Ligné Claire – Clear Line

My current approach to painting is to simplify detail and render birds in the ‘ligné claire’ style pioneered by Hergé (aka. Georges Remi) the Belgian creator of ‘The Adventures of Tintin’.

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‘Shy Albatross Cruising’ – inspired by ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ woodblock print by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (ca. 1830).

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‘Wheatfield with Cape Crows’ – inspired by ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ by Vincent van Gogh’ (1890).

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A Tern on the Tide

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Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), non-breeding plumage.

On a warm and breezy December morning, Jennifer McKenzie of the Hermanus Animal Hospital was walking along the Vermont coastal path when her eye was caught by the wing of a bird lying on the tideline among the pebbles and shells. Closer investigation revealed the sun-bleached corpse of a small tern, with a small aluminium ring attached around one of its tiny legs.

Jennifer contacted me and once I had retrieved the dead bird – and tentatively identified it as a Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) – I was immediately in touch with the South African bird ringing authority (SAFRING) who have an online record submission facility. The data form was duly completed and I awaited feedback on the origin and age of the tern. Since the ring had the words ‘Museum Brussels’ embossed above the number, it had evidently been ringed in that northern European country, but how old was this small migratory bird that had flown a distance of over 10,000 km to reach our shores?

Months passed before I received feedback. Yes, it was Sterna hirundo and had been trapped and ringed (as a first year/immature) in Belgium, at Heist, to be precise. Then, what I had been most interested in, the date of capture: 24 August 2008. Nine years, three months and 14 days before it turned up dead in Hermanus.

Now I got my calculator out, and launched Google Earth on my desktop. Although the distance between Heist and Hermanus is 9,690 km, migratory terns – being coastal seabirds – do not fly in a straight line over the African continent, but must follow the coastline, or perhaps use trade winds further offshore. This means that the journey south is somewhere in the region of 13,000 km and, presuming that these terns return home to breed by the same Atlantic route then they must cover at least 26,000 km each year. If we imagine that this little bird stayed put in Europe for its first year, and only undertook migration as an adult, then it would have completed the return trip eight times, with one final journey south in the European autumn of 2017. Add that up, and you have a distance of 221,000 km . . . a bundle of muscles and feathers weighing about 120 grams travelling a distance equivalent to more than halfway to the moon. Rather incredible.

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More amazing, is that this really was still a young bird. The oldest Common Tern listed on the EURING (the European bird ringing association) database was 33 years of age! 

Duncan Butchart, Hermanus

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White-water-fowl

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Torrent Duck (pair, male on left), Merganetta armata armata, Chile.

Ducks, it has to be said, may not be the most interesting of birds. With a few exceptions they are all rather alike in general body shape and behaviour, generally conforming to the familiar visage of a farmyard duck (this being a descendent of the Mallard).

Not so the truly remarkable Torrent Duck! This extraordinary bird occurs in fast-flowing streams and rivers of South America, where pairs occupy – and vigorously defend – linear territories. As if they were made out of rubber, these ducks throw themselves into the most tumultuous of rapids with wild abandon, bobbing about fearlessly in search of caddis fly larvae and other invertebrate prey. Most food, however, is taken in eddies and vegetated fringes. The pair invariably swim and feed together, hauling themselves up onto slippery boulders where they keep a constant look-out for rivals. If a rival appears, there is much energetic chasing, accompanied by head-bowing and tail-cocking displays.

My first encounter with one of these striking ducks was in Peru on a small mountain stream rushing beneath mossy forest on the fabled Manu Road that snakes its way down the eastern slopes of the Andes, from the altiplano to the Amazon. I’d been walking down the road, following a mixed flock of tanagers and other insectivorous birds, when I came to a small bridge. Perched on the bridge post was a tiny little flycatcher with a dark head – a Torrent Tyrannulet. As this little sprite flitted out across the water, its namesake – a male Torrent Duck – peered up at me briefly, then slid quietly off its boulder perch to disappear beneath the froth and bubbles. It was a fleeting observation, but memorable.

Later, still in Peru, I was to get much better views of these ducks along the spectacular Urubamba River which divides the little tourist town of Aguas Calientas from the former Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Here I was able to watch fearless Torrent Ducks swimming, feeding and engaged in territorial disputes in the chilly waters that flow from the snow-capped Andean peaks.

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Torrent Ducks, Urubamba River, Peru.

Underwater, I suppose these tough little ducks swim much like cormorants, propelling themselves with their webbed feet and with neck outstretched. Interestingly, the stiff tail feathers are evidently used in a similar manner to those of woodpeckers in that they help to provide balance on the smooth boulders. Underwater, the tail is no doubt used as a rudder.

There are six regional subspecies of Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata), with the males being quite different in plumage, but the rufous and grey females being more or less identical. The male of the northernmost subspecies (Venezuela to N.Ecuador – M. a. colombiana) has pale underparts with black streaks, while the male of the southernmost subspecies (the nominate M.a. armata occupies most of Chile and southern Argentina to Tierra del Fuego) has black chest and flanks with a cinnamon underbelly; this is the form in my illustration above.

Duncan Butchart

 

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My Brush with Royalty

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A column of army ants are crossing the path as we enter a clearing where a giant forest tree has fallen. The small gap in the canopy is flooded with light and dozens of small yellow butterflies are dancing above the luxuriant growth of ferns and large-leaved pioneers. A family of capuchin monkeys are working their way through the branches on one side, searching for cicadas, katydids and the like.

These monkeys are being followed by a rather inconspicuous fawn-brown bird which perches lower down, hoping, I’m sure, to snap up anything that escapes the furry little inspectors. At first, it looks like any of the confusingly similar tyrant flycatchers that inhabit Neotropical forests, but when it turns, the head is anvil shaped, with a definite folded crest. Mmmm. Interesting. Could it be?

As is the way with flycatchers, the bird remains stationery for minutes on end. We do the same – watching and waiting. Like any perch hunter, it must remain still until the last moment – suddenly flipping out to grasp a moth or some other winged insect. And then it happens. For no apparent reason, the bird tilts its head, and flashes its impossibly ornate crest – a flaming burst of orange and indigo. We only see the back, and its over in an instant, but its enough. You take whatever brief sightings offer themselves up in the rainforest. The clammy heat, the sweat-bees and the mosquitoes have been worth it  . . . it’s a Royal Flycatcher in the Amazon.

Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Brazil; July, 2007

 

 

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Art Print – Birds of Africa – Now Available

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Over the years, I have created hundreds of small watercolour illustrations of birds and other wildlife. Sometime last year, I had the idea to bring a selection of them together in a meaningful way by creating a large A1 design that celebrates the splendid diversity of Africa’s birds.

This project proved to be a much larger undertaking than I had anticipated as I needed to create completely new illustrations of many species, and each individual artwork had to be deep-etched, scaled and placed in an appropriate part of the continent.  Then, as I neared completion of the whole design, I had to decide how I was going to produce and market it.

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Printed on deluxe 170gsm art paper (rolled in a tube, for framing or mounting) @ ZAR250.00.

Great care has been taken to place each of the 338 featured birds in a locality where it is known to occur, so the design is scientifically accurate. To allow the identification of every bird, each art print is provided with a numbered key chart.

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At least one member of Africa’s 142 bird families is featured, but some ended up with better representation than others – the turacos, bee-eaters, barbets, hornbills, kingfishers, owls, eagles and vultures are among my favourite birds! The design also represents Africa’s ‘associated islands’ all of which are important breeding sites for albatrosses, frigatebirds, terns or other marine species. Due to format limitations, Mauritius (some way east of Madagascar) could not be included.

North Africa falls within the so-called Palearctic zoogeographical region so it may come as a surprise to many people that several typically European species such as the European Robin, Eurasian Wren and Blue Tit can be found in Morocco. In addition, millions of migrant birds from Europe and Asia move in and out of Africa each year, some crossing the vast Sahara Desert which is an ecological barrier to resident species. No political boundaries are shown on the underlying map – birds take no heed of these arbitrary lines.

To place an ORDER for this unique art print please email me directly  – duncan@dbnatureworks.com. Once we have established the delivery options (local or overseas, courier or post), I will then send you an invoice with banking details and – upon receipt of payment – the print will signed, packaged and dispatched.

* Actual size = A1 is 60 x 84 cm . .  24 x 33 inches.

Duncan Butchart, Hermanus, South Africa

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Coming Soon – Birds of Africa – art print

Over the past few years I have created hundreds of watercolour illustrations of African birds. Many of these – as well as dozens of newly prepared illustrations – are being assembled for my next publication – a large poster that celebrates the diversity of Africa’s birds. At least one member of each of Africa’s 142 bird families is illustrated, and all associated islands are included. Further details will be announced in the next few weeks.

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Woodpeckers that don’t Peck Wood

Anyone who has spent time walking through mountain fynbos in the south-western Cape will know that birds, of any kind, are few and far between. Its actually quite startling just how few birds – or other vertebrates – inhabit what is widely known as one of the most diverse floral kingdoms on the planet.  Nectarivores such as sunbirds and sugarbirds can be abundant at certain times, but it is otherwise just a few nomadic seedeaters and a handful of hardy insectivorous species that are able to make a living among the astonishing array of proteas, ericas, pincushions and conebushes that cover the hillsides. Insects certainly seem to be sparse, and this low ‘invertebrate productivity’ on soils that are said to be nutrient-deficient, is evidently responsible for the paucity of birds.

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Since arriving in this part of South Africa about four years ago, I have been forever on the lookout for one of the most unusual birds of the fynbos – a woodpecker that doesn’t peck wood and rarely even perches in trees. I have had a few people tell me that they’ve seen these woodpeckers in the mountains above Hermanus, and I’ve walked those trails flat with my companion Josie, our energetic labrador. Rockjumpers, siskins, prinias and grassbirds we have encountered, as well as three species of sunbird and the charismatic Cape Sugarbird. But never a terrestrial woodpecker, not a glimpse, not a knock, not a peep.

My favourite afternoon walk is a little-used trail on the lower slopes of the mountain in the Fernkloof Nature Reserve. I have come to terms with not seeing or expecting many birds on this route, but it is an invigorating walk that traverses several micro-habitats and there are always fascinating and often lovely flowers to be seen. I much prefer the mountain walks in winter, but after an unseasonal summer downpour this week, followed by a Friday morning of drizzle and mist, I decided to venture out onto this pathway after work. At around 17h45, while ambling along the lower flat section I was stopped in my tracks by an explosive, rasping call, coming from the hillside above. I didn’t recognise this strange call at first, but then the penny dropped. Woodpecker! . . must be Ground Woodpecker!! I scanned the exposed rocks with my binoculars and soon picked up the distinctive shape on the rim a large sandstone outcrop. Then there were two more woodpeckers, and the calling continued as they bounced across the lichen-clad rocks, and flew short distances between outcrops.  Luckily, the second part of the trail follows a contour of the hillside and I was able to get into a position where I could watch the woodpeckers without disturbing them. In my limited experience, these are very alert and shy birds, so I was fortunate indeed. It was clear that they were picking up food from the rocks and open ground, so when they moved on I went off the trail to investigate. Numerous ants were moving around, many carrying papery seeds larger than themselves – these were Harvester Ants and I suspect that the rain and wet sandy soil had stimulated their activity. The woodpeckers were clearly having an ant feast, but they were not alone. In a period of about fifteen minutes, I observed three Olive Thrush, four Cape Robinchat, two Fiscal Flycatcher, two Streaky-headed Canary, several Brimstone Canary, two Cape Bulbul, a Karoo Prinia and a flock of about 20 Cape White-eyes moving through the area. Of these birds, I had previously only seen the prinia and canary on this part of the trail and, all- told, I think I saw more individual birds here than ALL previous walks combined! There were sugarbirds and sunbirds about too, and to cap it all, a Peregrine Falcon passed high overhead. It was a memorable afternoon!

Fernkloof Nature Reserve, Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa

** The Ground Woodpecker (Geocolaptes olivaceus) is endemic to South Africa (as well as parts of Swaziland and Lesotho) where it occupies high altitude grasslands in the summer rainfall region, and mountain fynbos in the winter-rainfall region.

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