Our Stories

Caitlin Letts: Painting the Birds

Senior biology major, Caitlin Letts '05 studied study birds. She ended up discovering a passion for paint.

"I'd worked on a number of research projects for professors and I wanted to do an independent project," says the Beaverton science student who is minoring in studio art. "I was interested in a project that combined science and art. I thought the Carson Grant would be just the right thing."

The $3,000 Carson Undergraduate Research Grants are designed to encourage independent research or study outside the classroom setting. Letts wanted to document the bird species in Portland's Washington Park and create a field guide filled with her original paintings.

"In mid-May and throughout the summer, I went at Dawn to Washington Park several days a week. I bird watched, recorded all the species I saw and took notes on their behaviors. I also photographed them. I ended up recording 39 different species."

Letts says she observed plenty of species common to the Northwest, including hawks, herons and several different types of woodpeckers and hummingbirds. "I didn't see any birds that are really unusual for the area and I wasn't looking for that. Because I'm fairly new to bird watching, I did see lots of species that were new for me."

She was surprised at how many migratory birds use Washington Park as a layover. "There were more birds like warblers who migrate than I expected to find."

She also discovered the ins and outs of Washington Park, an area she thought she knew. "I'd worked at the zoo, so I'm familiar with the park. But I bought a trail map and found there were all kinds of places I'd never been before."

Once she compiled a long list of species and hundreds of photographs to work from, she set about the task of painting each bird species. Using acrylic paint, she created 45 original bird paintings. "I used my own reference images from my visits to the park. For a few species that were particularly hard to photograph, I used images I found on Google. It was different painting from my own photographs because I had observed the bird's behavior when I took the photograph. I knew how it moved and what it did."

She wrote descriptions of the birds to go with the paintings and included information on park attractions, the Children's Museum, the Zoo and the Arboretum. She also wrote a list of tips on bird watching.

She laid it all out in Photoshop and designed her 35-page guidebook, which she's having quick-printed. She plans to distribute her field guide through the Audubon Society and gift shops in the Portland area.

Letts says her Carson project has led her to re-discover art. "I've been focused on science for the past several years. I found I really liked locking myself away in my studio and painting. The Carson project has given me more confidence in my writing and in my artwork. I'd like to switch gears and focus on artwork as a career."