Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Art of Paying Attention: Gila Woodpecker

Paying Attention: Gila Woodpecker (Click for audio on NPR)
© Beth Surdut, 2018
Welcome to my 24-hour, all you can drink, outdoor bar. In other parts of the country, I served hummingbirds a combination of boiled water and sugar from these red feeders, but when I moved to Tucson, I had some surprise patrons belly up to the bar.
Gila woodpecker claims a cactus fruit, Tucson, AZ--drawing by Beth Surdut

Gila woodpeckers — Latin name, Melanerpes uropygialis — are quite dapper, with black-and-white checkered and barred wings and tail, creamy cafĂ©-au-lait head and body, with a golden tinge on the belly, and distinctive white wing patches that show when they fly. The males sport what looks like a red lipstick streak on their heads. Their voices, clearly heard, even when competing with traffic noise, sound like squeak toys having a party.
Giddy talkers, they announce their arrival at my hummingbird feeders, which they drain almost daily, even after visiting the agave flowers.
The woodpeckers show up multiple times a day, announcing their arrival as they land, yakking as they jump down the bark to the feeder, still vocalizing when they land, and in-between drinks, calling back and forth from neighboring utility poles.
gila woodpecker in mesquite tree unsized body image
Gila woodpecker father feeds chick in a mesquite tree. (PHOTO: Peggy Coleman)

You should hear them amp up the sound when the feeder is empty! In summer and early fall, when the Lesser long-nosed bats drink from those same feeders every night until there is not a drop, the woodpeckers serve as my morning wake-up call.
Yet, unlike the resident Anna’s hummingbirds that share the feeder, hover around me, poke me, sometimes even follow me into the house when I carry the feeder in for a refill, the Gilas are always wary. Seeing me through the window, as I rise to attend to them, sends them fleeing, but they quickly return.
To me, woodpeckers are marvels of anatomical engineering.
Gila woodpeckers weigh about 3.5 ounces—the same as a deck of cards—and are 8-10 inches long. They have two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward that help them move on vertical surfaces, and very stiff tail feathers that they can press into even prickly cactus spines to help stabilize while whacking away.
Their sturdy beaks come to a gradual point, and are self-sharpening. They have as much chance of fitting into those hummingbird feeder holes as a camel does through the eye of a needle. When I first watched the woodpeckers stand on the feeder, tipping it with their weight as they pressed the end of the beak to the hole, I thought they were sloshing the liquid, so they could get a taste. I was wrong.
gila woodpecker tasting octopus agave unsized body image
A Gila woodpecker samples octopus agave blossoms. (PHOTO: Doris Evans)

What they do have in common with hummingbirds, are tongues so long that they wrap around their skulls. A woodpecker’s tongue is sticky and barbed at the end. It is guided by the flexible, muscle-covered hyoid bone that is attached at the right nostril, dividing into two parts between the eyes, wrapping all the way up and around the back of the skull. There, the separate pieces rejoin and attach to the muscle of the tongue. When the muscles surrounding the relaxed hyoid bone contract, they propel the tongue forward and out of the beak.
These birds bang on surfaces at an average of 12,000 times a day,15 miles per hour. The hyoid bone acts as a seatbelt for the bird’s brain, stabilizing the head and spine, protecting it from neurological trauma.
Woodpeckers’ brains are also tightly seated in their skulls—much more so than human brains, which can slosh on impact.
The upper beak is longer, so it absorbs more of the shock than the lower beak. The force travels up the beak, meeting the hyoid bone in the nostril, before hitting spongy bone in the skull. The stress then travels along the path of the hyoid bone, diffusing into the muscles that cover it.
gila woodpecker feeding young unsized body image
An omnivorous Gila woodpecker feeds its young a piece of a packrat. (PHOTO: Doris Evans)
Woodpeckers, who are omnivorous, glean insects from the surface of the bark. Their hearing is so astute, they can detect insect activity well below that, which may explain the added popularity of the rotting mesquite tree where a feeder hangs. The tap-tap-tapping isn’t all about food. On noisily resonant surfaces, such as metal screens and antennas, the birds are announcing their presence and territory.
Gila woodpeckers mate for life—unlike polygamous Acorn woodpeckers. During spring and summer, they are capable of producing two clutches of eggs—three to five each time-- and gestation period is only two weeks.
Both parents take part in nest building and feeding, usually in a mesquite tree or a saguaro cactus, which comes with the bonus of sweet fruit in summer.
gila woodpecker saguaro nest unsized body image
An omnivorous Gila woodpecker feeds its young a piece of a packrat. (PHOTO: Doris Evans) 

The birds perform a kind of surgery when they drill into a cactus to create a nesting site. The plant heals by covering the wound with sap that slowly hardens, forming a solid casing, called a boot. Drying time can take a few months, so holes are excavated, but not used until the next brood. And other birds, lizards, snakes, or rodents may move into these time-share condos.
Gila woodpecker families are around my house daily, so when I saw a fledgling with its head turned and tucked under fluffed-up feathers, unmoving on the ground under the mesquite tree, I wondered if there was a behavioral pattern I’d missed. The youngster didn’t move when I walked out and sat on a nearby bench, but eventually, it woke up and flew up to a neighbor’s roof. I went back to my drawing table, but an hour later, I saw a few people standing around the bird as it sat on a cement entryway. Something wasn’t right. I put the bird in a carrier, and rode with my neighbor to the Tucson Wildlife Center.
As the engine of her vintage sports car loudly rumbled, on what seemed like an endlessly long trip, I thought about the acuity of the bird’s hearing, and wondered if the reverberations along with the trauma would be too much for this little creature to bear. Despite its built-in protection, the woodpecker died 15 minutes after we arrived, probably due to internal injuries from a window strike.
I returned home to find another fledgling and its parent inspecting my newly planted barrel cactus. While I don’t put out bird seed, when it comes to the critters, I live to serve. For the almost three years I’ve been in Tucson, I’ve been filling the watering holes and keeping the sugar bar open, happily accepting my role as barista to the local wildlife.
One of my rewards, is being able to listen to the Gila woodpeckers talk as they tip the feeders and drink in the sweetness of life.

beth surdut with raven statue unsized
Visual storyteller Beth Surdut invites you to observe, with unbounded curiosity, the wild life that flies, crawls, and skitters along with us in our changing environment. From exotic orchids and poison dart frogs to local hawks and javelinas, Surdut illustrates her experiences with wild and cultivated nature by creating color-saturated silk paintings and detailed drawings accompanied by true stories.
You can find Surdut's drawings - and true stories about spirited wildlife at and
Beth Surdut's illustrated work Listening to Raven won the 2013 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award for Non-Fiction. Elements of her raven clan have appeared in Orion Magazine, flown across the digitally looped Art Billboard Project in Albany, New York and roosted at the New York State Museum in an exhibition of international scientific illustrators.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Art of Paying Attention: Hurricanes and Alligators

 © Beth Surdut 2017                For NPR audio, visit Arizona Public Media

Soon after I moved to Sarasota, Florida in January 2005, months before hurricane season, I was welcomed into a writing group an hour south, in Punta Gorda. In August of 2004, Hurricane Charley had swirled and crushed and ripped through there so fiercely, that parts of town looked liked there'd been a war.
Sitting around under the stars, poets and songwriters offered me moonshine and story after story about surviving Charley--sort of. When you watch your house blow away, when you take cover in the bathroom with your kid and your dog as your roof rips off, what remains is PTSD.
I said, "I just moved here. Should I turn tail and run now?"
They chuckled and someone said, "Nah. But you should move down here with us and when the time comes, we'll tell you which way to run."
Except the fierceness can change course in an instant and you might be running right into danger, not away from it. So you hear "hunker down" a lot.
I am not, by nature and design, a worrier, but the uncertainty of hurricane season -- the planning, second-guessing, preparation, and knowledge that it could be all for nought -- is like a festering tiny splinter that you'll never quite dig out.
But let me tell you about the river…

The Subtlety of Gators

"Don't be scared," said the guide in the boat next to me as the alligator lunged towards my kayak.
"I'm not scared," I whispered, looking down at the huge prehistoric head right next to my hip. "I'm petrified."
I watched the gator swim past, gliding parallel to my little red tub toy of a boat.
alligator head unsized
(PHOTO: Larry Baker)
The guide’s breath whooshed out. "I'm sure glad he didn't get scared and try to climb over our boats."
Um, yeah, me, too.
That was my first time paddling on the river, and I was hooked.
alligator eyes unsized 
Florida’s Myakka River is 68 miles long, and lives up to its official designation as wild and scenic. It’s a feast for gators and birds--I just didn't want to be the main course. The next day at an orchid sale, I heard someone yell, "Hey, Gator Girl!"
It was one of my newly met paddling buddies. My behavior on the river--shock masquerading as serenity--earned me a new moniker.
That first time stretched into three years paddling the Myakka, a place that never disappointed, always enchanted. Herons abound--Great Blues, Whites, Tri-colored, Green; heavy-bodied wood storks whose wings whoosh loudly as they loft; goofy and gorgeous pink roseate spoonbills swishing their spatulate bills in the water; bold ospreys who would swoop down right in front of my boat, and rise up with a fish grasped in their talons; anhingas, also great fishers, standing on branches drying their outstretched wings. And more species of birds than I can count.
alligator and little blue heron unsized
(PHOTO: Larry Baker)
I only went with a group and a guide that first time. Most often I paddled with one boon companion in a canoe. I like the higher sides, especially when a gator gets close and lunges up out of the water, jaws agape. It’s a rare occurrence, especially if it’s not mating season when the big boys bellow "Stella" in their own version of Streetcar Named Desire.

The dark reflective waters usually hide who's swimming under or beside the boat. Eyes, heads, and snouts dot the surface and often sink like submarines as we approach. My favorite prehistorics, as I came to call Alligator mississippiensis, became the subjects of one of my favorite paintings -- Myakka: the Subtlety of Gators.
 I have seen the spectrum of life—pop-eyed baby gators with stripes still visible on their tails, and once, a 12-foot gator corpse feasted upon by black vultures.
baby alligator unsized
(PHOTO: Susan Faulkner Davis)
  They usually amuse me with their hopping, "dum-de-dum, de-dum-de dum" gait, but watching them feed is a dark story that whispers fear around a campfire.
vulture and alligator
(PHOTO: Susan Faulkner Davis)
And then there are the behavior-challenged critters that I would like to discuss with Darwin…
A curious young gator, maybe four feet long, leaves the shore and swims quickly towards our canoe, his tail snaking through the water. In rare moments of clarity, the dappled sun lights his movements just under the surface. Soon as he's close enough to figure out what we are, he swims parallel to the boat.
alligator tail unsized
(PHOTO: Larry Baker)

The birds have gone silent and instead of their songs, we hear some recidivist rehab diva's voice scratching nature till it bleeds. The gator submerges, now invisible, as we round the bend where the air is abraded with the scent of burning tobacco.
There’s one man standing--well, sort of swaying--in thigh-deep water, his white skin glowing in the tannin-dense river. One hand is conducting with a cigarette, and he's using the beer in the other hand as ballast.
“There’s a gator heading in your direction,” I call to him, and the idiot, showing off for his beer-can buddies in their boat, yells, “Great! I’ll go meet it!” and dives under water.
I ply the paddle deep and fast, saying to my companion, “This could be a Darwin Award moment and I don’t want to see it. Just keep paddling.” Far be it from me to get in the way of that guy's personal freedom.
I didn’t hear any screams, so I guess the idiot and the gator survived.
alligator mouth close up unsized
(PHOTO: Larry Baker)
You’d think that telling “gator and the idiot” stories would be cautionary tales, but a ranger at Myakka State Park told me that there are people who emulate whatever bad behavior they hear about. Tell them not to feed gators, and picnickers are right on the river bank tossing in hot dogs. They might as well be tossing in their kids and canines. There’s even a warning sign showing some small poodlish creature as temptation.
The sad reality is that an alligator not only comes to associate humans with food, but doesn’t distinguish between the food and the hand that holds it. Potentially, you’re just one big snack, bubba.
If a gator grabs a human, even if it’s the human’s fault, the alligator is removed—that means killed.
alligator on shore
(PHOTO: Susan Faulkner Davis)
On a deliciously moist day, I counted 14 gator heads in the water around me. Squinting into the drapery of Spanish moss hanging from live oaks, I saw vultures gathered in the shadows. I stopped counting when I got to 48 vultures in the trees and on shore. I could discern no carrion in sight or scent. I never felt threatened, but I did keep paddling, in case they mistook me for dessert.
alligator in sunset unsized
(PHOTO: Larry Baker)

Flying Lessons with David Lang

One of the most extraordinary friends in my life has died. David A Lang was the finest of friends and a blessing in my life. He taught me to fly a plane, supported my art, and never ceased to delight with his ever-curious mind and kindness.
Of all the gifts in my life, he will sparkle forever. May he fly with the swallows he loved.

In 2000, when I lived in Harvard, MA, I wrote a profile of David in a magazine called The Middlesex Beat. Here it is:

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”
Robert Bresson (b. 1907), French film director. Notes on the Cinematographer, "1950-1958: The Real" (1975).

©Beth Surdut 2000
For thirty years David Lang has painted watercolors of the details of life. A handmade rake, broom, and woven dust pan lie dormant in a Japanese garden; a rusty tea kettle in an Irish barn signals a respite in the tedium of chores; a classic old truck lists in rusty ruin in a green New England field; a penny lies in robust green cabbage fields. “I want people to dream, to remember, to know that had they seen what I paint, they would remember it. That’s what’s important to me—not to let stuff slip away unremembered and unrecorded,” said Lang.
Most summers for the past eight years he has returned to the same quiet village in County Clare, Ireland. A visit to a friend on sabbatical sparked the initial trip to the country that has become a second home, its music beating time to Lang’s heart. “I was astounded. I slipped right into it like a glove. This place took me in and wrapped itself around me. All of a sudden I a fixture there.”
Sixty to seventy paintings have come out of these trips, partially because Lang has found a remedy to the self-induced pressure of finding a subject to paint. Sometimes he simply takes a hundred steps and just begins. “Pretty much what I wind up doing is standing still. I like going somewhere and taking it in. Both in Japan and Ireland I had to figure what the language of the paintings was. If you put yourself in a position to accept the experience, it all just comes together. I couldn’t do barn paintings in Japan, but it was the same old stuff. . .the shards and memories of what people were doing in lives.” The Japan series speaks its own language within the context of implements. In one of the most poetic paintings, bamboo ladles rest on a stone water trough outside a shrine.  
Lang, head of the art department at the Middlesex School in Concord, has been teaching painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and engineering since 1972. If you really want to learn anything, teach it. It really puts you right on the line.” Each year his class restores a classic car. Each year there are last minute problems that are always solved.  Although he says he has always been attracted to older people no matter which country he visits, Lang spends many of his days surrounded by teenagers. He is simultaneously teacher and student. Once self-conscious about showing his works in progress, he now allows his students to critique his paintings. “They always teach me something,” he says. Once fearful of words, probably due to childhood dyslexia that he has controlled through meditation, he now writes poetry and essays. “I think of my writing as paintings in words and my paintings as stories in paint.”
One place, as good as any, to start explaining what influences David Lang is with the recurring presence of swallows. The birds have tumbled and swooped through the barns where he grew up in Long Island, in the places he painted in the New England, Pennsylvania, in Ireland, and in Turkey. He has traveled to Japan three times. “I became mesmerized by the running script of old Japanese. It’s like liquid, like the flight path of swallows.”
 “I’ve always thought that swallows were the most imaginative playful flyers. They’re very curious little birds,” he said, himself a licensed pilot who owns a plane and teaches flying at Hanscom Air Force Base.
“We were in Turkey, in a little hill town. The children would follow me around so I brought extra paint and pads to give to the kids. I didn’t speak the language, but knew enough to say, “What is that?” We were in a church, the swallows flitting in and out, and the kids told me their word for swallow is kirlangic. My name was right smack in the middle!”
This artist has a splendid relationship with rocks and rust, stone and iron, the layers of color and the nuances of light that fill the quieter spaces of life. “It’s like a romance, a courtship. For me, no color is the color itself. It’s the context with other color. I’m always painting into the paint. It’s a very animated lively thing.” There are paradoxes here in the still life representations of objects of work, play, and movement, of spirituality embodied in items associated with the physical plane. “I look at my paintings and I see portraits of people or families through their artifacts. Quite often I paint something that will go to the junkyard. The painting ends up being worth many times more than the thing.”
“There’s a closeness to the earth, closeness to each other---values and stories where there’s just barely a whisper left.  This is a much more stable reality than what happens today.”

            We are standing in an old one-room building that looks over the pond in my rural back yard. As light streaks through old glass across rakes and hoes, David Lang stands still and is quiet, unusual to see if you know him. He has already made clear that he admires the little wooden structure, that if it were his own he would clean it out and make it a writing studio. Sliding past the anvil, he hoists himself up over the lawnmower and starts to rummage through the shelves of clay pots and garden tools until he finds what he sensed was there for him all along. Triumphant, he emerges with the partial skeleton of a Great Blue Heron, its elegant neck held gently in between thumb and fingers. “Can I borrow this? I just knew there was something here for me,” he said.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Labyrinth: Grace in the desert

 “One knows one’s place, that is to say, only within limits, and the limits are in one’s mind, not in the place.” Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle.
   I walk this labyrinth most days at dusk to settle my self.

Ways to go wild in the desert

"I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." (Hamlet).

 Crepuscular creature that I am, I often walk the desert starting at dusk and into the night. Last night, responding to the monsoons, lovely poisonous white datura bloomed amidst yellow brittlebush covering much of the paths to and from the labyrinth. 

Three Cooper's hawks flew close above me at the dimming of the day. later, a fourth hawk landed in a tree and watched me photograph the flowers.

On my way home, I was thinking, "If I were a snake, I'd like to be in this undergrowth..." and then just as I reached a clearing, I almost stepped on this king snake.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Reagan, St Barts, Stained glass, and dangerous doings


Our nation's capital, The Joys of St. Barts, and safety issues-- Reagan was president. He'd been shot a couple of years before I designed and fabricated this three panel skylight called "The Joys of St Barts." My mother called to make sure I wasn't standing next to him. She also called me when Mt St Helen blew because one Washington is just scary as another when your kid might be involved in a catastrophe.
The family who commissioned this piece vacationed regularly on the island of St Barts. Their last name was Joy. Within a year, joy became sorrow, when the husband, who had regaled me with tales of seeing Angel Falls (the world's highest uninterrupted waterfall) and other adventures, plummeted to his death in DC. The helicopter that was carrying him and his photographer buddy, who was taking pictures for a real estate flyer, malfunctioned, killing both men.
I have done and will probably continue to do some things that people think are dangerous-- including getting strapped onto a bench seat of a home built plane that had no skin and flying over the sea and mountains of Oahu. And then there's the 3 years with the gators. And learning to fly a plane before I went to flight school. But guess what--knowing the odds of a copter going down, I'll never willingly get into one.
Yeah, safety. What I didn't factor in was the mechanics who replaced my brakes this week and sent me out into traffic with a brake pedal that went all the way to the floor. Not much scares me. That sure as hell did.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Nature is Never Boring

The Art Of Paying Attention by Beth Surdut: Illustrated Wildlife Radio Encounters on NPR

I’m a wildlife illustrator, essayist, and storyteller in the Southwest United States. I research the behavior of each creature, write about our true encounters, interview experts, collect sounds, draw each critter, and then go to the local NPR station to record with an Emmy award-winning producer. My multi-platform series, The Art of Paying Attention, airs and is posted on, the NPR affiliate Arizona Public Media.
When Rachel Carson wanted people to pay attention to the effects of environmental pollution, she personalized the far-reaching effects of pesticides by asking readers of her New Yorker pieces to look out their windows. And they did. Not only did people see the corpses of poisoned squirrels, they took action. Whether motivated to protect the human species or every little life in the larger ecosystem, the results raised enough awareness to make changes.
Like Carson, I know from experience that if you pay attention long enough, you can see the whole world in your yard. And once you start looking, it is hard to stop. From my perspective, paying attention brings care, care brings love; and that love engenders protection.
With this series, I am extending an invitation to observe, with unbounded curiosity, the wild life that flies, crawls, and skitters along with us in our changing environment.
In this time of environmental doomsayers–and we do need to hear the bad news– the enormity of destruction can render some of hopeless. I offer a joyous and, I hope, action-inducing alternative to those of us who are motivated by wonder rather than by fear and guilt. By being aware of what is around us, each of us can care for our little patch, and together form a quilt of protection. And have a great time doing so.
More info:

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Great Horned Owls hootin' in my 'hood and on NPR

August 2015—
At the edge of nightfall, I could sense a storm coming—when you live in the desert, you can smell moisture like a hound picks up scent. My neighbor, Keith, knocked on my door.
“I hope I’m not bothering you. You told me to come get you,” he said. “There’s an owl!”
 I followed him—not far—and he pointed at the unmistakable shape of a Great horned owl perched atop a utility pole.
“It was on our roof,” Keith whispered. “There might be two of them.”
The owl turned its head towards us.
Lightning crackled and cut the sky into jagged pieces, but the owl stayed in place and so did we.

When I started asking about the owls over a year ago, neighbors showed me the large twiggy nest that most likely started out as a Harris’ hawk’s. Owls don’t build; they move in. Looking like a stack of kindling with stuffing, it sat very high up in a shaggy bark eucalyptus tree where the owls used to be.  I saw the ancient pine where the owls no longer showed up. Every place was past tense.

A year later, I photographed an adult owl perched like a sentry near the old nest. A neighbor, walking her little meal-sized dog, said that she’d talked to one of the owls and it seemed to listen to her. I think it was probably scoping out the pooch.

A few days later, at dusk, at the turn to my house, a Great Horned Owl flew from behind me, just a few feet above me, to my right, and landed in a nearby tree. It seemed to be looking at me where I’d stopped on the dirt road, but then a small sound brought my glance down. Looking up at me from four feet away, a juvenile owl’s big eyes stared as it hopped once, an ungainly motion, stopped, hopped the other way, and looked at me with what can best be described as puzzlement.

Neither of us knew the exact etiquette in this situation, but the adult did. Flying in a big loop, it returned, waited, and then flew again, this time followed by the little one I’d almost stepped on.

During the rest of this last summer and into fall, I learned where they slept during the day. Until the water became too cold, my end-of-day ritual was to go for a swim near their favorite trees, wait for the owls to wake up and call to each other. They became used to me, no longer squawking an alarm call at my presence. Just before full darkness, they’d fly out to hunt.

Great Horned Owl drawing
©Beth Surdut

I named them Pancho and Lefty. Pancho is larger and older, with a deeper voice and bolder than shy young Lefty, who tended to favor bushier leaf cover before eventually flying to more exposed branches. Pancho always looked down at me as if I were some errant peasant who had wandered in the royal realm.

They are magnificent, standing 18 to 24 inches tall. In flight, they have a wing span of 3 to 5 feet.  Their coloration blends into tree bark so perfectly that only a call, a head turn, or leaves rustling when there’s no breeze, shows me where they are. When the owls are awake, black-centered yellow eyes stare down at me straight on, because an owl is unable to move its huge tubular eyes independently. To see, it swivels its entire head as much as 270 degrees.

From underneath, the rear view looks like so many delicately striped petticoats and soft white bloomers covering sturdy legs ending in toes, sensitive as a human’s palm, that can clamp with unrelenting pressure. The gun-colored talons, one of them serrated, are so sharp they can puncture a spine.

Owls excrete bright white splashes of uric acid creating a map on the ground leading to grey pellets of indigestible animal parts. These densely packed one-to-two-inch pods are stored in the gizzard, then gently regurgitated about 10 hours later.

When people talk about a girls’ night out, it usually involves shopping, spas, drinks. My friends come over to see what an owl gacked up.

“Packrat,” said wildlife photographer Doris Evans, peering at the tiny jaw fragments and bones lined up next to fur on my work table. “Look at the shape of the teeth and the yellowing--that signifies rodent.”

The death of one animal fosters life in another.  Fifty percent of baby owls die in their first year, the majority from starvation. If they survive that year, these powerful predators can average 15 years in the wild, more if food is abundant. That is, if they avoid being hit by cars and eating rodents poisoned by humans.

The last time I stood listening to Pancho and Lefty in a star-filled night, I retrieved another pellet, curious to see who’s inside. Tracking this gives me clues to the state of my small patch of environment and pieces of the puzzle of how to care for it.  I have noticed that the rabbit population has diminished greatly and now I see mating pairs as creators of food for the local raptors.

Pancho and Lefty disappeared end of October, the youngster’s time having come to find its own territory, which might be only a mile away. Over the next weeks I would stand under the trees where they had slept, hoping one of them would return. I spotted a flutter, higher than any ladder would reach.  Even so, I stretched up my arm, so wanting to bring that owl feather home.

Right about now, mid-December, you may hear owls calling to each other with raucous insistent sounds. Two weeks ago, at one o’clock in the morning, the hoots were so loud that they boomed through my closed doors and windows. This is courtship, the owls elevating their hormones for the next breeding cycle.

Look for big nests. Form a citizen’s science brigade with your neighbors, as I do. With patience and luck, you may find a Great Horned owl or two. It’s not that they are rare, but that they are so very adept at camouflage.

Recently, in a cold dusk so windy I thought it snatched up my voice when I hooted, two Great Horned owls flew in close to me and swooped upwards into the trees where I’d watched Pancho and Lefty so often. My smile was as wide and bright as the new moon sliver in the darkening sky.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Traveling with Leonard Cohen

When I paint or draw, especially when I create a tallit for a client, I listen to Jews with Buddhist sensibilities-- Jack Kornfield, Krishna Das, Leonard Cohen, Ram Dass. They comfort and amuse me, a former religious studies major, as I imagine sitting at a table with these, my uniquely talented brothers. And I chuckle to think what our parents, may their memories be for a blessing, would say about the paths their Jewish kids have taken, all of us looking for that secret chord.
I Came So far  For Beauty, 30" x 40"silk painting by Beth Surdut

       The mysterious longing for beautiful places has guided my life. And Leonard Cohen has traveled with me more times than I realized until he died.
I purposely named this painting of a preserve in Hawaii after Cohen's poem-song I CAME SO FAR FOR BEAUTY. It hangs by my bed, allowing me to awaken to  beauty in the direst of times. I first hung it near me after 9/11 because I needed a place of sanctuary.

I came so far for beauty
I left so much behind/
My patience and my family
My masterpiece unsigned

I thought I'd be rewarded
For such a lonely choice
And surely she would answer
To such a very hopeless voice
I practiced all my sainthood
I gave to one and all
But the rumors of my virtue
They moved her not at all

~ Leonard Cohen (excerpt)

True for me, except all my pieces are signed.

Martyrs and Saints 
When an artist named Sylvia asked me to pose as Joan of Arc, I asked her if she knew Leonard Cohen's song by that name. She said yes, so I agreed.
Odd to see myself in armor in my 30s or any other time,  just as it was unsettling to see myself as Mary Magdalene when I posed for a Dutch artist in Israel when I was 17 years old.

Joan of Arc, drawing by Sylvia, model: Beth Surdut

Myself I long for love and light,
But must it come so cruel, and oh so bright? ~ from Joan of Arc by Leonard Cohen

Farewell, Leonard Cohen. Would that any of us leave such a legacy.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Art of Paying Attention workshop June 4 with Nature's Notebook and Citizen Science in Tucson

Bet Surdut, Visual Storyteller in the Bisti badlands.
"Raven, Coyote and I walk here often, discussing who really created the Milky Way.
 Come. Breathe in the desert that sits in your mouth in the middle of the night, begging for water. Listen to that moment when the compass stays in your pocket and you are, like all else, a mote of dust sparkling in the sun." Beth Surdut, Visual Storyteller
Bisti sentinel by Beth Surdut
The desert has so many micro-climates. The one pictured above is the Bisti badlands in the Dinetah, Navajo land in the Four Corners area of New Mexico.
Join me, along with Phenology Education Director LoriAnne Barnett, for an introduction to Nature's Notebook, a citizen science project developed by the National  Phenology Network based at the University of  Arizona in Tucson.
Our classroom will be Agua Caliente Park, an oasis in the Sonoran desert.

Agua Caliente Park, Tucson photo by Beth  Surdut
 Learn about plant and animal life cycles and how they relate to changing environmental conditions.
Cooters and reflections at Agua Caliente Park photo by Beth Surdut
 We will provide an introduction to making observations in nature and demonstrate how to use Nature's Notebook for making and recording your observations.
Paying attention. Male mallard at Agua Caliente Park
 Learn how your data collection helps scientists answer local and national questions about species response to climate change.
Please pre-register here.
Beth Surdut, Visual Storyteller in Solitude Canyon, NM

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Art of Paying Attention on NPR: Snakes

Gopher snake drawing by Beth Surdut 2016
For NPR audio, which I highly recommend, click here

Everything you see on this page is © Beth Surdut 2016.

Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.” ~ John Muir

I was experiencing an “ohh, look, a tiny baby bunny” moment, when an impressively large gopher snake zoomed across the yard like a kid on a bike when the ice cream truck is in the neighborhood—head up, jaws wide open, and only one thing in mind.
I know everybody’s got to eat, but not in front of me. I have a hard time watching those nature TV specials where the antelope/bunny/mouse/cute thing gets chomped. So, I literally ran interference, yelling, “No you don’t!” while chasing a five-foot long snake the size of my fist, whose earless body can transmit my vibrations through skin, muscle, and bone.
I don’t want to send this beautifully patterned reptile--or any other-- to its next incarnation as a belt or shoes; but, since we all can’t just get along, and these snakes can have a quarter-mile territory, I’d like it to move on. A challenge-- my yard is a snake’s Eden with fresh-water stations, shade, baby birds, bunnies, ground squirrels, a variety of lizards to eat, and a human who doesn’t want to kill snakes, just discourage them.
The gopher snake, also called a bull snake, is non-venomous, but can mimic a rattlesnake even though it has no rattles. Now coiled and, for lack of a better word, sulking under a lilac bush, this snake has the ability to flatten its head, vibrate its tail and hiss like a rattler, but other than bunny bloodlust, there was none of that action and no aggression.

Eyeing the sharp end of a long-handled hoe, I considered my stance on live and let live. Yup, still not a murderer. The tiny bunny was nowhere in sight, so I did the only reasonable thing I could think of—I ran to get a very long stick and my camera.

Mighty hunter that I am, I spoke softly and poked the big stick very gently at the tail to coax the serpent into leaving paradise. It complied, slowly. Stretching out, it nosed upward slightly, tongue tasting the air as it slithered out to the driveway and camouflaged itself on a welcome mat of accumulated dead leaves.
I nudged the tip of the tail again, and, when it didn’t move, I explained loudly that it should find a new zip code. Snake languidly moved another ten feet under foliage so thick, I couldn’t see a trace.
Did I mention I was born in the Chinese year of the snake?

This past year, in one of my Paying Attention workshops, a woman told me her sister and husband had bought a house with acreage in the Chiricahuas, from an old man who told them that there was a diamondback named Charlie on the property. He said that snake was at least 25 years old. Had never hurt anybody.
One day, the woman and her sister were standing by a stream there and her sister said, “Don’t move, but look down in the grass between us.”
“I could see the diamond pattern and that it was big…and then we kind of went crazy,” she said to me. Her voice rose and she talked in that way people do when they’re really flustered. “What about the grandchildren? What if they play down here? We have to do something.”
Her sister told her to go get her husband from the house and tell him to bring his gun.
There was such sadness in that woman as she quieted down and said, “I did. I went and got him. He shot that snake in the head. He killed it because we were hysterical. We weren’t thinking…if only we’d thought about what we were doing. Because when we settled down, I realized we’d killed Charlie. I felt so bad and I still do. If we’d only thought.”

 I saw the tiny bunny once a couple of days after the deflected gopher snake attack. About a week later, while watering, I spotted two separate pieces of bunny fur with chunks of skin and meat attached. Not unusual—almost every critter here is food for another. But, even knowing that, I stood in bleak sadness, letting the hose pour costly lifeblood onto the always thirsty desert floor. But then, I saw movement—a youngster! Little furred ears, their insides the color of peaches, a white puff of tail!  I named it Survivor.
 A baby gopher snake, only as big around as my index finger,  slipped gracefully past me this morning on its way to a plant-filled no-man’s-land between me and the neighbor’s—I hope it likes it there.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

White-winged doves in the Southwest

Beth Surdut's The Art of Paying Attention: White-Winged Doves

Author and artist Beth Surdut listens to ravens, and has paddled with alligators in wild and scenic places. She also knows that a nest shouldn't be judged on appearance alone
Listen on NPR:
White-winged Doves
©Beth Surdut 2016
High-up in the imposing tamarisk tree outside my bedroom window, a migratory white-winged dove nestles like a plump teapot in the flat saucer where the branches fork. I can see the circle of blue highlighted with lavender around her bright orange eye as she bends her head to rearrange some sticks poking out around her. Her mate arrives with another slim stick in his beak and he stands on her back, drops the stick next to her, and then flies off for what seems to be a very long time before returning with another stick. Again, he stands on top of her, drops his gift, which slides away and shimmies through the air. He does not fly down to retrieve it, but instead returns to his favorite building supply area.
I think they must be new at this, but the more attention I pay, the more I learn that there is a lot that I don’t know about critters, even when I think I do.
By day two of construction, we have had rain—unusual, I’m told. The air sits sweet and sticky on my skin. The dove sits on her sticks. When hummingbirds build a nest, it is compact, dense, designed with tensile strength and lined with soft materials. Clearly, the doves didn’t get that memo. If these inhabitants were humans, they’d be on the road to divorce or looking for another architect and builder.
By day four, the nest looks like a skeleton ready to be filled in. Ms. Dove sits, but doesn’t stay. I take the opportunity to wrap my dressmaker’s tape around the tamarisk’s girth—41 inches tapering upwards to 36. I’m impressed. Though these trees are disliked for their lusty drinking habits and sloppy grooming, I see this one as a tree of life where not only the doves nest, but also, varieties of sparrows, hummingbirds, and verdins perch and call while collared lizards scuttle across the bulky outstretched base.
beth surdut dove unsized body image
Later in the morning, as I’m watering the nearby bamboo, the dove pair returns. She nestles, he stands on top of her, his head above hers, and their heads turn towards me in unison as I walk by. The unlined, seemingly rickety, open-air nest that resembles a tangled pile of the game of Pick-Up Sticks proves to be a challenge for me to draw as I try to discern where the elements intersect. What appeared to be a haphazard pile, serves the purpose of holding mother and two eggs—usually two—until little pin-feathered beings grow viable feathers and fly to the ground after two weeks. Both parents watch over them during incubation and through this exploratory period, but doves are food for the Harris’ and Cooper’s hawks in my ‘hood.
Yet even with the losses due to predation, consider the seemingly ubiquitous presence of doves that pollinate saguaros and line the utility wires — I often count more than 20 — and the ones that fly out of the oleanders and eucalyptus as if flushed by hounds when I walk by. Look around for the nests—my neighbor has one built on the electrical outlet cover next to the light by her front door, another in the rhus lancia tree at the corner of her house, and a third on a crossbeam under her patio roof.
Last year, at the edge of a gravel road that leads to my house, the doves chose a labyrinthine mass of cholla with pointy twists and turns surrounded by prickly pear that seemed to present a formidable fortress. Sometimes, if the mother deemed I was too close—she had, after all, chosen a well-trodden path--she would fly off and pretend she was wounded, dropping one white-tipped wing and dragging it as she hopped along on the ground, making herself an obvious target.
A friend came to visit, arriving at my front door, saying “There was a Harris’ hawk standing on the ground just as I made the turn into here. I wonder why?’
I knew why. When I got there, the mother and two babies--they were not old enough to fly—were gone, feathers scattered, some standing upright like little grave markers.
This month marks a year that I’ve lived here, and I see nests being reconstructed in many of the same places. The current babies fledged in that cholla today—the mother was on the nest, father on a branch near her, and I found one youngster walking on the ground below them. I looked up into the trees and the utility pole tops where I usually see the hawks, listened for their distinctive calls, but heard only the drone of bees, the chittering of small birds, and the calls of the white-winged doves.
beth surdut baby dove nest photo unsized
The Art of Paying Attention Workshop
Observing nature starts with curiosity about what grows, flies, and crawls around you. Explore our integrated place in nature in a workshop with award-winning wildlife artist and writer Beth Surdut, creator of the illustrated Listening to Raven stories and The Art of Paying Attention NPR radio series.
Sponsored by Pima County and the USA National Phenology Network, for ages 12 and up.
Date & Time: Thursday, May 26, 2016 from 4:30 – 6:00 p.m.
Where: Pima County Agua Caliente Park, 12325 E. Roger Road
Cost: Free with park membership, non-member fee: $10. Pre-registration preferred..
Please bring a notebook!
For more information contact,, or call 520-615-7855
Visual storyteller Beth Surdut invites you to observe, with unbounded curiosity, the wild life that flies, crawls, and skitters along with us in our changing environment. From exotic orchids and poison dart frogs to local hawks and javelinas, Surdut illustrates her experiences with wild and cultivated nature by creating color-saturated silk paintings and detailed drawings accompanied by true stories.
You can find Surdut's drawings - and true stories about spirited critters - at 
beth surdut with raven statue unsized
Beth Surdut's illustrated work Listening to Raven won the 2013 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award for Non-Fiction. Elements of her raven clan have appeared in Orion Magazine, flown across the digitally looped Art Billboard Project in Albany, New York and roosted at the New York State Museum in an exhibition of international scientific illustrators.