One could simply dismiss artist Etta Wegner’s observations about birds and wildlife as merely anecdotal, based solely on staying put for 80 years in the canyon country above the Snake River near Ewarstville in rural Whitman County.
Still, even without scientific sampling and a team of ornithologists, it’s hard to dispute what her well-trained artist’s eyes notice year after year outside her studio window: a scarcity of birds.
“That locust tree used to be black with barn swallows,” she says, pointing outside her dining room window. “The powerlines used to sag with them. That’s when there were flocks of orioles and mountain bluebirds.
“Now, you are so glad when you see a goldfinch.”
She blames farming practices and the cumulative effect of the nearby four lower Snake River dams, whose reservoirs inundated vital riparian habitat.
Her conclusions are actually well documented.
In the book “River of Life, Channel of Death,” historian Keith Petersen writes that 15 years after the dams came on line, “Washington Department of Game officials estimated that the lower Snake supported only 2,000 game birds … that the 95,000 wintering songbirds formerly along the river then numbered only 3,000.”
Perhaps as a way of recording a Palouse natural history (although she would never be so bold to claim that), Wegner has created her own aviary in stipple, scratchboard and pastel, from short-eared owls to her favorite bird, the California quail. She spends five to six hours a day matching the rhythm of the landscape to her art.
Her work is sold privately and through area galleries, such as Nica Gallery in Pullman and across the border in Idaho at Moscow Gallery West.
Her son Alan, who lives nearby on the 600-acre family farm, does all of her printing. Wegner makes her own frames and the small hardwood easels she includes with her original miniature scratchboard pictures. One collection of her notecards features chukars, wild turkeys, Hungarian partridge and grouse, while another collection shows some of the larger creatures in Palouse settings, such as white-tailed deer and one card titled, “Coyote and Canola.”
Nicole Taflinger, owner of Nica Gallery, says no other artist in the region depicts local wildlife as well as Wegner. Taflinger says many have tried, but no one else’s work “is as real and sensitive as Etta’s.”
“Her technique and ability to show wildlife is unusual,” Taflinger says. “She brings them to life. You feel their Palouse surroundings: the roundness.”
Wegner’s love for the Palouse landscape and its wildlife came early in her childhood on her parents’ farm while building bird houses and tending to injured animals. Capturing wildlife on paper came naturally.
“I’ve drawn ever since I was in grade school,” she says. “I would go through periods when I would draw legs. Then it would be eyes. I must of used up a lot of paper. I drew all over my textbooks, too.”
After earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1941 from then Washington State College, Wegner went to work as a staff artist for WSC’s Cooperative Extension Service.
She sold her first piece of art 15 years ago. Recently, she drew all the illustrations for the “Watchable Wildlife” pamphlet, “Birds and Birding Routes of the Idaho Panhandle.”
Her husband, former Whitman County commissioner Harry Wegner, passed away in 1979.
Wegner collects anything and everything. Tubs of pine cones, abandoned nests, rocks, wings and feathers crowd her tiny 7-1/2-by-7-1/2-foot studio along with dried flowers, branches and sticks “with character.”
Wings, talons and a head of a hen pheasant, all road kill, spill across a shelf. “The whole bottom part of my freezer is full of road kill,” she says.
Stacks of her favorite nature magazine, National Wildlife, fill her bookshelves, as well as Nature Conservancy, National Geographic and Washington Wildlife. Wegner also draws inspiration from books, such as “Water Prey and Games Birds of North America,” “The Wonders of Nature” and “The International Wildlife Encyclopedia.” A loaded camera hangs from a coat rack, and directly outside her studio window is a birdfeeder she hopes the juncoes will soon discover.
Part of her working day often includes a walk around her property, under a small forest she planted long ago of blue spruce, willow, walnut, honey locust and what she calls her “horticultural experiment”: probably the only mature pecan tree in Eastern Washington.
On her hikes she hopes to witness the kind of quiet miracles that happen in nature, even in the changed agricultural landscape of the Palouse. Those miracles are still out there, she says, out in the curvy eyebrow places, the old growth hawthorns and overhead in the thermals with the red-tailed hawks and kestrels.
“You can’t anticipate circumstances,” she says, remembering one such circumstance when she watched baby quail being pushed out of their nest by their mother.
“She kept flicking them out. One by one they hit the ground and started pecking immediately. I’ll never forget it.”