Last September, rangers and other employees at Glacier Bay National Park headquarters looked out their office windows at Bartlett Cove and spotted a very unusual warbler…a stranger to Glacier Bay, to Alaska, and even to the West Coast. It was a yellow-throated warbler (Setophaga dominica), a species whose usual range runs through the southeastern US and down to Cuba. This was the first Alaska sighting.
The bird stayed around for several days, plucking insects off the park buildings and delighting locals and birders from afar.
I was commissioned by a friend to create this illustration as a commemoration of that intrepid little explorer. Wonder if he’ll be back next summer?
I love skulls. Skulls tell stories and evoke emotions. They’re beautiful as whole objects, but they’re also full of micro-landscapes and eerie abstractions that resonate in nameless ways with our own visual and tactile experiences. So I draw them often. But I’ve rarely painted skulls.
I got the urge a few days ago, so I pulled out a few bird skulls and looked them over. I intended to paint a raven skull, but my eye kept getting drawn to the owls.
I started with the one in the center. It was really meant just as an exercise in brush strokes and values. But after I got it roughed in, it looked lonely. I set out a couple of the other owl skulls and added them into the scene…and they instantly gave the whole painting a story. I like the way a single static, lonely skull on a dark field turned into a conversation.
A friend who is a book artist and professional bookbinder has been kindly teaching me some of her arts. It’s much more precise work than I’m used to… I’m a rather sloppy worker, despite all the details of my sketches. But it’s fascinating stuff, and I’ve emerged from it with a couple of my own handmade sketchbooks and a much greater appreciation for the work involved in making and repairing books. It’s sacred work, at least to those of us who still prefer boards and paper to luminous screens…
I went on the Audubon Christmas Bird Count a couple of weeks ago, and while we didn’t have any stand-out birds to report, it was a banner day for bones and skulls. The day’s discoveries included a murre skull, an eagle skull, a partial sea lion skull, a moose jaw, and numerous bird and mammal bones.
Plus this sea otter skull. Sea otters are increasing dramatically in Southeast Alaska. Fifteen years ago it would have been a shock to find a sea otter skull; I’ve seen at least three on or near the local beaches just this year.
Sea otter skulls are similar to river otter skulls, but there are some key differences. The average sea otter skull is visibly bigger than the average river otter skull, with a bigger nasal opening (I wonder why?) But even without these differences, the teeth distinguish them easily. Eaters of hard-shelled prey such as clams and crabs, sea otters have flattened, smooth-cusped molars where river otters have tendon-shearing carnassials.
This otter was probably several years old, judging from the skull size and the worn condition of its molars. I think the canine tooth was broken post-mortem; the break was sharp-edged and splintery, not worn at all.
Sea otters spend a huge amount of time grooming their fur, which is their primary insulation (they don’t have blubber). Looking at those precisely-shaped, comb-like incisors makes me wonder if their shapes have any special adaptive functions for fur maintenance…
A few days ago, a friend called and said she had found a hummingbird in her garage. It had come inside sometime this fall and had either not been able to find its way out, or had just been too weak or cold to survive. It had freeze-dried, hanging by its feet from a wire, with its tail splayed out against the wall. The unusual position, in which it can “sit” balanced on its tail, with beak straight up, made for an intriguing view to sketch.