This 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.
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.
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.
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’ – 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 !
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”:
David Williams illustrations for “Heather Hill”:
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.
Check out the only available Reviews of Elleston Trevor’s Children’s books.
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:
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.
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!
I’d been given four small books in a series published by The Studio in London. One was “How To Draw Farm Animals” by Charles F Tunnicliffe.
There was also “How To Draw Birds” by Raymond Sheppard, “Baby Animals On The Farm” by Vere Temple and another, the name of which escapes me. They were all excellent learning tools by real quality artists – CF Tunnicliffe in particular created an enormous oeuvre of top quality work, illustrating at least 250 books – some written by himself and some authored by others.
From school, Tunnicliffe won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, and from then on his busy working life began. He was honored by the art establishment, and the Crown. In 1978, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire – a year before he died in 1979. Tunnicliffe was the subject of a 1981 BBC Wales television documentary, True to Nature, produced by Derek Trimby and narrated by Robert Dougall.
I was fortunate. Having these books as an instruction and an example was really good for me, and they also got me closer to appreciating the world of animals and birds in art.
I’m gradually chasing these artists down, thanks to the Internet, and recently bought C F Tunnicliffe’s “Bird Portraiture”, published by The Studio in 1945 with a reprint in 1946. I scanned the pictures below, and don’t think they appear anywhere else on the net:
Though Tunnicliffe’s regular subjects were wildlife and the countryside, whenever he includes humans in any of his works, they take their places naturally in the scene, executed with the same style and authenticity as his landscapes, animals and birds.
He has come to be regarded as arguably one of the greatest wildlife artists of all time.
They earliest thing I can recall about doing art was drawing a kiddy house as a square with a pointed roof, four windows and a door. The usual standard tot’s drawing.
When I drew the pathway as two straight parallel lines going downwards from the door to the bottom of the page, my dad showed me how to draw a winding path in perspective, wider at the bottom than the top and with a couple of sinuous bends on the way – looking like it was lying on the ground and not sticking up in the air.
What a revelation, at that young age! What a foundation for future interests in architecture, model houses, and landscapes, haha!
So began a long “collaboration” on art between us. And though there were times when I was right properly irked by his input, I know I owe my dad an enormous debt for what he passed on to me over the years. Where HE got his knowledge from, I have no idea.
Art at School
When we moved from Chelsea Barracks to Kennington, London, I attended the girls’ side of the boys’ prep school for Dulwich College for a short time. It’s a pity that in those days kids were not encouraged to keep their artwork. Hopefully things are different today – it’s important to start building your portfolio as young as possible, and.parents need to know this, too.
Anyway, the one piece of art that sticks in memory from that school was a shaded pencil drawing I did of a goose that was sent off somewhere to an exhibition and to be critiqued by the mysterious “powers that be”. I was told it got awarded some kind of distinction, but I got no record of it, and the work never came back to me. Wish I had it now.
Real, live animals didn’t come into the equation in those days – living the nomadic army life doesn’t lend itself to relationships with pets, or long-term friends either, unfortunately.
I’m sure thousands of army brats (gee what a phrase – who ever got to be a brat with a Guards RSM, or any other army NCO for a parent?) know exactly what I’m talking about. On the one hand, you get enough exposure to the wide world to kill parochialism stone dead for life (thank goodness!). On the other hand, you find it hard to conceive that ANYTHING (especially friendships and relationships) can be lasting.
It’s a lonely world, especially if you’re an only child and forbidden to play with “ranks’ kids”. In my early years, I had only one real friend – the son of one of my dad’s NCO associates. Nowadays, animals are some of my favorite subjects, as well as my best friends. And it’s that goose drawing that stuck in memory over the years.
The Movies – Walt Disney
Movies were another major influence. Just off Piccadilly Circus there was a small picture theater that ran continuous Walt Disney cartoon movies. Whether it still exists, I really don’t know. At any time of the day you could buy a ticket and wander in there and stay as long as you liked watching Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. We went there quite often and I can still vividly recall watching Donald Duck especially – oh man that attitude and that voice! It wasn’t until I got real live ducks of my own only a few years ago that I realized what a great duck impersonation Donald really does.
It was all just entertainment.. At six or seven years of age, there was for me no critical appreciation of what we were looking at – the colorful antics on screen were just something to laugh at and enjoy. But this first brush with Walt Disney was going to develop into a relationship that would impact on skills to come.
About which, more next time!