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Remembering spring, and the turning of the color wheel

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Our Vermont days are growing shorter. I’ve started looking for soaring nighthawks from our back porch, but so far no luck. But the broad-winged hawks are calling most afternoons. There are still plenty of birds in the woods and on the trail, but they are much quieter and much younger. The geese are starting to get noisy as they stage for their big trip. Soon the migrants will fly through without their bright breeding plumage, and I’ll have trouble with identification. Do you remember those spreads in the Peterson’s field guide titled “confusing fall warblers?” It’s a great challenge, but I remember the spring, and the brilliant color of the warblers.

Like this day last April in a patch of boreal forest in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The palette was the Payne’s gray of stick season with a little pale-sage moss draped on the branches. Here and there, small patches of vibrant spring green (cadmium yellow and a touch of sap green) interrupted the nearly monochrome background.

And then, pausing in his migration, a palm warbler perched on a branch, singing his soft, buzzy trill. His yellow and sage fit nicely into the analogous color scheme but for the striking rusty red of his crown, a dissonant note in the yellow-green-blue scheme.

Very soon the entire forest will turn the rusty red of this warbler’s crown, spinning to burnt sienna and umber, with bright accents of cadmium yellow and orange. It is as if the landscape simply turns on the color wheel before settling into the desaturated palette of winter.

I painted this warbler at life size on an 10x20-inch birchwood panel. He is now looking for a new home.

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