An Artist's Journeys in Nature

Birds

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 ‘keek’, 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/

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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 long 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.  The vision has stayed with me ever since.

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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.

harrier-products

So this artwork is an attempt to reconstruct what I saw and felt in that magical moment before he departed.

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:

fallen-giants_700

‘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/

 

 


Love Under The Mountain

love-iconI’ve just put finishing touches to a painting that has been lying around the place for quite some time.

As you’ll see from my previous post, this is ‘Home’, and the painting – acrylic on canvas card – has been nagging me for several years to get completed.

With all of these things, it doesn’t do to rush if the inspiration isn’t forthcoming.  When the right thing isn’t suggesting itself, it’s best to leave well alone, because you can guarantee that in due course, it will.

Come to think of it, that’s a really good piece of advice for life generally – in other words, “Don’t Force It!”

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The parakeets in the picture are kakariki – NZ red-crested parakeets, and putting them here is somewhat anachronistic, because we no longer have them up in the north.  We do have Australian Rosella parakeets though, very brightly colored, noisy and not endemic.  So I thought I’d use a bit of artistic licence…

The larger birds are one of my favorites – the kereru or NZ Native Pigeon. These had become rather scarce in the Far North due to human predation (even though they ARE protected) and the fact that a pair produces only one offspring a year – but I’m glad to say that since I’ve been letting the bush come back on my top paddocks, birdlife is increasing, and I’m seeing and hearing more kereru on the place all the time.

See also my earlier post and artwork ‘Flight of The Kukupa‘.

Patricia

http://patriciahowitt.com/


Flight of The Kukupa

Kereru-kukupaHere’s a follow-on from my last post, as I’m busy putting up new items on Society6.

This is a painting of a NZ native pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), the Kereru, or as they’re called up here the Kukupa, soaring above the volcanic outcrop where I live.

They are quite a large bird, with very distinctive and beautiful coloring, the breast pure white, the head, neck, back and wings green of varying hues with purple and grey intermingled.  They have quite a heavy flight, although their nuptual flights in spring are quite spectacular.  A pair produces only one chick a year, so it it doesn’t take much brain to see how easily numbers become depleted.

Sadly, this bird is becoming scarce here because although they are protected, certain people think they have the right to take them for food.

Flight of The Kereru - Acrylic - Patricia Howitt

Flight of the Kukupa or Kereru – Native New Zealand Pigeon

When my parents moved in here about 40 years ago, and for many years after, the kukupa native woodpigeon could be seen in numbers swooping and soaring over the thermals from the warm rock face.

Nowadays, thanks to attention from some people, they are so depleted in numbers that I rarely see one in the bush, let alone up on the rock. The irony of it is that according to Maori tradition, the area behind this rock, known as ‘Kukuparere’ was fabled to be the place where ALL the Kereru birds in New Zealand originated from.  So much for respecting our treasured legends!  Where are the kaitiaki?

Click on the image for larger size and more details.

Patricia


More Elleston Trevor Kids’ Books Artwork

Into The Happy Glade Since today’s Sunday here in Aotearoa, I’m giving myself a quiet day.  (Only in name – I have gardening to do.)

So I’m simply adding a few more illustrations from the Elleston Trevor books to supplement the pictures in my last post “Elleston Trevor – Spies, Badgers, Kites and Miniature Cars“.

As I mentioned there, these books open up a wonderful world of pioneering, ‘do it yourself’ innovation that’s rapidly being lost in today’s world.  Children’s toys these days are ‘plastic fantastic’ and they come with everything supplied – minimum imagination and minimum inventiveness required. And for that reason, they soon pall. So parents have to look round for something else.  And the cash register rings again.  What a waste!

It’s sad, because kids are missing out on developing one of the most important faculties a human being can acquire – CREATIVITY.

In New Zealand we call it the “Number 8 Wire Mindset”, harking back to the days when it used to be said that a NZ farmer could mend or create just about anything with a piece of Number 8 fencing wire. Here at least, we still put a premium on ingenuity.

These books bring to light for kids who’ve never had the experience, just what it means to  be self-reliant, resourceful and handy with one’s hands (paws, wing-tips or whatever).  The stories are full of activity, sharing, goodwill and the creative spirit.

W A Ward illustrations for “By A Silver Stream”:

By A Silver Stream Illustrations by W A Ward

David Williams illustrations for “Heather Hill”:

Heather Hill Illustrations by David Williams

Dust Jacket images for these children’s books on the net are not the best, and of course it’s rare for old titles to come with dust jackets now, anyway.  But I’ve worked on what I could get, tidied up scuffs and torn edges and hopefully improved on what’s out there.  The “Heather Hill” dust jacket illustration in my last post was the worst – there’s a limit to what you can do even with Photoshop.  Maybe a better “Heather Hill” dust jacket image will surface over time.

Into The happy Glade and By A Silver Stream Dust Jackets

Check out the only available Reviews of Elleston Trevor’s Children’s books.

Patricia


Elleston Trevor – Spies, Badgers, Kites and Miniature Cars

By A Silver Stream Dust JacketA British novelist who wrote prolifically (110 books) under a number of pseudonyms, Elleston Trevor’s best-known writings are thriller and Cold War spy novels.

He was a versatile writer, his most popular works being “The Flight of the Phoenix”, and the Quillar and Hugo Bishop series, both under the pseudonym Alex Hall.  He was born Trevor Dudley-Smith.

When he died in Arizona in 1995, his obituary in The Independent described the Quillar novels as “best-selling, tough and suspenseful spy thrillers with a distinctly noir-ish edge, featuring an ice-cold killing-machine, or “shadow executive”, called Quiller”.  Furthermore –

“During the 1950s Trevor was one of Heinemann’s star popular authors. Along with Nevil Shute, the Americans Erle Stanley Gardner, Erskine Caldwell and Frank Yerby, the Australian Arthur Upfield … and the incomparable Georgette Heyer.   At one stage a short Authors At Home promotional film was shot at Trevor’s home in Roedean, near Brighton, where he was glimpsed at his typewriter, and flying kites and racing miniature cars, both hobbies he followed with enthusiasm.”

Children’s Books Too

It’s hard to believe that at the same time this man was also writing delightful children’s books -about 25 kids’ books in all.  And along with many other youngsters I loved and read them.  “By A Silver Stream” and “Heather Hill” are two I’ve managed to get hold of again so far.  But prices are high:

By A Silver Stream & Heather Hill

These were akin to “The Wind in the Willows“, based around themes of humanized small animals, but with a kind of pioneering twist.  There are no psychological ‘Toad’ dramas here (thank goodness) – no Toad in fact, although there ARE venerable badgers, wise owls, excitable field mice, frogs, rabbits and peaceable moles.  There are challenges though, of the kind that would appeal to any child with a practical bent – resettling a community deeper in the forest to avoid confrontation with man, building suitable houses, laying on water pipes, finding resources and transporting them home, making boats and gathering supplies for any job on hand.  And above all, these stories are told with a wonderful, dry humor that brings the characters and amusing events to life.

They are well illustrated, mainly with a single full-page illustration and numerous smaller sketches throughout.  “Into A Happy Glade‘, “By A Silver Stream“, “Deep Wood“, “Heather Hill” and the “Wumpus” series stand out in my memory. W A Ward (for “By A Silver Stream”) and David Williams (for “Heather Hill”) were the illustrators whose work is shown above.

These books are hard to come by now, but they still have some ardent followers – especially in the UK.  For many youngsters of the era, they formed the basis of a lifetime’s love of animals and nature.

Deep Wood & Heather Hill Dust Jackets

I’ve collected together the only available Reviews of Elleston Trevor’s Children’s books from Amazon.co.uk – because I believe these books have something that’s often lacking in today’s children’s story offerings.  Check them out they are all together on one page!

Patricia