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.

roseate tern rs watermark

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).




An Orchestra of Avocets

I have always liked Avocets. The European version, the Pied Avocet, used to be pretty rare in the UK when I started birdwatching and I remember going to see my first one. Mark said that they had bright blue legs and I didn’t really believe him, but they do!  That was at Titchwell, in Norfolk, I believe, one of the few places you could see that species in those days; now they are much more widespread. Over here in the New World, we have the American Avocet, even more colourful because, along with the black and white plumage, and blue-grey legs, they have a bright cinnamon wash on their heads and necks, when in full breeding plumage. They are rare in Nova Scotia though, and we are yet to see them here, but Mark is looking hard!

Back in 2014, we paid a visit to Texas in February, timed to catch the Whooping Cranes that winter in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The best way to see the cranes is to take a boat trip, so early morning saw us board Captain Tommy’s Crane Trip boat at Rockport, for a ride up the Intercoastal Canal to Aransas. A bonus was the flocks of other birds, roosting in the shallow waters, including Black Skimmers and American Avocets. They were unbothered by the passing boat and allowed good photos in the low morning light.

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Even I was able to get pleasing images with my little bridge camera, including this one that I have always liked. The varying poses of the birds, tapering up to a point, and the shadowy ripples in the shallow water, made me feel that this could be a good subject for a painting.

It was February, so the birds were not yet in their spectacular breeding plumage, but they were showing signs that they were moulting into it, with hints of red on the head and neck. In addition, these birds had brownish primaries, suggesting that they were first-time breeders. Males and females are plumaged similarly, but the bills of the males are less curvy than the females, so I think that these birds were all young males.

I had to alter the positions of the birds in my picture slightly, to fit them into the paper I was using (11 x 14 inch), so my grouping is narrower and slightly taller than the reference photo. I also wanted to keep the background very simple, to highlight the birds and the pattern of shadows/ripples in the water. I was pretty pleased with the final result.

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‘An Orchestra of Avocets’ 11 x 14 inch watercolour pencil (Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

‘An Orchestra’ is apparently the collective noun for Avocets, at least according to one website I consulted. Not sure if that is really the case, but is seemed a nice term for a group of birds that can certainly lift anyone’s spirits.

And, in case anyone is wondering, we got the proverbial ‘crippling views’ of the Whooping Cranes, too!

An Improbability of Puffins

When is black not black? When looking at the plumage of ostensibly black and white birds, that’s when. You would think that painting Atlantic Puffins would be simple, lots of black and white and some big, silly coloured bills, but no…that plumage has a lot of subtle colouration, greys, browns, blues as well as ‘black’! Actually, I loved painting these, they have such personality in those faces, and who doesn’t like Puffins? But the plumage did take some getting right, especially giving the impression of individual feathers on the backs of the birds, where the oiled plumage is relatively smooth. That’s why I love painting raptors, lots of feather detail!

I mentioned that I had it in mind to paint a ‘portmanteau’ piece for Puffins, using several of Mark’s images. Well, this is not that piece. Mark has some lovely photos, but all on the sea or flying over it. Sea and I don’t have the best painting relationship right now, I’m getting better at depicting it but I’m not there yet, so I wanted to do a ‘land-based’ piece. Getting those sorts of photos is not easy here, Puffins tend to be on off-shore islands (more off-shore than we are, anyway!), hence the number of images Mark has of birds on the sea, which is the best we can do without taking to boats. So I decided to try on line and use one of the photo sites that allow use of photos for art purposes. It pays to be careful, and to check that the website, or the individual picture, carries either the Creative Commons Zero Licence (CC0) or an Attribution Licence.  Either of these allow you to make any kind of artwork from the photos, without asking permission, and to then sell the artwork, prints or use it elsewhere. The difference is that the first type of licence does not even require you to credit the original photographer whereas the second requires a credit on each use. To be safe I took a look at a site that has only CC0 licenced images, Pixabay. It had an easy search tool, typing in ‘puffins’ soon brought up a number of nice images, all stood on rocks. I chose two photos, both of groups of birds, and downloaded them to my computer. I then chose individual birds from the two photos and mixed and matched to get a grouping I liked, before drawing my picture. The background was added after finishing painting the birds, and was mainly my imagination, directed a bit by the backgrounds on the two photos. I do prefer using Mark’s photos, but this did make a good option for those occasions when looking for something specific that might not be in his photo library (but I have a huge backlog of photos that I want to paint, so it’s probably not going to be a common occurrence!).

There are a number of other photo sharing websites, others with the CC0 licence (so you can browse with confidence) include Unsplash  Public Domain Archive and Pexels, whilst MorgueFile uses a similar licence that just needs you to change the image in some way (so making a piece of art works!). I haven’t looked at these sites yet, though, as I found just what I was wanting on Pixabay.

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‘An Improbability of Puffins’, Atlantic Puffin, 8 x 10 inch, watercolour pencil (Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press Canson XL watercolour paper.

What to call this one? I looked into the collective nouns for Puffins and there are a number, including a ‘burrow’ (maybe best for nesting birds?), a ‘parliament’, a ‘raft’ (probably best for those on the sea), a ‘puffinry’ (a bit obvious, perhaps?), a ‘circus’ (getting warm), a ‘loomery’ (nicer still) and an ‘improbability”. I went for the ‘improbability’, as it does seem to sum up the look of these charming, comical little birds.


Fast and loose…

My pictures take a long time to paint, generally. Mostly because I have a very precise style, with lots of detail. I’ve long thought I should try being a little looser. Puffins seemed like a good subject to try out a faster painting, as the big colourful bill tends to take the eye away from the feather detail. Get the bill and head right and the rest sort of follows. I suppose. In truth, the pencils are not the best medium for a very ‘loose’ picture, they are more suited to detail, which is why I love them so.

I have it in my head to do one of my ‘portmanteau’ paintings, three Puffins in various poses taken from different photos of Mark’s, so this picture also served as a preliminary go, getting the colours right for the bigger picture. I have also drawn this particular bird before, using this reference photo of Mark’s.

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Last summer, before I’d even purchased my first set of watercolour pencils, I had a go at this using a cheap set of coloured pencils, picked up at Deserres in Halifax, I was reasonably pleased with the result, although it was only a single layer of pencil, not the multiple layers and burnishing that a finished picture would need. I’ve never got back to the coloured pencils, even though I now own a couple of ‘artist’ grade sets. I really will have to have another try, trouble is I’m just enjoying the watercolours too much!

atlantic puffin watermark rsStill, not too bad for a very quick picture, probably a couple of hours total.  At least you can see what it is! 7 x 5 inch, coloured pencil on cartridge paper.

The watercolour version ended up taking all of yesterday afternoon (3-4 hours) and an hour or so this morning to finish, including the preliminary graphite pencil sketch. This is fast for me! I’m pleased with the head and bill, ok with the plumage and think that the sea could use a little work!

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‘Atlantic Puffin’ 5 x 7 inch, watercolour pencil (mainly Caran d’Ache Supracolor) on 140 lb cold press watercolour paper (Canson XL).

A Couple of Quick Portraits…

I’m still working through a long list of bird vignettes for upcoming Mark Dennis publications. To keep things interesting, I like to do a few birds, then switch to a landscape or wharf scene. The vignettes are deliberately quite small and simple, with little background, to enable easy insertion into e-books. There are currently two books on the go, an avifauna of Cape Sable Island and ‘Twitching Times II’, the story of bird trips since we moved to North America. The history of Mark’s twitches in the UK has already been documented in his e-book ‘Twitching Times’, with pen and ink illustrations from me (book still available!). Some examples are on the relevant page of this blog.

For ‘The Birds of Cape Sable Island’, I painted this Common Murre (or Guillemot, if you are in the UK). These birds are usually present in low numbers during the cold parts of the year (January/February in particular) and often seek shelter inside the wharfs, where unfortunately they often become prey to marauding Greater Black-backed Gulls. Nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, I guess.


4 x 8 inch, watercolour pencil on lightweight watercolour paper.

The second painting is of a female King Eider, another of those subtle beauties full of details in browns and blacks. This illustration is intended for ‘Twitching Times II’, since seeing it required a trip to Ste-Luce, near Rimouski in Quebec. This was of course when we lived in the Montreal area, so perhaps not quite so big a journey as it would be from here, but still quite a trip. King Eiders are occasionally seen amongst the winter Eider flocks on the St-Lawrence river but, unfortunately, we have not yet connected with a male in North America.


5 x 7 inch, watercolour pencil on lightweight watercolour paper.