The Siren Call of the Crying Limpkin

“So called because of its awkward gait, it is also known as the Crying Bird because of its distinctive call, a piecing wild sounding scream or wail which it makes especially at night. The noise was so disturbing that the early Florida pioneers “mistook the call of the Limpkin for the haunting wails of tortured souls in the night time swamps”. It has also described as,”a hoarse rattling cry like the gasp of person being strangled, like “little boys lost in the swamps forever;” or ” an unearthly shriek” with the “quality of unutterable sadness.”

Yes, here in the lonely swamps of central Orlando amidst the houses of the well to do, just a spit from the (currently rather quieter) airport and a hairsbreadth from the elegant joggers with their swinging ponytails and iPods, a little limpkin has appeared.

To be fair I have not yet heard its plaintive shriek, but this is the most famous attribute of this odd and solitary little bird.

Limpkin by Audubon (the great master) called the “SCOLOPACEOUS COURLAN” from where you can read his notes and very interesting description.


My Limpkin was stalking about in the shallows of the small feeder pond where I walk.
This is the pond where I found the apple snail shells and, where there are apple snails, there may be limpkins as these are their preferred food.

I watched it slowly and determinedly walk backwards and forwards several times from a clump of reeds to the shore line. First it has an apple snail…

limpkin 1

Which it brings to the shore to deal with (you can just see the shells scattered around).


Then back to the reeds where it  buries its head in the bottom of the pond, digging for snails etc.

limpkin 7

This time returning with  a fresh water mussel


Which it opens …(This was such an annoying piece of grass).

limpkin 5

and eats.

limpkin 6

I was some distance away and, although it was not thrilled about me being there, it took its time to finish lunch before walking slowly away. The interesting Limpkin Aramus Guarauna is a Latin America bird where it is also known the Carou;
from What

  • “The Limpkin is named for its limping-like flight with its dangling legs and jerky wing beats.
  • The only species in its family, it is considered most closely related to rails and cranes.
  • It was once very common in Florida, but due to the decline of its primary food source, the Florida Apple Snail, it is now listed as a SSC (species of special concern).
  • A group of limpkins are collectively known as a “hobbling” of limpkins.

The Famous Hippogriff Cry

Its eldritch shriek has been immortalised in the soundtracks of old Tarzan movies and more recently in Harry Potter because Cornell’s Macaulay Library provided the voice of the Winged Hippogriff, read more here and listen to a great recording of its call made in Florida in 1956 here.

I also understand it is very annoying to have Limpkins nearby if you are a light sleeper.

The Legend
In Argentina legend tells how a young boy was transformed into the crying bird for preferring to dance to the strains of the accordion and court a pretty girl rather than fetch his dying mothers medicine.
For this thoughtless act he is condemned to wail and cry, waiting for redemption,  pardon and the return of his soul.

The only thing that haunts me about this pretty little bird is that it is out there, and that I am in here, at the drawing board..

Leaf of the Day: The Model Dead or Alive?

The other day I was out on my bike and I saw a dead squirrel, just lying in the road as if asleep, no apparent marks at all. If I had been an artist worth my salt, I would have picked it up, taken it home and popped it into the freezer, so that I could make a careful study of it later, just as I do with the leaves and pods. A long time ago I knew a very gentile and elderly lady whose freezer was full of defunct sparrows, mice and other small animal casualties which she delighted in painting. ” I like to get right down to the details, dear ” she told me.

I have to admit to being a bit squeamish and sentimental and don’t, right at this moment, need a squirrel dead or alive. If I did, I would try to do without a dead one but it is a indisputable fact that if you want to draw or paint something really well you need to have some personal experience of it, touch, smell and sound all feed into the artist’s equation, especially touch. How can you try to convey the softness of fur, or feathers if you have never felt it.

So this really follows on from Sundays post about using photographs to work from. Photos are really a last resort, but would I be prepared to kill something and dissect it for my art? Hmm..


For the last few weeks I been reading John James Audubon’s fascinating biography. Since my very early college days I have been a huge fan of his work but knew very little about him. His great success in painting such life like birds was that he drew from life… and from death. He has come in for some criticism for shooting the birds he painted,(he did shoot a lot of birds) but times were very different in 19th century frontier America. He would be making good use of some of his dead models by eating them too.
Other artists at the time would use stuffed models to work from but Audubon devised a way of propping his birds with wires so that they assumed more natural and animated positions. It was a combination of his keen observation of the birds in the wild and these very up close and personal encounters including dissections, that makes his work so vivid.

This is one of his original paintings “the Yellow Breasted Chat” .There is a rare chance to see some of them from February 13 through April 5, 2009 at the New York Historical Society see more here

and a print of the Carolina Pigeon from New World Encyclopedia here

Leonardo da Vinci studied the structure and function of the human body in depth through observation and careful dissection. He completed approximately 30 dissections in his lifetime. Curiously at the time it seems that dissection for artistic purposes was more acceptable than for medical purposes.

The wonderful painter George Stubbs is another great favourite of mine. How did he paint beautiful horses like this?

Because he also drew these….

Stubbs worked hard to acquire this knowledge. Keen to really understand the working of a horse he set about making a series of anatomical studies par excellence. I remember reading that he hauled the carcasses of the dead horses upstairs to his studio.

“He dissected the horse himself, with the aid of Mary Spencer, his partner, in an isolated Lincolnshire farmhouse. As he stripped away the muscles, he made detailed drawings of what he saw. Then, in London, he showed the drawings to engravers experienced in anatomical subjects. They found them difficult to interpret, so Stubbs decided to make the engravings himself. The difficulty that he faced was to show clearly the different textures of vein, muscle and bone using a medium that is essentially ‘linear’. He succeeded so well that for over a century the book was the principal guide for veterinarians as well as painters. It also shows the incredible knowledge of his subject that stands at the core of his practice as a painter”
Info and images from the British Museum here

We admire the work so much, but are we repelled by the means of acquiring the knowledge and the skill?


Come the 20th Century, artists had the legacy of wonderful anatomical engravings of the artist dissectors of the past to refer to, plus photography and film. But there is still nothing like the real thing. The early Disney artists, with characteristic attention to detail, needed to study movement as well as structure for the delightful “Bambi”

Animals were brought into the studio for painting classes.

“At the start of Disney’s production of Bambi, Rico LeBrun, an established Italian artist, who was teaching at Chouinard Institute, was employed to help teach the studio’s artists to learn how to draw animals. He created some intense classes where animators concentrated on the anatomy of deer and other animals. The story goes that LeBrun went so far as to cut open a deer’s corpse and slowly peel away parts of the animal for drawing and study. Over days, as the smell grew more putrid, fewer and fewer people attended”

LeBrun prepared a book of some 40 or so pages of the skeletal system of deer for the artists to use as reference in learning to manipulate the animal characters. His art was copied onto animation paper with typed notes added. “

This quote, the photos and drawings and much much more are from the excellent Michael Sporn’s general animation site here. I could spend weeks here just admiring the skills of these astonishing artists.
But children don’t despair, Disney didn’t dissect Dopey.. as far as we know …


A good artist these days will still always try to find the real thing, at least for preliminary work. How they then chose to go on to stylise, or abstract is up to them. See my post on “Where To Go After Drawing here
Those who are looking for absolute accuracy really need the personal experience. Here is my good friend Carolyn Morton who sculpts horses, dogs and cat etc from life, using photos and video only as backup reference.

As far as I know she has not yet had to resort to sharpening the dissecting knives but does need to see the real thing, especially when working in 3 dimensions. I admire her dedication. Having the clay in the stable along with dust, shavings and the odd incontinent model does not make her job easy, but is much more satisfactory for both her and her client.

So the dilemma…

As an artist I fully understand the desire to know everything I can about what I am drawing, and yes, I think I would work from skins, if I were to be commissioned to paint some very realistic birds. Maybe I will pick up the next poor little dead squirrel and immortalise it as best I can. So far the only dead wildlife I have on the nature table are two dragonflies which had drowned in the pool last year. Ant is still skipping about full of joi de vivre. As I am typing he is negotiating the edge of my computer screen. If he does turn up his toes it will either my clumsiness, poor eyesight or his old age rather than my desire to draw him. I am struggling with enough fine detail!!

Time and Money

One big issue for todays artist, especially if working for a paid commission is time and money. These days art has become so terribly undervalued that few clients are willing to pay for research and development time or the care, and attention to detail, that most artists would like to give to their work. Many will be quick to point out that Fido’s left ear is not at quite the right angle but reluctant to pay for you to actually take the time to see the dog, expecting a first class detailed painting for $50 from a blurry photograph.
Nor do many people appreciate that the underlying knowledge and skill required to make a simple beautiful sketch is far in excess of copying a photograph. Many sketches are far more eloquent than laboured detailed paintings. Do people feel that if something is done quickly they have been cheated? When I have sometimes done a sketch demo for a class some have said how lovely it must be to be able to do something so quickly. I have to gently point out, that to do that sketch has taken me years and years and thousands and thousands of hours of practise and study, of trial and error, of tears and false starts, of frustration and despair, with just enough tiny sparks of realisation and progress to keep me going… but I can’t seem to stop. Why? It’s something to do with the need to improve, to see more and to understand more.

Hokusai’s wise observations about being an artist say it all for me, and give me hope..

“From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish, and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At one hundred I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110 everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing”.

Sadly he never achieved 90 but died on May 10, 1849 at the age of 89. He said this shortly before his death..

“If heaven gives me ten more years, or an extension of even five years, I shall surely become a true artist.”

Leaf of the Day: Henna Seed Pods

I am sorry about that rather abrupt break in transmission! I have been in hospital having temporarily lost the battle with my gall bladder, one of those recalcitrant organs like the appendix that seem to cause more trouble than they are worth. I now have the veins of a junkie and glow in the dark. The morphine has worn off so my dreams have returned to just strange as opposed to completely terrifying! ….but am back home …and even more behind with work, oh dear….

So to get back into the swing I decided to do something straightforward, a pencil drawing of this little sprig of Henna pods. It grows in the herb garden at Leu and after my recent experience I thought the herb garden was somewhere I needed to get more familiar with. While in hospital I was reading the excellent Audubon biography by Richard Rhodes and learned that in 1813 he and his wife suffered from the “summer fevers”, merely the possibility of typhoid or yellow fever, and would have been treated with powdered Peruvian cinchona bark, bleeding, aloes, jalap root, cupping and blistering. Rhodes remarks ” however the Audubons were dosed, they were hardy enough to recover from their illnesses as well as their treatment.” Luckily so did I…

Henna would not have been much use to me because although it does have medicinal properties they are more to do with the skin, having some antibacterial and anti fungal properties and apparently an ability to block ultraviolet radiation.

Henna Flowers by J M Garg from Wiki here

It’s a pretty and fragrant shrub but of course most famous for the beautiful dye used for the important symbolic decoration of hands and feet in Asia and in many other cultures. I am particularly fond of this elegant form of body decoration.
From Wiki: “Henna, Lawsonia inermis, produces a red-orange dye molecule, lawsone. This molecule has an affinity for bonding with protein, and thus has been used to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather, silk and wool.

Image from All Posters by Khalid Tanveer here

The dye is made from the crushed and powdered leaves and interestingly does not “fade” but is exfoliated by the regeneration of cells in the skin. The historical use of henna is fascinating both as body decoration and general dye stuff and there are many sites devoted to it. If you are interested there is a fantastic site which will tell you all you ever wanted to know, with many links too.

I could not resist this photo, again from Wiki, taken by David Dennis here


Henna Pods

Leaf of the Day: Bald Cypress Leaf and Carolina Parkeet Part 2

Having drawn the cone and spent hours trying to find the identity of the little yellow “flowers” on the needles (still no result), I decided to stay with the bald cypress and tackle a leaf. I will probably never do one again unless I am paid an inordinate amount of money. I prefer bigger simple leaves and I am afraid to say that by needle number 30 I was just bored.(there are a lot more)…perhaps bigger…perhaps in acrylics or gouache or even oils …perhaps just leave these to other more patient people.

I also started reading more about the fate of the little Parakeet, and of course, if Catesby had painted it, Audubon had too. While researching both I came across a fascinating article from the LA Times by Jonathan Rosen, February 24, 2008 entitled “What a Little Bird told us”

“They were large, colorful, noisy birds, found from the Ohio Valley to the Gulf of Mexico. John James Audubon noted the decline in the Carolina parakeet back in the mid-19th century, but the birds hung on in the wild until the turn of the 20th century. The last known Carolina parakeet died in the Cincinnati Zoo 90 years ago, on Feb. 21, 1918. His name was Incas. He had outlived Martha, the very last passenger pigeon — which also died in the Cincinnati Zoo — by four years. Once you get a celebrity cage and a human name, it is usually over for your species.”

The reason the birds were not saved was because of a woeful inability of the zoos to coordinate a breeding programme. They were persecuted to extinction through a combination of hunting, for their feathers to decorate ladies hats, a perception that they were harmful pests and the loss of habitat. But this very thoughtful article goes on to explore some difficult issues that we humans have to face with our primate killer natures and our conservationist desires and duties.
In 1898 Frank Chapman an important ornithologist and a great advocate of conservation went to find the parakeet and …
unable to resist gathering rare specimens, shot them. Looking at the bodies laid out before him, he vowed to shoot no more of the birds. But later that day, he stumbled on another small cluster and killed them too. “Good resolutions,” he wrote, “like many other things, are much easier to plan than to practice.” “

Rosen also sites Audubon as an example of this complex “killing urge and the conserving urge“. That Audubon was a great lover of birds is without doubt, but he was also a great hunter and did of course kill the birds he painted so evocatively. There are mixed opinions about his methods and luckily, we admirers today can try to record their beauty harmlessly with cameras. I am going to read more about Audubon he was a fascinating man and there are some strange stories sourrounding his childhood.
The article concludes with a plea for conservation while trying to understand some of the contradictions we, as ‘hunters’ and self centred creatures, find in ourselves. I personally find killing anything for “sport” particularly abhorrent. To me, it speaks volumes about those who take part in it, but Rosen argues that
“…balance is the key — the watcher and the watched, the hunter and the conservationist, the talking parrot and the killer primate. All of us need to shoulder the responsibility of becoming “citizen scientists,” or at least “citizen naturalists.” We might as well begin by remembering Incas, last of his species, a wild animal with a human name who died in a zoo 90 years ago.
Follow this link to read the whole article it is definitely worth a 5 minute read.

“Citizen scientists” coined by the Audubon Society, are those many ordinary people whose enthusiasm for wildlife help our understanding of what is going on in the natural world, for example in 2007 more than 400,000 participants took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch organised by the RSPB in the UK. For one hour they counted the birds in their gardens and together they spotted 6 million birds across 236,000 gardens. I just don’t understand why some people feel the need to go and shoot them.
However with the deepening crisis in the economy and rising food prices there was report today that one of the major supermarkets in the UK are security tagging chickens, so perhaps the birds of the UK had better keep their heads down.

Bald Cypress Leaf

Leaf of the Day: White Cordia, a Pirate, Audubon and some White Crowned Pigeons

Today I did get down to Leu and spent a couple of hours wandering around and seeing some really amazing new things springing up. Something I have been thinking about for a couple of weeks now is doing some studies of bark. I found the most beautiful elm and hoop pine bark as well as some spiny tree trunks and various other spotted and striped trunks and branches. The cycad cones too are just getting bigger and bigger. Their geometry is quite beautiful and I know if I really want to paint them I will have to give in and work from photos.

In the Arid Garden there is a tree which for weeks now had been covered in very pretty white blossom. The tree itself is a lovely shape too and now it is covering the ground with these beautiful greeny white fruit which stay fixed onto the remains of the ridged green calyx. They look very tempting. This is the White Cordia Tree Cordia boisseri or Ancahuita. It’s an intimate and pretty tree with twisting branches and soft hairy leaves.
It is also known as the Texas Olive or Wild Olive or Mexican Olive because of the shape of its fruit, but I have to say it looks nothing like an olive to me. It is theoretically edible and was used to make cough mixture in Mexico.( is probably not pleasant to eat). One source says the fruit are edible but intoxicating and dizzying and should not be eaten in any number. If this is so I am quite surprised there isn’t a ready trade for them here in Orlando.

Yet another name is the White Geiger Tree, but the Geiger Tree is more readily associated with the Cordia sebestena the Orange Geiger tree. It seems this variety was named after an Audubon painting of a tree that was growing in the garden of Captain John Geiger who lived in Key West. Geiger was a harbor pilot and master wrecker ( pirate), who lived in the house with his wife and nine children. Audubon was visiting Key West in 1832 , admired the tree and asked for cuttings, instructing his assistant, George Lehman to include it in the painting of the “White Crowned Pigeons”.

White Crowned Pigeon

In Key West , Geiger’s house has now become the Audubon House and Gallery. There is a small tropical garden and a fine collection of Audubon prints and to my great delight a collection of Margaret Mee prints. I greatly admire her and her work and I think she will be the subject of my written piece later this year, but she is for another post ..or several! Here is her beautiful painting of Gustavia pulchra from her flora of the Amazon.

I just have to go to this museum! Follow this link for more information. The Audubon House, Gallery and Gardens

White Cordia Fruit

Leaf of the Day: Florida Anise and a glimpse of Audubon

Today I spent a couple of hours at Leu Gardens making a colour note sketch of the Gazebo to follow on from the tonal sketch I did yesterday. I laboriously mixed the greens as accurately as I could which means stopping and starting, looking and mixing, trying the colour out and then putting it in the right place. It took me an hour and a half. The result is not a good painting at all but a record of some accurate greens in approximately accurate places. It’s a good exercise for mixing greens but you would probably not want to paint a ” picture ” exactly like this. I will return tomorrow to try one more, slightly bigger study and then post the results tomorrow.

The woodpecker was high up in the adjoining tree again, the noise is incredible. I found out its pecking speed is 20 times a second and to prevent it scrambling its brains it has a specially reinforced skull with cross bracing bones. I am not sure exactly which woodpecker this is as it was too high to see properly, but it was tiny and black and white so maybe its the downy woodpecker. Here is a lovely Audubon engraving. I have not yet written about wonderful wonderful Audubon yet. It was love at first sight when I saw his work many years ago. I started buying art books as soon as I had my first job and remember agonising about buying a lovely Country Life book of his work in the early 1970´s. I bought it of course. Now here in Florida the works are even more resonant as I am seeing the same birds in the same locations. There is so much I want to say about Audubon that it will have to be quite a few posts.

My leaf for today is from the beautiful Florida Anise. illicium floridanum
This is from the same family as the the spice, star anise. ilicium verum but this one is not edible at all and can be poisonous if eaten in quantities.
You can see why I liked the leaf. In fact there are several variegated types at the gardens. The leaves are very attractive, evergreen and when crushed, they emit the characteristic aniseed smell.

Here is my photo of one of the little flowers which have a strange appearance, like small spidery stars and are often hidden amongst the leaves, but the oddest thing is that apparently they smell of live fish..( I am not quite sure what that smells like.) I now have to go and find it tomorrow.

Yes I have, just briefly, returned to the coloured pencils.. it seemed a shame not to put some colour into this study..


Florida Anise