Posts Tagged ‘John James Audubon’

It’s Spring and I’m walking the eastern section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park looking for birds.  I have done this religiously for years and have seen most of the species that have been recorded in this park.  I love birds because they are such beautiful expressions of life.  I envy their extreme mobility with so many species able to call greater parts of the globe home than I will ever experience.  This is the time of year when many different types of birds that have been wintering in South and Central America undergo remarkable journeys.  Some will pass through this area on their way to locations as far north as the Arctic Circle. This is my chance to see them… if I’m lucky. The Falls of the Ohio also has another significant bird connection through the life and work of John James Audubon.  He essentially started his life’s work that would eventually become The Birds of America, one of the great achievements in publishing and the most expensive book in the world, by first drawing many of the birds he encountered at the Falls of the Ohio.  Audubon’s example and his journal descriptions of the world he inhabited are frequent touchstones for me and this project.  Two hundred years later…very little remains of the original landscape he was familiar with.  That process and transformation of the landscape is continuing and unfortunately not always in a positive direction.  Birds are such great indicators of the quality of the environment because they are sensitive to changes…the canary in the coal mine was a real thing.  To enjoy birds and birding is an activity that takes you out of yourself for a little while and causes you to engage life on its own terms.  On this day (which also happened to be April Fool’s Day)  I did experience many of the usual year round resident bird species, but did not see any of the neotropical migrants that make the Spring migration so special.  So, when this happens, I’m not above creating my own bird species.  This post is devoted to a new bird I discovered out here and I’ve named it the Variegated Oriole.

The Variegated Oriole receives its name for being multicolored. I first encountered this bird as various bits of detritus that I came across walking the shoreline of the Ohio River.  For the head, I used a small piece of river-polished Styrofoam.  Its brightly colored beak is part of a plastic and polystyrene fishing float that I cut with my pocket knife.  The eyes are small bits of coal.  I used a green foam gasket or washer to act as a transitional element between the head and the body.  It’s a trademark of mine that I seem to do with almost every piece I make out here. For the body, I found a blue piece of river-polished high density foam? that I cut a few slits into the sides to hold the wings which are made from pine bark.  I took one piece of bark that the river peeled off of a tree and I split that in half to form matching wings.  The tail is a piece of yellow plastic I found that reminded me of a bird tail!  I cut another groove into the blue body to insert and hold the tail in place.  The feet, are just rootlets that I sharpened and pegged into the body.  That’s it in terms of materials which I tried to alter as little as possible as not to trump what nature and the river had already shaped.  It’s important to me that this be a true collaboration.  If “we” are successful, then something of the spirit of a bird will take hold and inhabit this small sculpture.

After finishing the bird…I seek out environments that will help put this avian creation into some kind of context.  Everything matters and I hope my pictures convey something of the time of day, the season, the quality of light, the condition of the environment, etc…all those elements help create a sense of place.  I move through the willow trees posing the bird on various stumps and branches.  I usually take a lot of pictures.

Sometimes, I will imagine what kind of habits my new birds might possess.  In the case of the Variegated Oriole…it is not too different from the Northern or Baltimore Orioles that live and nest in the park.  They are among the migrants I look for. I heard one the other day calling, but didn’t see it.  The real orioles that live here are adapting to local conditions by using artificial materials (fishing line and barge cable fibers) in the construction of their hanging basket nests.  I’ve posted on this before in this blog a few years a go.  I think Audubon would have been interested in this.  Anyway, I left my bird sitting on a branch for anyone to discover.  It might still be there and I will find out today when I once again venture out to the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  Perhaps new birds will present themselves to me? I will let you know what I find…next time.

One week later…I returned to the spot where I left my faux-feathered friend and he was no longer perched upon the branch where I left him.  I was able to locate most of him scattered on the sand except for one wing.  My guess was that he was felled by a well-aimed and thrown rock.  The head was shattered and will need to be replaced provided  I recyle these pieces back into a bird again.

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Today there is a leafy smell in the air at the Falls of the Ohio.  Already, most of the leaves are on the ground and every gust of wind takes a few more away from the branches.  I often think about John James Audubon walking these grounds two hundred years a go looking for birds to draw.  Many of his earliest avian subjects were captured on paper here.  Audubon’s time at the Falls gave him training as both an artist and naturalist that would serve him well later in his career.  In my own eccentric way, I’m creating an alternative ornithology that parallels the genuine one.  Here is the day’s birding adventure.

I usually hear the Carolina Chickadees before I see them.  They are to my mind comical birds because they seem to get into every position possible in their quest for food.  They will examine from every angle whatever it is that is the object of their attention.  Most of the time I see this bird in pairs which makes me wonder if the males and females stay together year round?  I will have to read up on that.  As far as I can tell, there isn’t a good way to tell the sexes apart in this species.  You can walk in the woods and not see or hear anything …and then suddenly it seems the birds find you!  I’ve noticed that different species will flock together as they travel through the woods.  Here’s a sampling of what I saw along with the Chickadees today.

Migrating southward from their boreal homes in the north, Golden-crowned Kinglets mix freely with other species.  They are tiny, ever on the go birds, and it is difficult to photograph them.  The kinglet in the above picture is a male identified by his orangey crest.  The female’s crest is pale yellow.  This is another bird I hear before seeing with their “dee, dee, deee” call notes.  It’s common to see woodpeckers and their allies joining into this group.  Here’s a female Downy Woodpecker plying its trade among the tree bark.  The male has a red dash on the back of his head.

 Woodpeckers have adapted very stiff tail feathers that they use to brace themselves as they hammer away on the wood.  You can see the same thing on a bird that is so cryptically colored that it is easy to miss.  I saw several Brown Creepers flying with the Chickadees and Tufted Titmice today.  This was the better of the Brown Creeper images and you can see how easily it would be to overlook this bird.  Notice its stiff, v-shaped tail feathers that it uses to brace itself as it probes the wood.

Looking just like wood bark, the Brown Creeper will fly to the base of a tree and work its way up.  It is looking for small insects that are hiding in the crevices of the bark.  These bird are also very small.  It’s also common to see this bird also traveling in the company of migrating nuthatches.  Such was the case on this day, here is a White-breasted Nuthatch that was on an adjacent tree to the creeper.

Aptly named, this nuthatch has a snowy-white breast feathers.  It likes to explore the tree’s surface in a head down position and has this nasal sounding call note that it frequently gives as it hunts for food.  Of course, I have saved one specialty for you that is very rarely glimpsed at any time of the year.  Patient birding rewarded me with this sighting of the Thick-billed Thrasher that was also traveling with these other birds.

From this detail, it is easy to see why this bird is called the Thick-billed Thrasher.  It is a seed eater and specializes in pine nuts.

Males and females of this species are also difficult to tell apart.  I spotted this bird resting among the willow branches in the eastern section of the park.  I noticed others of its kind exploring the leaf litter for whatever food supplements its main diet.

A final look at the this thrasher doing something a bit unusual.  This bird has discovered some barge cable wound around a branch and it seems to have stimulated a nesting response.  It sat on this rope for a few minutes before moving off with the rest of the traveling birds.  The Thick-billed Thrasher’s ultimate destination are the pine forests of the southern United States.

On my way back to my car, I made one other special bird sighting.  I also heard these birds before I saw them and immediately looked up into the sky.  Flying high above me in wavy, v-shaped formations, flocks of Sandhill Cranes were winging their way south.  For me, this is another sign of the season and I always associate the coming of very cold weather with seeing these cranes.  I wonder if Audubon felt similarly?

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Audubon's Apotheosis, 6/09

John James Audubon is one luminary that the Commonwealth of Kentucky claims as one of it’s own.  Like Daniel Boone before him and Abraham Lincoln after…Audubon did live in the state before moving on to other locations.  At least the wandering Audubon considered himself a lifelong Kentuckian.  Currently, we are “celebrating” the bicentennial of Audubon in Louisville.  The connection that the famous naturalist has to this area and to the Falls of the Ohio in particular is a linkage I enjoy.  I have created several “Audubons” since I began this project…here’s the latest.

Audubon, bird detail, 6/09

When Audubon lived here, Louisville was a frontier town.  The landscape then is completely different than it is now.  The trees have changed, many of the animals are gone including the famous passenger pigeon that Audubon first drew at the Falls.  Much of my project stands in contrast to what Audubon knew…and is one reason I use the materials I do to construct these little figures.  Reading Audubon’s journals makes me hungry for a world that doesn’t exist anymore.  The challenge is to keep it from degrading further.  Materials I used for this piece include:  various polystyrene foams, wood, plastic, coal, and nuts.  I made this sculpture early in the day, but the light was so bright and harsh, I re-photographed it before sundown.  I still think I can work on this image more.

Audubon's head, detail, 6/09

I found this little hickory nut and split it in half to form the eyes.  The mouth is part of a walnut husk.  Over the years I have portrayed Audubon in various guises.  This one is by far the most “romantic” of the lot, but that’s okay.  My friend Raymond Graf created an official life-size bronze Audubon for the City of Henderson in western Kentucky.  In Audubon’s time the town was known as Red Banks.  Today, there is a state park there that has one of Kentucky’s crown jewels…a museum preserving the largest collection of Audubon art and family heirlooms and worth a visit if you are in the neighborhood.  Audubon now lends his name for conservation purposes…hence the apotheosis.  So, let’s look at a few birds I saw today worth protecting…

Rough-winged Swallow, 6/09

This Rough-winged Swallow is far from the most colorful bird, however, it is still interesting.  At the Falls, small groups of these birds build their nests in holes dug into the sides of the riverbank.  Even the most ordinary animals are worthy of consideration and not just the spectacular ones.

Black Vulture, 6/09

We have two vulture species at the Falls.  This one is the Black Vulture…we also have Turkey Vultures.  I have photographed both species many times over the years.  The Black Vultures in particular like to hang out in bigger flocks.  I have seen both species feeding side by side on dead fish.  It is intriguing for me to think that some of the birds I have seen here may be descendents from the species that Audubon saw, recorded, and drew.  I’ll end with two last images.  One is the makeshift studio where I’ve been working and made today’s sculpture.  The other is one of many variations I tried today of placing the figure in some kind of context.

outdoor studio, 6/09

Audubon's Apotheosis, variation, 6/09

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