Monday, January 31, 2011

Prehistoric Pelican

What is this strange bird that looks like it has flown from prehistory? It is a False-toothed Pelican, a long-extinct bird known only from fossil records. The False-toothed pelican, or Pelagornis, were a widely distributed genus of birds, represented by two species in Aotearoa.
They are considered relatives of pelicans, cranes or waterfowl. My depiction is based on a mix of Marabou stork, Australian Pelican and a life-sized replica of what this bird may have looked like. The advantage of illustrating a long-extinct species is that I can colour it up however I like. Mine somewhat resembles a blue-footed booby. Skeletal evidence indicates that some species may have had a wingspan of over 5 metres, and it has been suggested that their bone structure makes them unable to flap - meaning they would have been pure gliders.Taking off and landing would be quite an ordeal.A Chilean specimen, discovered late 2010, was the largest bird ever to fly.The beak is serrated around the edges, an adaptation found to be useful in seizing and holding prey - such as slippery fish.These mighty and powerful beasts become extinct somewhere between 5-10 million years ago.Alas, little has been found of their remains, as their bones are very brittle and deteriorate quickly.

I first learned of the false-toothed pelican only a few weeks ago. A friend and I were visiting a local wildlife park - Willowbank - in which they had what I shall refer to as "the path of the Dead". That is to say - life-sized woodcuts of various extinct NZ species. There were two of these pelicans - one standing by the side of the path looking fierce, and the other soaring above it. With its over-three-metre wingspan and strange beak, I thought it a pterosaur at first, but further observation lead to a correct identification.

Mutants R Us

As you may be aware, I LOVE making Mutants. I even have a t-shirt to prove it. I will be presenting a tutorial/class on "How to draw Mutants" at Battlecry this year, over the weekend of the 19-20th February. Not sure of time and day slot however. I also enjoy hosting chimerical critter swaps over on Illustrated ATCs.

So, having recently finished hosting one, I thought I should share the results:

Cockatoo/cat ; horse/raptor



Ocelot/peacock/rocket frog ; Gnu/dodo/seadragon

Swan/Cardinal fish/Tiger

ethiopian wolf/egyptian vulture

If the games do not lure me in at the Con, I may even be sitting in the Inkforge room wherein I may well be taking Chimera Challenges. We shall see. I shall most certainly have along my pencils and a bunch of blank trading cards.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Presenting the New Zealand Tarot

New project time - even though I haven't *quite* finished the old one (story is edited entirely, just need to do one final read through and then submit for sample copy).

This is a Tarot Deck based around New Zealand's Natural History. I am starting with the Major Arcana and may take it further if I continue to feel motivated. It is now around three years since I completed my first Tarot deck - the Furrae Tarot.

0. The Fool
Represented by my indomitable Weka chick - Aroha. Because Aroha is awesome and begged to be included. Also because her journey somewhat mirrors the journey of the Fool. She represents the innocent, off on a wild adventure.

I. The Magician
Why a rabbit, you may ask? Well, rabbits have always been associated with Magicians for a start (in my Furrae deck, the Magician was also a rabbit). Also, because the Magician represents POWER. And for all that they are gentle vegetarians, no animal has altered the face of NZ as much as the rabbit (and of course the human, but he gets a card later). Without the rabbit we would never have had the Stoat, for example.
To represent the four suits we have - a chalice-shaped fungi (cups), a pounamu coin (pentacles), a lancewood sapling (swords) and a sapling of some other plant (wands).

2. The High Priestess
The High Priestess represents the mysterious and the divine, and the spiritual. So here I have selected the South Island Kokako. It is probably extinct (although there are some who seek it still) and also had the most haunting call in the South Island forests.

3. The Empress
The Empress symbolises fertility. So what better than the harem-breeding, gregarious and oh-so-familiar Pukeko?

Stay tuned for more!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Dragons and firebirds

Two more images for the "Hogwarts Owl Deliveries" Swap on ATCs for All.

As a Ravenclaw student in my final year, I have been undergoing quite a lot of field research. My journeys have taken me to the hinterlands of eastern Europe, specifically Romania, where I was lucky enough to witness two unique creatures in the wild.

The first is the legendary firebird, the Phoenix. A native of Africa and the Middle East, it appears that this bird has been blown afield on its migratory route and found itself in the Carpathian mountains instead. We observed him for several days as he restocked his fuel, before watching him depart south. I hope he arrives safely.

This fierce chap is the Hungarian Horntail. One of the most fierce dragons of all, this particular specimen had been recently terrorising a small Romanian village - specifically by eating their lifestock. It was our task to track him down and stun him with curses so that he could be safely transported into new territory farther from human habitation. He is weakened here, having had his fire -breath nullified and thus we were permitted to get near enough to capture this image. Shortly after he crashed to the ground, asleep, and could be safely transported deeper into the mountains.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Who's that? Who's there?"

This elegant unicorn has just kneeled down to take a drink when she has been disturbed. She's eyeing you up, trying to decide if she should run away, or if you're not safe.

She measures 6x4 inches and was made for the Hogwart's Owl Delivery Swap on AFA. My idea - to design bestiary style images and text for each of the participants in my group. I think I shall design the back up like a postcard and write about the "research" taken on the unicorn.

As you may notice, my unicorns are antelope, not horses.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The big and the small

Kahu, the Harrier Hawk

Kahu settled in New Zealand a long time ago, although less than 1,000 years. It has established itself well in that time and is one bird that has truly taken advantage of the European-changed environment. Kahu are open pasture birds - they soar effortlessly on the wind thermals, scanning the ground for tasty prey. Rabbits form a major part of their diet, but they also prey on birds such as pukeko and have developed a taste for roadkill. This is probably the major cause of their death - road accidents. Another threat is 1080 poison. Nests are a low platform of bracken, manuka, raupo and flax, topped with rushes and grass. It is usually built in low swamp areas, rarely in trees. The female incubates and the male delivers her food. One report indicates that female harriers sometimes place a sunwarmed stone in the nest to keep the eggs warm whilst she soars off. But I have not found further evidence to support this.

Riroriro, the Grey Warbler
Riroriro is very nearly our smallest bird. He loses out to the Rifleman merely because his tail is slightly longer. An inconspicious chap, he is not often seen but frequently heard with his long, tuneful warble emitted as he flicks through the trees. He is an insectivore an dusually hunts alone. In breeding season, he constructs an elaborate hanging nest in which his female lays 5-6 eggs. Youngsters grow fast, and she can fit in several broods a year. This is good, because after the first brood, the cuckoos arrive back in town. And she is the favourite host for the shining cuckoo. Despite the fact that the cuckoo eggs are bigger than her own, and that the chicks are huge, little Riroriro does not seem to notice the difference. Possibly she is also proud that her chick would grow so big and strong. Or perhaps I'm just anthropomorphising too much.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The common and vulgar...

Spurwing Plover
This masked fellow was first recorded breeding in New Zealand in the 1930s. Now he's commonly found from north to south, in pastures and wetlands. He shrieking alarm call is one we have all heard, even if we do not necessarily know who made it. They moved in from Australia and have made rather a nuisance of themselves. Partly because they love large grassy areas to nest in - such as airport runways and also because they provide competition to some of our endandered endemics. Spurwings are generally found in pairs, and forage on the ground for insects, worms and small invertebrates. They nest typically on the ground, but have been known to build on house roofs too. The parents are extremely protective of their precocious young - they will divebomb intruders, tut-tut in a loud and obnoxious fashion or feign injury in an effort to deter predators. The name "spurwing" comes from a hook of bone on the bird's wing.

House Sparrow
House Sparrows are beautifully evolved and highly efficient and should be admired, not looked down on. Why? Because they're the avian equivalent of the human. House Sparrows originated in the Middle East. From here they radiated outwards, colonising Europe, Asia and the northern parts of Africa. But that was not enough for this gregarious bird. No, the House Sparrow wanted to conquer the world. And it has. Through stowing away on ships or being purposely introduced into countries, the House Sparrow now has earned the title of "most widespread bird in the wild." It can be found as far south as New Zealand, and also in Hawaii, eastern Australia, the Falklands (via a whaling boat), North America, South America... the list goes on. It is probably the most familiar bird to anyone, anywhere. Why is this? Because house sparrows love people. They nest around our houses, they forage our scraps, they have adapted perfectly to the urban environment.

Although their regular diet is seeds, grains and occasionally fruits and insects, they are generalist and opportunistic feeders. They're smart too - they find their way into supermarkets and shopping malls (sometimes with fatal results) and have been seen triggering electronic doors. They nest in our house eaves, and in our gardens. One pair was even found breeding in a coal mine - 700 feet below ground. They are social birds, and gather in large groups. In these groups a hierachy is established, with the dominant birds being the cocks with the blackest bibs. When feeding enmass, the birds perform a complicated switch-in-and-out dance, as I observed this afternoon. Several pieces of bread had been laid out in my courtyard. When only three to four sparrows were feeding they were skittish, often snatching a mouthful before flying away. As the number of sparrows increased, so did their confidence. The birds on the ground pecked with more dilligence and less wariness. Whilst others perched in the trees above. When these birds swooped down, birds on the ground would fly upwards. I will speculate that the birds above were keeping watch, whilst the birds below fed. At one point all the birds from below flew upwards, save for one fledgling, who continued pecking the bread. Silly chick. Luckily the cats in our neighbourhood were conspicously absent. There's nothing like engaging in a little observational biology from the comfort of your armchair!

Sparrows can breed in the season following their hatching, and form monogamous pairings. Apparently for life. Sort of. Extra pair copulations - aka affairs, are common, as is cuckolding and also bigamy. Apparently 15% of the fledglings were not actually fathered by their mother's mate. It's like an Avian soap opera. If the young cock birds don't pair off, they hang around looking after the young of other birds and probably seeking a quick fling with the hens when their cocks are away. Probably the female encourages this - if these bachelor males believe some of her chicks to be their's, then there is an incentive for them to provide. And her mate is most likely off with a neighbouring hen at any rate. They build their nests close together - I think we have a sizeable colony in our cabbage tree (my car certainly displays evidence of their proximity). Chicks are noisy and demanding, but with the pair able to hatch and raise three broods per season, must fend for themselves at a young age.

And at least they're not like the Indian mynah (possibly the only bird I truly hate) - they don't bully other birds. In fact, they're quite social and often hang out with finches. They even let a blackbird share their bread today. He was a bit nervous - one blackbird amongst about 20 sparrows (even though he was more than twice their size), but none made any move to see him off.

So there you go, next time you look at the humble sparrow and consider it common and vulgar, or possibly lewd, you might want to think again. Obviously, you're right - these are feathery little sex and food-obsessed creatures, but they're also the most succesful wild bird. And that's why.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Kereru, the Wood Pigeon
Kereru is our only native pigeon (and also an endemic). He is a large fellow, and plays a very important role in the ecosystem. His preferred diet is fruit, but leaves and buds are also eaten. The Kereru is responsible for the dispersal of many of our native plants' seeds, a role he once shared with huia, kokako and kaka. As many of those species are very rare (or extinct), his role becomes even more critical. Without him, our forests could die. His own security is not guaranteed - as introduced possums share his diet and outnumber him by the multitude. Like most of our birds, Kereru have been in steady decline since the Europeans came. Still, he is a familiar sight in many areas of native bush, and can easily be recognised on the wing by his heavy body and the "whump-whump-whump" of his wingbeats. During breeding season, both birds perform interesting aerial displays, performing loop-de-loops with stalls and dives. The nest is a thrown together platform of twigs, on which one long, slender egg is laid. The hen incubates during the night, and the cock by day. When the egg hatches, the chick is fed on a "crop-milk" formula, which is a thick, cheesy mixture secreted from the crop wall. As the chick grows, regurgitated food forms a more significant part of the meal. Kereru have traditionally hunted, but now have full protetction, as some Norwegians found out earlier this year.

Black Billed Gull

Probably the least striking of our three gull species, the black-billed is included as part of this collection because it celebrates ENDEMIC status - meaning it is found nowhere else in the world. It also does not seem to have a Maori name, despite this fact. Smaller than its red-billed cousin, it has a more slender build and is rather less raucous in nature. Unfortunately, these traits have all lead to its classification as an endangered species. Like too many of our species, it is declining (a condition not aided by a recent massacre of 100 birds in a Southland breeding colony) and range is limited to parts of the South and North Islands. They gather in relatively large flocks and travel large distances whilst foraging for food. Black-billed gulls are not (generally) scavengers and prefer to catch their own fish or invertebrates, as well as pecking up worms from freshly turned fields. They also like to hunt moths on the wing, chasing them amongst the tussock grasses and snapping them up. Often they will call to each other whilst doing this. During the breeding season, they flock inland, to the braided rivers in which they breed. They return to the same site year after year. After pairing off, the nest is made. This is formed of a deep depression, filled with twigs and grass. In this, up to three eggs are laid. Both birds take turns incubating and the youngsters hatch after 22 days.

These pieces will be listed on my trademe for a limited time.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Aroha's Grand Adventure - covers

Editting is well underway - I'm up to Chapter five or so and as long as I don't go back and keep changing stuff... Anyway, I'm rewriting some of the passages in "show, not tell", taking out some of my unnecessary adverbs and adjectives and trying to make the prose more concise. Also ironing out spelling mistakes and grammatical issues. Planned release date is April 1st, just because I think Aroha would appreciate her book becoming available on April Fool's Day.

Here's three mock-ups of the cover, using the styles as provided by CreateSpace. Currently the vote seems to tend towards ApplePie although some have said the Roman Splendor has more lasting quality. The middle one needs to be enlarged so you can see the horrible shadow effect. Shadows should apparently never be used. Alas, it looked best in the back blurb.

And here's Aroha and some friends:

Aroha the weka is curious and smart. She also has a taste for human food. One day her tummy leads her into trouble and she is snatched from her home in Grey. Carried across the country, she finds herself lost, alone and far from home. What is one young weka to do? Follow her instincts and find her way back, of course. Her journey takes her through farmland and swamp, across rivers and mountains. Many challenges and danger await her, but with courage, determination and a bit of luck, one weka can go a long way.

Aroha also has her own Facebook fanpage now.