Heavy weather? Not too bad for birds.


Feeder birds on a freezing National Bird Day, caught in pen and ink. Bluejays make handsome models, but even starlings are kind of pretty when you look close- lovely iridescence, handsome red legs, attractive dotted white on black, plus they flock in mesmerizing amoebic patterns. Super obnoxious personalities and other poor habits, and in North America they are an invasive and problematic species. But super fun to draw! Rotring Tikky Graphic 0.2 pen in 5 x8 Moleskine lightweight sketchbook

There’s this magic suet recipe that’s easy to make and highly effective for attracting birds. Once you start putting Zick Dough out there, the mobbing never stops until the last crumb is picked by the smallest wren. Just place a feeder by a window and watch it from a comfy chair with hot tea and sketchbook in hand. You will have instant live models. Ready, set, sketch.


Pencil sketches and a query for British birders. Starlings on the mind. 5×8 Moleskine lightweight sketchbook.

Good practice for bird-drawing. From where I sat, I didn’t even need binoculars. Which was nice, because, from where they sat, it was 16 degrees F.


News flash: Drawing the Motmot has just been named one of the Top 25 Drawing Blogs by Feedspot. An awesome honor.

Happy Friday.


Posted in Animals, bird art, bird-drawing technique, birding, birds, Drawing, life drawing, Nature, Oklahoma Weather, Sketching, Urban Nature, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Better Part of a Year


Winter light on an oxbow’s sandy bluff on the Canadian River in Norman, Oklahoma. Pastel on sanded paper, about 8 1/2″ x 11″ or so.

It’s been a strange year, and most of us are glad to scrape the last of it off our shoes. But who doesn’t love a holiday year-end letter? It’s one last chance to send a few humble-brags and over-shares. Here are a few of mine. Enjoy.

My personal highlights for 2016: 

Took up chess.

Took up mixology (it’s like drinking, but fancier).


Painted from sketches for a couple of shows, local and regional. These are orange-chinned parakeets from Gamboa, Panama. Oil on cradled panel, 11 x 14. 

Holed up for six weeks in Panama with Antman.

Learned how to take slo-mo digiscope videos of birds as a distraction from trying to write a book while holed up for six weeks in Panama with Antman.

Painted outdoors more- honed my plein air pastel skills while downsizing and refining gear, improving odds I’ll paint outdoors more.


Painting on Maine’s Monhegan Island in the company of great pastelist Cindy House. Although hurting from a toothache (got a root canal the minute I got home), no sooner did a nice couple hike up to chat and buy this painting than I felt much, much better. Pastel 8 x 10 on sanded paper.

Began identifying butterflies in my postage-stamp, mid-town flower garden. Discovered we’re hosting over 35 species-and that was just in the fall, which is when I started paying attention.

butterflies Southern dogface

Once you start parsing the sulfurs, they seem almost endless. This is the Southern Dogface. Here is the pup’s profile, looking left from the upper wing.

Teamed up again with writer/photographer Susan Dragoo on another article for Oklahoma Today Magazine- this one on free-flowing rivers in Oklahoma. I’m the roving illustrator, Susan the writer and gung-ho adventure coach. She drives the truck, too. Sometimes over boulders.



At the Kiamichi River in southeastern Oklahoma. The headwaters are a jumble of boulders, riffles and quiet pools with high fish and freshwater mussel diversity. Plus, it’s a lovely stretch of water.

Oklahoma’s Bernie Sanders campaign headquartered last spring in our Main Street studio (which I share with two artists). We painted to the melodious hubbub of cold call volunteers at work in the background. They were inspiring, committed, and pretty effective- Bernie carried Oklahoma in the primaries. While they were here the studio felt like a staging ground for democracy, in an almost old-fashioned way. And I almost wish they’d come back.


Finally, I’m working on a new process for converting field sketches from pencil drawings to oil paintings- taking the extra step of redrawing them in charcoal. Seems to switch on a part of my brain that sees in a painterly, as opposed to linearly, manner. Below: yellow crowned night herons sketched in the front yard of a friend in town who just happens to have a rookery in her sycamore tree. Some people have all the birds.


That’s my list for 2016, such as it was. Onward. Hope to see you in 2017. And thanks for stopping by. I’m always glad you’re here.

Happy New Year.


Posted in Adventure!, Animals, Art, Art Studio, Artists, bird art, bird-drawing technique, birds, Charcoal, digiscoping, Diversions, Drawing, Environment, field sketching, life drawing, natural history, Nature, oil painting, Oklahoma, painting, Panama, Pastel, plein air, tropics, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

This Fly Makes Its Own Candy

2016-05-30-07-16-18My family sends a holiday package every year filled with treats from Trader Joe’s. The chocolate-covered sea-salt butterscotch caramels are purely amazing. But I wonder how they would compare to a batch of candy I saw a fly make- and eat- on our porch in Gamboa, Panama.

A little gin and tonic got spilled on the railing the night before, and the puddle was still there the next morning next to where I sat in the early sun with my coffee. A wasp-like fly was standing on long legs at the edge of the puddle. It stared up at me thoughtfully, as if trying to decide if I was a threat, or just another barfly. Finally, it swiveled its large head around, projected out a fleshy proboscis, leaned over and sucked up the last of the gin and tonic.

Then it did something odd.

After having a snootfull (and staying disappointingly sober), the fly (Paragrallomyia, a.k.a. stilt-legged fly- thanks @BioInFocus Morgan Jackson) once again extruded its proboscis and walked around the railing while it spat out dozens of round dots, evenly spaced. (the video below is slow-motion. All were made on my iphone)

Once its tank was empty (abdomen visibly deflated), the fly stood by and waited. It even guarded the dots, chasing away other insects that got too close. The dots baked slowly in the sun. After ten minutes they turned from clear to caramel-colored as water evaporated and sugars concentrated ( Just a guess. Did I taste them? No.). Every so often the fly stretched out a short antennae-like front leg and tapped a dot, as if testing for doneness. And finally, when the moment was right, the fly slurped up the dots, one by one.

Tonic water is full of sugar, and so is gin. Overly ripe fallen fruit, abundant in tropical rainforests, is a fairly reliable source of sugary juice (and fermentation), much more so than G&Ts. Though they are very popular in Gamboa. Flies know what to do with boozy, half-rotted fruit (not to mention porch parties), but this one seems to have gone the next step and is making artisanal caramels. Good talent, for a fly.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

Posted in Adventure!, Animals, Diversions, entomology, natural history, Nature, Panama, rainforest, Science, tropics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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.





Posted in Animals, bird art, birds, Culture, Diversions, field sketching, life drawing, natural history, Watercolor, Wildlife, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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