Birdwatching for the Rest of Us

By Morgan Bricca April 27, 2019

The Naming of Things

How do you feel when you walk into your favorite coffee shop and actually remember the barista’s name? Or, in a flash of brilliance, bump into someone you haven’t seen in years and remember their name? In situations where I remember a name, I feel more affinity towards that person. If I have forgotten someone’s name, I may go so far as to avoid them. In my most recent mural project, I discovered firsthand that this same phenomenon applies also to the natural world. Naming things increases feelings of affinity.

I recently finished up a series of 21 utility boxes, each depicting a bird common in Northern California and the name of the bird. The boxes are located within a senior living community in Pleasanton. I falsely assumed that many older residents had plenty of time on their hands to do things like bird watching, that they would be familiar with the birds I was painting. On the contrary, I heard from many residents that they were learning the names of birds they had perhaps seen around their residence but never identified.

How is it that most of us can identify twenty different cars brands from a fifty-foot distance, but not know the name of a bird making a home in our backyard? This art project was my attempt at a marketing campaign for nature; each box a work of art as well as a flash card for identifying a bird species.

Continuing with the car analogy, have you ever decided what you wanted your next car to be, make and model, and suddenly you spot that car everywhere you go? It’s called Baader-Meinhof phenomenon and essentially points to our brains aptitude to spot patterns we did not notice until one instance was brought to our attention. The same effect with your desired car can happen with birdwatching. I experienced this firsthand when I painted a series of bird murals in Portugal. Several times after I painted a bird, I would then happen upon it the next day. But Flores Island in Portugal was lush and rural, loaded with birds everywhere, it seemed inevitable. But in Pleasanton? I wasn’t so sure.

When I was eating my lunch one day during this project I was mindlessly watching a small bird hop around near me, and I thought, wait, I wonder if I know this one? I am a complete novice to birding, but as I studied it I noticed unique markings on its head I wondered and then… click! I feel sheepish about what a thrilling moment it was to me, identifying my first white-crowned sparrow right before my eyes. Pure joy. Imagining similar moments of serendipity for residents who will learn to identify local birds through the artwork gives me great pleasure.

I was surprised to learn this identification phenomenon happens to the experts too! Ray Rychnovsky, a lifelong nature photographer, who also supplied photographs for some of the boxes, spotted his first Bullock’s Oriole in his regular stomping grounds the day after he came across the Bullock’s Oriole I painted on one of the utility boxes. He was so surprised to see it, since he spends a few days a week with his camera along the same section of the local creek, and is familiar with all the “regulars” there. He sent me a photograph of the Oriole he saw, sure enough, the markings were identical with the Oriole I painted. Crazy, right?

The World is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.   -WB Yeats

Since the utility boxes are distributed throughout the property, a mix of homes and apartments, I created a map so that residents could find and identify each box, like a treasure hunt. (Collect them all!)

I used the Laws Pocket Guide Set, San Francisco Bay Area Edition, as my primary guide. The boxed set includes common flora and fauna of various Bay Area habitats. Depending on where you plan to hike (beach and bay, creeks, rivers and ponds, grassy hills and fields, oak and pine woodlands), there is a laminated, single page folded guide that is perfect to carry in your pocket to identify local birds or the bounty of wildflowers that are putting on their best show right now.

This is going to be a great weekend for a hike. Maybe if you read the guide first, you will spot more birds and wildflowers on your hike than the other way around?

Clarification on Last Months Newsletter

Last months newsletter, sent April 1 as an April Fools joke, was my feeble attempt at humor. Based on the feedback I received after I sent it out, it is apparent the humor was not obvious enough. I want to reassure you, dear reader, I did not paint a gold lamé swimsuit over my Botticelli masterpiece, or paint a QR code in the corner of a residential mural to garner additional funds. The project was real, but the photos with Venus in a bathing suit and me hanging from the ceiling in a hammock were doctored. I painted this ceiling artwork while standing on a platform. I apologize for any confusion!

Compilation detail, Birth of Venus ceiling mural.

Compilation detail, Birth of Venus ceiling mural, sans bathing suit.

Open House: This Weekend

Nine years ago, I painted corner-to-corner landscape murals on the first-floor wrap-around retaining walls for dear friends Mark and Kent Gustafson. This was my largest project to date at the time and was featured in the Los Altos Town Crier. The Gustafson’s are putting their home on the market, and this weekend you can visit during the open house at 1515 Fairway Drive in Los Altos to see the artwork in situ. You can also take a virtual tour here. I am still very proud of this work.

A year after I painted the retaining wall, the Gustafson’s had me back out to paint a mural in their wine room as well as a cloud ceiling in their daughter’s room. I filmed a “how-to” video tutorial of the cloud painting project, and that video now has about 660,000 views on YouTube. I get emails regularly thanking me for the video and just yesterday received a sweet voicemail from someone in Florida calling to tell me how helpful that video was. It’s crazy to calculate how many ceilings that one ceiling project has spawned…maybe half of the viewers successfully painted their ceiling? It is conceivable that 300,000 ceilings across the world were inspired by the ceiling you could see at the open house this weekend. Wow. Maybe I should make more how-to videos…

Thank you, Mary and Kent, for the years of support and friendship. I wish you all the best in your next chapter!

Whether you are planning a hike, heading to the open house, or just plan to take a long nap on the couch (I heavily endorse all three activities), I hope you have a beautiful weekend filled with family, and nature and fun.

Warm regards,

Morgan Bricca

Morgan Bricca

Morgan Bricca is a mural artist living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her clients run the gamut from professional creatives, including architects and designers to building owners, school administrators and community advocates. When she is not making art, Morgan enjoys sipping boba tea with her kids and taking naps on the couch.