Birds of East Sister island: Barry Kent MacKay

With this small painting I deviate from the way I usually paint birds, which I call “up close and personal”, often life-size, and with the setting either minimal, or “made up”, based on actual plant or geological features, and with botanical and other reference materials at hand if needed to assure fidelity, but otherwise essentially imaginary. But in this case, while I did take a few liberties for sure, this painting draws more heavily than any I’ve done on actual photographs I’ve taken of East Sister Island, on the Canadian side of the Lake Erie archipelago at the western end of Lake Erie, and part of a smaller group called the Sister Islands.  It is 4148’47”N 82o51’23”, the same latitude as northern California.  It is only about 15 hectares (37 acres) and uninhabited, at least by people. It has a population of nesting Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus), Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus smithsonianus) and a few Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), all seen in this small oil painting, the heron standing on the left, the gull atop a huge boulder left over from the retreating ice age glaciers, so it has been there about ten thousand years, and some cormorants.  But what is exciting is that we are seeing a natural range expansion of the fourth species in the painting, the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos),  from it’s normal breeding range, which, until recently, ended many hundreds of kilometers to the north, along the north shore of Lake Superior.

Pelicans have nested on a few Lake Erie islands already these last few years.  Alas, Parks Canada’s gunmen, while killing nesting cormorants, not pelicans, still create enough disturbance to keep the pelicans off Middle Island, the southernmost of the archipelago still in Canada and one the pelicans keep coming to.  It is ideal for them, being high enough out of the water to protect against storm surges that have destroyed other pelican nests in the archipelago.  Park staff have also unintentionally chased away about two thirds of the Great Blue Herons, also rather sad as the island is much closer to feeding grounds for the big herons than is East Sister, which has very few of the Great Blue Herons, plus a few other bird species.  

The pelicans, a “species at risk” under Ontario legislation, were showing interest in East Sister when I was last there a few years ago and took the photos this painting is based upon, and since it is protected from Parks Canada (although not from the Ontario government, which owns the island) they might be safe there, although it is rather low-lying, and the pelicans, unlike the cormorants, don’t have the option of tree-nesting; American White Pelicans are strictly ground nesters.  In northern Ontario, and in the northern prairies, the core range of both species, they tend to nest in colonies with cormorants, but per bird they require more fish than cormorants so ecological needs overlap, but are not identical.  While the lake is commercially fished quite heavily (we pass many kilometers of net markers on the way out) there is are now huge numbers of Round Gobies and Alewives, both non-native fish species that certainly sustain cormorants and other fish-eaters (including the Lake Erie Water Snake – once endangered, now recovering nicely – they love eating Round Gobies), but I don’t know if either of those fish species will attract or help sustain pelicans.  Something is sure attracting them to the lower Great Lakes, however, and they are beautiful to see…and for me to paint.  This oil painting is 11 by 24 inches on compressed hardboard. A low resolution version does not do it justice so if you’d like to see a 2 MB version, just write and ask and I’ll send it. 

Cheers and stay well,


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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