Category Archives: Watercolor

Trinidad: Art Workshop

CrestedOropendola ASA L1410804eTrinidad: Nature & Wildlife 
Art Workshop

Immerse your senses into the bounty of the tropics and you will find endless inspiration to breathe new life into your artwork. Join me during this wonderful upcoming workshop presented by Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT).

Click this link to the VENT website for details, itinerary, pricing and more information about this exciting tour and workshop.

This workshop and tour is geared toward beginner and advanced nature enthusiasts interested in ample opportunities to capture wildlife through art or journaling while being immersed in a tropical setting – the world famous Asa Wright Nature Centre. Whether you are a birdwatcher who has always wanted to draw birds in the field but has not found the right setting, or an avid journal keeper, a blossoming watercolorist or an experienced landscape painter, this workshop will offer a balanced combination of structure and freedom to create art at your own pace. Most important, the abundant tropical birds, stunning rainforests of Trinidad and rustic setting of the estate house will grant you long-lasting inspiration.

CrestedOropendola ASA L1410804h

Detail of a sketch (5.75″ x 12″) done at the Asa Wright Nature Centre veranda, Trinidad. This watercolor was started during June of 2012, and then finished during February of 2016. Crested Oropendolas are colonial breeders, and weave long basket-like nests suspended from the branches of large trees that hang over the Arima Valley.

This workshop will be centered on a six-night stay at Asa Wright’s great estate, lodge and preserve. The historic plantation house has been visited by a number of renowned ornithologists and artists including William Beebe, David Snow, and renowned American painter Don Eckelberry, who depicted a number of Trinidad’s birds and their habitats. As with many other researchers and artists, they were attracted to the wide array of tropical species representative of New World bird families found at the preserve, including trogons, manakins, motmots, parrots and antbirds, and the lush habitats teeming with epiphytes, lianas and blooms.

Asa Wright Nature Centre is the ideal location for a nature art workshop because the ample veranda at the estate is a “living” studio that offers close views of feeders that attract many birds and other wildlife, with vistas of the expansive Arima Valley, and access to trails into tropical forests. Without leaving the veranda, participants will observe hummingbirds of several species including Tufted Coquette, tanagers and honeycreepers such as Blue Dacnis, Bananaquits and many other colorful feathered gems. Ample subject matter is readily available to the nature artist, and the facilities at the preserve offer a variety of settings for those interested in working in close proximity to the outdoors.

CrestedOropendola ASA L1410804i

Detail showing Crested Oropendolas (Psarocolius decumanus) engaged in elaborate nuptial displays that include bowing from their perches and from overhanging nests, and displaying their bright yellow tails and rusty vents.

Participants are invited to immerse their senses into the bountiful nature of Trinidad to find new inspiration for their artwork, and to work in a supportive setting, surrounded by like-minded individuals. The goal is to create work influenced by the field experience with a focus on personal growth. This workshop is ideal for those that have already developed a personal craft, and for those who would like to play with line and color, learn new techniques, and participate in constructive group sessions. Participants are encouraged to work with the materials of their choice and on the subject matter that most interests them. Emphasis will be placed on the depiction of fauna, flora and habitat from direct observation. Sketching or painting while viewing wildlife through a spotting scope or binoculars can be quite effective. Those who wish to work from their own photographs may do so. Each participant is responsible for bringing his/her own optic and photographic equipment and art materials.

Golden-headed Manakin Sketches

Click to enlarge – Various sketchbook studies of Golden-headed Manakin males engaged in lekking behavior, which includes sideways dancing, foot-tapping and sliding along display perches, vowing and chest-puffing, wing-vibrating, and darting up and down branches. Most of the sketches were done on February 2012, with touch-ups during February 2016 at leks within the Asa Wright preserve.

Throughout this workshop, you will be guided by experienced naturalists and artists. The leaders have extensive experience in the visual arts when it relates to nature, particularly the depiction of birds in their habitats, and have acquired significant experience by working in the field. The workshops, hikes and presentations offered during this tour are designed to give nature artists enough structure and support when needed, and the freedom and flexibility for those seeking independence. During our morning hikes, we will have an opportunity to study the birds, butterflies and plants of the preserve, and become acquainted with the trails that lead to the leks of manakins and the haunts of bellbirds. Your guides will be field sketching, painting or journaling right alongside participants, demonstrating techniques, leading group exercises, and working with those needing individual help. You will have the option of taking part in structured exploratory workshops for the strengthening of drawing and composition skills, or follow your own pace. More importance will be placed on process rather than product. Participants have the liberty to focus on simple projects like creating a series of loose sketches throughout the tour, or dedicating their entire time to a sketchbook, or developing as ambitious a series of works as desired. There will be plenty of free time to explore the grounds on your own and find subject matter of your liking, to study the birds and plants at your own leisure, or to spend most of the time participating in structured workshops.

Field trips away from the lodge should produce encounters with a number of particularly spectacular tropical birds and landscapes. Throughout the tour we will be keeping a detailed list of all our observations, as is done in traditional birding tours. Each evening we will have recap sessions during which we will share our progress, give feedback to those who desire it, and learn about other artists. Trinidad is a wonderful entrée to the natural history of the American tropics and its marvelous biodiversity. Birders, naturalists, sketchers and painters alike will find the Asa Wright Nature Centre inspiring, and this workshop will offer a broad range of options for both beginners and advanced artists.

TRINIDAD: NATURE & WILDLIFE ART WORKSHOP
FEBRUARY 23 – MARCH 1, 2017

More blog entries about sketching in Trinidad & Tobago:

VENT2_kicsi

To find our more about tours led by Rafael Galvez visit the
Victor Emanuel Nature Tours website.

Great White Heron

It could be due to my local boyhood pride, but few North American birds continually capture my attention like the Great White Heron. When I watch this imposing hunter make its presence at the shallows of Florida Bay, and take its rightful place at the head of the massive flocks of waders and shorebirds, its hierarchy at the very top of the pecking order seems indisputable.

When John James Audubon wrote about it, soon after discovering the bird off Indian Key in April of 1832, he introduced it to the world as the “largest species of the Heron tribe” in North America. He immediately understood that the science community would find this all-white heron startling, and cautioned that “our endeavours to discover the natural arrangement of things cannot be uniformly successful.” Ever since, ornithologists have argued and disagreed about the provenance and status of this saltwater wader.

Whether the Great White Heron (currently Ardea herodias) is a species, a subspecies or simply a color morph is an age-old argument that exemplifies the problems inherent to taxonomic categorization. It might even be argued that all manifestations of the “Great Ardea Heron” in North America are part of a single widespread species that includes the Great Blue Heron, the Cocoi Heron in South America and the Grey Heron in Europe.

What should not be argued is that a unique and significant variation of the Ardea heron – coined occidentalis – limits its North American presence almost entirely to Florida Bay and the Keys. The case of the Great White Heron isn’t simply that of a white plumaged Great Blue as it’s sometimes suggested. Aside from its overall color, the Great White exhibits a number of structural differences that make its careful study rewarding.

Ardea Heron Comparative GALVEZ

During years of observing these magnificent birds, I have carefully drafted portraits of distinct individuals throughout the region to compare them for bill size and facial bare parts. I’ve documented dozens of Great White and so-called “intermediate” Würdemann’s Herons, and have noticed some interesting tendencies. Aside from the apparently larger bills, South Florida Great Whites show a greater amount of bare skin around the bill and loral region, and particularly surrounding the “mouth” [a1], compared to other A. herodias.

The “straight” culmen of the Great Blue is often mentioned, and by proxy this is assumed of the Great White Heron. “Northern” Great Blues often show a mostly-straight culmen [c5] with a very subtle “flattened” dip halfway to the down-curved tip, yet the occidentalis herons consistently show a slight and relatively continuous outward curvature to the culmen [a5]. After studying a small sample of Great White skulls from Florida Bay with those of mainland Great Blues, I have found similar differences.

A Great White Heron foraging through Red Mangrove roots along the shallows of Little Torch Key, Florida.
A Great White Heron foraging through Red Mangrove roots along the shallows of Little Torch Key, Florida.

Perhaps the feature that gives Great White Herons that particular commanding expression is the “grimace” formed by a greater amount of bare skin around the corner of the mouth, fully exposing the upper edge of the lower mandible at its base [a1]. This exposure is weak or absent in “Ward’s” herons, and limited to the upper mandible in A. h. herodias. Additionally, these exposed “lips” tend to be pale in Great Whites only, and may be bright yellow during breeding season.

These subtle distinctions, however, become blurred when the “Würdemann’s” Heron is taken into consideration. I have found that intermediate herons often lack the bare lower “lip” of Great Whites despite the pale heads of most individuals. Does this tell us anything of importance about the relationship between this taxonomic form and its congeners? Due to the limited scope of my study, I only intend to pose simple questions to further the discussion.

CLICK ON AN IMAGE BELOW TO INITIATE THE CAROUSEL

The myth of a classic “Würdemann’s” with a Great White head and a Great Blue body is shattered after spending plenty of time surveying Florida Bay for waders. It would seem that any dark Ardea heron breeding in Florida Bay and the Keys is some kind of an “intermediate”. Their plumage varies from birds with pale heads and necks to those indistinguishable from a typical dark Ardea herodias.

I do not propose that my observations contribute something valuable to the argument of Great White Heron classification – they are perhaps too mired in the zone of art – but I do propose that we should pay closer attention to this unique taxon, for we still have much to learn of it.

Recent research (Zachow 1983, McGuire 2002) suggests significant structural and genetic differences between the overall larger occidentalis herons and the peninsular Great Blues. “Würdemann’s” Herons have been shown to have closer genetic and structural affinities to Great Whites (McGuire). There is no evidence of substantial genetic flow between Ardea herodias – white, blue or intermediate – breeding in Florida Bay or the Keys, and birds breeding in the Florida mainland.

This article was originally published in the Fall of 2010 issue of the Tropical Audubon Society print publication.

Wood Stork: EVERGLADES

The Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) is an “indicator species” of the Everglades, and it tells us much about the health of the imperiled ecosystem. The breeding success of the species depends on the region’s complex water cycles and their effect on food availability. If storks fail to breed any one year, it is likely due to poor management of our wetlands, which have been diked and controlled for several decades. Stork diet includes many species of small fish, crabs, crayfish, snakes, frogs, young alligators, rodents, and occasionally the young of other bird species. Wood Storks typically wade with their open bills in shallow water, snapping them shut very quickly at the slightest touch of food matter.

Detail of "Wood Storks at Paurotis Pond." This watercolor is being done on site, while observing the birds through Leica APO-Televid 65 and 77 scopes.
Detail of “Wood Storks at Paurotis Pond.” This watercolor is being done on site, while observing the birds through Leica APO-Televid 65 and 77 scopes.

Below are various works in progress featuring Wood Storks, done at the Everglades during breeding season.
CLICK ON AN IMAGE TO ACTIVATE THE CAROUSEL.

Detail of "Wood Storks at Paurotis Pond." This watercolor is being done on site, while observing the birds through Leica APO-Televid 65 and 77 scopes.
Detail of “Wood Storks at Paurotis Pond.” This watercolor is being done on site, while observing the birds through Leica APO-Televid 65 and 77 scopes.

The Bill and Buccal Cavity of a Razorbill

Examination of the Bill and Buccal Cavity of an Adult Razorbill
(Alca torda) Specimen from the Dry Tortugas, December 18, 2012

Fig. 1. Rostrolateral view of Alca torda bill and buccal organs, sketched from direct observation of a corpse found in Dry Tortugas National Park on 12/18/2012.
Rostrolateral view of an Alca torda bill and buccal organs, sketched from direct examination of a corpse found in Dry Tortugas National Park on 12/18/2012. CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

During the winter of 2012-2013, hundreds of Razorbills were seen off the coasts of South Florida; an unprecedented event in recorded history. Most of the documented birds that engaged in this ‘invasion’ event appeared to be young or immature. The distinctive bill of the species has received significant attention in several studies, and has been suggested as an aid in determining the maturity of individual birds. Considering the relative few adult individuals documented on Florida waters this winter, the finding of an adult Alca torda corpse in the Dry Tortugas (DRTO) during the Christmas Bird Count (113th) expedition offered a unique opportunity to closely examine a mature bill. The fresh specimen also presented an opportunity to study the uncorrupted interior of the mouth and the buccal organs, which are adapted to catching and retaining fish prey and are bright yellow in adult birds.

The bill of the Alca torda – or Razorbill – is perhaps the most distinctive physical trait of the species. With maturity, the bill may grow to be a relatively large and laterally compressed organ with a steeply curved culmen and a complex sculpting of grooves and ridges. Birds develop an arching white “band” across the upper and lower mandibles as they age, and rarely two bands. The bill undergoes many stresses while foraging and during breeding disputes, and may develop a buttressed sculpt to reinforce the narrow organ. The mouth interior and tongue of adults are an intense warm yellow. These are used in breeding displays and to incite feeding behavior.

By contrast, the bills of younger birds have flatter culmens, and may be entirely devoid of grooves. At all ages, the bill is primarily black and glossy, with a hooked tip and sharp distal tomia that flatten and broaden towards the gape. The interior of the juvenile mouth is pale yellow.

Fig. 2. Lateral view of Alca torda bill, sketched from direct observation, DRTO 12/18/2012 specimen.
Fig. 1. Lateral view of Alca torda bill, sketched from direct observation, DRTO 12/18/2012 specimen. CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

After breeding, Razorbills will shed the outermost layer of the bill, reducing its overall size, and dulling its gloss and color. This shedding of the external sheath of the bill is true also of other alcids, particularly the puffins (Fratercula). With the arrival of the breeding season, an outer keratin layer develops; in the Alcidae this may be manifested in the form of plates, knobs or horny projections that serve as ornamentation for courtship purposes. In Razorbills, the sculpting of the bill’s grooves becomes pronounced, the ridges smoother and rounder, and the black darker and glossier, contrasting a whiter band when present.

Studies at breeding colonies have explored the potential for aging individual Razorbills based on the number and characteristic of bill grooves (Jones 1988). However, the shape and sculpture of bills is variable individually,  geographically and possibly even sexually in Razorbills. It is unclear how sexual maturity relates to bill development. Some Razorbills have been known to breed earlier in Nearctic colonies, compared to the Palearctic (Lavers et al. 2008). In general, the bill develops slowly in the species, and may continually become deeper and more grooved in some birds as they age.

R. A. Galvez. Adapted from Jones 1988, Lloyd and Perrins 1977, Lavers et al. 2008. CLICK CHART TO ENLARGE.

The distinctive white band across the bill does not generally begin developing until approximately 15 months of age, so it is unlikely that birds in their first winter show any sign of this trait. Rarely, old birds with two bands have been documented, but this may be associated with geographical tendencies. As Razorbills age and the bill becomes deeper, one proximal groove, and up to three grooves distal of the white band may develop.

Alca torda - lateral view GALVEZ

Alca torda rostral-dorsal GALVEZ

The ageing of Razorbills based on the development of their bills cannot be done with accuracy, in part because sexual maturity in the species may be attained anytime between the third and sixth year of life. Some birds may never develop more than a single distal groove their entire lifespan, and this may influence their success as breeders (De Wijs 1983). A 1988 study by Jones demonstrated through the trapping and measuring of breeding birds in the Palearctic that a small margin of birds (9%) had developed a third groove distal of the white band. Only birds past their third summer had more than two distal grooves. That study also showed a tendency for bill depth and wing length to increase with age.

Razorbill buccal cavity schematic w lit

Razorbill Lingual Body sm

The impromptu situation during this Christmas Bird Count expedition to the Dry Tortugas (December 18-20, 2012) did not allow for the proper measuring of the found corpse, therefore it is hoped that a prepared specimen will supply future details. On the other hand, this might have been one of the only opportunities to examine the remarkable yellow buccal cavity of the bird, since internal tissue deterioration had likely commenced, and frozen birds may present challenges in this camp.

In addition to ornamental bill parts, the Alcidae are also known for colorful mouth interiors, used during threat displays and courtship. These range from light blue in Ancient Murrelet (Synthliboramphus antiquus) to vermilion in guillemots (Cepphus), and are yellow-orange in breeding Razorbills. Additionally, their mouths and tongues are equipped with specialized projections and gripping accessories that allow for the trapping of slippery prey.

Alca torda FeedingConceptualization2

During the breeding season, Razorbills may carry multiple fish from several fishing bouts crosswise on their bills. Prey such as capelin or sandlace are carried by breeding adults from the ocean back to nest sites on cliff ledges, and fed to the young. The Razorbill’s buccal organs are well adapted for continually foraging and catching prey while securely retaining earlier catches. After fish are caught, they are slipped back towards the gape with the aid of the smooth anterior end of the tongue. The fish are gripped tightly against the horny palate by projections on the posterior of the tongue. The knobbed and flexible inner lining of the mouth helps secure prey. In this manner, a Razorbill is able to repeatedly open its bill to continue foraging while as many as half a dozen fish remain in place.

Working from the Dead Specimen

Sketching on site ALCA TORDA Galvez

I found this freshly deceased Razorbill washed up on the southeastern-most shoreline of Garden Key, in Dry Tortugas National Park on the evening of December 18, the night before the annual Christmas Bird Count. During these occasions, our count team stays in the barracks of Fort Jefferson, which offer modest accommodations but no suitable work space.  I spent much of that night awake, sketching this Razorbill under flashlights and my headlamp.

The renderings of the bill and buccal cavity of this specimen were drafted from direct observation, aiming to depict proportionate relationships in the form and shapes of each organ. No calipers were used, nor was there an opportunity to make drawings based on measurements. The specimen was surrendered to the National Park Service and transported back to the mainland in the freezer of the NPS M/V Fort Jefferson vessel. I was informed that it would be taken to a research facility for preparation and possible eventual submission to the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF.

References:

  • Barrett, R.T., Ankier-Nilssen, T. & Krasnov, Y.V. 1997. Can Norwegian and Russian Razorbills Alca torda be identified by their measurements? Marine Ornithology 25: 5–8.
  • Chapman, Frank M. 1966. Handbook of Birds, Eastern North America. Dover Publications, New York.
  • De Wijs, W. J. R. 1983. Proposed ageing system for Common Guillemot and Razorbill. Nieuwsbrief Nederlands Stook. Omler. 16: 123-132.
  • Feducia, Alan. 1999. The Origin and Evolution of Birds. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  • Johnsgard, Paul A., “Diving Birds of North America: Species Accounts — Auks (Alcidae)” (1987). Diving Birds of North America, by Paul Johnsgard. Paper 11.
  • Jones, P. Hope (1988): Post‐fledging wing and bill development in the Razorbill Alca torda islandica, Ringing & Migration, 9:1, 11-17.
  • Lavers, Jennifer, Mark Hipfner, Gilles Chapdelaine and J. Mark Hipfner. 2009. Razorbill (Alca torda), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/635 doi:10.2173/bna.635
  • Lavers, J.L., I.L. Jones and A.W. Diamond. 2008. Age at First Return and Breeding of Razorbills (Alca torda) on the Gannet Islands, Labrador and Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick. Waterbirds 31(1): 30-34, 2008.
  • Lloyd, C. S. and C. M. Perrins. 1977. Survival and age at first breeding in the Razorbill. Bird-Banding 48: 239-252.
  • Lofgren, Lars. 1987. Ocean Birds. Crescent Books, New York.
  • Proctor, Noble S. and Pratrick J. Lynch. Manual of Ornithology. Avian Structure & Function. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  • Pyle, P. 2008. Identification guide to North American birds. Part II: Anatidae to Alcidae. Slate Creek Press, Point Reyes Station, CA.
  • Welty, Joel C. and Luis Baptista. 1988. The Life of Birds. Fourth Edition. Saunders College Publishing, New York.

Red-necked Nightjar: ANDALUCÍA

When I visited Andalucía during the spring of 2002, the Red-necked Nightjar (Chotacabras Pardo o Cuellirojo – Caprimulgus ruficollis) had for long been a fascination of mine.  It was a bird I had not yet experienced in the Western Palearctic, and my love of Caprimulgiformes had me searching for the species with increased enthusiasm.

A watercolor study of a Red-necked Nightjar wing, done soon after the bird was found, killed by the roadside.
A watercolor study of a Red-necked Nightjar’s wing, done soon after a bird was found, killed by the roadside.

Red-necked Nightjar searchesDuring the last two weeks of May, I crisscrossed the Costa del Sol several times from Ronda through Málaga, spending some time along the Río Guadalhorce, stopping at Macharaviaya (ancestral home from my father’s side), and eventually passing Almería to the east.

By the time I reached Cabo de Gata – the region’s largest coastal protected natural park – I had seen several excellent species including hundreds of Greater Flamingos, ducks and shorebirds in the salinas (salt flats) of the region, but no Red-necked Nightjars.

A pair of quick sketches on the gessoed rough side of a masonite board. These are relatively underdeveloped, so I hesitated in including them here, but they tell part of the story. Left is Macharaviaya - a whitewashed town near Málaga. Right is a view of the Mediterranean from the coastal cliffs of Cabo de Gata.
A pair of quick sketches on the gessoed rough side of a masonite board. These are relatively underdeveloped, so I hesitated in including them here, but they tell part of the story. Left is Macharaviaya – a whitewashed town near Málaga. Right is a view of the Mediterranean from the coastal cliffs of Cabo de Gata.

During my first night at Cabo de Gata, I camped out near coastal crags that dropped steeply into the Mediterranean, taking drives and hikes up the arid roads and rocky cliffs north of the cape. I had heard an Eagle Owl from this location, so was intent in pushing my investigation well into the night. However, it was when I unexpectedly flushed nightjars from a sandy path that I was truly captivated.

I stopped the car at the sight of a Red-necked Nightjar on the ground, perfectly lit by my headlights, and managed to step out with my watercolor and paper to sketch the bird under the harsh artificial lights.

Red-necked Nightjar in headlamps GALVEZ

Unfortunately, several minutes into my sketch a police vehicle drove up and the bird flew off. I was immediately put under scrutiny and suspicion. The two officers were pleasant gentlemen not much older than me, and were very curious as to what I was doing. I showed them my sketches and they listened to my description of the nocturnal bird with interest. After an awkward moment of silence during which I continued painting under my headlamp, the officers simply excused themselves and drove away.

About a week later, while coiling down mountainous highways from Grazalema towards Málaga late at night,  I saw a vehicle in front of me hit a nightjar. I pulled over to inspect the victim, and found a perfectly intact and fresh C. ruficollis specimen. Arriving at Tarifa – the southernmost coast of southern Spain – I spent it sleepless, doing the sketches included in this post.

The Process

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1. I typically start most field sketches with a pencil drawing. If the shapes, posture and placement of body parts are not generally accurate in the pencil gesture, then the painting runs the risk of turning out awkward. If the bird flies before I can start applying watercolor, then I’m left with a sketch I can use for future field paintings or as reference for a longer study.

2. In this case, I had the time to put down a substantial amount of watercolor before the bird was flushed. Unfortunately, the nightjar was left half-painted, and I was without a life reference to confidently finish the rendering.

3. However, when I found a dead Red-necked Nightjar days after, and created detailed studies of its plumage, I was able to use my specimen renderings to bring the field sketch to a more complete place.

4. Over the years, I often wondered if I could add just a few strokes to further develop this sketch without ruining it. I kept the hope of returning to Andalucía during spring, and re-encountering a Red-necked Nightjar under similar circumstances, but this has not happened yet. As time went by, the more I looked at the watercolor studies of the deceased bird, the more I felt I should add dabs of color to the field sketch, to give it the desired density. One summer night, as I drove through the Everglades and came upon a Chuck-will’s Widow with my lights, I immediately thought of the nightjar. Both the Red-necked Nightjar and the “Chuck” were until recently classified in the same genus – Caprimulgus (the latter has been recently changed to Antrostomus). Both species are roughly the same size, and both tend to exhibit overall rustier plumages than their congeners. As I carefully observed the Chuck-will’s-widow through my binoculars, it occurred to me that I was gaining useful information to help me develop the field sketch from Andalucía – not in the detail of the plumage or in the shape of the bird, but in the way a nightjar appears under the contrasting lights of car, and how this affects its volume and color.

Everglades Sketchbook 8

“Everglades Sketchbook 8” is a 9″x12″ ring-bound watercolor pad I purchased in 2005 with the aim of doing quick, in-the-moment landscapes. I have used it on and off for nearly 10 years now, and a few of its pages are still blank.

Lesser Nighthawks: EVERGLADES

Several Lesser Nighthawks (Chordeiles acutipennis) were observed from November 19 through November 22, 2012, foraging over C-111 Canal and the agricultural area outside of Everglades National Park, at the intersection with 9336, Ingraham Highway. The sketch above was done from those observations during that period.

I counted 20 Lesser Nighthawks on November 19, immediately after sundown, between 5:40 and 5:55 pm at the above location. On November 21, I counted 12 birds from 5:45 to 6:10 pm. On November 22, I only observed 2 nighthawks in the vicinity. I’ve also visited other locations recently, where Lesser Nighthawks have been observed during this time of the year, including the Hole-in-the-Donut sector west of  the Research Center (ENP) and Dump Marsh, but observed none.

Lesser Nighthawks - November 19, 2012 Field Sketch

Lesser Nighthawks wintering in Florida have been reported since the 1970s, but are rarely documented. Reports typically include few individuals, most of them in and around the vicinity of Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and Cutler along Biscayne Bay. In the Everglades, the species was first found at Eco Pond on December 28, 1980 by Paul Sykes and Sonny Bass, and has been observed from Snake Bight to Cape Sable at sunrise or sunset in recent years. This area, as part of the Coot Bay Christmas Bird Count usually furnishes the highest number of Lesser Nighthawks for the U.S. during winter. The all-time highest count for the species during a CBC in the U.S. was 10 (Coot Bay, 11oth CBC). However, “15 to 20″ were reported on December 10, 2000 from Flamingo.

Thumnail sketches of Lesser Nighthawks

However, as Dick Cunningham once wrote, “It is suspected that several dozen Lesser Nighthawks may winter in the pinelands area south of the [Everglades National] park headquarters and can be seen at twilight in the adjacent farmlands to the east.” The species is often seen during the Long Pine Key Christmas Bird Count in Everglades National Park, which covers the area from Royal Palm west through the pinelands. Maybe this December of 2012, several Lesser Nighthawks will be observed during the Long Pine Key CBC.

Identification

The Common (C. minor) and Lesser Nighthawks are very similar, and best differentiated by voice where their ranges overlap. However, the Lesser is typically silent during winter. Individual Common Nighthawks have been documented during winter in South Florida, so one must be cautious in identifying a Chordeiles nightjar during this season in the region.

With careful observation and experience, details in the plumage and structure of the Lesser can be differentiated from Common Nighthawk on birds in flight. The wings of Lesser Nighthawks appear more rounded, due to the outermost primary feather being noticeably shorter than the second. In the case of Common Nighthawks, the outermost primary is perceived as longer or equal to the second, giving the bird a more pointed-wing appearance. Additionally, the Lesser may appear overall darker than the Common in flight; this is primarily because females of the species do not have contrasting white markings on their wings, as in Common. The paler “bar” on the wings of the female Lesser is buff, and blends with the overall brown coloration of the bird, giving the impression of an all-dark nighthawk in low light.  On the male Lesser Nighthawks, the more-visible white wing markings are closer to the wing tip and smaller in size compared to Common Nighthawks.

Lesser Nighthawks during winter in our area seem to be active almost entirely during sundown. The short period of time during which they are visible may present the greatest challenge in identifying and documenting them. I’ve had the fortune of finding roosting birds on the ground during late afternoon at Hole-in-the-Donut, but have had a hard time replicating the experience.

The recent C-111 nighthawks exhibited several of the behavioral traits associated with the Lesser, including more erratic flight at low altitudes, and individuals foraging in groups. During winter, the species is typically associated with water, and in my experience having seen the  species from Cutler to Cape Sable, the birds often fly low over canals, bays, lakes and marshes. From Nov 19 – 21, the birds were observed flying low over C-111 Canal moving S to N in small associated groups, at times circling very close to me and low over the Ingraham Highway overpass. Several of the individuals in the feeding group were clearly females, exhibiting no white wing markings.

Sketches

I was able to do several sketches of these nighthawks, keying-in on their wing shapes, the placement and color of the wing markings, and the overall form of the birds. Above, is a compilation of thumbnail sketches (averaging 3cm) done in the field with graphite on off-white 20 lb paper.

The watercolor above was done from the hood of my Jeep, parked next to C-111 using Yarka St. Petersburg Watercolor 24 set pans on 140 lb, cold-pressed Arches paper (25 cm width). All field observations were done through my trusty Leica Ultravid 8×32 HD binoculars.