100 Birds – #26

I have been taking photographs of birds for over a decade now and I am proud of many of the images. I will always look to the truly great bird photographers for inspiration and encouragement to improve my skills. Still, it is truly rewarding to have someone look at my images and take the time to provide positive or complimentary feedback. In this day of “likes” and “+1′” I find a simple comment from a respected photographer to be vastly more rewarding and meaningful.

I recently produced a bird identification poster for the North Central Washington Audubon Society. The poster shows only birds that are common to our area in spring, summer and fall. It is not a comprehensive display but it does serve well as an educational prop for Audubon’s events. The poster is printed at 11×17″ for handouts and 24×36″ for display and discussion.

If you examine existing bird ID posters you see the artwork of master bird illustrators. Sibley and Peterson both created wonderful drawings of bird species around the globe.  Stokes, on the other hand, uses real photographs in their bird ID book and many people prefer a photo to an illustration. Some others prefer to see just simplified art, like a silhouette, as the main part of an ID exercise.  All these approaches have merit.

My photographs are the foundation for the bird illustrations on the Audubon poster. I use the term “illustration” loosely.  The process I use does not rely on pen and ink or brush and canvas.  Rather, I turn a photograph of a bird into an illustration using a variety of computer software.  Specifically, I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to organize and process my images for any presentation, Adobe Photoshop for fine tuning images and for making specific adjustments, Dynamic Auto Painter Pro by Mediachance to make the conversion from a photo to an illustration and the Topaz Remask 5 Photoshop plugin to cut the bird out from its background. The result is a stylized bird illustration that retains color fidelity and accuracy (most times) as well important field marks used for field identification. The final file is saved as a Photoshop file and as a transpaent PNG file to allow the bird to be placed on a variety of backgrounds – white in the case of the Audubon poster.

As I was learning the process and settings in each software application I used a few friends and fellow photographers to critique and comment on the images. My thanks for your willingness to comment and for your patience with me. Other than some challenges with birds that have a white crown or breast or ones in which the color shifted during the conversion to an illustration, the birds got favorable reviews. Once I had the workflow established I began production of the separate bird illustrations.

My first effort was this Great Blue Heron.  I chose a heron because of its size and feather characteristics knowing that the painting routine would emphasize the textures and character of the feathers.

This is one of several hundred heron images I have from my visits to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge north of Vancouver, Washington. These birds are capable of standing totally still for a very long time as they wait for a fish or frog or other food to enter their strike zone. One day I decided I would wait patiently until a heron moved from its stationary pose.  I was glad I had brought a lunch because I ate it while watching. I left after an hour and the heron was still just standing there, most likely it was asleep.

I refer to the upright pose they most commonly use as “hunter pose 1”. They will stalk their prey very slowly and extend their neck forward and down, what I call “hunter pose 2”, as they prepare to strike. Once they determine it is time the actual strike happens lightning fast. I’ve watched a heron eat moles, voles, snakes, frogs and fish in my frequent visits to Ridgefield.  I’ve seen herons miss their prey a number of times but I estimate their success rate is about 75% – much better than hitting by major league baseball players.

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My intent is to present many of the bird illustrations here in the blog and tell the backstory of the image as I originally planned to do in this “100 Birds” sequence.  Hopefully the fact that  many images are prepared and ready to go will jump start my energy to add to the series. Stay tuned, please.