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.
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.