AMERICAN BITTERN – Behavior sketches

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It was April 15th when I stepped outside my studio and finally heard what I have been listening for all week.  An airy bubbling belching sound filtered its way through acres of tall dried cattail stalks, across the open marsh waters, past our gallery and into my listening ears.  There’s really nothing quit like the courtship calls of the American Bittern.  As I stood there listening I took a few minutes, shading my eyes Indian style, to see if I could get a glimpse of it.  This bird has a famous reputation for blending into its surroundings, but I knew from years of observations at this marsh, at this time of year when they are calling for a mate, one may actually have a chance to see it in plain site – that is if you have a good pair of ten power binoculars or better yet a spotting scope.  I had neither with me at the time, so I didn’t see it.  Most people – even birders with the right equipment – don’t always see it.  That got me thinking about how lucky I must have been over the past fifteen years when I did see it.  Nearly every year since 2000 a bittern has vocally announced its arrival at this marsh in the third week of April, the average return date being the 18th.  While I’ve never formally studied this species, over the years through casual observations, I have made numerous journal entries on its courtship and feeding behavior.  I’ve sketched its undulating shapes and painted its straw-colored pattern that blends so well with the cattails.

I scanned the following pages of notes and sketches from the different field journals and sketchbooks I was using at the time I made them.  They are examples of how constant observations of a species over a period of time can build a “species Profile”.  This not only adds to my reference library of field notes and sketches but helps me build a knowledge base about the critters I share this land with.  Studying nature through art is also the way I stay connected to life in a soulful way.

All the text and sketches in red ink are from one sighting (I couldn’t find my black pen at the time) and represents a Threat Display and an attempt to kill a rival bird!  This is very extreme territorial behavior and to my knowledge has not been recorded before.  If you read my scribbled text (sorry about the spelling) you’ll get a pretty good idea what happened.  
I was in my house when I first noticed two American Bittern circling each other.  I grabbed my binoculars to watch what I thought was a mating scene.  It soon became apparent there was no “love” intended!  The dominate (dark capped) bird grabbed the rival first by its tail, then by its neck as it pinned the rival bird down, strangling it for forty-three minutes!  It only let go of its death grip because I decided to intervene by approaching it in my canoe.   I knew that was a “no no” – to interrupt a natural event – but curiosity and my anthropomorphic empathy got the best of me.

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These post card size sketches shows how the dominate bird held its victim down by biting and holding the bird just behind the skull.  Probably cutting off blood circulation to the brain.  The birds are resting on a thin layer of ice bordering the cattails and open water.

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After the attacker let the other bird go it stepped back a ways to watched the victim slowly recuperate, then, suddenly it bolted into the air with a flurry of wings and dangling legs with the attacker in hot pursuit.

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One of the first steps in the breeding game is to attract a mate by making a low resonating double-burping sound four or five times in a row – all morning long and again in the evening.  In order to make this 12 x 9″ page of sketches I first watched the bird through my spotting scope, studying its shape and gestures while it gulped in air then “burped” it back out to make its distinctive call.  While lightly sketching the bird in different positions from memory I waited for the bird to start calling again so I could quickly sketch the head positions onto each body.   Painting them in with light washes of gouache gave them volume.   All five images were made while the bird was still present.

AB displayIf a male sees a female or suspects one is near, it assumes an erect posture and displays white shoulder patches that are normally hidden.  The only other time, outside of a Courtship Display, I have seen a bittern display its shoulder patches was during the Threat Display illustrated in the first sketch of this series, but, they were displayed in conjunction with a raised crest, flared neck patches and spread wings.  The next two journal pages better explains this bird’s Courtship Display.

AB 1

Male Courtship Display to a female

AB juv head

Juveniles will retain a big whitish puff of natal crown feathers into mid July – by late July it’s gone.

AB juv

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An adult bittern carries food back to their young by first swallowing it for easy transport, then, stimulated by the young bird’s begging behavior (read the notes below) the adult regurgitates while the young jams its bill down the parents throat to receive the meal.

AB Juvs

AB heads

The shape of the bittern’s pupil is such that it often looks like three joined together.  Their eyes are slanted downward, more than most herons and egrets, enabling them to see in front of them while holding its bill straight up in a cryptic posture, also allowing them to hunt using binocular vision.

AB frog

The bittern seems to be an opportunist, eating most any water-adapted critter.  On several occasions I have watched it pull large Bull Frogs out of the Marsh!

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If it was a snake it would bite you!  This is what my mother always told me when ever I was looking for something that was right under my nose.   Being a want-a-be herpetologist I always loved that saying, but never forgot the connotation that maybe I was looking too hard!

JCP  snake

No, the Snake isn’t dead – it’s just tired of trying to crawl away!

Finding a good subject to draw often seems more difficult than it need be.   Even if you know what you’re looking for it’s often right under your nose – like that snake my Mom was always referring to.  There’s an old saying, “if y’er look’n fer it you’ll neber find it.”  Well, I’ve proved the truth of that saying time and again!  So, if you have the itch to get out and sketch nature but don’t know where to start, then I suggest you do what my artist friend, Lynn Waltke, recently told me, she said, I just want to “go out and do some sketching in whatever field I can find!”  Good idea Lynn … Grab your sketchbook or field journal and follow me!   Wait… I’m getting ahead of myself.  I first want to talk about my approach to going out and looking for a subject.

Sometimes I’ll go out looking for a certain type of bird, plant or habitat to gain more reference for a painting in progress, but more often I’m out exploring wherever inspiration leads me with this thought in mind:  the success of my studio paintings are directly related to my knowledge of and field experience with my subject.  Therefore, my goal is to do more than just find something to draw or paint, it’s to explore and record what I find of interest in a given area, gaining knowledge and first-hand experience in the process.   For years I was an avid birder, so any exploration was all about finding birds – that made me predisposed to looking for them.   Now I’m more of a “generalist”, with a focus on birds, but just as interested in a new flower or some strange lizard!   If you are like me (God help you) and  interested in everything in nature, then the great outdoors might be a bit overwhelming.  I need a way to break things down into more focused units of study; allowing myself time to take things in.

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Sue and I exploring a Mexican beach

There are many ways of finding a subject, but if you are with a friend who is also an artist (like my wife and best friend , Sue Westin) you can walk and look together for something to catch your eye but eventually you will need time and space to process your discovery.  For me this is best done alone without the distractions of a shared experience.   When I’m on an art adventure with Sue, we will usually start off together but nearly always end up solo, then by hand radios we arrange to rendezvous later.

JCP field painting

A quite time on the Passaic River, NJ

When I first walk into an area I assume everything alive is aware of my arrival, so I’ll look for a nice place to sit down and wait for the critters to come out of hiding.  My Dad first taught me this as a youngster when he’d take me out Squirrel hunting.  He called it “still hunting”.  After about ten or fifteen minutes the woods would start to come alive again.  I no longer hunt but still use the technique.  Here is how it works.

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“Still Hunting” with a brush.

Reading  the Field Journal text above reveals my attraction to an area of color and texture, inspiring me to making a small  landscape study in my field journal.  I made this study because I knew in doing so I would make a right brain “cognitive connection” with the natural world around me.  I painted atmosphere while breathing it in, spring smells and earth colors mixed into one memory, as the birds came out of hiding they added melody to the mix.  I now associate Cardinals, Juncos, Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds with the smells, colors and textures of Spring’s vernal pools and melting snow.

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If you wait they will come!

Another example of a journal painting from where I sat down and waited for nature to reveal ideas to paint.  I don’t always just sit and paint, sometimes I slowly and quietly walk around with my binoculars looking and sketching while exploring the many different treasures to be found.  It seems like as soon as you start sketching something it’s not long before other things will catch your eye, like this kinglet that popped up for a peek.  These little “happenings” might be the beginning of a new idea or just part of the learning process.

The View Finder

When drawing landscapes or scenes with complicated shapes you might want to try using a view finder.  The examples show ones I have used in the past.  I would mount them on my tripod so my hands were free to make the drawing.   You can buy view finders but I make my own from thick plastic, with cut-outs the same proportions as my canvas sizes.  I can then place the VF on my paper and trace out the rectangle so my sketch proportions will match what I see through the finder.  The sketch can later be enlarged directly to a canvas of the same proportion.

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Labrador tundra shoreline and plant study.

If I’m interested in an area and really think I may do a painting from it I like to survey the area, then write down the forest type or the dominate plants of a field or shrub community.  Being a naturalist and an artist I often combine my art with a little science as shown in these two field studies that record plant diversity of the barren-ground tundra I was exploring in northern Labrador.  Writing down your feelings about the place is a good way to get in touch with how you are responding to the scene.  The more you know about your subject the more freedom, and authority, you have in making composition, color and subject decisions back in the studio.   If you’re in a new area and don’t know the names of the plants, that’s OK.  I often don’t.  In that case I sketch and photograph the plants that attract my attention and look them up later.  This is the  “gaining knowledge” part of my creative process

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Caribou and tundra field studies – George River, N. Quebec, Canada

After a while I have a collection of sketches, photographs and small location paintings.  From these references and the new experiences gained collecting them I will start getting ideas for studio paintings.

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Thumbnail location sketches from my small pocket journals.

While still in the field I’ll sketch out small thumbnail compositions to play around with different themes.  This way I won’t forget about an idea, but, more importantly it helps me focus on what other sketches and photo references I may need to acquire before leaving the area.

There is nothing more frustrating than getting back to the studio only to find out you don’t have all the references needed to finish an idea. I don’t think being flustered over finding a subject is like the “White Out” experience I blogged about earlier, where one is afraid to start a drawing – although it’s related if one is afraid they won’t find anything worth drawing.  Does that little voice inside you keep telling you to stop wasting  time wandering around with a sketchbook when you could be back in the studio painting – making money?  Well, tell that “little voice” that Andrew Wyeth spent a lot of time wandering around with his sketchbook and he managed to find time in the studio and make money!   Jean Shadrach, an artist friend and early mentor of mine, used to tell me, when I’d complain about how hard it was to find a suitable (salable) subject, “don’t worry, John, about what you draw – I believe you can turn anything you choose to draw into a work of art”  It took me a while to buy into that statement and realize the truth in it.  She was right, not because she felt  I was a good artist, but because she knew from her own experience that a sense of design and aesthetic will instinctively find its way into an artist’s work, even their preliminary sketches.  It may take time to trust and believe in that but it’s well worth remembering.

 Good luck sketching on your next adventure – may your pencils always be sharp and your binoculars in focus!

To inquire about availability of any sketch or painting posted please contact me directly 

Ph. 802 867-5565