Thursday 23 May 2013

Flight of the chickadees

For the past couple of weeks, I've been observing a lot of activity in the birdhouse beside my driveway. I had installed it purely as a decoration - a scruffy old thing, poorly made, and simply jammed into the fork of a laburnum tree just a few feet above the ground, tied in place with a piece of string. But something about this fixer-upper must have appealed to a young black-capped chickadee couple because they decided it would be a perfect place to raise their family.

I suspected nothing till the eggs hatched and suddenly there was a flurry of chickadee activity. I observed much to-ing and fro-ing on the part of Mom and Pop Chickadee, bearing bugs and bits of food into the nest to feed their brood and, in an effort to keep things tidy, taking away the you-know-what that all hungry, growing babies produce. Over the ensuing days, tiny baby bird peeps developed into raspy "chick-a" sounds, then finally into full-fledged, three syllable "chick-a-dee" vocalizations. When I heard that familiar sound I knew the babies' time to fly the coop must be imminent and hoped I'd be around to witness the moment.

Imagine my horror a day or two later when I noticed the nest had been vandalized! A piece of the roof had been torn right off and the cord securing the birdhouse to the tree had been severed. I figured a tragedy must have taken place over night - a squirrel or a crow had probably raided the nest and enjoyed some plump chicklets for breakfast. I plucked the birdhouse down, figuring I'd dispose of it, but when I glanced inside I spied a familiar little black-capped head. The nest was still filled with a cluster of perfect, fully fledged, tiny chickadees! I hastily put the birdhouse back and began strategizing as to how I could repair it without completely disturbing the little family.

Then suddenly, as I mulled the problem over, the babies one-by-one began leaving the nest and fluttering little birds were soon everywhere! The youngsters flitted ineptly about, seeking safety while the parents shouted advice and instructions. One youngster made it to a big honey locust tree, another into a rhododendron shrub. One confused baby flew right through the open garage door and I had to retrieve it from beneath the car. But soon three little birdies were rounded up by their anxious parents and more-or-less safe in the locust tree.

In the locust tree.
In the rhododendron shrub.
Clinging to a window screen.
I was not the only witness to these fledglings' grand entrance into the world. Both my cats were avid observers, enjoying the proceedings from behind glass so no hapless young chickadee could be harmed.

A pair of squirrels also arrived on the scene for their afternoon raid on my birdfeeders but they soon left again when I threatened to send the dog after them. I'm sure they were just humouring me. My slow, old dog is about as much of a threat as a tree stump.

When the show appeared to be over, I once again tried to remove the birdhouse but to my surprise there were still two babies inside. What a big brood! This was one prolific pair of chickadees. I decided to secure the birdhouse with some wire and tied a piece of wood over the hole in the roof, hoping the remaining two babies would be safe a while longer.

During the course of the afternoon, I saw one more baby make his/her leap into the big wide world. Throughout the rest of the afternoon and into the evening Mom and Pop Chickadee continued to visit the now-refurbished birdhouse to feed the fifth fledgling who stubbornly refused to leave the nest. By next morning the patched-up birdhouse was still intact and the adults were still on the scene. However by that day's end all was calm, no babies or adults remained, and I was thankfully able to remove the rickety birdhouse and dispose of it.

I hope to see the chickadee family in the days to come and that Mom and Pop will bring their brood to my birdfeeders. Before next spring rolls around I'll install a proper birdhouse in the same location, just in case another family would like to take up residence but in a safer, sturdier home.

Chickadees never fail to make me smile. They're regular visitors to the birdfeeders by my studio window and I awaken to their song each morning. Needless to say are very much a part of my life as an artist. They're regular subjects for my coloured pencils, and a while back I captured them on silk. This little painting was presented to my nephew's twin baby girls for their first birthday.

"Chickadee Twins" silk painting

Fly free little chickadees! And come back soon for a visit.

Friday 17 May 2013

Wild goose chase!

I just got back from a scenic drive in the countryside. My destination? A wildlife rehabilitation centre. The cause? This:

Meet the reason I stopped traffic last night. I call him Gregory (as in Gregory Peck). This day-old Canada Goose gosling was dashing madly about in the middle of a busy road, separated from his family and in an absolute panic. Cars were whizzing past as he scampered about, unable to make it over the cement curbs. I watched in horror, envisioning a gosling pancake! Thankfully another motorist and I managed to corral the little fuzz-ball who despite his age and size could run at a lightning speeds reminiscent of the Road Runner of Bugs Bunny cartoon fame. When we finally nabbed him I was the one who ended up taking him under my wing (pun intended).

With Gregory tucked inside my shirt, I searched high and low around the nearest pond, thinking I'd find his family. No luck. I took him home and secured him in a cat carrier, then went back and searched again. Still no luck. Given it was late in the day, it appeared that Gregory was destined to be my overnight guest till the wildlife centre re-opened in the morning.

In a phone conversation with the wildlife centre, it was suggested that I put him outside in the sunshine for a while in a sheltered, grassy area of the yard with a shallow dish of water so he could eat some grass, have a drink, and recover from his traumatic first day of life. I have a dog x-pen that I set up on the front lawn and placed him inside, watching for a while to make sure he couldn't squeeze through the wire.

Then I went off to do a few things. I moments later I glanced out the window and what did I see? Wee Gregory Goose was on the loose, headed across the street! He'd made a grand escape and was heading for freedom. Why did the gosling cross the road? Who knows, but thankfully I live on a dead-end street with little traffic. I raced outside and once again chased him down, scooping him up before he could make his get-away. I placed him securely back in the cat carrier with a handful of grass and a little dish of water. He'd have to make do.

After a night in the cat carrier, snuggled in an old fleece blanket (now in the laundry; who knew a tiny bird could produce so much poop), this morning Gregory was delivered into the willing arms of a shelter worker who assured me they had a foster goose on site who would take care of him and raise him to be wise in the ways of his own kind.

And so another episode in the life of a bird loving artist comes to a satisfying conclusion. This isn't the first time I've stopped traffic for baby birds or gathered up an apparent orphan, nor will it be the last. Birds such as the Canada Goose are common and not always appreciated due to their habit of congregating (and pooping) in parks and on golf courses. However to me a young life is a young life, and if I can help I will. This particular experience has definitely given me new meaning for the phrase "wild goose chase".

Good luck, Gregory!

Note: If you come across a baby animal in distress, re-uniting it with its family is the best course of action. Failing that, contact a wildlife rehabilitation centre for advice.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

And now for something completely different...

For anyone familiar with my art, it goes without saying that I'm known for my drawings and paintings of birds and animals. They're my passion. They get my creative juices flowing and form the focus of my art practise. However, that's not to say that from time to time my repertoire doesn't reach beyond that scope. It may come as a surprise that I have significant experience drawing two-legged creatures that don't have feathers. Of course, I'm referring to humans!

The husband-and-wife instructors where I earned my fine arts diploma many years ago were classically trained, eastern European in origin, and felt strongly that drawing was a skill essential to working in the visual arts. Both were kind but strict, dedicated to excellence, and unfaltering in their devotion to art making and art instructing. As their student, I was fortunate to have the fundamentals of drawing drilled into me. We did all kinds of exercises, some of which made little sense at the time. For instance, I remember drawing the same brown paper bag a dozen times from the same angle, under the same lighting conditions, using the same drawing materials in the same amount of time. I now understand repetition is essential to training our brains and solidifying our motor skills, but at that time I was both bored and puzzled (bearing in mind I went straight into art school from high school). In addition to and in combination with these exercises, we spent a lot of time engaged in life drawing - hours and hours of it, in fact.

Life drawing, in the common studio context, consists of drawing a live, usually nude, most often female (in my experience), human model. The model strikes different poses for varying lengths of time, from quick, one-minute warm-ups through to longer poses that give more time to explore light, shadow and form. I view life drawing as great exercise for all artists, no matter where the focus of our interest lies. It's a way for us to stay sharp and train our hands and eyes in a way only working from life can offer. Drawing from a photo only gives us part of the information we need to create an image; drawing from life gives us the whole enchilada! It also poses different challenges, making us work hard, tuning our ability to "see" our subject and to better understand it, and teaching us to translate that knowledge from eye to brain to hand to paper. Sure we can draw the every day life around us, and many of us do, but I find life drawing studio sessions to be invaluable.

I belong to a life drawing group that meets once a month for three hours. We come together, and without many preliminaries we and our model for the evening get right down to it. We draw, and draw, and draw, and draw some more. We might glance at one another's efforts but we never compare or judge. We're each there for our own reasons but we share a common interest in our devotion to honing our drawing skills.

Here are just a few of the sketches I've made:

1 minute warm-ups
Moving into longer poses

20 minutes or so

So when I recently received a commission enquiry to draw some human figures I was intrigued. It's not that I never include human figures in my art work, but it doesn't happen all that often.

My silk painting "Walking the Dog - April"

An illustration of mine for "Living Water" (a children's book)

When I saw the subject for the commission, I immediately said "yes!" It was a lovely pose with eloquent body language and I felt immediately inspired. This was the result:

Both I and my client were very pleased with the outcome. It just goes to show that every so often it's good to step outside the box and do something different - and that goes not just for artists but for everyone! However, for artists it can offer a chance to explore the skills and knowledge we have accumulated while giving us a refreshing change of scene. It can be almost as good as a vacation!

Now... back to my regularly scheduled artwork.