Black Tern (Childonias niger): Barry Kent MacKay

his painting of the Black Tern (Childonias niger) was commissioned as a retirement gift for a biologist who studied the species. It is the fourth painting (plus several pen and ink studies) I have done of the Black Terns, a favourite subject because of its dainty elegance and subtle black, white, grey and silvery-grey colouration. I’m attaching other, earlier paintings for comparison, arranged chronologically so the oldest is at the far right.  All were sold.  

One quick observation about the newest painting. The bird on the left is preening, scratching his ear with his foot while using wings to balance himself. Most bird species do this, since they obviously can’t reach their ear with the beak, which is normally used in preening, but each species does so exclusively in one of two ways that are called “direct” and “indirect”.  The direct method involves the foot going directly to the ear under the wing.  The indirect method involves foot going over the wing, often with the wing drooped, which assists balance.  Apparently each species does one way or the other but not both, and a few years ago as I was sketching and photographing Black Terns at Nonquon sewage lagoons near Lake Skugog, Port Perry – a great place to see Black Terns – I saw this behaviour – direct ear scratching. If you are ever asked if Black Terns are direct or indirect ear scratchers, you now know!

In this new painting I show two birds in late July as they would appear in southern Ontario.  One of the birds has started fall moult with white feathers starting to appear on the neck, but even in full breeding plumage the bases of the black feathers are white, so white often shows through the black. Common when I was young, these marsh-nesting birds have become much rarer here in North America. They are very similar to ones found in Eurasia, but some experts think they should be regarded as two separate species. Our birds winter from Mexico south to southern South America while Eurasian birds normally winter on the west coast of Africa. They all eat very small fish and invertebrates, including insects caught in flight.

An adult’s average weight is around 62 grams (about 2.2 oz). Their flight is extremely buoyant, and at times they will snap up flying insects, although usually they dive for small fish or insects at or near the water’s surface.  Where I live, in southern Ontario, they nest in cattail marshes, and I am just old enough to remember the huge colony that once lived in the Ashbridge’s Bay marshes, until it was destroyed some seven decades ago, a process I saw unfolding even as the birds tried to nest, the birds attacking the bulldozers that were relentlessly filling in the marsh.

The painting is in oils, on birchwood and is 16 by 20 inches. The other paintings are in acrylics on compressed hardboard, except for the first, which is watercolour on poster board.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

Purchase, print, product info:

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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