I realised today I’ve never drawn a long-tailed duck, and that needed to be remedied. The reason is probably that my first sighting, of three individuals off South Landing at Flamborough, was a double lifer, as I had Little Auks for the first time. Since then I have come across them at several places. They are arctic ducks that are occasional winter visitors in our area.
The tiny, House Sparrow sized, Least Auklet is the smallest of the Auks, and possibly the most abundant seabird in the world. They feed on small planktonic organisms such as copepods and sea snails, which they store in a sublingual pouch to carry to their chick when breeding. They nest in large colonies, often mixed with crested auklets or tufted puffins. Least Auklets distribution range is in the North Pacific. Watercolour and pencil on Wacom tablet.
The 10th species of the Auks series goes to the Rhinoceros Auklet. It is really a misnomer, as it is more closely related to puffins than to auklets. But the rhinoceros part of its name refers to a horny protuberance at the base of the bill that is lost outside the breeding season. It is the same size of a Tufted Puffin, and as Puffins, it uses burrows for nests and it can take multiple fish in its bill. It tends to deliver food to their single chick at night. It is distributed in the North Pacific, from the Californian Channel Islands through Alaska and to Japan and Korean Peninsula.
The Black Guillemot or Tystie is the last auk I draw that I’ve actually seen, in the West coast of Scotland. It is a medium size auk, a little larger than an Atlantic Puffin. Although at range they might appear black, they actually have a green/purple metallic shine at close range. They have a large white wing patch and strikingly bright coral red legs and gape in the summer plumage. It is a circumpolar species which breeds in rocky shores. In the UK the southernmost breeding population is in South Wales. Watercolour and pencil in Wacom tablet.
Today’s Auk is the Brünnich’s Guillemot (or Thick-billed Murre in North America). This is a bird of the Artic and Sub Arctic, with four subspecies present in the North Atlantic, Artic North America and Arctic Russia. It is slightly larger and heavier than the Common Guillemot, with a deeper body than its relative, making it the largest living auk and the bird that incurs in one of the largest energetic costs when flying measured in vertebrates. They have a velvety black plumage and a distinctive pale stripe on the gape. They can dive down to 300 m in depth to hunt for small fish, squid and crustaceans. Watercolour and pencil on Wacom tablet.
For the sixth Auk of the world drawing, I’ve chosen the Horned Puffin, the closest relative of the Atlantic Puffin. Horned Puffins breed on the North Pacific coasts and islands, from Sakhalin Island, Kurils Island and the Kamchatka Peninsula, through to Arctic Islands by the Bering Sea, Alaska and British Columbia. It is slightly larger than the Atlantic Puffin and differs from it by the presence of a black fleshy protuberance on top of the eye and bill colour patterns.
I’ve been toying with the idea of making an Auks poster, and I wanted to draw one bird per day in August, so an auk a day it is! Including the extinct Great Auk, they are a group of 25 species, so I should be able to complete the family in the month. I ended up starting early, drawing the four British species I’ve seen at Flamborough Head: Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin and Little Auk. I had never drawn a several species composition, trying to keep the proportions natural. This has allowed me to explore new features of my drawing software, like layer groups.
Today I completed the Great Auk, one of the last bird species to become extinct in Europe. I used the Guillemot for size reference, and I decided to leave it in, as it gives a very nice idea of what impression must have made to see a Great Auk on its cliff colonies.
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.
On 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.
Many sea birds expose the inside of their mouth in their courtship displays. The Gannet’s mouth is surprisingly black, the Kittiwake’s carmine red, while the Shag’s is yellow, with intense yellow spots on their jaws contrasting with their black, iridescent and scaly green feathers. Add to this the odd tuft of feathers that they can raise or flatten at will and their bottle-green eyes and they may look either elegant or truly comical, but decidedly reptilian. I was inspired to draw these Shags after reading Adam Nicholson’s ‘The Seabird Cry, which I recommend, with beautiful and simple illustrations by Kate Boxer. I took many photos of shags in the Farne Islands a few years ago, some of an incubating individual, panting in the sun, very close to us. Pencil, watercolour and ink on my Wacom tablet.