Larry Zach Wildlife Art

The story behind Bluebirds and Purple Coneflower

Bluebirds and Purple Coneflower has been released, so I'd like to give you some background on the piece. If you have any questions about the painting after you've read through this post, please leave a comment below.

Bluebirds and Purple Coneflower by Larry Zach (c) 2008

Bluebirds and Purple Coneflower by Larry Zach  (c) 2008

I've been wanting to do a bluebird piece for a long time, but I was only recently able to finally gather all the reference material I needed to create a strong painting design.I was raised on a farm in eastern Iowa between the town of Swisher and the eastern-most colony of the Amana Colonies appropriately called, East Amana. The farm included some rich Iowa River bottom ground and nearby hills and valleys with a mosaic of timber and pasture. The timber included a number of ancient trees including old white oaks dating back to pre-settlement days. A creek ran through the farm. There were lots of places to explorer and learn about mother nature and I took full advantage of it. I've never out grown that passion, the excitement of exploring new country and learning about the natural world.

Though I was raised on a farm I never really wanted to be a farmer. It always seemed more interesting to me to study the natural world. At a young age I realized I wanted to live and work on a farm, not to make a living but to work with the habitat and wildlife. Of course that usually doesn't pay very well so the dream stayed a dream for many years.

So owning a piece of land in Iowa and managing it for habitat and wildlife has been a dream of mine for most of my life. While teaching and raising a family funds accumulated slowly so I was almost 50 by the time I joined friends to purchase some ground in northern Missouri. I bought my current farm, a rather run down piece of ground in 1997. It showed a lot of use. The  CRP was all brome and the timber long neglected and choked with multiflora rose. But it was what I was looking for. Not much of a farm for traditional farming, but it was a great candidate for a wildlife farm.

The following 11 years have been a labor of love. Lots of tree planting, timber stand improvement, putting in food plots, ponds and a wetland, re-establishing native grass and prairie. The property is managed for a lot of diversity of habitat with the goal of appealing to a wide range of wildlife. Along with nest boxes for Canada geese, kestrels, wood ducks, wrens, and tree swallows, we have number of bluebird houses and the bluebirds take full advantage of them.

I was sitting in a blind near one of these bluebird houses one morning as the rising sun cut through the morning fog. I'd carefully placed the blind to get the angle of light I wanted and for once everything went right. A pair of bluebirds came by house hunting. The male looked it over from a number of different angles. Then the female did her inspection. Meanwhile, a very excited wildlife artist (that's me) was enjoying the whole show and capturing it through a 200 mm lens for up-close results. That is how I captured the bluebird reference I subsequently used to paint Bluebirds and Purple Coneflower.

Along with building bird habitats, we've been working on re-establishing several prairie plots on the farm by seeding dozens of species of native grasses,  forbs, and sedges. Much of the seed used I had collected myself during my wanderings. I also included a bag of seed I bought from Carl Kurtz, who is an exceptional photographer and sells native seed raised on his farm. (We first met in the 1960s while studying Fish and Wildlife Biology at Iowa State University.) The seed bag was composed of up to 80 different plants, so each year I walk the prairies and see if I can spot any new members of the community emerging.

There are the plants that show up only after a number of years. Then there are the old reliables that show up every year. One that is very showy in the summer is  purple coneflower. I like to head out at dawn each morning with my camera and take photos while the light is prime. It was on several of these forays that I collected the purple coneflower reference.

Though I've taken out many of the interior fences on the property, I often leave old fence posts in place when they are not in the way. In southeastern Iowa, most of these were cut from hedge apple ( Osage-orange) decades ago. Hedge posts are extremely rot resistant and therefore last a very long time. The older they get, the more character they develop. This particular post sits along a lane which cuts through a little patch of prairie. Though I didn't see the pair of bluebirds in that particular spot, it seems like a natural setting for them. It also provided the reference post for this painting.

Once I had the components I needed, I created the conceptual design, and then finally the original painting. I had plenty of reference material, so I experimented with various elements and compositions until I found the arrangement I liked best. It was fun to work the various colors up and down to find the right balance. Developing the atmosphere of the scene enhanced the sense of depth. These paintings, even though they may seem simple in composition at first glance, seem to always take longer than I anticipate to finish. It's worth the work, though, because it's final result that counts. I hope you like the result of my work this time: Bluebirds and Purple Coneflower.

More Information

Information on the Eastern purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Information on the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

Photos of the Eastern bluebird brooding process, from egg-laying to fledging (leaving the nest), from a NestCam

Written by Chris Zach — January 26, 2009

Zach prints helping Shoot for the Cure

I am happy to announce that I've had the opportunity to donate two pieces of art to the upcoming Shoot for a Cure event and will be able to contribute to the mission of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Shoot for a Cure logo

Donated prints:

Sportsman's Dream |  Signed and numbered, artist proof, canvas edition (one of only 25)

Dream Bucks II -- The Missing Trophy  |  Signed and numbered, limited edition, framed

Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend the event because of a conflicting fishing trip to Saskatchewan with my son. Nonetheless, I encourage any bird hunters to get out there for the 2nd annual event and help beat last year's total of $33,000 raised!

Here is some more information and a link to Shoot for a Cure's site.

Shoot for a Cure is a clay target shooting event held to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. In its inaugural year (2007) the event attracted 140 participants, was supported by over 20 nationwide sponsors, and was run by over 40 volunteers. The event grossed over $33,000. The Iowa Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is planning another great event for 2008 which is on its way to becoming the premiere charity shooting event in the state.

This year’s event will include a youth shoot followed by a VIP event Friday, June 20th. Participants will have the opportunity to observe and shoot with some of Iowa’s premier expert shooters. Friday’s event will be followed by dinner, silent and live auctions and entertainment featuring Nashville recording artist and avid shooter TJ Klay. On Saturday, June 21st the Shoot for a Cure tournament will take place. Saturday’s tournament will be followed by festivities and entertainment by TJ Klay.

Birds, birds everywhere

I had a great morning sitting on the deck and watching the birds as it got light today. Amazed by the activity and variety of birds within sight of the deck, I decided it would be fun to make a summer project of observing, photographing, and painting the birds in the immediate area.

Here are early observations:

A pair of wrens are nesting in the box right off the deck. While one wren carried sticks to the nest, the other spent considerable energy trying to drive off a red-bellied woodpecker that wanted to feed in the area. The fact that the woodpecker seemed to totally ignore the racket and diving attacks didn't seem to hinder the enthusiasm nor the persistence of the wren.

A pair of rough-wing swallows are apparently building a nest in the pole shed. They are carrying nesting material into a box that contains my deer decoy. It is on a shelf about 10' off the ground. They seem to work as a pair, first landing on the gravel drive, then one picks up some nest material which looks like small grassy stuff possibly from the last few days of lawn mowing. Next they both fly back into the pole shed and disappear into the box with the material.

A pair of barn swallows are nesting in the same location over the sliding door of the pole shed where a pair nested last year.

A pair of blue birds are using the nest box just south of the pole shed. The female gathers primarily dead grasses from the lane where I accidentally sprayed Roundup and killed the grass.

An eastern phoebe is attracted to the frame work under my tower blind about 10 yards off the deck. Last year I attached some lumber scraps to the bottom of the frame work so robins, swallows, and phoebe could build nests there. Last year barn swallows took advantage of the site.

Starlings have managed to get past my mesh barrier and are nesting again in the overhang of the trailer.

Canada geese were interested in the pond again this year but by the time I rigged up a floating nest tub they had chosen another location. I have mixed feelings about that. It would have been fun to watch and listen to them but I won't miss the goose droppings that would have likely been deposited on the dock.

I can also hear and see a number of other birds that have not yet found nest sites. These include the red-bellied woodpecker, red-headed woodpeckers, downy woodpecker, white breasted nuthatch, tree swallows, rose-breasted grossbeaks, red-winged blackbirds, purple grackles, song sparrows, ruby-throated hummingbirds, goldfinch (will nest later), yellow-throated warbler, vultures (may be nesting in the bulldozed brush pile from when the pond was built), eastern meadowlark, wild turkey and chipping sparrow are the species that come to mind at this moment.

It's always amazing the sheer amount of wildlife you will see if you can sit still long enough to look for it.

Written by Chris Zach — May 26, 2008

Farming between the rains

Here's a quick update from the farm -- a 240-acre piece of land I manage for wildlife in southeastern Iowa.

I got a lot of work done at the farm earlier this week. I took some soybeans with me for planting food plots. Unfortunately... the tractor wouldn't start. We worked on it much of the day and finally got it going. I tilled and disc-ed until about 9:30pm because of the rain forecast. Good thing I did, because it started raining about dawn the next day. I'll see if I can get some spraying done between rains.

I also worked up 5 spots for fruit trees in the orchard to replace trees killed by rabbits and mice.

Planting corn and prairie will have to wait until it dries out again.

When I travel or go to the farm I can take my laptop and hard drive along and do virtually anything here at the farm that I can do at the home office. That means when it rains, or at night when I can't work outside, I just fire up the computer and go to work in the trailer. For example, I have thousands upon thousands of digital photos that need to be sorted and tagged as reference material for future paintings.

I just glanced out the window to see how the rain was doing and there was a male bluebird sitting on the cottonwood tree 10 feet from my window. I've got the curtains pulled back so I can sit right here and look at the evergreens, prairie, food plots, timber, wetland and pond just by turning my head. Things are really coming along down here.

This year I've put in about 10 acres of switchgrass, 500 miscanthus (I will write later about my goals for planting these tall plants), 8 acres of beans in in 8 different plots, and corn in 4 plots. I still have more switchgrass, prairie, beans, Egyptian wheat, and fruit trees to put in.

There are lots of birds feeding and gathering nest material right hear by the trailer. Whenever I have good lighting at dawn I get in a blind and shoot bird reference for future paintings. See this post for notes on the birds living around the trailer.

Written by Larry Zach — May 23, 2008

Welcome from Larry

"A lifetime of hunting, fishing, conservation work, and nature study has provided me with a wealth of outdoor experiences and images. My intent as an artist is to share these with others."
              - Larry Zach