Otter skull

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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…

The one that didn’t migrate

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.

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Little Brown Dude

I like hanging out with naturalists. Say you’re out for a walk and you spot an interesting clump of scat. Where a non-naturalist friend will likely want to take a big step over it and keep on walking, a naturalist will crouch down, help you pick the scat apart and merrily join in discussing who produced it and what they ate for dinner.

Also, you can count on naturalists to not look at you askance when you make odd requests, such as: So…can I borrow that desiccated bat you have in your bookcase?

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It was fascinating to get such a close look at this little fellow, on loan from a naturalist friend who knew and liked him when he was alive.

Swallows take flight

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Outside and above the front door of our cabin is a roof beam, protected from rain and wind by translucent porch roofing–a perfect spot to set up housekeeping… especially if you’re a barn swallow. In mid-May of this year, two adult swallows showed up and began the process of renovating and settling into the mud nest.

Yesterday morning at about 6:30 I heard a bit of a commotion out there, and looked out the window. After weeks of crowded nest life, one of the chicks had made the leap, and was clinging precariously to a beam below. Its mother was swooping and fluttering nearby. She eventually convinced the chick to flutter over to the stair rail.

I sneaked out the door and set a chair nearby to sketch the fledgie. To my delight, the three remaining nestlings came out within a half an hour–each one encouraged by the parents, then “herded” to perch on the rail or on a rope hanging over the porch. I felt rather honored to be tolerated so close, sketching busily in the midst of this momentous occasion…

Little originals

Have been sketching-for-sale lately, creating small originals to sell at the Saturday Summer Market in Gustavus. Here are a few samples:

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The hummingbird’s rufous sides aren’t very rufous, are they? I picked the wrong watercolor pencils, but then I ended up liking the color combination, so…

I rarely draw or paint puffins. They seem to get so much press already. But this one was fun to do. I liked the challenge of the water, and the challenge of showing some–but not too much–detail on the wing feathers.

The yellowlegs is my favorite. It’s from a photo of a bird down along the Salmon River. I love that it stretched its neck up, creating this unusual pose for a portrait. Something about the pose, or the eye, gives it so much character!

Bones, bones, bones…

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The recent installation of a humpback whale skeleton at Glacier Bay National Park has drawn me out to Bartlett Cove several times now to observe and sketch. At about 45 feet long, it’s is apparently the second largest humpback whale skeleton now on display in the world. The whale was a female, hit by a cruise ship in 2001. After she was towed to a nearby beach, her bones were collected and partially cleaned by the community of Gustavus, then cleaned further, restored, and assembled by Whales and Nails Studio in Maine.

Two trips across North America (about 8,000 miles) seem like a long journey, but if “Snow” made the migration to Hawaii and back every year of her life, her bones had journeyed almost 250,000 miles already.

The bones are fascinating to draw. Difficult because of their tremendous size and the lack of places to stand for a distant perspective, but also easier in a way because I have utterly no preconceived notions of how they should look, and so I am forced to draw what I see.

 

Giant sketches, continued

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In August, I was seeing dragonflies everywhere, and I very much wanted to paint one for my giant canvas series. They were so abundant flying over the dusty Gustavus roads that I figured I’d easily find one. But days went by with no luck. I took to inspecting first my truck’s grill, then (surreptitiously) everyone else’s. Nothing.

Finally, the day my folks flew out of town toward home, I found one. But it wasn’t as easy prey as I’d assumed. Here are my notes:

August 14: Clear, sunny, as warm as it has been.

…driving toward 4 corners from airport, saw gleam of wings in road, pulled over, went back to pick up.

It’s a mosaic darner, still alive, seeming disoriented. I picked it up by folding its wings over its back, the way John does, brought it to the car, put it under my hat in passenger seat. At Glacier Bay Lodge, decided it should have a chance to fly if it was just stunned, so I set it on a boulder and went to dinner. Over an hour later it was still there, so I put it in a plastic container and brought it back to the cabin.

Gave it another chance overnight with lid off, then next day (sunny) also with lid off. When I returned it wasn’t moving anymore so I felt OK to bring it in.

I kept the dragonfly for some time; hung it on a thread next to my canvas. Painted on the porch of the cabin in shafts of sunlight. Added details of eyes and legs and wing veins. This was my first experiment with color—just a touch, showing the blue and green shine on the dragonfly’s head, thorax, and abdomen.Image

I kept intending to add words. Still intend to add words. But really the only words I’m happy with for this image (so far) are 

Six days motionless, it is still poised for flight; balanced; waiting

Doesn’t seem like enough, so it’s still wordless.

Projects update: a whale of a book, and some giant sketches…

It’s been a while! The book mentioned in the last post, When You See Flukes, is now published, and people seem to be enjoying it. You can take a look at it, and find out more about my latest marine-related art, at Spot the Whale, where you’ll also find another occasional blog, with whale-related entries.

I’ve also been busy with a large-scale (literally) sketching project. Last spring, I applied for, and received, an individual artist grant from the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. The grant was for supplies and time to create a series of large paintings in the style of my field sketch pages. So from July through December, I battled canvas, splashed paint, wrestled easels, and learned a whole lot about painting with big brushes, working with canvas, and getting over my obsession with tiny details and fussiness. It was a wonderful experience! Here are a couple of the resulting canvases. First, the version that’s really just about making the sketch page big, then the version where I started letting go of the idea of tidy page arrangement and tidy notes, and tried to just celebrate looseness of brushstrokes and the connections between words and images. Both paintings are about four feet wide.

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I might post a few more of the canvases, and the stories behind them, in the future.