The Trogon’s Sultry Lashes


Slaty tailed trogons working on a nest- digging into a termite’s home. Barro Colorado Island National Monument, Panama. Pencil on paper, 8 1/2″ x 11″

Trogons have movie-star eyelashes, and I’d always admired and wondered why they had them. My bird artist friend, Mike DiGiorgio, says, “I thought it was so they could wink at their mates.” After watching a pair excavating a nest hole in a termite ball yesterday, I have another theory.


Termite nest on Barro Colorado Island. This one’s always had slaty tailed trogons nesting in it, as far back as I can remember. In the rainforest a lot of termites build big ball-shaped nests on tree trunks and branches. Sometimes you have to look again to be sure it’s not a sloth. Pencil on paper, 8 1/2″ x 11″, 2013

I whiled away a pleasant hour yesterday on Barro Colorado Island, sketching and photographing a pair of slaty tailed trogons digging into a termite ball outside a lab building. There’s construction underway on BCI right now, with much shoveling, dredging, backhoe driving, circular sawing, and jackhammering. They are carving out new work space from the red clay, the barro colorado. In spite of the disruption and workers in safety vests walking around their tree, the trogons are excavating, too. The male is doing the work (wearing his red safety vest). The female sits nearby, supervising.


The long, lovely eyelashes of the slaty-tailed trogon (Trogon massena). Also check out the dirty face. iPhone digiscoped.

He digs fiercely for a couple of minutes at a time, chomping and scraping the termite nest wall with his orange bill until tired, he flies to the nearest vine loop and pants for a few minutes. I watch closely through the scope, and clearly see the eyelashes catch and shed crumbs of dirt as he digs.  That’s how I came up with a hypothesis: trogons evolved long lashes to protect their eyes during nest excavation.

Now I wonder if other burrow-digging birds have long lashes, too. I’m thinking of motmots and kingfishers and other burrow digging birds who might get dirt in their eyes.

And of course, this raises the question: why do humans have long eyelashes? Think about it. Did we start out digging caves with our teeth?

Happy Friday.


Here’s looking at you- slaty tailed trogon, Barro Colorado Island. iPhone digiscoped.

Posted in Adventure!, Animals, bird art, birds, digiscoping, Drawing, field sketching, natural history, Nature, Panama, rainforest, random speculation, Science, Scope sketching, tropics, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bird Work, Bird Art, Bird Play


Wattled jacanas, Chagres River marsh, Gamboa. Painted this damp and humid afternoon back at the house from raw material gathered at the river (alligator scales, moss, dragonfly wings). Watercolor over pencil 8 1/2″ x 11″, Bateman sketchbook. 

Writing goes and goes. I’m still in Panama, working on a chapter about raptors. Which sounds straightforward until I figured out that raptors, for me, are not so much about their biology as their cultural and personal meaning. What, after all, could be more allegorical than a eagle? Or a goshawk? (GREAT book by Helen Macdonald, by the way).


Fasciated antshrike, another Gamboa backyard bird. I’m seeing more of these this year than  barred antshrike, which used to be the common species. Pencil in Bateman Sketchbook. 

Plus, this chapter has been taking  a few side-trips: on child-rearing in Andalusia, eagle-watching in Sweden, the vulture-plagued Iquitos airport. One segment on scary Danish 19th century natural history sculptures connects, I think, to another one on the collared forest falcon/spotted antbird association. There’s a story about a drunken revel in a Panama water taxi that has something to do with snail kites, but just barely.

I’m still not sure where it’s all going, but I hope it’s going somewhere good. Or at least, somewhere readable.

Happy Saturday.


Yellow-headed caracara, which perches at the top of a tall Norfolk pine in the evenings and screams thinly, in a fabulous sort of way. Pencil on Stillman & Birn sketchbook, 8 1/2 x 11.





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What do Toucans Really Think?

Morning ritual in Panama: take coffee cup to the chair at the back door landing, open the sketchbook, raise the binoculars. The forest patch behind the house looks like a life-sized diorama of a jungle scene.


Byrsonima spicata, “Nance” tree, with yellow, orange and reddish flower spikes and semi-edible fruit that gets pulped and soaked with sugar water into a local drink that either tastes great or not, depending on your sense of taste.  

A Nance tree blooms right outside our upstairs bedroom. It’s a favorite spot for tanagers and hummingbirds and crazy-eyed lineated woodpeckers. It’s also a diving platform for collared aracaris, small toucans that like to fling themselves each morning against the bedroom window, over and over. It could be a mirror effect/competition thing. But I’d had more respect for the intelligence of aracaris. They  just seem clever- even devious- with their strange goat eyes. They look around with purpose and then, after careful thought, leap into the window.

Toucans have always seemed less crafty than aracaris. They’re more outgoing and playful; they’re confident, happy clowns in cereal box colors. But yesterday I saw toucans do two things I’d never seen before.


A collared aracari looks for trouble in the Nance tree. Sketched in between window-smashing bouts using a pencil on paper. And binoculars.

One: I saw a branch break under the weight of a chestnut-mandibled toucan. The branch was at least eight feet long and looked solid, but when the toucan landed the branch cracked and fell. The toucan flew safely off, but the bird must have weighed more than it looked, like a gold nugget.

Two: a pair of keel-billed toucans flopped out of the sky and hit the ground nearly at my feet. They’d knocked something out of the canopy, a lizard or a beetle or a baby bird, and followed it down. Whatever it was, it burrowed fast into the leaf litter. The toucans stood over it on their steel-blue shanks and stirred the leaves with the tips of their broad-sword bills. Suddenly, they didn’t look so much like happy clowns. They looked like a pair of intelligent predators, cooly waiting for their prey to make its last move.


Nance tree flowers, pen and ink, Latin binomial scrawled in before I looked up the spelling. 

But then the toucans (actually, they were some other toucans, and it was much later that day) went and smashed into the bedroom window a few times, just like the aracaris. Maybe they’re playing a game, and maybe not. Who knows what really drives a bird?

Happy Friday.


One of the bromeliads growing on the nance tree, in the morning light. Watercolor over pencil on Stillman & Birn Epsilon series sketchbook, 8 1/2″ x 11″



Posted in Adventure!, Animals, Art, birding, Diversions, Drawing, Environment, field sketching, life drawing, natural history, Nature, Panama, rainforest, random speculation, tropics, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Earth Day with the Motmot

Blue crowned motmot in Gamboa, Panama. Currently my favorite bird. Scope drawn, Stillman & Birn Epsilon Series sketchbook, with a nice sharp mechanical pencil.

Blue crowned motmot in Gamboa, Panama. Currently my favorite bird. Sorry for the bad image quality- there’s no scanner here. This was scope-drawn using the blind-contour technique, which never fails to surprise me when it works. Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook, 8 1/2″ x 11″.

Greetings from Gamboa, Panama. Ant Man and I rented a house for six weeks on a hill above the Panama Canal, with a view of cecropia and palms and fruiting miconia trees attracting every known tropical and neotropical bird that’s ever thought about eating fruit.

Speaking of neotropicals, lots of migrants still here. If you’re up north looking for Eastern kingbirds, a LOT of them are still here gorging on miconia berries.

Gamboa is a sleepy tropical town originally constructed for Panama Canal builders and their families, who have been more or less replaced over time by scientists and their families. Ant Man and I are here trying to get some writing done (scientific papers for him, a book for me) and tune out the toucans, if possible. Not always possible (see below).

Keel-billed toucans preen and call and generally make themselves into interesting shapes. Pencil in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook. 8 1/2" x 11"

Keel-billed toucans preen and call and work themselves into interesting shapes. Again, apologies for the image quality. Pencil in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook. 8 1/2″ x 11″

The book is taking slow shape. For want of a better elevator pitch, it’s a bowl of bird-sketch salad tossed with natural history dressing.

Where we're staying, a typical Canal Zone bungalow on stilts. Catches the breezes from all directions. Good tropical construction technique. Watercolor over pencil, Stillman & Birn Epsilon book.

We’re staying here in a typical Canal Zone bungalow on stilts. It catches breezes from all directions- which is a sensible technique for tropical construction. Global-warming-era architects, please take note. Watercolor over pencil, Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook.

It’s been (mostly) fun going through old journals and field notes. Much of it won’t make it into the text, but I hate to waste a good field note, so it could wind up here:

Watched spider monkeys go to bed in a huge tree awash with purple flowers. The youngsters hang by their tails and smack each other until their mom comes over and yells at them to go to sleep. Barro Colorado Island 2005

We poled through an opening in the mangroves to search for pygmy kingfishers where the water was dark and quiet.  A cormorant came flapping wildly upstream, veering to avoid branches and striking them with its wing-tips. Celestun, Yucatan, 1988

A toddler in a house down the street just screamed, and a white-breasted wood wren burst into song. Gamboa, Panama, 2016

Happy Friday, and Happy Earth Day.

Geoffroy's Tamarins, Gamboa. Cute as a cross between a cat and a monkey, with perfectly white, sharp teeth. Sings like a bird. Pencil on Stillman & Birn Epsilon 8 1/2" x 11".

Geoffroy’s Tamarins, Gamboa. Cute as a cross between a cat and a monkey. Sings like a bird. Pencil on Stillman & Birn Epsilon 8 1/2″ x 11″.

Posted in Adventure!, Animals, architecture, Art, bird art, birding, birds, Boats, Drawing, Environment, field sketching, life drawing, natural history, Nature, Panama, plein air, rainforest, Scope sketching, travel, tropics, Watercolor, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

2015 flutters to a landing


White-tailed, a.k.a. black-shouldered kite, preening at Moss Landing. It crossed its wingtips in front of its tail, politely.  Pencil-drawn through a scope in a Lana sketchbook.

It was a year when plein air painting got a lot more fun, which I think is worth noting, and when I found new beauty in old and familiar places.


Chaparral uplands just above the quiet tidal estuary of Elkhorn Slough. The old stomping grounds were just as nice as ever, if not more so. Pastel on Colourfix sanded paper, 10″ x 9 3/4″.

I had a decent year of painting, exhibiting, teaching, drawing, writing, and learning how to breathe underwater (first step in learning how to draw underwater- a longtime desire). I returned to South Carolina, painted around New Mexico and California, did a pile of drawings of a wonderful Brazilian model, almost enough to call it a collection.

There was less blogging, but a little more tweeting (@DaMotmot). 

Resolutions? More pastel painting. More bird sketching. A book. Learn to dance.

3 Parakeets

Best thing in 2015: Shadowplay, my painting of crimson fronted parakeets, was accepted into Birds in Art, and then acquired for the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum’s permanent collection. An amazing honor and career high note.  Oil on canvas, 24″ x 30″ If you’d like to hear me talk about this painting (and why the jungle is like a big plate of scrambled eggs), please go here.

Hope you had an outstanding 2015, too.

Wishing you a prosperous, peaceful, and above all, happy new year.

And meet you back here in 2016.





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Pastel Gallery is up and running

plein air pastel 9.75 x 9.75

China Cove, Point Lobos, with three snowy egrets fishing in the kelp beds. Plein air pastel 9.75 x 9.75

For anyone who’d like to see more of the Fall Pastel Collection from last week’s California run, the page is up and running. I was generously hosted by the Elkhorn Slough Foundation and Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, who let me settle into their cute and comfy researcher’s studio for most of a week. I enjoyed every minute.

Please enjoy the paintings!

Posted in Adventure!, Art, Art Studio, Drawing, Environment, field sketching, landscapes, natural history, Nature, painting, Pastel, plein air, plein air painting, Science, travel | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Seriously, Happy Friday

A good haul from California. Got home to Oklahoma very late last night, couldn’t sleep, pulled out the 14 pastels for review and was fairly pleased. Want to go back and get some more, soon. You can go home again. Seriously. 


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