Date: 3/19/17 7:38 pm From: Herschel Raney <herschel.raney...> Subject: The Renderings I Cannot Do
If you want to judge a bird artist, just look at his (or her) Wood Duck. Either sex will do (artist or duck), but clearly the male image is a daunting undertaking. A pair landed in a tall oak in my back yard this morning, and though nervous, they stayed while I went in for the scope and set it up. Both birds could be seen in the field of view: the yellow rim of the female’s eye and the bright red rim of the male with the red actual iris on the male. The female’s eye just looks dark inside its yellow rim. Highlighted further by the white orbicular feathering that fades back in the line towards her nape. They stayed for an hour or more, same branch. I kept the scope on them the whole time. And I went to get Sibley to hold next to the scope. And the Third Edition of Nat Geo Birds.
In the scope, of course, there is no hope for an artist. Against several million years of design, a duck made of stardust and time, I would kick over my palette and go have a drink. And in Nat Geo, the Woodies were done by Cynthia House. I know nothing else of her. People forget the fine Nat Geo book has over twenty artists working on it. Sibley, on the other hand, did them all. Every bird. Good Lord is what I say again to this fact.
The male is a wonder of subtle color blends in the scope. And both artists go a little too yellow on that long flank patch. Miss House perhaps wins there though neither captures the intricate fine barring inside the cream patch. The feathers above this are a looping row of black and white offset, coming to delicate overlapping tips. Behind this is that striking deep purple area with three, count them, three orange streaks coming down to highlight this purple zone. These are poorly rendered by Miss House. Sibley has four dashes of orange there. But they are really fine clusters of hairs gently curving down over the purples. Long triangles of eyelash, a fineness likely not reproducible in ordinary art.
And the head of the male is a complete other matter. Sibley seems to miss the yellow ring on the female’s eye. He does better with the blending of blues and greens on the male head above those triangles of orange and red up right and left from the beak. The stark white linings of the neck and face are well done in both. The white streaking in that handsome fall back tuft of erectile feathers is frankly impossible to recreate outside the eye, outside reality. In my opinion. It is a bird to stare at and forget again and again in all its details. And a dead one in hand surely does not express all that this animal can be.
It inspired me after they left to go rescue my duck box. It has been on an oak tree on the west side of my swamp for years. But this multi-hundred year old tree cracked across its rotten heartwood in the wind recently. And this brought the box down to head high, the remnant tree leaning in all its previously wondrous spiring against another oak. I took off the screws and gave it a new rook plank, cleaned its inside and moved it to the east side, where I can see it from the road. It will be among Barred Owls, I hope this does not make a duck family uneasy.
I heard the duck pair whistle back into the swamp at dusk this evening, with the frog chorus starting back up and the four Barred Owls chattering to each other with wild echoing cacks and whoops and monkey cries, the quizzing about the cooks gone mad and frenzied. These mad owls were feeding before the sun went down, dropping into my leaves, fluttering up into my cedars. The owls may already have young mouths to feed. The woodies, well, I await further word.
(All respects to House and Sibley for even making any efforts at putting such birds on paper. )
And if you can stare at a Wood Duck in a scope anytime soon. Do it. Do it and be amazed again.
(Thanks to the birdlist peoples who sent me notes this week.)