Wheatear stance

Wheatears have a very distinctive upright stance, legs stretched and body almost vertical. While going through my Twitter feed, I came across a post by Rose Stephens, who had shared some photos of Stonechats and Wheatears at Wanstead Flats. One of the photos captured the upright stance beautifully and inspired me to sketch it in pencil on paper, and then finish it in ink for Inktober.

Gannet bow

A sketch of a non-breeding gannet at a club, based on a photo I took at Bempton Cliffs in early September. Clubs are areas where immature and adult gannets that haven’t got a nest site congregate. During this time at the colony they become familiar with the best fishing areas by following individuals foraging and they develop their social skills, including their behavioural repertoire. The bow is a behaviour advertising site ownership, the Gannet, wings half open, bows repeatedly, often touching the ground between their feet, then raising its bill and head shaking. Bryan Nelson, in his monograph on the Gannet, speculated that this behaviour is a ritualised nest building, the individual will place nest material in the nest, and then shake its head to dislodge any remaining material.

Gannet Skipointing

I recently visited Bempton Cliffs, the RSPB nature reserve at the Flamborough Headland, and had plenty of opportunities to watch Gannets up close. The behaviour of Gannets at their nesting sites is fascinating, with bowing, skypointing, fencing and courtship preening. I had watched these behaviours before as I’m lucky to live close to Bempton, but I wanted to learn more about Gannet behaviour, so I bought The Gannet, by Bryan Nelson. When I got the book I realised that the artwork is by John Busby, one of my favourite bird illustrators. Busby simple but incredibly effective ink drawings worked really well in the behaviour chapter. Nelson was a student of Niko Tinbergen, one of the fathers of ethology, the field of animal behaviour, and devoted much of his career to the study of Gannets, spending years at Bass Rock, one of the largest and oldest Gannet colonies. It is also Inktober, so I decided to draw an ink and paper Gannet. Skypointing is a really interesting behaviour, shared by gannets and their relatives the tropical boobies. The bird signals the intention of departure from the nest site, and it helps the pair to effectively make sure the egg or young chick is not left unattended.

Kittlitz’s Murrelet

The last species in the Auks series is the Kittlitz’s Murrelet, a small, solitary nester of mountain slopes over the tree-line ranging from Siberia to Alaska. The single chick is fed on the nest until it fledges, and afterwards it receives no more parental care. It is near threatened. Ink and pencil on Wacom tablet.

Marbled Murrelet

For today’s drawing I have done the endangered Marbled Murrelet. In the winter, Marbled Murrelets are black and white, like other auks. However, unlike other auks, this genus has a brown, speckled plumage in the summer. The reason behind this unusual colour for a sea bird became clear in the 1970s, when nests were found for the first time. The marbled murrelet nests in old growth forests, where is lays its single egg on a shallow depression on moss-covered large tree bows. Ravens, jays and other aerial predators on the prowl in the woods are a danger, and means that well-camouflaged incubating murrelets are at an advantage. Unfortunately due to felling of these forests, and with changes in the marine environment driven by climate change the future of this species is by no means certain. Watercolour and ink in Wacom tablet.

Pigeon Guillemot

The last of the Guillemots of the genus Cepphus, this is a similar species to the Black Guillemot, the main distinction in the field is a band of dark feathers crossing the white wing patches. It lives in the North Pacific and breeds in isolated pairs. As the Black Guillemot it has bright red feet and mouth lining. Nests in crevices in rocks or in burrows. Ink and pencil in Wacom tablet.

Scripp’s Murrelet

A very similar species to Guadalupe Murrelet, they used to be regarded as subspecies of Xantu’s Murrelet, differing mainly on markings on the face. Genetic analysis showed that there was no interbreeding even when they breed together in some islands. It has a restricted distribution, only breeding on islands off the coast of California and Mexico, where they are vulnerable to introduced predators like feral cats and rats. This article is quite informative and contains a video of chicks leaving the nest. As other murrelets of the group, two eggs are laid and chicks are not fed in the nest, but leave after a couple of days of hatching, called by parents, and the family reunites on the coast.

Guadalupe Murrelet

This is a small auk with a tiny breeding distribution range, it is only known to breed in two islands off the west coast of the Baja California Peninsula: Guadalupe and San Benito Islands. In the past, they were exposed to predation while breeding from cats and rats, which now have been mostly removed. The species was recently split from Scripps’s Murrelet, whereas before both were known as Xantu’s Murrelet. It is mostly seen in pairs. When breeding, it only comes to land at night. Nest is in a crevice, burrow or under bushes. The two chicks are very precocial, and leave the nest to join the parents and be fed at sea.

Ancient Murrelet

The Ancient Murrelet is another small North Pacific auk, of blackbird size. The white flecks and grey mantle apparently gave it the ‘ancient’ on its name, reminiscent of al elderly person’s shawl. This species undergoes a East-West migration. Individuals breeding on the west coast of north America winter in areas around Japan. It has a peculiar natural history for an auk: males ‘sing’ at night from tree branches to attract partner to nest site, a burrow under a tree or shrub. It usually rears two young, which are precocial and are not fed at the nest by the parents, instead led by parents to water 1-3 days after hatching, at night, and reared there until they are fully grown. I’ve decided to draw murrelets on water, as they spend so little time on land. There is a record of ancient murrelet in the UK, apparently the same individual visited Lundy three years in a row.