Monday, October 3, 2016

Celebrate coleus

Drawing of coleus leaf
In this transition from summer to fall, a rarely celebrated plant is having a bit of a heyday—the coleus or painted nettle.  I’ve been noticing multicolored coleus leaves popping up at the base of trees all around both the west and the east sides of New York City.  Once fall leaves emerge in their full magnificent palette, we may not notice the coleus and they will die away when the cold days arrive, but for now, they are a source of a great beauty—a huge range of brilliant colors and sizes from under an inch to some more than 6 inches in size, like the one that I drew.  There are more than 600 varieties of Solenostemon scutellarioides, formerly known as Coleus blumei and Coleus x hybridus.  These lovely plants are native to India, Thailand, and other areas of Asia and Africa.  Their shape and texture always reminded me of mint leaves and sure enough, I found they are from the same family: the Lamiaceae family that contains peppermint, salvia, lavender, thyme, basil, and oregano among others. 

For those of us who were not born with a green thumb, coleus are good to know about because they are easy to grow and to propagate.  They also reward you since if you water them when they get droopy and withered, they will spring back to life like a little smile when you water them.  If only it were so easy for all of us to accomplish this feat.  There is also a little trick to keeping them growing bushy and not spindly and that is to pinch off their flowers before they get growing.  By the way, they don’t do well in the winter, like a lot of us, so you need to bring them in if you want them to survive the cold weather.  The National Gardening Association has a great entry on the coleus plant: I was fascinated to read that “coleus are frequently used as `lab rat’ plants” and so are tested for everything from salt tolerance, water uptake, plant nutrition, leaf morphology, etc.  They are even testing them to see if “coleus cell cultures may be useful in production of a compound called rosmarinic acid which has anti-viral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.”  In India, the roots of coleus plants have been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat heart and lung diseases; in addition, the chemical Forskolin, found in the tuberous roots of some coleus varieties, may be used to help us burn fat, build bone mass, as well as support healthy testerone levels. No bad, right? So keeping all this in mind, I think it is time that we celebrate the colorful, easy-growing, and possibly medicinal coleus. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Monarchs are Migrating

Drawing of a Monarch Butterfly
I cannot believe that it is the last day of August and my first post this month.  It has been a crazy summer, what with selling my house in New Paltz and getting so caught up in all the parts of the move that I lost my impetus to draw and write, but I feel the urge again. The days are getting shorter by about 20 minutes a week. I know I notice it and lament the move toward longer dark winter days although they are good days to draw and write.

This change in day length is a signal to all living things that times are changing.  Much of our wildlife sees this as time to migrate. One group of fall migrators is the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. These exquisite butterflies start to leave our area and migrate to Mexico in late August and early September--now.  Before they leave, you may see, as I did in Riverside Park, the Monarchs doing some intense eating or nectaring. They use their proboscis, which is a long narrow tube almost like a straw that is coiled on the butterfly’s head and is the life straw for the creature. The Monarch stands on a flower in bloom and uncurls its proboscis and sucks the flower's nectar juice, a fluid that contains about 80% water and 20% sugar.  The butterfly then curls the proboscis back up again and moves to the next nectar site. Monarchs are gorging now.  Some say they are so intent on eating that you can easily pick one up, but I suggest not doing that and instead using your eyes to watch these little creatures filling their stomachs for a long trip.  Monarchs are gathering as much as they can so they can build their body fat to give them the strength for their long migration and so that they can survive the winter in Mexico. 

There is an organization called Monarch Watch that tags Monarchs before they migrate, so they can be tracked when they reach Mexico.  The work is important because we have all heard about the decline in Monarch populations—there are estimated to be around 57 million Monarchs now but the average used to be closer to 300 million up to 1 billion.  What is causing the decline? The caterpillars are finding it hard to get the milkweed that they need to survive because of changes in agricultural practices.  The extreme heat and drought on the Mexican breeding grounds led to a record-breaking low population in 2012 and the population has not fully recovered and probably will not. But there are things that you can do to help it along.

If you have a garden, you can plant milkweed to feed the caterpillars.  You can plant nectar plants that bloom during the fall migration time.  You can avoid pesticides, and you can join the Monarch butterfly watch group to report any sightings of the butterflies. The MonarchWatch website has maps and places for you to enter data about Monarchs that you see. They will even send you free milkweed plants so you can become a part of keeping the Monarch population healthy and thriving.   

Monday, July 4, 2016

Happy July 4th and let's celebrate the Bald Eagle

Drawing of Bald Eagle flying over mountains and lake
    Here’s a success story that everyone can feel good about—the Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus.  It’s also appropriate to celebrate this amazing bird as part of July 4th Independence Day because the Bald Eagle has been the national emblem since 1782, a mere 6 years after 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was adopted. However, this beloved bird was moving toward extinction in the 1970s when it became a protected species under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.  What endangered the species is something that caused widespread loss of wildlife—the pesticide DDT.  This pesticide resulted in the weakening of eggs and death of newborn chicks.  It also threatened and weakened species that the Bald Eagles sought for dinner.

New York State took the loss of this bird very seriously and began an extremely successful reintroduction campaign in the 1970s and 1980s.  The Bald Eagle is no longer on the endangered species list.  The birds have become popular: there are bird cams in Washington DC and other parts of the U.S. where people can watch live the hatching of new life, the care of parent eagles, and the fledging of baby bald eagles.  In the Shawangunks near Mohonk Preserve, bald eagles have been sighted.  And I am proud to say that my contributions to this wonderful Preserve may have helped in their efforts to keep wildlife, both flora and fauna alive and healthy.  These mountains near New Paltz are one of the things that I will miss dearly when we leave our house and this area in the next few weeks.   

But I will always remember watching the bald eagles at the Rondout Reservoir in Grahamsville where we had a house in the early 1990s.  Watching these magnificent birds, sometimes with 7-foot wing-spans, in their aeries and especially in flight, is a sight that is truly unforgettable.  So perhaps I will find another house and another place to watch birds and nature—I sure hope so

Friday, June 3, 2016

Phoebe, Phoebe, you little passerine

Drawing of Eastern Phoebe

Just found out that my drawing of the Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe, has been accepted for the 2016 Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI) Annual Online exhibit.  The exhibit runs for 6 weeks from July 1 to August 12 at the website.  After that, it will be archived on the GNSI website.  This same drawing also appears in the Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City, and I am proud that it was chosen to be part of the exhibit.  A pair of Eastern Phoebes nested on an overhang on the back deck of my (soon-to-be ex-) house in New Paltz/Gardiner.  I watched the nest as it was built with bits of leaves, dryer lint, grass, and mud; saw the bright white eggs; heard the squeaks of the newly hatched birds, and watched the parents take turns feeding and caring for their young.  I even watched as the parents sat on a nearby railing calling in their raspy voices “phoebe, phoebe” to the babies to encourage them to try their wings.  Watching the little ones make their first flights was an unforgettable thrill.  A lot of websites say that Eastern Phoebes are known as loners who usually do not raise their young together, but the ones that I watched did not follow that pattern.  They were together at least until the little ones left the nest.  That might have been the end of their affair too.   

Eastern Phoebes are small flycatchers that many people like because they migrate early and are a good sign of spring.  Audubon is said to have banded an Eastern Phoebe with a piece of silvered thread in 1804 making it the first or one of the first banded birds in North America.  Eastern Phoebes are in the passerine family—a family that is known their toe arrangement: four toes—three facing forward and one backward, joining the foot at the same level.  This configuration helps them to perch.  By the way, more than half of the world’s birds are passerines, so if you look closely at the sparrows, finches, robins, and other commonly seen songbirds, you will see that type of toe arrangement.

I’ve read that they often reuse their nests, but it won’t happen at my house in New Paltz.  After the little ones had fledged, a bad storm knocked it down and some little animal pulled it apart, thankfully in vain.  No one was home.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Peek-a-boo, I see you!

According to the Audubon website, the Black and White Warbler, Mniotilta varia, is a great bird for beginning birders because it is so easy to see and identify.  That’s what happened with me when I joined Leslie Day’s bird identification and bird walking class at the New York Botanical Garden last Wednesday, April 27.  I had my binoculars, and I walked through the forest area of the NYBG looking for birds.  We saw lots of red-winged blackbirds, a catbird, American robins, and house sparrows, but the prize for me was the Black and White Warbler.  

What made it so special was that it kind of put on a little peek-a-boo show as it made its way down a tree trunk.  It would come to one part of the trunk where it was visible and then disappear only to reappear on the other side.  Our group of ten or so adults stood in rapt attention watching this little bird make its way around and down the tree in its search for insects in the bark crevices.  Even though it was far away, I could swear it looked at us and made eye contact as it circled the trunk, and I tried to show that tiny catch of the eye in my quick sketch of the little warbler.  

I drew this on Dura-Lar, a vellum-like film.  I rarely draw on translucent paper like this, but I found it fun because it is smooth and it is possible to color on both sides to make the colors deeper and the whites stronger.  I’ll be experimenting with this more.  Meanwhile, I am looking around to play peek-a-boo with another one of these warblers.  But take note, the behavior of the black and white warbler is unlike that of other warblers and more like that of the nuthatch or creeper.