Down East 2013 ©
Photograph by James Demer
Like many teenagers, Luke Seitz is not a morning person. “I hate getting up early,” he says, laughing. “I picked the wrong hobby.”
When the birds are singing in spring, however, the seventeen-year-old Seitz can’t resist. He’s out before dawn, traipsing around birding hotspots like Gilsland Farm near his home in Falmouth or the Kennebunk Plains, where he’s surveyed state endangered grasshopper sparrows for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“I’ve gotten pretty good at taking naps later in the day,” Seitz says of his early bird schedule. But he doesn’t have much time for napping these days. Birds have become much more than a hobby for Seitz.
When Seitz isn’t watching birds, he’s often photographing or painting them. His passion, talent, and plenty of practice have started paying off: seventy-five of Seitz’s paintings illustrate Birds of the Maine Backyard, a pocket reference written and published in 2010 by Derek Lovitch, bird guide and co-owner of Freeport Wild Bird Supply.
Lovitch started publishing Seitz’s illustrations in his store’s newsletter shortly after he met the talented young birder seven or eight years ago. He says he has enjoyed watching Seitz’s birding and illustration skills evolve ever since. “Luke is a birder first,” Lovitch says. “He doesn’t just draw birds from pictures in magazines; he integrates his observations and impressions from the field.”
Other than “a couple of art classes in high school,” Seitz is self-taught. He works in his bedroom at a desk covered with his photographs, tubes of watercolors, brushes, and other supplies. Seitz sketches each bird in pencil first and then airbrushes in a background to mimic the blurred effect of photographs. Then comes the hard part: painting the bird.
“I try to depict the birds as scientifically accurate as possible,” Seitz says. “Getting the shape and proportions right is very difficult and usually takes the most time. Positioning the eye is one of the most important things. If the eye is a little bit off, the entire painting is going to look wrong! I also hate drawing the feet. I have no idea why, but they are just awful.”
In spite of Seitz’s artistic struggles, his birds are carefully rendered. His best illustrations have a spontaneity that suggests a moment in a bird’s actual life in the world. This effect is heightened in illustrations that depict birds with their beaks open. “One of my favorite things is photographing and painting birds singing,” Seitz says. “I just love birdsong.”
Seitz got hooked on birds at age six when he spotted a scarlet tanager in his yard in Connecticut. A community of Maine birders nurtured his passion and talents when he started hanging out at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm headquarters shortly after his family moved to Falmouth when he was nine. “It was pretty clear to the birding community that Luke was someone special,” says Stella Walsh, a longtime volunteer with Maine Audubon.
Seitz is already up to more than 1,800 bird species on his “life list” — including the hundreds of species he’s seen and photographed in Peru and Ecuador, where he worked as a volunteer guide for an eco-lodge last winter. At the moment Seitz has a summer job as an onboard naturalist for Odyssey Whale Watch out of Portland, and is thinking about college. Seitz, who graduated high school at age sixteen, is considering “bird schools” like Cornell and Louisiana State University and mulling options that would allow him to combine his interests in art, writing, and Spanish.
As he looks to new horizons, Seitz continues to watch the birds common and rare in his own back yard. “There’s a great diversity in habitats in Maine and it’s really fun to look for something unusual. Last summer there was a white-chinned petrel off of Bar Harbor, which is a bird from Antarctica. Absolutely anything could show up here.”