Belted Kingfisher


February 27, 2007

Kingfishers are medium, stocky birds with large bills and small feet, and are in the family Alcedinidae. This family is divided into roughly 3 subfamilies. Our North American kingfishers are in the subfamily Cerylinae. One of the distinctive characteristics of Cerylinae is that all 3 species are found near water and catch fish by plunging and diving. It has been observed that Belted Kingfishers teach their young to fish by dropping dead prey into water to encourage retrieval. The preference for water and fish is not shared with other Alcedinids. Worldwide, the species exhibit a wide range of foraging habits, and many occur far from water. The specimen I prepared was a female (I believe, but there is a small possibility it was a juvenile male). Adult male kingfishers do not have a band of rusty brown; both of their breast bands are slate blue. I couldn't get over the tiny feet. I saw a Belted Kingfisher last year near a pond tucked back in a corner of Rosehill Cemetery, of all places. I had been riding through on my bike when I heard its harsh, trilling call, and then looked in time to see it dive bomb the water.

American Kestrel


February 24, 2007

At roughly the size of an American Robin, Kestrels are our smallest falcons in the States. Falcons have evolved to be adept at bursts of high speed, diving, and twisting maneuvers (as demonstrated by Peregrines to an astounding degree) when pursuing prey. Kestrels exhibit sexual dimorphism in that the females are larger in size than the male. Plumage varies between the two as well: the male having a fair amount of blue-grey on the wings and head, and the female lacking it on the wings. I have seen them in the countryside as well as urban areas. There is a Kestrel that I occassionally watch that hangs out near Ravenswood and Montrose and forages along the grassy area lining the Metra tracks. It usually perches on a lamp post, and will spontaneiously dive bomb prey. The patterning and color on Kestrels is so elegant, that they are ready-made for watercolor.

Pileated Woodpecker


February 21, 2007

Well, if you are in the camp that believes the Ivory-billed Woodpecker to be truly extinct, and all of those sightings down in the primordial swamps of Arkansas and Florida are really just Pileateds on steroids (or birders on steroids), then you would believe this to be our largest woodpecker. I myself am not so sure, but that's a topic I'll leave to the professionals to debate. The specimen I prepared was about the size of a crow, with large, powerful feet, a massive bill, and was collected from the Minnesota DNR. You won't be finding these coming through Chicago. Pileateds prefer old growth forests and can be found in the swampy South, as well as the chilly, coniferous North. I saw my first on Orcas Island near Vancouver shredding the bark of a large tree, and a second in the Smokey Mountains. With their bright red crests, long neck, considerable wing span and bulk, they're a stunning sight. Even if you don't see one, you may come across their trademark: large, oblong holes chiseled away in trees.

Chimney Swift


February 19, 2007

Summertime happiness is a sky full of Chimney Swifts. I mark the seasons by the presence or absence of these amazing, twittering, tiny boomerangs. In Chicago, you can see them during the summer and into part of fall, after which they migrate to wintering habitat as far south as Peru. Before settlers began chopping up everything in sight, swifts would nest in the hollows of old growth trees. Now, as you can guess by the name, they have adapted to include shacking up in old chimneys. They have very small, strong feet and spiney shafts that extend a bit beyond their stumpy tails; both providing strength and support when clinging to vertical surfaces. Swifts, although superficially related to swallows, are actually considered closest to hummingbirds. Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) belong to the subfamily Chaeturinae - or the spine tailed swifts. There are 2 other subfamilies of the family Apodidae (Swifts), and at least one genus that utilizes echolocation in a similar manner as bats. In my old Chicago 2 flat, sometimes I would climb to the roof in summer and watch the swarms of swifts constantly feeding and chattering away.

Superb Lyrebird


Alright, so as you can see in the photo, I began a painting working from a specimen of a Superb Lyrebird, but the painting has currently been abandoned in frustration. Grr. The study wasn't quite living up to the glory of the subject. Lyrebirds are pheasant sized birds native to Australia, and there are only two: Superb and Albert's. They are known for their extensive mimicking abilities. Male Superb Lyrebirds, in order to attract a mate, create a performance that consists of lifting up, fanning and shaking their extraordinary tail feathers over their heads while belting out free-form songs consisting of both natural, human, and industrial sounds. There is a clip I recently watched of a male shakin' it and mimicking the sound of a chainsaw (ladies love the chainsaw), and then interspersing this with its own song and those of other species of birds. I believe they are the largest bird ( along with Thick-billed Ravens) in the order of Passeriformes (song birds), and have the most muscled syrinx ( a bird's vocal organ located at the base of its trachea) of all Passerines.



February 12, 2007

When I was a wee, tiny girl back in the olde country, I used to make my own bird books out of straw and charcoal. Mmmmokay no, but I did draw my own bird books, and with very creative taxonomic order placement, to be sure. The Hoopoe (Upupa epops-say that one a few times quickly) was always included because it looked like a something Dr. Seuss would create with it's apricot-colored head and crest, and candy stripe black and white primaries. Hoopoes are in the same order as Kingfishers and Bee-eaters, and can be found throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa, as well as Sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. Fossil records show an existance of a Giant Hoopoe that lived on the island of St.Helena, was flightless, and went extinct shortly after its 1502 discovery. Noticing a pattern here, folks? Kakapo - large, flightless (New Zealand - a very large island of sorts), and almost extinct, Dodo (island of Mauritius) - large,flightless, and very extinct, Giant Hoopoe - you get it. Sooo, if you are considering moving to an island, you can expect to become large, flightless, and to wait around for the next boatload of hungry sixteenth century sailors to come by with their hungry rats and pigs to signify your impending doom.



This week, I was set loose in the Field's collections and so, rather than prepare specimens, I worked from specimens of my choice to create a few studies. Several years ago my husband gave me a book by Douglas Adams titled 'Last Chance to See'. It was a small book about a number of species on the brink of extinction and the people scrambling to save them. There was a photo of a bearded, tough, and seasoned looking man holding this fat, green parrot like a baby, and in turn the parrot was gingerly holding the man's finger for comfort in its beak; I've been enchanted ever since. Kakapos are large, chicken-sized, moss green, flightless parrots native to New Zealand. They're incredibly rare with only about 60-80 left. The remaining Kakapo population was moved off of the mainland decades ago and onto offshore islands, as they were quickly going the way of the Dodo due to (amongst other factors) predators introduced by Polynesian and European settlers. They're scientific name 'Strigops habroptilus' means 'owl-like' for their heavily whiskered, disk-like ring of facial feathers, and 'Kakapo' is Maori for 'night parrot' alluding to their solitary, nocturnal habits. Aside from wobbling around being chubby and adorable, they have many distinctive behaviors. The males will occupy leks (natural staging grounds chosen by males to strut their stuff whilst the ladies swoon) that have a series of shallow divets used to amplify their low frequency booming vocalizations. If you want to hear a soundbite of the booming, or learn more in general, and how to help, check out The Kakapo Recovery

Red-bellied Woodpecker


February 10, 2007

I've just had it confirmed by a real live professional ornithologist, so we agree: it's a stupid name. I prepared a juvenile that lacked the red helmet and did have a wee trace of an orange-ish wash near the belly, but certainly nothing to jusify 'red-bellied'. None the less, it's a spectacular woodpecker, and quite common in wooded areas in Chicagoland. I have seen Downy Woodpeckers and Flickers within Chicago proper, but I have never seen one of these within the city. When I'm out in the preserves,though, and esp. ones with older trees, this is usually the first woodpecker I hear and spot. They have a loud, harsh 'quirrrrr' as their call, and a deep undulating flight pattern. It's interesting working on woodpeckers, and seeing how nature has accommodated a creature that gets its food by repeatedly ramming its head into trees. Their skulls are large, and as hard as granite. Their tongues, when retracted, go all the way behind the skull and up and over between the eyes; all the better to get the grubs! Eeew.



More often heard than seen, the Sora, like other Rails, is very secretive, and prefers to stick to hiding in the cattails. Soras are in the family Rallidae. Rallidae (includes Virginia Rail - see earlier post for Jan.), Gruidae(Cranes) and Aramidae(Limpkins) are Gruiformes. Gruiformes are a group of species that tend to inhabit freshwater marshy wetlands. Soras, for being so secretive, have pretty big mouths. One of their calls is an eerie, high squealing whinny that descends sharply in pitch. Hiking near freshwater marshlands during the breeding season, one can hear their song lilting out of the cattails and carrying across the prairie to announce springtime. Spring - I could use a little of that right now!

Northern Harrier


February 09, 2007

Harriers have long wings and tails relative to the size of their bodies. They can be found flying low over open meadows and marshes thoughout the continent. I saw one up in the mountains in Oregon, and more recently saw one flying over some open prairie at Glacial Park just outside of Ringwood, IL. In both cases, they were easily identified because of their distictive, low gliding techniques. The individual that I prepared was a juvenile. Juvenile Harriers are dark to rusty, siena brown, and adults tend to be a more of a slate, blue gray; either way a sublimely handsome creature. Note the facial disk of feathers that is more owl than raptor-like.

Gray Catbird


February 07, 2007

Well, duh, yeah it's gray (except for the ruddy patch under the tail, of course). The Catbird is fairly widespread and common. The name refers to a distinctive, almost hoarse mewing that is part of its catalog of sounds. They can be found in the family Mimidae, which include Mockingbirds and Thrashers. I heard some harrowing field work tales this past week, and not the least of which was a cautionary fable as to why one should never, EVER stand or sit beneath a bird with mouth open. I won't even recommend standing underneath this painting - so move along and keep yer mouth shut!

Savannah Sparrow


February 06, 2007

All hail tiny brown birds, for humble color palettes, identification nightmares, and suspect scientific names such as sandwichensis. Savannah sparrows can be found in a variety of grassy habitats thoughout North America. Word has it that there is a small population in Meacham Grove Forest Preserve in Dupage County, in an area (now graded and grassy) that used to be an abandoned landfill.

Cooper's Hawk (Adult)


February 04, 2007

I don't know if this adult (compare with earlier post from Jan. of Cooper's juvenile) had flown into a building, or if there was something else going on. There wasn't a lot of body fat, so perhaps it didn't get enough to eat. It's sad to see a bird like this, yes, but even in this state it's incredibly beautiful. Everything I find aesthetically pleasing is born out of a creature perfectly adapted to its role in nature. When I began birding after living in Chicago for a number of years, it was a revelation to train my senses to see the diversity of avian life that comes through the area. Being able to go about my daily business, and know that I'm sharing space with something like this is oddly comforting.

Terror Bird


And your little dog too....
I did not prepare one as they existed on South American savannas 2.5 - 65 million years ago. Some species grew up to 3 meters tall with skulls the size of horses' heads. They could swallow your dog whole, run as fast as your Mini, and kick like Bruce Lee. A sculpture of this lurks in the dark corners of the Field's Bird Division, waiting for poor, unsuspecting pugs. I swear I've seen it move out of the corner of my eye. Pug was not injured in the making of this painting - promise.

Northern Waterthrush


February 02, 2007

I saw one in the Chicago Botanical Gardens a few years ago. It's small, brown, and easliy missed except for the constant, rhythmic wagging and pumping of the tail. It's the same reason I like American Dippers (large songbirds that can be found near water and esp. mountain streams out west). They too have a sort of tic ridden bobbing walk that they do as they forage for food. Waterthrushes are large warblers that hang out along pond and stream edges. We have 2, and both come through the Chicago area: Northern and Louisiana. They have dark streaking on the breast, but the Northern has quite a bit of a warm cream/yellow color to it.

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