For the love of birds! Ornithology Art
My art is inspired by my love of ornithology. My name’s May Jernigan, and I’m new to the SayoStudio team. I want to share with you a bit of my background, and my love for Florida wildlife!
I’m a huge bird nerd! I have been ever since I started noticing the amazing range and diversity of wildlife in the mangrove estuaries of Sanibel Island, Florida. Starting as a novice, I blossomed into a full-blown birder and amateur photographer. Sanibel Island was a place I visited many times during family vacations, and ultimately led me to become an art intern for the local wildlife refuge. The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a fantastic place to visit, and helped me embrace the world of nature conservation pertinent to Florida ecosystems.
Florida’s Wide Array of Animal and Plant Species is Astounding
Over time, I learned about how human actions have major impacts on our wildlife neighbors. Florida just passed a law protecting the increasingly shrinking Florida Wildlife Corridor, which was a major win for wildlife across the state. Mangroves that used to line Florida’s gulf coast have been nearly wiped out, thanks to demand for land and housing development on beachfront property. Areas like Tampa now have virtually no mangrove estuaries, leaving them vulnerable to any direct hit from hurricanes. As climate change looms over us all, protecting native habitats is now more important than ever.
Ornithology Mural Art for “Wildlife on Wheels” Mobile Educational Classroom
Stepping off my soap box, I began to deeply care for the natural conservation of Florida. After completing my internship, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society commissioned me to create artwork for their brand new mobile educational classroom.
The Wildlife on Wheels (WoW for short) is a mobile museum for kids. It visits school systems in the Southwest Florida area. Before joining SayoStudio, I created a 36-foot mural to adorn the exterior of the WoW. The ornithology mural features all the amazing birds (and some alligators!) one can observe at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Being a part of the WoW project was amazing, and I’m really proud of the work they do for Florida communities!
While digitally painting the mural, I used almost all of my own reference photographs from my birding trips. Getting up close to these animals, even with my zoom lens, helps me picture how I might want to create art in the future. Even “bad,” underexposed pictures can turn into great artwork. As a result, I tend to hoard thousands of pictures in hard drives for future use. I’m constantly hunting for more birding locations, which led to me hearing about the Alligator farm in St. Augustine, FL.
Ornithology Artwork Inspired by Florida bird species
Springtime in the Bird Rookery
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park (now part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) has been around since 1893. It’s a natural swampy area, showcasing all the known species of crocodilians and many, many alligators. In the rookery area, wild gators are free to congregate underneath the trees and boardwalk for visitors. It’s common to hear huge, bombastic splashes of alligators barreling into the water beneath you, or the guttural chuffing of giant male gators. They sound eerily similar to something you’d hear in a Jurassic Park movie.
Nesting spoonbills, egrets, and herons
However, my visit was not motivated by alligators — but by the famous bird rookery that fills up during the spring breeding season. A boardwalk stretches in and around the trees, each tree supporting a seemingly endless variety of nesting birds. Wood storks, cattle egrets, great egrets, snowy egrets, tricolored herons, night herons, green herons, little blue herons– as well as my favorite, roseate spoonbills. During late spring afternoons, all the bird parents fly back into the rookery. The entire place is teeming with the chaotic chattering of what seems like thousands of birds, all coming home to roost.
It’s a place like no other. There are so many birds so close together that you don’t know where to look first. The monstrous great egret hatchlings are seen attacking their parents for food. Two-week-old spoonbill chicks wiggle back and forth for their mother’s attention — looking distinctly like tiny plucked chickens with rounded orange bills. Little snowy egret chicks huddle together, both looking nervous as other birds fight above their nest. The entire place was like a bird version of an overcrowded apartment complex, filled to the brim with shrieking children.
Witnessing Nature’s Complex Symbiotic Relationships: Alligators and Nesting Birds
Alligators and nesting birds have a unique symbiotic relationship that seems unusual at first glance. The difference is quite noticeable in other areas without a large alligator presence. This past spring at ‘Ding’ Darling, predators got to the nests of yellow-crowned night herons before the babies had the chance to grow. In this instance, there were some hungry red-shouldered hawks. Raccoons also climb through the mangrove branches to raid nests.
The only thing that protects nests from predation like this is a large alligator presence beneath them. The thousands of birds that nest at the rookery each year do so of their own volition; the presence of alligators creates a safer habitat for birds to raise their young.
Well, ‘safe’ until a few straggling fledglings fall out of the nest… The alligators take those babies, but as is the circle of life, the success rate of these nests far outweighs the accidental falls of newly fledged birds. The rookery is truly a natural wonder, one that really satiated my birding quest for a time. Now I’m eager to visit more rookeries across Florida, some with different species I haven’t seen up close and personal. But the St. Augustine rookery was something out of this world. I had a smile on my face the entire time, and some amazing intimate shots of baby birds interacting with their exhausted parents.
Lasting Art Inspiration
Experiences like this are once in a lifetime, and I am so grateful to have visited this rookery. It provided so much inspiration for art ideas, and the opportunity to get others excited about the conservation of these beautiful species. Everyone plays a part, each element has to come together perfectly in balance to create such a beautiful place in nature. After seeing these birds up close, I feel connected to them in a powerful, tangible way.
Looking to the future, I’m so excited to work with SayoStudio and find opportunities to illustrate these amazing ecosystems and find more of nature’s amazing landscapes. I look forward to sharing more of my inspiration and art with you all!
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