Wednesday, September 9, 2015

First Day of Sale Ceremony and Hometown Celebration

The First Day of Sale Ceremony, June 26th

On Thursday, June 25th, my husband and I boarded a flight to Memphis, TN. I was both excited and nervous, for we were on our way to the First Day of Sale Ceremony for the 2015-16 Federal Duck Stamp. I was excited to see my painting on the stamp for the first time, but also quite nervous both about giving a speech in front of so many people that I admired, as well as how the public would receive the quirky Ruddy Ducks I painted.

Well there it is
After landing in Memphis, we stepped outside into the baking TN heat, and I was quickly reminded of why I migrated back up north, after living both in Houston TX and the greater Atlanta, GA areas.
Ah, yes, this was the "handle your seat belt with the edge of your shirt lest you burn yourself on it" type summer weather that I remembered being none too fond of! Still, I was a woman on a mission.

As we neared our destination, our GPS became a bit ambiguous and we were very briefly nervous of missing our turns. Well, we both lost that fear immediately after turning a bend on the highway and seeing the towering, shining Memphis Pyramid! A giant gleaming beacon, it was now the very recently opened Bass Pro at the Pyramid. The closer we got, and the larger it loomed, the more amused we felt. A mecca of sorts for the outdoors-person, one can only admire how amazing and absurd it is in its way. You almost can't help but laugh. I mean this only in the most loving, teasing way, because every person we met at Bass Pro were extremely kind and generous.

A Ruddy Duck! They knew I was coming.
Once at the Pyramid, we were blown away by the interior. It was like Disney World for hunters, fishers, hikers, boaters, campers, and more. Much to my delight, they had a small group of live captive ducks in their many ponds. Lo and behold: Ruddy Ducks! I was tickled, and at various times over our visit I sat next to the boats and sketched the birds.

We met some of the kind folks we'd be working with the next day to make the Ceremony happen, and helped set up the Jr. Duck Stamp displays (it's amazing how one gets recruited when you're 6 feet tall!). I also met with Andrew Kneeland, the Jr. Duck Stamp Winner. He traveled all the way from Wyoming with his family to be present, and we had a great chat at dinner.

The next morning, June 26th, was the big day; we all rose early to get ready for the Ceremony. The
First Day of Sale Ceremony is a ceremonial unveiling of the duck stamp design, a ceremonial sale of the first duck stamp of the year (to the director of the US Fish and Wildlife Department, Dan Ashe), speakers of various stations, and signing events. The public is invited to attend at no cost and can then have various items signed, including but not limited to duck stamps of course.

Dan Ashe introducing nervous me.
I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Dan Ashe (Director of the US FWS), Dale Hall (CEO of Ducks Unlimited), Martin MacDonald (Director of Conservation, Bass Pro), Postmaster Toni Franklin, the wonderful crew at Amplex, and others both before and after the event. The National Anthem was sung, and soon the event began! We were given several rousing speeches by the previously mentioned folks, including Jerome Ford, and before I knew it, Dan Ashe was introducing me and handing off the microphone.

When giving speeches and talks about the Duck Stamp in the last year, I have generally focused on the good the program does for conservation (which is crazy amounts of good), the importance of wetlands and grasslands habitats both for people, flora and fauna, and so forth. However, the good gentlemen that had spoke before me had already covered those bases; rightly so. I kept my speech short and sweet, then, and then introduced Andrew (the Jr. Stamp winner). Andrew gave a really wonderful and elegant speech.

Giving a short speech.

Unveiling the 2015-16 Federal Duck Stamp!
Shortly thereafter, the stamp design itself was released, and the very first duck stamp of the year (and the first to ever be $25) was sold to Dan Ashe. The second and third stamps were sold to Martin MacDonald and Dale Hall. After the ceremony, all those that were part of the event signed several large uncut sheets of both issues of the stamp, to go to the Smithsonian (!!).

Dan Ashe, Director of the USFWS, buying the very first stamp from postmaster Tori Franlkin.

Dale Hall, buying the third stamp.

Dan Ashe signing full, uncut sheets of stamps for the Smithsonian. 

I quickly was ushered to a table, where I sat next to Andrew and we both had a steady flow of people wanting us to sign our respective stamps, event programs, and various memorabilia. I can't guess how many things I signed, but it was easily several hundred.

Signing lots and lots of stamps!

Andrew and I were very serious about the program, but perhaps less serious about ourselves.
Here we are in our native formats, right before signing started...
(it could be that I am just a giant nerd)

Okay, we behaved ourselves when the public came in.

Signing more stamps for collectors.

There are two issues of the stamp; the water activated glue type which is what we think of as an old fashioned lick-it-and-stick-it style of stamp. Then there is the pressure sensitive adhesive stamp, which is a more modern peel-and-stick type stamp, stuck on a dollar-bill sized card (like a sticker sheet if you will). Collectors collect both styles of stamp, and the stamp itself is exactly the same in size and design (the only difference is the type of glue on the back!). I am biased toward the peel-and-stick sheet because the artwork on the 'background' of that one is also a painting I did. It also has more written information about the importance of the stamp program, and this year even has a companion species on the back (as drawn by past Federal Duck Stamp artist Richard Clifton).

Pressure Sensitive Adhesive issue of stamp with companion art!

Water Activated Glue issue. Old style!

In addition to the two stamp issues, there are various stamp items that collectors and appreciators are interested in. One is a silk cachet. This is an envelope with a printed silk area sporting the duck stamp design, and a canceled duck stamp on the other end. This is a collector's item.

First Day Issue Silk Cachet, a collector's item.

Then there is the Commemorative issue. I am particularly fond of these, myself. It is an embossed certificate, with a reproduction of sketches done by the incoming and outgoing Federal Duck Stamp artists. The incoming artist would be the person whose work is currently being released as a stamp (in this case, that is myself), and the outgoing is the artist whose stamp artwork is ceasing sale. See, a duck stamp is only a valid license for one year, but the stamps themselves can be purchased officially for up to three years (by collectors usually). It also has a stamp by each artist, and they are canceled by a postal cancellation to make it official. So, the commemorative issue is very special to me because it has my Ruddy Ducks next to Joe Hautman's Wood Duck from three years ago. Joe's wood duck is one of my favorite Federal Duck Stamps of all time, so it's a huge honor for me!

A colorful commemorative! This is a collector's item.

The cancellation stamp (the black ink drawing of a swimming Ruddy) is also my drawing, which is pretty neat.

The signing went right up until the event was done, and almost too late, I ran over to the sales table to buy duck stamps for myself! Whew!! I caught them right as they packed up to leave. I hardly had time to catch my breath....

Whew! Got my stamps... just a few....

Visiting Ducks Unlimited headquarters! 
We ate a quick late lunch and sadly had to say our goodbyes to everyone, as most everyone had to catch a flight back home that afternoon. Because of the flight times back into Buffalo, we opted to stay one more night, and took the chance to drive out to Ducks Unlimited headquarters, nearby in Memphis. My husband and I were given a great tour, and it opened my eyes even more to the hard work that this non-profit organization does. I wanted very much to hover and examine all of the paintings, sculptures, bronzes, and various other artwork that had been donated to DU over the years, but I couldn't in good conscience keep our kind tour guide away from her work for too long. Dale Hall himself came out to chat with us for a while, and I felt very welcome.

We returned to the Bass Pro Pyramid after, to have dinner and sketch ducks for a while before eventually heading to our hotel for the night.

A huge tank with a huge catfish amongst recycled metal art sculpture, at the top of the Pyramid.
It was really neat!

Our flight the next day was scheduled for mid afternoon, and we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, it turns out our preparations were not needed as our flight was delayed for over 6 hours! After a layover, and a long drive home from the airport, we arrived home again at 4am. No rest for the weary, as I had to get up early to start filling orders and prepare for my three back-to-back shows coming up!

Bye for now, Memphis!

Hometown Celebration, July 18th

After the stamp is released, the winning artist is encouraged to have a Hometown Celebration for the duck stamp. Think of it as sort of a ceremony and party for having the winning sports team in your hometown! When we started planning this event (last January... really!) we were faced with some financial and logistics problems, as there is no outside source of funding for one's Hometown event. This is fine with me... that Duck Stamp money goes where it belongs, which shouldn't be to fund my party! Still, on top of self publishing the prints and a few other things, it was a pinch. I could not have done it without the help and generosity of many local individuals. I must give special thanks to our Westons Mills postmaster, Paula Clark. I live on the outskirts of Olean, and the Westons Mills post office services us and we've made friends with our hard working and community-driven postmaster!

The week of the 18th, several unfortunate things happened. I got home from an exhausting show and managed to get quite ill, and one of my best friends that had flown out to visit us and attend my celebration tragically and suddenly lost a family member, and had to be rushed to the airport. So when Saturday the 18th rolled around, we were all feeling a bit low!

We're gonna eat that!
Early on the morning of the 18th, my husband, my friend Hillary, and myself were bustling about. Running to the farmers market for a few last-minute goodies, then to the local grocery store (Tops) where they very generously donated a large sheet cake printed with my stamp (served free to the public), we rushed to the Community Center where we were holding the event. A few more family and friends arrived, and we went to task in completely re-arranging the center for the event. I set up a grid of art display panels so that the community could see my originals in person, and the Post Office set up their tables to sell stamps and collector's items. We had several local groups come in, including the local stamp collector's club and nature center. Our message was conservation and local pride! I had collected generous donations from local businesses, Bass Pro, and contributed several items to basket raffles, all to benefit our local not-for-profit, Pfeiffer Nature Center. Pfeiffer's message is where Art, Science and Nature Come Together, and it resonated with my own personal passions well.

Postmaster Paula and the first stamp sold at the celebration.

Senator Cathy Young presenting the stamp with me.
I was delighted when many people showed up for our celebration, and though I was still panting from setting up, I quickly got to to the heart of the matter, giving a speech, introductions, and talking time to the many wonderful individuals present that helped bring it all together. Senator Kathy Young attended and honored me with a moving speech. Much like the First Day Ceremony in Memphis, as soon as the talking was done, I was quickly seated at a table and the signing began! Though I signed less items than I did in TN, everyone was very kind and liked to talk with me about the stamp and my experiences, and before I knew it three hours passed, all of them with me behind my signing table! It was very intense and very, very touching. We were able to raise over $600 for the Nature Center, and some very enthusiastic young gentlemen won the raffle basket they had been wanting, which included a high end goose call and a plush goose that honks when you squeeze it (I'm sure their parents were just thrilled)!

Preparing a cachet for a collector!
We had a coloring contest with some line art of a wood duck that I drew up to help keep the young ones from becoming too bored at the event. A winner was chosen and presented with a gift certificate to the local art supply shop: The Ink Well.

In all, I could not guess an attendance because I was quite busy, but some others suggested we had perhaps 150-200 people attend.

Exhausted, I was extremely thankful to for the help of my family and friends, as they helped reset the community center back to the way it was. We hurried back home, tossed everything out of the car, changed, and immediately began cooking a celebratory dinner for my family! Fortunately I also had some help with that, and we were all able to start relaxing a little bit for the first time in weeks. The enjoyable evening wound down with family, friends, perhaps a little wine, and some video games. Perfect!

At the Hometown Celebration, there were special silk cachets offered for collecting. These have a different silk image than the First Day cachets, as you can see. The photo of the Ruddy Duck is not my own, but the ink image on the stamp cancel is my drawing.

Hometown Celebration silk cachet, a collector's item.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Making the Most Important Print (of my life)

This is a post several months in the making. I had intended to sit down and write this out as soon as I had the prints made, but I'll be a duck's uncle if life didn't have other things in store for me instead! So, better late than never: Federal Duck Stamp Prints: The Making. You can imagine that in a booming move announcer voice, because it was no small task!

Making Federal Duck Stamp Prints has been an enormous piles of lessons, learning, and no little angst. All wrapped up in a conservation burrito! The first agonizing decision was where to have my prints made. The Federal Duck Stamp Print process is entirely independent of the government (USFWS) run Duck Stamp program, and so the choice was mine to make. It was no easy decision and it involved many long nights of research, phone calls, and crunching my financials. In the end, I decided to go with a semi-local printing company that has a reputation for creating high end art prints. I felt it was very important to proof and check the prints in person, which would not have been financially possible for me with a printing house that was not within driving distance. After I first met with the folks at Register Graphics (in Randolph, NY) I was convinced that they were experts with their machines, and that they would treat me right! They also understood the importance of the print job and from the start went above and beyond to do it right.

After having the duck stamp original painting professionally digitally imaged, the printer ordered the special paper we would need (a heavyweight cover with an archival certification) and inks (also archival). They also ordered a finer screen that would allow for a greater DPI than normal.
When creating an offset print, the paper is rolled through a large press with a number of rollers (depending on the number of colors the press is equipped to handle) which layer the image on in ink dots to build up the final image. The screens are what the ink is squeezed through, so a finer screen results in a finer print. See this off-site image for a basic visual example of the screen resolution. It is similar in many ways to other types of printing technology.

Checking the original against the match proof and press proof. Is that enough "proofs" for you?
On the day we were ready to print, I traveled to Randolph early in the morning and began the long process of "proofing" the print. This was a process of carefully trying to match the colors of the print against the original. Since the original had already been imaged, I brought it framed just for added protection. All of the lighting we used were special color-true lamps so that the type of artificial light didn't adversely change the appearance of the printed colors!

Before modern computer technology, this process was very arduous indeed. The printing plates would need to be made (one for each color, generally 4-8 in most cases) from a photo of the artwork, and tuned while 'on press', by varying the amount of ink put down by each roller. If the colors were "off" by too much, an entirely new plate would need to be made. This process was not only a huge time investment, but many materials were wasted, including tons of paper. The bad prints and plates are destroyed. What a headache, and a waste.

The process we can use today saves many of these materials! The worst of the proofing occurs before the print goes to the large press. Small adjustments can be made on the computer via the digital image, and single "match proof" prints can be made from a high end inkjet printer. Once this printout matches the original artwork as closely as possible, a digital process is used to etch the printing plates onto metal using the tweaks made, and then it can be put on the large press. Small color adjustments may still be made by varying the ink levels, but far less paper and plates are wasted!

The proofing process itself actually ended up taking most of a day. There were many jokes to be had about the tubes of "ImpossiBlue" pant I used to create my work, as some of the blues proved to be very tricky to match. By the time we arrived with colors that we were happy matched the original, it was too late to fire the press up and actually print the prints! Yikes. We called it a day and vowed to start fresh in the morning.

The next day started bright and early again with a trip to the Randolph printers. We got things dialed in just right, and ran some proofs off of the big press. With just a tiny bit of fussing, we were there! Time to run the Federal Prints... thousands of them.

Checking the press proof with a loupe.

The prints being made, right before my eyes!

Bigger than pictured: this press is bigger than it looks. It just finished with one of many stacks of Federal Prints, ready to dry and be trimmed.

While the whole process took over two days, and was quite tiring... the real work was just about to begin! Cover "folios" (high end sleeves) had to be printed, as did Certificates of Authenticity. And in the interim, I had a lot... a lot... of prints to sign...

Just a few of the stacks of prints made, waiting to be trimmed... 
As it turns out, keeping track of many thousands of prints, all of which must be hand signed and numbered, and who gets exactly which ones, is a daunting task! When I gazed at the finished stacks of prints, and the many, many boxes of folios, certificates of authenticity, cover sheets, and so on... I tried to image where I might possibly store and sign all of these prints in my home. And I couldn't! My lone small dinner table just wouldn't be enough. Fortunately, the folks at Register Graphics went above and beyond for me yet again. They offered me their conference room to sign and number prints in. I was so relieved and thankful for their generosity!
We had to wait for the prints to fully cure before they were trimmed to size, The next week, my mom volunteered to help me check prints and make sure the numbers were correct. Her help was surely appreciated, and kept what ended up being a solid week of work from being two weeks if I had been by myself!! I want to stress that my mom didn't sign any prints (only I can do that!) but helped me keep track of the numbers via a database we printed out. 

Mom Miller (pictured) checking numbers for me as I take a break! Some of the prints had tiny flaws and were discards. This is only a tiny fraction of the total number.
What an incredible, rewarding, terrifying and interesting process it was! A lot more work that I had ever imagined went into making these. The only other process that I do not have any photographs of was the process of making the gold-plated bronze medallions. The Medallions come with certain editions of the print (such as the Medallion Edition) as a way for collectors, supporters, and enthusiasts to have a special token that they can display with their print. That process involved having a custom engraved die made to mint the metal medallions (in the same process that coins are engraved and minted!). This was also a very interesting thing to have made, and it was neat to see it come together (if, perhaps, a little terrifying in the pocketbook). The only photo I have from that process is the final die that was used to mint the medallions, as a photo sent from the medallion maker.
The Die that was used to strike my Medallions. As engraved by a master engraver, the final product is plated in gold, and gold and silver, respectively. 

Up next: The First Day of Sale Ceremony!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Federal Junior Duck Stamp Competition

As the winning artist for the Federal Duck Stamp, I must fulfill many obligations to the program throughout the year. Fortunately, I find them all enjoyable! One of these obligations is that I must attend and preform as a judge for the Federal Junior Duck Stamp.

The Federal Junior Duck Stamp (which I will call the Jr. Stamp) is a bit different than the Federal Duck Stamp. The Federal is a hunting and conservation stamp, and the funds it generates goes directly into our National Wildlife Refuge system and into protecting, maintaining, restoring, and further managing wetland areas both on public and private lands. The Jr. Stamp, however, is a conservation education stamp. The money it generates goes right back into conservation education of school-age students... who are, after all, our future!

Students from all over the united states create artworks of North American waterfowl . Each state selects a best of show from the entries within that state, and these best in show pieces go on to the national level. Each student's work is an amazing contribution. Over 24,000 entries were made by students in the U.S. this year! Each of those students had to take time to not only think about what conservation means to them, but also took the time to appreciate our beautiful waterfowl and habitats enough to create a drawing or painting of them. That's incredible! Imagine if we could touch even more students... that is the dream of the Jr. Program.

National Conservation Training Center in WV (Photo courtesy of the USFWS)

The competition was held this year at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia. The best in show from each state was sent along and would be judged by myself and four other judges, to select the winner, along with the top placing entries. Before judging took place, we watched as a team of film makers from the training center took some video which will later be edited into an educational video for school age students. It was all about conservation, protecting habitat, and what the Jr. contest was all about.

Here is a Flickr gallery of the top artworks that we had to judge. Each is done by a student and I find them very incredible! I must say that seeing these artworks in person is superior to photos in every way. If you get a chance to view the Jr. Duck Stamp tour, please do. The art is much more lovely in person, if that is possible!

I am sad to say that I really don't have any photos from judging; as a judge I was very focused on the task at hand. Perhaps some will surface later on!

Before judging began, myself and the other judges spent quite a bit of time being briefed on the process. Great emphasis was placed on being as fair and objective as possible of course, and that the emphasis of the stamp and program is conservation education. We also spent a while making the very difficult decision on which conservation message was the best one. It was a tough choice given the many creative and thoughtful conservation messages submitted by students, but in the end the Stamp Conservation Message Contest winner was 14 year-old Sherry Xie from Virginia, who wrote: “Nature painted us the wetlands, but it is we who must conserve and appreciate the art.” by majority vote.

The Training Center had bussed in a large group of students (I believe 7th grade) from Wildwood Middle School at Shenandoah Junction. The students were very engaged and interested in conservation, and during the (somewhat unexciting at times) actual judging, our hosts were engaging the students with trivia and questions about conservation and animals, especially waterfowl and wetlands. Sadly, I wasn't able to listen to most of the exchange as I had to focus on judging.

There are five rounds to judging, the first four of which the group of artwork is narrowed down by the judges placing markers on the protective mat of the painting. I found these rounds extremely difficult, as I saw merits in all of the different artworks; by not 'marking' one to pass to the next round, it was out. I tried to imagine the merits of each artwork as artwork, but also tried to think about what the painting was "saying" about the bird(s), the habitat, the message, and what the student may have been thinking when they were working on their piece. I knew only one could win, but narrowing it down was a tremendously tough and very thoughtful choice on my part, and I would guess the other judges felt the same way.

In the final round, we were presented with each of the top 5 paintings, one at a time, and scored each by holding up a numbered card, from three to five, depending on how we wanted to score the paintings. Fortunately there were no ties, and a clear first, second, third, fourth, and fifth place piece were presented.

First Place, Andrew Kneeland, WY (Wood Ducks)
Second Place, Isabelle Kapoian, NH (Tundra Swan cygnet)
Third Place, Bradley Gray, UT (Green-Winged Teal)

Andrew Kneeland and family, with his winning painting. Andrew is 17. (Photo courtesy of the USFWS)
Here is a ranking of the top 25 artworks in the Jr. Stamp Contest. 

After the judging, we had a short debriefing, and then I hurried to help set up to do a small demonstration/class for the students of Wildwood Middle School. I had sent some of my photographs to the Duck Stamp office before the event, and they kindly enlarged them for me so that I could set up on easels for the students. I got a giant drawing pad on another easel and had a great talk with the students about the ethics and responsibilities of proper referencing things. Using my photos, I did a short demonstration about how one can reference from many different photos, to come up with an artwork that was anatomically correct but also of the artist's own unique, creative vision. The students were provided with sketchbooks and colored pencils and encouraged to either draw along, take notes, or come up with their own ideas from my photos.

The wind really kicked up about halfway through my class, which made drawing on giant sketchpads and keeping lightweight photo references in place quite challenging! At least it was a warm day.

Fighting the wind and encouraging students with their drawings and ideas, just after the Jr. Stamp Contest ended.
I can remember well what it was like to be this age, and I know students are enormous wells full of creativity! Changing gears a bit, after we all drew ducks and learned how to reference, I explored the idea of using the parts of the natural world that we love so much and changing it into a creative outlet-- such as fantasy animals! From where we sat we could see a nesting pair of Bald Eagles, and we talked about how the inspiration of these real, amazing and beautiful animals can inspire our creativity, and showed them how I turned an eagle into a mythological gryphon. Of course, then the requests came in! Before we had to end class I managed to draw a dragon as well, while being buffeted by wind (and having the easel and drawing pad blown over onto my noggin more than once!). Their bus was getting ready to leave, but I managed to do some very fast doodles for the few students that approached me, asking for such.

It was a wonderful and exhausting day for me, and I truly hope that the students enjoyed it as much as I did!

I greatly look forward to meeting Andrew and his family, as his painting will be made into a stamp and he will be signing his stamp beside me as I sign mine, when both are released this summer at the First Day of Sale Ceremony! That will be taking place on June 26th, in Memphis, TN.

A Good Gallery Turnout

Hello everyone! Here I am, trying to catch up on writing about my experiences. Some things have been happening back-to-back and I get a little behind for the sheer lack of time.

A some time ago, I was approached by our local Arts Council and asked if I would be willing to do a solo show at our local college gallery. I was very honored by the request, and happily agreed. As soon as I finished my new artwork for the Federal Duck Stamp program, I quickly set to work on a few new small paintings so that the solo show would have some fresh work.

"Allegheny Roots" - an exploration of things I love, with a homage to where I grew up and currently live.

Fast-forwarding to April 10th, which was the exhibition opening and open to the public. This could be considered a bit of a 'sleepy' area, where most of the county is quite rural, and until recently I thought that my work was relatively unknown. I imagined a few friends and family showing up, and readied myself for a relaxing opening.

Imagine my surprise when it was amazingly busy for the whole evening! I am still touched that so many would come. I was engaged in conversation nearly every moment that night, so I don't have a good idea of the numbers, but my husband said it was probably close to 100 people that came through. My heart soars, thinking that so many people would come to see my paintings. I don't know what to say, as words really can't begin to touch how tiny I feel and how unreal it seems for people to enjoy what I do.

A panoramic photo of the exhibition an hour before opening... Click the photo to see it larger!

At one point in the evening, Patricia Briggs, Director of Galleries/Curator of Collections approached me and had me speak in front of everyone gathered. I was feeling very overwhelmed and touched by the turnout of folks coming to the opening, and I stood nervously while she introduced me.

I was feeling very nervous to speak, while Patricia Briggs (right) introduced me.

It all went well, though, and I suspect I didn't say anything too zainy... though the local paper snapped a photo of me in a very strange pose with my arms up, at the moment I was describing how strange it felt that my original duck stamp painting was currently with the Department of the Interior. The Department of the Interior!!

In the end, it was a lovely evening and I connected with some fantastic people. I even reconnected with some of my high school teachers-- ones that I hadn't seen in 15 years! It was wonderful.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Duck Stamp Print Brochures

Just a quick update as I prepare to go to the Jr. Duck Stamp judging later this week: My 2015-2016 Federal Duck Stamp Print brochures are ready! I have them available as a digital download on my website:

Alternatively, I am happy to send them out to you if you'd like a physical copy in the mail. Just email me with your address and I will get one out to you!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Adventures with Ducks Unlimited

Webster / Penfield Ducks Unlimited Banquet

A few months ago I received an email from Gabe Speranza, with whom I had chatted with a bit quite some time ago on an internet hunting forum. Gabe happened to catch my name when it came up after I won the Federal, and as it turns out he is a very active member of the Webster/Penfield NY chapter of Ducks Unlimited. He asked if I would consider being a guest at their annual dinner, and I was honored by his request! Though I have supported many conservation groups over the years, I had never attended a Ducks Unlimited (DU) event before, and looked forward to the experience.

February was the coldest month ever on record for our region, and so on a bitter February day, we drove several hours north to Webster, NY, for the event. Packing my camera, we left a little bit early, as some birders had been reporting a King Eider in the Rochester/Lake Ontario area only the week before and I was keen to try to find him as such a sighting in this part of the country is quite rare. We drive around for quite a while on Duck Quest (Feb. 2015 edition) but weren't able to locate any open water at all. Asking some local ice fishers, the ice was at least 24" thick in most places. Yikes!

Arriving at the DU dinner, I was quite unsure what to expect. Though DU does wonders for conservation (more on that later!) I was a bit nervous that the dinner itself might be like a hunting club. Being a hunter myself, I have been to a few hunting clubs and my experiences were very mixed. My nerves were happily for naught; everyone was very welcoming of me (frankly I am not the image of a stereotypical hunter) and several people engaged me in wonderful conversations about their experiences, the duck stamp program, and more. I watched as the evening progressed as volunteers set out tables full of some really neat stuff. The expected things- such as duck decoys and hunting accessories- lined many tables, but there was also some high end decor, artwork, and even a small boat. I felt a bit concerned that such high end items were purchased with much-needed funds by DU, but upon investigating, I learned that most items were donated (many by local businesses).

The dinner itself was lovely, and I learned more about the real people that are part of DU. It is one thing to research and learn about an organization online, and quite another to be part of an event (one of thousands every year) made up of real people. When the auction began, I was again pleasantly surprised and impressed. I am not aware of many other organizations where the average Joe donates so freely and generously. After the dinner, I learned that this single event, with no more than 200 people in attendance, had generated over $30,000. Considering the economic depression in this area, I was justifiably amazed by the amount of money given by average people in a single evening.

Jennifer and Gabe at the Webster/Penfield DU Banquet
At the end of the evening, which ran until after 11 pm, I approached Gabe and Dan DeLawyer to give my thanks for having me, and to offer any help I might be able to give in the future. Dan, who is the regional director in our state for DU, chatted with me a moment and graciously invited me to the DU NY state convention, which was only a month away. Surprised and honored, I agreed to check my schedule and get in touch later.

Regrettably I was unable to donate a Federal Stamp Print to the event as they are not yet made, but I was able to get a last-minute print of my hooded merganser painting to Gabe, which he graciously framed up for the auction fundraiser.

The drive home that night after midnight was several hours long, and as we cruised over the silent and frozen Western NY landscape, I had a lot to reflect upon. The moonlight and bright winter stars shone on as we arrived home.

The NY State Ducks Unlimited Convention

Upon arriving home and checking my schedule the next day, it seemed I could make the NY state convention. I had a conversation with Dan DeLawyer soon thereafter, and he confirmed that we could make it work. I offered to bring a donation item, though inwardly I despaired a little. There was so little time to get something done as the convention was just around the corner, and on top of that I had several other obligations eating my spare time. I was worried I might not get something done fast enough. After working quite late for a few nights, I was able to finish a small wood duck painting in time, and framed it up the day before the convention.

The kind DU folks made a nice little placard for my donated painting!
Excited about being able to go, I contacted Michael Schummer and Sarah Fleming to let them know that I'd see them at the convention. Mike is a professor and scientist, and Sarah is a regional biologist for DU. We had met previously both though local ties and via the Duck Stamp, and I had immediately connected with the two of them. Graciously and very generously, they invited my husband and I up to use their house as a layover point. The DU convention was being held in Clayton, NY, which is a healthy 5+ hour drive for us, so the chance to stretch our legs and visit with good people was wonderful.

Thursday the 26th of March bloomed into a typical March day; socked-in overcast, with light drizzling ice pellets, rain, and snow. Yuck. Though the weather was not on our side, Nature seemed happy to give me a small victory. A few hours into our dive, my husband caught sight of what we thought was a murmuration of starlings at a distance, or-- no, those were geese! Suddenly the huge flock turned and caught the overcast light, and even at a distance they were obviously white. Snow geese! I had never seen them before, as the part of NY I live in is off of their normal migration routes. Attempting to control myself and keep my body from rocketing right out of the car in excitement, we managed to find a bit of road shoulder to pull over upon so I could watch and photograph them. They arrived in tremendous waves; thousands and thousands strong, with a great beautiful cacophony.
My cellphone camera couldn't capture the many thousands of tiny specks in the sky... each one a snow goose.
A bit closer, with a normal camera. A tiny section of a vast sea of geese.
Unfortunately, the geese were quite far out on private property, and we could only stay pulled over onto the shoulder of a busy highway for a few minutes, but it was still a sight to behold. We passed several other fields like this; each with thousands of snow geese arriving.

Finally arriving at Mike and Sarah's farm just in time for dinner, we were treated to an evening full of wonderful conversation. Also present were Dr. John Coluccy (Director of Conservation Planning for DU) and Matt Regan (DU Mitigation Specialist). I greatly enjoyed learning from them, the various stories and conservation efforts discussed, as well as general bird nerdery and science geeking. 

The next morning we rose early and Mike and Sarah treated John, my husband and myself to a tour of conservation projects, wetlands, and parts of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge near their home. The best of the spring migration is still a few weeks off, as those parts of central NY are still quite frozen, with very little open water in the Montezuma NWR and only parts of the finger lakes open. Still, it was fun and educational, and we did see some birds! Observed by myself were: Northern Pintails, Black Ducks, Mallards, Canada Geese, Snow Geese, Tundra Swans, Redheads, Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Wigeons, Common Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, Red-Breasted Mergansers, Ring-Necked Ducks, Coots, one Gadwall, a pair of Green-Winged Teal, one Blue-Winged Teal (on the way home), Nothern Harriers, Kestrels, Sandhill Cranes, and an immature bald eagle.

A group of waterfowl in a tiny pocket of open water at Montezuma NWR. Duck Stamp dollars and conservation groups like DU at work.
A group of Ring-Necked ducks on the unfrozen section of Cayuga Lake. The drakes are at their finest for the ladies!

This group of quarrelsome Canada Geese cracked us up. The two on the bottom right are flipped completely upside-down, so intense on their disagreement they were!
Sadly, all good things must end, and our merry little band had to break up so that we could all get up to Clayton, NY, for the DU state convention. 

The drive north was increasingly snowy and gross. After we arrived in Clayton, I discovered that our hotel was directly on the Saint Lawrence river, and our room looked directly out toward Grindstone Island in the 1000 Island area. It was lovely! Unfortunately the river was still quite frozen, and the ice breaker hadn't been though yet, so the view was mostly of ice. Still, it was something to behold.
After arriving, I changed and attempted to meet the Pirate Theme of the evening by donning a rumply skirt, a fish-bones shirt, and a hip satchel. Lacking a parrot for my shoulder (ironically, being I had 4 live parrots at home!), I had a small plush goose. He wouldn't stay put even with safety pins, so I perched him onto my satchel instead, and went down to the awards banquet.

DU State Chairman Paul Brody (left)
with regional directors Dan DeLawyer (middle)
 and Ron Zega (right). Ron made a great pirate.
It was a huge honor to have my work present! 
The Pirate costume theme was very entertaining, and the dinner was casual, friendly, and full of good stories by those I met. After we had all settled, there were awards given to many deserving individuals for their various volunteer contributions to not only Ducks Unlimited, but to conservation. I was touched by the vast amount of work so many of the people present did, and they did it with no personal gain. I was beginning to see why many people had been telling me that much of Ducks Unlimited is very much like a big family. Are there spats? Sure-- what family doesn't have them? But the support and common goal impressed me.

Near the end of the awards, I was a bit surprised to have Dan announce and introduce me. Now, Dan can be a bit of a cartoon character when he gets going (sorry Dan!) but he can also be quite a passionate speaker. His glowing introduction and kindness left me a bit emotional, so when I was then handed the microphone in front of a room full of passionate people, I felt as if I could never address the audience as eloquently as I might hope to. I managed a small speech, and to my amazement received a standing ovation! It was hard to keep composed as I hurried back to my seat. I had never felt so welcomed!

The rest of the evening was very social, and I had the pleasure to talk to a great number of people and answer questions as best I could about the duck stamp program, where the money goes, and how it is all so very important to conservation. I spoke with hunters, and I spoke with non-hunters. Birders, scientists, spouses, and children all had amazing questions and input. I felt humbled, over and over.

The night ran late with conversations of ducks, land, people, and more. The next morning dawned early, and for once the sun promised it would peek out!
Early Saturday morning on the St. Lawrence River in Clayton, NY.
I was very excited about this morning. It was to start out with a conservation programming, with talks from various conservation specialists, biologists, and so on. The talk lasted several hours and were incredibly educational, covering the efforts that groups like DU, in coordination with USFWS (US Fish and Wildlife Service), the DEC (NY Department of Environmental Conservation), partners in Canada, and others, were making. It covered the obstacles and hurdles, both natural as well as political and social, that wetland conservation and mitigation faces. Successes and failures, and a plan for the future. It was wildly interesting to me. I knew that Ducks Unlimited is not "just about ducks" or duck hunting, but the depth of the conservation work that they do surprised me and enlightened me. Because of their partnerships with these other groups, and because they are a non-profit organization, they are quite amazing at getting things done; things that many outdoors persons and enthusiasts, from birders to photographers to hikers enjoy and probably don't even realize who made it possible. I knew DU was important, but the scope of the importance and the diversity and knowledge of the people that are part of DU hit me like a bus! I was most impressed, and very inspired.

After the programming, we were invited to go on a bus and walking tour of various projects (both finished and still being worked on) in the area that DU made possible. We visited Zenda Meadows and a wetland restoration project. Sadly everything was still quite frozen and it was a cold day so we didn't spend much time on foot, and we were unable to access the French Creek Fish Ladder project due to snow, but it was still really lovely. We wrapped up the tour at a local winery that supports DU: Coyote Moon winery. They also gave a tour and it was a nice way to warm up.

Later that evening was the major donor's cocktail hour as well as the rest of the awards dinner and auctions. Dan made this especially entertaining and as before I was impressed with the generosity of attendees, as well as the diversity of people and the quality of donations. The last live auction of the evening was a cooler (ice chest) that the directors put items into as the bidding went higher and higher. At one point, they ran out of items to put into the cooler for the winning bidder. It seemed as if the auction was at an end, while the audience cheered for "more love (items)" to be added, in a good-natured way. On a whim, I ran up to the director and whispered that I'd ship a free collector's edition Federal print to whomever won, once they came out. That set the auction off again, and it bounced quite a bit higher. It was all in good fun, and wildly entertaining, and in the end the vast majority of the money goes directly into conservation projects.

The rest of the night, and well into the morning, was spent socializing and talking once again with various individuals... from general supporters to those quite high up on the Ducks Unlimited totem pole. I felt very welcomed, and time after time I was left feeling speechless when my work would be complimented upon. Feeling quite emotionally drained, in a good way, I retired and got some sleep.

Cute little Bufflehead Drakes in icy Cayuga Lake!
Sunday morning again dawned early and bright, and sadly marked the time that my husband and I had to depart to get back home. Halfway through central NY, on a whim we decided that since the sun was out, we'd go looking for those snow geese and other waterfowl again, and decided to go the very scenic route of following Cayuga Lake down through the state. Though we didn't have nearly as much luck as we'd had only two days ago, the weather was pleasant, and we only got stopped by a State Trooper once when we pulled off of the road to check out some birds. Despite being in a safe location, we were gently told to cut it out, and so we went off on our way. The southern end of the lake did offer me a few photos at Buffleheads, and then we made our way home late in the afternoon.

Next up: A local solo show, then the Jr. Duck Stamp Competition in April!