Archive for the ‘Collecting Foreground’ category

Point Pelee-Really!

May 29, 2010

I was at Point Pelee from Tuesday May 25th to Friday the 28th.  My family came with me and we arrived  late in the afternoon, too tired to go to the park.  Early Wednesday morning though, we were in the park by 7am.  The big bird migration push was already past so we were the only ones at the point that early.  We rode our bikes down to the tip where I figured the diorama site was located.  As we walked around,  all I could find that was familiar was the stellated false solomon seal and the hoptree.  I began to worry that the hairy pucoon was gone or past bloom.  Where was the juniper?  None of the landscape looked right and I thought because of the smell that we were in a heron rookery.  We discovered it was actually thousands of small fish (smelt) washed up on the shore.  We learned that the fish die naturally after spawning and normally sink to the bottom of the lake.  This year, a storm came through and washed the fish onshore.  It was headline news in Pelee.  My wife and I birded the point.  Most common birds were: kingbirds, cedar waxwings, yellow warbler, indigo buntings, both Baltimore and orchard orioles, brown thrasher, and barn swallows.

We left there and went to an area called West Beach.  The kids ran to the lakeside and looked for interesting things on the beach.  Finn found fossilized shells and corals.  We looked up fossils at Point Pelee and discovered that there are many fossilized invertebrates and coral from the Devonian since the area was an inland ocean.  While they played on the beach, I went poking around in the dunes behind the beach and I was relieved to find the hairy pucoon in good numbers.  They were in full bloom so I got good photos.  I even found one stellated solomon seal in bloom (they were past bloom) so I took more photos.

Hairy Pucoon

Stellated False Solomon Seal

Encountering the real flowers was humbling.  The hairy pucoon flowers were smaller than I have made mine and the depth of the base of the flower was deeper.  The sepals only come up half way on the actual flower (my wax ones went all the way to the petals)  Also, the petals are joined together for half their length and are much more convoluted than I have made mine.  Back to the drawing board!  The “hair” of the hairy pucoon is beautiful and has a very regular pattern.  I can’t imagine how I might get that effect.  The solomon seal leaves are ribbed more than I made them and glow with intrinsic coloration.  I will have to try Gary Hoyle’s recipe of hot melt glue and parrafin to make leaves.

While still in CT, I made an appointment with Sarah Rupert, a park ranger, to show me around and I met her at the nature center at 10 am.  She printed out a photo of the diorama and said that the area looked like the northwestern beach area.  Another ranger, John, was listening in and offered to take us up there.  John knew more about plants than Sarah (she is a bird person), so it was decided he would give us a tour of the northwest beach.

When we got there we walked out over an old parking lot that the park was letting grow over.  We continued south to an area that was close to what was painted in the diorama, but I told John that there was nowhere I could see that had all the elements, the dunes, the juniper, the canadian wild rye grass, the flowers, the hoptree.  There was a lot of each in various places, but nothing struck me as the site.  John was interested in trying to find the Canadian wild rye, so we looked and found it in the area quite close to the beach/high tide mark.  I looked for it in other places, but the beach region was the only area it was found.  This is too bad since all the grasses I had put in the midground of the diorama were C. wild rye.  The grasses I did find in the mid-region were switchgrass and a common-looking grass with a conspicuous seedhead (I’ll have Patrick Sweeney ID it).  I will be removing the grasses from the foreground and collecting the other grasses in CT to replace them.

Northwest Beach-Point Pelee

My sense from this photo is that this is probably the site, but the photo was taken standing much closer to the beach than Wilson did back in 1964.  In fact, about 40′ behind me there was a high vantage point that very well might have been the point at which Wilson made his studies.  The large deciduous trees that show in the diorama to the right, now covered the entire area.  Plant succession had made it virtually inaccessable.  What was left of the juniper in this area was dead.  There were tangles of low vegetation barring easy access and I wasn’t convinced that a photo taken from that point would reveal anything, so I didn’t choose to explore it.  John showed us several other plants common to the area: Goat’s beard, sweet clover, rock sand wort, wormwood, and prickly pear.  He told me that the hognose snake was long gone as was the Fowler’s toad that it fed on, victims of habitat destruction.  Removing the hognose snake is yet another change I will make.  He said that the 5 lined skink was a much more representative reptile.  Insects were also discussed and these are his suggestions: Red Admiral and American Lady butterflies, the robber fly, and the ant lion whose inverted sandy cones were evident everywhere.  In the original diorama there were a pair of bobwhite.  I noticed on the Point Pelee bird list that bobwhite was listed as “extripated”.  A discussion will ensue when I get back to Peabody about whether we go ahead and put the bobwhite, hognose snake, and fowler’s toad in the diorama and install signage about the human impact on this habitat.  Otherwise, none of these should go in the foreground.

This visit did nothing short of impell me to change the entire foreground.  Well, maybe not the entire foreground, but significant parts of it.  Constructing/installing the foreground to a James Perry Wilson diorama charges me to strive for a high level of accuracy.  So, I need to resculpt and cast new hairy pucoon flowers, experiment with the hot melt glue/parrifin mixture for new leaves, remake the stems of both flowers, and change out the grasses.  I think Wilson would not only approve, he would insist on it!


Collecting Grasses and Juniper

January 24, 2010

Patrick Sweeney arranged to collect Canadian Rye grass and juniper with Glenn Dreyer at the Connecticut College Arboretum.  Glenn took us out to a field where Canadian Rye grass has been planted.   We found that it was interspersed in clumps throughout the field, but it was not abundant.  We collected about a dozen clumps, filling a garbage bag.  Typically, we would collect the whole plant with roots, but since the ground was frozen, we were only able to get a couple with roots.  Since the grass was not abundant, this will insure that the grass comes back next year.

Glenn Dreyer and Patrick Sweeney looking at Canadian Rye grass

From there, we drove over to the “official” arboretum which is surrounded by a wrought iron fence and looks like it has been around for a long time.  We walked through the frost-covered paths to a stand of juniper.  Surprisingly, there was a low ground-cover juniper and a more upright version of the same species (Juniperus communis).  They looked like totally different plants.

Patrick Sweeney standing next to the upright juniper.

The upright version looks to be what was painted in the diorama background so we decided to collect this.  There was only one problem, I had forgotten to take a saw!  Patrick jumped right into the middle of the bush, taking his hand clippers, with every intention of using it to “clip” several branches that were almost 2″ thick.  Fifteen minutes later, he had taken out four fairly large branches and a few smaller ones.  Either those clippers are really sharp or Patrick has some massive flexors!

Hamlin State Park-Lake Ontario

December 26, 2009

Today, my daughter Harriet (age eight) and my wife Celia took a drive from our Chritmas vacation destination south of Rochester to visit some parks along Lake Ontario.  Its only a 45 minute drive to the lake, but we then had to find a beach.  The area directly north of Rochester is cattail-covered marshland.  There were some inlets that were solidly frozen with a couple of  ice-fishing shelters with fishermen inside.  But the shoreline was rocky without a trace of sand.  We had to drive east to Hamlin State park to find a sandy beach.  This park is one I remember from twenty-two years ago when I rode my bicycle across the US.  I was six or seven days out of New Haven and I camped right on the edge of the lake.  I remember being able to see city lights across the water that  I thought was Toronto, but I never did confirm this.

Today, we didn’t have the nicest day.  It was in the low 40’s and there was a constant wind-whipped rain.  Harriet wanted to walk on the lake ice, but there were signs warning against this.  We came to see if there were any grasses and to take a sample of sand.  The park was quite well groomed and we didn’t find any Canadian rye.  After walking in the rain for a half hour and getting completey drenched, we decided to get our sample of sand and get out.

Juniper Preparation Tests

December 22, 2009

Juniper in office (note the Wilson paintings on the wall)

Juniper in freezer with the birds!

As I noted previously, I collected three small branches of the juniper in Stony Creek over the weekend.  I brought them into work yesterday and I noticed that a number of needles had come off in the bag.   I put each branch in a vise and painted thinned latex rubber on the base of each needle (front and back).  This is to hold the needles on so they won’t fall off as they dry.  To thin latex, I use ammonia and a little water, so it reeks more so than usual.  Whatever you do, don’t sniff the latex!

I am testing how to dry the branches.  Evergreens dry differently and I am hopeful that the short-needled juniper will dry without distortion.  I have dried long-needled white pine and ponderosa pine and the results were not good.  The needles twisted and distorted as they dried, looking nothing like the live tree.  In these cases, I had to freeze-dry the branches and embed the needles in sand to hold them in place while they dried.

I have taken my three branches and placed them in different places to see what might work best for drying them.  I have hung one over my desk and will let it dry in the open.  The other two are in freezers-one in my bench freezer (not self-defrosting) where all my frozen birds are and the other in our museum’s deep freezer which has a running temperature of -30º C.  I plan to remove the frozen branches in mid-January to see how they look.

If all goes smoothly with the drying, all I will have to do is paint them since they will eventually turn brown.  Painting will be tricky though because the upper part of the needles is a deep green and the underside is a paler green with a light strip down each needle.  I doubt I will be able to air brush the color since the needles come off the stems in a radial fashion.  It looks to be a lot of hand painting!  It will give me something to do while I’m in the exhibit.

Juniperus communis

December 21, 2009

This Saturday morning my son, Finn (10), my daughter, Harriet (8), and I went out to try to find some samples of  juniper.  I had to bribe them with a stop first for hot chocolate at the Stony Creek Market.  Patrick Sweeney, Peabody’s collections manager in botany, sent out a query about where to find juniper locally and was told there was some at the old quarry site near Stony Creek.  After our stop for hot chocolate we drove down to where the trail head started.  It was overcast and cold and the ice on the trail crunched underfoot.  Finn pulled a feathery tipped phragmites and was entertaining himself by trying to tickle our ears with it.  The old quarry site is close (thank God!) and we were there in no time.  Patrick made it sound like there would be many juniper bushes among the rocks, but everywhere I looked there was only red cedar.  We walked the total length of the quarry, but found only red cedar.  We walked on and found another old quarry site that had filled with frozen water.  Finn started throwing cobble-size stones to break the ice (he was only able to break through once) and Harriet began complaining that she wanted to go.  I told her to go in the woods, but that wasn’t what she meant, she was cold, so I turned around and took a different path back-nothing but cedar.  We got back to the first quarry site and I saw a low evergreen bush that looked different.  Sure enough, it was juniper!  I broke off three small branches so I could bring it to the Peabody to test how it will dry.  We ran back to the car with our bounty to get warm and so Finn couldn’t tickle our ears!

Grass-On the Radar

December 17, 2009


Canadian Wild Rye grass Elymus canadensis


Today we hunted for the elusive Canadian Wild Rye grass (Elymus canadensis) at the Clinton town beach.  Before we left, Patrick Sweeney, Peabody’s collections manager in botany, checked in the herbarium for dried specimens from CT.  He found a specimen collected by Lauren Brown in 1968 at the Clinton Town beach.  She wrote notes about where it was found and that it was somewhat abundant in one spot.  Patrick had high hopes that we could find it.  So, Patrick, my wife Celia, and I set out.  The temperature was in the mid-20’s and there was a gale wind blowing off the Sound when we got out of the car.  We started near the Hammock River and walked along the edge.  It was almost completely covered with invasive phragmites.  Patrick said that the grass is usually found in dry upland habitats (there are records of it on West Rock ridge).  It wouldn’t be found in wet or tidal areas, but just back from the tidal zone, the sandy edges surprisingly, fit the habitat description-at least the dry part.  We surveyed along the park edge and sure enough, right at the base of a red cedar we found it!  There were three stems with the spiky tipped flower part.  We were happy to find it, but it wasn’t an abundance.  So we kept walking.  My eyes were watering from the cold so it was difficult to survey with confidence.  45 minutes later, we called it quits.  We had found two more little stands, maybe seven stems total-not enough to collect.  We certainly didn’t want to wipe out the remaining evidence of this grass from the site as this would defeat the purpose of the diorama, eh?

My family and I go to Rochester for the holiday break and Lake Ontario is within an hour’s drive.  My wife and I will take a trip up there and see if we can find it along the shore.  It should be a very close match to the habitat we are trying to reproduce in the diorama.

Plant Identifications (We think!)

December 3, 2009

Patrick Sweeney, Peabody’s botanical collection manager sought out the opinions of several of his botanical colleagues to confirm his ideas about what plants are depicted in the diorama painting. Without Wilson’s photographs, they can’t be 100% sure of the IDs, but here is the list of what they were able to come up with by looking at photos of the painting and checking them against the botanical lists of Point Pelee:

Elymus canadensis (Canada Wild Rye grass)

Panicum virgatum (Switch grass)

Lithospermum caroliniense (Hairy puccoon)

Maianthemum stellatum (Starry False Solomon’s Seal)

Juniperus communis (Common Juniper)

Species of Cornus: All of the following occur on Point Pelee: C.cricinata, C. asperifolia, C. baileyi, C. stolonifera, C. paniculata, C. alernifolia

Now I can start to think about how to produce these plants for the foreground. Some will be easy (both dried grasses can be found locally in CT-we’ll use them as is) Others will be difficult (the Hairy Puccoon’s yellow flowers are complex and attach to a plant stem and leaves that are covered with fine hairs.)  Many of the leaves will be first sculpted in clay, molded, and vacu-formed in clear acetate.  Wires will be glued to the midline of each so they can be attached to the stem and then they will be painted as transluscently as possible.  I will try freeze drying the juniper.  The needles get sprayed with latex first to hold them to the branches when they are dried.  If the needles distort from drying as seen in longer needled pines, I will have to try embedding them first in sand and then try the freeze drying again.  If that doesn’t work, I don’t know what I’ll do.  This is what keeps it interesting!