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Common Potoo! Victoria Regia!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On the way to the lilies, we passed a stakeout--a baby common potoo waiting for its mama atop a palm stump. She had laid her single egg in the rotted top, incubated it there, and this baby had clung while she hovered and fed it for the past few weeks. Man, I'd like to see that. A potoo is like a giant whip-poor-will, a nocturnal moth and flying insect eater with a huge gaping mouth and giant kind of creepy alien eyes, a tiny hooklike bill. It roosts all day sitting bolt upright, trying to look like a rotten branch stub, and it does a durn good job. The potoos all have a tiny notch in the eyelid toward the rear of the upper lid which allows them to peek out of their closed eyes to see who's trying to figure out if that's a branch stub or a bird.

By the looks of it, this baby potoo has a way to go before it will fly. If the potoo is like the nightjars to which it's related, the baby will be dependent for quite some time. Baby common potoos start to "branch," or locomote in the vicinity of the nest site, at four weeks of age, finally flying at day 50. Although we were told this youngster was a week old, I had my doubts about that...I'd age him at about three weeks. The nestling dependency periods of tropical birds are really out there in some cases. For instance, our chimney swifts and hummingbirds have a really long nestling period, finally flying at around Day 30, but these potoos wait until Day 50? Wow. And they probably get parental subsidy even after that. I have to say that branching around this isolated palm stump is going to be a real feat. I can't imagine him sitting motionless out in the blazing sun all day, but apparently he does. As you can see, natural camouflage is his only defense.

Victoria regia is the world's largest water lily, with one of the largest single leaves in the plant kingdom. It's got a massive blossom, as well, which is pollinated by a largeish brown scarab that looks like our Junebug. It was completely dark by the time we reached the Regia stand, and scarabs were buzzing and bumbling around the blossoms. Perhaps thirty of them dropped into the blossom we were watching. There, they tumbled and rumbled over each other and dug down deep into the flower's stamens, pollinating it. Something told me the lily wasn't the only thing getting pollinated that night. I'm just sayin'. The lily would close up on them and keep them until the next night, when they'd presumably go off to find another lily and bring this one's pollen along.

I was so curious what was going on in the flower that I almost fell out of the boat trying to see. I also wanted to smell it. It had a nice powder-room scent, reminiscent of bubble gum, or the distant scent of Japanese honeysuckle on a summer evening.

Our host at Karanambu, Diane McTurk, is the lady in the lower right corner. She was pouring rum and lime for us, adding a festive air to the outing, which was already awesome enough. At least we weren't driving. Rum is the drink of choice in Guyana, where sugar cane is the main export. Rum is made from fermented sugar cane. And Guyana makes El Dorado, the best rum in the world. Yum. I came to Guyana thinking that rum gives me a headache, and I left with a bottle of 15-year-old ED in my suitcase. Here I am, thoroughly under the influence, grooving on the bug orgy in the giant lily. My roommate Erica Gies is right next to me.

Photo by Kevin Loughlin

I'm indebted to Kevin Loughlin for this photo. Please check out his brand new blog, Notes from the Wildside. As a professional photographer, guide and teacher, he's got much better pictures than I of many of the same birds and places. I am proud to say that I was the vector by which Kevin got infected by the blogger virus. The world will be a better place for it. His photography tips are real good, and for free.

I like this shot of a blurry flower and sharp leaf. The flowers were rockin' and rollin' with all the beetle activity in their innards. If this lily's rockin', don't come knockin'.I don't like flash photography as a rule, but flash was the only way to get an acceptable image of the lily.The classic Amazonian postcard has an Amerindian baby curled up on a V. regia leaf. Indeed, the massive leaf can hold quite a load. When you press on it, it undulates like a water bed. But don't touch the red underside. Full of narsty spines. I'm thinking that that keeps herbivorous fish and manatees from chomping on them.Quite impressive, in their ranks stretching away into the darkness.

We found a lengthy tree boa doubled up in some overhanging branches. Snakes on a boat!
Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the accommodations at Karanambu Camp. It's not for sissies. Not being a sissy, I loved it.

Fish-eaters of Karanambu, Guyana

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Upon leaving the magical Kaeiteur Falls National Park, we re-boarded the tiny white airplane and set off for Karanambu, a private camp deep in the trackless interior of Guyana. Access as far as I know is only by air or boat. We were picked up in some rickety four-wheel-drive vehicles and taken to the camp, with just enough time to unload our backpacks and bags, and jump back into a couple of boats. Our goal was to reach a stand of the world's largest water lily, Victoria regia, in time to see their flowers open at nightfall.

There were tons of birds on the way to the lilies. The water was low and the fish were concentrated. Anything that ate fish was abundant. Here's a little blue heron, looking beautiful in the heat.
White-necked or cocoi herons are abundant along this stretch of river. It's a beautiful bird, reminscent of the great blue, but a bit more striking. That pretty white neck really sticks out.
But the most beautiful heron, I think, is the capped heron, or the Blue Eyed Banana Heron, as I like to call it. Oh, that blue orbital skin!
That banana-yellow neck! Dig that crazy plume coming off the head.
Hiding in the trees.
Amazon kingfishers are a large, hearty cousin to our tiny green kingfisher. They can be differentiated by their size and their heavy bills. What a gorgeously proportioned bird! This white-breasted bird is a female. Her mate wears rufous.
Dig that Woody Woodpecker crest! I would hate to be a minnow on the bidness end of that sledgehammer bill.

As night approached we spotted the elusive agami heron, a contender in my eyes for Most Beautiful Heron in the World, matched only by the capped heron. Unfortunately, I got only the briefest and worst of shots, as the light had failed. But you can see its rich maroon-chestnut body, its teal green wings, and the mysterious blue filagree on its breast. I believe the agami has the longest bill in proportion to its body of any heron. It's a gracile, secretive beauty, and we were thrilled to see several on this trip. The agami is a quest bird for many. They need but come to Karanambu.

Daylight was drawing to a close, and it was getting on time to see the world's largest lily in full bloom.

Cock of the Rock, In Progress

Monday, December 29, 2008

Let's have a closer look at his head.
I don't want to get all fussy on this bird. I couldn't see him very well in the darkness, couldn't see much detail; he just looked like a glowing coal to me. The fun part for me is working in the detail neither I nor the camera could see, but that I know to be there. I spend some time figuring out where his feather tracts would lie, and organizing them so I can paint them right. I'm setting up tons o' fun for myself on these fancy feathers of his wings and back. His tertials are the square-ended wing feathers. And as far as I can tell, the long filaments are modified body feathers. I'm not sure about that, but they seem to originate on the lower back, so that's how I paint them. Because this is watercolor, I'm going to have to paint black in and around all those filaments. No worries. I can do that. You can see where masking compound comes in handy. I used a toothpick to draw it into fine lines, and painted the green background right over it. When the background is dry, I just rub the compound away with my finger and I can paint the bright orange where it had been. It looks pretty cool now, with the orange playing off the muted greens and grays of the background.
But the painting will really take off when the black goes in. Oddly enough, I was most impressed by the bird's black and white wings, and I couldn't wait to set the bird off by painting them in.
Look how the whole scene comes alive with the punctuation of black.
What fun to paint in his details--the burnt edge of his semicircular crest; his eyes, his gorgeous wings. I noticed in observing him that his crest was like two lemon thin cookies on edge, parting to admit his beak, so I emphasized that structure in my painting. I've also painted in some wing detail that I think is probably there, but which I can't discern in my photos. Needless to say, I'd love to have a specimen in hand to work from, but that's not going to happen any time soon. I'm winging it here.
Now the muted greens seem to work well, letting the bird be the star of the show.
The finished painting.
Managed to finish it in time to send it off and get it framed by our good friend John at Frame & Save on High Street in Oxford, Ohio. He returned it in a huge wooden crate that someone had used to send some photos by Linda McCartney over from England. The crate had been secured with screws, so I wrapped up a Phillips head screwdriver and gave that to Bill in his stocking before he got his big present. Whaa?

John always gives me a joke to tell Bill when we talk. Here's the latest:

Guy walks into a bar and out of nowhere a voice comes, saying, "Man! You look great! Have you lost weight?"

He looks around and doesn't see anyone but the bartender, wiping the counter. "Who just said that?" he asks the barkeep.

Bartender says, "Oh, it was the peanuts. Just ignore them. They're complimentary."

Painting a Cock of the Rock

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ready for another bird painting?

It's hard to have to wait to post my step-by-step descriptions of how a painting is made until after the surprise has passed. I don't know why I seem always to be painting on a surprise basis but that seems to be the case. Lately, I paint for gifts. In this case the giftee was none other than Bill of the Birds. He was the one asked to go on the trip to Guyana, and he passed the trip along to me. The least I could do is paint him a cock of the rock for Christmas.

In my last post you saw the pose I knew I'd use for the painting. I'm not normally too wild about painting from photographs, unless I've made them. Given world enough and time, I'd sit there for a few days and draw COTR's from life, coming up with a composite pose that delighted me, and learning a lot about the bird in the process. Sigh. Lately the world doesn't seem to be working too well with Time, so I had to rely on what my camera was able to capture in the dark undergrowth. We had less than an hour on the COTR lek before we mushed onward to the next destination.
The sketch doesn't look like much, I know, but it's code for what I want to do in the painting.

As usual, I masked out the bird, branches and foreground leaves with Incredible White masking compound and a clear film. When the masking compound dried, I dove right in. I had laid down a pale background wash and a bunch of darks before I remembered to pick up the camera. You do tend to leave your rational mind in the dust when you go galloping off across a big expanse of wet white watercolor paper.
While everything is still damp and diffusey, I throw in a bunch of vegetation. I try to paint background washes when there's no one around to distract me. That's why animals are such good studio companions (as I listen to Charlie riffling through his feathers by my right ear, and Chet snoring softly in his studio bed).
I run the painting across the studio, prop it on a chair, and decide I hate the three-parted leaf I've hurriedly painted in the lower left corner. It looks like a flying macaw, and this is not a painting of macaws. Charlie has sent me a telepathic message to include him in the painting, I guess. Sorry Chuck, you lose. So I wet my brush with clear water, spray down the offending macaw-leaf, and scrub it out. Bye!
I don't want it to leave a shadow, so while it's still wet I throw some salt on the wound. When it dries, it has a nice, organic look. It doesn't look like anyone had an artistic cow right there. It looks like whoever painted it actually knew what she was doing. Heh.
Time to peel off the masking film and get going on the bird's perch. If the painting looks paler and warmer, it's because it's now nightfall, and I'm shooting by incandescent light.I get that vine painted in, careful to vary the color and value along its length so it looks like it's part of the scene, not pasted on top of it. And then I paint in some leaves. You'll notice that my greens are pretty toned down. Greens can be tough to manage in watercolor. Have you ever seen a painting that's pretty OK, but has some too-vivid or fake-looking greens in it? There are a lot of paintings like that. I've done some of them. Nothing can spoil a painting faster than obnoxious greens. I'm being conservative with them, because I want the star of the show to be the bird. And when I put the first bit of him in, I'm glad I took it easy on the greens.Wouldn't want to hurt anyone's eyes.

Tomorrow we'll paint the bird. Or I will, and you'll watch (after the fact). Which reminds me of a recent comment, someone wishing they could stand and watch over my shoulder as I paint. I smiled at that one. My kids can attest that when it comes down to the actual painting part I get very distracted, and then kind of snarly. I think it's a way of protecting my subconscious brain, which has to be firing on all cylinders when I'm in the act of painting. My kids like to interact with my conscious brain, and when we're together they keep plucking at the conscious brain's hem, making sure it's engaged. They're not being pesky; they're just being human.

I've never shut my kids out of the studio; rather, I've schooled them in the art of leaving space for that subconscious creative action to go on around them. From their end, I'm sure they recognize the trance when it comes on, and they know that buggin' me for a popsicle, fighting over space at the desk computer, or asking for help with a math problem isn't the best move when I'm laying down a wash or trying to figure out if I've just painted something ugly. It's good for them to recognize another person's creative space, and it's good for them to see how to maintain their own, too. Call it subconscious/conscious or right brain/left brain; creative space is another space entirely from the everyday, conversational space we usually occupy.

Cock of the Rock!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The falls, the tank bromeliads, the froglets would have been enough, more than enough. But Guyana's Kaieteur Falls Park would give us so much more in our too-short afternoon there. Because there is a bird living there, in this impossibly magical, vine-draped steaming forest, who can hurt your eyes with its color. It is the legendary cock of the rock.

I know. It's a weird name. Google it, and you get all kinds of heavy metal images right alongside stunning photos of a brilliant bird, an impossible bird. I didn't understand where it got its name until I walked in its habitat.
The cock of the rock needs rocks where it can nest. Huge, towering walls and slabs and jumbles of rock. The Science Chimp is elated to say that she will report later on the nesting habits of this marvelous bird. First, she needed to see her very first COTR. You can just imagine how excited I was. Wending our way silently through the forest, the wet floor padding our footfalls, we watched our guide and froze when he motioned that he had spotted the bird, low down in the jungly tangle, some distance ahead. We were approaching the lek site of a group of male COTR's, where they pose and display, hoping to attract visits from the burnt-brown females. Our first looks were a bit compromised by vegetation, but it was clear we had one heck of a bird in our sights.
As quietly as we could, we maneuvered around until we could see and shoot around the obscuring leaves.I shot image after image, upping my ISO to 1600, leaning against trees for support to lessen lens shake. I'm not digiscoping here, just pushing my 300 mm. telephoto lens to the maxx in the almost hopelessly dark and lightless jungle.This is not some little songbird. It's a cotinga, one of the suboscine passerines, and a honkin' big one, about the size of a city pigeon. And the color of a neon orange traffic cone. There's no missing it, even as it sits quietly and still. Think about a pigeon this color and you get some idea what an impression it makes.

Nearer, nearer, trying hard not to upset the beautiful bird who perched so calmly for us. Ooh. What's that foofuraw coming off his back?
They're filamentous plumes, orange as shredded carrots, that the female COTR likes to nibble on as the male crouches motionless on the ground before her. Nice touch.

Changing perches, he showed what a beefy broth of a beast he really was. Look at those strong yellow feet. Hey, Mr. Tangerine Man. That's a semicircular crest, neatly edged in burnt orange, that he can erect and push forward so as to completely hide his bill. Not a whole lot of tail on this bird. But he's got a very cool rump. The frills on it reminded me of those awful panties people used to put on little girls, the kind meant to stick out from under a too-short Easter dress, with ranks of frills on them. I wish I could purge such untoward thoughts when I look at a bird, but they well up nonetheless.
Though it's not that close, this is my favorite shot of the bird, on alert.
Let's blow that one up, shall we?
Right after I took this photo, he whirled off to a deeper, more obscure place, on a gasp of pinwheeling wings. Who'd have thought he'd be tricked out in black and white wheels? I was laid out, so much more than I'd ever hoped to see of a bird I'd dreamt of since I was seven. Ahh, thank you, cock of the rock. We'll leave you in peace now. And I will use this image later to rekindle my connection with you...

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Chet's nuts roasting near an open fire

Chet's tongue lapping at your nose

Tiny turds all lined up in the snow
And dogs dressed up like Eskimos...

Everybody knows a Boston with his googly eyes

Can help to make the season bright

Little dogs with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know that toys and gifts await
To be ripped to teeny bits beneath the tree
And every Boston knows that Hollofill

Can cover rooms just like a Christmas snow.

And so I'm sending you this simple song

For readers near and readers far

Though it's been said many times many ways

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas


Thanks to Bill of the Birds for Lines 1 and 3.
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