One day, this little guy (or gal) showed up on our deck. He probably visited before, but if he did, he didn't look the same. Now something was missing. What a tale his tail could tell! Growing up, it helped its owner keep its balance when scrambling along power lines and through the trees. When sitting still, it curled over its back to give it shade and camouflage from its enemies. It curled over its owner's nose, helping to keep him warm in its leafy nest through long winter nights. Then one day, it made the ultimate sacrifice. It gave itself up to a predator in hot pursuit in order to spare its owner. Now the little gray squirrel presses on, handicapped but without complaint. A good lesson to us all: life goes on, make the most of it.
When I go on walks in local parks and natural areas, I almost always take my camera with a long lens. Better to lug it along (it's pretty heavy with the large, image-stabilizer lens) and see nothing worthy of photographing than not take it and see something really unusual and interesting. So I was very happy I have that habit when my wife and I took an afternoon walk on the first of April at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary near Alton, Illinois. As we walked through the small trees that form a forested edge to Ellis Island we came upon a small flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets. I have seen them only a handfull of times in my life, usually on Christmas bird counts, and always just catching a glimpse as they moved incessantly through the trees searching for over-wintering insect eggs and pupae. But this day they were were not as frenetic, and seemed to not mind our presence. In fact, they seemed almost curious and moved with us along the path, pausing frequently to have their pictures taken. How thoughtful of these beautiful little birds to delay their trip north for the summer until my wife and I could come to see them off.
Often, the best places to see wildlife, especially birds, are in areas with good habitat that are frequented by people. That would seem to be counterintuitive - you would think wild animals would avoid people. But if a natural area is healthy, with plenty to eat and cover when seclusion is sought, and if human activities are relatively quiet and routine (i.e., the same sort of activity is present from day to day) animals accept humans as just part of the background noise. Go into a bird house at the zoo during the day, and the birds go about their business as if you weren't there. Go there in the evening, after hours when the public is not usually present (as we did once on a special "behind the scenes" tour), and the inhabitants become quite alarmed. One of our favorite places to take walks near our home is the Watershed Nature Center. There is a good variety of habitat with ponds, forest, and some prairie, and the paths are frequented by dog- and children-walkers. That's where this Pileated Woodpecker, a bird that is normally very shy, let us get within ten feet as he (it is a male) foraged for carpenter ants on a decomposing tree carcass. And last week this immature Red-tailed Hawk seemed unconcerned as we walked along the path not twenty feet away.
In the wee small hours of the morning I came slowly awake to my wife’s voice. In a stage whisper, wanting to wake me up and yet not really wanting to disturb me, she said “I can see it!” At 3:00 a.m., looking out our bedroom window, she could clearly see the lunar eclipse. The excitement of such an experience is maximized when it is shared with someone, and I was the only one around to share it with. In fact, it was so exciting it was worth risking our marriage to roust me out of bed. I jumped into a pair of sweatpants, threw on a coat, put the telephoto lens on my camera and changed its ISO setting for nighttime photography, and went outside to get some images, one of which I share with you in this Blog. Some will say that the rosy tint of the eclipsed moon was due to the minimal sunlight illuminating it being diffracted by the earth’s atmosphere. But I would say it was the sweet nothings whispered by the earth as he cloaked his partner with his shadow that made her blush.
One day, a Cooper’s Hawk showed up on our backyard deck. Though sometimes seen patrolling through our neighborhood and wooded areas in our area, they are very timid and never seen up close. This individual probably dropped by with the intent to pick up a snack, one of the House Sparrows, Goldfinches, or House Finches that visit our feeders. What a stroke of luck that I took a break from my painting at just that time, that I happened to stroll by the dining room where a sliding glass door leads out to the deck, and happened to look out to check on the bird activity. What luck that I had my camera nearby, with the telephoto lens attached so that I could get a couple of good, close-up shots before it took off. The hawk posed erect, stately, haughty, regal. It had no small bird in its grasp, so if gifted with intellect and language, the hawk would say it was unlucky that morning. The small songbirds would say they were lucky; luck was with them in that they detected the approach of the predator in time to make their escape. I use the word luck as if it is a thing, as if it is something given or taken by some unseen force, when really it is merely a word that expresses a feeling. But it is such a strong feeling, engrained by life experiences that teach us to look for intentions, both good and bad, on the part of those around us. So despite the fact that I know on an intellectual level there is no such thing as luck, I still feel lucky to have experienced the presence of such a charismatic creature.
I am happy to say that I recently had two paintings accepted for the National Watercolor Exhibition at the Mary R. Koch Arts Center in Wichita, Kansas. The show, juried by Stephen Zhang, runs from December 10 through January 29, 2022. The paintings, “Thrush and Phlox” and “Grand Canyon Lodge View” can be viewed on my web site.
Late April and early May brings, along with the warming weather and the greening up of our local woods, the birds that come up from the south to establish territories and raise new generations of their species. On recent walks we encountered the least flycatcher (left above), the smallest of North American flycatchers, and a strawberry-red male summer tanager. Both of these species spend their winters in Mexico and Central America, and it never fails to amaze me that these little characters (especially the flycatcher which is only about five inches long and under an ounce in weight) survive such lengthy round-trips, year after year, throughout their short lives. While the least flycatcher migrates over land around the Gulf of Mexico, many summer tanagers make the long 500 mile jump over the gulf. When they reach breeding areas they have no time to rest as they stake out territories and forage for themselves and their young. Then, as the days grow shorter, something in their genetic makeup programs them to take wing, setting their flight plan back southern climes.
Earth Day will be celebrated on April 22. I am old enough to remember the first Earth Day, in 1970, the year I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. It was also the year the Environmental Protection Agency was established. These actions would not have been taken without the voices of people like Rachel Carlson who, drawing from their experiences and foundational scientific research, told us how human activities were damaging the environment and threatening the existence of innumerable species. Just as now with climate change, there were some who said there was no emergency, that those who spoke up were alarmists. My wife and I moved to the Quad Cities in the late 90's. People we talked to, who had always lived there, talked about a time in the 50's and 60's when they saw few Bald Eagles, and the ones they saw were all adults. Then the country woke up and banned DDT. Now, in the winter when the Mississippi river freezes up, eagles by the hundreds, adult and immature, flock to locks and dams to feed on fish below the dams, where the water remains ice-free. In the spring, flocks of White Pelicans migrate along the river as they head north to breeding grounds. A Peregrine Falcon pair nests on one of the buildings in Davenport. We listened to science in the 70's and avoided disaster. Now, new voices are calling for action to reduce our carbon footprint before climate warming becomes catastrophic. Again, we need to listen.
January at the Langley bird feeders brought two surprises. The first, which I spoke about in my previous post, was three Eastern Bluebirds that, for the first time in my experience, came to feast on the berries and nuts in our suet feeder. The second was a robin that arrived only a few days later. As with the bluebirds, it was the first time I have ever seen a robin at our, or for that matter, anyone's feeder. While the bluebirds were quite comfortable snacking directly on the suet and seed cylinders, the robin was satisfied gleaning spilled seed on the deck below. Why did these two members of the thrush family show up, for the first time, at the same time? It has not been an especially harsh winter where we live, no ice, very little snow, and relatively mild temperatures. On our neighborhood walks, my wife and I have observed large flocks of robins and starlings feeding on the berries of ornamental fruit trees. They were present for several days and, perhaps, consumed all the winter fruits the robins and bluebirds depend on to sustain themselves when insects are hard to find. For whatever reason, we were happy to see them up close, and hope our feeders are helping them get by through hard times.
On the first day of 2021, three Eastern Bluebirds came to visit. It was the first time we have ever seen bluebirds on our feeders. Perhaps winter berry crops have been sparse and they were forced to expand their foraging from the forest into urban backyards. Their interest was probably piqued by the presence of the typical seed eaters, the sparrows and juncos, chickadees and titmice, and found (to their great surprise and pleasure) dried pieces of fruit embedded in a Supreme seed cylinder. So their presence was probably due to mundane reasons. But, even though I am not a believer in supernatural forces, I could not help but feel that the appearance of these beautiful creatures was a harbinger of good things to come in the new year. As Emily Dickinson wrote, hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.
It is always a pleasure to display my art in my hometown, Wichita, so I am happy to say that my painting "Shooting the Breeze" was accepted in the annual Oil Painting Exhibition at the Wichita Center for the Arts. The show will run from January 29 through March 27. At this time, attendance is by appointment only.
Along with colder temperatures and (sometimes) snow, winter brings flocks of Trumpeter Swans to the St. Louis area. They started arriving at Riverlands, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, a few weeks ago, and on our last visit I counted about two hundred. They were sharing Mississippi backwaters with White Pelicans, Canada Geese, Canvasbacks, and Coots. As climate change brings warmer winters, we see species like the White-winged Dove and Roadrunner extending their ranges further north. One wonders if, in the near future, Trumpeter Swans will shorten their migrations, saving energy, and overwinter on open waters further north. If so, we will greatly miss these special seasonal gifts.
I often submit works for the annual Kansas Watercolor Society exhibition at the Mark Arts center in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas. This year I was fortunate to have two works accepted in the show, "Legacy of the Anthropocene" (a statement on the affects of climate change) and "Colorful Decorations for the Home." This show will run from November 20 through January 16.
Brent Langley is an internationally known artist who enjoys sharing his views on art and nature.