In recent posts both here and High Up in the Trees, you will have read mention to not one, not two, but four new zines for 2014. As if from the clouds, restless is one. Four Rainbow Lorikeets who visited my garden one summer's day is another. G's Misreadings makes three. And this, Twelve months, an explorer, is the fourth.
Printed on Sparrow Grey stock, it features my bird portraits from A Year of Southern Hemisphere Birds and the hand-coloured version A Flight of Twelve Southern Hemisphere Birds accompanied by G's imaginative narrative. From January to December, you can journey with me from place to place, and sit quietly in the bird hide.
All four of these new zine titles will be at the forthcoming Sticky Zine Fair at the Melbourne Town Hall. And as always, all four will also be available through our online store soon.
Until then, scroll on and see what awaits.
Yellow-billed Kingfisher (Syma torotoro)
As I sit here concealed by leafy tropical canopy in Lae, a remote part of Papua New Guinea, I am thinking that my hastily formed idea might just be a little mad and most decidedly ill formed. When we spoke at Christmas of our plans for the forthcoming year, little did I imagine myself actually acting upon them, yet here I am, explorer’s hat on my crown, awaiting sighting of the Yellow-bellied Kingfisher*. There are worse ways to spend one’s January, and, some would rightly argue, there are better ways to spend one’s January, and, there is, it transpires, my way to spend the first month of the year, with binoculars pressed to nose bridge, ears on alert for the whistling trill of the Kingfisher. A medium sized bird with a wingspan equal to that of a 30cm ruler, they are apparently quite common both the local guides and printed guidebooks assure me, though my experience seems thus far to be the exception to the rule. The long hot days of summer draw me a cantankerous figure (this, the ill formed part to my plan I earlier referenced), and I wonder if I will be able to manipulate the mantle of Twitcher to fit my shape. The mosquitoes are holding a wedding party on my right leg and a conference on my left, and on my forearms, their local government is in session. I am being bitten, pricked, and drained, and all in name of cataloguing twelve southern hemisphere birds, one for each month of the year. I wait, pencil in hand, ready to draw for you this stocky little bird whose very sighting will turn my seasonal rancour on its head. (The Kingfisher is known to favour feasting upon large insects, earthworms and lizards so am draping them about my person. Is a lure to cheat?)
* Drawn here surrounded by a ring of termites. It is in the abandoned chambers created by arboreal termites that the Kingfisher makes its nest, laying between 3 to 4 eggs.
Crested Jay (Platylophus galericulatus)
Nearing 9 PM
The arrival of autumn finds me in the Apo Kayan Highlands of Borneo, looking for the aptly named Crested Jay in the forest. Fine millinery a quietly kept weakness of mine; I was lured here (and not the other way around, as per January’s Field Notes) by their elegant tufted appearance. By no means flamboyant or garish, the Crested Jay is a study of refinement and the third bird I seek. One of many birds whose numbers are decreasing owing to habitat lost to logging and gobbled up by agricultural needs, I, like Wallace, and Audubon, Gould and his hummingbirds, and countless others before me, wade through the green. My goal fixed: to draw my subject in their natural environment surrounded by those very things that sustain them. Assuming temporary ownership, ‘my’ birds are my ‘subjects’ not my ‘specimens’ tied up and bagged. I’m not here to draw one from specimens pieced together to form a whole. The descriptions of the poor Birds of Paradise in Wallace's The Malay Archipelago, my current bedside reading matter with oft grisly descriptions, still in my mind: "The poor creature would make violent efforts to escape, would get among the ashes, or hang suspended by the leg till the limb was swollen and half-putrefied, and sometimes die of starvation and worry. One had its beautiful head all defiled by pitch from a dammar torch; another had been so long dead that its stomach was turning green.” No, I tell myself, I am here to draw a portrait of one and from one perhaps know more of a whole. Upon arrival here, the Iban people tell me they have long classed the Crested Jay as an Omen bird (commonly called Bejampong or Rain Bird) capable of foretelling how your crops will fare, your married life will flourish, and the prosperity of your children. All of this I, as novice, knew less than little of, my choices made in discussion with both my heart and gut. And so I find myself somewhat out of depth but liking the view all the same. If I knew the outcome before I set off, well, there would be little to learn in doing that.
Rufous Hornero (Furnarius rufus)
Spring in Uruguay proving warmer than I’d anticipated, but ten months into my project I find I care little of my discomforts. My search for October’s desired bird to immortalize proved simple enough to find owing to their distinctive oven-like nests clearly visible in trees, and atop telephone and electricity poles. Fashioned from mud and manure, these nests look just like the ovens that we humans have named the inhabitants after. (‘Hornero’ is Spanish for ‘Baker’, my pocket-sized phrase book informs.) But perhaps what proved of greatest surprise was the interior of one of these nests, which are far roomier on the inside than you’d expect judging from the outside. A Tardis! Inside, the nest consists of two chambers, one serving as the actual nest and the other as a decoy in order to bamboozle their natural predators, and I am immediately struck by the ingenious nature of this plan. Knowing this it is perhaps easier to see now why a handful of folklores about unfaithful females (to be penned in the second chamber), and Catholicism (the birds are never seen to work on a Sunday) have sprung up about this bird. As I draw the Rufous Hornero and her nest I think of all the legends, poems, beliefs, folk and fairytales that in some way reference a bird. Death comes as a rooster to the Cubans (according to traditional folklore); an eagle, an omen of victory in the Chorus from Agamemnon; a peacock’s feather in your house, unlucky you’ll be; and wheeling gulls overhead are the souls made manifest of sailors drowned. Nesting in sagas, parables, paintings, and roosting in song, the bird appears as a symbol awaiting human reading as many times as it does, I like to think, for its own clever and beautiful sake.
Shaft-tailed Whydah (Vidua regia)
A little after MIDDAY
Creeping on all fours in the Banhine National Park, southern Mozambique grasslands, a concerto by Pergolesi about my ears, as I watch the birds about me feed. I’ve timed my journey to tie in with the breeding period of this curious performing passerine. The male is easy to spot with a tail twice his body length and grown for breeding season alone. And it is with their tails that they perform ‘competitive songflights’ in order to woo, after which the tails are shed. As I await the males to take to their theatre stage, and my yearlong search to find, meet, and capture (though drawing) draws to its natural close, I am struck by one thought and one thought alone. Though there is little similar in my makeup to the Shaft-tailed Whydah, though I’ve a beak where he a nose—or do I mean that they other way around?—we are not so very different in the things that make us tick. Feathers and flight out of the equation, are not the homes we build, the lives we lead, the desires we hold, the performances we mount, the foods we need, the patterns we form, the knowledge we hold, and our means to survive: are not we all more similar than not? The midday sun might make a scramble of my brain, but of this one thought I am unwaveringly sure. We are all animals, some of us more magnificent than others. And as such, we all deserve to live as we choose. This long exploration has seen me fly (with borrowed wings, granted), and it has been both an unfathomable puzzle and utterly edifying. Scrawled in the margin: challenging, creative, rough, inspired, illuminating. I’ve darted from place to place in twelve-month span to the sounds of chord tinkling bird call. I’ve made myself a study of wanderlust unrestrained! A dream of flying near a reality! But if you were to tell me that I’d actually been exploring inside my head, eyes closed, journeying on imagination’s wave crest or even ambling about inside a Cornell box work then, perhaps I was. I’ll let you be map keeper and fact checker if you’ll just tuck under your wing this truth: we are not so very different as we like to think we are.