My summer of endangered birds

When I finally got up the nerve to apply to Artists for Conservation and was accepted as a signature member, the Silent Skies project deadline was approaching. I had a big, cross-country camping trip planned, but I liked the idea of the mural of endangered birds and I wanted to be a part of it. I thought I would have time for just one bird. I had no idea that I would end up painting seventeen (now nineteen) birds for the mural.


My first bird was a “safe” choice. The Guadalupe Junco looks a lot like the Dark-eyed Junco we have in my neighborhood, and in my research on the Guadalupe Junco, I discovered that it eats the seeds of a cypress cone that looks a lot like the Monterey Cypress. I had painted both a Dark-eyed Junco and Monterey Cypress cones before, so the big challenge was coming up with a square composition. I got a cradled Gessobord and pulled out my acrylics. The Guadalupe Junco is the first image in the banner at the top of this page.


We were heading out for our big trip, and we planned to be gone for about 6-8 weeks, when I got the email saying that the deadline would be extended by two months. I thought it might be fun to have a side project to work on, in addition to my planned travel sketching, so I found the Saipan White-eye, which looks a lot like the Japanese White-eye that I had seen and photographed in Japan. I put a couple of my White-eye photos on my phone and some pieces of 8x8 watercolor paper in my art bag and hoped for the best. 


I had seen a video online of the Saipan White-eye foraging among plants that looked a lot like mesquite. We started in Northern California and the first week or two of our trip was through the desert southwest where they have lots of mesquite, so I spent some time sketching and painting mesquite. I came up with a composition and between travel, hiking, birding and everything else, I managed to spend a little time painting the Saipan White-eye, but hadn’t completed the painting.


After about five weeks on the road, where we saw so many bird species, including Mexican Jays and Painted Redstarts in Arizona, Black Vultures and tons of Roadrunners in Texas, so many migrating songbirds on the Gulf Coast, Limpkins and Anhingas in the Everglades (along with lots and lots of alligators), Eastern Bluebirds and Slate-colored Dark-eyed Juncos in the Smokey Mountains, we were heading to Lake Erie, where they were supposed to have more migrating songbirds staging for their trip to Canada. That’s when we got a call from home with very bad news… My nephew in New Zealand had suddenly died.


Our trip turned into a mad dash from Ohio to Northern California, arriving just in time for my flight to New Zealand for the funeral. At that point, even though I had yet to complete my Saipan White-eye painting, I determined to find an endangered New Zealand bird to paint in my nephew’s honor. I chose the Chatham Island Taiko.


When I got back from New Zealand, exhausted and emotionally drained, I turned to my White-eyes and my Taiko, painting them in acrylic on canvas. They are the second and third birds on the banner at the top of the page.


I needed something to focus on after so much emotional turmoil and I wasn’t ready to get to the many birds I had photographed on our trip. I had several 8x8 pieces of watercolor paper on hand, so I thought I’d see what I could do with them. I decided to see if I could do something wild and experimental. I found the Usambara Akalat, which looks a bit like a North Island Robin that I had photographed when I had visited my nephew in happier times, so I turned it into an Akalat and put it on a spattered watercolor background. I then picked the Grand Comoro Drongo because I liked its tail, using as a model a sketch I had made of a similar shaped bird at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, and then the Purple-winged Ground-dove, based on one of my Mourning Dove photos. This was followed by the Zapata Rail, a bird for which there are no known photos of a live bird. Because it is supposed to be similar in shape to the Clapper Rail, I used a Clapper Rail specimen from the museum as a starting point.


I sent my six new bird paintings off and started on a painting project of my own. Two days later came the email appeal for more birds for the mural. I took the bait. I still had a couple of little canvases and my brother-in-law had just sent a photo of a Brewer’s Blackbird in a regal pose. I found the Forbes’ Blackbird and got permission to use my brother-in-law’s photo, morphing it into the Forbes’ Blackbird. Then I used my own photo of a Northern Mockingbird as a starting point for a Socorro Mockingbird.


When I was working on the Zapata Rail, I had first made an acrylic painting on canvas in what felt like an appropriate wetland habitat. I overworked the background until it looked like the bird was stepping out from behind a shower curtain into a tiled spa. I put that painting aside and made the watercolor I had sent in. I went to a demo where an artist was painting a wetland scene and came home inspired to turn my spa back into a wetland. Once I was reasonably satisfied, I found another rail with a similar look but different coloring from the Zapata Rail. I changed the colors of my Zapata Rail and abracadabra… Sakalava Rail!


I wanted to do a bird portrait and I found the Nukuhiva Pigeon with its wonderful beak. I based my drawing on another pigeon, but as I drew the bird’s portrait, it refused to stay in its frame. The result is the last bird on the second row above.


I had one more little board prepared, and I found the Antioquia Wren, which resembles the Bewick’s Wren, which we have in my neighborhood, so I painted it as my last Silent Skies bird and shipped these five birds off and went back to working on my other project.


Then came another appeal for more birds. By then, I was mostly recovered from my travels and ready to get on with my own projects. But I was also so much more involved with the Silent Skies project and really didn’t want to let all those endangered birds down. So once again, I took the bait.


I loved the name of the Cryptic Treehunter, and took the challenge of painting yet another bird that had never been photographed live. Hopefully I got it at least somewhat close to what the bird really looks like. Then I picked the Oahu Creeper, depicting both male and female, basing them on some of my photos of other small birds. The Micronesian Scrubfowl was just too crazy looking to pass up. But how could I paint it without a model? I noticed that it had a resemblance to the Pukeko of New Zealand, so I morphed one of my Pukeko photos into a Scrubfowl. I did these three in watercolor, but had more trouble getting them affixed to the canvas than I did with the first four, so I decided to stop there. But I just couldn’t let the Peruvian Plantcutter go unpainted (it looks a lot like the Phainopepla of the desert southwest), so I did that one last bird and varnished the last four paintings.


Then came the final email appeal. No. I already did my last bird. I could not do another bird. I was done. And anyway, I wouldn’t have time to varnish before I needed to send it off. But I had one more board on hand and couldn’t resist looking at the birds needing to be painted. I didn’t want them all left out. I found the Puaiohi, a small thrush from Kauai, and I had a thrush I could base it on. I could do it in acrylic and just put a couple of layers of clear acrylic medium on it instead of varnish. If I worked quickly, I could still ship it off on schedule. The Puaiohi turned out to be one of my favorites. I’m glad I did that one last bird.


So there you have it. Seventeen birds. And I keep looking at the list and wishing I had time to do more. Not only did I feel like I was doing something beyond myself, but I learned a lot in the process. I can’t wait to see the mural!


Update: Two more birds for the mural


All my birds had flown off to Vancouver to be in the Silent Skies mural. I had a complementary sample of QoR watercolor paints I wanted to try. Why not paint another endangered bird? It was too late to get it to Vancouver via Blaine, WA, but I could just paint it for myself. Or maybe it could get into the traveling show, if there was indeed to be one.


I had been looking at the list of available birds and had noticed a yellow grosbeak - I can’t remember its name. I had a photo of one of our local grosbeaks, so I drew it, modified it to be the endangered grosbeak, and came up with a composition with bright primary colors. The list of birds still to be painted was stable, so I hadn’t reserved the bird. I was about to start painting when I refreshed the page with the completed birds, and there, to my surprise, was the yellow grosbeak - a beautiful painting, all completed! By another artist.


There was another grosbeak on the list I had been looking at, the Sao Tome Grosbeak. It is dark brown and quite a bit chunkier than the other grosbeak. I redrew my bird and decided that the primary colors didn’t seem appropriate for this bird, so since the bird wasn’t yellow, I gave it a yellow background.


I found out that if I shipped my painting directly to Vancouver instead of Washington, it had a chance to get into the Vancouver mural. It was the weekend and FedEx wouldn’t ship out until Monday morning, and the cost of shipping two birds to Canada was almost the same as the cost of shipping one. So I looked at the list of available birds again.


I discovered a bird that I hadn’t seen on the list before: the fabulous little Sangihe Dwarf-kingfisher. I looked at my kingfisher photos. It didn’t look much like our local kingfisher, but I found a New Zealand kingfisher in my photo database that had a vague resemblance. So I claimed the Sangihe Dwarf-kingfisher. Then I stressed over how I could get the incredible iridescent colors I saw on photos of the bird’s close relative, the Sulawesi Dwarf-kingfisher (I found no photos of a live Sangihe Dwarf-kingfisher). And I had to get both paintings finished and photographed and packed and to the FedEx store by 8 PM on Sunday to be in the first shipment on Monday morning! Aargh! Why did I grab that fabulous bird? Could I possibly do it justice in such a short time?


I finished both paintings and got them to FedEx with ten minutes to spare, even after the surprise of having to figure out the export paperwork. So my last two birds have flown off to Canada. Hopefully they will make it in time to get into the mural. But if not, they can at least get into the traveling mural.


The last two birds brought my Silent Skies contribution up to 19 - not an easy number to put into a grid. I had already made an image for this page with the previous 17 birds, so I was able to add one more bird to it, but since I put them in chronological order, the last bird, the fabulous little Sangihe Dwarf-kingfisher, didn’t fit. So I’m going to see if I can put it here separately.