Tuesday 29 January 2013

Unforgettable faces

In just a few days I'll be winging my way northward to Canada from my winter haven in the Caribbean - a migration slightly too early for spring but that welcome season should be just around the corner when I get back home to southwestern British Columbia. I've been pondering how to close this chapter in my life as an artist, and started looking for ideas through the photos I've taken during my travels around Trinidad, Guyana, Grenada and, most recently, Tobago. As I've mentioned before, my camera is an invaluable tool in my art practice so I'm continually clicking away at any bird, bug or other critter that happens to cross my path. From the vast (and I do mean VAST) number of photos I've taken, here is a selection of faces I've recorded - furred, feathered and otherwise.
There were some great twosomes, like this father dog his "mini-me" pup I observed at Mount Saint Benedict, Trinidad:

It looked to all the world like the senior dog was showing the youngster the ropes, as any devoted dad would, and the little pup was avidly watching his father's every move.
Then there were these two companionable doves who appear to be caught up practising some dance moves:

In Grenada I observed this solitary tern who rejected perching with his flock on their favourite fishing boat, preferring instead a neighbouring boat and the company of a small shorebird:
Of course there were some wonderful feathered faces, like this captive blue and gold macaw in who I photographed enjoying its lunch in Trinidad.

My enjoyment of tame birds like this one has been forever altered by seeing them in the wilds of Guyana. A long life in solitary captivity (they live an average of 50 years and mate for life) seems like a poor substitute for an athletic, social bird who was meant to be soaring free above the vast rainforest canopy. However, these birds were hunted to extinction in Trinidad some decades ago, and a small population has recently been re-established in the protected Nariva Swamp area through the release of captive-bred birds. For the sake of species preservation it seems that captivity for some individuals is a necessary evil.

"Treasure of Nariva" (silk painting)
Another bird I photographed in Trinidad enjoying a snack was this palm tanager who was munching on some sort of fruit:
Tanagers are very common in this part of the world and come in some stunning varieties, such as the lovely blue-grey species. I observed this one perched on a gutter:
I have also photographed songbirds who may not be the most interesting to look at but who make up for it with their striking vocalizations, like this wren:
And like this chachalaca (locally called a cocrico) I spotted in Tobago's Grafton Bird Sanctuary.
They're a boring-looking brown, chicken-like birds but their loud, exotic squawks and hoots are like something from the soundtrack of a 1930s Tarzan movie.
Everywhere I travelled, tropical mockingbirds could be heard warbling their melodic songs: 

These mockingbirds are a species that appear to have adapted well to urban life. I recently completed a coloured pencil drawing of a tropical mockingbird posed in front of a weathered sign near my apartment in Trinidad.

"Song of the Tropics:
Mockingbird" (coloured pencil)
I intended the image to depict the concept of the urban jungle - a melding of wild and human habitat where wildlife has made necessary adaptations in order to survive, but how the toll of natural forces gradually erodes human structures and reclaims the land, perhaps one day giving it back to the wild creatures.
On a less serious note, this jaunty Muscovy duck had a twinkle in its eye, maybe because it was living in a sanctuary and therefore not destined for the dinner table:
I photographed this wee hummingbird stretching its wings while sticking its tongue out!
One of the strangest birds I encountered was this boat-billed heron in Guyana (it's a night fisher who roosts in the forest by day):
And then there was this weird looking bare-eyed thrush - so named for the rings of wrinkly yellow skin that surround its eyes (I saw this one in Tobago):
Another leathery-faced bird I encountered - a brown pelican - appeared as though it would rather be napping than keeping an eye on me.
One of the most striking creatures I saw in my travels is this green anaconda:
Eighteen feet long, 32" in circumference, and weighing over 200 pounds, it was captured just weeks ago beside a roadway a few miles from my apartment in Trinidad. Now in the custody of the zoological society, the snake is resting under observation and veterinary care while humans determine its future. While wild release would be preferable no decision has yet been made public.
Another Goliath I observed was this massive grasshopper-like insect that was easily 8" long from head to tail.
It was comfortably perched on a dining room chair at the lodge where I stayed in Guyana and posed quite nicely for me.
Of slightly lesser stature is this fat toad who came to sit below an outdoor faucet at my apartment in Trinidad:
Locally called a crapaud (pronounced in Trinidad as "crap-o"), these plump amphibians are relatively common, likely because they secrete poisonous mucus through their skin if they feel threatened. This one appeared to be thriving.
I have seen and photographed so many interesting creatures that its difficult to select just a few, but this turtle is one of them:

Not particularly large or remarkable, but what a face! And he/she posed so nicely for me.
I'll close with this image of a kiskadee flycatcher:
About the size of a jay, they're named for their raucous, repetitive "kiss-ka-dee" call - I can hear them outside my window as I write this. I captured this particular photograph in Guyana but I've seen these birds everywhere I've travelled. They are not at all shy and can be seen perched on telephone lines, tree branches, fenceposts - you name it - and at virtually any hour of the day. They are, for me, an emblem of my winter stay in this tropical part of the world. Just one of the many unforgettable faces I've encountered during my winter sojourn in the southern Caribbean.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Good things in small, feathered packages

It's no secret I'm a lover of birds in general, and there's something about tiny birds that particularly intrigues me. How can these seemingly delicate creatures, with only a shroud of soft feathers and their wits to protect them, possibly survive in the big, wide world full of predators and hazards? But they do, and in a tropical setting like that of Trinidad, where I am as I write this, they generally thrive. There are some 460 bird species on record here - not bad for an island that's only about 65 miles long and 50 miles wide - and it boasts one of the most dense bird populations in the world. The country's national bird is the stunning, swamp-dwelling Scarlet Ibis but even the smallest birds come in some colourful forms like the wee Blue-chinned Sapphire hummingbird (picture below left), and more unusual looking characters like stubby little Golden-headed Manakin (below right).

While I get a thrill out of seeing the brightly coloured bird varieties, it's sometimes the less conspicuous birds that make the most impact. For instance, I feel a special affinity for wrens - tiny brown birds often best identified by their jaunty tail carriage - and they have become a reoccurring subject for my art. 

Drawing of a fledgling Winter Wren.
"Wren and Salmonberry" coloured pencil drawing.

"Bird on a Wire: Marsh Wren"
coloured pencil drawing.
Most of the time wrens flit inconspicuously among foliage, making it challenging to observe them. However, when it's their nesting season they display the outgoing side of their nature by perching prominently and emitting loud bursts of song that seem mismatched to their tiny bodies and usually reclusive ways. They become fiercely territorial, defying other wrens to even think about crossing the invisible boundaries they have set out for themselves. I have observed this behaviour among Winter Wrens who are abundant in the wooded areas I frequent back home in southwestern Canada. Soon the forest there will come alive with their spring song. I have also observed similar behaviour among Marsh Wrens when visiting the Reifel Bird Sanctuary. At the right time of the spring season I've encountered Marsh Wrens every few yards throughout the sanctuary, clinging to prominent spots among the bulrushes and defining their territory by shouting out loud songs.

I recently spent a couple of days at a rustic cottage on the rugged north coast of Trinidad, enjoying the peaceful combination of crashing surf and towering hills cloaked in tropical rainforest. Bird life was abundant with several types of colourful hummingbirds and tanagers along with numerous other tropical species. However, I was most delighted to find a pair of resident Southern House Wrens living in the clearing around the cottage. Each morning they'd rise and greet the day with a burst of song from a perch among the bougainvillea blossoms.

From time to time throughout the day their song could be heard and the small vocalists observed perched in various favourite locations - perhaps the veranda railing, or a light post, or a branch of a shrub. Later on another prolonged serenade would take place as the afternoon drew to a close and the early nightfall of this latitude set in.

Captivated as I was by these little songsters, they found their way into my sketchbook:

Of course I also enjoyed the other interesting birds in the area, such as a flock of Smooth-billed Anis who came to the cottage grounds one morning to gather plump, green grasshoppers for their breakfast. Their prehistoric looking faces made me think about the linkages between birds and their dinosaur ancestors!

A Smooth-billed Ani munching on a large grasshopper.

But it's the little brown wrens and their vibrant song I'll remember best from my stay at the cottage. Soon I'll carry that memory home to Canada where the spring song of their more northerly cousins will be only a few weeks away.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

The Life of a Pothound

For an animal lover, it's impossible to spend time in the Caribbean without being acutely aware of the dogs. They're everywhere. Some have homes, some don't, and even those that do are often free to wander about at will. They're commonly known as "pothounds", and although I have heard them euphemistically referred to as "Caribbean Terriers", in reality they embody the true definition of a mutt, representing what happens when dogs of all shapes and sizes breed indiscriminately. They tend to be medium-sized, slender, short-haired and golden-brown in colour. Sometimes there's one with a longer coat, or more varied markings, or shorter legs, but after a few generations the outcome tends to be a lean, athletic, brown dog.

In Grenada, along Grand Anse Beach, there were several resident pothounds I got to know over the course of the time I spent there. Because they were all quite friendly and in good physical condition (some even wore collars), I believe these lucky dogs had homes to head to at night unlike many I have observed in my travels - those who exist on the fringes of humanity and fend for themselves with varied levels of success. I have seen some pitiful sights, but thankfully the dogs of Grand Anse were not among them.

There was this male who patrolled the beach each day. I called him "Swimmer" because when he got too hot he'd take a dip in the water and paddle around for a while. He'd come to me for an ear scratch and a few words, then head on about the business of his daily patrol. If I happened to be heading in the same direction, he'd amble along with me in a companionable fashion for a while.

Then there were these two little girls, smaller than average, who I believe were mother and daughter. They could often be found frolicking with playful abandon in the sand near one of the beach bars (I think that's where they lived), and were always eager for a visit, particularly the younger of the two who squirmed with puppyish delight. After a minute or two they'd zoom off down the beach to continue their game. However, as sweet as these two girls were, one day I saw them ferociously defending their turf against a stranger dog. They may have been smaller than most of the dogs on the beach but as a team they were a force to be reckoned with!

And then there was this elderly, grey-muzzled sweetheart. Each morning she'd trundle down the beach to hang out in the shade under a large tree. When I'd call to her, her expression would soften, her tail would wag (in fact, her whole bum would wiggle), and she'd come lean against my legs for as long as I'd keep lavishing my attention. She touched my heart and I wish I had a better photo of her.

The life of most dogs in the Caribbean is markedly different from those in my home neighbourhood in Canada where dogs are leashed, spayed/neutered, vaccinated, well fed and generally pampered; where entire parks are dedicated to their enjoyment and doggie spas serve their grooming needs. Thankfully, dogs in Grenada benefit from the presence of a university that hosts a reputable veterinary school so inexpensive medical care is available at the hands of practicum students. Even so, not every family has the will or budget to offer their dogs more than the most basic necessities of food and shelter, and some dogs have no home at all and must get by as best they can. Disease, parasites, malnutrition and injuries take their toll. They can be observed perilously winding their way through traffic on busy streets and often sleeping on or only inches from the road, and as a result they are very car savvy. Even so, I observed many getting by on three good legs, likely as a result of not having moved moved quite quickly enough to avoid being struck by a vehicle.

However, pothounds are resilient creatures. The many generations of breeding that have given them their athletic physical attributes has also made them smart and independent. Observing the canine community on Grand Anse beach I couldn't help but speculate as to whether, if given the option, they would choose to be pampered house pets and give up the freedom of the life they have. I think I know the answer.

From my sketchbook: a sunbathing pothound