Pair of shags courting

Shag courtship sketch

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.

Shag underwater

Shag under waterOne of the most unforgettable experiences of my holidays in Mallorca was the close encounters with shags. They sat on the rocks near the beach preening or drying their wings, or just standing still, upright like dark statues. Often people would sit on the rocks or swim by them and they would take no notice most of the time. While I was snorkelling, I saw a young one take to the water and followed it, and it allowed me to watch its diving prowess at close range, as it swam to the sea floor looking for food. Absolutely magic!