Birds in Movies – “Gamenight” gets it right!!

Common Nighthawk Drawing - Chordeiles minor

Drawing of a Common Nighthawk I did a few years ago. They have a VERY distinctive call when flying around at dusk or at night, something that really stands out on the soundtrack when watching a movie! Kudos to “GameNight” for the correct use of a bird call, in the proper time and context!

As a birder, one major pet peeve of mine…Hollywood’s (mis-)use of birds in movies! It seems that Hollywood typically has about 3 different bird vocalizations that are used in any situation a bird is present. One is the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk screaming cry, something they use for ANY raptor that happens to even tangentially appear on a screen. Conan O’Brien wasn’t alone when making this erroneous use of a Red-tailed Hawk call, but he WAS called out by birders for his actions!! Bald Eagles are often shown in movies and TV, but the more iconic Red-tailed Hawk call is usually used instead of the real Bald Eagle cry.

The second iconic call that’s heard ALL the time is the haunting call of a Common Loon. Occasionally it’s used in the proper setting and context, but there are SO many times when movie characters are out “in the wild” and the call of a Common Loon is dubbed in the background.  What’s that?  Your favorite character is roaming the forests of the Appalachians? Perhaps it’s a wild setting, but NOT EVERY WILD SETTING SHOULD HAVE LOON CALLS PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND!! This site notes several “misplaced” birds in TV and movies, including the mis-use of Common Loon calls in Murder She Wrote and Raiders of the Lost Ark (presumably while in Peru!!). The Common Loon has also been mis-used visually…something I noticed IMMEDIATELY when watching Finding Dory. “Becky” is the loopy Common Loon that plays a role in the rescue scenes in Finding Dory, along the California coastline. The presence of a Common Loon along the California coast isn’t out of place IN WINTER.  But “Becky” in Finding Dory is a Common Loon in full summer breeding plumage…NOT LIKELY!!

The third call that’s heard in EVERY jungle scene is the laughing call of a Kookaburra. They’re a bird found in Australia, but listen to any jungle scene supposedly set in Africa, South America, or southeast Asia, and you’ll STILL likely hear the wild calls of a Kookaburra.

Given how often birds are mis-used in movies, I always get a bit of satisfaction when I see a movie that gets it right!  Tonight my wife and I went to see “GameNight“, starring Justin Bateman and Rachel McAdams.  It’s a really funny movie!!  We both greatly enjoyed it.  The only time birds were evident (and surely ONLY to me, among the movie crowd) was a scene late in the movie.  It was a setting in a relatively dense urban setting, on a bridge over a large river and fairly out in the open. Large buildings could be seen in the surrounding area, and it was night. As the scene played out (I won’t spoil the movie for you here!), I could CLEARLY hear Common Nighthawks giving their typical flight calls.

PERFECT!! You often DO hear Common Nighthawks as they fly through the night skies in and around urban areas, picking off flying insects in flight with their massive, gaping maw.  One of the places I’ve heard them the most is at the airport here in Sioux Falls. They typically use rocky areas to breed, and the rocky roofs that many urban buildings use work perfectly for their purposes.

WELL DONE GAMENIGHT!!  You get a rare GOLD STAR for proper use of a bird in a movie!!

Costa’s Hummingbird – Drawing

I have had zero motivation to do any drawing this year. Literally. The last time I drew anything…New Year’s Eve of this past year. Unfortunately, I’ve also not been very motivated to go out and do much bird photography lately (hence the long time between blog updates).  Today, I was planning on going out, but it was a gloomy, drippy day.  To try to get over my funk, I thought I’d just ignore the crappy news of the world, pick up my pencils, and draw a bit while listening to baseball.

Here’s the result. Not my favorite, and I admit I was getting antsy at the end and just wanted to finish, so there’s no vegetation or background to speak of. One of my favorite species though…a Costa’s Hummingbird. We don’t get them in South Dakota, but we’ve seen them many times on our trips down to Arizona.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

Colored pencil drawing of a Costa’s Hummingbird male

Audubon artwork free for download!

Audubon Plate 186 - "Pinnated Grouse"

John J. Audubon’s “Pinnated Grouse” (Now called Greater Prairie Chicken). An example of the gorgeous artwork he created in the early 1800s.

John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” was originally printed between 1827 and 1838, and included 435 hand-illustrated pieces from Audubon, a representation of the knowledge of America’s bird life at the time. Audubon’s work is clearly iconic, both from the bird and birding perspective, and from an artistic perspective. He certainly had his own style, definitely not photo-realistic, yet nonetheless, incredibly beautiful and representative of each species.  What I find so cool about them isn’t just the birds, which by themselves are gorgeous, but the settings in which Audubon often placed the birds. The Birds of America pieces also often included representative habitat, represented in the same fluid style. Regardless of the content, they are timeless, gorgeous works of art that stand on their own.

Audubon’s work at the time was definitely considered unique, as he developed his own technique using watercolors and sometimes pencil, pen, or pastel crayons).  The work at the time was very difficult to reproduce. Copperplate etching was used to reproduce the prints, with watercolor added by hand. He sold his prints through a subscription process, with subscribers receiving 5 prints every month. Less than 200 of these original sets were ever produced. Other editions were issued through the mid-1800s, but no edition produced more than 1,200 copies.  Needless to say, these 1800s editions are extremely valuable today.  The Economist in 2010 published a list of the most expensive books ever sold at auction, adjusted for inflation.  They had to adjust their list to avoid repeats of the same title, because 5 of the top 10 most expensive book sales EVER were copies of Audubon’s Birds of America!

As I was wasting time on Twitter earlier today, I saw a little blurb about “free Audubon prints”. I clicked on the link, and found that the Audubon site does indeed have digital scans of all the John James Audubon artwork from his famed “Birds of America”. Given their date of production, they’re obviously past copyright and considered public domain. Here’s the link on the Audubon site.

John James Audubon’s Birds of America

This is so cool!  Not only can you view each of the plates, you can download your own digital copy!!  Best of all, they’re NOT small files with limited resolution, they are very incredibly detailed, very large digital scans of the Audubon print.  Downloading “Plate 77 – Belted Kingfisher”, for example, gives you a file that roughly 6,500 by 7,900 pixels, better than image resolution provided by the vast majority of digital cameras, and capable of supporting prints of up to 2 feet by 3 feet in size! The detail is amazing, with absolutely nothing lost.  Every brush stroke, every tiny bit of feather detail is provided in these free downloaded files. The detail is so amazing that  you can see some of the tiny “flaws”, such as where some of the water-coloring goes “outside-of-the-lines” of the underlying etchings.

Do you want your own copies of Audubon’s gorgeous artwork on your wall?  You can do so very cheaply!  Download the free digital files, then go to a site like If you upload your Audubon file download to mpix, for example, for a mere $20 you can have your very own 16″ x 20″ copy of an Audubon print.

After downloading a few, I have noticed there are some issues with the quality of the scans. For example, when downloading the “Black-winged Hawk” (what’s now called a White-tailed Kite), it appears that some of the details in the brighter white areas are “washed out”, as you would get if you overexpose a shot on your digital camera. That’s likely an issue with the way the images were scanned, but it appears in many of the plates where white or brighter areas are evident.  Overall the scans appear to be brighter (and thus washed out in some areas) than I’m sure the original images were.  My guess is this was done during efforts to correct for white balance, to ensure that the background of some images was a perfectly pure white color.  I actually prefer the plate at the top of this post, of the “Pinnated Grouse”, as it maintains the older yellowish, warm tones of the background (as you might expect from an older print).  I hope they keep working on the digital scans, working to make them as representative of the original colors and tones as possible, but overall the scans are really beautiful and wonderful to look at.

These are SO incredibly cool. It’s also so very cool to see the history in these prints, from the standpoint of what species were called back then.  I love seeing a “Foolish Guillemot” (now Common Murre), “Rathbone Warbler” (Yellow Warbler), or “Great Cinerous Owl” (Great Gray Owl).  Wonderful history, and wonderful pieces of art to enjoy.  THANK YOU AUDUBON!  It must have been an extraordinary bit of work to scan these, and clean them up to provide such gorgeous, flawless, massively sized digital files! Here are some more examples of Audubon’s work that you can download (these are just a fraction of the original image size).

Audubon's Plate 236 - Night Heron

Audubon's Plate 366 - "Iceland or Jer-Falcon"

Audubon's Plate 12 - Baltimore Oriole

Audubon's Plate 397 - Scarlet Ibis

SuperB Owl Sunday – Drawn Owl Edition

And along with the photos, owls have been one of my favorite species to draw.  I haven’t really done all that many drawings since I took up colored pencil drawing about 5 years ago, maybe 30 overall, but I have drawn three different owl species.

Barn Owl Drawing - Tyto alba

Drawing of a Barn Owl, a species I’ve had glimpses of on occasion, but have never had a good photo opportunity. That was the reason behind many of my bird drawings…to fill a “hole” in my photo collection of species I had no photos for!

Boreal Owl - Aegolius funereus

A few years ago I made the 6+ hour drive to Sax-Zim bog by Duluth, Minnesota, to look for Boreal Owls. They’re a rare find in the lower 48, but that winter, a number were seen in the area. Alas, I struck out and didn’t find any, so I did the next best thing…come home and draw one.

Northern Saw-whet Owl Drawing - Aegolius acadicus

A Northern Saw-whet Owl. These are the little guys I tried SO hard to find a couple of years ago, and I was finally rewarded by finding several near Sioux Falls. Love these little guys so much that I thought I’d try drawing one as well.



Changing things up — Drawing “Oscar”

"Oscar" - Pencil drawing

“Oscar”, looking up from the carpet with his beautiful puppy-dog eyes. Click for a larger view.

I drew in high school, when I took elective art classes most semesters.  I drew a little bit in college, when during my “sports nut” phase, I mostly drew 1) baseball players, and 2) Nebraska Cornhusker things. They were all black-and-white photos, using just a basic #2 pencil.  And then…I stopped drawing, for 25 years or so.  It was 4 or 5 years ago I started, and it started out as a kind of way to “fill in” the gaps for the bird species that I didn’t have photos for. I’ve been working on getting individual species pages for all ~980 or so species that have been seen in North America. I have personal photos of about half of those, but needed images for my species pages for the other half.  I do often use freely available photos from other photographers, but I thought I’d also try personally drawing some of the species. I also started drawing in color for the first time in my life. It took some getting used to, but I started getting some bird drawings that I was happy with.

For the last 5 years, that’s all I’ve drawn…birds!  I thought I’d change things up and try something new.  We have the two sweetest rescue dogs on the planet…”Oscar” and “Felix”.  They are INCREDIBLY photogenic!  There was one photo in particular of Oscar that I thought make for a nice drawing.  He was sprawled out on the carpet napping, woke up, and looked up with his puppy-dog eyes.

This one took a while!  The better part of 2 days, mostly because I was trying things I wasn’t used to trying.  Dogs don’t have feathers!  I’ve gotten halfway decent at feathers, but it was a different ballgame trying to represent the features and fur of a dog. It turned out better than I thought it would…Felix is next up!

New Drawing – Bachman’s Warbler

Bachman's Warbler - Vermivora bachmanii

A male and female Bachman’s Warbler. Again, sadly, a drawing of a species I’ll never see. They went extinct 20-30 years ago.

I have SO loved the holidays we’ve had.  The usual festivities have of course been nice, but what made it even more special is that both my wife and I took off the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s.  Lazy days, playing board games with our son, watching Harry Potter movies…just wonderful.  It was also a nice break that gave me time to do some drawing.  Since I started drawing 5 years ago, I haven’t done that much…maybe 25-30 drawings?  For 2016 I believe the grand total going into December was 2.  Over the last week, I’ve had the opportunity to do 2 more, first a Labrador Duck, and now over the last few days, a pair of Bachman’s Warblers.

Do you sense a theme?  Labrador Duck, Bachman’s Warbler, and in the past, I’ve also drawn Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Carolina Parakeet, and Great Auk. Yes, those are all species that have gone extinct.  Ever since I started drawing, my primary goal was to fill in the gaps for species that I didn’t have photos for.  Of all the things I’ve drawn, I believe there are only 4 species of birds I have photos for (Northern Saw-whet Owl, Blackburnian Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird).  All the rest tend to be rarities, extinct birds, or in some cases, more common birds that have eluded my camera lens.

Unlike most of the other extinct ones, Bachman’s Warbler are a species that I at least could have theoretically seen in my lifetime.  Confirmed breeding occurred in multiple locations up until at least the 1960s, and individual birds were seen up until 1988, when a unconfirmed report occurred in Louisiana.  They appeared to be habitat specialists that used canebrakes and palmetto areas, habitats that disappeared throughout much of the Southeast as commercial forestry and urban land uses converted natural habitats.

I don’t think I’ve done this before, where I’ve drawn both a male and female in one drawing.  Was pretty pleased with how it came out.  I admit I still suck at drawing habitat, trees, branches, leaves, flowers, or other background elements that might make the photo more aesthetically pleasing.  “Bird on a stick” seems to be my style right now!

New Drawing – Labrador Duck

Labrador Duck - Camptorhynchus labradorius

Colored pencil drawing of a Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius). Click for a larger view.

What a wonderful Christmas Eve!  Very relaxing with not much for any of us to do.  Well, other than our furnace conking out yet again, and having to wait for Mr. Furnace Fixing Dude.  Other than that though, it has been a fantastic day.  I haven’t drawn anything for a few months, so thought I’d draw while my wife and son cooked and listened to Christmas music.  I started drawing, and after awhile when my son was going to go downstairs to watch video games, I half-jokingly said “Want to draw a duck too?” Much to my surprise, he said yes!  I love it!  For his project, we simply typed “Draw Duck” in Google, and there were a number of beginner type projects that showed how to draw a duck. It was so wonderful, drawing with him by my side!.

For my project for the day, I chose something I’ve wanted to try for a while…a Labrador Duck.  Since I started drawing a few years ago, most of the birds I’ve drawn have been species that I don’t have photos for.  It’s a nice way to fill the empty slots on the species pages on my main website!  Labrador Duck is a species I have a web page for, but there’s a pretty obvious reason I don’t have an accompanying photo of my own…they went extinct in the 1800s.  One reason I haven’t taken on a Labrador Duck is that it’s hard just finding decent reference images.  There are a few photos online of some stuffed specimens from the 1800s, but given when they went extinct, there are no photos of a “real” Labrador Duck.  This is thus based on the stuffed specimens and some of the species descriptions I’ve seen.

It SHOULD be pretty accurate!  Plumage-wise, it matches the taxidermy specimens quite well.  The feet are tough (I hate drawing feet anyway), but one stuffed specimen had feet that were pretty close to this color, a dark muddy-deep-red with blackish webbing between the toes.

Fun drawing the Labrador Duck, even more fun doing it with my son at my side! Here’s wishing you all have an equally wonderful Christmas!

Picking up the pencils…

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Drawing - By Terry Sohl

Colored pencil drawing of a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird at a honeysuckle plant. Click for a larger view.

Yeah, I haven’t blogged since May.  Yeah, I haven’t really worked on my website since May.  In fact, I just haven’t done much BIRDING since May, and no photography to speak of.  I took on some projects this summer that took FAR longer than I anticipated, and generally have kept busy with other activities.  It’s not the best timing, given that summer has come and gone and we’re now moving towards the cold, relatively birdless hell that typifies a South Dakota winter.  However, after a break, I’m getting back into the swing of things with the website, photography, and…even drawing.

I wish I were more motivated to draw. I enjoy the outcome, but admit that drawing to me sometimes seems like a chore, rather than a fun activity.  There are 3 competing personality characteristics that come into play when it comes to drawing: 1) a lack of patience, 2) a desire to finish an activity quickly, and 3) a bit of a perfectionist streak.  That’s not a great combination of attributes when it comes to drawing, as ideally, I’d be able to draw something very quickly, yet have it be of relatively high quality.  As I’ve improved in my drawing over the years (at least I’d like to think I have improved!), I find that I’m going slower and am more meticulous in trying to capture all the details in a bird.  Therein lies the comment about drawing sometimes seeming like a “chore”….I just can’t finish quickly any more, and I get tired of drawing after a little bit.

I did recently have a free Saturday, with no family around and no real tasks on my plate.  After about a 1 1/2 year hiatus, I did drag out the pencils.  Given that we are transitioning into fall, I thought I’d commemorate my long photography-, bird-, and blogging-free summer by drawing my favorite summer yard visitor, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  It’s usually around May 7th when they first show up in my yard, with males typically the first to arrive.  We’re on the very edge of their breeding range, but they do clearly breed here, as I have them around all summer, and by early July, I inevitably start seeing juvenile hummingbirds in the yard.  By mid-August, i typically stop seeing males, but young and female hummingbirds are still very frequent yard visitors. Numbers slowly trend down from there, and by the last week of September, I’ve typically seen my last Hummingbird for the year.

I’ve done all of our landscaping myself, and have planted a number of items that attract hummingbirds.  However, their favorite plants are the multiple honeysuckles we have in the yard. My favorite Ruby-throated Hummingbird photo is of a beautiful male, hovering in front of a honeysuckle blossom in our yard.  This drawing is a nod to that photo.

I admit that as is typical, my patience was wearing thin as I worked on this one.  I spent about 5 hours drawing the hummingbird itself.  It’s always the bird itself that I enjoy drawing the most.  I never am fond about putting in other elements, such as the honeysuckle blooms here.  Thus, after about 5 hours of working on the bird, I admit I rushed through the drawing of the honeysuckle. Once again, while I was generally pleased with how the bird itself turned out, by the end I just wanted to be DONE, and drawing had turned into a chore.

Which means it will probably be another  1 1/2 years before you see me post another drawing out here.  🙂

Drawing – White-eared Hummingbird

White-eared Hummingbird

Colored pencil drawing of a White-eared Hummingbird, a species that in the U.S. is found only on occasion in far southern Arizona.

A nice relaxing weekend at home (my favorite kind).  The weather this fall has been spectacular, with crisp cool nights and sunny cool to warm days.  Yesterday was a day of fishing with my son.  Not a huge amount of success, although he did tie into a big carp and got a real kick out of battling it for a while.

Today, a day at home. Thought I’d get back to drawing so got out the equipment this morning and rew this White-eared Hummingbird.  If you just looked at the species I drew, you’d probably think I lived somewhere tropical, given that I love drawing hummingbirds and other species I don’t typically get a chance to see in South Dakota.  There is a method to the madness though, in terms of choosing what to draw.  I typically draw things that I don’t have photos of!  It fills a needed gap on my regular website!  Given that I have species description pages for every species seen in North Dakota, I need some image for each, and drawings work nicely when I don’t have a photo.

I also chose a “rare” U.S. hummingbird because I have a work trip coming up next month to Tucson.  I’ll likely take a couple of vacation days on my own, and go out birding.  November isn’t a great time to look for Hummingbirds, as it’s really summer when you get the biggest variety, and most chance to see a rare one that’s made it’s way up to southern Arizona from their more normal range in Mexico.  But there will be some hummingbirds around.  This is a White-eared Hummingbird, a species normally found in Mexico, but sometimes found in far southern Arizona.

I don’t know why I don’t draw more.  It always seems like a chore to get all the equipment out and devote several hours to it.  But I’m always so happy when I’m doing it and when I’m done. I’m more pleased with how this one turned out, than for most I do.

Saw-whets are a’ comin’!!! For now, a drawing…

Colored pencil drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus - By Terry Sohl

A colored pencil of drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl. I couldn’t wait until they arrived for the winter, so in the meantime sat down and drew one.

Last winter was a blast.  OK, that’s not something you typically say when you live in frigid South Dakota, but I really enjoyed last winter, and am looking forward to the cold weather again.  The reason?  Northern Saw-whet Owls!! Prior to last winter, I’d seen them on rare occasion, when I went to the Pierre area. It was a quite a few years ago when birders in the area started looking for them in cedar tree thickets near the Missouri River.  It takes quite a bit of work to find one however.  Looking for Saw-whet owls typically involves bush-whacking through dense cedar thickets, looking on the ground and on tree branches for the tell-tale “white-wash” that accumulates when the little owls use the same roost day after day.

When I say I’d seen them on “rare occasion”, it was literally ALWAYS finding a bird that someone else had found.  Oh sure, I’d given it the ol’ college try.  Prior to last winter, there were a number of times that I myself would go tromping through cedar thickets in Pierre, trying to find the little owls.  I was great at finding roosts where they USED to be!  As for finding a live owl?  Not so much.

I think people always suspected Northern Saw-whet Owls were much more widely distributed in South Dakota in the winter, but actual reports were few, likely due tot he effort involved in actually finding one.  Last winter I was determined to 1) actually find my “own” Saw-whet owl, and 2) do so right here near Sioux Falls, rather than making the 3 1/2 hour drive to Pierre, where they’re known to be found.  It wasn’t very encouraging at first.  And when I say “at first”, I mean there were probably about 10 fruitless trips trudging through cedar tree thickets, looking for owls.  The story was much like my attempts in Pierre…I was GREAT at finding owl pellets and whitewash, but wasn’t finding the owls themselves.

That all changed in January when I finally found my first Northern Saw-whet Owl in southeastern South Dakota.  It was at Newton Hills State Park, and he wasn’t alone!  On that truly magnificent day, I found not one, but four different Saw-whet Owls, all in the typical cedar thicket habitat that was similar to where they had been found for years in Pierre.  At least according to “eBird” reports, these were the first Saw-whet Owls reported in this part of the state.  The rest of the winter was great, going back to visit previously found Saw-whets (they tend to have roosting site fidelity, using the same sites for many days in a row), and finding new ones.  I ended up finding a few more at Newton Hills that winter, and then also started finding them  around Lake Alvin, just south of Sioux Falls.  For the winter, at least 9 individual over-wintering owls were found.

Just in the past few days bird banders in the area reported capturing and banding the first migrating Saw-whet owls of the season.  They’re here!  Or, at least they’re starting to arrive!  I’ll probably wait a couple of weeks before heading out to actually look for one, giving them a little more time to arrive, giving a little more time for the whitewash and pellet evidence to accumulate.  In the meantime, last weekend in my excitement for the coming winter, I did a colored pencil drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, using a photo of one from last winter as a guide.

I can’t wait!  The owls are coming! The owls are coming!!  🙂

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