The First Digital Bird Lands

img_0374Collin Moret and I installed our first digital bird model into the Connecticut Bird Hall, a non-breeding Baird’s Sandpiper. The CT Bird Hall is an exhibit of taxidermied bird specimens found on the official CT bird list. We have been installing carved bird models to fill in missing birds so we don’t have to collect and taxidermy new birds that are hard to find and not good for Peabody Public Relations if we shoot birds locally. We scanned a taxidermy mount of a breeding Baird’s sandpiper from the CT Bird Hall to make the print. We are exploring the 3D technology to see if we can produce a more accurate bird model rather than sculpting one from scratch. We are lucky to have very good taxidermy mounts from which to work. Most of the birds in the CT Bird Hall were produced by David Parsons in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Parsons was an extraordinary taxidermist and artist who went to great lengths with his taxidermy to replicate living birds. The 3D methods we are employing are dependent on having a good taxidermy specimen to scan. Currently, we have 24 missing birds to add to the CT Bird Hall. Most of the missing birds are rare or have unusual plumage, but  we also hope to produce some of the extinct birds from Connecticut as well.

The method we have developed starts with scanning the taxidermy bird. (See my earlier blog entry from December 24, 2016 for details and photos of the scanning process.) The scan file is uploaded to the Dremel Printer and printed.


Our first print of the Baird’s Sandpiper

The printer isn’t fine enough to create a model that can be painted as is. The printer lays down layers of filament, row-by-row, which creates visible contours. I tried to sand the contours smooth, but the plastic is difficult to work and tends to melt when using high-speed sanding tools. So, we resorted to dipping the models into hot carving wax to get rid of the contours.img_0292

Care must be taken not to get too much wax on the surface or accuracy will be sacrificed. The Baird’s Sandpiper was printed at 100% and I am quite confident that the wing measurements are accurate and that the feather groupings like scapular feathers and coverts are in their correct place. When sculpting from scratch, getting these details right is a painstaking and time consuming process.

Glass eyes are inserted into the head using epoxy modeling putty. A beak is cast in epoxy from the taxidermy bird or study skin and inserted into the head.


Dental alginate is used as a mold material to cast the beak from the taxidermy mount.

Sometimes I cast the feet from the taxidermy mount with dental alginate, but in the case of the sandpipers, the feet are so small that casting them would have been difficult. My co-worker, Maishe Dickman, is very skilled at silver soldering and he produced eight feet for the small sandpipers in brass.


Maishe’s handiwork. Note, an epoxy cast of the intertarsal joint on one of the legs.

The feet are epoxied into the model and the feathers are carved into the wax to heighten the realism.IMG_0331With this model, I thought the beak was pointing down too far, so I took it over to the band saw and cut off the head. I used epoxy to glue it back together with the beak raised. I filled the in the neck with carving wax and blended it into the rest of the model. This kind of flexibility is important.

Collin then painted it. Collin uses acrylic paint from a company called Vallejo. They are highly pigmented and designed specifically for individuals working with scale models. It’s important that the color is correct and the field marks are accurate. A study skin of the exact bird in the specific plumage is acquired from the Ornithology collection and Collin matches the color. Sibley’s Bird Guide is consulted to make sure the field marks are clearly shown. Each finished bird model is critiqued by the Ornithologist before being included in the Bird Hall.


Note the field guide and the study skin (in the box) as painting reference

This method is giving us very good bird models in about a quarter of the time it would take to produce from scratch, AND I know they will measure out accurately.


Baird’s Sandpiper installed!

We have used the same scan to produce three more smaller sandpiper models. All we had to do is print them at smaller percentages.


Semipalmated, Western, and White-rumped Sandpiper models printed to scale and waxed.

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Bog Restoration Complete

img_0300-1With the repainting of the Bog Vole (a wood carved model), Eunice, Collin and I have completed the renovation of the bog diorama. The bog vole looked bleached out and not very alive. Collin painted it using 2D painting techniques to accentuate the three dimensionality of the model by painting highlights on the head, the back, the legs and even the ears! img_0296When I first painted this model 20 years ago, I painted the local color of the vole’s pelt and left the highlights to be accomplished by the diorama lighting, which didn’t give it the “umph” it needed to look alive.


The Bog’s foreground now ties in well visually with the background painting. The illusion of the three dimensional material blending with the two dimensional background was accomplished mostly by paint, spraying paint over the sphagnum moss and hand-painting hundreds of leaves of the Leatherleaf plants. The repainting of the pitcher plants added a much more dramatic, colorful, and realistic effect. Details such as painting the lichen on the dead snags, painting the new growth on the spruce a lighter green, and adding a fly in one of the pitcher plants rounded out the renovation. At some point I will get a skin of a Snowshoe Hare and compare it with the taxidermied hare to see if it needs recoloring.


The other two Connecticut dioramas are moving toward completion, as well. The Forest Margin is mostly complete. I have installed a newly taxidermied screech owl on top of the dead tree, replacing the old, bug-damaged one. img_0303I had to figure out how to get a ladder into the diorama and stabilize it on the uneven foreground without damaging the assorted foreground plants and animals. The dead tree was well rooted in the foreground, so I was able to prop the ladder against it.

I removed the long-tailed weasel from the stone wall to see if we could get some more color back into the pelt. On removal, I discovered that there has been serious bug damage to the fur. Collin recolored it as best he could with dry pigments and we reinstalled it on the stone wall for now.


Note the insect damage on the rear haunches


A new taxidermy mount (or a 3D printed model?) will be needed as a replacement. We also noticed that the puffball found on the label is not visible in the foreground. I rooted around near the ruffed grouse and found a very sad-looking puffball amid the leaf litter. puffball


I sculpted a new cluster of three that Eunice painted. img_0311Collin noticed that there is lichen on the painted rocks in the background and none on the fabricated rock in the foreground. He will paint some new lichen rosettes onto the foreground rock. Stefan is making new fern fronds to replace some old shriveled ones near the stone wall.

The Shoreline is ready for installation of the spring-wire-strengthened grasses. The carved and painted American Bittern is ready to get drilled and installed in a location within the cattails. A new American Crow taxidermy mount will replace the stiff-looking one in the center foreground. img_0312Kristof would like to see a Fish Crow there rather than an American Crow because they are more common on the shoreline, but for now without a Fish Crow to mount and the label indicating an American Crow, I will install the new American Crow.

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A New Toy

I have a HP Sprout 3D Imaging/workstation with a Dremel 3D printer.sprout-workstation-jpeg

I submitted a grant proposal in November to a project called Blended Realities spearheaded by the Yale School of Architecture in collaboration with Hewlett Packard to help Yale faculty and students incorporate 3D technologies into their ongoing research and project work.  My proposal was to 3D scan a feathered taxidermy mount of a sandpiper from the CT Bird Hall and print four sandpiper models of varying sizes  from 7.5″ to 6.25″ to fill in missing birds.


Semipalmated and Western sandpipers in the CT Bird Hall. MIssing: Semipalmated Sandpiper in non-breeding plummage and Western Sandpiper in Breeding plummage.

I received notice that I had won one of the grants in mid-November and by the first of December I had the workstation in my lab. My 20-something volunteer, Stefan Hurlburt helped me set it up. We decided to jump in with the sandpiper, so we opened the Bird hall case with the sandpipers and grabbed a non-breeding Baird’s sandpiper taxidermy mount (one of the four missing birds is a Baird’s Sandpiper breeding adult). We set it up for scanning and got our first data file.

sandpiper-scan-isandpiper-scan-iiThe scanning part was quite user friendly and went without a hitch. The next step of getting it sent over to the Dremel tool so it could be printed, stumped several of us. Nicole Palffy-Muhoray did some troubleshooting and solved some of the problems-enough to print one of the stock images on the Dremel: a tyrannosaurus head. We still couldn’t find the right way to get the sandpiper going. That took another 20-something, Marcelle Nietlisbach, the son of Linda, my talented volunteer bird painter. In a matter of an hour or so, Marcelle had the sandpiper printing at half scale.

Marcelle with first sandpiper print

Marcelle with first sandpiper print

Having solved the problem, he was about to leave me to print it at full scale. I stopped him and asked him to set it up and get it printing while I watched. My plan was to take notes and use them for further printing, but he moved so fast and was making decisions that seemed obvious to him (opaque to me) that note taking was not useful. He started the printing at about 2pm and 9 hours later the print was done.sandpiper-scan


The topography of the scan (is that called 3D pixelization?) is visible so this print isn’t finished at a high enough level to just paint and put into the Bird Hall. I am planning to use a combination of sanding and skimming a thin layer of wax over the scan to be able to add fine detail to the wax. I will add glass eyes, add a cast beak and legs for final painting. The scan will serve as an armature and save me many steps in my usual bird carving method. Also, making four birds from one scan rather than carving all four will be a huge time savings.

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Fly in the Ointment

The Bog diorama features a fly stuck in the receptacle of one of the pitcher plants in the foreground. The original preparators, directed by Ralph Morrill, glued actual dead flies onto a plexiglass surface inside the pitcher plant as if the flies were caught in the watery liquid. Two problems with this illusion were apparent: 1. The flies would only last about 6 months before some living insect (yes, there are insects like carpet beetles living inside the dioramas.) would devour it and 2. the plexi surface was too deep inside the pitcher plant, making the fly hard to see when it still was there.

Eunice Palffy-Muhoray convinced me that it was worth it to trash the old pitcher plant to remove the plexi surface so we could reinstall it inside another plant.


We discovered that they had put sand in the bottom to hold the plexi platform inside the plant. Eunice found another plant and put pieces of ethafoam inside to do the same thing. Actually, the fit was so good, that the lip of the plant holds the plexi surface now. We positioned it just below the upper surface.

Now for the new fly. Ray Pupedis didn’t have time to make one, so I got out my fly-tying stand, a fish hook, and some peacock herl (a long reflective feather). I bought a rubber winged insect model from the art supply store, clipped the wings and legs off, and skewered it onto the fishhook. I wound the peacock herl around the rubber body, tied on a pair of small “dumbell” eyes, and a pair of mylar wings. I made legs from size “0” black insect pins bent into shape. It’s not perfect, but it works and the viewers will be able to find it.


Ray Pupedis, Peabody’s entomology collections manager laughed when he saw this! He promised he is going to make another one that won’t be quite as bad as this one!!! OK Ray, you’re right-now give me your best stuff!

The bend of the hook was clipped off and the fly was epoxied onto the plexi in the pitcher plant and installed in the foreground of the diorama.


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I have a new assistant, Collin Moret, who comes in full days on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Since he is a 20-something and can get in and out of the dioramas a lot easier than I can, I put him in charge of painting the Leatherleaf leaves. This is a one leaf-by-one leaf process. The leaves are fragile and can break off the stems even though we previously used a ph balanced white glue to adhere most of them to their stems. This makes the painting a precarious job and has to be done very carefully. We find that we can only paint for about an hour and then have to take a break.


Collin painting. Note the “rosette of pitcher plants near his knee.

We also brought up the finished pitcher plants and at the end of the day, we installed two rosettes of seven to eight plants in the foreground.


We have enough plants painted for two more groupings of them. Eventually we will install a total of six or seven groups of the pitcher plants, but we have to first finish painting them!

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Revisiting The Bog

Today I opened the Bog diorama, by myself! The glass is hinged at the top and by removing seven screws the glass swings out and I can prop it open on two adjustable stands far enough that I can squeeze around the sides and access the diorama. Today I brought up a portable generator and my airbrush to see if I could change the color of the sphagnum moss to make the jump from three dimensional foreground to the two dimensional background painting. The moss painted on the background is green, but with vibrant yellows and oranges. The foreground moss was collected from the Child’s bog in Northwest Connecticut in the 1950’s. It was soaked in glycerine to keep it springy over time and to avoid it crumbling as it dried. The original painting on the moss has faded over the years to a sickly green in some places and a dead-looking brown in others. I chose a high-keyed yellow paint to spray on it to see if I could get the tie-in to work better.dscn0488

I purchased a color-fast fabric paint from Jacquard. I bought it because the colors are stable and are water-based. The fabric colors become color-fast when they are ironed, but they also can come with an additive that does the same thing without heat. I bought a James Perry Wilson palatte: two yellows, two reds, two blues, yellow ochre, burnt umber, and white. I decided to use the cooler yellow straight out of the container without mixing it. I included the color-fast additive, thinned it with water, and put it into the airbrush container.


Note the color of the foreground matching the color of the background.

I started spraying in a corner where it would be less noticeable if the paint was not right. The color went on to the sphagnum beautifully. I was worried that the glycerine treatment of the moss might make adherence a problem, but this worry was unfounded. I stepped back and it appeared that the area where I sprayed was a perfect match with the background painting. I kept airbrushing away and indeed, the straight yellow was what was needed. This was complete luck to find the right color without having to mix a lot of paint and it was also very lucky that I stumbled upon a color that combined with the existing color of the moss to generate the right color. There have been times when I had to paint the original white first before I could lay the right color over that. I went over the entire foreground spraying yellow over the green as well as the brown sphagnum moss. I used cardboard baffles to keep the paint off the background painting and off the Snowshoe Hare. I moved the snake, the green frog, and the bog vole while I painted around them.

I did notice that the only color missing was the orangish color, so I mixed an orange color, sprayed that in a few areas, and discovered that an orange color turns brown rather than orange. I wasn’t so lucky here. It may be I will try some thick oil paint laid on the moss with restraint in places to add some of the color impressionistically. I finished recoloring the moss in an hour!

Throughout the foreground are short shrubby plants called Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata). The shrubs have small oval leaves and some are painted green, but many are brown and dead-looking. The overall look of the foreground is that much of it is dead. I spent the rest of the day painting the leatherleaf leaf by leaf with green oil paint.


It is likely that the shrubs were sprayed with latex to hold them to their stems as they dried, but if this was done, the latex has turned brittle over time and is no longer effective. White glue will be added to strengthen the connections of the leaves to their stems.

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Into The Bog


We opened the glass yesterday in the bog diorama and put a plank down into the sphagnum moss. I have been wanting to get in to make this diorama look more alive and now with the glass front open, I have started by removing all the pitcher plants. These will be repainted in brighter colors. Eunice Palffy-Muhoray has already started on some of them, ones we were able to remove last month from a side door with limited access.


The pitcher plants are 100% the real thing, dried and painted. When the diorama was initially constructed, the paint was applied with an air brush. Those colors were dark maroon and a muted green that don’t look like the living pitcher plants I saw recently, which had bright colors and highly contrasting veins.


The photographic reference, Eunice’s painted pitcher plants, and all the ones removed from the diorama that still need to be painted.

I also removed the flowers that will need their colors pumped up. The flowers are dried real flowers, but the stems are made from painted steel wire. Like the pitcher plants, the colors are too muted and the living stems transit from a light lime green to a dark maroon near the flower head.


One of the pitcher plants has a plexi insert that usually has a housefly glued onto it. The housefly specimen is an actual fly and it usually lasts about one year before other insects in the diorama (yes, there are living insects in the dioramas!) get to it and eat it. I want to put in a model of a housefly to circumvent this problem. I found these blowflies on the internet created by Grahm Owen as props for the TV show, Breaking Bad:


I’ve asked our entomology collections manager, Ray Pupedis to try his hand at tying one or two. Ray, in addition to his insect expertise, is an accomplished fly fisherman, fly tier, and bamboo rod maker. Of course, as an entomologist, he wants to know the genus and species of flies that might get caught in pitcher plants. Just creating a generic fly is not in the cards. Ray is researching the fly now. Stay tuned for another blog post about his work on the bog fly.

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