The View from Here

Home again
July 16, 2010, 4:47 pm
Filed under: Art News, Crocodilians

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve been distracted by other pursuits, doing art, entering shows, etc.
Some personal news:
Since the last time I posted I’ve been to Turkey. We went to visit our daughter there, and saw a bit of the country while we were at it. It’s a fascinating place both in terms of its culture and history, and in its natural history. Watch for an upcoming post about Turkey.
My scratchboard art was accepted into two shows that were juried this summer: “Crocodile Dreams” will be exhibited in the 50th annual show of the Society of Animal Artists, “Art and the Animal,” opening at the San Diego Museum of Natural History  September 4 – October 31, 2010;  and in the online exhibit, “The Art of Conservation,” sponsored by Artists for Conservation. AFC will also be showing my scratchboard drawing, “Three Young Salties.” A catalog will be published in addition to the online exhibit.

"Three Young Salties" (Saltwater Crocodiles) 11 x 14 Scratchboard drawing


Some Paranoid Thoughts on Ivory-Bill Conservation
February 21, 2010, 10:51 am
Filed under: Ivory-Billed Woopeckers

On our last trip to Bruce Creek, I talked to a few locals about Ivory-Bills. To a man, none of them want the Ivory-Bill to be discovered in their area. They don’t have anything against Ivory-Bills, and most of the people I talked to claim to have seen the bird in the area at some point in their life. Here is their problem: “If they find that bird here, they’ll turn this place into a national park and kick us out!” I don’t think their fear is totally unfounded. Like most conservation minded people, I’d like to see the Ivory-Bill recover, but it will likely require huge tracts of land where they can remain undisturbed. This would likely mean removing the hunters and their ATV’s. While I don’t have any particular fondness for these activities (ATV’s are particularly annoying and destructive), the locals have been using these lands for generations, and their rights to continue these uses should be respected. After all, the bird has managed to survive there despite the presence of hunters. The larger danger to the birds, and one that could very well be affecting them now, is disgruntled locals shooting Ivory-Bills to keep them from being discovered. I have no doubt that this has already happened.

Like any conservation project, the local people need to be included in the management plan for it to be a real success. I think it would be possible to include hunting as part of the plan with some education about Ivory-Bills. If the Ivory-Bill became a symbol of the preservation of these lands for the continued use of the locals, they would be behind it 100% instead of trying to kill off whatever they feel threatens their hunting lands.

New Crocodile Scratchboard on the Drawing Board
February 20, 2010, 11:39 am
Filed under: Art News, Crocodilians

In my last post you saw my closest approach to abstraction, paintings that are comparatively, a form of relaxation for me. Here is the anal opposite, a large (11×14), highly detailed scratchboard drawing.  I’ve been working on these crocodiles a long time. That is, the drawing has been sitting on my drawing table for a long time.  I do have a lot of scratching time on it, but as my attention span shrinks, the drawing to sitting time ratio has decreased.

The image is two large crocodiles, probably hybrids between Crocodylus porosus (the Saltwater Croc) and C. siamensis (the Siamese Croc), with a Rajah Birdwing Butterfly. I’m working from photos that I took in Thailand, at Uthen Youngaprapakorn’s Samutprakan Crocodile farm.  The crocs were dozing in the the dappled light of trees, with butterflies using them as basking spots.  The butterfly is a species from Borneo, where it could encounter porosus.

I expect this to be my submission to the Society of Animal Artists’ 5oth Anniversary show this year.

In progress: "Crocodile Dreams" 11" x 14" Scratchboard

A Few New Pebble Paintings…
January 28, 2010, 3:37 pm
Filed under: Art News

My last few paintings haven’t had a single bird or animal in them. No, it isn’t an effect of not finding Ivory-Bills. You might say it’s the abstract artist in me trying to break out. For several years, I’ve been doing paintings of the pebbles we see on northern Michigan beaches.  They are the closest I seem to be able to come to doing an abstract. However, the realist in me keeps the pebbles authentic. I want to be able to tell if it is sandstone or granite.

"Red Sandstone Pebble" 16" x 20" Acrylic on panel

I like paintings with stories, and these stones have their own to tell.  Formed 2.5 billion years ago as part of the earth’s crust called Canada, they were carried to the south shore of Lake Superior just a couple of tens of thousands of years ago. They emerge from the glacial drift already rounded by their journey, and are further polished by the sand and surf.   Granites, schists, agate, basalt, and others mix with the local sandstone bedrock.

"Striped Granites" 24" x 36" Acrylic on canvas

I like the challenge of reproducing the grain, texture and colors of these complex igneous and metamorphic rocks. Unlike sedimentary rocks which seem to be composed of ground up, homogenized minerals, these stones proudly display sizable crystal grains and veins of various types and colors. Sometimes the colors are amazing.

"Wet Granite Pebbles" 11" x 14" Acrylic on panel

The colors are mostly iron oxides forming reds, yellows and ochers, but you do find greens and blues from copper oxides, and the occasional purple amethyst.   Whatever the origins of the colors and forms, they seem to hold an endless fascination for me. I can sit for hours on the beach sifting through piles of pebbles, making little piles of treasures I find until biting flies or an impatient wife drive me away.  Doing these paintings is an extension of that same activity.

This is the first time I’ve tried some large canvases of stones (“Striped Granites”), and I really like the scale. It has the same impact on the wall as a large abstract, but it maintains my grasp on reality.  I’m thinking of working towards a show of my stone paintings, but some of these may slip away to collectors…

Back From a Frozen Bruce Creek
January 20, 2010, 12:28 pm
Filed under: Adventures, Ivory-Billed Woopeckers

I spent last week down in the Choctawhatchee River area, looking for Ivory-Bills with a group including members of my art group, Masterworks For Nature, the Cincinnati Zoo, and Miami University (OH).  While we had a large group, we were spread out every day up and down the Choc, exploring various tributaries including Bruce Creek. Some people were heavily camouflaged and sat waiting in likely places. Others explored for IBWO sign, looking for new areas for future stake-outs. The Cincinnati Zoo’s videographer, Pat Story, made a documentary of our trip, and we plan to have an art show at the Cincinnati Zoo based on our experiences on the Choctawhatchee (dates to be announced).  We experienced record cold while there, seeing ice in the swamps, shivering through the teens in the mornings, and a chilly 50 degree high most days. It did make it to 70 on our last day. Sigh.

The Masterworks for Nature January 2010 Ivory-Bill Expedition. That's me on the far right.

We saw no Ivory-Bills, and no definitive sign. Hanging out with this group, some of whom have spent quite a long time in the field looking for this ghost, gives me a better sense of what the common experience of Ivory-Bill hunters is like. After all, I got spoiled by seeing the bird up close and personal in the first 24 hours of my very first attempt. This trip was more like the usual effort–no evidence found.  Some of the more hard-core experienced types were shaking their heads wondering if it is really worth the effort. I thought it was interesting that they gave me a nod when I was present, but then went back to their skepticism.  My sighting is not proof to anyone but me. It was too clear, too in-my-face to be a mistake, but it isn’t proof. I’ll keep going back to look, but I fear I missed what will likely be the only chance I’ll have to get a clear photo of this ghost.

I believe our chances will diminish as time goes on.  A major airport is being constructed nearby, and will add a lot of noise to the area when air traffic ramps up. As the airport is developed, sprawl will begin to spread towards the Choctawhatchee. As more people move into the area, more weekend warriors, ATV riders, and even bird watchers will descend on the Choc. Despite the abundance of good habitat at the moment, disturbance and habitat degradation may eventually chase the Ivory-Bills elsewhere.

Ice in the swamp. We faced record cold in January at Bruce Creek

The current issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest (Jan.-Feb ’10) has my article about my sighting of the Ivory-Bill back in ’08.  It also has an ad for the print of my painting recreating my sighting. 20% of the purchase price will be donated to Dr. Geoff Hill’s (Auburn University) project on Bruce Creek and area. National Geographic has helped them with specialized robot cameras, which may be our best chance of catching the Ivory-Bills on “film.”  If you’re interested in the print and helping out, see my website at:     Check the “Prints and Books”  section.

Downstream from Morrison Springs

Prehistoric Beasts in my Backyard
December 12, 2009, 12:24 pm
Filed under: Reptiles & Amphibians

Three hundred million years ago, before the Appalachian Mountains were pushed up by continental collision, the first land dwelling vertebrates were living in vast swamp forests. These were quadraped vertebrates, amphibians recently evolved from fish that had adapted to life in the shallows. Salamanders, essentially. Some were giants, several feet long. These creatures continued to evolve and radiate into many new species over many millions of years. Some would develop the ability to lay eggs on land and would become reptiles, eventually radiating into  dinosaurs, birds and mammals. Some would continue to enjoy life at the water’s edge.  Now, 300 million years later, the Appalachian Mountains are the center of salamander diversity, with over 60 species.  They range from tiny species like the Red-Backed Salamander a couple of inches long, to the stream-dwelling giants like the  two-foot long Hellbender and the Mudpuppy. The Asian relatives of the Hellbender approach the size of the ancient giants, at 3 to 4 feet long. Some of these species occupy a single mountain, others range over much of the country.

A Red-Backed Salamander in my ancient stairwell

My backyard in urban Cincinnati doesn’t seem like such a likely place for these primitive creatures. Still, salamanders are abundant in the local woodlands, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that they occupy a niche in my little oasis of wilderness. Some of our neighborhood preserves have what appear to be “original” trees (200+ years old), implying that parts of the woods are virgin. Salamanders from these undisturbed habitats can refill the areas where amphibians were extirpated by agriculture or development, when suitable habitat reappears in backyards across the neighborhood.
The stairwell leading down to my basement is a damp, mossy place. I suppose I should clean out the moss, but I really kind of like it, and now I find that it is a habitat for some of my favorite creatures. The other day I happened upon a tiny Red-Backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus), sitting on a step, contemplating an isopod that might make a good breakfast. It struck me that the little microhabitat he was in resembled those swamp forests of yore. Mosses and ferns were the predominant plant types in the coal swamps along with giant horsetails. A tiny descendent of those Carboniferous horsetails lives in my garden pond. I could picture the giant “salamanders” slithering about in the swampy waters, with giant dragonflies overhead. The dragonflies are still present as well. My pond and koi tub attract the winged predators, one the of the great benefits of having water in the garden. Of course, they don’t approach the 3ft wing span of the dragonflies of the Carboniferous swamps, but they are colorful and interesting nonetheless.

A Blue Dragonfly suns itself above my garden pond.

Redbacks are not the biggest or the most colorful salamanders in our area, but they might be among the most important. This is simply because of their abundance. They can account for a biomass equal to the mass of all the mammals in a given forest. This fact makes them among the most important actors in the woodland drama. It shouldn’t surprise any biologist that such a tiny, delicate creature has such a dominant role in an ecosystem. After all, the smallest creatures on earth, the bacteria, are the dominate life form. We like to think of ourselves as dominant, but we have only learned to dominate large creatures. We are still at the mercy of bacteria, who account for the most biomass of all living things on earth.

The Red-Backed Salamander strikes me as the Joe-Six Pack of the salamander world. Pedestrian in every way, they are widespread, are common, and have a dominant role in the economy of the forest floor. They are not particularly colorful or striking in any way. They are somewhat unusual in the salamander world because they skip the aquatic stage of life. They lay their eggs on land, guarding them until they hatch. The young pass through the larval stage while still in the egg, and hatch as fully formed, but tiny, salamanders. This might account for their relative abundance compared to other species. By skipping the need to return to water for reproduction, they can colonize wide areas of suitable habitat.

Other species in our neighborhood have more restricted habitats.  The Longtailed Salamander and the Cave salamander both inhabit the deep recesses of wet rock outcrops.

The Long-Tailed Salamander (Eurycea longicauda)

The Cave Salamander prefers limestone outcrops, and the deep caves of limestone areas. Spring Salamanders take after their name, and can also be seen in deep caves as larva.  Some of my favorites are the Red-Spotted newt and the whole Ambystoma genus. This includes the beautiful Marbled and Spotted Salamanders, along with the Tiger, The Jefferson’s and Narrow-Mouthed Salamanders.  These mostly occur in undisturbed woodlands, so they aren’t seen in or near Cincinnati except, perhaps, as isolated relict populations. Woodland streams in the area can host Two-Lined Salamanders or Dusky Salamanders, but both prefer clean water, something not see very often in streams around the city.

The Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga)

Being colorful and somewhat anthropomorphic, they make great subjects for paintings.  I’ve done a few over the years:

"Cave Salamander" 20 x 30 acrylic on canvas. A Cave salamander on the scalloped limestone of a cave wall.

"A Walk Across Time" 32 x 48 Acrylic on canvas. A Red Eft walks across fossils from the swamps of the Carboniferous, where salamanders first evolved.

"The Slimy Salamander" 10 x 8 Acrylic on panel.

"Spotted Salamander" 8 x 10 Acrylic on panel

Upcoming Ivory-Bill Expedition.
November 22, 2009, 10:39 am
Filed under: Birds, Ivory-Billed Woopeckers

My art group, Masterworks For Nature, is teaming up with the Cincinnati Zoo and Geoff Hill of Auburn University to conduct an Ivory Bill “hunt” in the Choctawhatchee River Basin in January 2010. The Zoo is bringing a videographer to film the expedition, and a DNA expert in the hopes that we’ll find potential IBW feathers or droppings.  A few of our Masterworks members have been involved with IBW research for a while. John Ruthven was involved in the Arkansas search before it was made public, and was commissioned by the Interior Department to paint the bird. The painting was unveiled at Interior’s announcement of the bird’s rediscovery.
There will be a fairly large number of people involved (2 dozen??), so we can coordinate efforts to cover a large area at any given time. Our trip in 2008 was successful in that two of our members saw the bird, but we know it slipped by others because of gaps in our coverage. Finding active nest holes is the main objective, other than photographing the bird (always the top priority).  I’ll post more as the expedition is planned in detail, and of course, a full report after it happens.

Watch for my article about my 2008 sighting in the January-February issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.

My recreation of my 2008 sighting of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Giclee canvas prints are available, with sales benefiting Geoff Hill's Ivory-Billed research. The original painting is also available, with 20% of the sale price benefiting Hill's research. See for details