Seabird in the Forest
Written and illustrated by Joan Dunning
32 pages, for ages 5-10
Boyds Mills Press 2011
How does a seabird come to nest in old growth forests miles inland from the pacific? Joan Dunning reveals the secret life of the marbled murrelet, a bird that spends most of its time on the water. But for two months of the year a murrelet pair flies inland to nest, laying a single egg. Once the chick hatches the parents take turns flying back to the sea – sometimes as far as 50 miles – to catch supper.
As Joan writes about the murrelet she also tells about the amazing ecosystem high in the canopy of old growth firs. Hundreds of feet in the air seeds sprout into huckleberry bushes and ferns create thick mats that collect water from the fog. There are flying squirrels, bats, and salamanders that never crawl beyond their home tree – creatures Joan captures in illustrations so layered with depth and texture that you forget for a moment that you’re not actually in an ancient forest.
Earlier this month I asked Joan about the art she created for Seabird in the Forest. She illustrated her previous books with watercolor paintings. “Initially,” Joan said, “I imagined that I would do this one in watercolors as well, but the paintings seemed too light-weight in comparison to the forest. I wanted to represent the complexity of the canopy ecosystem.” The layers of oil paint allow her to do that. “When I painted the moss of the limb, for instance or the bark of the redwood, I felt like I was creating real moss on real bark. It was a very magical experience.”
Joan paints her illustrations the same size as they appear in the book. Some of the paintings took a few days, she says, while others took weeks. The entire book took about two years to complete.
How did she get her illustrations to look so natural? “I live in a redwood forest,” Joan says. From her work table she looks out on giant trees. “They are second growth - the forest was logged once, but that was about a hundred years ago. Because the trees get a lot of sun, they are huge and look almost like old growth forest.”
To keep her work authentic, Joan took field trips to true ancient forests. Several times a month she headed to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park – about an hour from her house. “It’s an excellent place to see old growth forest, salmon, elk and marbled murrelets,” she says. “Every time I enter the forest, I stop and just gaze at the trees because I am never fully prepared for their breath-taking presence. At dawn there is an abundance of marbled murrelets flying overhead.”