Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Best Toys in Life Are Free

I don't typically buy toys for Madeleine but every so often I see something in the pet section of a store that I'm positive she'll flip for, something I'm suddenly convinced she needs for proper environmental stimulation. I hurry home, feeling like such a good mommy and present the toy to her with great fanfare. She's always excited when it comes in a paper bag, but once I take the bag away she looks at the toy, gives it a sniff and walks away. I gently put it on the floor, still telling myself that she just needs time to get to know the toy. I'll even tiptoe out of the room and then peek around the doorway to watch her, in case my presence is hampering her play style. She'll flop down a few feet away from the toy to puzzle over the purpose of my offering. She stares at it for a few minutes and then, if she hasn't fallen asleep yet, she'll start giving herself a bath or she'll get up and find some dust bunny to play with instead. After a few days, and some not-so-gentle ribbing from my husband who can't believe I've fallen for the cat toy ploy yet again, I admit defeat and put the untouched toy on a pile of other rejected store-bought toys in the box of shame.

However, if I put a few dry spiral pastas in a paper sack and shake it around for her, she plays with it for days...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


It has been miserable weather today - snow showers with a chill in the air that gets into your bones. The kind of weather that makes me want to hibernate again, or at least eat lots of comfort food. I've been feeling artistically restless lately too; not happy with what I'm doing, feeling like what's the point, going from idea to idea and not settling down to work on any of them. I've been thumbing through some old sketchbooks and feeling like I was on a good trajectory at the time and somehow I've lost it now.

Today I found this unfinished colored pencil piece from 3 or 4 years ago. Why did I abandon it? It had potential. And I remember enjoying the challenge of trying something different, breaking out of my usual pen & ink or watercolor. I probably started it during one of these same types of restless periods and then maybe I shelved it in frustration. But it is a good reminder to me that I have lived through many artistic periods like this before. I assume that this is a pattern for me. Maybe it is artistic growing pains before a break-through, although it seems like in February and March I was feeling a resurgence of artistic energy and now it has kind of fizzled out, but time will tell.

Many, many years ago, not long after my husband and I were married, our apartment building burned down. We, along with 9 other families, lost everything but the clothes on our backs. My half-sister sent me a gift of a sketchpad and some pencils - a seemingly odd thing to give someone who has just lost everything - but somehow she must've known that it was exactly what I needed. For those first horrible months after the fire, I clung to that sketchpad for dear life, drawing in it whenever I had a minute; rebuilding my life pencil stroke by pencil stroke. At the time it didn't matter to me if what I did was any good or not, just that I was doing something that was creating a sense of moving forward. And so although right now I feel like my hand is cursed and I will never draw anything good again, I look back on that time when drawing was everything to me - was all I had - and I promise myself I will keep drawing. And I will try to never forget the reminder that my half-sister gave me - life will go on if you just pick up the pencil and draw.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

One of Those Days

We had planned to go birding this morning anyway, but waking up at 4:30 am was not part of the original idea. We are both finding that this sort of early morning wakefulness is happening more and more frequently. Is it age or stress? But now that spring is here, waking up so early does have its advantages when it happens on a day that you aren't due in to work; it gives you an excellent jump on the morning's birding. So we gathered up our spotting scope and binocs and other accoutrements of birding and headed out to a nearby wildlife refuge.

On the way, we passed through a town that had a bank with one of those helpful temperature reader boards and it said 29F. Er, I think we'll have breakfast first and let the sun get a little higher in the sky over a hot cup of coffee...

Once we had had more than our legal limit of biscuits and gravy, we managed to waddle back out to the car and continue on to the refuge. Even before we reached the refuge boundary, we were seeing good things, like this snipe hanging out on a convenient fence.

I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow account of our birding trip, but it was one of the best birding days we've had in a long time; not for sheer numbers of different species, but by the quality of the spotting. We discovered a great blue heron rookery after tracking a group of 5 great blue herons all wheeling over a patch of trees. We spied some greater yellowlegs that were stopped off at one of the ponds to rest and refuel during their migration north. The ponds also had a profusion of cinnamon teal - always a treat - with pintail, bufflehead and shoveler thrown in for good measure.

And the tree swallows were back in force. Check out this part of a walking path, just covered in tree swallows. We'd never seen anything like it:There were just a few bird boxes scattered in the area and each one was being guarded by a pair of tree swallows. All the other swallows were circling these boxes, making lots of noise. It appeared that they were all trying to drive the swallow pairs away. I'd say this was a swallow housing crisis! I managed to snap this shot of an aerial bombardment in progress. If you look closely, you'll see that both of their beaks are open as they squawk at each other in frustration (oops, am I anthropomorphising?)

Some osprey had taken up residence on a nesting platform nearby, but there didn't seem to be any disputes going on between them.

Later in the day I snapped this picture looking up a hillside of arrow-leaved balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom. There are rain and snow showers in the forecast again, so I figured this might be the only good chance I'd get for some reference shots of the blooms. As I was taking these photos, I could hear two spotted towhees calling nearby. Ah, what a day!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Daily Sketch - Stellar's Jay

Well it is about time I posted another sketch. This was meant to be an art and nature blog, but it has been a little lacking in the art side of things lately.

I know I went on and on in an earlier post about how much I love avocets. But love can be fickle and there are so many birds out there to love. Stellar's jays are definitely on my list. We don't get them here in town but they are in the higher elevations nearby, flitting around like flying jewels with a glossy black head and iridescent blue body. They are such characters too, with curiosity aplenty and that self-assuredness of the jay family. What's not to love?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sunday Drives

When I was a kid growing up in Massachusetts, we spent many a Sunday afternoon tooling around New England on back country roads and enjoying the scenery, sometimes taking a hike somewhere, or - my favorite - stopping at a farm stand that had ice cream.

This past Sunday my husband and I took a little after-dinner drive of our own, east of town. I noticed that the balsamroot (like dwarf sunflowers with silvery fuzzy leaves) was finally blooming on the south-facing hillsides while the mountains still had plenty of snow on them. We drove out a twisting one-lane road along a creek. It was so peaceful and beautiful back in that narrow valley, with the lowering sun bathing the cliffs high above us in golden light. I was really hoping for an owl or a moose - I wanted something magical to appear, but instead we got a flock of mountain sheep grazing in someone's yard.

They still had most of their winter coats intact and clearly were relishing the fresh grass. Very cool to see, but not quite the fantasy setting I'd pictured. There was also a large group of wild turkeys in another yard.

Not finding any owls or moose about, we eventually turned around and headed home. Once we got back into town, we stopped at our favorite ice cream stand. I had mocha chip with hot fudge and my husband had huckleberry with oreos. Mmmm. You just shouldn't mess with a good tradition.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Wildflowers Keep Coming

Although we had snow showers earlier in the week (making everyone a little nervous), it warmed up nicely and gave us hope for the weekend.

On Thursday evening, a group of us hiked up to an area overlooking the city that has a wonderful little alpine habitat with lots of "pin cushion" plants including this dainty little douglasia (Douglasia montana in the primrose family) that happened to be blooming.

Then today I went on a geology field trip run by the Montana Natural History Center. They kindly arranged for perfect weather for us. The field trip was fabulous, making me appreciate what has gone into the making of our beautiful valley. And as an added bonus, we saw this season's first violet-green swallows, and more wildflowers like shooting stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum) and these pasqueflowers (or prairie crocus; Pulsatilla patens). Luckily the geology expert was very understanding when he was upstaged by things like this.

While the group was eating lunch, I snuck back to this clump of pasqueflowers and tried to get a couple of quick sketches in. There was a bit of a breeze, so whenever I looked away from the flower, it would move just enough to throw off my sketch. However I did get a bunch of really great reference photos and I can feel a drawing of these wildflowers brewing...

All the beautiful weather and the precipitation earlier in the week also means that the weeds are multiplying like rabbits on fertility drugs. So while I am on my knees, getting a crick in my neck pulling weeds out, I can be dreaming of the beautiful pasqueflower drawing I will do once every blasted weed is gone from the garden.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

More Signs of Spring

This whole past week has been glorious, and every day brings changes as Spring finally takes hold. Of note: early wildflowers such as biscuit-root, buttercups and yellowbells are blooming, and the spotted towhees are back.

Daily walks along the river have been replacing my daily sketches this week, but I figure it is warranted to let my poor Vitamin D-starved skin soak up the sun.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Osprey Are Back!

Today would have been my dad's 74th birthday. He loved being outdoors; hiking, camping, fishing and taking photographs. I will always be grateful to him for instilling in me a love of nature. In fact I spent the morning scanning some of his old slides to use as reference material for upcoming drawings and paintings. But instead of starting on one of those drawings or paintings, it was such a beautiful day today that I decided to take a walk along the river. Partially because of my good old friend Procrastination and partially to convince myself that, although there's still snow even on the tops of the lower mountains, Spring really is here at last. Everyone else had the same idea, too. Lots of kids on bikes and happy dogs along the river trail.

At one point a merganser flew past so I ran over to the edge of the river to see if I could spot where it had landed and maybe sneak up and get a picture, but no luck. Instead I found this little guy out sunning himself amongst the rocks.

Then the prize of the walk - an osprey! It was circling over the river in the distance. Suddenly it pulled in its wings and dove straight into the water. Even from far away I could clearly see the splash. And what luck; it flew right past me as it headed back upriver with the fish it had just caught!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Must Have Food Now

Damn humans! I command you to stop laughing and give me that delectable kibble NOW!

Ahh, the Bag Of Warmth. You have redeemed yourselves. Leave me; I am very weary. I will call when I have need of you again.

(Yes, I know, this is my sad ploy to distract you with an adorable cat so you do not notice the lack of recent sketch postings.)