Imagine traveling to a new place, alone. You are over 1000 miles from home and all of the people you know. The environment is different; the culture is different. You are travel weary, dirty, and almost out of money. But all of that is okay, because you are about to have a huge adventure!
This was how I felt the first time I went to California. I had been accepted as an intern on the Condor Recovery Program, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I was going to California! I was going to intern with California Condors! I was going to be in California, with California Condors!
The California Condor is a huge North American vulture. With a wingspan of over 9 feet, and weighing over 20 pounds, it is one of the biggest flying birds in the world. It is also one of the most endangered. It was widespread over the US in prehistoric times, with fossils being found as far east as NY and FL, but by the time European explorers arrived, it was restricted to the west coast and already uncommon.
In the 1980s, with the population under 30 individuals, it almost went extinct. Biologists made heroic efforts to save the species, capturing every wild bird that was left. Currently, the overall population, captive and free-flying, is over 400 birds. It’s a significant improvement, but the species still has a long way to go to achieve recovery, and it is heavy monitored. I felt honored to have been offered the internship.
When I left home in Pennsylvania, I was filled with excitement. I drove away, with about $500, representing all of my money, my little Pontiac Sunfire stuffed with all of the things I thought I would need.
It took me five days to reach the west coast. I was blown away when I crossed the border from Arizona into California, and saw the Mojave Desert for the first time. Vast, hot, sunny, dry, and unforgiving. At every rest station, huge black ravens panted in the shade and eyed me wearily when I got out of my car. I got my breakfast out of a vending machine, and finished my journey through the desert.
I skirted around Los Angeles. I had been dreading this, but it turned out okay because it was Sunday morning, and headed north toward my destination, Ventura. I spent the night in a hotel, so I could clean up and be presentable the next morning when I made my debut at the office.
My first day was like being caught in a whirlwind. There were introductions to staff and fellow interns, there were forms to sign. I was given t-shirts, a windbreaker, and a hat. I was assigned a locker. Arrangements were made for ATV training. After a few hours, I was carted off for my first 10-day shift, which included tours of Hopper Mountain and Bittercreek NWRs.
Hopper Mountain is surrounded by oil drilling property and national forest. It is only accessible via a narrow, windy road that is mostly dirt and gravel, with the occasional paved spot. The road is steep, with no guardrails. My guide pointed out the infamous spot where a previous intern had driven off the edge of the road and rolled down to the canyon below. The intern survived with no permanent injuries, and no memory of the accident. My guide reminded me to drive carefully.
A few days later, I took my ATV training. It was my first experience on an ATV. I drove around orange cones, I accelerated; I braked. My teacher praised my budding skills. After several hours of learning, it was time for a trail ride. I followed my teacher to the trailhead. My trail ride would be up to the top of Hopper Mountain. This was a particularly important ride, because Hopper Mountain is the best place on the refuge for taking radio signals, and I would be making regular trips to the top. Looking up the steep trail, I felt like I was preparing to ascend Mr. Everest.
My teacher gave me a few reminders: first gear, lean forward, don’t stop, then he revved his engine and took off.
I followed, feeling numb, palms and brow beading sweat. I was terrified. But I remembered what I had been taught, and made it to the top, where my teacher was waiting. Success! I still have my laminated ATV Training certificate, proudly displayed in a scrapbook.
Hopper is where the condors in Southern CA nest, so I was instructed, by one of the techs, on how to do condor nest observations, for the four active nests that I would be watching when I was at Hopper. Basically, it involves sitting for 8 hours with your eye to a scope and making notes about every single thing the chick does. Nest observations provide valuable data on how condors are breeding in the wild since they have been reintroduced. It can also be considered a nest-guarding program. If the chick looks ill, or is in danger, it can be rescued by biologists. Every individual bird is valuable.
The tech pointed out a Cabela’s backpack hanging from a tree, and a spot on the hillside that had been cleared. The pack contained a wildfire kit. If there was a wildfire and I couldn’t hike out in time, I was to take the pack to the cleared area, set up a heat reflective tent, and hang out there until the danger had passed.
Several days later, I headed over to Bittercreek National Wildlife Refuge. Bittercreek is an old ranch property now belonging to the USFWS, and serves as a roosting and foraging ground for the SoCal condor population. It has a huge flight pen for housing condors. The pen serves two purposes: to introduce new condors to southern California before release into the population, and as a holding facility for birds that are either going to get veterinary work-ups or are going to be sent to other locations.
Here I was shown how to take care of the birds in the flight pen and where to set calf carcasses out for condors to feed on them. Eventually, I also received training on how to trap and handle condors for the annual work-up.
Ah, carcasses. Retrieval of calf carcasses was another intern duty. I was given a map and instructions on how to get to several dairies around Bakersfield. These dairies had a relationship with the refuge and allowed us access to their properties to take still-born calves. All of the calves given to the condors had died of natural causes. This was hard, dirty work. Some of the calves were almost 100 pounds!
After each carcass run, I was usually hungry, and would stop at an ice-cream stand in Maricopa and get a delicious chocolate milkshake.
One of the things that suprises you about condors, and vultures in general, is how likable they are, despite their bald heads and gross habits. Each bird has its own personality. Some bird pair up and are dedicated mates for years. Other birds switch mates regularly. Some birds form little cliques and hang out together. Other birds are rebellious and will strike out on their own to explore. New objects in their environment attract rapt attention, and sometimes become playthings, with the condors getting so excited by their toy that they hop-flap into the air.
The condor population is still in recovery, and will be for decades to come. Initially reintroduced into SoCal, condor populations have been established in Central California, Mexico, and Arizona. The birds are explorers and travelers, and the AZ birds regularly visit southern Utah.
The species is considered to be a relic by some, a piece of a bygone time, the current population an experiment. I consider it to be a jewel in the environment of the west and I hope that the birds continue to exist for a long time to come, gracing the landscape with their huge shadows.
Sometimes I enjoy just sitting down with some paint and a canvas, no model, and just doodling what is in my head. One of my favorite things to doodle is trees.
I find the freedom to just create, letting my hand and brush do what they want, to be very relaxing. Plus, what is more refreshing than creating a teeny tiny forest right in your art studio?
So, while working on pointillist paintings and other projects, I've been free-hand painting trees. The trees above are all ACEOs. I like how they look so much, that I'm working on some larger ones, like the 8x10 painting below. I'm almost to the point where leaves and flowers are going to sprout on the canvas!
In 2009, I went to the state of Texas for a new field job, this one doing nest searching and surveys for black-capped vireos. I was nervous about living in Texas. At the time, I knew two people who had lived there, and neither had had good things to say about it. The birder in me was excited, however. Texas was supposed to be a great place for birds, and I looked forward to birding trips on my days off from work.
Growing up in Pennsylvania and flipping though my parent's bird book, there were birds that caught my eye. Scissor-tailed flycatchers, vermillion flycatchers, summer tanagers, and, of course, painted buntings. My childhood self wondered if I would ever see such extravagant and amazing birds.
My adult self was delighted, upon my arrival in the Texas Hill Country, to discover that some of these birds are common. So common, that some birders I encountered jokingly referred to them as "trash birds".
Summer tanagers fought in the trees. Vermillion flycatchers loudly and ominously declared ownership of their territories. One afternoon, during spring migration, I noticed a sapling along the road decorated with seven (seven!) scissor-tailed flycatchers. I was headed back to the field house from grocery shopping, and almost wrecked my car in my amazement.
And then there were the painted buntings; I saw them everywhere! Singing from the tops of shrubs, darting across my path, peeking at me when I was crawling through the bushes in search of vireo nests.
Texas, I decided, was awesome.
One morning, while following a vireo pair, I saw a little green bird dart in front of me, carrying a long piece of dried grass. A female painted bunting with nesting material! I had to see the nest, so I took a moment to see where she was headed. I succeeded in finding her nest, hidden low in a tangle of green briar.
That evening, I did some research on painted buntings. This is what I learned: The male defends a territory. The female builds the nest by herself, and cares for the eggs and nestlings, by herself. When the nestlings fledge, the male takes charge of the fledglings, and if there is time left in the breeding season, the female may build another nest and raise a second brood.
About a week after finding the bunting nest, I left for South Llano River State Park to do surveys for black-capped vireos and golden-cheeked warblers. It was several hours from the field station, so I camped at the park for the duration of the surveys.
After the completion of a day's work, I was free to enjoy the park. The park had a delightful feature...bird blinds set up with baths, feeders, and nesting material! I spent a good portion of my free time in the blinds watching birds come to enjoy the amenities, and attempting to photograph them through my binoculars with my digital point-and-shoot camera. The photos may not have been National Geographic quality, but I was still proud of them.
This place, in the blinds at South Llano River State Park, is where I photographed the model for my painted bunting and summer tanager ACEO paintings. The painted bunting (pictured at the top of this blog entry) was the first in my series of pointillist bird paintings, completed the winter after my Texas field job. The tanager is pictured below.
It was February in Florida, late morning, sunny and hot. A couple of months before, I had been accepted into an internship at Ding Darling NWR, on the barrier island of Sanibel. On our weekends off, I would take trips to the mainland with a fellow intern. This weekend, we were at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Today, at the sanctuary, we stood quietly, with several other people, at the end of a nature trail, facing a bird feeder. Some of us clutched binoculars; others cameras. We were quiet and still, ignoring the sweat on our brows and insects buzzing in our ears. Occasionally, someone whispered to his or her companion, but we were mostly quiet. There was an air of reverence. We were waiting for a special visitor, and we didn't want to miss him.
Suddenly, after nearly twenty minutes of standing in the sun, someone gasped...they'd seen movement in the bushes! I looked hard...I saw it too! The faintest quivering of leaves. Finally, a tiny face peered out of the vegetation, a dark eye, ringed by red, set in a field of blue. The leaves rustled, and the face disappeared.
And then, a tiny, rainbow-colored bird burst out of the bush and landed on a perch at the feeder. It was a male painted bunting.
The colors of his plumage, now glowing in the sun, were both striking and ridiculous. Royal blue! Green! Red! His admirers murmured approval; cameras clicked. I looked hard through my binoculars, not wanting to miss a moment.
A green female appeared. The male was displaced. The birds fluttered around the feeder. The male went away, then came back. Finally, both birds disappeared. The little crowd of birders waited. The buntings didn't return. Their visit almost seemed too brief.
Some people wandered back down the trail, and were replaced by new people. About fifteen minutes after the birds departed, my co-worker and I retreated down the trail too, to make space for more people to see the flying rainbow.
And that was my first sighting of the painted bunting, as a special winter resident in the state of Florida. It would be almost two years, but I would see the species again in Texas.
You may have noticed that many of my paintings composed of dots. I affectionately refer to them as my "dot paintings", but there is an official name for the style: pointillism.
The style emerged in the 1800s, and, evidently, was not well received at the time. Georges Seurat is one of the most well known artists to use the style. If you have a chance, look up his most famous painting: "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte". It took him two years to complete.
None of my pointillist paintings have taken quite that long, but from my experience with the style thus far, I can say that it can be tedious. After all, I am filling my canvases with thousands of dots. My record for completing an ACEO-sized painting? Seven hours.
I try to limit the number of colors I use in a painting, so I have to think carefully about where I'm going to put my dots, particularly if I'm trying to create a color that isn't in my palette. For example, I have not used black in any of my pointillist paintings, so if my subject has black in it, like the condor and vireo paintings, I have to come up with something that looks black, without using black paint.
What would compel a person to paint in this style? Well, I guess I just liked Seurat's style. I also liked the challenge of painting with gazillions of dots, and the challenge of getting my limited colors to work together. I had to try it, and I still am doing it.
Hello and welcome to my new blog! I would like to start with an introduction. In short, I am an artist and biologist, by training and by nature.
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, first living in a house in the country, and then moving into a small town after my second brother was born. Those first years of my childhood, when we were out in the country, probably had the biggest impact on me.
I was a biologist early on. Every rock, log, or wooden board had to be overturned so I could see, and capture, what was under it. I caught earthworms, sowbugs, and slugs. After several instances of finding earthworms in the laundry water, my mother learned to check my pockets before putting my clothes in the machine.
As I got older, I became more sophisticated; I started using jars and buckets instead of my pockets. I stalked more advanced quarry...salamanders, toads, and frogs! Snakes! Birds!
Birds were my favorite animals. There was a big field behind my house, where killdeer, a kind of shorebird, nested. Sometimes I would hide in the grass and watch the adults go to their nests. I got good at finding killdeer nests. Despite my extreme curiosity concerning everything avian, I left the eggs alone.
Barn swallows caught my eye. They had bluish plumage, swallow tails, and flew really fast! I found them hugely appealing, so I stalked them. I wanted to touch one. I carefully devised a plan, and carried it out. I'm not going to go into too many details, other than that my scheme involved a butterfly net, but, in the end, I succeeded in catching an adult barn swallow. Don't worry, he was released unharmed.
I have many fond memories of the happy hours exploring the fields and woods behind my house.
I also have many happy memories of sketching and drawing. I had pencils and big boxes of crayons. Birds were my favorite thing to follow outside, but in my sketchbooks, I drew horses, cats, dogs, and dinosaurs. My family encouraged me, my art teachers, encouraged me, and regularly winning school art contests encouraged me.
Both of my interests, in nature, and in art, have been part of my entire life.
By the time I headed off to college, I decided that I was going to illustrate comic books. Not the most practical plan, now that I think of it. I enrolled in art classes with the goal of achieving a degree in Fine Art.
The college years are a time of growing and changing. After a while I found myself taking more and more environmental sciences and biology classes. I took photography classes and started to love making photos. The dream of being a comic book artist faded. As graduation loomed, I knew I had to find a job. I applied for biology jobs, and I was offered my first field job working as a nest searcher in West Virginia.
Biology work is what I've been doing ever since.
I have not given up on my artistic side. What could be better than combining two of the things I love most, nature and art? So that is what I am doing.
Flores Crow Studio is the name for my art studio. It's named after a bird, of course. The Flores Crow is a crow found on the island of Flores, in Indonesia. I feel great admiration for crows and ravens, they are so smart.
With my blog, I want to share my art, and share my stories about what inspired me to paint my subjects.
I invite you to sit back and enjoy.
Hello, I'm PJ. I'm a wildlife biologist and artist. I enjoy drawing and photographing the plants and animals I see when I'm in the field. I have lived in several states in the US, including CA, TX, and MI. I'm originally from Pennsylvania.