Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Monarch: A Golden Flight of Hope


A golden flight of hope: In today's troubled and confusing times, we are always looking for a bit of good news, and I am happy to report on this item about one of our favorite butterflies.  Don Riepe is the Director of the Northeast chapter of the American Littoral Society and has served the National Park System’s Jamaica Bay for more than 25 years and since 2004 is officially the Jamaica Bay Guardian.  He is also the Secretary/Treasurer of the NYC Butterfly Club.  So when Don gives news about the monarch butterfly, we know we are getting it from a knowledgeable source.  He put a reminder video on his Facebook page of the butterflies landing on goldenrod plants at Jamaica Bay in 2017, and he followed it up saying that he was seeing lots of them again this past week.  Seeing this, I felt I had to do a sketch and share it on the blog.  Monarchs have been in trouble for the past few years and their numbers have been dropping, so it is heartening to read that they are they are still visiting Jamaica Bay in some numbers as they head to Texas and then to California and/or the mountains of Mexico. I have seen dozens of them in the Riverside Park Community Garden since late August up until just yesterday.  Monarchs are amazing creatures especially considering that the monarchs that leave our northern climes and head south, flying up to 3000 miles, are the second generation of the monarchs that arrived here last summer.  New monarchs! Yet following air currents and thermals, they make the trip with in-born genetic information to guide them.  Monarchs are the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration, albeit with different generations, a feat only also accomplished by some bird species. The monarch's golden wings give us hope for their future and the future of our planet.  If you have a garden, plant milkweed since that is the host plant for the butterfly.  

    For me, drawing in my sketchbook also offers a bit of hope and a sense of gratitude for the beauty of nature.  It is a kind of meditation.  You can see that I drew across the page of my little 4x6 Daler-Rowney sketchbook giving me double the size. I don't mind the line in the middle, and I find it good practice to include the date and a note or two about what I am drawing.  

Friday, October 2, 2020





As the days get shorter and colder and insects and flowers disappear, thousands of birds migrate along the Atlantic Flyway to move to warmer more hospitable climes.  Warblers, orioles, swallows, flycatchers, martins, and mimids among others take this perilous trip  Along with the mockingbird, the catbird is a member of the mimid family—birds that can mimic other bird and animal sounds; in fact, the catbird received its name because its call sounds like the meow of a cat.  The migration time in New York City is a dangerous time.  Birds fly into skyscraper and even store windows and suffer serious injuries and often death. 

We found a dead catbird on 88thstreet between Broadway and West End Avenue yesterday. It must have flown into a store window after seeing its reflection.  The bird was so beautiful—its deep gray color both soft and luminous; its black eyes and its black skullcap.  I have tried to draw catbirds many times and have never totally captured the extraordinary gray of these birds, but I tried again—this time with a small drawing in my little sketchbook.  I did not draw from life (or should I say death) as I know many bird illustrators including Audubon do.  I have drawn from skins of stuffed birds in NYBG classes and even those skins do not capture the beauty of the gray bird we saw on the sidewalk.  So for this drawing, I found a picture on the web of the bird in a position that showed its curious nature as well as its sense of pride. I did the best I could to show those things and to create its amazing gray to pay homage to the beauty of the little bird we found.  


Finding a dead bird is devastating, but the Wild Bird Fund of New York City says that it is getting an enormous number of dead and injured birds this fall.  I just received this  from the Wild Bird Fund:  

This morning, October 2, was the worst window collision day of the year so far, with more than 100 birds found dead in the World Trade Center area, and some 50 or more survivors brought to the Wild Bird Fund from there. The numbers were also high at the Time Warner Center, and reports of dead and injured birds are coming in from all over town. We may have more than 100 intakes today.

They suggest that if you find an injured bird, you should pick it up carefully and put it in a paper bag to keep it calm.  Call the Wild Bird Fund at 646-306-2862 or go to it on Columbus Avenue and 88thstreet and they will help your bird and save its life if it is possible.  The WBF always needs funding.  They do extraordinary work for the wild life in our area. Check their website for more information about exactly what you should do to help any injured bird or to report any dead bird you find.  



Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A Tree to Savour

Ginkgo leaf found on Riverside Drive

This past Veterans Day weekend when the temperatures started to drop, so did the ginkgo leaves. Riverside Drive and the upper west 80s and 90s are covered in the golden and green fan-shaped leaves. Cars disappear under the thousands of delicate leaves. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) or maidenhair trees are known to drop their leaves on the same day or very close to that and so it has been this year.   In his poem “The Consent,” Howard Nemerov reflects on the phenomenon:

“Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone: the golden and
the green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light

The ginkgo is a fascinating tree.  It is the only living species remaining in its division: Ginkgophyta. It is a living fossil with the earliest leaf fossils dating from 270 million years ago.   As Peter Crane writes in his wonderful book, Ginkgo, “To borrow a phrase from Darwin, ginkgo has become a platypus for the plant kingdom, paleontologists have traced its lineage millions of years into prehistory…a tree that time forgot and an increasingly familiar living link to landscapes of the distant past.”

Crane continues that the ginkgo “inhabited a world without people, and for much of that time, a world very different from that of today.  For tens of millions of years, it lived alongside plants and animals that are long extinct.  Several different kinds of ginkgolike trees watched as our ancestors transformed from reptiles to mammals.” 

The ginkgo is dioecious, which means that some trees are male and some female.  Many prefer the male trees because they do not have fruit.  The female trees produce a seed ball that is smelly and slippery if you step on it.  Although the seeds are prized and used in supplements and various extracts, they are somewhat toxic and should not be eaten raw.  The ginkgo tree is a living fossil whose beauty we still treasure and whose shade we appreciate on hot summer days.  In 1815 Goethe wrote a poem about the ginkgo tree translated by John Whaley from which I have excerpted a few lines.  Go to link below for the whole poem: 

From the East this tree’s leaf shows
Secret sense for us to savour
And uplifts the one who knows.

Somewhat mysterious as is the ginkgo tree itself.

Thursday, October 31, 2019



Happy Halloween!  

       This month I gave myself a project inspired by the wonderful artist Mindy Lighthipe   It was good drawing practice and fun too.  In my sketchbook, I have drawn a leaf every day from ones I found near Riverside Park, the NYBG, Fort Tryon Park, and Bethel, New York.  I looked for leaves with unusual colors and or shapes and tried to capture what I could.  As the month has gone on, I found my watercolors becoming more muted.  In the first days, I tried for deep rich colors with lots of detail like the callery pear on the top below, but the leaves themselves got softer and more muted in their colors as the days moved along.  I found some with tears, bends, and weird shapes.  I purposely tried not to look for perfect shapes.  I’m including a few just to inspire.  Having a drawing project is a way to motivate yourself to do some drawing, even just for 15 minutes, and to end up with a portfolio that you can look through in the darker days of winter soon to come--we turn back the clocks on Sunday night.  Now I have to think about what I'll do for the 30 days of November.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Linden, will you be my honey?

Linden watercolor
When I was working on my portfolio for my certificate in Botanical Art and Illustration from the NY Botanical Garden this year, I decided I wanted to draw trees from Riverside Park, the park I walk in just about every day.  When I thought about the trees I would choose, I knew I would have to include one watercolor drawing of the linden tree, one of my favorite trees and one I have photographed many times over the years.  I chose to paint the American linden with its larger leaves although the small-leafed linden and the silver linden also grow on Riverside Drive. It took me many tries to compose the drawing so I would be sure to include both sides of the leaves, the bracts in spring and fall, the flowers, and the fruit.  

The Linden, Tilia genus, tree grows in many places in the upper west side of Manhattan.  There is a large linden grove facing the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park and many lindens in Central Park, but the one I drew is part of a large stand of linden trees along Riverside Drive from 79thto 96thstreets that I observe throughout the seasons.  These beautiful trees with their heart-shaped leaves are of special interest during May and June because their flowers emerge and literally drive bees to drink.  Beekeepers love the honey that bees gather from linden flowers.  It is a pale golden color and it has a sweet gentle taste; it is said to contain flavonoids which act as antioxidants and tannins that act as an astringent. Linden flowers have also been used in herbal treatments for colds, fevers, inflammation, high blood pressure, headaches, and even as a sedative.  New research suggests that the flowers may be hepatoprotective, which means they may have the ability to protect damage to the liver.  

The wood from the tree is pale and soft with a fine grain.  It has been used for pencils, matches, piano keys, some furniture and is a popular wood for model making and carving.  It is used for electric guitar and bass bodies and for wood instruments like recorders.  It was even used in ancient times by the Vikings to make their shields.  In Slavic mythology the linden, or lipa in most Slavic languages, is a sacred tree whose wood was even chosen to make panel icons for religious use.  In the pre-Christian Germanic times, people met under the linden trees to celebrate and dance but also to hold meetings “in order to restore justice and peace.”

We don't meet under the tree to restore justice and peace--that's a pretty large order--but just walking under the green canopy of these magnificent trees can help to restore an inner harmony and peace.  I definitely recommend it. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Found on the road and sadly quite dead

Quick sketch Eastern Milk Snake
Found on the road in Smallwood, upstate New York: one sadly quite dead Eastern Milk Snake, or more simply put, Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum. 

I moved the creature to a safe spot not that it needed safety but more out of respect for the gorgeous body the snake possessed.  I took a few iPhone pictures and drew what I saw as you can see.  The Eastern milk snake is common to eastern and central North America and has many common names like adder, chain snake, cow-sucker, thunder-and-lightning snake and that all familiar blatschich schlange.  I get the “schlange” part of it I think.  The snake was about 24” long.  Spread out on the edge of the road, it looked like a necklace or Native American beaded decoration.  It is a sort of beigy tan with a pattern on the top and sides that is a series of black-bordered burnt sienna-colored patches of different sizes and shapes.  I didn’t turn it over but the belly is said to be irregularly checked black and white.  

The eastern milk snake is sometimes bred in captivity for people to own as pets.  According to Wikipedia,, it is generally docile, but it can bite if threatened and if one is bitten, one should see a doctor.  It is not a venomous snake, but it is a carnivore and prefers a diet of mice, voles, chipmunks, other small rodents, and even other snakes.  It kills by constriction not by biting its prey.  It is an accomplished climber and has been known to climb porches and vines to enter homes in search of mice. The eastern milk snake vibrates its tail to rustle leaves and other debris or when it feels threatened.   Again, this may not be the ideal house pet for many people. Although there are those….

But one thing to be said it that it is a beautiful creature and when I happen upon something like this, I feel the need both to photograph it (thank goodness for our phone cameras) and to draw it in my sketch pad.  Doing the above quick drawing of it, I noticed the patterns even more clearly and appreciated the exquisiteness of this denizen of upstate New York.  I left the actual creature on the edge of the road thinking that it might be food for some other hungry creature or beauty for some passerby.  

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Thing of beauty or what ....

Callery Pear cluster watercolor sketch
The Callery Pear, Pyrus calleryana, was “discovered” in China by French missionary Joseph Callery, hence its name.  It was imported from China to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston in 1909 and then again in 1916 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture “to help develop the blight resistance in the common pear (Pyrus communis), which was devastating the pear industry.”   

By the 1950s, people had begun to appreciate its beauty and resilience to disease, so it was widely planted on the east coast and in the southern part of the U.S.  In fact, it is one of the most common street trees in New York City and a welcome sign of spring with its lovely five-petaled white and pinkish flowers blooming in early April.  Soon after, come the glossy green leaves appearing in clusters such as the one I found this morning and quickly sketched for the blog.  The tree produces small fruits that birds and squirrels eat and distribute through their poop.  And in the fall, the leaves turn red, purple, and bronze—quite a lovely sight to see.  

For many of us, the Callery Pear is a thing of beauty and hope.  In fact, the “survivor tree” planted at the National September 11 Memorial site is a Callery Pear that survived the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.  It was the last living thing to be taken from the rubble of 9/11.  It was nearly destroyed, but the New York Department of Parks and Recreation took the charred almost “mortally wounded” tree that many thought was dead and nursed and cared for at a nursery in Van Cortlandt Park until it was ready to be replanted in December 2010 at the site of so much destruction and loss. The tree is in this site as a symbol of hope and resilience.  There is a short documentary about this, “The Tree that Would Not Be Broken”   The tree continues to bloom each year and to be visited by thousands as a symbol of resilience and rebirth. 

But to others the Callery Pear is a “bad tree,” “invasive,” “messy,” “dirty.”  In other words, it is treated like many other immigrants—welcome to solve problems, do the dirty work and take the hits,  but becomes a bit much when it takes up space and stays too long.  But for many others of us, as the “survivor tree” reaches out to the sun and blooms, it has as they say in the film “come home” and we welcome it.