It is getting wintry around here, so a ‘year tick’ (in birding terms, a species of bird that you have not seen this year) is very welcome. Marsh Wren is considered to be mostly a transient or vagrant bird in Nova Scotia, with only a few actually nesting here. Added to that, they live deep in reedy marshes and can be reluctant to show themselves well, so I hadn’t actually caught up with one in Nova Scotia at all and Mark was missing one for the year. Therefore a bird found in Broad Brook Park in Yarmouth a couple of weeks ago was a tempting target as part of a shopping trip to the big metropolis (well, they do have Canadian Tire and Walmart there- invaluable for stocking up on bird seed, cat food and toilet paper!).

The bird was readily heard but difficult to see, especially as there was a keen, blustery wind blowing and the reedstalks were in constant motion. Fleeting glimpses were obtained, although no good photos, and we were satisfied with the ‘tick’ obtained. Not satisfied enough, however, since other visitors were obtaining much better views, so we headed back to the park a few days later for another look. This time, we had better luck and Mark took a number of very nice photos. One was of the bird in a pretty standard pose for Marsh Wrens, but that seemed more unusual for a painting, so I was immediately drawn to it.

Lots of fun to be had with this!
I determined to stay with the watercolour pencils for this picture, and firstly drew out the picture with 2B graphite. As per the tip I picked up from a YouTube video, I then went over the picture with a kneadable eraser to lighten the marks and prevent them showing through the final painting. I started, as usual, with the eye since I find that I can relate to the picture as soon as the eye is in place-it’s all about the ‘personality’ of the bird. if I don’t get that right, there’s no point carrying on. I did take a couple of ‘WIP’ pictures of this one…

Part way through painting the bird.

Just started the reeds.
and this is the final piece:

‘Legs Akimbo’, Marsh Wren, 9 x 12 inch watercolour pencil (Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer, Caran d’Ache Supracolor, Derwent Watercolour) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

The new set of watercolour pencils, the Albrecht Durers, have integrated nicely with the older two main sets and I am really enjoying working with them. However, it has caused a bit of an issue in my studio (a posh name for a corner of our shared office!) because I was continually hauling out and laying out the contents of three tins of pencils all over the adjoining desk. It was blocking access to a sunny window for our two cats and, because I tend to leave the pencils out during a piece, I actually lost some pencils into the wastebin when one of the cats tried to pick their way over the desk (I found them before any waste got discarded!). Clearly, I needed some sort of better system.

Well, I think I have found it. I came across this nice little cabinet in IKEA (we have one in NS now!), with a series of shallow drawers that seemed just made to lay out pencils in. It meant a trip to Halifax, but it was raining so why not?

It’s called ‘Alex’ and has three shallow drawers and three slightly deeper ones. I arranged it so that my most used pencil sets were laid out inside each drawer for easy access, starting with the watercolours, of course.

There is even room in the bottom drawer for my paper store. It’s keeping my workspace much clearer.

It is not quite big enough to lay out all of my pencils, but the most used sets are all there.
Of course, I don’t want to keep the drawers open all the time, so I devised a ‘work in progress’ tray to keep the pencils, etc., that I’m working with at the time all corralled and safe.

It worked very nicely on this piece, and keeps me much cleaner and tidier! No more lost pencils and brushes in the wastebin. Now, if only I can stop the ex-pickle jar water pot from releasing a powerful whiff of vinegar, every time I take the lid off-but at least it stops the cat from trying to drink it!


Roseate Tern

There has been a brief hiatus in my postings, and in my art, due to us hosting visitors from the UK. Indeed, we have three additional separate groups coming over the next few months, so I expect my time available to paint will be pretty limited, but every visitor is welcome and much wanted! Before our last visitors arrived I had started work on a picture of Roseate Tern and finally got to finish it last night.

Terns are one of my favourite bird groups. Although they are largely black, grey and white in colouration, there is something about their elegant flight, clean plumage and the way that they plunge headlong into the water when fishing that is a joy to watch. Locally we are lucky to see three species in the summer, the Common Tern, the Arctic Tern and this one, the Roseate tern, by far the rarest of the three. The bird gets its name from the subtle pink wash on the belly of the breeding bird, which can just be seen on this picture.

For many years, the Brother Islands near West Pubnico have been home to Canada’s largest breeding colony of Roseate Terns, husbanded diligently by a local resident, Ted d’Eon. Mark went out with Ted to the North Brother Island, earlier this year, to photograph the returning birds as they set up their nests, with the particular task of getting good photos of the rings (bands) on the birds’ legs so that origin and return status could be determined. Of all the excellent photos he took, this one, with the long, elegant tail streamers much in evidence and the interesting background, was my favourite. As you can see, two rings are present on the bird and I chose to include them in the picture in tribute to the work of Ted and the North Brother colony.

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There is a sad footnote to this story. Low numbers of terns returned to North Brother this spring, compared to last year. The island is getting smaller, due to sea erosion, and a particularly high tide in May damaged the managed nesting zone. Even those birds that had nested and laid eggs seem to have abandoned the nests; not just Roseates but also Common and Arctic Terns. Predation of the nests by American Crows has not helped.  It appears that there will be no terns breeding on North Brother this year, the first time for decades that this has happened. Some birds have been located on nearby islands, but not all, but it is hoped that new breeding colonies will be established. It is likely that North Brother’s days as the biggest breeding colony in Canada are now over.

The picture was something of a challenge, as I was unsure about the very busy background for some time. The bird itself was relatively straightforward, although the plumage was surprisingly blue-looking in the strong sunlight and that pink wash was finely judged to be visible but not overwhelming-it really is a subtle shade in the actual bird. The ‘log’ in the background, maybe an old fence post with some sort of a bolt going through it was fun to portray, I really do enjoy old wood! In the end I bit the bullet and decided to paint in all the leaves, not strictly true to life since these were largely blurred out in the reference photo (the depth of field was perfectly judged by the photographer to highlight the bird!) and I jiggled the colouration a little. Still, artistic licence, eh? I hope the final picture gives a feel for the site. Pencils used were mainly Supracolors, but I used a couple of favourites from the Derwents, Venetian red and blue-grey. I find the Derwent Venetian red less red and more browny than the equivalent colour in the Supracolors, so I do like it for the bark on branches. The blue-grey is more ‘rocky’ than the equivalent in the Supracolors, even though the grey in that set has distinct bluey tones.

Anyhow, this is my tribute to the tern colony at North Brother and the sterling work of Ted d’Eon. I really hope that the Terns find a new home and go from strength to strength.

Thanks to Mark Dennis and Alix d’Entremont for additional information on the status of the terns of North Brother Island.

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‘Roseate Tern at North Brother’, 9 x 11 inch, watercolour pencil (Caran d’Ache Supracolor, Derwent Watercolour) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).




The Prothonotary Warbler is a small song-bird that breeds in the Eastern US and winters in Central America and northern South America. It is pretty rare here in Nova Scotia, although one is probably seen annually, and we can wait a long time between sightings. Isn’t it therefore ironic that, this April, three turned up at once?

The first was on a kelp bed at Sandy Cove, just outside Halifax. We were due to head up for an appointment, the day after it was found, so we decided to ‘twitch’ the bird and stay over. It was a nice sighting, but a little distant across a small stream. The bird was unbothered by its new-found fame and remained on its kelp, with the healthy population of flies, for several weeks. It was odd to see this bird out in the open in this way; the first one Mark and I had seen was buried deep in woods around a small pond at the Boy Scout Woods reserve in Texas, and indeed, their preferred habitat is hardwood bog.

Hot on its heels, another bird was found at Taylor Head Provincial Park near Sheet Harbour, again on the beach wrack. We did not go for this one, as it was even further away than Sandy Cove, but it was interesting to note. Finally, a third bird, a very handsome, probably male, bird was located at Pubnico Point. This one was just down the road from us and therefore merited a visit. It was again in the kelp beds near the trail and occasionally flitted up to a bare-branched bush right on the edge of the trail. Here it was unfazed by birders, photographers and occasional lady joggers with iPhones blaring rock music (she was very apologetic!). Even I was able to get some reasonable shots using my 35x optical zoom bridge camera, and one, shown below, was the inspiration for this painting.

prothonotary 3 rs watermarkFor what is ostensibly a yellow and grey bird, there are a lot of colours in that plumage! It also gave me the chance to use some yellows, surprisingly neglected in my pencil sets, considering how many yellow bird there are, out there. I will have to work on more North American warblers. I liked the juxtaposition of the colourful little bird with the browns and greys of the background and branches, and hoped I could make a reasonable picture of it.

Again I was drawn to a mixture of the Derwent watercolours and Caran d’Ache Supracolors. The Derwents had perfect yellows for the head and breast feathers, and a blue-grey pencil that I have found invaluable on several pictures, and proved to be just the thing for the predominant colour for the back and tail feathers. The Supracolors have a great selection of greys, grey-browns and browns that provided the perfect look for the wings. I am particularly fond of a wonderful set of olive green tints in the Supracolors, namely olive yellow, khaki green, light olive, olive grey, olive, olive brown and olive black. You would not think that you could get seven different hues from olive, but they are all different and have been excellent for lichens, mosses and other greenery, as well as the back plumage of this bird.

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‘Prothonotary Warbler’, 8 x 10 inch watercolour pencil (Derwent Watercolour, Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

In case you were wondering about the derivation of the name ‘prothonotary’, the birds are supposedly named after a rank of senior clergy in the Roman Catholic church, although why so is a bit of a mystery. It certainly isn’t because the plumage resembles the robes they wear, since the clergymen wear purple! I’m also sure that protonotaries apostolistic (note the different spelling too!) don’t hang about in hardwood bogs, either. The word is also used for a principal clerk in a court, dating from the time of the Byzantine Empire. It is still used in some parts of the world, notably in Nova Scotia, PEI and, previously, Quebec; the Federal Court of Canada (where they are judicial officers, not clerks); Pennsylvania in the US; and New South Wales and Victoria in Australia. Not sure if any of these officials have yellow and grey robes! Thanks to Wikipedia for the info on this.



Falcon Fun

In our earlier years, we would think nothing of heading out on a long twitch, sometimes driving the length of the country (in those days, the UK) to see a rare bird. Nowadays we are a bit more circumspect (well, it’s a lot bigger country!) and it can sometimes take quite a while  before we commit to a journey. This was definitely the case when a Gyrfalcon pitched up in Joggins, Cumberland County, right on the border of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. This is a long journey for we ‘banana belt’ birders but the spectacular photos being posted daily of this unusually confiding bird finally persuaded Mark that he had to go see it. It coincided with a Townsend’s Solitaire just past Dartmouth, so a two tick trip (NS ticks anyway) was possible.

To cut a long story shorter, we did not get the Townsend’s Solitaire but, after a overnight stop in Amherst, we did connect with the Falcon on February 27th, along the fossil cliffs overlooking the Cumberland Basin and at it’s favourite spot, by the sewage works in Joggins. It allowed surprisingly close approach for photography, even I got some images, but for this picture I decided to use one of Mark’s much more professional portraits.

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This one, we thought, really gave a feel of the majesty of this amazing bird, more normally found in arctic regions. We think we were amongst the last people to see the bird, since it was not reported again after that date. how lucky that we did not delay any longer!

For my portrait, I did simplify the power-pole perch a little, although I rather like the juxtaposition of the industrial, man-made, pole with the natural plumage of the bird. Lots of subtle greys, browns and blacks in the plumage meant that those pencils got a pummeling again! The blue-grey colouration of the cere (the area above the bill) suggests this is a young bird.

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‘Gyrfalcon at Joggins’, 8 x 10 inch watercolour pencil on 90 lb cold press watercolour paper.