Monday, June 29, 2009

Raku: A brush with fire and art

We are back at the pottery studio at Wildacres after our field trip to Terry's place, and we are on our last day of the workshop. From the initial planning stages of our trip, the group has been talking about doing a "raku" firing. I'm not sure what this is, except that it sounds potentially dangerous, like a pit firing only with a closer encounter with the flames. Ordinarily conservative in my approach to risky situations, this time I feel emboldened. I don't know exactly what raku is, but what the heck - Bring it on!

First, our bone-dry pots are treated to a coating of terra sig, a thin slip of watery clay that helps the pots take the glazes, then they are bisque-fired. The next step is to apply one or more of several glazes that Terry has cooked up for us. Most of them have made-up names, like Rumply-Crumply (which we also called Humpty-Dumpty and Rumplestiltskin when we got the giggles), Slurple (purple) and Some Kind of Blue. Celedon was the only color going by its right name, I think.

Diane and Sue, glazing
"What does Rumble-Bumble do again?"

The raku kiln platform was small - we could only get four pieces in for each firing. With the eight of us in production mode, it looked as though we would be in for a marathon session in the studio.

Remember that pinky-purple vase
in the front right corner.
You will see it again at the end.

After the kiln was loaded, the shroud was lowered and two huge propane burners were lit on either side of the base. You can see the opening below the platform in this photo.

One load in the kiln, the next one "on deck"

Terry kept an eagle-eye on the state of the kiln through openings in the top
and side of the kiln, waiting for just the right moment when the glazes had melted to the appropriate stage.
Meanwhile, some lowly metal pots and garbage cans stand by piles of sawdust, awaiting their cue,while the potters wait (im)patiently for the action to begin.

Ginger, Peggy and Sue
Sue, Michelle, and Mary
(Michelle's the one who is big on safety.)

At just the right moment, Terry pulls the chain to raise the shroud and reveal the white-hot pots glowing inside.

And the potters step up, one by one, to pull their treasures from the furnace with long metal tongs and transfer them to the piles of sawdust.

The heat was incredible, and almost unbearable.

Each pot required two people - one to pull it from the kiln and deposit it on the pile of sawdust, another to quickly cover it with the metal pot, then "burp" the pot to let in a brief gust of oxygen. This caused the sawdust pile to flare up, fuming the pot.

Here we are in action:

And here is one of the pots, still too warm to touch, after firing. This is Carol's vase from the kiln photo above.

My first Raku-fired pot. Glazed in Celedon and Slurple-purple (with Lumpy-Bumpy inside), the black lines are caused by the smoke from the sawdust packed around it.

Cool, huh?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mystery Bird Revealed

Well, the mystery bird quiz wasn't as much fun as I anticipated. Of course, Donald and Hap were right, with their answers of juvenile Eastern Towhee, but I was hoping for more guesses and discussion. Let me walk you through my thought processes and tell you how I arrived at the same conclusion, albeit more slowly than either of the guys.

After my initial shock, when I had no idea what sort of bird had crashed into the porch window at Terry's studio in western North Carolina, I recovered enough to start working through the clues.

First, habitat. When someone says to me, "I just saw a bird and it was ..." (blue, brown, red, white, big, little, etc.) I always interrupt and ask, "First, where did you see it? In the woods, in a field, at the beach, on a pond," because habitat helps us rule in or out many species, before we start guessing based on color or size. In this case, we are on a porch on a quiet back road in a wooded area of North Carolina.

Next, I looked at its head. One of my birding mentors once told me you could reliably ID any bird by the head alone, using the bill and any field marks. I'm not sure I could do that, but I can usually get pretty close.

In the case of Mystery Bird, we see a short, stout, "finchy-type" bill, often incorrectly called a "seed-eating bill," typical of sparrows. Also looking at the head, we see a decided lack of field marks, like crown stripes, eyelines, eye rings, "eyebrows" (supercillia) or "mustaches." Since most sparrows have a lot of field marks on their heads, this is contradictory. Still, I feel confident this bird belongs in the sparrow family.

Also, I have an odd feeling in my gut that this is a young bird. Maybe it is the faint yellowish wash to the edges of the bill or just something about the GISS (General Impression, Size and Shape) of the bird, but regardless, I think it is a juvenile. That makes my job harder, since young birds quite often have much different plumage than the adults of the same species.

Next, I looked at the breast streaks.
I have seen fine, "pencil-mark" streaking on the breast like this before, on Lincoln's Sparrows.

Lincoln's Sparrow,
image from National Zoo website

I know this isn't a Lincoln's, but it is one more reason why this might be some sort of sparrow. Vesper Sparrows also have this field mark, and I have never seen a Vesper, so I move this to the top of my differential list. It seems bigger than it should be, but I know that Vesper Sparrows are on the largish size for sparrows (about 6.25" long) and I also know that size is deceiving, and is one of the less useful tools when it comes to bird ID. So, I photograph it with the only thing I can find for scale - my 58mm lens cap.

My last field mark is the white on the outer tail feathers.

A key field mark for Vesper Sparrows is white outer tail feathers, so now I am fairly certain this is what I am holding in my hand. I find it ironic that my "Life" Vesper Sparrow is, in fact, dead. Of course, in my excitement, I have completely ignored Rule 1, habitat. Vesper Sparrows live in agricultural fields or sparse pastures, not in wooded areas.

I'm sure you are all laughing at me by now, but please keep in mind, I am working without a net. I have no field guides, no web sites, no helpful expert birder or Science Chimp standing behind me, looking over my shoulder, and I have a cluster of non-birders watching me, eager for an answer. So, I clutched, and called it a Vesper Sparrow.

That identification bothered me till I got home and pulled out my field guides.

Vesper Sparrow,
image from NPS website

Clearly, my bird was not a Vesper Sparrow, even allowing for variations which might occur in a juvenile bird. So, it's back to work.

Using my lens-cap photo from the previous post, I calculated the Mystery Bird was about 8" long, way too big for any self-respecting sparrow. Now, I'm in trouble. I don't even know which page of my field guide to look on, so I revert back to Beginning Birder 101 - start at the front of the book and flip through every page till you see the bird in question.

Of course, I didn't start at the very beginning - I was able to rule out ducks, herons, shorebirds, owls, and woodpeckers right away. Page by passerine page, I carefully looked through my trusty Peterson's Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies, 4th edition (1980) till I found it. On page 276, half-hidden behind the female, is a juvenile Eastern Towhee, what was still referred to at that time as Rufous-sided Towhee.
Note the bill, the streaky breast, and the white on the outer corners of the tail feathers. This is where I messed up in my leap to Vesper Sparrow. As seen in my Peterson's, the entire outer tail feathers are white from base to tip in a Vesper, not just the corners as we see above. (Of course, there are also the chestnut shoulder patches, the riot of field marks on the head, the size, the habitat, and so on and so on ...) Look at two more things. In the first photo of the head, notice the dark eye, which would be red in an adult Eastern Towhee, male or female, but is black in a juvenile, like my victim.

And finally, in the drawing, check out the white "handkerchief" marks on the wings of the adult birds. Peterson doesn't show it, but in his written description of the juvenile he says: "Streaked below like a large sparrow, but with the diagnostic Towhee wing and tail patterns."
I can attest to the fact that the patterns were there, staring me in the face all along. (Gotta love a bird artist who says "diagnostic.")

So, I was close. I was right about the juvenile part and I was in the sparrow family (You do know that Towhees are sparrows, right?) but I missed the species.

When working on a bird ID, I always go to Peterson's field guide first, and I am rarely disappointed. In checking my Sibely's eastern field guide (not the Big Book) I didn't find the juvenile plumage. I Googled "immature Eastern Towhee" and came up with several photos, none of which showed everything that one drawing did, but which helped me confirm my ID. Finally, I sent copies of my photos to Julie and Hap, and they concurred. (BTW, watch the next issue of BWD for Julie's take on "Confusing Summer Towhees."

Thank you, Roger Tory. I promise never to go on vacation without you again, even when I am told I am limited to one suitcase. I will leave out extra socks to make room for you.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mystery Bird Quiz

While visiting Terry Gess' studio, along a quiet, wooded road in Mitchell County, North Carolina, my birding expertise was called into question. There was a dead bird on his door step, a victim of a window strike, and the potters wanted me to identify it. I'm sorry to say, I failed the initial test, but when I returned home, to my field guides and Internet access, I was able to redeem myself.

Let's see how you fare. Can you ID this bird? (For the sake of scale, I photographed it with my 58mm lens cap, in order to get some sense of its size.)

click any photo to enlarge

Post your answers in the comments section. Just for fun, tell me if you knew right away, worked it out on your own, or used reference materials to reach your conclusion.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Terry Gess studio

Tuesday was our field trip day. We visited Penland School, the subject of another post on another day, and the studio of our instructor, Terry Gess. Terry has a Master's of Fine Arts degree and a wealth of experience, including teaching at Penland and studying in China. He uses a wood-fired salt-glazing kiln big enough to walk into. The brick walls themselves are glazed from years of use.His technique uses colored slips over stoneware, to create his own unique style. His work is beautiful and the muted earth tones speak to me. His forms are interesting; he makes a lot of square pieces. For someone who still struggles to make her pottery round, I have a hard time wrapping my head around pottery that is deliberately altered to other shapes, but I can appreciate the skill and effort that goes into every one of his pieces.

please click to enlarge and appreciate the art pottery

A potter's porch in North Carolina

Tomorrow: We find a surprise on that porch ...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wildacres Birds (and moths)

It can be hard to focus on a pottery workshop when the birds are calling right outside your door day and night. I had to apologize to Terry for slipping off for some surreptitious birding on several occasions.

By far, the most common birds I saw or heard during my week at Wildacres were Chipping Sparrows. Their trilling calls woke me at 6am every day, and the begging cries of the young ones followed me all around the mountain top all day long.
I never managed a decent photo of an adult, as they were all busy flitting around catching moths for their starving offspring. However, this juvenile posed nicely for me. He was on the top of a retaining wall while I was on the stairs below, so that we ended up at eye level, which made for some nice angles.
"Are you my mother?"

While walking down the road from the entrance to the retreat, I heard a trilling call that I nearly passed off as yet another Chipping Sparrow, when something about the quality of the song caused me to stop and look for the singer.
A Dark-eyed Junco! While I have certainly seen my fair share of winter juncos in Ohio, I have never heard them sing on territory. Luckily, this fellow was right at my eye level and in no hurry to leave. I was able to shoot a dozen or so pictures, with all sorts of camera settings, till I got just the right one.

Probably the second most common birds were the Red-eyed Vireos. They were everywhere, singing incessantly, and remaining invisible most of the time. This one, the one I initially called a Philly Vireo based on his song, was the only cooperative guy I found. Lighting was tough in the dark canopy, but I think you can tell what he is.

Practically from day one, I heard a song that I thought I should know. "Indigo Bunting" kept popping up as the answer, but I couldn't figure out what one would be doing in such heavily wooded habitat at 3300 feet. When I discovered the horse pasture below the firepit, I began to think I might be right. Using the iPod, I called it in.
OK, you and I both know this picture sucks. The thing is, at first he landed on a fencepost so close to me I could practically touch him. It startled me so that I missed my best photo op. After that, he knew the iPod wasn't a real bird, so he kept on the move, just out of camera range, looking for his imagined rival. I had to really push this photo to get it at all.

Moths were everywhere, indoors and out, and more varieties than I could possibly imagine. A few I knew:

Luna Moth
Rosy Maple Moth
Polyphemus Moth
my old friend,
Tulip-tree Beauty Moth

but many more, I could not recognize.

"patterned porch-step moth""dark lampshade moth"
"white studio-door moth"
"tan floor mat moth""funky lodge-hall moth"

Edit, June 24:
Thanks to Hap from New Hope, we have a name for the funky moth from the wall of the lodge hallway: It's a Spotted Apatelodes - Apatelodes torrefacta.

And, just so the other half of the Lep family doesn't get jealous, here's a Pipevine Swallowtail, one of the few butterflies I saw that week. (edit: corrected ID, thanks to Hap)

My birding Trip List for the week (Now, you just knew there would be a list, didn't you?)

American Robin
Northern Cardinal
Chipping Sparrow
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
American Crow (I tried to turn a couple into ravens, but no joy)

Indigo Bunting
Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Hooded Warbler (missed a great pic of this one)
Red-eyed Vireo

Wild Turkey
American Goldfinch
Eastern Towhee
Dark-eyed Junco
Eastern Phoebe

Carolina Chickadee
Mourning Dove

and the "heard onlys"
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Wood Thrush
Yellow-billed Cuckoo (I'm pretty sure about this one)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Caution: Potters at Work

Our first morning in the studio, Terry demonstrated basic wheel-throwing skills: centering the clay, opening, and pulling up the walls of a simple form.

Terry, giving a demo.

He then assigned us the task of making several straight-sided cylinders, to assess our skill level. Because he was teaching different
techniques than what I had learned, I felt like a total beginner. My first couple of pieces didn't even survive the early steps, and those that did make it to the cylinder stage were of rather poor quality. Nothing from my morning's work was worth keeping, and all went to the recycled clay bag for re-use in the afternoon.

One thing Terry had us do after lunch was to cut open our cylinders to inspect our work. The photo below shows the one piece that came closest to achieving my goals - a flat bottom, straight sides, and walls of equal thickness, top to bottom.

The walls aren't totally straight, and there is still some residual clay at the bottom of the wall, where it joins the floor, but the rest is okay. This minor accomplishment spurred me on to work harder in the afternoon, when we graduated to shaping the cylinders into basic forms. These simple vases were the end result.

bottom-heavy, both of them
Pottery must mirror the potter.

Terry's pots, drying on the ledge of the studio's back deck, served to inspire us.
So, we kept on plugging away, everyone determined to accomplish some good work as soon as possible.

Ginger at the wheel
Sue, hand-building specialist
Carol, completing a pot
from left to right:
Diane, Sue, Michelle, Mary, and Peggy,
all hard at work
finished work at the end of day one

After several days, we had a full kiln load of greenware, ready to fire.
Opening the kiln is like Christmas morning. The anticipation of seeing our treasures was almost more than we could bear.
Terry, at our first kiln-opening

No one could believe how much pottery Terry could squeeze into the kiln.

The whole crowd, behind a table full of our work.