The Bufflehead Birder

May 11, 2009

Charley’s Hoedown

Every year local residents in my area, including employee volunteer regulars from Merck and Whole Foods, get the call to help out with the Wissahickon Creek Spring Cleanup. This yearly event is held by the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association. For a few hours we wade and scramble up and down the banks of our assigned sections along the Wissahickon Creek, picking up plastic water bottles, junk food wrappers, and other colorful but not-so pretty litter. Often we find ourselves pulling and dragging old bikes, tires, bed springs, baby carriages, and other large unusual items from the creek. Afterwards, there is a picnic in one of the parks along the Wissahickon Creek.

This year the picnic was held at Militia Hill State Park, which is one of my favorite places to find birds, especially migrating warblers. Even as we sat and ate our burgers, or bean and rice salads, or homemade cookies, I saw a Carolina Wren hopping through the rafters above our heads inside the picnic shelter, where she had a nest. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers rasped in the branches of surrounding trees, while further on I could see two Red-bellied Woodpeckers chasing each other from tree trunk to tree trunk.

Carolina Wren

Not sure what goodie she’s got but I’m glad it wasn’t part of the picnic fare.

But the highlight bird of the picnic was Charley, a Senegal Parrot (Poicephalus senegalus), with the engaging personality of a debonair party hostess. Charley, which is short for “Chartreuse”, is about 9 years old—just a young adult for a Senegal, which can live up to 30 years.


Her human, Jerry, explained that while we were being treated to a mature, well-behaved bird, he and his wife were not spared the “Terrible Twos” that Charley passed through. Knowing something about bird acting-out behavior from having babysat friends’ birds, I imagine this charming parrot shredding anything less resilient than steel, screeching just because it feels good, and climbing onto anything her little talons can grip, nipping at anyone who might object.

A Relaxed Charley

But you would never know now. Pleasant and comfortable with this large group of people, Charley was passed around from finger to finger, as folks of all ages wanted to hold her.

Then to add to the spirit of Charley’s presence, two of the picnickers arrived with a fiddle and banjo. I had taken up the fiddle recently, and had met these two musicians at a couple of old time jams; The Main Line Old Time Jam at the Gryphon Cafe in Wayne, PA and the Old Time Jam at the Mermaid Inn, in Chestnut Hill. So their arrival with instruments was a pleasant surprise for me.

Charley, Jerry, Carl, and Ray

Now Charley could perform her gymnastic tricks accompanied by some old time tunes. The Single-claw Dangle was best done to “Blackberry Blossom”.


I look forward to cleaning up the Wissahickon Creek next year. It won’t just be for the great picnic afterwards, but I will hope to be treated to Charley’s presence and some old time music. I plan to bring along my fiddle, too. Guess I better get some requests ahead of time from Charley, the chartreuse parrot.

Charley requests a tune

“Sure, we can play ‘Cluck Ol’ Hen’.”

November 8, 2008

From Wood to Wren

On my kitchen table there stands a small brown Carolina wren. It’s perched on a small pile of lichen and pale green moss. The tail juts straight up like a wren’s should although its wings are a little too short for an adult bird. If you peer closely you might notice that the feather barbs are kind of crooked and chaotic and the bird is missing the first toe of each foot, but nevertheless, it’s definitely a wren.

Not too long ago it looked like a crooked chunk of wood with pencil marks on it. So I’m proud of the fact that it now looks like a little bird, even like a wren.

The last weekend in October saw the transformation of my chunk of wood into a wren when Ernie Muehlmatt hosted one of his bird carving workshops down in Salisbury, Maryland.

Ernie is a 3-time World Class Wildfowl Carving champion and teaches his art throughout the year in a variety of locations. Easy going and gifted with a good sense of humor, Ernie made the atmosphere of the workshop comfortable and inviting for a first-timer like me.

Ernie Muehlmatt

Ernie at work on his own wren.

It was also a blessing that two of Ernie’s long-time bird-carving friends attended this workshop and were willing to guide me along if they happen to glance over and saw that my wren could be on its way to becoming an avian Frankenstein.

We used tupelo wood, which has no definite grain pattern and is soft and easy to work with. We started with a “blank”, a chunk of tupelo with excess wood already taken off.

Dremel and Blank    

Someone in class said that the basic theory of carving is like that joke about how to make an elephant; just take away everything that isn’t part of the elephant. We all laughed because it’s basically true.

We started with a “blank” and beginning with the bill, worked back along the wings to the tail. 

First stage

So far, so good. But I thought of all those bird blanks that are going to get “wasted” if I intend to get into this new hobby. Kind of like all that film and money I blew back in the days before digital cameras while I was learning photography.

While bird blanks can be ordered from bird carvers, they are expensive enough that if you make lots of mistakes it could add up. I can save a little money buy getting my own saw. A band saw is what a lot of carvers use, but I don’t have the room for one, or the desire to donate any fingers to the cause, so I will most likely be getting a jigsaw later on. See, now I’m hooked and am thinking about what I’ll need to get in order to indulge in this hobby. Santa sure is going to be busy this year.

On the Saturday of our workshop weekend we took our lunch at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art where Ernie led us on a tour of the galleries. If you are ever in SE Maryland a stop at the museum would be time well spent. It features early decoys carved by the Ward brothers, Lemuel and Steven, who made decoy carving into an art and more or less began the idea of bird carving into the art form that it is today.

Ward Wildfowl Carving Museum

One of the galleries here features a collection of the winning pieces from the previous year’s World Class Championship. These are some amazing works. Every component in the piece–the branches, the leaves, the pine needles, and rocks are carved from wood as well as the main bird. There are birds in mid-wing flap or mid-attack upon another bird who is poised in almost-escape, which are attached to their base by the merest feather or talon toe, giving the illusion of total free flight and movement. Each feather is flared or uplifted in absolute life-like detail, not painted but carved.

The joke about making an elephant popped into my head as I wandered among these carvings. Just remove what doesn’t belong and voila! But remove too much or what does belong, and there’s no slapping back of clay or rubbing out with an eraser. Just one mistake and entire piece that may have been weeks, months of long hours and excruciating concentration are for nothing.

Okay. Back at our workshop my little wren didn’t seem so overwhelming and I felt a bit more inspired.

So, once our birds had their basic shape we then carved the legs and feet and put the eyes in. That’s when I developed an affection for my little guy because now it could look out onto the world. Now it could look back at me.


A little wren looks content as it gets some wings.

Our birds then needed a “habitat” to perch on. So we carved lichens, rocks, and even a little toadstool.


Moss is a common feature of carving habitats and requires endless drilling of holes to accomplish the look. In the photo below I have barely started on my moss but you can see my uneven and crudely carved lichen.


After the carving there are more stages involved. Etching, stoning, and burning of feathes and markings. Then a laquering, application of Gesso, and a series of color washes, which I am still working on. However, below you can see the current stage of my wren as it poses proudly at the edge of my garden.

Almost There

Once the color wash is completed and cleaned up in some areas I will post a finished photo.

And no, sorry, my piece “Wren on Moss” is not for sale, but I’m flattered for the offers.

The puzzle below is of a Great Blue I digiscoped at the pond behind the Ward Museum. More pictures from the workshop are available for viewing at

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