Reminders of Wild Places Past and Present

Ocellated Antbird

Ocellated Antbird, from life sketch, Costa Rica

As I work on these pieces for the upcoming show, digging through my sketchbooks for material, occasionally I have to stop and think of how lucky I’ve been to see these wonderful birds, animals and tropical forests. At the same time I have to think of how fast it’s changing, how fast people are moving in and cutting it down. These paintings will be my way of recording and preserving those places, birds and memories. Here’s a memory conjured up while working today:


Ocellated antbird pair, pencil on toned wood panel, 15″x12″, work in progress

It’s just rained and I’m walking alone on a wet trail in the Costa Rica lowland forest of La Selva. I’m inhaling the rich odor of decaying vegetation with a hint of peccary (they leave behind a pungent and oddly delicious scent), and watching for birds. Up ahead of me is a hollowed out broken-off snag of an old buttressed tree, maybe twenty-five feet tall, maybe eight feet across at the base. The hollow of the tree is wierdly moving, boiling and writhing from top to bottom. A huge ball of army ants has bivouaced near the top all night, and now it is untangling and descending the tree in a yard-wide river of tiny red-brown bodies, starting the day with a massive raid. As the army hits the ground it spreads out in columns that branch and widen. They make a faint crackling sound as they move through the leaf litter and as they make their way they attract a growing assortment of specialized birds that flit ahead of the marauding ants, catching arthropods as they attempt to flee. It’s quite a show, and I try to keep one eye on the scouts at the leading edge so as not to get caught up in the action (it’s pretty painful- those jaws are long and sharp- I know firsthand).

White flanked Antwrens

White flanked Antwrens

This is a huge swarm and it lasts all morning, covering a swath of forest twenty yards wide, single-filing it up thin saplings and vines and marching thickly under and over dead leaves and fallen wood. The birds are operating at every level, from white-whiskered puffbirds sitting quietly on lianas and dropping down to snatch a panicked beetle, to antshrikes, antwrens and antbirds churring and flitting from sapling to sapling. This being winter in the north, there’s even a Swainson’s thrush with long legs holding it above the fray. Then the excitement level kicks up a notch for me when a pair of ocellated antbirds show up. This is a spectacular bird. Antbirds are normally a low-key, gray-white-tan-and-brown bunch. Some have a patch of bare blue skin around the eyes. The ocellated is the show-off of the family. Its entire face is a featherless wild turquoise blue framed with a black feathered throat. The rufous body is decorated all over with brightly-edged black scales. This is also my first look at a much sought-after life-bird. And there’s two of them, plunging in and grabbing booty. Can’t miss them. I hyperventilate a little and pull out a sketchbook, into which I manage to put two good drawings, even with my hands shaking and my glasses steaming up.

Today I took those sketches and worked them up into something paintable. A field sketch is a quick visual notation and anything more you get out of it is icing on the cake. If it has substance and gesture, and the proportions aren’t too freaky, I’ll try to get it right enough to paint. Paintings tell you a lot more than a drawing will. If there’s something incorrect in the anatomy, or the perspective, or the species, it’ll show up in the painting. So I try to fix the drawing without losing the special ephemeral quality captured in the field sketch. It’s really easy to lose that quality, so I take my time and throw away several of the cleaned up versions, going back to the field sketch repeatedly until the final bird has that same look in the eye it had when I saw it catching spiders two seconds ahead of that boiling army of ants.

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