Monday, June 29, 2009

Great Birding Great Falls

This past weekend, Paul and I decided to have a little mini-getaway and explore the birding possibilities in and around Great Falls, MT. Great Falls sits east of the Rocky Mountain Front and mainly consists of prairie/grassland habitat but with the Missouri River flowing right through town, it adds a major riparian zone to the area. We got a total of 58 species of birds, which we consider very lucky as there was a stiff wind blowing pretty much the whole weekend, and, despite the wind, the mosquitoes forced us to bird from within the safety of the car Saturday evening. We also saw two types of snake and a handful of mammals during the trip.

Our first stop in Great Falls was the river trail between the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Giant Springs State Park. On one side of the trail is the mighty Missouri river and the other is sandstone cliffs. A colony of cliff swallows had taken up residence among the cliffs and we stopped to watch the activity and get some photographs (these are taken by my husband). The swallows performed an amazing ballet going back and forth from nest to food source. Two or three at a time would drop down out of the nests, swoop up and off to nab some insect and then return to the nest to deliver their prize. It was a non-stop aerial performance that I found mesmerizing to watch. It amazed me the number of people who walked right past this spot without even realizing they were there!

(Cliff Swallow)
We also saw or heard yellow warbler, gray catbird, bullocks oriole, cedar waxwing, white pelicans, belted kingfisher, and eastern kingbird. All this birding made me hungry (but then again, I'm always hungry) so we headed to dinner before our next birding stop.

After dinner, we drove north of Great Falls to the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge to do some evening birding. The mosquitoes were thick on the car windows, like kids plastered against a candy store window - us being the candy in this case. I didn't dare roll down the windows to take any pictures, so I had to shoot everything through the dusty windshield. The most plentiful birds of the Refuge seemed to be marbled godwit and yellow-headed blackbird - they were everywhere! The evening sun lit up the yellow-headed blackbird's gorgeous plumage beautifully.
(Marbled Godwit)
We also had great looks at Wilson's phalarope, American coot, eared, Western, horned and pied-billed grebes. We spotted many ducks, including ruddy, shovelers (with babies!), blue-winged teal, and mallards. As if that wasn't enough, seeing white-faced ibis and sora rail around the lake, and then a chestnut-collared longspur in the grassland area, made our evening. We were exhausted by this point, so we headed back to our motel for a little shut-eye before our next birding destination.

Early Sunday morning we arose and headed southwest of Great Falls to the town of Ulm and the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. The morning sun cast such a beautiful golden light on the grasses waving in the wind and in the distance we could just make out the peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front. The state park is described on the Montana State Parks website in this way: "A visitor center and interpretive trails tell the story of this prehistoric bison kill site, one of the largest in the United States. For over six hundred years, Indians stampeded buffalo over the mile-long cliff. Now, the top of the jump gives you panoramic views of the Rocky Mountain Front, the Missouri River valley, and the buttes and grasslands that characterized this High Plains setting."

But just before the main entrance into the park, we spied a most wonderful sight perched on a fencepost - a short-eared owl! And we were on a rural road with no one else on it, giving us the chance to stop the car and watch. This was just too cool. Through the binoculars, its soft feathered feet reminded me of a rabbit's foot, except with deadly talons. And its eyes were so intense!
(Short-eared Owl)
Eventually our luck ran out and a car coming the other way spooked it and it flew off.

We then continued on up to the top of the buffalo jump and hiked through a huge prairie dog town. The prairie dogs set up the alarm as we walked, and kept an eye on us as we made our way across their territory. There was a lone long-billed curlew wandering amongst the prairie dogs, too. We scanned the town with our binoculars for signs of burrowing owls and kept scanning the ground with our eyes for rattlesnakes but we saw neither. The most dangerous thing we found was prickly pear cactus. We did see some abandoned burrows with a few prairie dog bones scattered around them. Not sure who had come calling for lunch in these cases.

We then headed down to the visitors center and discovered two families of Say's phoebe camped out next to the center. Both sets of parents were hard at work catching bugs for their fledglings. The photo from my last post was a picture Paul took of one of the fledglings waiting for mom or dad to feed it. We also saw grasshopper sparrows around the visitors center as well.
(Adult Say's Phoebe)
By this point the sun was well up into the sky and the day was promising to be quite a warm one, so we decided to pack it in and head home. The long car trip was spent recounting our adventures and our favorite sightings. I can't think of a way I'd rather spend a weekend, but it makes it that much harder to go back to work on Monday!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Great Falls Tease

(Say's Phoebe fledgling)

We had an amazing birding trip around the Great Falls, MT area this weekend. Stay tuned...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Painting 11 - Spoonbill

Whew! I just wanted to do a simple little painting tonight and this ended up being a real test of patience. I don't know why, but the paper was shredding very easily, and in some of the most inconvenient spots like this poor guy's (or girl's) forehead and bill. Places I hadn't applied very much water or paint to, so it seemed a bit odd. Must've just been a defect in the paper. So no, I did not plan for the spoonbill to look as though it had started growing mold on its face. But play along with me here and imagine that it has just dunked its head down into that greenish water which stained the feathers and bill...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Painting 10 - Skimmer

Still working on backgrounds and getting a feel for how wet on wet watercolor behaves. This is a painting that has been percolating in my mind for months. I will eventually do it in acrylic as a "painterly" piece, but I thought it would be interesting to see how to handle the ocean in watercolor and experiment with the composition as well.

I masked off the skimmer before I did the background. I am finding working with masking fluid a little frustrating - it is hard to get a perfectly sharp/smooth outline, but I'm sure I'll get the hang of it eventually. I played with a number of watercolor techniques including salt, drops of alcohol, and lightly spraying the painted paper with water and then tilting the paper to control the direction of the paint drips. Once I used a hairdryer to dry the piece, and scraped off the masking fluid, I went back in and painted the skimmer with a fairly dry brush.

The next go-round on this painting, I'd like to have a more clearly defined fore-, mid- and background. Right now it looks a little flat to me. But overall I'm pleased and I definitely see the potential for a big painting of this idea.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Kitties Need Their Greens

One of Madeleine's favorite activities is The Watering of the Spider Plants, which takes place in our household every week or so, depending on when I remember to do this. Sometimes the spider plants have to turn a yellowish-green to remind me that I have been neglecting them. Spider plants have dignity though, and unlike peace lilies, do not droop dramatically at the slightest decrease in their moisture level.

Madeleine can hear the rustling of the spider plant leaves from the other side of the apartment and she comes running (or at least as fast as she has ever been known to move) as I transfer the plants from the window sill to the kitchen sink. You'd think I was offering her a succulent baby rabbit the way she acts.

I do not allow her to macerate the plants at will, much to her frustration. But when she does get a hunk she sounds like she's eating celery or something; not a sound I'd expect to come from a cat. I have learned over the years that cats can crave strange things. Our old black & white cat used to eat cantaloupe and Madeleine likes Saltine crackers, too. Go figure.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Painting 9 In Progress

If you've been following my 100 Paintings in a Year Challenge, you may be scratching your head and thinking "Painting #9!? Uh, I think you missed a few." Well... I did do Paintings 7 and 8, but I chose not to post them. (I can hear some of you scolding me for that, but hey, it's my blog. If you want this done differently, get your own blog!) I did learn a lot from those "missing" paintings, which is the most important thing, but they are not for show and tell.

I'm not even sure I should be posting this painting yet. I think I need to work on masking fluid technique. I was going for that sparkling sun in the ripples look, but I fear I went a little overboard with the masking. Perhaps some shadows following the masking will bring out that ripple effect I'm looking for. I also need to go back in and bump up the color on the river rock, since that washed out a bit with the glaze.

Anyone with water/river rock painting experience is welcome to share tips!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


There are so many reasons to love birds: they are beautiful, graceful, they can fly. I could sit for hours watching Sir David Attenborough go on about birds on the nature shows. But specifically I get off on all of their way cool adaptations. And one of my favorites for this is the black skimmer. Check this out - I mean first they've got the clown coloring. (That works for puffins, too.) Then see that ridiculous longer lower bill? They use that to catch fish. This is why they are called skimmers; they fly along the surf, just inches about the water, and let that big beak skim under the water until they feel a fish with it and then snap! Away they fly to have a delicious seafood picnic on the beach.

Is that not a very cool thing?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different - Painting 6

Well, not that different - there's still a bird in there! Since Painting #5 I've been thinking a lot about backgrounds and looking at how other people handle them. Two artists inspired me to try a totally different kind of background than I'm used to - Ellen Morrow and Toni at A Spattering

I actually thought ahead this time, even going so far as to do a quick thumbnail of my idea (!). Then I masked off the basic shape of the owl, laid in thick wet washes of color, q-tipped out the moon, and then sprinkled salt onto the washes and impatiently waited for it to dry. Once the background was finally dry, I tried my best to get the salt off without ruining the paper (it was really embedded) and removed the mask from the owl form. I kept the owl fairly loose, hinting at its shape and details rather than using my usual tight painting style. As usual, I've hemmed and hawed as to whether the painting is finished or not, so perhaps letting it sit for a few days will help me decide for sure. Meanwhile, here it is.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Painting 5 Completed

Here he is, in all his duckie glory. I've gotten a little behind in the number of paintings I've completed now, but I think he was worth the wait.

My husband took the photo that I based this painting on back in the winter when the creek was half-frozen. (This guy was in the water standing guard while his hen rested on a rock.) Purely by accident, the water around the edge of the painting looks something like submerged pieces of ice as well. I enjoy that coincidence.

We haven't been able to do any birding the last few days because it has been so incredibly windy here. I know, I know; we're wimps, but seriously when the birds do venture out, they are just little gray blurs as they get blown from one spot to another. Otherwise they are all hunkered down in the most interior branches of the trees and shrubs, hanging on for dear life. But it gives me a good excuse to stay inside and paint more.