Few bird species evoke memories of my childhood more quickly than does the Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius), which was common enough for my inexperienced eyes to spot, distinctive enough for me to quickly learn to identify, and yet rare enough that it was always a pleasant surprise to see one. Small, alert and bright-eyed, they have the endearing habit of teetering and bobbing up and down, whether standing straight or slightly crouched, as they probe about for tiny invertebrates amid riverbanks and shorelines. Their flight is distinctive, with fluttery, down-curved-looking wings that have a white band, hidden from view when the wings are closed. Shy only of the higher latitudes, they can be seen, either as breeding species, migrant, or on their wintering grounds, in suitable habitat almost anywhere in North, Central or South America or the West Indies, only with great rarity outside the western hemisphere.
When I was in my teens, as a budding artist my parents took me to see a talk by George M. Sutton, the American bird artist whose published art I had long admired, and, the next day, we went to the Royal Ontario Museum to meet the great man, introduced to me by another hero and a mentor, T. M. Shortt, in my opinion Canada’s finest bird artist. I had brought a portfolio of my drawings. Sutton stopped at one of a Spotted Sandpiper. Youth blinds artists to their limitations, and to my lasting embarrassment I drawn the bird as viewed from face on, so that the beak was foreshortened into a vertical oval. Doing owls, hawks or parrots face on works; sandpipers not so much. “That’s, um, quite interesting,” said Sutton, politely, and I immediately realize no it wasn’t…it was really stupid. He then told me how he taught students to roughly draw the skull of the bird and then the contours of the plumage around it, and advised me to be sure to listen to what Terry Shortt had to say.
That was somewhere around five decades ago and I think this little life-sized study in oils is much closer to the kind of painting I wanted to do when I was a youngster, although there is always room for improvement. And from an even early age, perhaps eight, I recall coming upon a newly hatched clutch of four babies, a sight that was almost painfully enchanting. I have shown an adult, in summer breeding plumage, which is similar to the male’s, but females average a little larger than males. With him is a nearly fully-grown chick, with winter plumage nearly complete, but with wisps of down still attached around the head and neck. The adult will soon molt into a similar plumage, losing the spots, whose size, number and placement vary significantly among individual birds, but some research has indicated that the more heavily spotted the female bird is, the healthier she is. Males alone incubate the eggs and care for the chicks, and females may have more than one mate.
While still a common species, they have been in steady decline overall, which is worrisome as they are rather generalized in their habitat needs, which primarily include viable freshwater wetlands. This painting is approximately life size and was done in oils on compressed hardboard and is 12 by 9 inches.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada