Supermoon Lunar Eclipse September 2015

I turn off all the lights, step outside, and climb up onto the picnic table. Settling myself on the table, I look to the east, to the brilliant “supermoon” that hangs in the sky just above the roof of our house. The moon is “super” because it’s at the closest point of its orbit around the earth, making it appear 14% larger and 33% brighter than an ordinary full moon. But right now I don’t think in terms of percentages and numbers. Rather, I sit in quiet awe, wrapped in the softness of the night, marveling at the brilliant moon above and the striking shadows cast by its light here below.

The eclipse isn’t supposed to start for a while yet, but I want to still my soul and open my senses to the wonder of all that is, before I start recording the progression of the earth’s shadow across the face of the moon. Crickets chirp in the woods on all sides– at least three different species, based on the variety of pitches and patterns. I hear three lonely-sounding katydids, two in the direction of the stream, one off toward the woods on the high side of our yard. Most of their kin has gone the way of all the earth by this late in the season.
In the distance I hear an Eastern Screech Owl call once, then all is quiet, save for the music of crickets and katydids. I watch the moon as it slowly rises higher above the roof, tangling for a time in the branches of an ash tree. A broad, light cloud crosses in front of the moon, causing a reddish, rainbow-like effect to form a wide circle around the moon. A Barred Owl calls and calls again, just as the first hint of the earth’s shadow dips into the perfect circle of the moon. I pick up my pencil…
(Click the image to view it large enough to read. I recorded the progress of the eclipse in pencil, then added watercolor later.)
Supermoon eclipse sketches

Red-headed Woodpecker

A couple of weeks ago Stephen and I had the tremendous privilege of a brief morning visit by a Red-headed Woodpecker! I was looking out the kitchen window and I saw a woodpecker on the far side of one of our hanging feeders. All I could see was the lower part of the bird’s belly, a bit of tail where it was pressed against the bottom of the feeder, and a very faint glimpse of red, before he (or she) moved his head behind the feeder. But something about the amount of white I saw and something about the shade of red, even in the very dim morning light, caught my attention. I grabbed my binoculars and hoped the bird would show more of himself before flying away… And he did… A Red-headed Woodpecker! A first for both Stephen’s and my life lists and a first for our yard.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker

 

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

In Tampa, Florida last week, I saw three Yellow-crowned Night Herons (one at a time) beside the channel behind my son and daughter-in-law’s house. Most of the times I saw them the lighting was very dim (early morning), so I never got a good look at their red eyes, hence the uniform black with no markings for eyes on my sketch. Neither could I see the yellow on their crowns, so I didn’t paint it, even though I knew it must be there. I was just sketching what I saw.

The first day I saw a juvenile, with brownish coloring and streaky breast, but didn’t have my sketchbook handy, so no sketch of it. Over the next few days I saw two different adults, one with typical markings and one which had less black– no or almost no black beneath the white cheek. I don’t know if that is also typical, but I haven’t seen any photos of birds like this.

One morning I was watching the bird with less black while he (she?) was feeding. It stalked slowly on the grass beside the mangroves that border the channel, occasionally jabbing into the grass to grab and eat something. When it got to a puddle, the bird danced in place, repeatedly jabbing into the puddle and grabbing its breakfast.

I loved having several days to observe these birds’ behavior as well as to note differences between the two adults. If I were there for longer, I’m sure I would become familiar with the behavior of each bird, each an individual with its own characteristics. It would have been fascinating to watch the young bird grow up, too, and try to determine what behaviors are innate and what are learned.

Click on the image to see it larger

 

Skunk Cabbage

I glanced out the window today, enjoying the view of no snow on the banks of the stream (though it’s snowing pretty hard right now, so perhaps that will change by tomorrow), and noticed a small, dark reddish shape. A skunk cabbage blossom– one of my favorite signs of spring! I grabbed my sketchbook and headed out in the rain, that promptly began mixing with snow, and quickly sketched a few blossoms.

The flower, made up of a spathe (large bract that forms a sheath) that surrounds a spadix (a spike-like fleshy stem that has small flowers along its length) comes up early in the spring, often while there’s still snow on the ground. It produces heat (up to 35 degrees above air temp) and melts its way through the frozen earth and melts the snow around it. I guess that means I can expect to see reddish or yellowish greenish flowers protruding through the snow tomorrow morning, reminding me that spring is here in one of its earliest forms.

Click on the image to see it large enough to read.

 

Vernal Equinox

Friday was the first day of spring, though with snow on the ground and new snow falling, it looked more like winter. Not even snowdrops, the first of the bulbs to poke through the ground here, are up yet, but the birds are singing their glorious songs of spring and every day the sun shines a bit longer.

I noticed that we didn’t have exactly twelve hours each of day and night on Friday; day was slightly longer. It turns out that that’s because sunrise is counted as the time the top of the sun’s disc first appears on the horizon, whereas sunset is when the trailing edge of the sun disappears below the horizon. That makes “day” slightly longer. In addition, the earth’s atmosphere causes refraction of light, which makes the sun visible to us before it actually rises and for a short time after it actually sets. Here’s a link I found that explained all that clearly and simply:
Equinox: equal day and night, but not quite

 

Red-winged Blackbird

This morning I was reading inside with the outdoor speakers on (we have microphones on the deck near the bird feeders), when I suddenly heard conk-la-ree! The song of the Red-winged Blackbird! I leaped up and ran out to the deck, and counted nine male Red-wings in a treetop! A minute later there were twenty, divided between two trees and, as I watched, some were flying from the more southerly tree to the one on the north side of our yard. A couple of minutes later all were gone, perhaps to proclaim the coming of spring to someone farther north.

Red-winged Blackbird

 

Pine Siskin

In the winter the Goldfinches mob our feeders, devouring nyjer seeds and sunflower hearts, often outnumbering all the other birds on the deck. Sometimes when we look out, we see birds that look like Goldfinches but not quite. When I look more closely I see streaks where Goldfinches have clear breasts and backs, and I see a hint of bright yellow in the wings. Pine Siskins– closely related to Goldfinches but only here in winter, and not every winter at that.

Click on the photo to see it large enough to read more information.

Pine Siskin

 

Gyrfalcon!

Area birders have been flocking to Wallkill for the past ten days, hoping for a glimpse of a rare visitor to New York– a Gyrfalcon, normally only seen in the Arctic. Stephen and I went yesterday and were privileged to see, photograph, and sketch this new bird for us, along with many other enthusiastic birders.
You can click on the images to see them big enough to read my notes about our visit to this bird and facts about Gyrfalcons in general.
Gyrfalcon in Wallkill

I did quick sketches in the field, then added to them later from Stephen’s photos.

Wallkill Gyrfalcon

 

Common Redpoll

Yesterday I saw a Common Redpoll at our feeders, a bird I’ve been watching for for several weeks now. We haven’t seen them often, but a bit over two years ago we had several here over a period of a few days. People in the Waterman Bird Club have been watching for them, and yesterday several of us all had them visiting our feeders for the first time this year. It must be their week to arrive in Dutchess County.

Redpolls live in the arctic and only migrate south irregularly. They are well adapted for cold weather and even tunnel into the snow to stay warm! The bird yesterday was only here briefly, but when we had our Redpoll visitors two years ago, they stuck around long enough for me to sketch them.

You can click on the images to see them large enough to read the notes.

 

 

Northern Flicker

A chunky, yellow-tinged bird flies in and lands on top of one of the deck posts (we made the deck with eight foot tall posts to hold bird feeders), calling with a loud wik-wik-wik rattle-like sound. He then flies to the suet and stays there, feeding enthusiastically, for a long time, unlike the other large woodpeckers, who feed briefly then fly off to a nearby tree.

This time of year we see Northern Flickers at our feeders pretty much every day. Usually just a male or two show up, but occasionally we see a female. I nearly always stop what I’m doing to watch them– I love these large woodpeckers who have such a commanding presence.

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted)
Male Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted)