Simple

Brown Creeper

Sometimes life just simplifies things for you.

A slow healing foot and a clunky cast means: no running errands, no snowshoeing, no major home or studio projects, no trips, no February studio sale, not even very many crow walks around the neighbourhood.

But what there is, waiting for me every day, is the garden. And in the garden, the birds. I’ve discovered that between those two things, there’s more than enough to keep me occupied.

Steller’s Jay

For one thing, I joined Project FeederWatch, run by Cornell University and Birds Canada, and started spending time each week counting the birds in the garden and sending the information to help track North American bird populations. Given that recent statistics have shown a terrible decline over the past few decades, it’s important to gather these numbers.

I’ve discovered already that there are two things that will clear a garden of birds in seconds. The first is a hawk in the neighbourhood; the second is a human being out there to count birds. They normally fly around me with not a care in the world, but as soon as I settle in with my FeederWatch App, it’s as if a pterodactyl has cast an ominous shadow. Still, I managed, over two days this week, to monitor 12 difference species in our small space.

Orange Crowned Warbler

While it seems at times that the wider world is going mad, we are lucky enough to have few square feet of our own in which to try and make a small difference. I’m researching how I can make our garden an even better refuge for birds than it is now. More native plants, a brush pile, more water sources …  John Marzluff, bird scientist and author of  Subirdia, recently appeared on the Joe Gardner podcast, chatting about bird population decline and ways in which gardeners can help.

Creatively, I’ve been working on a new series of portraits, all from bird photographs taken in our small garden. While I do like to travel and see birds, somehow it seems to me more miraculous when they make their way here, like feathered messengers.

Varied Thrush

So far, in the 2020 collection, I’m working on chickadees (black capped and chestnut backed), an orange crowed warbler, northern flicker, varied thrush, Steller’s jay, Anna’s hummingbird, spotted towhee, brown creeper and starling.

Chestnut Backed Chickadee

Black Capped Chickadee

Some of these images are works in process. My years old libraries of photographs of flowers, leaves, ancient walls, vintage fabric, lichen, cracked stone, forest landscapes and family letters are used like colours in a painter’s palette. Sometimes I think an image is done, but the next day something doesn’t look right and I start again.

Common Starling

Although I’m confined to home and garden, I feel as if I’m travelling as I go through decades of images looking for just the right scrap of texture or colour. It may be a suggestion of a lupin or a grass shadow. Ancient walls from a church in Wales appear in many of these new images. The barkcloth curtain on our back door which frames my daily view of the garden is usually in there somewhere.

Spotted Towhee

As I work, they layers of the images remind me of people I’ve know, letters I’ve written and received, places I’ve lived, books I’ve read and music I’ve listened to. All of these things come together in how I see the world, so it seems appropriate that they should be part of my work. The bird portraits are my explanation of what the natural world means to me, now — and all of those memories are part of it.

Northern Flicker

Once I’ve finished playing with these images, I will try making tiles with them. Somehow seeing them on stone brings them into focus for me.  Here is a nice little movie in which I talk about my tile making process.

When I’m happy with the images, they’ll be available as prints in my online shop and, eventually, some of them will become textiles like cushion covers and bags.

In the meantime, however, I’m enjoying wandering the virtual hallways of images and recollections, so I may keep creating some more new images for a while.

There’s a small nuthatch that I’m thinking of, and a perhaps a pygmie owl …

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

 

 

 

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Correspondence

postmark

Later this week I will have sent myself “via airmail” to my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne in northern England. I’ll be there for the opening of Spring Show at The Biscuit Factory Gallery, where a series of my bird images, entitled Correspondence, will be exhibited.

aimail-prints

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CORRESPONDENCE: letters sent or received

So many airmail letters, cards, and pressed flower collections passed between my mother and me. We wrote to each other from 1976, when I moved to Canada, until 1997, when she died. I keep many of our letters in a box under the bed.

Letters

I like to re-read them every few years because I see completely different things in them now than when I received them in my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. I guess that’s because I’m now “catching up” with my mother; getting to the same stations on life’s journey that she’d passed through decades ahead of me. Parts that I had skipped over in my youth now grab my attention and recognition in an entirely different way.

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letter-lvoe

Although no more mail arrives from my mother; and although I no longer stick stamps on letters to her; I like to think the correspondence continues through my artwork. In my images I’m always pointing to things I know she’d have loved. I also like to think it’s the equivalent of a box of letters on the subject of “things that are important” for my children to go through one day in the distant future. At least, I’m fairly confident they will think of me almost every time they see a crow or a raven!

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Raven Correspondence

CORRESPONDENCE: a close similarity, connection, or equivalence:

I like to think of my photographs of birds as portraits, rather than as scientific illustrations. I try to capture a look in the eye or a pose that captures the connection between birds and people. Although they have evolved along an entirely different path from that of the human race, I can’t help but feel, especially after the hours I’ve spent watching crows, that there is much we have in common.

Worrying about our children, furnishing our nests, trying to survive … we are all connected.

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Song Sparrow with Snowdrops

 

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How to Keep Your Cool

As usual, the birds have the best idea. When the temperature soars, head for the water.

I’ve been employing my own “beat the heat” strategies, most notably, getting up at 4am to get all of my “active” duties out of the way by early afternoon. It’s just too hot to be in the studio after 2, but getting up very early means you can have a lot of things done and dusted by noon! Of course, it does mean going to bed around 8pm, so not so great for the social life …

When it’s really hot, I love to watch the birds having fun with water in the garden – in the birdbath, the sprinkler and now in my new “mister”, purchased this week. Note: the mister is also great for spraying on yourself!

Here’s a selection of some of the visitors to the garden “water park”.

Sometimes a moment in a bath is the only peaceful time you get to yourself all day ...

Sometimes a moment in a bath is the only peaceful time you get to yourself all day …

And sometimes you just can't get the place to yourself. Sigh.

And sometimes you just can’t get the place to yourself. Sigh.

Best to get your feet wet first before plunging right in.

Best to get your feet wet first before plunging right in.

This little chickadee was waxing quite operatic at the birdbath.

Singing at bath time is traditional!

This little golden crowned sparrow had a sticky bit of rhododendron bud stuck to his foot, so he hopped in the birdbath to rinse it off.

This little golden crowned sparrow had a sticky bit of rhododendron bud stuck to his foot, so he hopped in the birdbath to rinse it off.

Everyone ends up at the birdbath

The birdbath gets some very elegant visitors.

Crow Stands on Birdbath

… and some very handsome visitors!

... and some just very, very happy visitors!

… and some very splashy visitors!

 

Hummingbird in Sprinkler

And some visitors prefer the lawn sprinkler!

May everyone stay cool and happy this weekend. And remember to put some water out for the birds if it’s hot and dry where you are. If you don’t have a birdbath, a plastic plant pot tray with some water in it will do. Just change the water daily.

To see my collection of bird prints, visit my web site.

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spa crows

Crows enjoying the pools near the Royal Museum in Victoria. It was a very social and happy affair that went on for hours.

Owls, Crows, Rooks and Poetry

Occasionally the most ordinary of days is transformed out of all recognition.

It started with a dawn trip downtown for an early morning physiotherapy appointment (tennis elbow: even less fun that it sounds).

Post-appointment I popped into the Vancouver Art Gallery to drop off one of my bracelets, ordered by the gift shop. It was still so early that the gallery wasn’t open yet, but my friend was there so we went out for a quick coffee. Already the day was on the upswing!

After coffee, I decided to go back once again to the gallery with her to take a photo of my work on display in the shop. As we reached the entrance it was hard to miss the massive crow commotion going on in the tree just outside. My friend immediately guessed it was the barred owl that she’d seen several times over the years, usually in the evening. I guess this time the owl had pulled an all-nighter, because there she was, high in the tree, with about two dozen crows flapping around and cawing furiously.

Crow-owl stand-off.

Crow-owl stand-off.

 

Quite a large owl with big, soulful eyes, she was a breath-taking sight and not at all something you expect to find in downtown Vancouver on a Friday morning. Miraculously having my camera with me, all other plans for the day were put on hold.

Barred Owl at VAG

Barred owl on branch

The crows came and went … and came back again. The initial twenty or so dwindled to a skeleton crew of two dedicated owl harassers. For about 15 minutes even they left and all was quiet. Then they were back and the furious cawing resumed. Mostly the owl was able to ignore the hullaballoo and, secure in a particularly dense part of the tree, she seemed to nod off for a while. Then a crow would get too close and she’d make a lunge for it. Crows would explode from all sides of the tree. The owl would relocate to another branch and the game resumed.

The owl finally found a spot where the crows couldn't get too close.

The owl finally found a spot where the crows couldn’t get too close.

The Barred owl attempts to get some shut-eye in spite of the crow racket.

The Barred owl attempts to get some shut-eye in spite of the crow racket.

During the course of this I spoke to many people who were curious about the goings on – a couple who came equipped with binoculars, people who worked in the gallery, tourists, school children going in to see a show, a nice man from Ireland. Opinions were exchanged, stories told.

The Irish gentleman had a particularly memorable corvid tale. Back in Ireland, his aunt lived in a cottage close by a rookery. The rooks were very noisy and she tried to get rid of them by smoking them out – and in so doing, burned her own house down. The ultimate in “why you shouldn’t be mean to crows” stories.

Then a woman came to join the conversation and I noticed she was wearing one of my pendants. I commented on that and it turned out that she has several of my pieces and is a poet. She told me that she loves crows. We exchanged cards. Her name is Daniela Elza and her newest collection, milk tooth bane bone, explores her fascination with crows. I have just read a wonderful review of it here. I am seeking a copy immediately!

She also has a wonderful blog called Strange Places.

So, it was a day of multiple wonders – owls, crows, rook stories and poetry. Who could ask for more!

An hour of looking up into the high, high tree branches has left me in need of a new string of physio appointments, but so worth it.

Barred owl and tree trunk

Looking down

The Blue Bird of Happiness

Final Stellar's Jay Composition

May that blue bird of happiness sit on your shoulder as it sat on mine when (at last!) a member of the tricky and elusive Stellar’s Jay tribe took pity on me and posed for a portrait.

I can’t really complain about the birds I’ve been able to photograph this summer. From the lovely little white crowned sparrows in my garden to the ravens that seem to have followed me around in recent months, it’s been a splendid season of bird viewing.

But there was one that seemed to delight in teasing me. Hiking in the woods and on mountains I was constantly on the lookout for the vivid blue flash of a Stellar’s Jay. And that’s exactly what I would see – a streak of electric blue disappearing between the shadows. Far too fast and distant for any hope of a photograph, it seemed that the Stellar’s Jay was mocking me. Quite likely from what I know of their corvid personality!

Worse, people would tell me they had these birds visiting them regularly in their gardens. One friend had one expire in his after being attacked by a cat (keep your cats indoors people!). I did have one in my garden once, about three years ago. Unfortunately it was in the deep shadow of the curly hazel tree (collecting nuts) where it was too dark to get a good shot. I only ever use natural light and a hand-held camera, so I am always at the mercy of the light.

Summer was pretty much done when we went for our holidays on Vancouver Island, and I was almost resigned to yet another season without a good Stellar’s Jay photograph.

The first stop on our trip was a visit with old friends who live in the village of Cumberland. Walking with my friend in the woods around their house I could hear the enticing call of the jay and occasionally saw that oh so tantalizing streak of blue.

Finally, I was standing alone, admiring my friend’s garden, when the bird shown here flew close to me at the edge of the woods. Instead of flitting away as usual, this one just sat there — in sufficient light for a decent photograph — and looking magnificent. He even considerately posed on a gorgeous moss-covered branch in a shade of lime green that perfectly complemented his feathers.

This is the original photograph of the Stellar's Jay taken in the woods outside Cumberland, BC.

This is the original photograph of the Stellar’s Jay taken in the woods outside Cumberland, BC.

It was as if he was saying, “Here, you’ve suffered enough. I’m posing for a perfect photo for you. Don’t muck it up.”

The final Stellar’s Jay portrait is composed using my usual layered approach. There is the Cumberland jay in starring role, with a supporting cast of cracked concrete, a fennel plant, the shadows of maple leaves left in a wet fall sidewalk, a tiny crow feather, grey blue sky and a Canadian postmark.

Some of the other images used in the composition of the Stellar's Jay portrait.

Some of the other images used in the composition of the Stellar’s Jay portrait.

This little blue bird of happiness is available in my online shop as a signed print, tile and as jewellery. You may have him with you to cheer up on any day, no matter how grey.

Stellar's Jay Tile

Stellar's Jay Earrings