Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata)
The first painting is in oils on a Russian birch panel, 16 by 20 inches, and shows a female Northern Shoveler standing on a mudflat, in the process of raising one foot to stand in the typical one-legged resting pose. As is usual in birds that show “sexual dimorphism”, meaning distinct differences between male and female, the male is more colourful than the female. But that fact risks detracting us from the more subtle and intricate patterning and colour blending to be found in the plumage of the female, and so in this painting I focused entirely on the hen bird, so beautiful in her own right. I’ll do a more “traditional” treatment showing the pair, some other time. This species of shoveler nests over a vast range in the northern and temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, although some spend the winter as far south as subtropical and even tropical regions. There are related species in the southern hemisphere, which is why we call it the “northern” shoveler, but in the U.K. it is just called the shoveler.
They are obviously named for their spatulate beaks, which imparts in them a rather droll expression I find to be utterly charming. Their wing pattern is very similar to that of the Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors), Cinnamon Teal (A. cyanoptera), Garganey (A. querquedula) and other shovelers. The males often show traces of a white crescent in front of the eye, a feature, more boldly pronounced, of the Blue-winged Teal and other shovelers. These shared “visual themes” in various bird species fascinate me, and presumably, if not always necessarily, reflect common ancestral affiliations.
Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius)
I’ve paired the shoveler with another migratory species native to both North America and Eurasia that shows sexual dimorphism, and again I’ve shown the female. This is the Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) But here the situation is different. There are three species of phalarope and in all three, in breeding plumage, the female is more colourful than the male! But not only that, the male takes sole care of the nest, eggs and young, the reverse of the ducks. Young birds and birds in winter plumage are coloured in shades of black, white and grey and so in English-speaking Europe, where most people see birds in their immature and winter plumages, they are known as the Grey Phalarope.
I’ve seen this species hundreds of miles out in the ocean, in flocks, as it is very buoyant and winters literally on the ocean surface, dabbing away at various small organisms that come near the surface. I fear that they are vulnerable to plastic pollution, not to mention oil spills and leaks and food shortages resulting from acidification. They are small, easily missed, weighing only about 55 grams, or just under two ounces. I started this little 10 by 12 inch study in oil paints many years ago, and finally finished it early last year. It is on compressed hardboard.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada