafts, prams, dinghies and kayaks.

I observed everything that I could take in. It wasn’t just birds.  I liked fish.  I liked snakes and turtles.  I liked frogs.  I loved crustaceans (fresh and salt water) and mollusks.  I took it all in and (dammit!) I watched birds.

I began to catalog the I’ve-always-liked-birds-(dammit) evidence in my head.

My earliest recollections of bird were around bird feeders.  We always had one and I remember sitting in the kitchen and watching birds feed.  At some point a small feeder was affixed to my second story bedroom window.  It was watching this feeder that I learned that chickadees don’t eat at the feeder.  They take one seed at a time and politely retire to a nearby roost to eat.  They soon return with a cheery chick-a-dee-dee-dee for another seed.

My grandfathers were both heavy bird feeders.  My mother’s parents lived in a heavily wooded neighborhood in suburban Philadelphia.  His feeder would attract what seemed like hundreds of birds.  I remember standing in the dining room window watching the feeding hoards less than ten feet away.  One of the regulars was an all white pigeon.  That was some bird!

Often when I hear a blue-jay my mind goes back to that wonderful wooded lot in near Philadelphia.  In fact, just yesterday I heard a blue-jay call.  It wasn’t the call that identified the bird to me.  It was the quick flash, through my mind, of that beloved wooden yard near Philadelphia.

My father’s parents lived just a few miles from us in Indiana.  Grandpa Davis was an engineer with very little aesthetic sense. He had survived the great depression and was the original recycler.  His bird feeders were cobbled together from cottage cheese containers and onion sacks, bits of foil and coat hangers.  He even had a white pipe running from the attic so that condensation from his air conditioner would drip into the birdbath.

A mockingbird would stand atop my grandparents chimney nightly and repeat his repertoire of mimics.  The entire show was piped into the family room, via the chimney flue, and would would pause to listen.

There were visit to my father’s grandparents (my great-grandparents) house in Lincoln, Nebraska.  From their porch I could hear the peacocks at the nearby zoo. It seems we would visit often.  I followed peacocks on meandering paths and talked with trained mynah birds.  I’m sure I did the same at the Indianapolis Zoo. The old one in Washington Park.

The penguins at the old zoo were a favorite.  Upon entering though the turnstile the penguin enclosure was to the left.  Their habitat was split between a white painted antarctic ice field and a glass front tank.  It was great fun watching these adorable birds leap in and out of the water.

My first serious bird carvings were penguins.  These penguins.

The old Indianapolis zoo had another avian attraction that I remember clearly but can find no one else that does — a basketball playing chicken.  The hen was housed in a coin operated Skinneresque box.  When the coin was dropped a ping-pong ball popped up in a stream of air.  The hen would peck at the ball until it dropped through a hoop, sometimes taking several tries.  When the task was completed successfully the air cut off and the ball dropped out of sight.  A task inducing treat was then dispensed into a small bin for the hen to consume.  I can only hope they switched out hens during the day.

On three or four occasions (two I can find within this blog) I write about waking to the sounds of seagulls and crows on foggy Maine mornings.  I would lay in bed, my mind at ease listening to these calls and thinking about the things that I could do on another glorious boundary free day.

In Maine were all interested in birds.  We called out every great blue heron sighting shouting, “GBH!”

Great blue herons were not nearly as plentiful in those days and did warrant a shout.  In those days we never saw them in Indiana.

Once when driving across the tiny bridge to the island where we lived my parents each spotted a common puffin — on either side of the car!  I never saw either, but to this day I’ve not heard of anyone seeing puffins on the mainland.  From that time on we never crossed that bridge without looking for puffins. Heck, If I crossed that bridge next week I’d look for puffins. (I did see mine years later on Little Egg Rock — way off shore.)

One of favorite Maine pastimes was spending the day on a small coastal island.  There were more than a dozen uninhabited islands within an easy row, paddle or sail from our dock.  We often went as a large group of friends and family and later we would go alone — sometime spending the night.

It was on one of these trips that we crossed to the seaward end of the island and stumbled across a seagull rookery scattered on the rocky ledges. My memory — through the lens of an excited and prone to exaggerate 13 year old — is that we were dive bombed and attacked.  I suspect the reality is that these large aggressive birds made a pretty big and intimidating fuss to drive us off.

I’ve other seagull memories.  Before visiting Pemaquid Point Lighthouse — the most beautiful place on earth — we would each buy a bag of cheap bread.  We would stand on the ledges below the light and hold slices of bread skyward.  The gulls would swoop down and pluck them right from our hands.  It was at picnics at Pemaquid that I learned that all gulls were aggressive, but the black-backs were the worst.  (I just remembered that I knew the Latin names for both gulls.  I was a fan of binominal nomenclature and went about learning the names of the animals that interested me the most.

Gulls were a problem in town.  They would line up, wing-to-wing across the roofs of the fish plant, the blueberry locker and tthe nearby Catholic church.  Their weight caused some serious damage and wires were strong along the ridges to deter roosting and streaks of poop down the sides of the church roof.

My maritime adventures put me nose to beak with more sea birds.  I spent some time in kayaks (long before they were hip!) and discovered that I could approach animals and get pretty close before they spooked.  I learned to stow my paddle and let the wind and current carry me into their territory slowly.  In this manner I could get quite close to harbor seals.  It seemed they were just as curious about me.  It was not unusual to hear a loud gasp and splash right behind my back.  I would spin around but see nothing but growing rings in the water where a seal had been watching me.

Female eider ducks with their ducklings were another attraction for my stealthy observations.  The males were never around in the summer (I never saw a male eider until I traveled to Maine in the autumn as an adult.) and the females were left with the babes.  They would spend their days foraging among the rockweed that fringes the entire coast.  Eiders are diving ducks.  When they noticed that I was about the ducklings would quickly skitter in every direction and dive.  They would them re-surface and group around mama.  I would worry that one would skitter the wrong direction and never make it back.  It never happened.

Double crested cormorants were amazing to observe.  They have little oil in their feathers and float very low in the water.  This lack of buoyancy makes them champion divers.  We would sit on the porch and marvel at the time spent under water and the distances traveled.  Following a time in the water, cormorants must dry their feathers.  The birds stand on outcrops and logs, turn to the sun and spread their wings.  They look like some sort of ancient dragon or dinosaur.  Their flight is beautiful.  Upon taking to the air their wingtips gently tap the water on each beat.  On a mirror still morning — the flying bird mirrored upside down — these wingtaps would produce a series growing rings on the water.  Cormorants  never seemed to fly more than a foot above water, often in small groups in perfect v-formations.

One evening, right at dusk, I was in a small rowboat.  I was going about my business and sitting in the very bow. I would stretch out with my face right at the water’s surface watching the crabs and small fish below.  On this particular night I was doing just this and pulling the boat hand-over-hand through some overhanging trees.  I looked up and found myself just a few feet from one of the strangest bird I had ever seen.  It had long legs and long beak.  It had a white and grey body.  From it’s black topped head a pair of white plumes jutted over its back.  I had never seen anything like it.  The next day we were visiting a friends and I told an elderly gentleman about this bird.  He walked over to the bookcase and pulled down a field guide and showed my the black-crowned night-heron.  That was it!  That was some bird.

Our forest edged home in Indiana didn’t offer anything as exotic as a black-crowned night-heron but there were birds every day.  Great birds. The kinds of birds that we took for granted and don’t seem to see as much today.

Redheaded woodpeckers and Baltimore orioles were seen almost daily.  Great horned owls would roost in our huge trees.  Bobwhites could be heard from the adjoining woodlot.

Once, walking along the high bank of the creek below our house I spotted a woodcock nestled in the dead leaves across the creek.  I went to the house and brough back my mother.  It was still there and remained there until I forgot about it and went about our adventures.

The large wooded tract to our east, Gould’s Woods, was forbidden to me.  The elderly owner was friendly with my mother and made it clear that she didn’t want kids back there.  We would step across the fallen fence and take short walks.  On two occasions I mounted serious expeditions.  The first of these trips was with my Philadelphia grandfather.  It was Thanksgiving Day and we were stuffed with Turkey.  The ground was dusted with a trace of snow.  We walked to the heart of Gould’s woods.  We walked in silence.  I discovered that there was a pond surrounded by spruce and pine.

I went back to the pond sometime in the next year, alone.  I was convinced there would be ducks on the pond.  I loaded my camera (a 110 Instamatic) and walked though pathless scrub and brambles to get to the pond.  I crept between the trees  and peaked through and saw half a dozen wood ducks on the pond.  I did manage to get a shot or two before they flew.  I remember the prints of these photos — blurry shots of a nice pond.  They were too blurry and too grainy to show anything like a few tiny ducks. I know I’d seen them.

I wasn’t a birdwatcher, but I watched birds.  Not much has changed.

(I once took a neighborhood friend out into the woods to hunt snipe.  We didn’t see any birds that night!)




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