Bird Sketches From Melanesia and Norfolk Island
My summer of bird drawings.
This is a collection of some twenty bird drawings I did while travelling around the western Pacific with Heritage Expeditions. I left from New Zealand and travelled to Norfolk Island, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands. I drew every bird from my own photos, using pencil, pens and paper, in the quiet days at sea between the islands. It's not a comprehensive guide to the birds, only drawings of the ones I managed to photograph and felt like drawing!
I ended up with a collection of drawings that I am rather proud of, the ability to draw them twice as fast, and a very dead marker.
Apologies if the links are broken, site updates have led to some lost articles.
Melanesian Bird Books - Guidebooks to the birds of Melanesia
"The" birding guidebook to Melanesia, this is a comprehensive, well illustrated and easy to use book for serious birders and casual travellers. This is one of the books I took with me and found it invaluable for looking up species and checking details when drawing from my photographs.
Seabird Sketches: Albatross, Terns, Tropicbirds, and more - To learn more about each species, keep reading further downClick thumbnail to view full-size
Land Birds and Shorebirds: Robins, Wagtails, Kingfishers and More - To learn more about these species, keep reading!Click thumbnail to view full-size
My Artist Kit: A Handy Travel Pack
Pencil, eraser, and three pens!
My "art kit" for travel was very simple: a stack of a5 paper, small enough to carry around and not get crumpled, an F pencil (and sharpener and decent eraser), two fancy Faber Castell black art pens of different sizes and one black marker for colouring and shading large areas. I had a handful of other things, extra pencils and so forth, but I didn't need them.
Everything I've recommended below is greyscale or black. This is because what you use for colour ranges very widely by preference and artist ability, whether it's pencils or paint or markers or scanning onto the computer to finish digitally. It's also because it's hard to predict what colours you actually need in the field, without some previous experience, and once you start taking enough of a range to cope with any species or glorious view, then you're getting out of the range of "small and basic travel kit.".
When you pack art supplies for travel, they should be straightforward and fairly self-contained, as well as easy to use (painting needs brushes, water, space and makes a mess, for example). While it's a great time to experiment with new things, as you have the time to sit down and play, you should also make sure you have some basic supplies that you can always use - such as pencils! I never used to be very good at inking my drawings, but I'm finally getting the hang of it, and remembering the patience I need to not rush it and mess it up!
Taking expensive stuff isn't always a great idea as you risk damaging or losing it. Don't shoot yourself in the foot, though, by taking stuff that is too cheap - the paper I took was terrible quality, and I ended up using the ship note paper for most of my drawings! And make sure you pack enough! If you're halfway through your trip and you run out of paper, forget your pencil sharpener, or your pens run out of ink, you may not be to replace them.
Basic Recommended Items for Field Illustration
Bring a good eraser. Or two. Test them before you go to make sure they actually work properly.
Take a small selection of pencils, of decent quality. If you already know you like working with a lot of pencils, then go ahead, but there's a good chance you won't use all of them. Take backups of the ones you use the most in case you lose or break some (in my case, I always draw with an F pencil, which are quite hard to find outside of Art shops, so I was try and bring a couple).
You can stick with pencil drawing, which lets you do a lot more shading and you can raise mistakes, but there's a risk of smudging and damage while you travel. if you get a couple of good quality art pens for outlining in different sizes, and any writing, you can then keep working on the drawing when you get home, or get a really nice pen and ink drawing.
Of course, fine pens don't let you shade very easily, so if you also pick up a couple of markers in black or grey, you'll be able to draw pretty much anything.
Good Bird Books Are Essential For Illustrators
Make sure you know what you're drawing!
I took these two books with me, and found them both extremely useful. The New Zealand seabird book is a photographic guide, and very easy to use, while the birds of Melanesia book is a bit larger, and a fantastic, well illustrated, and comprehensive reference book. There's a bit of overlap between the two, as seabirds tend to travel. While the Internet does have a lot of information about bird species, if you don't already know the species, then it can be very hard to find said articles in the first place! For the more obscure regions, such as Melanesia, but not even the Internet is particularly helpful.
Regardless, if you're going to photograph, watch or draw birds, you really do need a good field guide. It is very, very difficult to identify a fuzzy silhouette months later, or remember if your drawing was entirely accurate, and it makes things so much easier if you can identify the bird's actual species on the spot. It also gives you a good idea of habitat, if you're trying to figure out what backgrounds to draw or if you're looking for more birds to get better reference photos!
I took this book with me on my trip, it is a fantastic publication for anyone travelling in Australasian waters, with beautiful clear photographs and up to date information about each species. Aside from being able to identify the birds I saw, it was also an invaluable reference for my artwork.
Buller's Mollymawk, New Zealand - One of the smaller albatross species
The Buller's Mollymawk Thalassarche bulleri (mollymawk is the name for a small albatross) was one of the first seabirds I saw, leaving the South Island, and was bold enough to come right up to the ship after bits of fish. They're large, impressive birds, and fairly easy to photograph, so I got some very nice references. Because of their size and slower, gliding flight (compared to the erratic smaller seabirds!), I was able to practice trying to get photos of birds actually in flight.
They have a very impressive wingspan, and have a lot of trouble getting into the air, having to run across the water trying to achieve lift off.
The original drawing above - the one on the left - has been sold
Cape Petrel and Kelp Gull, New Zealand
Cape Petrel and Kelp Gull, New Zealand
Smaller seabirds from the South Island
Cape Petrel (or Cape Pigeon) Daption capense
Kelp or Black-backed Gull Larus dominicanus
My favourite bird from New Zealand waters was the adorable, piebald, Cape Petrel. These delightful little birds are quite common, floating in small groups on the water, or lunging to snatch scraps from under the beaks of the larger seabirds.
Gulls are gulls everywhere, but as I managed to get a photo of a large Black-backed (or Kelp) gull taking off, and had no good photos of petrels in flight to hand, I threw the gull into the background.
Masked Booby, At Sea
The original drawing above has been sold
Red-footed Booby (at Sea)
Boobies are a lot like albatrosses, but a bit smaller and more elegant. They certainly have similar wingspan proportions, as you can see on the right!
Individual Boobies, of different species, showed up regularly in warmer waters, and often would circle the entire ship. This Booby actually followed the boat for a while, diving after the flying fish that we were scaring up. It gave my plenty of chances to take some distant, but reasonably clear, photos of it in flight, to my delight.
The original drawing on the right has been sold
Red-tailed Tropicbird, Norfolk Island/At Sea - An elegant bird that nests in cliffs
Definitely one of my favourites, this elegant white tern is quite large and distinguised by the long thin red tail feathers that trail out behind it like pennants.
We saw quite a few at sea, generally just flying past and ignoring us, but the best sighting was definitely at Norfolk Island. Here, not only did we get to watch from a cliff as they soared around the coast, jinking and curving in the wind, but got to see a nest.
There were a couple of mostly grown juveniles, just sitting on the cliff, their white plumage broken up by black bars and spots. And there was an adult bird huddled into its shallow scrape of a hole, guarding a fluffy chick.
The original drawing on the right has been sold
The Red-tailed Tropicbird is an accomplished flier and engages in a fantastic aerial courtship dance.
Feral Pigeon, Norfolk Island
It's a pigeon. Not more needs be said, I'm sure! I actually really liked the pose it was sitting in, down on the dock at Norfolk Island. It was also nice to take a photo of a bird that wasn't trying to sabotage my every attempt at focussing.
Norfolk Island Parakeet
A shy green parakeet
This small parrot is relatively hard to find, especially with the noisy and aggressive invader, the Crimson Rosella, around, but I got to see one lurking quietly in the trees. For a bright green bird, it's surprisingly hard to spot!
It's almost identical the the New Zealand Red-crowned Parakeet, or Kakariki, and the New Caledonian Parakeet. The only obvious difference is the amount of red on the forehead and cheeks!
This parakeet was the subject of a breeding programme on Norfolk Island, until recently. The aviaries would attract the wild parakeets, and eventually it was discontinued, because the wild ones were doing better! It was discovered that the greatest threat was the Crimson Rosella, a bird with the endearing habit of destroying rival eggs in nests.
On the right you can see a NZ parakeet, taken at Auckland Zoo in the Native New Zealand wildlife section.
Norfolk Island Gerygone
Pronounced "Jeh-rig-oh-nee", this small brown warbler is high on bird watcher's lists, but not particularly exciting. I went wandering through the bush, was chasing a couple of fantails, and had one land right in front of me.
It has a finicky conservation status, because it's doing fairly well for itself, but lives and breeds in such a small area that any habitat loss could wipe it out.
Grey Fantail, Norfolk Island
Like its near-cousins in New Zealand, this little bird is a darty, curious little insect eater. They swoop and flutter on rounded wings, and have a delicate tail that fans out as a brake. They're generally quite friendly, as humans stir up insects.
Slender-billed Whiteeye, Norfolk Island
Every island has its own species!
A tiny little bird with a white ring around its eye, the whiteeye is found throughout Australia and Melanesia as a whole variety of species and subspecies (for example, the Silvereye that migrates between Australia and New Zealand).
This is the endemic Norfolk Island species, a tiny darting little thing that travels in small groups through the trees.
Ruddy Turnstone, Norfolk Island - Little shorebirds found all over the world
Ruddy Turnstones were all over the shoreline at Norfolk Island, but were pretty hard to photograph because they were small, shy and well camouflaged. Well, not shy exactly, but they never let me close enough to get decent photo. Some of them were in breeding plumage (the nice dramatic version in the picture above), whereas others were just mottled brown.
They are pretty small birds, which feed among the rock pools, picking their way through the mud flats in stops and starts.
The original drawing above has been sold
Wandering Tattler, Norfolk Island
A large, shy shorebird on Norfolk Island. We saw one down by the water, which promptly attracted a crowd of telescopes and cameras.
Black Noddy, Norfolk Island
A species of tern nesting in pine trees
Black Noddies are a very recognisable bird species; they're black terns, with white caps on their heads. You can find them right across the Pacific, and I've got some photos from Fiji (that... worked a lot better than the photos I took on Norfolk Island, as those birds were much less co-operative!).
On Norfolk, they nest in pine trees along the coast, where they make an awful lot of noise and will come swoop past your head if you hang around under the trees where their messy, stick nests are found.
White Terns, Norfolk Island
These lovely white terns were incredibly graceful birds. They nested in the pines along with the Black Noddies on Norfolk Island.
They were also very easy to draw, as I didn't need to add much shading!
New Caledonian Whistler
These little birds were very fast moving, jumpy little things, with a lovely whistling song. They turned up after lunch, along with the bolder robins, to hunt for scraps. There were at least two adults, and the juvenile, which is the bird spreading its wing out in the picture above. This is begging behaviour, and it was jumping around and flashing and flirting its wings, trying to get its parents to feed it.
Yellow-Bellied Robin, New Caledonia
By far my favourite bird from New Caledonia, mostly because I got some really nice photos of it, the Yellowbellied Robin (or Flyrobin), does indeed have a yellow belly and like most robins, is pretty friendly.
I was able to get several photos of this bird perching in different poses, as it hung around hoping for food.
Blyth's Hornbills, Guadalcanal - An incredibly noisy bird from the Solomon Islands
Blyth's Hornbills are extremely noisy, large birds that fly everywhere in pairs. You can easily here them coming, as they flap very loudly, thunderclapping over the forest canopy.
Moustached Treeswifts, Kolombangara Island
Fantastic tree swifts from the Solomon Islands
Hemiprocne mystacea woodfordiana
These large treeswifts look like paper aeroplanes in flight, with their straight wings, long tails and 'cross' like silhouette, wheeling and soaring above the tree tops.
They're difficult to photograph, because they're constantly moving in the sky, hunting insects. I took my reference photos from a small Zodiac boat, travelling around the mangroves of Kolombangara Island. From the boat, we could see birds sitting in the tops of trees, and when I zoomed right in on my photos, I could almost see the bird properly!
They're named 'moustached' treeswifts because of the large stripes running out from their beaks.
Willy Wagtail, Solomon Islands
Also found in Australia, these birds are a lot like oversized fantails, with their large tails and quick flicking movements.
Ultramarine Kingfisher, Solomon Islands
Pretty much the first decent guide book to Melanesian birdlife for decades, it has since been surpassed and isn't entirely accurate. It's smaller than the Duston book, and more accessible, though less comprehensive.
Melanesian birdlife is fascinating, because of all the islands; they all have their own variants and subspecies, and many of these are poorly studied. This comprehensive book looks at the many species of Northern Melanesia and how they evolved.
A travel guide is a good idea! The local cultures offer a wide variety of experiences, but you often don't have internet access so it can be a bit difficult to look things up after you get there and wander off to a remote village.
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