Duck Hollow Comics

(A presentation given at San Diego Bird Festival, March 2019)

My name is Sally Ingraham. I watch birds and play outside and draw comics. I’m a Naturalist Cartoonist.

February 2018 – Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham

This is a true story, based on something I witnessed during a walk in Frick Park, in Pittsburgh, PA, last year. It is a good example of the type of “research” I am doing, as a Naturalist Cartoonist. A Naturalist is a type of biologist who studies the relationships between living species and their environments. A Cartoonist is a type of artist who conveys meaning using words and images in a deliberate sequence.

magee marsh 5-9-18
May 2018 – Magee Marsh, OH – Sally Ingraham

In four panels, this comic strip captures time and space, the environment of Magee Marsh in Ohio, and the specific relationship between me, the marsh, a bullfrog, and a Sora Rail.

duck hollow 2-19-18_finished
February 2018 – Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham

My core of my work is observation in the field. I spend as much time as possible outside in nature – birding, hiking, taking notes, taking photographs, looking at the world, and collecting stories. Then I compile everything for analysis…in the form of a comic.

November 2018 – National Butterfly Center, TX – Sally Ingraham

Comics may seem worlds apart from scientific research, and the form struggles to find acceptance as “real” art, too. When I say “comics” each of you might be thinking of something different. Maybe Archie…


Or Spider-Man…


Or Calvin and Hobbs…


Or this graphic novel about Audubon…


And you might think that comics are a new format, one that has only really developed since the late 19thcentury, when newspaper comic strips like The Yellow Kid first showed up.


However, comics have been around since the cave paintings…


…when humans used images to share experiences that they didn’t have words for. Storytelling through a sequence of pictures.

You can argue that the Bayeux Tapestry, which was made sometime before 1476, is a comic.


And Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel, completed in 1305, is definitely a comic.


Sequential art, comic books, newspaper strips, editorial cartoons, and graphic novels, are all what I call comics. And comics are this transformative format which allows us to use a visual language, in addition to text, to analyze and understand and share the vast amount of data that all of our senses take in constantly.

January 2019 – Nine Mile Run, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham

I assume everyone here is a birder, or someone who appreciates and spends time in nature. Birding and nature-watching are really sense-based experiences. When you go birding you’re doing this really important thing, which is learning to trust your senses again. Going back to Plato, there’s this idea of distrusting perception, of thinking being the proof that you exist, and words being the only proper way to convey thought. When you bird, you have to rely on sight and sound and even touch, and you get away from this thought-heavy, word-reliant state of being. You have to distill information from the huge wealth of a sense experience. Instead of thinking ABOUT things you are simply BEING.

golden plover
May 2018 – Howard Marsh, OH – Sally Ingraham

It can be hard to write about, or verbally describe this experience to other people. There’s so much contained in it that you can’t explain – the connection you feel to a bird when you see it, the in-tune-ness you experience when you’re having a good birding day, and sharp sparks of joy that come despite sometimes adverse situations.

3-16-18 bluebirds
March 2018 – Wingfield Pines, PA – Sally Ingraham

I find comics to be a very useful and compelling way of sharing my experiences – both what I can articulate verbally, and what I can’t. And through comics, I feel this intense connection to a lineage of scientific illustrators that, you could say, goes back to those very same cave paintings.

Me, exploring coastal Maine on my “horse”, probably 10 yrs old

When I was a kid I wanted to be a naturalist-explorer. I read about the voyages of Captain James Cook and was enamored by the idea of him taking artists along on his expeditions, so that they might illustrate the plants and animals they discovered.

Johann Georg Adam Forster, Snow Petrel – 1772
William Wade Ellis, Akepa – 1779

I often pretended to be on an expedition, striking out across my backyard and reaching the bit of woods on the other side. I would set up camp there, underneath a thorn bush, and observe the birds that came to my Dad’s feeders. I would try to ID all the plants and trees in the near vicinity, scribbling down notes and making drawings of leaves. If my sisters or one of the neighbor kids came around I would enlist their help in collecting samples.

Birding notes from when I was 17
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

I wish I could tell my childhood self about Maria Sibylla Merian, who was the first European woman to go independently on a scientific exploration to South America. I would have been so inspired by her! She went to Dutch Surinam in 1699 to study and record tropical insects.

Work by Maria Sibylla Merian

She was already a well-established scientific illustrator, who made a living off of her botanical illustrations. She was respected and influential, unlike dozens of other female naturalists that we know of.

Princess Theresa of Bavaria (1850-1925)

200 years later Princess Theresa of Bavaria went on an expedition to Brazil, and after nine years of analyzing her collection she published an illustrated travel journal of botanical, geological, and zoological information.

From Meine Reise in den Brasilianischen Tropen (My Trips in the Brazilian Tropics). Published 1897

I was thinking about both of these women when I was in Costa Rica last December. And just like my childhood self, I was scribbling notes and drawing leaves, but my format had changed from nature journal…to comic strip.

December 2018 – Selva Verde Lodge, Costa Rica – Sally Ingraham

Art is a visual tool for communication. Comics, as I have said, are a particularly good way of using art to communicate. I kind of thought, growing up, that I would make scientific or naturalist illustrations, but instead, I find myself making comics (and being a naturalist-explorer too, amazingly!)

December 2018 – Costa Rica – Sally Ingraham

Science has always relied on a visual element to convey data or research to a wider audience. Scientific or naturalist illustration, infographics, and more recently photographs are all part of the visual language that science uses to educate.

Our brains absorb more data, way more quickly, from seeing an image than from reading text. We’re pretty much hardwired to get data more easily from images. Something like 50% of our brain is dedicated to visual processing, and around 70% of our sensory receptors are in our eyes. We process images 60,000 times faster than text.

duck hollow 2
August 2018 – Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham

Before the development of photography, illustration was how science was visualized. Although photography is a powerful tool, it does not eliminate the need for scientific – or naturalist – illustration. You need all of the above – and, I can argue, comics too.

White-eyed Vireo studies, 2019 – Catherine Hamilton (Used with permission)

Naturalist illustration is closer to realism (and thus to photography in a way) than scientific illustration. Naturalist illustration is based on direct observation, whereas scientific illustration is based on study and documentation of the represented elements. The first is pretty subjective, while the second aims to be objective. However, a scientific illustration describes a reality that is both truthful and fictitious, because it often summarizes or generalizes the subject, aiming for the most accurate representation. In a way, scientific illustration is a form of storytelling.

Magnificent Frigatbird – John James Audubon

You can’t swap out a photograph for a scientific illustration, because a photograph can only capture one unique specimen. A good scientific illustration seeks to accurately, objectively, and generally represent ALL individuals of a species.

You see this in field guides – some use scientific illustrations to represent bird species, and some use photographs. With the illustration you see what the bird objectively and generally looks like – with the photograph you see what a specific individual looks like.

Illustration, too, has the power to combine multiple facts about an organism into one striking image, providing a compact way to communicate lots of information at once. Take one of Genevieve Jones’ images (she’s called “the other Audubon”).

From Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio by Genevieve Jones, 1886

This depicts the nest and eggs of an Eastern Kindgbird. Very quickly you get an understanding of the shape of the nest, what it’s made of (dried grasses, sticks, seed pods, flowerheads, sticks, and lined with feathers), and can assume that it was built in a sycamore tree.

I love this kind of image, and other scientific illustrations like the work of Mary Banning

From The Fungi of Maryland by Mary Banning – 1888 (unpublished)
An illustration which accompanied Beatrix Potter’s paper “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae” – 1897 (unpublished)

…or Beatrix Potter, who were both brilliant mycologists, although they were not recognized as such in their lifetimes (after all, in the mid-1800s botany was considered an ideal pastime or hobby for women, but any actual scientific contributions, however substantial, were largely ignored.)

Northern Bald Ibis studies, 2018 – Catherine Hamilton (used with permission)

On the other hand, work like Catherine Hamilton‘s – this type of observational drawing, or field sketching, worked up into a naturalist illustration – is really exciting in a whole different way.

Observational drawing is a completely different experience, especially for the artist. You are having a conversation with yourself and the world around you as you do it. The eye looks and sees an object in the world, and the mind asks “What do I see?” and then it imagines what it is seeing, and visualizes how it would represent that on paper, and then the hand draws what the mind imagines it sees. What a process!


You could call this process “exact sensorial imagination”, which is an idea I got from Henri Bortoft, who got it from Goethe. They’re talking about a slightly different way of seeing, a way of developing the imagination as an organ of perception. It’s the idea of slowing down and really looking. You look at the shape of a leaf, and then you create the shape of the leaf in your mind, using your imagination. It’s an active way of seeing – but you can take it that step further by actually drawing this phenomenon going on inside your head, drawing the conversation your mind is having with what it sees, drawing the leaf. (Goethe IS often quoted saying something like “you never really see a plant until you draw it”.)

I like this idea of active seeing as it applies to drawing, but also to general observational practice. Birding is already an activity that moves your body, lifts your eyes UP and outside of yourself. You’re more aware, disconnected from some aspects of life and far more connected to others. Like I said before, you’re learning to trust your senses.

cuckoo june 2018_smaller
June 2018 – Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham

Maybe you add nature journaling or field sketching to your birding and outdoor experiences? Aside from aiding the development of your imagination as an organ of perception, ah la Goethe, studies have proven that seeing and doing is essential for learning and recall. People recall 20% of what they read, 10% of what they see, and 80% of what they see AND do. So drawing will help you become a better birder, but also this active way of looking, and the slow way of doing it, I think will help you become a better person.

There’s this phrase that is popular in social media memes and such – “I can’t unsee THAT!” or “what has been seen can’t be unseen”. That’s what I hope to do with my comics, which are this accessible way to communicate what it’s like to go birding and play outside. I am trying to share what I see, and inspire folks to take a look for themselves. Once they start looking, in theory what has been seen can’t be unseen, and if more folks see that birds are amazing and the environment is important, that’s a good thing.

March 2018 – North Shore Drive, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham

Relationships are important to me, as a naturalist and a cartoonist and storyteller, and as a human being. There’s a spot in Pittsburgh, PA, called Duck Hollow, where somehow all of this comes together for me. It’s where folks come to fish, where teenagers come to chill out, and where local birders come to bird. Everyone sort of does their own thing, but there’s a nice comradery. The guys who were fishing will ask me about birds occasionally, and tell me stories about their encounters with fish-stealing Bald Eagles, and I’ll ask them about those fish with the crazy long thin snouts and all the teeth that I can’t believe are there in the Monongahela River.

Sometimes there will be something that pulls everyone’s attention to the same spot.

blue heron
August 2018 – Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham

Moments like these – these shared, all senses engaged, experiences – are powerful. They reverberate, somehow. They are a conversation that continues. They are why I can’t despair, why I have to keep striving to understand myself and my place in this world, why I have to keep exploring the connections and relationships between people and birds and the environment.

Through experiences, through stories, and through comics.

(And here are a few more of my comics, for good measure and viewing pleasure!)

September 2018 – Austin Dam, PA – Sally Ingraham
November 2018 – South Padre Island, TX – Sally Ingraham
December 2018 – Ogunquit, ME – Sally Ingraham
January 2019 – Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham
January 2019 – Merritt Island Nat’l Wildlife Refuge, FL – Sally Ingraham
January 2019 – Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham
February 2019 – OH, FL, and Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham

Duck Hollow Comics – on Instagram

2-10-2019 – Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham

I have been posting new comics on a regular basis on my Instagram account – @duck_hollow_comics – which you can access HERE! You do not need an Instagram account to view my comics. New birding stories from Texas, NM, Costa Rica, Maine, Florida, and of course Pittsburgh, PA, can be seen there!

Golden Plover

While warblers are the main draw during The Biggest Week in American Birding, one of my favorite encounters from the 9 days that I was there in Ohio in May 2018 had nothing to do with warblers. It mostly had to do with dandelions.

golden plover
5-6-2018 – Howard Marsh, OH – Sally Ingraham

Golden Plover was a life bird for me, and there were probably close to a thousand there during the Biggest Week festival, taking a break from migrating in the perfect habitat that is Howard Marsh (nice mudflats and plenty of open ground). Their migration is one of the longest among shorebirds (from the Arctic to central/southern South America) so it was a well-deserved break, and made for a real treat for many people other than myself.

The fact that Howard Marsh was there for the Golden Plovers this year was really exciting too – it’s a brand new Metropark in the Toledo, OH, system. Formerly part of a working farm, the acreage was recently turned over to Metroparks and developed back into a wetland, providing a crucial stopping off point for many species of migrating birds, and contributing to the restoration of the waters of Lake Erie.

Howard Marsh had that squeaky new feel to it, with it’s bright white gravel roads and shiny boardwalks, but the crowd of birders who flocked to see the Golden Plover and other interesting shorebirds (Wilson’s Phalarope was another great sighting!) took a bit of the gleam off – in the best sort of way.

I was there without a spotting scope the first time I visited, so I personally saw to beating down a trail along the dikes in an effort to find a spot where I could get a better look at the Golden Plover through just my binoculars.

Because of this, I was treated to the spectacular view, detailed in the comic above, of the plovers in the field of yellow flowers – a spot that was hidden behind a dike from the main viewing platforms. I sat on the dike for an hour watching the birds dip in and out of the flowers, marveling at their glorious breeding plumage.

I could (and probably will) fill a book with memories of bird encounters from just this 9-day period along the coast of Lake Erie. As the weeks have passed, however, and my excitement over Snowy Owl and Black-billed Cuckoo and Cerulean Warbler has faded to a pleasant glow, the image that has hung on, the memory that rises unbidden every couple of days is of the plovers in the yellow field, a blaze of hot gold somehow sending a shower of light UP to greet the sun – and me at the edge, riding this magic carpet along to a moment of perfect, complete joy.

Cuckoo for Cuckoos

I have seen a lot of cuckoos lately (and not just of the human variety!) Early last month in Ohio during Biggest Week a Black-billed Cuckoo made a shockingly visible appearance along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, joining a terrific quantity of warblers right overhead for a moment, before winging off to a hidden perch where (as is more typical) it remained for hours, occasionally vocalizing just to remind folks that it was there, but of course still invisible.

Then there was the Greater Roadrunner that I saw at the Albuquerque International Sunport on May 30th (there’s a comic-version of that story HERE).

Back home in Pittsburgh, PA, I went to Duck Hollow for the first time in weeks, and I just had this funny feeling that I would see another cuckoo…!


cuckoo june 2018_smaller
6-1-2018 – Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham


While I was traveling throughout May, the woods down along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, PA, turned into a veritable jungle. So green and tangled and full of birds that are buried in too much foliage to really see them…! On the evening of the first day in June the trail from Duck Hollow, which follows the river beneath the Homestead Greys Bridge and runs down almost to Hazelwood, was a tunnel, full of purple shadows and puddles of dimming sunlight.

I had this feeling, like I said, that I would find a Yellow-billed Cuckoo down there that night, and incredibly, not only did I find one but I got great looks at it. It flew from one side of the “canopy” along the trail to the other, and then sat in a nice window of tree branches for quite awhile. In fact, I wandered off in search of an Orchard Oriole before the cuckoo moved, although it was gone when I looked back down the trail for it.

With these 3 species under my belt for the year, I now feel compelled to see MORE cuckoos – however, the remaining options are all scarce. I’ll have to trek to certain parts of FL with some serious intent to find a Mangrove Cuckoo, and to Alaska (if I can get there right now!) to probably NOT find a Common Cuckoo. More possible is the Groove-billed Ani (yes, it’s cuckoo!), which I’ve seen before in TX and which I just might be able to find when I am there this year in November… And if I find that, why shouldn’t I be able to find the even rarer Smooth-billed Ani?!

In the end I may have to content myself with the little wooden cuckoo which pops out of the clock every 15 minutes. That, and my local lovely Yellow-billed friend.


May 2018 – PA, OH, and NM

I was traveling for much of May 2018, zipping over to Ohio to participate in The Biggest Week in American Birding and then spending time in New Mexico with my Mom. One trip had everything to do with birds, while the other provided me with relatively incidental opportunities to bird watch.

I made several comics during both trips, only one of which ended up being posted on Interesting Ducks – you can revisit that Chain of Events HERE. Here are the others, with a few comments to set the scene.


yellow warbler May 2018
5-1-2018 – Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham


I saw my first warbler in Pittsburgh, PA, along the Nine Mile Run trail to Duck Hollow, in Frick Park, on the first day of May. On May 4th, during an afterschool comics class I teach at The Ellis School, I quickly drew a memory of it – partly in anticipation of the wealth of warblers I expected to see the next morning. I was leaving class and driving directly to Port Clinton, OH, to meet up with my Dad and the ZEISS team for a week or so at Magee Marsh! I saw many, many more Yellow Warblers over the course of what turned into a 9 day trip – but this first flash of exuberant yellow bird was my favorite.


zeiss biggest week
5-11-2018 – Black Swamp Bird Observatory, OH – Sally Ingraham


While in Ohio for Biggest Week, I spent 5 days exclusively birding, and 4 days working for ZEISS in the Optics Tent. There’s nothing better, when you’re trying to sell optics, than walking outside with an interested customer and showing them what a pair of bins can do for you in the wild – and of course, no one can complain when there are wonderful birds like the Wilson’s Warbler to study!


5-24-2018 – Red Rock State Park, Gallup, NM – Sally Ingraham


My Mom and I spent some time in Gallup, NM, doing volunteer work later in the month of May. My parents lived in the area for 10 years and I was born in Gallup, so it is always interesting to be back there. On our one day off, Mom and I went hiking in Red Rock State Park, where we explored the trail to Church Rock, which I remembered hiking as a kid. We then climbed to the top of Pyramid where we got an incredible 360 degree view of the area – 100 miles in every direction.


5-24-2018 – McGaffey Lake, Cibola Nat’l Forest, NM – Sally Ingraham


That same day, after the hike, I requested that we drive into Cibola National Forest beyond Fort Wingate, to see if I remembered a favorite picnicking spot from my childhood. Maybe it was different, but I couldn’t be sure. I was certain that the Northern Flickers were different out there, however! Around Pittsburgh, PA, they are “yellow-shafted” as opposed to the Western “red-shafted” birds. The markings on their heads are quite a bit different. The “red-shafted” Flicker is seen above, while the variation that I am more familiar with can be seen in this comic from April.


5-30-2018 – Albuquerque International Sunport. NM – Sally Ingraham

In the “sunport” in Albuquerque, on the day Mom and I left NM, I marveled that we had been in the state for nearly 10 days without seeing a Roadrunner. We were lingering in the beautiful Observation Tower (a space that makes the ABQ airport my favorite in the country) and I had just barely finished speaking when a Greater Roadrunner appeared on the tarmac below. I could instantly tell, just by its silhouette, what it was, and I shouted for Mom to look. We had to laugh as it zoomed around for a minute, before it disappeared behind a plane parked at a nearby gate.


It was a nice way to end a fantastic month of birding, making the 71st species I saw in the month of May and the 185th bird of the year!


A Chain of Events


magee marsh 5-9-18
5-5-2018 – Magee Marsh, OH – Sally Ingraham


Reporting live from Ohio where I’m taking part in the Biggest Week in American Birding! Since last Saturday I have spent my days mostly watching warblers around the boardwalk at Magee Marsh – but now and then I have ventured to other areas to see what else I can find. This chain of events – a bullfrog scaring me and then me scaring a Sora Rail – really did happen 4 times in a row one afternoon…!

Next comic I’ll have some warbler stories, I promise.

Nebby Neighbors

I was out for a walk yesterday in Frick Park on the first really warm day of the spring here in Pittsburgh, PA. It was early, so there were a lot of birds bouncing around and vocalizing.


4-13-18 Flicker
4-13-2018 – Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham


These two Carolina Chickadees continued to hang out on the power line while the Flicker went in and out of the hole it was excavating. The Chickadees reminded me of nebby neighbors (“nebby” is the Pittsburgh equivalent of “nosy”) who catch you in the midst of yard work, and then stand around gabbing and offering advice while you break your back digging a post hole…!

Not that the Flicker seemed to care. It is breeding season, and there was another Northern Flicker calling nearby. Later on I saw them both in trees a few yards apart, “singing” (if you can call it that) their piercing rattle of a tune to each other.

There are noticeably more birds now, both species and quantities, and the Goldfinches are getting really yellow. Spring has been very slow to arrive, but I do believe it is finally here.

Hermit Thrush

3-21-18 hermit thrush
3-18-2018 – Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA – Sally Ingraham

I can’t count how many times I’ve stood at the edge of a woodland, listening to a Hermit Thrush sing, trying to pinpoint the sound and find the bird in the undergrowth or on a low bough. The thrush is often impossible to locate, seemingly singing right at your feet but completely invisible, despite being a fairly large, round bird.

Therefore I was startled into near-laughter when one flew across my path the other day, and although I didn’t get to enjoy it’s lyrical, echoing song, I did get a very nice look at it’s spotted tummy and russet red tail.

Quite a treat for a winter afternoon in Pittsburgh, PA.

Wingfield Pines Bluebird

3-16-18 bluebirds
3-10-2018 – Wingfield Pines, Allegheny County, PA

There’s nothing better, in my experience, than a water treatment system if you’re looking for interesting birds (of all sorts). I have spent many happy hours in these man-made wetlands, searching for bitterns and rails and warblers and sparrows, and always hoping for a raptor of some sort.

I was in Florida in January, and thoroughly enjoyed a day at Viera Wetlands, a water reclamation facility operated by Brevard County. 200 acres, split into a maze of dikes and “cells” and even a deep water lake; home to lots of big, exciting birds (and plenty of little ones too.) Coming back to bird in Pittsburgh, PA, after that trip wasn’t as disheartening as you might think, due to the area’s surprisingly rich variety of habitat – but amid all the forest and river spots, I was missing a proper man-made wetland.

Just in time, a friend pointed me in the direction of Wingfield Pines – a passive abandoned mine drainage system not far outside the city of Pittsburgh, near the townships of Upper St. Clair and South Fayette. Perfect!

Wingfield Pines is 87 acres of land, in the floodplain of Chartiers Creek (hence the mud I ran into on my visit!) Like so many places in Western PA, the land was used and abused for decades, and Chartiers Creek was filling up with 43 tons of iron oxide from nearby abandoned mines. Once the treatment/drainage system was laid in, using gravity and a series of ponds the water now arrives in the creek relatively clear of pollutants. You can see the process in action as you walk the trails and boardwalks across the site – the upper ponds are orange and murky, while the bottom ponds are bluish and green.

When I visited about a week ago it was cold and sunny, and the Red-winged Blackbirds were holding down the fort until more exciting species return from their winter ventures. A Pileated Woodpecker (or two, probably) was busy in the woods nearby, zooming across the dikes at one point to hammer on a dead tree at the center of the system. There were Killdeer scooting around in the frozen reeds, and a few Mallards in the creek.

The best bird (always, when it appears!) was a pair of Eastern Bluebirds. I saw the female first, and guessed the species based on rough size and shape even though the bird was in deep shade. Then the male popped up onto a tree branch and the winter sun threw a spotlight on him, making the deep blue on his head and back zing. What a wonderful sight!

Both birds peered around them for a bit before dropping down to get some more grub, I assume, and I lost track of them while I was digging myself out of the mud…

I’ll be back to Wingfield Pines in a few weeks to see what I see, and even if it’s nothing new, if I see the Bluebirds I’ll be more than content.