Thursday, March 31, 2011

Just a Few Favorites

People ask if I have favorites amongst all the nests that were photographed for the book. If I do the choosing from memory, without being distracted by admiring each one again, I can call up quite a few; some for my familiarity with the birds that built them; others for their unique construction techniques or their use of materials; and for a some, their rarity and what they represent for the survival of a species. 

Swainson's Thrush,  Catharus ustulatus, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology,
 California: Tehama County; Mineral 29 June 1925

What always appears first in the eye of my mind is this sturdy woven cup built by the Swainson's Thrush, a bird that provides the evening song in the forests of Washington state where I spent half of my life, and whose eggs are a deep aqua. I also think of this nest because I remember wondering about its collector Joseph Grinnell when I saw his name of the collection data, learning later that he was one of the early and infamous contributors to The Museum of Vertibrate Zoology, as well as its first director. 
Bank Swallow, Riparia riparia, The California Academy of Sciences 
California; San Francisco Co.; Ocean Beach 06 June 1960
Another favorite, this fragile pile of twigs and gull feathers, was built by a pair of Bank Swallow's. Collected from Ocean Beach in San Francisco by Betsey Cutler, it was saved from certain burial by the annual winter erosion of the cliff face that a colony of Banks Swallows still calls home, if only for  the breeding season.  

Bank Swallow chicks at Ocean Beach ready for their next insect.
I have had the joy of observing that very colony. In mid-April a couple of years ago, I witnessed the males scrape the beginnings of the burrows, and later watched the arriving females join in the tunnel excavations, nest building, and brood raising. At times the sky would be teeming with these fleet aerialists, hawking insects in mad, dipping, flights. In very short time, the young chicks were waiting at the tunnel entrances for their next meal. 

Golden-maskedTanager, Tangara larvata, Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
Costa Rica: Provincia Puntarenas: Helechales; E of Fiala1 May 1972
For pure curiosity, I love the image of a predated, then abandoned, wild honeycomb that became a nest cavity for a Golden-masked Tanager, and that still offered the scent of honey. 
Caspian Tern   Hydroprogne caspiaThe Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
Mexico: Estado de Baja California: Shell Island; Scammons Lagoon 17 June 1932
Equally interesting for what looks like pure novelty, but is actually a very instinctive use of camouflage, is the mere scrape made by a Caspian Tern in a shell-covered beach, perfect cover for those lovely speckled eggs. Fortunately for this photographer, what would have normally been a loose pile of seaweed and shells (that wouldn't have survived removal from a storage box), was (brilliantly) lifted and dropped into resin by the collector for preservation.

Verdn, Auriparus flaviceps.Museum of Vertebrate Zoology
Mexico: Estado de Chihuahua: Sierra La Mojina, 24 mi W of Gallego6 September 1961 
I still am awed by this small, thorny, well insulated fortress, built by a pair of Verdins, small insectivores that live in arid landscapes, don't get out of bed until the insects start buzzing, and that mate while tumbling through the air. 

Marbled Murrelet, Brachyramphus marmoratus, The California Academy of Sciences
USA; California; Santa Cruz Co.; Big Basin State Park; Campground J-108 August 1974

At least a few nests i honor for the conservation issues that face the species that built them. What looks like a mere depression in the moss covering a thick limb of an ancient douglas fir, and still bearing the deposits of bird excrement used to keep an egg from rolling (and a chick from falling), might be the only Marbled Murrelet nest in a museum collection. Discovered accidentally when a forester was limbing trees near a campsite, It is also the nest that led researchers to learn about their choice of old growth forests for breeding. Forest that are home to trees 200 to 2000 years old, and that bear limbs as thick as trees themselves–wide enough for a landing pad and a nesting site. 

Akekee, Loxops caeruleirostris, Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
 Hawaii: Kauai; Kokee State Park,  29 March 1970

This small cup of moss and twigs, collected in a crown of a lehua tree, was built by an Akekee, a bird found now just in the highlands of Kauai above 1800 feet. This species' ability to survive in high elevations saved it from complete decimation by the waves of malarial mosquitoes and avian pox that have caused the extinction of many other Hawaiian birds, but they are still prey to so many alien animals that have been introduced by humans since the arrival of the Polynesians. 

As I extoll these first few nests, others are appearing in the slide show of my brain; the insulated creations of the winter survivalists, the Grey Jay and the Hoary Redpoll; the riveted leaves of the Common Tailorbird; the astonishing collection of fabric scraps of the House Finch, or the skeletons of the House Wren sarcophagus. Obviously I will be called to offer another tribute, and soon, for their are too many that delighted my eye and moved my heart to list, and I frankly am having trouble naming just a few.  

Friday, March 25, 2011

Learning Bird Words


Petronia  petronia  brevirostris, Common Rock Sparrow, collected in Heilungkiang Province; Dalai Nor 
in 1935,  photographed at the The California Academy of Sciences  in 2007, © sharonbeals2007                                      

An eleven-foot high Kodiak bear with outstretched paws was standing guard next to me, and resting on the industrial shelving lining the walls the skulls of beasts bearing horns too wide for their own private shipping boxes gazed with hollow-eyed stares. All of this mega fauna company and I were installed in a corner of the  Birds and Mammals storage area of the Howard Street location that The California Academy of Sciences occupied while the old building in Golden Gate Park was being remodeled (or as some would say, the new building was being built).

It was my first day of photographing for the book, and I was more than a little daunted. The prevailing aroma of mothballs had this scent-phobe breathing shallowly. A borrowed and very expensive (39-mega-pixel) camera was carefully cantilevered over my little photographic set, prevented from colliding (at least I prayed) with some very old historic nests and eggs by the sandbags hanging from my tripod legs. Adding to the undertow of anxiety was my own collision with the software that lets you photo tethered to a laptop–software not as intuitive as I had hoped.

Calcarius lapponicus Lapland BuntingCollected on  Saint Mathew Island, Alaska, in 
1916. Photographed at The California Academy of Sciences in 2007 © sharonbeals2007  

On the table to my left was a small array of the nest specimens I had chosen to photo, along with small black glass-windowed boxes containing the eggs that matched the species of birds that had built these nests. It was getting toward closing-up time, and only a few of these subjects had made it to my hard drive (pardon the geek-ette in me, another way of saying film in the can).

More of them would been captured have if I hadn’t encountered an inadequacy beyond the mere technical. As embarrassing as it is to say for someone who ended up writing 50 essays about birds, I knew very little about taxonomy. All of those little egg specimen boxes were stored in cabinets separate from the nests, arranged in an order common to science museums and bird identification books, but on that day frustratingly elusive to me. Sorting it out was like trying to learn a language from tourist signs, parsing lists taped to the doors of those cabinets  to decipher which was an order, family, genus or species name, aided by a only a few books also written in this new-to-me code (mercifully, they had indexes). I ended up spending hours pushing the recalcitrant portable steps back and forth from cabinet to cabinet, from the Struthioniformes (think ostrich and emu) to the Cardinalidae (cardinals, grosbeaks, and now at least one tanager) climbing up and down to sort through a hundred drawers, trying to decipher the smallest handwritten type on yellowing collection tags, only to end up finding the right species of a mere six sets of eggs.

Pycnonotus sinensis Chinese Bulbul, collected from a Shanghai Garden in 1939,
photographed at The California Academy of Sciences in 2007 © sharonbeals2007  

But even with the slow progress that day, the struggles with technology or taxonomy couldn’t stop me. I was driven to master both, for sitting on that table were some of the most intriguing sculptures I had ever seen, all built with beak and foot by birds whose names I first learned in Latin, but whose stories I would end up learning by heart.

In a few weeks, the search for for Larus, Spazella,Tangara, or Petronia turned into a treasure hunt usually ending in minutes rather than hours. The software became a useful tool for photographing specimens in layers of focus, later merged to render all of the nest materials in fine detail. The mothballs (a stopgap measure in the temporary location to keep precious specimens from being chewed on by insects) became a familiar if not nostalgic scent that will always carry with it an accumulation of memories of the most wonderful time of my life. 

Sierra Club On-line story about the nests with Laurie Wigham's wonderful illustrations

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Whats New with the New

Welcome to On This Earth, a project that has been incubating in my brain for few years, and just now taking its virtual form. At the least It will be a place where I can post images and ideas that only exist in the hard drives that store them, and at it’s best it will be a link to a larger community of thinkers and image makers using their creativity to exclaim, extol and inspire. 
The Cover (sans type) of Nests

This first post was prompted by finally seeing my own version of exclaiming and extolling in beautiful four-color print: Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them  (Chronicle Books), my photographs of bird’s nests and eggs from the collections of The California Academy of Sciences, The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology with accounts of the nesting habits of these avian architects.

I don’t think I can state the inspiration for this book more clearly than I did in the books artist statement:

Moved by Scott Weidensaul’s illuminating study of migration, Living on the Wind, I call myself “a theoretical birder, one with a very short life list but on a quest to learn what birds need to be sustained both locally and globally.”

“What has been made so clear to me it that so many of the decisions I make in my daily life affect their survival. What I plant in my yard, what coffee I buy, what I put down the drain or into the atmosphere, or where I let my dog or cat wander – all of this matters. A lot….It was only after making the first photograph of a nest, drawn to its palette and messy, yet graceful and functional form, that I knew I had found my medium – or at least a way that I could be a medium for the birds.”

Thanks to its welcome into the world, this labor of love is being released a month before schedule. This response to the book I have to first attribute to its looks: the spot varnished front cover (sans title), the highly detailed reproductions, the design elements, and Laurie Wigham’s accurate yet charming bird illustrations. 

Add to this the wonderful prose of Scott Weidensaul’s introduction, a personal account of nests seen in a life spent in the natural world, Jack Dumbacher and Maureen Flannery’s essay about the history of nest collecting and its importance for research, and the poem by Mimi White that describes the wonder that a bird sighting can inspire­—all are worth reading more than a few times.

Finally, I think I can say with some pride that the essays are an informative read. As a photographer with only a few journalistic credits, I will spare you the angst that I endured with this wild leap into writing (not to mention about science). But after a read of the book by Linnea Hall at The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, I am reassured that I digested and parsed the data from nearly 150 species accounts and research papers accurately enough, and it should engage even the most avid birders. 

Besides your local bookstore, here are few places that Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them will be making appearances: