In mid-May, birders flock to northwest Ohio to witness the spring migration of songbirds. Before they cross Lake Erie, huge numbers of birds camp out in the woods and marshes of the southern edge of the lake, breaking out into song as they rest and refuel for the remainder of their journey. Three things provide the perfect observation experience: lack of tree leaves, an absence of bugs and a 10-day festival known as The Biggest Week in American Birding.
Organized and hosted by Black Swamp Bird Observatory, this festival features presentations, workshops, bird identification classes, guided birding activities, daily walks along the world-famous Magee Marsh boardwalk and half-day bus tours to birding hotspots.
Recently, the Toledo Museum of Art joined the party by planning bird-related exhibitions to coincide with the festival. In 2012, For the Birds celebrated the diversity of avian art in the museum’s permanent collection. This year, the museum is offering two exhibitions for bird-lovers. One is of 21 elegant filigree glass birds created by Venetian glassblower Lino Tagliapietra. The other is In Fine Feather: Birds, Art & Science, an exhibition of 45 works that illustrate the importance of art to ornithology, especially in describing and identifying birds.
My Biggest Week in American Birding might not have included the festival, but it featured something even better. Last Sunday — which just happened to be International Art Museum Day — I attended a special In Fine Feather program at the Toledo Museum of Art, where I met Kimberly Kaufman, Black Swamp Bird Observatory’s executive director, and her husband, legendary birder and author Kenn Kaufman.
My ears led me to Gallery 18, where recordings of bird calls and songs filled the air. I could hardly wait to get inside and examine the hand-colored engravings, etchings, lithographs, watercolors and books about birds that filled the room. Some of the items are from the museum’s collection; others were loaned by local collectors and libraries, including the Ohio History Connection’s copy of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio.
Kenn led dozens of people through the exhibit, pointing out items in chronological order of their creation. He also helped us appreciate how important these printed illustrations were in introducing people to species they might not encounter in their own patches.
We began with a reproduction of The Falconer, a 14th-century manuscript on falconry by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II that is often cited as the earliest illustrated book about birds.
The Ominous Owl — so named in India when people heard it outside their house and thought that it brought bad luck — was one of the hand-colored engravings displayed from John Latham’s A General History of Birds. At age 81, Latham designed, engraved and hand-colored the prints in this 10-volume work, which was published from 1821 until 1828. “If you haven’t gotten into birding yet, there’s still time,” Kenn observed.
The exhibit includes an Ivory-billed Woodpecker from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida and the Bahamas. Toco Toucan was one of 51 magnificent hand-colored plates of toucans in A Monography of the Ramphastidae, or Family of Toucans, written in 1854 by illustrator Henry Constantine Richter and John Gould, an English ornithologist and bird artist who published 40 volumes containing close to 3,000 illustrations of birds.
Kenn called our attention to Alexander Wilson’s depiction of the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet, as well as the three other birds included on the plate. Wilson called these birds flycatchers, but they’re really warblers; in fact, one is now named for Wilson.
John James Audubon’s illustration of a pair of Passenger pigeons was a perfect choice to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the bird’s extinction.
Five watercolors by Roger Tory Peterson — all recently acquired by the museum — are on view for the first time. Considered the father of the modern field guide, Peterson had a major influence not only on ornithology, but also on Kenn.
The exhibit includes a series of videotaped interviews in which Kenn talks about Peterson’s impact on how amateurs could study and identify birds, from the innovative arrows pointing to distinctive field markings of birds on illustrations in his quick-reference field guides that he started publishing in 1934 to his work as an artist and a conservationist. You can also watch them here.
Last, we looked at three works in the exhibition on loan from David Allen Sibley, an ornithologist, illustrator and author of the Sibley Guides to the birds and trees to North America. These include a sketch of an Aplomado falcon and a painting of a soaring Red-tailed Hawk that was used on the cover of the first edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds, which was just updated this spring.
Then, some of us went outdoors with Terry Seidel, director of land acquisition for the Nature Conservancy in Ohio, to explore the habitat of the museum’s Georgia and David K. Welles Sculpture Garden. Others walked across Monroe Street to the Glass Pavilion, the postmodern home of the museum’s glass collection. Since 2006, visitors have been captivated by the fact that large panels of curved glass comprise all exterior and nearly all interior walls of the building.
Inside, we watched a live glassblowing demonstration in one of the pavilion’s Hot Shops. For almost an hour, we listened to an informative narration of the process and techniques used to make a footed green glass bowl with a fluted edge.
Hot is the optimum word here. The furnace runs constantly to maintain 750 pounds of molten glass; the chambers register a temperature of over 2,000 degrees. At these high temperatures, glass is the consistency of honey. Tools like pipes used to blow the glass, a mold and a cherry wood block with a cup saturated in water to shape it, jacks to help the glass break cleanly, and even a stack of damp Wall Street Journal pages help the piece take shape.
The museum offers classes in working with hot and warm glass, flameworking, sand casting glass, glassblowing, and creating patterns in glass. You can also purchase demonstration pieces like the one we watched being made.
You might not see the Kaufmans at the Toledo Museum of Art, but you can view Venetian Glass Birds: Lino Tagliapietra through June 22, and In Fine Feather: Birds, Art & Science through July 6. A digital catalogue of In Fine Feather is available here.
If you missed For the Birds, you can still pick up a guide to works of art in the museum’s galleries that feature birds. For example, John Singleton Copley’s Young Lady with a Bird and Dog, painted in 1767, includes what appears to be a Red-headed Lovebird, a parrot native to Africa. Exotic birds painted on pieces from a Sèvres porcelain dessert service were probably based on prints in George Edward’s 1743 publication, A Natural History of Birds.
Besides editing the Kaufman Field Guides series, Kenn has written other books like Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder, a memoir of his adventures as a teenager in the 1970s hitchhiking around North America to watch birds. You can purchase Kingbird Highway in the museum’s gift shop, as well as other intriguing titles like The Bird in Art, by Caroline Bugler, and All About Birds: A Short Illustrated History of Ornithology, by Valérie Chansigaud. To keep track of the Kaufmans’ birding adventures, such as leading international birding and nature tours, follow their blog, Birding with Kenn & Kimberly.
Visit Project Passenger Pigeon to find out about a new book by Joel Greenberg called A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, as well as other events promoting species conservation and habitat preservation that are taking place during this centennial of the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction. I’m hoping to give you a rundown of one taking place at the Cincinnati Zoo in late August.