Call me obsessed. I probably deserve it. I have spent nearly every evening this week painting nothing but mushrooms, buying field guides, making spore prints, and staying up late trying to identify my finds. In my defense, a treasure trove is growing before me– new species emerging each day under the grove of oaks that line our driveway. And I know that the intense humidity and rain that brings them out, all too quickly turns them to mush. In the end, my obsession stems from being astonished: I have recorded an impressive 26 different species in a single week: classic gilled mushrooms, large and colorful boletes, tiny coral fungi, and ringed polypores.
Consider this: several thousand species of mushrooms are found in the Northeast and upwards of 30,000 in North America. That’s more than all of the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and plants combined. I found identifying them challenging, even maddening, but I learned to look more keenly at key features in the process. It’s likely that I misidentified some and I didn’t gather enough information to even begin to identify others. If you spot one you know from this collection, drop me a note so I can look it up.
Were it not for relentless deer flies and record-breaking heat, it might not have taken me four days to complete this page. But it is hard to sketch on the roadside under such circumstances, no matter how determined, and so, one flower at a time, the page grew. Still, sometimes it’s good not to rush a painting. It lets things evolve; insights emerge. What started as a simple painting of flowers grew into a recognition of how much of the world is at our very doorstep.
I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921): “The most precious things in life are near at hand, without money and without price. Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door. All that I ever had, and still have, may be yours by stretching forth your hand and taking it.”
Note: I will be taking a break from posting for the next week or two as I head to Maine to facilitate and teach the Arts & Birding workshop at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. It’s a fully immersive experience for me, and life on an island is better without phones, computers or social media.
I’ve been watching our newest neighbors as they take up residence in our yard. Bluebirds recently fledged from one of our nest boxes and a brief battle for the box was won by a pair of house wrens. There are not really four birds, as depicted, but I wanted to capture the pattern of the pair’s activities during the nest building stage. These poses were repeated over and over as I sketched. You’d think that would have made it easier, but wrens aren’t known for standing still. I switched between using binoculars and picking up the pencil to make the initial drawing, then added color later. I like the way the poses capture the some of the story of the wrens setting up house.
Tips and Techniques– I used a pale non-photo-blue pencil to make my initial sketches of the wrens. This gave me a chance to work on the postures before committing to ink. A regular pencil would have been fine, too, but the blue pencil is easy to erase and cover over with paint. It’s a handy tool for birds and other tricky subjects.
My second tip is for those of you who have nest boxes: be sure to monitor them. Open the box quickly about once a week to check on the nest, eggs, or young. This will give you a good idea of what species are using your boxes, whether they fledge successfully, and whether there are any problems. My bluebird nest became infested with ants and I was able to remove it once the birds fledged so that the box was clean for the next inhabitant. There’s good information about nest box monitoring and a code of conduct here: https://nestwatch.org/
Finding bird nests is something typically reserved for late autumn, when fallen leaves reveal summer’s hidden treasures. But I’ve been lucky this spring. Bluebirds and trees swallows took up residence in nest boxes we put up in April; a robin returned to a nest used last year on an upstairs window ledge; I spied a pair of cardinals making their nest in a hemlock bough; and, just last week, I caught sight of an American redstart as it landed and disappeared into a tangle of shrubbery at the edge of the woods– a tell that led me to discover its well concealed nest. I know there is a lot more nesting going on in the surrounding woods and field, but it may be autumn before I am able to add more to the map.
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Tips and Techniques– I love making maps and find that it is an excellent way to learn and record information. I made this one so I would have a reference for future years’ nesting activity on our property. I used Google Maps to sketch the aerial view– it’s a great tool for getting the basics of the landscape geography you want to record. Once I had the map laid out, I added the nest, using a photo of the actual nest so as not to disturb the birds. I had been hoping an egg or two would have already been laid, but because I was a bit too early, I decided to add the eggs for each bird as a separate element. I used the Princeton Field Guide Nest, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds by Paul Baicich and Colin Harrison as a reference, as well as an atypically oblong robin’s egg found abandoned near our driveway.
Isn’t it nice to think that Don Wentworth’s poem may be true?
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Today, just letting it be
Have a great weekend.
Ranunculus blooms in a riot of paint box reds and pinks. Brightening the countertop, they are perfect for April, when the Northeast is slowly greening, but I am impatient for more.
Tips and Techniques: Here’s a look at my basic kit:
- 2 Micron archival pens, black, 02 and 005
- 3 Escota Versatil travel watercolor brushes, sizes 2, 6, 12
- 2 Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils, F and 2B
- pencil sharpener
- Watercolors (Winsor Newton and Daniel Smith) in an altered Schmincke tin: cobalt blue, phthalo blue, ultramarine blue, indanthrone blue, phthalo green*, sap green, carmine red*, quin rose, alizarin crimson, pyrol orange, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw umber, yellow ochre, quin gold, aureolin yellow, lemon yellow*, Hansa yellow medium (*these colors are fairly new to me, so they’re still in the testing phase.)
- Small spray bottle for pre-wetting my paints, small jar with a lid for water
- Scrap piece of paper for testing colors
- Extra: Princeton Neptune 1/4-inch dagger brush (nice for the fine foliage of this flower)