Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Okay, lots of carnivals this time around. First off, It's the Carnival of the Green, with the best environmentally-minded blogging of the past two weeks. This time our host is the Disillusioned Kid.
If that's not leftie enough for you, try the Carnival of Liberals #20, where Ridger, of The Greenbelt has selected his favorite ten blog postings representing a liberal viewpoint. Take a walk with him.
Meanwhile, over at Migrateblog, Mariya is hosting the 31st edition of I and the Bird, the birding carnival. If you're not going to read the posts, at least read the haikus she wrote for each one.
And over at Epigenetics News, it's edition #61 of Tangled Bank, with the best science blogging of the past two weeks.
Circus of the Spineless, the carnival devoted to all things invertebrate, is hosted this month by Steve Reuland at Sunbeams from Cucumbers.
And last, but not least, it's a new carnival to me, the Festival of Trees, an arboreal celebration that's due to go up on Friday at Burning Silo.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


It's amazing what kind of company you attract when your city hosts an American Legion Convention. Today, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is in town, and later on this week we'll also have a visit from her husband--I mean, the President--George Bush, as well as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Regular readers of this blog know what a sore loser I am when it comes to national politics, but at least I find plenty to console me locally. Our Mayor, Rocky Anderson, has been a hard-working advocate for civil rights, the Kyoto Protocol, and sustainability. His policies have markedly decreased consumption of fuels, electricity and water by city government, and he's used his bully pulpit to persuade us all to do the same. Tomorrow Rocky will lead a rally in protest of Bush's foreign policies, beginning at 11:00am at Washington Square in downtown Salt Lake. If you're in the neighborhood, consider dropping by.
It's not every day that the boss of the world stops by your town, so I've pulled together a little gallery in his honor. God bless this blog.
"No, I insist, Ehud. I got to slay the last deadly serpent--YOU take this one."



Monday, August 28, 2006


If you live between the 50th parallels, chances are pretty good that you're familiar with one or more species of kingfisher—quite likely you've seen a charming and colorful bird with tiny legs and a large head and bill, chipping or rattling merrily from a branch overhanging a river, or hovering in midair before plunging headlong into a pond. As uniform as most kingfishers appear, they comprise a group of three families whose affinities aren't exactly clear. Although the paltry fossil record is of little help, it can be inferred from the current biogeography that kingfishers originated in Southeast Asia, and dispersed globally from there (the African Pied Kingfisher [Ceryle rudis] and Giant Kingfisher [Megaceryle maxima] and the Asian Crested Kingfisher [M. lugubris] derived from later incursions back from the Americas). It is here, and particularly in the Indo-Australian region, that kingfishers have achieved some degree of diversity. Three Asian species of the genus Halcyon are known as Stork-billed Kingfishers. The heads and bills of these cartoonish-looking crab-specialists nearly equal their bodies in length. The four species of Kookaburra (Dacelo spp.) from Australia and New Guinea, and the related Banded Kingfisher (Lacedo pulchella) of Southeast Asia are famous for their terrestrial habits, capturing large invertebrates and reptiles on the ground. Most bizarre of all are the New Guinean Hook-billed Kingfisher (Melidora macrorrhina) and Shovel-billed Kingfisher (Clytoceyx rex), which forage on the ground, searching for earthworms by shoveling through the mud with their massive bills.

New Guinea is also home to the paradise kingfishers of the genus Tanysiptera, a complex of stunningly beautiful birds that is traditionally divided into six species, though further splitting may well be justified. At least 24 different taxa have been identified within the rather uniform genus. All of them are starling-sized birds with red bills and blue plumage in the adult, and a pair of long, streaming central tail feathers. The natural histories of all of these birds are not well studied, but so far, they don't appear to diverge much in their habits, either. Birds of dense lowland forests, they hunt mostly from a perch of moderate height, flying down to capture invertebrate prey on the ground or in understory vegetation. Paradise Kingfishers lay 2-5 eggs in a cavity excavated in a termite mound, usually an arboreal one (there is a record from New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago of a nest in a tree cavity). Both sexes fly at the termitarium, striking it with their bills. Once the outer wall is broken away, the rest of the digging is done while perched. Both parents incubate and feed the young until they fledge, soon after which they disperse. Once a territory is established, most paradise kingfishers stay within a range of less than one hectare for the rest of their life, although the nominate subspecies of Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher (T. s. sylvia) migrates each year to Australia's Cape York Peninsula to breed.
Such complexes of similar but distinct animals can provide a lot of clues to how evolution and early speciation works. They are common among small terrestrial tetrapods like rodents, shrews and frogs, but much rarer among birds; the paradise kingfishers comprise one of the largest. Of the 24 or more species and subspecies of Tanysiptera, 13 are isolated on single small islands: Biak, Manam, Rossel, Boano, Buru, Bacan, Doi, Kayoa, Morotai, Rau, Kofiau, Numfor, Umboi. The evolution of these castaways is no mystery, but the ranges of some mainland taxa overlap in several places. In the southern lowlands of PNG's Western Province, and in the region east of Port Moresby, three different species occur together, exploiting similar if not identical niches, without interbreeding. The fact that paradise kingfishers move so little has probably assisted them in their radiation, along with the fact that they feed on an abundant resource. They are usually common where they occur, and competition for food does not appear to be a major limit for them, although I would not be surprised if further study found subtle differences in the niches these interesting birds exploit.

The I.U.C.N. lists four species of paradise kingfisher as species of concern, due to habitat destruction: Numfor Paradise Kingfisher (T. carolinae), Kofiau Paradise Kingfisher (T. [galatea] ellioti), Aru Paradise Kingfisher (T. hydrocharis), and Biak Paradise Kingfisher (T. [galatea] riedelii).
upper: BUFF-BREASTED PARADISE KINGFISHER (2005) acrylic 10" x 8"
lower: NUMFOR PARADISE KINGFISHER (1999) acrylic 10" x 8"

Sunday, August 27, 2006


Utah's Great Salt Lake Valley forms an ecological barrier between the Oquirrh Mountains to the west and the Wasatch Mountains to the east, that seems especially hard for lizards to cross; the lizard fauna of the two ranges is completely different. Leopard Lizards (Gambelia wislizenii), Collared Lizards (Crotophytus collaris), Western Whiptails (Cnemidophorus tigris) and Desert Horned Lizards (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) populate the Oquirrhs, while the Wasatch Mountains are home to but two species: Sagebrush Lizards (Sceloporus graciosus) and Short Horned Lizards (Phrynosoma douglassii). Also absent from the Wasatch is the most common lizard of all in the arid American west, the Side-blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana). An inconspicuous creature, the Side-blotched is only a couple of inches (50 mm) long, excluding a three-inch tail. Appearing brownish from a distance, many individuals are very beautiful on closer inspection, with shining red or blue speckles. In fact, few lizard species are as variable; some Side-blotcheds are uniformly gray, some are striped, others checked. The one marking they almost always share is a blue-black spot below each armpit. The males of certain California populations come in three varieties. When in breeding condition, the first form has an orange throat. The second type's throat is blue, and the third's is yellow. Orange-throated males are super-masculine, and interact with every lizard they see, attempting to mate with the females and chasing off the males. They establish ridiculously large territories that they can't defend effectively. The behavior of the blue-throated males is less exaggerated; they defend smaller territories that are within their ability to police, but often find themselves out-competed by the larger, fiercer orange-throats. The yellow-throats are the least aggressive. Lacertine metrosexuals, they don't waste their time chasing other males around. Instead, they sneak in and mate with females in the territory of an orange-throat while he's busy chasing blue-throats around. Barry Sinervo, of U.C. Santa Cruz, has observed this game of rock-scissors-paper for many years, and has written a wealth of interesting papers, including analyses of reproductive success and a recent one describing altruism between blue-throats.

Systems where three different morphs each appear to have an edge in competing against one, but not the other, form, are unusual, but strategies of sneakiness in dealing with conspecifics are common, especially in fish, as well as in invertebrates like cuttlefish. Males of the isopod Paracerceis sculpta occur in three different forms. These marine relatives of backyard pillbugs shelter and reproduce inside the bodies of sponges. Large alpha males accumulate a number of smaller females within a spongocoel, and sit in the excurrent pore, blocking the entry of rival males. Two smaller morphs have evolved ways to sneak past the alpha isopod. Beta males look and behave like females, gaining entry by deception, just as Publius Clodius, dressed in drag, entered the home of Julius Caesar, seeking a tryst with Caesar's wife. The third morph, the tiny gamma males, are small enough to slip by unnoticed.
It's not surprising that sneaky male strategies are so common in the animal kingdom--they work. As an undersized male, I learned in early adolescence that while larger, stronger boys often depended on brute force to dominate us pipsqueaks, they were rarely equipped to compete when we played outside of their rulebook. This dynamic has probably been the basis of more Warner Brothers cartoons than any other, and has always been an important factor in political history. Terrorism, the political analog of yellow-throatedness, is the most effective strategy of the politically powerless against an orange-throated political entity. At this point, I'll resist the strong temptation to draw parallels with the overtly orange-throated Bush administration's inept attempts to compete with smaller, sneakier political entities. I'll use instead as an example Saddam Hussein, who finds less sympathy among English-speakers. Hussein was a typical orange-throat, using brute force to effect his policies and ambitions. Predictably, a number of sneaky little yellow-throated organizations appeared within politically disenfranchised groups, among the Kurds, among the Marsh Arabs, among the Shiites, and Hussein's reaction was testbook orange-throatedness. Calculating that terrorism stemmed from insufficient fear and respect within the "problem ethnicities,"he cracked down on them mercilessly, strengthening support for the terrorist opposition groups, and ensuring his own ultimate demise. The same story has been repeated throughout history, modern and ancient Even so, powerful contemporary states seem rarely able to shed their roles as orange-throats. The example of the Brits' defusing of their conflict with IRA yellow-throats by opening up political channels is continually eschewed in favor of that of alpha Israel, who, last time I checked, hadn't quite solved their terrorism problem. I could go on about how the notion of a war on terrorism is classic orange-throatedness and doomed to failure, but like I said before, I'll resist that temptation.
upper: SIDE-BLOTCHED LIZARD (2006) acrylic 7" x 15"
lower: photograph of Side-blotched lizard taken in Beaver Dam Mts., AZ by CPBvK, Aug. 2006

Thursday, August 24, 2006



I attended a barbecue the other evening in a nearby town. Before dark, our hosts took us on a tour of the “trail” their city had just installed near their home. A mile-and-a-half asphalt ribbon wandered along a streambed, weaving its way between massive Fremont Cottonwoods (Populus fremontii), the region's largest deciduous tree. The evening was beautiful, and the atmosphere festive. Families strolled together. Children rode by on bicycles. A pair of teenage girls passed us on horseback. Dusk was falling as we made our return, and all the guests were chatting happily about what a lovely spot the municipality had built for the community. It would have taken an insufferable killjoy to spoil the moment with a dissenting opinion, so I bit my tongue. But only for a second.

Actually, my friends were justified in talking as though that forest never existed until the city paved a footpath through it. Projects like these have become as common as horseflies around here, and the hype surrounding them always treats them as conservation efforts. Sure, there are benefits to these “open space” schemes. Urban folks who live pathologically removed from the natural world are given a little taste of a vital element otherwise lacking in their lives. Parcels like this little woodland are now safer than before from larger developments that might have obliterated them. But the immediate effect on the riparian community is negative. It is stressed by increased human traffic and removal of understory vegetation. I have grave concerns about the laying of asphalt so close to a creek, and the application of powerful and persistent nonselective herbicides like Prometon that precedes it. Reasonable people can disagree over whether or not the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, but to call these projects conservation is disingenuous. Here in Utah, 70% of the land belongs to the Federal Government, and 8% belongs to the state, so conserving a given ecosystem should be easy; it should require simply doing nothing. Conservation, like love and tomatoes, is best when it's free, and that's a problem for a political system that measures everything in dollars and cents. In order to protect a given spot, a financial benefit has to be shown, or invented, with the result that conservation efforts more often than not wind up benefiting an economic community instead of an ecological one. Here in the contemporary American West, that is largely manifested by the reins of land control being passed from the ranchers to the recreationists. Land once degraded by livestock is now degraded instead by mountain bikers.

This morning I took a walk through Hidden Hollow, an "Open Space" project near my home. In an area of about one third of a city block, a bedraggled stand of native trees clings to Parley's Creek. A once vacant lot in the heart of the Sugarhouse business district has been planted to represent different local ecosystems in three discreet gardens: the Piñon/Juniper community of the highlands to the south and east, the Gambel's Oak community of the surrounding hillsides, and the Rabbitbrush steppes that once dominated this very spot. Several signs stand about the gardens with information about the basic ecology, and, of course, the biggest sign of all stands at the front, listing the contributors. It's a nice little development in the midst of urbanality, and an amenity for the community, but it's still a development, and nothing more.
upper: RED-TAILED HAWK & GRAY SQUIRREL (1996) acrylic 16" x 28"
lower: Photo of Hidden Hollow taken by CPBvK 8-24-'06

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


The 20th Century brought more change to the practice of painting than did any previous period. The two main catalysts for this change were (1) literary philosophies like Dada and Surrealism, and (2) photography. While the former influences led artists away from literal translations of what they saw, the latter led them closer toward them. Perhaps no figurative painter represents the 20th Century better than does Edward Hopper (1882-1967), whose famous Nighthawks is shown in detail above. Hopper is known for the atmosphere of isolation and alienation in his subjects. Strong, spare compositions and effective use of negative space enhance that ethos, but more than anything, it was his use of photographs that gave his figures such a powerful air of anonymity.

Hopper was strongly influenced by the work of Thomas Eakins (1884-1915), America's last great classical figurative painter. Even so, the subjects of Eakins' The Gross Clinic share more in common with Rembrandt's Sacrifice of Isaac from 300 years earlier than with Nighthawks, painted 26 years after Eakins' death. Part of the art of drawing is learning to forget what one knows about a subject, and focusing on what one sees--or at least balancing the two. Working from photographs removes the artist from the subject enough to focus completely on the visual. The little distortions and exaggerations that brought extra life to the work of Eakins and Rembrandt are absent from Hopper. It's the difference between a botanical description of a tree in a textbook and a poem (by someone other than Joyce Killmer) about that same tree. Sadly, the kind of poetry that Rembrandt and Eakins traded in is all but extinct today.

The focus on the visual reached its apogee with the Photorealism movement. Chuck Close's Big Self Portrait is a 107.5” x 83.5” painting that faithfully reproduces, on a huge scale, a mundane black-and-white photograph. Executed in 1968, this was not the first photorealistic painting, but it was probably the one that began the movement. To the photorealists, the use of composition, light and color contrast, and other techniques to inject drama or emotion into a painting were tired gimmicks to be cast aside in favor of a distilled art form concerned purely with painting. Recently, artists have used photorealist techniques to create work of a wider and more complex scope, that is often referred to as “hyper-realism.” Such work usually uses photography, but is not as totally reliant on it. The hyper-realists even count within their ranks a number of sculptors, including Duane Hanson, whose life-sized figures were easily mistaken for real people. The Australian Ron Mueck took Hanson's trompe l'oeil effect and disconcerted the viewer by changing the scale, making his life-like figures much larger or smaller than life. Even more disconcerting is Robert Lazzarini's work. In almost the inverse of photorealism, his distorted life-like sculptures of common objects make the three-dimensional appear flat.

The use of photography has deeply affected my own little genre of wildlife art. Although much of what is being produced today is technically photorealism, few contemporary practitioners have the skill to produce it effectively.
My friend and mentor Carl Brenders produces work that is quite close to photorealism, but he usually can't resist those “gimmicks” of composition, color theory, etc. His Snow Leopard (top) is as close to that genre as any wildlife painting. More typical of his later work is Kalahari (above), which treats the viewer to the best aspects of photorealism, combined with rich, dynamic, and textural “gimmicks.”

In recent years, he's taken the knowledge from many years of closely studying photographs to produce work that is less reliant on them, but equally realistic, like the eagle and crow in Without Warning. Brenders' career over the past 20 years partially parallels the evolution of photorealism to hyper-realism. Some very fine photorealistic wildlife art is also being done by Mark Kelso of Indiana, whose work extends to the abstract, as well.

Overall, wildlife art has not progressed through the age of photography quite as gracefully as has painting in general. Reliance on photos has all but eliminated the kind of poetry seen in work like Audubon's Bobwhites. While it lacks the anatomical precision of much contemporary work, this painting speaks of deeper truths about nature in a dying tongue. While the old poetry of wildlife art vanishes into the solvent of clinical translation, classical drawing and painting still appears to be healthy in the sister-genre of western art, an arena that, unfortunately, can rarely hold my interest much longer than seven or eight seconds.
upper: NIGHTHAWKS (detail-1942) oil painting by Edward Hopper
second: THE GROSS CLINIC (1875) oil painting by Thomas Eakins
third: BIG SELF PORTRAIT (1968) acrylic painting by Chuck Close
fourth: SNOW LEOPARD watercolor/gouache by Carl Brenders
fifth: KALAHARI watercolor/gouache by Carl Brenders
sixth: WITHOUT WARNING watercolor/gouache by Carl Brenders
lower: BOBWHITE mixed media by John James Audubon

Friday, August 18, 2006


"Congratulations! You've used up all the cold water again!"

Thursday, August 17, 2006


The fratboys over at Frinktank have put up an abbreviated and frinkified 60th edition of Tangled Bank, the carnival of the Life Sciences. Be sure to check out their links to thirteen posts they deemed appropriate to their schtick. I might have been accepted had I sent them this link.
Meanwhile, the archives of I and the Bird, the birding carnival, are exactly half as deep as Tangled Bank's. Bev hosts edition #30 at the always excellent Burning Silo.

If you're in the vicinity of Denver, Colorado this weekend, Art of the Rainforest, the travelling ten-person exhibition of paintings and sculpture depicting tropical rainforest imagery, will open at the Wildlife Experience Museum on Saturday, August 19th, and will run through November 19.
illustration: CONVOY THROUGH THE CANOPY--deBRAZZA'S MONKEYS (2000) acrylic triptych 30" x 20"; 30" x 30"; 30" x 20"

Monday, August 14, 2006


Many centuries ago, a shepherd came upon an injured European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) that hissed and gaped in a threat display. Referring to what he knew best, he noticed the bird's wide gape and capacious gullet seemed to correspond to the size and shape of a goat's teat. My tale is purely speculative, but it's as good a guess as any for the origin of the old and widespread myth that these birds milk goats. In many tongues, the word for “nightjar” translates to “goatsucker,” as does the Latin Caprimulgus, bestowed by Linnaeus in 1758. Aristotle recounted the behavior as fact 24 centuries ago in his Liber Animalium. Of course, the birds' huge maws actually function as catcher's mitts when they feed on the wing. A complex mechanism of jaw and skull opens the mouth horizontally as well as vertically, and is peculiar to the group. Except in the nighthawks (Chordeiles spp.), the catching area is increased by long rictal bristles rimming the mouth. Another anomaly is the presence of a tapetum, or reflecting layer of the retina, which gives the birds a fiery red eye-shine when viewed with a torch at night. Despite being well distributed through most of the world, their nocturnal habits shroud them in mystery. The IUCN lists 22 of the 120 species of Caprimulgiformes as endangered, including the Nechisar Nightjar (Caprimulgus solala), known only from an Ethiopian roadkill found in 1990. The order Caprimulgiformes has traditionally included the nightjars (family Caprimulgidae), as well as the South American pottoos (family Nyctibiidae) and Oilbird (family Steatornithidae), and the Australasian frogmouths (family Podargidae) and owlet-nightjars (family Aegothelidae), and has been placed between the owls (Strigiformes) and swifts (Apodiformes). Sibley and Ahlquist agreed with the owl connection to the extent of placing the group within the the Strigiformes, in two suborders, one for the owlet-nightjars and one for the rest. In their recent cladistic revision, Fain and Houde put goatsuckers in the clade Metaves, with the swifts and pigeons. It's extremely hard for me to deny a close kinship to owls, particularly the barn and bay owls or tytonids, based merely on structural and behavioral similarities. In this post, I'll use the traditional taxonomy, which still makes good sense to me.

Two nightjar species were plentiful where I grew up: Common Poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) and Common Nighthawks (Chordeiles minor). I found the nesting area of a pair of the latter species when I was eight, and mistook them for some type of falcon. Each morning I hiked to the top of the hill behind our house, where they would flush and perch a few yards away. I set box traps baited with carrion in a naïve effort to catch one, never realizing that there was surely a nest just a few feet away.
As with other nightjars, nighthawks normally lay a pair of eggs directly on the ground, and they are usually quite hard to find. The hen sits very tight, normally flushing only to avoid being stepped on. In cities they often nest on flat rooftops, and will sometimes use a tree stump or even an abandoned Robin nest. The photo above shows the nest of a Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis), a common Neotropical species, in a rainforest habitat. The egg was fresh, and was probably followed by a second one the next day. Although nesting behavior for nightjars is fairly uniform, it differs greatly among the other caprimulgiform families. The owlet-nightjars lay 2-5 eggs in a feather and leaf-lined tree cavity, while the frogmouths build a stick nest for their one to two eggs. Pottoos balance their single egg in a depression on a tree branch or snag. The most unusual member of this unusual group, the frugivorous Oilbird (Steratornis caripensis), nests in colonies inside caves, building platforms of mud, feces, and rotten fruit to cradle their 1-4 eggs. Bird chicks are often categorized as either altricial (born helpless and naked) or precocial (able to run about shortly after hatching). Young nightjars fall somewhere in between, though the other caprimulgiformes begin life as classically altricial youngsters. The incubation period for Common Nighthawks is 17-20 days, and for the first week and a half or so, the chicks are brooded almost constantly by the parents. They can move about on their tiny legs fairly well from the start, and the “nest” tends to meander from day to day, often to avoid hot sunshine. Both adults feed the chicks regurgitated insects.

If a nest is disturbed, one or both parent birds will often threaten an intruder by spreading their wings, gaping, hissing, and bill-clapping, like the Madagascar Nightjar (Caprimulgus madagascariensis) in the center photo. If pressed, they will sometimes affect a broken-wing display, as the same bird demonstrates in the lower shot. I've found Poorwills to be particularly demonstrative about the nest; the roosters will often fly about one's head, wing-clapping like a Long-eared Owl. The chicks also threaten boldly, hissing, bill-clapping, and wing-waving, before running for cover.

As my knowledge progressed past the point of being able to distinguish nighthawks from falcons, I learned an easy method for the capture of nightjars. I kept a male Poorwill for several weeks as a teenager, and was immediately struck by his Barn Owl-like form and behavior. The threat displays of the two are nearly identical: hissing and bill-clapping, paired with an odd swaying to-and-fro. Among the shared physical traits was a toothed, or pectinated, middle toenail, a characteristic also common to herons. Where a Barn Owl's toenail teeth are reduced to little more than lines, a Poorwill's are very well developed, and my little bird used them frequently to groom and disentangle the long rictal bristles around his mouth. These odd birds are probably best known for a most unbird-like behavior. Reports of hibernating Poorwills go back a couple of centuries, but it wasn't until 1946 that Edmund Jaeger confirmed them by observing an individual in the mountains of southern California. A number of birds can lower their metabolic rates to a point of semi-torpor; hummingbirds would starve without the ability to do it nightly, but no other bird can match the Poorwill's skills in this field. They can survive a body cooling to 5°C, and can still fly when their temperature drops as low as 27.4°C. Interestingly, they appear to eat far more beetles than do other nightjars. Beetles are very high in unsaturated fats, which remain liquid, and metabolically available, at low temperatures.

While Poorwills sleep through the cold, most other nightjars migrate from temperate climes, often in large, loose flocks. I know a small lake where one can dependably watch hundreds of Common Nighthawks on an early September evening, feeding up before continuing on to South America. The birds' spring return is even more magnificent, since it often includes the nuptial display of the males, where a vertical stoop of one hundred feet is suddenly broken with a spread of wings, and a loud howl of vibrating primaries. The males of some nightjar species embellish their displays with outrageous feather ornamentation, most notably the long scissor tails of the South American genera Macropsalis, Uropsalis and Hydropsalis, and the otherworldly second-innermost primaries of the two African Macroditeryx species. In the Pennant-winged Nightjar (M. vexillarius), these feathers are gleaming white and two feet long. In the Standard-winged Nightjar (M. longipennis), they are barbless for most of their length, poking up from the wing before ending in a large, oval flag.

Common Nighthawks are found in most of the United States and southern Canada, except in the Mojave Desert, where they are replaced by the similar Lesser Nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis). This species is a bit smaller and less boldly marked, and is a bit daintier in every respect. The male's nuptial flight lacks the ostentation of his larger cousin, and the normal flight is less powerful, and a bit more tern-like. Last week I returned from a trip to the Mojave, and on my way home, I stopped at one of my regular haunts: a lone streetlight in the middle of the desert, where Lesser Nighthawks exploit an abundance of moths. Where Common Nighthawks at a streetlight are seen for but a second, the slower, lower-flying Lessers can be watched quite clearly, hovering for a moment...adjusting their flight...changing their mind...it's addictive to watch. Shortly after dusk, a lone streetlamp in the Mojave is always worth stopping for.

Finally, a little note about the top drawing: I drew it for my personal Christmas card last year. If you give it some thought, you may actually realize a holiday theme. The nightjar species depicted are (left to right): the South American Sand-colored Nighthawk (Chordeiles rupestris), the African Long-tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus climacurus), the Southeast Asian Large-tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus), the North American Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), and the Neotropical Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis).
upper: CONSTERNATION OF PAN (2005) pen & ink 12" x 9"
second: Paraque egg photographed in SE Ecuador by CPBvK 1997
third: Madagascar Nightjar photographed near Isalo, Madagascar by CPBvK 1996
fourth: PENNANT-WINGED NIGHTJAR (1998) ink wash 23" x 17"
fifth: TWO STORIES--COMMON NIGHTHAWK (1994) acrylic 22" x 30"
lower: Lesser Nighthawk photographed in Washington Co., UT by CPBvK 8-04-06


I have to apologize to Karmen at Chaotic Utopia. She tagged me with this thing a couple of weeks ago, and I was so thrown by the first question that I put it off for a couple of days, then I was out of town, then the phone rang, and...well before you know it, it's been a lot longer than I ever realized...so while I'm guilt-ridden, here are my answers to the book meme:

1. One book that changed your life?
George Bush's copy of the Bible.

2. One book you have read more than once?
Ulysses by James Joyce—still don't get it.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?
A Field Guide to the Flora and Fauna of Desert Islands

4. One book that made you laugh?
Letters From a Nut by Ted Nancy

5. One book that made you cry?
The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley

6. One book you wish had been written?
Tropical Agricultural Techniques for the Twenty-first Century

7. One book you wish had never had been written?
An End to Evil by David Frum

8. One book you are currently reading?
True North by Jim Harrison

9. One book you have been meaning to read?
Collapse by Jard Diamond

10. Your oldest books?

See here.

11. Now tag five people -

Last time I tagged people with a meme, I made more enemies than friends. Before I tag anyone else, I have to make some more friends. In the meantime, feel free to tag yourself if you feel inspired.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


I stopped by a cemetery this afternoon to visit the grave of an old pal. Paying one of these visits always leaves me in a slightly disturbed state of mind--not that I have a problem with death--quite the reverse, actually. It's the complete sanitization of death in the cemetery that brings me down. When I finally go poikilothermic, I sure don't want to be crated in an expensive box and, as one last insult to the Earth, pumped full of toxins before returning to it. I prefer the Zoroastrian tradition of the Dakhma-Nashina, where bodies are placed atop Towers of Silence, to be picked clean by vultures. The thought of being divided up to nourish a large number of spectacular birds and being flown off in countless directions is far more beautiful to my mind. If I start feeling terribly ill, I should emigrate to South Asia, and hope to delay the inevitable long enough for the vulture population to rebound from the recent die-off from Diclofenac poisoning.

Unlike previous ones, today's graveyard call was far from sanitized. Just inside the entrance, an epidemic had obviously hit a little duck pond. Several dead ducks floated on the water, and the rest of the population writhed in various stages of malady, although two large domestic geese showed no outward signs of illness. I suspect the culprit is Avian Botulism, a common disease that usually shows up each summer in Utah. An outbreak in the Great Salt Lake killed over half a million birds about ten years ago. The disease is caused by Clostridium botulinum bacteria that have been infected by a virus that causes them to produce a toxin. Seven different types of C. botulinum have been identified; Avian Botulism is usually caused by Type C bacteria, which commonly occur in wetlands. Hot, dry weather and stagnant, shallow, oxygen-poor and protein-rich water are the conditions necessary for the bacteria to proliferate and produce toxins. Birds that ingest the poison gradually lose motor control, and usually die from drowning once they lose the ability to hold their head above water. The corpses provide more good C. botulinum habitat. Around here on Sundays there aren't many people available to help with these sort of situations, so I'll wait for morning to call the DWR. I was able to fish the dead ducks out of the water and dispose of them. They say that Type C botulism isn't much of a health hazard to humans. Still, I rode straight home from the graveyard and took a long bath in Hydrochloric Acid, just to be sure.
UPDATE-8-15-06: It appears that there was indeed an outbreak of Avian Botulism here. The ducks have been removed and are being rehabilitated by somebody (I'm told that domestic geese don't seem to be affected by the toxin), and the pond is being cleaned.
photograph of dead and dying ducks taken by CPBvK in Salt Lake City, Aug. 13, 2006

Saturday, August 12, 2006


Credit it to horticultural breakthroughs, I guess; it seems like I've heard about a lot of Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) blooms in American botanical gardens the past few years. Unfortunately, so far they've all been in the east (except for one in California a couple months back that slipped past me). The Titan Arum is the largest member of a genus of some 170 spathe-bearing plant species found across the Paleotropics. The plant itself is an unassuming subterranean tuber native to Sumatra, but its inflorescence, which is pollinated by carrion flies and beetles, can grow to a height of nine feet, and is famous for smelling of rotten flesh. I once found a foot-high Nigerian Amorphophallus species by following its smell, which was potent from fifty feet away. I depicted the purple African plant near the upper center of the painting above.
Coturnix put up a post about the latest American blooming at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, which includes some great photos of this spectacular species and a link to a webcam for the Brooklyn flower. Those of us who can't visit the flower can see it, if not smell it. I'm surprised by the inflorescence's small stature. Though it looks quite mature to me, perhaps it has a bit of growing yet to do. I'll surely be tuning in to that webcam periodically.
Xris at Flatbush Gardener is right in the neighborhood, and he has been blogging furiously about the plant with lots of interesting information resulting. Many of my questions have been answered there.
illustration: RED RIVER HOGS & GABOON VIPER (1994) acrylic 20" x 30"

Friday, August 11, 2006


Opossum Funeral

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Well, the positive response from my old Cambrian reconstruction felt so good that I can't resist the sycophantic posting of the second illustration in the series. I haven't even looked at these paintings for a decade or more, and I've decided it would probably be worthwhile to go back and touch them up a bit (yes, that would include adding a Hallucigenia to the Cambrian piece).
illustration: ORDOVICIAN FAUNA (1989) acrylic 15" x 20"

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Here's a peculiar little resource that's probably of less interest to most people than it is to me. Morgan Worthy, a retired psychologist, has put together an iris pigmentation site that includes lists of iris color for over 5,600 vertebrate species, along with observations based on his database that range from the insightful to the mundane to the crackpottish.
illustration: HUNGRY EYES (detail) 2005 acrylic 30" x 22"

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Our species seems innately compelled to translate the 3-dimensional world into two dimensions; we've been doing it for tens of thousands of years. During that time, two related technologies, perspective and optics, revolutionized the discipline of draftsmanship. Perspective is practically second nature to those of us who use it today, but it wasn't until the Renaissance that true perspective projection was used, although some surprisingly accurate work was done earlier, purely through intuition. The great Arabic scientist Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haitham (Alhazen) did much to pave the way for perspective by describing in detail the behavior of light, including color theory, early in the eleventh century. Credited with being the first researcher to use the modern scientific method, he invented the camera obscura, a darkened box or room with a small hole or lens in one side which projects a view upon the opposite, inner wall. Although Ibn al-Haitham only used the devise to demonstrate optical effects, artists in later centuries would use it to trace images onto paper. Nearly two centuries after Ibn al-Haitham, the Italian artist Giotto used mathematics to place perspective lines with varying degrees of success. His Jesus Before Caiaphas (above) is often called the first perspective painting, although its vanishing points are not particularly accurate. After two more centuries, the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi discovered that parallel lines appear to meet on the horizon at a vanishing point, the basic foundation of perspective. In 1435, Brunelleschi's friend, the Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti codified the laws of perspective in his De Pictura. The simple rules of perspective made drawing so much more convincing that the technology was quickly adopted by the entire art community, although for twenty years or more, its use was restricted to the vicinity of Florence. By 1452, when Leonardo was born in the nearby town of Vinci, the excitement over perspective was palpable. The brilliant young artist took to it quickly, and elevated its use to previously unknown heights. By the end of the 15th century, perspective had spread to other parts of Europe.
The young German artist Albrecht Dürer traveled to Venice to study, and quickly mastered the discipline. He experimented with various devices, like the contraption depicted in the accompanying woodcut, where an object is viewed through a grid of threads and copied onto a similar grid on paper. He also tried tracing images onto mirrors and glass. Viewing an image through glass and tracing it directly onto the pane is not only the simplest form of tracing a projection, it's a useful model for understanding the concept of perspective and exactly what the draftsman strives for. A drawing should simulate a window onto another world. Draw a straight line from any part of that world to the viewer's eye, and it will intersect with the “window” at the point where it appears in the drawing. By the 20th century, artists began playing crazy games with the rules of perspective, none of them more ably than the famous Dutch artist M. C. Escher, whose lithograph Print Gallery is shown below.

Photography took even longer to develop than did perspective. Its birth, too, began with Ibn al-Haitham and the camera obscura. A more sophisticated projection instrument, the camera lucida, was patented in 1806 by William Hyde Wollaston, though Johannes Kepler described the same device nearly two centuries earlier. The camera lucida uses lenses and/or prisms to project a “false image” onto a piece of paper, where it can be traced. Instruments like these have been used by artists for a long time. The British-born American artist David Hockney's recent and controversial book Secret Knowledge suggests that such artists as van Eyck, Caravaggio, and Vermeer used optical devices as drawing aids. Hockney's theories are interesting and appealing, though based on less than rock-solid ground. For instance, Vermeer's estate was executed by the famous microscopist Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who also dwelt in Delft, but no further evidence exists that the artist had access to the latest optics while he was alive. In 1826, the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce used the camera obscura to chemically imprint an image onto a pewter plate. After his 1833 death, his partner Louis Daguerre refined the process, and six years later, the daguerreotype went public. In 1888, George Eastman put his first film camera on the market. By the beginning of the 20th century, relatively inexpensive cameras were available to the masses, including artists, who now had a means to quickly record visual data in two dimensions, as well as a means to easily project that data onto their substrate. Artists like Man Ray and Adam Fuss even used chemical photography as a medium for painting. Twentieth Century artists differed from their predecessors not only in having access to photography, but in simply having a familiarity with it. It's obvious that the Photorealist movement could have never happened without photography, but the effects of the technology can be seen as well in every painting, both abstract and representational, that was executed in its shadow.
upper: JESUS BEFORE CAIAPHUS (c. 1305) Giotto di Bondone
center: DRAWING MACHINE (c. 1510) Albrecht Dürer
lower: PRINT GALLERY (1956) Maurits C. Escher

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


The other night, Mel Gibson's speech was kind of slurred, and it seems there was a little breakdown in communication. What Mel was actually complaining about was the juice, the juice. He said the juice was ruining his life. You can understand that, can't you?
Mel Gibson mugshot ripped off from the smoking gun.com