An Artist's Journeys in Nature

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Boring Kingfisher

kingfishers-riconNo-one could make the general statement that the NZ  Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) is a boring bird.   The clearly-defined color scheme of secondary opposites, the sharp haircut, the extraordinary flying, hunting and diving skills all make for an exciting avian package.

And it’s certainly hard to beat that metallic color scheme.

Even the nest-building process seems a little ‘over the top’:  the kingfisher flies repeatedly at the chosen spot in a bank or tree trunk, using its beak (another very significant feature) as a drilling or ‘boring’ tool until it has drilled a large enough hole to give it purchase to continue excavations in a more standard fashion.     A woodpecker on steroids, in fact.

That beak is surprisingly large, when you see it in silhouette, and very useful for catching prey (especially fish, for which the Kingfisher will dive up to 3 ft underwater, and small vertebrates), as well as drilling holes.  Its shape is a direct giveaway to the family relationship between Kingfishers and Australian Kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae) – both Southwest Pacific birds.

Laughing Kookaburras are quite a lot larger (39-45cm / 310-480gm for the Kookaburra as against 23cm / 55gm for the Kingfisher), but the outline and proportions of the two species have a great similarity.

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Kingfishers scanning for prey, Waioeka Flats, Bay of Plenty.  Illustration for the book ‘Taketakerau The Millennium Tree’ (2012).

My one complaint about the Kingfisher, and the reason why against all the odds I often tell him he’s ‘boring’ is the call.  It is a very harsh, unmusical ‘kek’, repeated either strung together quickly 4 or 5 times (over and over), or repeated once at intervals of of 5 or 6 seconds (again – over and over).  Either way, it can after a while quite simply get on your nerves.

I only wish the Kingfisher had inherited from the Kookaburra side of the family, the distinctive laughing call for which Kookaburras are renowned.  Just think of it, I would be able to roll on the floor laughing when the Kingfisher gives voice (which is quite often), instead of saying, “Aargh, shut up boy….!”

And if you don’t happen to know what the Kookaburra sounds like, give yourself a treat and go HERE.  Scroll down and run the Sounds files (especially the second one) – and make sure you have some room on the floor…

Patricia

http://patriciahowitt.com/

The Harrier Hawk

harrier-riconThis is the story of a bird drama I had a few years back.

I had made a ‘Cat Garden’ at the end of the house, using 6′ netting and 4″x4″ posts concreted into the ground.  It was quite an effort to construct.

The main aim was to contain cats – chiefly my ex-stray Fluffy, who used to wander off over the road until he got hit by a car and lost a back leg (a cool $500 worth of operation I might add).  Given his wandering nature, and my worries about the safety of my 2 Birmans also, I decided to make this garden.  It’s about 45′ long by 35′ deep on a steep grassy, ferny bank.  Basically, it worked well and though my 2 silver tabbies soon demonstrated their contempt by getting out of it, they didn’t do so very often.

My large workshop has windows looking out onto this garden at ground level – the house is dug into the bank at the back and side – and the cats used to get into the garden off the top of a big bench I have standing in the workshop under the windows. They were able to step straight off the windowsill onto the ground.

I say “used to” because as the result of a tragedy involving my young Black Lab and a couple of my ducks, I moved the remaining 3 female ducks into the Cat Garden instead.  In a sense it was an inspired move, because they did an excellent job of clearing out the weeds and wandering jew (Tradescantia fluminensis), which had grown rampant in there.

So the ducks were a blessing to the Cat Garden.  How come I never got the cats to do a lick of work around that garden? Didn’t I build it for them? Ungrateful, lazy felines!

One day about lunchtime I heard the ducks making an infernal racket – it wasn’t their normal “where’s the grub?” chant.  So I went into the workshop to look and got a huge shock.  Standing on a stone in the garden about 4′ away from the window was an Australasian Harrier Hawk (Circus approximans) – now called the Swamp Harrier.  He was standing side-on to me at eye level and though we see them flying round here on a daily basis, I had never been as close to one as this.

He was bigger than I thought.  It was one of those unforgettable moments when I could have wished my eyes were a camera.  The size and presence of him was something else.  He looked calmly across at me for a moment or two, then spread his great wings and took off.

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Harrier Hawk / Swamp Harrier – Vector.

Obviously this called for action.  I was surprised he had come down into the small garden, because it’s overhung on one side by the lower branches of a Norfolk Island Pine, has the wall of our 2 story house on another side, ti-tree scrub on the two other sides, and a couple of tree ferns growing in it, so it doesn’t offer a smooth flight path. But raptors are the masters of the air waves.  And since I didn’t have any doubts about why he was there, I went out with a roll of electric fence tape and laced it back and forth across the airspace.

I hoped it would serve its purpose of protecting my ducks because – funny, comical characters that they were, I loved them, and I didn’t want any more disasters to happen in my duck world.

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Note:  The Swamp Harrier  is recorded as being 50-60cm long.   Males weigh 650gm and females 850gm.  This makes them larger than Rooks at 45cm and Magpies at 41 cm long.

For more details, click on the images.

Patricia

http://patriciahowitt.com/

The Shining Cuckoo

cuckoo-riconA couple of days ago I found a bird lying dead on my drive – face down, with wings slightly outstretched.  We have had a lot of high wind lately.

My first thought, judging by the  dark blue-green of the wings, was that this must be a young kingfisher.  It also had copper around the wingtips and lower rump.  Then when I turned it over, I saw the white breast barred with black and immediately realized it was a Shining Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx lucidus).

Some books identify this as of ‘sparrow size’ and I can state absolutely that the shining cuckoo is definitely bigger than a sparrow (16cm + I’d say). This bird had a long split down the front of its chest, so I don’t think it was killed by my cat (now 20 yrs of age) – more likely blown into my cottage.

Shining cuckoos migrate down to New Zealand from the Bismarck Archipelago (New Guinea) and Solomon Islands in the summer to breed, using nests of the Grey Warbler (Gerygone igata) to lay their eggs – one per nest – and they leave the tiny warblers to raise their kids.  Fortunately, by the time the shining cuckoos are ready to lay, the warblers have already raised one litter, so all is not lost (isn’t nature wonderful?).  But the young shining cuckoo definitely puts paid to the warblers’ second litter.

I had never seen a shining cuckoo ‘in real life’ before, and didn’t know I had them here, though I’ve always known we had grey warblers, because I heard them.  I used a pair of shining cuckoos as part of the wildlife interest in one of the 36 paintings I did for the book ‘Taketakerau The Millennium Tree’, which I illustrated in 2011.  Here’s the painting:

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‘Fallen Giants’ – click on the image for more details.

I’ve now heard the shining cuckoo’s call on New Zealand Birds Online, and identified it as a call I’d been hearing lately.  Was listening to the call outside this morning when I saw a fast flash of green wings across the grass to the trees where the sound was coming from, so I feel happy to know that the mate of the bird that lost its life (which was a female, I think) is not alone.

They are very fast fliers and spend much of their time hidden in the trees. So often one just doesn’t see these birds !

Patricia

http://patriciahowitt.com/

 

 

The Angry Elk

angry-elk-iconPencil drawing of a bull Elk (or Wapiti) bugling during the mating season or rut.

In New Zealand, we call it ‘the roar’ – a time when young men’s fancies turn not to thoughts of love – not human love anyway – but to thoughts of bush stalking, cabins, tents, rifles, calibers, campfires and cameras.

For them, this is THE time of the year.

Very disappointing for the young maidens in their lives, but get used to it, it’s an immovable fact of life…

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Original in graphite pencil, colorized in Photoshop.  B/W version available HERE.

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Click on images for more details.

Patricia

http://patriciahowitt.com/

The Adversary Bellows a Reply

stag-roaring3-riconBefore long, once the challenge is given, a bellow of reply comes echoing back through the forest, and the Challenger knows for sure that a rival stag is after his harem.

Both red deer stags are on full alert now, and the ball is back in the Challenger’s court again.

As mentioned previously, it is likely the stags may not be able to see each other through the forest in these early stages, so they are sizing each other up on vocals as one call follows the next.

Slowly the stranger stag moves closer.  Once within sight of each other, they move in and engage quickly, lowering their antlers and locking them like wrestlers.  Then comes the test of strength, body weight and agility as they push back and forth, and circle, each trying to flip the other.

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Getting flipped puts a stag at the mercy of his opponent, so frequently the stag who feels himself outmatched will break away and make a run for it, with his adversary in hot pursuit.

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For more details about the artwork, click on the images.

Patricia

http://patriciahowitt.com/

Comes The Challenge

stag-roaring2-riconFollowing on from my All Muscle: Promoting The Great Outdoors post, the next thing one can expect if it’s mating season, or the rut (the roar as we call it in NZ), is the Challenge – in the Red Deer, a series of deep, guttural grunts, bellows, groans and huffs.

On the other hand, the first time I heard a bull elk – Cervus canadensis (or Wapiti in NZ) bugling, I was quite surprised at the high tone of the vocals, given the elk is a larger animal than the red deer.

It’s an eerie sound though, whichever species it comes from, and in the natural it carries a fair bit of emotion and suspense as the two stags size each other up and maneuver through the bush to get an advantage.   Quite often the stags can’t actually see each other during the initial stages of the encounter, so they are sizing each other up – trying through the vocals to get an indication of the age, size and seriousness of intention of the potential adversary, should the episode end up in a fight.

Well, here is the Red Stag (Cervus  elaphus) issuing his challenge:

stag-roaring3_700Graphite pencil drawing.

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For more details about this work, click on the images.

Patricia

http://patriciahowitt.com/

 

Water Meets Sand – Te Paki Stream

te-paki-iconHere’s a very special piece of landscape, and one of my personal favorite artworks – inspired by some of the most unique scenery in New Zealand.

Te Paki Stream in the Far North of NZ is famous for its wilderness, its massive sand-dunes and great boogie boarding.  What a combination!  Its breathtaking quality comes from isolation, plus a unique engagement between water and sand dunes, that produces the added danger element of quicksand.

The stream bed is part of the Cape Reinga round trip, and provides about 3.5 km of tricky driving. Both the stream bed and 90 mile beach are treacherous with quicksand, so unless you are very experienced in the locale and this type of driving it is better to make your journey by tour bus. The buses are a great ride with wonderful commentary and they stop in the stream bed to allow time for boogie boarding.  It’s worth noting that car hire companies do not permit their vehicles to be driven on this route.

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Of course it’s wonderful to visit these places under your own steam. So, there are walking tracks for the real outdoors types, which apart from the buses is the best way to go – at least you can be sure of still having a vehicle when you return to base!

The other great attraction of this trip is the Cape Reinga lighthouse, situated at the clifftop on what is almost the northernmost promontory of NZ, with the Pacific and Tasman seas on each side.  Quite an experience to stand there and look out to where their waters mingle offshore.

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Stream bed artwork painted in acrylic, with acrylic painted additions, including a maori fishing hook – matau.  I just sold a tote bag with this design.

Patricia

http://patriciahowitt.com/

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