About africagomez

NERC Advanced Research Fellow, University of Hull

Diving puffin

Puffin diving

Last week I found a Puffin on the beach. Unfortunately a dead one. Puffins are very popular birds, but we don’t see them on their element, water. They belong to the auk family and all are marine birds, that only come to land to raise their chicks. Unlike other diving birds, like cormorants, grebes or ducks, which use their feet to propel themselves under water, puffins propel themselves using their wings, so they look like they are flying under water. Pencil and Kuretake Gansai Tambi watercolours on sketch paper, using as a reference a photograph by Alexander Mustard published in the Wildlife Watch magazine.

Drake pochard, face on

It’s a long time since I have actually picked up real watercolours and paper. I routinely sketch with pencil on paper and then use the sketch as a first layer, but it was fun to use watercolours again. I got a new set of 36 Kuretake Gansai Tambi colours, so this was an excuse for a first try, funny that I ended up using a subdued palette, as the colours are really vibrant and the pigment very rich. Pochard is a diving duck in the IUCN due to a strongly decreasing population trend. Small numbers winter in a local park, and some individuals can be very tame in this urban location, quite used to people.

Singing Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting singing

Some years go by with me missing Corn Bunting in my year list. These are birds that have suffered strong declines and their numbers are much reduced. I saw at least five yesterday in a walk across farmland, males singing from prominent perches in hedges and wires. Corn Buntings have very strong bills armed with tooth-like projections that allow them to crack open large cereal seeds. These are very obvious when males sing their lovely song, a short phrase like a jingle of keys. I based this sketch on a photo of mine. Watercolour, ink and pencil on my Wacom tablet.

Three piping Oystercatchers

Four piping oystercatchers

I love Oystercatchers, and I find their displays mesmerising. I recently watched a video of piping Oystercatchers, which reminded me of this curious display in which two or more individuals display and inspired me to draw this sketch. During piping, the birds call excitedly with head pointing down, bill open, often walking or running in parallel. The carpal joints are partially open giving a hunched appearance. There is also some rapid change of directions, and head bobbing in a jerky fashion. Piping appears to be a type of contest, in which individuals assert or establish their dominance and resolve disputes about territory or food. The bowed position, and fluffed head feathers may be a way in which apparent size is increased and the parallel walk allows individuals to size and assess each other. Ink, pencil and watercolour on my Wacom tablet.

Wren

wren

It’s Draw a bird Day! I haven’t drawn a Wren for a while, so this is my offering. Wrens are ubiquitous, at home in woodland, coastal cliffs and reed beds, they are the only species of a American genus that has colonised Europe. Wrens sing year round, but are more vocal around this time of year. I drew the Wren in my Wacom tablet.

Great Auk raft

Great Auk RaftOn Friday, I got a second hand copy of Errol Fuller’s book ‘The Great Auk’. I read it voraciously during the weekend. A fantastic book, highly recommended, it contains most things known about these extinct birds, including detailed descriptions of every surviving specimen and egg, and short biographies of notable Great Auk researchers. The book is extensively illustrated too. The Great Auk or Garefowl, Pinguinus impennis, is a relative of the Razorbill and Guillemot, diving seabirds that feed on fish and crustaceans. The last Great Auks were killed in a small island off the SW coast of Iceland in the summer of 1844. During postglacial times and possibly up to the Middle Ages, the Great Auk was widely distributed in the North Atlantic, from the Mediterranean to Florida and from South Greenland to the Barents Sea, as their fossils document. They were recorded in historical times from Ireland, St Kilda, the Orkneys and the Isle of Man. Fossil bones, from medieval to 4,000 years old have been found in middens from South Shields, Orkneys and Lindisfarne and the isle of Man too.

The Great Auk was a flightless bird, as large as a cormorant, but heavier, its wings not large enough to allow flight, but allowing it to excel in its diving capabilities. Flightlessness meant that successful breeding was restricted to islands and inaccessible cliffs, free from predators, and presumably they were limited to breeding in islands with plentiful fish resources nearby. They arrived to their breeding places in May and left in early July. They laid their single egg on a ledge not far from the water that they incubated for a month. The young will soon join its parents at sea to be fed.

With the advent of boats, Great Auks became easy prey of hunters and fishers. Later, its largest breeding colony off Newfounland, Funk Island (previously known as Penguin Island) became the first landing for Atlantic crossings. Hungry sailors would feed on the birds and slaughter them in their tens of thousands for their oil, meat and feather, for many years until by the 1800s none was left there. Iceland, and particularly an island surrounded by rough seas of difficult access, became their last refuge. But they were not to last. Although the last specimens were caught to supply museums and collectors, the species had already been reduced to a few pairs, and the monetary inducement to seamen to hunt them probably just acted to save them from the pot.

Few descriptions remain of the live bird, my favourite is the following from Olaus Wormius, from his 1655 book, based on one he kept for a few months as a pet. The bird is illustrated too by Wormius, standing quite upright like a Guillemot.

‘This bird was brought to me from the Faroe Islands, I kept it alive for some months at my house. It was a young one, for it had not arrived at such bigness as to exceed a common goose. It would swallow an entire herring at once and sometimes three successively before it was satisfied. The feathers on its back were so soft and even that they resembled black velvet. Its belly was of pure white, above the eyes it had a round white spot of the bigness of a Dollar that you would have sworn it were a pair of spectacles (which Clusius observed not)* neither were its wings of that figure he expresses, but a little broader with a border of white.’

Although I knew that the Great Auks were the first birds that were called ‘penguins’, I wasn’t aware of one of the hypothesised origins of the name. Presumably ‘pengwyn’ means ‘white head’ in Welsh, possibly referring to the white patches on the head of the Great Auk. Penguin was the favoured name in French too and is the genus name, Pinguinus. With the exploration of Antarctic waters, the similar sea diving, flightless birds found there were named penguins too. It was unfortunate that the original penguin did not get to survive.

I drew this imagined raft of Great Auks on my Wacom tablet, based on photographs of Great Auk specimens in Fullers book and one of my photos of a mixed auk raft off the Flamborough coast.

Inktober drawings

This October, I used Inktober as motivation to draw daily. I was not close to a drawing every day, but I managed a few drawings. All these are physical drawings, most on black sharpie on paper

LittleOwlInktober1Ag

Little Owl.

PiedFlycattcherInktober3

Singing Pied Flycatcher

ChalkChocolateRazorbill2

Razorbill

JackdawPairInktober4

Pair of Jackdaws.

PipingOystercatchersInktober5

Piping Oystercatchers.

BlackbirdtailcockedInktober6

Blackbird with cocked tail.

CootreflectionOnktober7

Coot.

Whinchat on the tallest sunflowerInktober14

Whinchat.

TreecreeperFrozenInktober9

Treecreeper.

 

Starling

StarlingThe cover of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust magazine this month had a stunning photo of a starling. I’ve been looking at it for a few days, thinking how to draw it. This afternoon I decided to go for a black background, the white spots making the bulk of the drawing. Getting the jizz of a starling was tricky, as their eyes are set lower behind their bill than other birds. Ink pen and pencil on my Wacom tablet.

Pied Flycatcher in territory

Pied Flycatcher

Last week I was in the Peak District. I woke up early to explore a local nature reserve, RSPB Coombes and Churnet Valley. I took the longest circular path, and as I approached a stream, I heard an unfamiliar song and searched for the bird. It was a male Pied Flycatcher. It sung persistently and have a quick visit to a nest box nearby. I have known this species for a long time, as it was a regular migrant in my local park in Spain when I was a teenager, and I have seen it in migration as well in Spurn. The song reminded me of a Great Tit, although more thrilling and diverse. Pied Flycatchers breed in mature beech and oak forests, habitats that are pretty scarce in East Yorkshire. It is red-listed in the UK, due to severe recent population and range declines. Watercolour and pencil in Wacom Tablet.

Little Ringed Plover

LittleRingedPlover

After a mild winter, spring is well on its way. Some resident species are feeding chicks, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are in song, I’ve seen my first Swallow and in the wetlands of local nature reserves, the first Little Ringed Plovers are back too. They are often in very contrasting light, which helps with their camouflage on bare pebbly ground. In typical plover fashion, they stand still bobbing lightly every now and then, watching the ground intently, and then quickly darting forward to pick some tiny morsel from the ground.

I watched my first one last week at Tophill Low Nature Reserve, and decided to sketch it, trying to grab the contrasts the harsh light of the middle of the day on their plumage. Wacom tablet using pencil and watercolour features.