Sometimes it’s February, sometimes March when the red-winged blackbirds return. Regardless, it’s a welcome and exuberant racket of wingbeats and squawking from the marshes and treetops. It doesn’t necessarily mean that spring is here; indeed, today, a flock swarmed over our yard and flew off just as it began to snow. But it means we’ve turned the corner: more light, more days above freezing than below, and more good things to come.
Tips and Techniques– I wanted to zoom in on the shapes of the birds in flight, rather than the details, and let some of the birds merge, the way they do in a flock. To do this, I used a loose wash of ultramarine and burnt sienna to create the black, and tried to drop in a bit of yellow and red before the birds got too dry. I like the way the red merged into the dark mix, creating a dusky purple on some of the wings. I suspect this would work better at a larger size, where you could really get some nice color variation and more mixing right on the paper.
The blackbirds returned two weeks ago– a huge flock of red-winged blackbirds and grackles. They hang out in nearby fields and wetlands, and every few days turn up squawking in the tall trees surrounding our yard, then scatter in a great mass of beating wings. But today, amidst a foot of new snow, they stay. Hunkered down at our feeders, they clean us out twice over. And what could be better: The birds or knowing that, despite the snow, we’re on the other side of winter?
Tips & Techniques: Since these birds were never still for more than a few seconds, I decided to skip the pencil and go direct to watercolor, using a size 5 DaVinci travel brush. If you have a feeder, give it a try: it’s a good way to work quickly, focusing on the general shape of birds in different postures without getting caught up with details.
1969. Forty-five years ago, an enthusiastic young birder named Scott Stoner found and kept watch over a red-winged blackbird nest in a field near his home. When eggs and parent birds disappeared one mid-June day, he took it. Scott mounted the nest to a piece of cardboard, signed his name, dated it, and put it on display in a nature museum in his basement. He was 12 years old.
Three weeks ago, I found Scott’s nest. It was still mounted to that piece of now-yellowed cardboard, tucked away in a long-forgotten cabinet in an outbuilding at a local nature center. I was drawn to the beauty of the nest, but also to the date it was collected and to the stories it held. After drawing the nest, I decided to track down Scott Stoner.
That’s how I know about the 12-year-old and the basement museum. As it turns out, Scott pursued a career in conservation, donated some of his basement collection to the nature center years ago, and became an expert bird photographer.
Nest to art, artist to collector: how satisfying to come full circle.
This journal entry is a tribute to eager young naturalists. May they find treasures that spark our sense of wonder for years to come.