Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Back in March I had an encounter with an injured Royal Tern that was an epiphany. The bird had gotten a fish hook caught in its neck and fishing line wrapped around. Some passersby had tried to help by removing it, and although a compassionate act was not a good idea; a seabird rescue group should have been called. My birding friend took the bird home until a rescue group could pick it up, but unfortunately, the poor thing died during the night.

She also volunteers at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History skinning deceased birds for the ornithology collection, so the tern was taken there. I actually went with her the day she prepared the bird and it was quite an education. I was able to see firsthand what a bird really looks like inside and it was quite an eye opener. I was also able to examine some tern skeletons from the museum collection and I took a lot of photos and did some sketches.

One of the boxes of skeletal material yielded a skull and the keratin sheath that covers the beak. It was very illuminating to see this covering material and how much it adds to the volume of the bird's beak. It was also mind-blowing to see how few actual bones there where in this bird and how incredibly light they were. You can read about this sort of thing, but the experience with the real deal is really amazing.

From there my interest in terns was piqued and I have spent a lot of time looking into the life histories of these fascinating birds. I was amazed to find that there was not a whole lot of material on their life histories; one by Arthur Bent in 1921 and a section on terns by Gochfeld & Burger in a 1996 tome on world birds. So it prompted quite a research hunt to find all I could about these fascinating birds.

By extension, I was also compelled to start painting pictures of them, which has added a whole new dimension to knowing them. By learning about their anatomy and behaviors, it added to my enjoyment of painting them.

In my painting I am interested in capturing not only the essence of the beauty of the birds, but also the details of their heads and beaks. The Royal Tern, though not the only tern to have a crest, makes me smile the way they seem to use it so expressively. The anatomy lesson also made me appreciate the small details of the eye, the beak, and the plumage.

The birds above are all Royal Terns; three in adult breeding plumage (black crest) and one in winter plumage (spotted head and crest).

[composed while listening to Porcupine Tree Warszawa and Blackfield]

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