With the publication of “A Sea Without Fish,” in February, there are now two paleontological books that have my work on the cover. The first was “The Dinosauria,” an academic tome not designed for general consumption, but rather as a textbook for serious students of dinosaurs. The cover image was from a mural of Deinonycus and Tenontosaurs that I did years ago for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science.
“A Sea Without Fish” gave me the excuse I was looking for to begin my project of painting each of the geologic periods represented in Ohio rocks. Our fossils here range from the Ordovician to the Permian, so there is a rich tapestry of life available to me. All I need are more sugar daddies to fund the project. You know where to find me. I enjoyed working on the Ordovician project, mostly because I got to hang out with some local paleontologists and talk about fossils. Richard Davis was my invertebrate paleo prof in college. He isn’t spineless as far as I know, but was one of the best teachers I ever had. Dave Meyer is an expert on echinoderms, especially crinoids, which I love.
My interest in fossils goes back to my childhood. Growing up in Dayton, which also has extensive Ordovician deposits, it was hard not to find fossils. While I might have preferred dinosaur bones as a 6 year old, the fossils we had were far older, by at least 230 million years. My father took us on fossil hunting expeditions to the road cuts for the new interstate highways. Brachiopods, horn corals, trilobites and cephalopods decorated the mantle, and the Dayton Museum of Natural history had a great Ordovician diorama, “Dayton Under The Sea,” which fascinated me. My first science fair project was an Ordovician “diorama” made with clay models of trilobites, cephalopods, and horn corals. Plastic wrap over the top of the cardboard box was supposed to represent water. I think my paleo art has advanced some since then.
My daughter’s comment about my painting, referring to the Cephalopod attacking an Isotelus trilobite: “Just like a boy; you put two animals together and you have to make them fight.”
The fossils in my backyard seem both alien and familiar. The fossil animals belong to phyla still present in today’s oceans, but the families and species are much different. Don a mask and snorkel in the Ordovician sea, and it would seem familiar at first, and then weirdly different. Instead of fish, there are groups of cephalopods. Instead of crabs, lobsters or shrimp, there are trilobites and eurypterids. Stemmed crinoids are common here, but absent in the shallows of modern seas. There are bryozoans instead of corals.
Each of the geologic periods from the Cambrian on is separated by an extinction event. So I have to wonder what will come after the Great Extinction we are living through right now. Species are going extinct at a faster rate than at the end of the Cretaceous. Not only are species disappearing, but there is a great geographical mixing of species happening as well. Plants and animals are being moved around the planet by humans so fast, it’s as if the world has become a giant land mass again. Our effect on the future evolution of life on this planet is profound, and could unfold in entirely unpredictable ways. I’ll leave it to the sci-fi writers to speculate about what will come next.
Filed under: Adventures
We’re doing another time jump back to last year again. 2008 was a great year for me, travel-wise. Besides getting to see an Ivory Billed Woodpecker in the river swamps of northern Florida, I got to visit Peru and Thailand.
The Peruvian Amazon has some of the best preserves and wildlife of the remaining natural areas of the Amazon Basin. We first visited back in 2004, and returned to same the lodge run by Amazonia Expeditions (www.perujungle.com). They have a great facility and wonderful personal guides. We were able to see and photograph such a variety of wildlife because of the expert guides. These guys grew up in the area, and know the natural history (down to the Latin name) of almost every creature we encountered. Still, nearly every day we saw something that even the guides had never seen before, a testament to the diversity of the area. The place in question is the Area de Conservacion Regional Comunal de Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo, or the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Regional Communal Conservation Area. It is a 1.1 million acre reserve for the substainable use of the local inhabitants. You can find more info about the area here: http://www.perujungle.com/rctt.html
This is one of the areas in the Amazon known as a refugio, a place that escaped the drying during the last Ice Age that turned much of the Amazon basin into a grassy savannah. It has remained rainforest for perhaps 60 million years. That is why this area displays so much diversity. It is one of the few places on earth that biologists call “megadiverse.” It is also an area that has not been studied thoroughly. Do you want to discover a new species? I was told by one researcher that perhaps 50% of the species present in this forest have never been described by science.
My primary interest was in photographing herps and birds for art references. I shot over 1,200 images, and got some interesting stuff. My new digital SLR camera was a great tool, being able to use extremely high ISO numbers for shooting in the dim recesses of the forest, or switching on the next frame to ISO 25 for a bird out in the bright equatorial sun.
Being middle-aged and out of shape, I didn’t fair so well hiking around in the forest. After about 30 minutes of hiking, the heat and humidity got to be too much (this is the austral summer time, in January). The dug outs and larger boats were a real pleasure, though. The water was up high enough in its 20ft+ annual fluctuation that we could travel a long way into the varsea forest. We were also able to travel far upstream on the Tahuayo and Rio Blanco rivers.
Travel by boat is, I think, a better way to find wildlife than hiking. This is primarily because you can be so much quieter. Some things, like the Dart Frogs that live in the upland valleys, you do have to hike to see. You always returned drenched, whether it rained or not. Despite the discomforts, you usually come back saying it was worth it, but I find it pretty difficult to hike in that climate. I really enjoy the little upland streams, stained red by tannic acid, and full of little fish you are used to seeing in aquaria. Fluorescent red dragonflies dart among the vines and palms along the banks. There are other delights in the upland areas, such as giant tree ferns and other flora you won’t see in the varsea (annually flooded) forest. So, one does have to get out on foot to really take in all the area has to offer.
My favorite thing was motoring far upriver on the Tahuayo, and then drifting downstream , quietly listening to exotic bird songs, and seeing monkeys, sloths, river dolphin and lots of birds along the way. We weren’t lucky enough to see a jaguar, but the knowledge that they were around kept us on the alert. A fresh kill (a giant armadillo) and tracks behind the lodge reminded us of their presence.
I have not attempted plein air painting in the Amazon forest, beyond sitting on the deck of the lodge. The forest has too many distractions to be able to concentrate on painting. There is the constant whine of mosquitos in your ears and eyes, army ant soldiers biting your ankles, and of course, the sweat dripping into your eyes. I almost feel guilty about not even making the attempt. Perhaps it was previous experience: I did drag my French easel all the way to Borneo in 2006, but made only one abortive attempt out in the boonies, succumbing to jet lag, heat and bugs before I got much done. I have done a few paintings using photo references I took in the Amazon, the intent of taking all those photographs. Here are a few:
I spent some time last week in the Choctahatchee River basin in northern Florida, looking for Ivory-Bills again. We had no luck. We heard no double knocks or kent calls, and had no sightings of Ivory-Bills. This is more like the typical experience of Ivory-Bill hunters, unlike my almost instant gratification of last year, when an Ivory-Bill practically landed on my head in the first 24 hours of my first effort to see them. We did meet another woodpecker hunter who said he heard kent calls on the Appalachacola River.
We enjoyed perfect weather, clear blue skies and 70 degrees. There was lots of Pileated woodpecker activity, which made us catch our breath occasionally, as we saw large woodpeckers with flashes of white and black amid the emerging foliage. The Pileateds seemed to be laughing at us, as if they enjoyed getting us excited. When we hunted down the sounds or glimpses that we thought just might be an IBW, we were rewarded with the laughing call of the Pileated. There were at least 4 pairs in the area. Other WP activity included Red-Bellied and Sapsuckers. The warblers were active, mostly Parulas. The Barred owls were especially vocal, and I was able to get up close and personal with a couple of them. One even posed as I spent a few hours painting him and his environment from the kayak.
While I watched birds of all sorts as I sat in my kayak, I pondered the difficulty of getting a good shot of an Ivory-Bill. Skeptics like to point to the lack of unambiguous photo evidence. I suspect that these are people who have never made the attempt themselves. Just out of curiousity, I decided to try hard for a decent photo of a Pileated woodpecker using the same technique that I was using for Ivory-Bills. The technique consists of sitting in the kayak for a very long time in one spot, or drifting quietly downstream. The Pileateds were very obvious and vocal the entire time we were on Bruce Creek and other spots. Although I had several good looks that allowed a positive ID, there were zero opportunities for photographs. All of the sightings were over before you could say “woodpe-“, let alone sight in and focus, set exposure, etc. A large woodpecker crossing the stream in front of me would be visible for 2 seconds or less. Granted, it was a bit more difficult because the trees were leafing out, but I didn’t find it much easier in January last year. Using autofocus in a wooded setting is impossible, as the camera wants to focus on the background of trees and branches rather than the bird. I tried presetting the focus at a likely distance, and hoped it would be good enough for a shot from the hip. Lots of people have tried staking out a likely tree, but for whatever reason, have not succeeded.
Other treats included some reptile activity, with a sighting of a large corn snake, lots of green anoles, and plenty of little mud turtles. The muds like to climg several feet up overhanging branches. When I approached in the kayak, they’d do a back flip into the water. I only saw cooters far back in the swamp forests away from the main channel. I suspect that they are used for target practice by local boys with 22’s. They should have been present in fairly large numbers along the main channel.
We talked to a local named Jerry, an employee of Mosquito Control and a life long(60+ years) resident of the area. He says he has seen the Ivory Bills many times. He told us that he thought we were spending too much time in the river swamps. He says the birds prefer more upland forests, especially cypress bottoms surrounded by upland hardwoods. He told us about suitable places in the area including such a spot where he has seen the birds on three occasions. The problem is that many of these areas are now in private hands and entry is restricted. He also says that the birds started making a comeback in the late seventies, after DDT was banned. He remarked that the songbirds and others, like the Ivory Billed, had virtually disappeared for awhile in the late sixties. Another local we talked to said he thought that few locals would tell us if they did see an IBW because they fear losing access to their traditional hunting grounds. “They’ll turn this place into a national park and kick us out.” That makes me wonder if they’d also shoot Ivory-Bills for the same reason, similar to instances where landowners in other places, fearing take-over by the Park Service, have destroyed habitats to make them worthless to the Parks.
Filed under: Art News
I’ve been named Artist in Residence for Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for 2009. I’ll be traveling up to the U.P. sometime in September, dates to be announced. I’ll be doing some public programs, and spending most of my time doing plain air paintings throughout the park. Maybe I’ll see you there!
It will be great to spend time concentrating on my imagery. I’ve always been there as part of a family vacation in the past, squeezing in a painting or two while I’m there. Now I’ll be able to concentrate entirely on my art and the visuals in the park. I’m really looking forward to it.
I’ll certainly be blogging my adventures and paintings.
Next week we’re off to the Choctahatchee River of northern Florida to look for Ivory Billed Woodpeckers again.
I’m amazed at some of the venomous criticism that was published about our sighting last year. We never claimed we had proof of live Ivory Bills. Eyewitness accounts just don’t count. That said, I am 100% certain that I saw one. It was “right in my face,” (about 15 feet away) and although I am only a casual birder, any observant person with a field guide would have come to the same conclusion. I feel that skeptics provide a very important function, but the fevered nature of their criticism makes me wonder if they have a stake in Ivory Bills remaining “extinct.” The stake is likely the preservation of their own reputations, which they have placed firmly in the extinct camp.
Seeing another Ivory Bill and getting a chance to redeem myself by getting the picture this time is so unlikely that I dare not even hope for it. I know very experienced birders that have searched for years for this bird without success. That I got to see one last year was a combination of being in the right place at the right time, with a huge portion of dumb luck. If I had simply been facing the other direction, I would have missed the bird entirely. Let’s hope I get luckier this time.
Scroll to the bottom of this blog to see the account of my sighting last year near the Choctahatchee River.