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Painting by Walter Breckenridge.

A Naturalist's Eye, an Artist's Hand

Walter Breckenridge's artwork depicts Minnesota's natural heritage.

By Don Luce

Early in the 1930s, a young naturalist from the Minnesota Museum of Natural History (now the Bell Musem) found himself clinging to a white cedar on a precipitous cliff overhanging Lake Superior. Walter Breckenridge, known as "Breck," had been assigned by then-museum director T. S. Roberts to find all the peregrine falcon nests along the North Shore. Roberts, about to publish his classic book The Birds of Minnesota, wanted to get an accurate account of the peregrine's distribution and abundance.

Breck peered down into a peregrine nest harboring two downy chicks. Earlier he had spotted a pair of adult falcons flying around this cliff, and now he had confirmed their nesting. But he wasn't satisfied to just collect this observation. Using skills honed as a college gymnast, Breck lowered himself with a rope. There, on the windswept ledge, he sketched, collected bits of birds left from the falcons' meals, and photographed the spectacular view.

image of white egret

Breckenridge's Minnesota:

View a naturalist's paintings

Back at the museum, Breck created a three-dimensional replica of the nesting scene. For this diorama, he sculpted a rock ledge in plaster, painted two harrier eggs to look like peregrine eggs, and prepared a female peregrine specimen to look like she had just landed at the nest. He enlarged and hand-colored his cliff photo to make a backdrop. This exhibit remains at the museum today, giving visitors a window into the intimate life of these rare, elusive birds. The diorama stands as just one example of how Breck devoted his multitalented career to improving the understanding and appreciation of nature in Minnesota.

In his 43 years at the museum, Breck progressed from taxidermist, to curator, to director. He worked on 10 of its 16 world-famous large dioramas and created dozens of smaller ones. He earned a master's degree with research on northern harriers and a doctorate with research on Minnesota reptiles and amphibians.

Breck published articles on every aspect of nature, from wood duck nesting to the hibernation of Canadian toads. A pioneering nature filmmaker, he captured some of the first footage of nesting sandhill cranes and spruce grouse. In addition to developing nature programs for the museum, he created and ran the first naturalist and nature-trail programs at Minnesota state parks.

To top it off, Breck was an avid artist. Working in pencil, pen and ink, oils, etchings, and, most notably, watercolor, he produced illustrations for publications, including Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. After his retirement in 1969, his art really flowered. Strongly influenced by great bird artists such as Allan Brooks, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and Francis Lee Jaques, Breck created watercolor paintings that drew on his voluminous knowledge of natural history. It was only failing eyesight in his 90s that kept him from his brushes and easel.

Throughout his life, Walter Breckenridge was a tireless advocate for preserving nature and its wild inhabitants. His artwork is a testimony to the importance of close observation for the appreciation of nature's beauty.

Photo of sandhill cranes.

Sandhill Cranes at Nest, watercolor

In the 1920s, Breckenridge took over the wildlife filmmaking that Bell Museum director T. S. Roberts had launched. The equipment lacked a sophisticated telephoto lens, so Breck had to locate a bird's nest, set up a blind close by, and hope the birds would return. His efforts paid off when he captured some of the first film of sandhill cranes.

 Photo of a red-tailed hawk.

Red-Tailed Hawks at Nest, watercolor

Red-tailed hawks are widely distributed and vary greatly in color, from almost black to this pale, prairie variant. He studied a pale red-tailed hawk at the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. In this painting, Breckenridge shows a light-colored bird bringing food to the young.

 Photo of an egret.

Egret on Elk Antler, watercolor

Breckenridge was friends with a farmer near the South Dakota border who employed all the latest conservation techniques. The farmer set aside many acres of native prairie and enlarged some of his wetlands to form shallow ponds. The ponds attracted many species of birds, including this great egret. In dredging the pond, the farmer discovered an elk antler in the mud--elk had once wandered his land. Breckenridge painted the egret on the antler with the wetland as a background.

 Photo of great horned owl.

Great Horned Owl, watercolor

In the 1930s Breckenridge discovered a great horned owl nest. He built a blind in a nearby tree to capture film footage of the owl feeding. He spent the night in the blind, so he wouldn't disturb the birds in the morning. At first light, he watched the adult gingerly feed the chicks, but it was still too dark to shoot film. By the time it was bright enough to film, the owl had settled in to sleep for the day.

 Photo of a bull moose.

Bull Moose, oil on canvas

Once, while canoeing in the Boundary Waters, Breckenridge and a friend spotted a moose feeding on water-lily roots in deep water far from shore. Every time the moose would submerge its head, they paddled a little closer--so close that they could have touched the moose with their paddles.

 Photo of wood ducks.

Wood Ducks With Pickerel Weed, watercolor

Breckenridge is more closely associated with wood ducks than with any other species. For years he studied their nesting behavior in the woods around his home on the Mississippi River. He became so good at predicting when a brood would hatch that he would hold "coming out parties," in which friends would gather in the morning to watch the ducklings leap from their nest hole in a tree.

 Photo of pileated woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker and Red Squirrel, watercolor

The crow-sized pileated woodpecker excavates large holes in trees, often quite close to the ground in search of carpenter ants and other wood-boring insects. Red squirrels are curious and rather aggressive, so it is not surprising that a squirrel might come to investigate the woodpecker's activity--an event that Breckenridge undoubtedly observed firsthand.

Photo of tundra swans.

Tundra Swans Over the Mississippi River, oil on canvas

Tundra swans pass through Minnesota in spring and fall as they migrate to and from their nesting grounds in the Arctic. They often stop to rest and feed along the Mississippi River, as Breckenridge depicted in this painting.

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