“I find myself less concerned with extreme ornithological accuracy, and more intent on capturing their character.”
WHEN I was a teenager, long before I realised day jobs were essential for most artists, while my school mates were off working at perfectly good weekend jobs, I was earning a decent income painting and drawing wildlife.
I fell into it, when at the school art show in 1984 I sold my very first painting – a watercolour of a small green frog nestled in an orchid – for sixty dollars.
From then on I regularly entered wildlife paintings and drawings into art shows across the Blue Mountains. I learned to read the mood and spread the risk in order to be in receipt of a sales cheque at the end of each show, which were invariably fundraisers for school committees and charities.
I was encouraged to enter my work in the annual and long-running Gould League art award, and took home a couple of gongs in 1985. At the end of that year, a range of my wildlife drawings was printed as stationary to raise funds for a school trip to New Zealand.
Wildlife art was enjoying a major resurgence and people couldn’t get enough of it.
In the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, bird watchers were commonplace because living within what would eventually become a World Heritage wilderness area, bird-life abounded. Some of my schoolteachers were keen amateur ornithologists, and at school camping trips we got to experience the processes of bird banding – the temporary capture of birds in mist nets in order to weigh, tag and record life-cycle details of different species.
The one bird we were warned against ever attempting to capture was a parrot.
With their pincer-like beaks and claws most raptors would be proud of, parrots in all their shapes, sizes and colours (from cockatoos and rosellas to budgerigars) have always been an artist’s delight.
Tagging one even for the most noble of reasons would need to be done with a sturdy heart and welder’s gloves. Even capturing parrots on film remains a challenge.
Depending on which birds and which region, Aboriginal words for parrot include “bilin”, “akala”, “goonang”, “koorungan”, “moolangora” and “poolunka”. Parrots, cockatoos, rosellas and parakeets all make appearances in Aboriginal Dreaming and are totemic across the country.
So common are they to this island continent that parrots factored in one of the earliest European names for Australia.
Three centuries before Matthew Flinders, Portuguese explorers mooted ‘Psitacorum Regio’ (‘The Land of Parrots’) as a suitable name for the southern land they’d seen was replete with parrot life, and that name appears on the 1564 New World Map by Antwerp cartographer Abraham Ortelius.
Everyone has their favourite parrot. After more than three decades living in the Mountains, I fell early for the gentle, bell-like call of the beautiful Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans) not least due to its bright defiance of mountain mist and rain. It was also easy to spot whilst walking to and from school and wasn’t particularly shy about being watched.
By the 1990s, wildlife art fell out of fashion, while I went off to design school, followed by a stint chasing dreams in Europe.
One of the saddest sights I encountered was a solo Crimson Rosella in an ornate cage not much larger than its body, hanging above the counter at a pasta restaurant in central Venice in the summer of 1994. It had torn most of its wing and tail feathers out, and when I asked the manager if he knew where his bird came from, he shook his head and shrugged.
I could speak only rudimentary Italian, but I could read I couldn’t care less by the body language. Only someone who’d spent every school day observing these beauties cavorting through the bush could have picked the species of that sad captive.
Well over a decade later, when I moved from the mountains to the subtropics, I knew I’d have to leave the Crimson Rosella behind. It is found in Queensland in a disparate region to the north, but here in the southeast it rarely shows itself at the coast.
But I started to hear talk of another rosella that frequents this part of the world, one that has become more and more elusive – the Pale-headed Rosella (Platycercus adscitus) somewhat related to its crimson cousin.
After years away from painting birds, it was parrots that drew me back in, when I sat down and captured a row of them in the work I called ‘The Committee’ and quickly sold on new Australian online gallery Bluethumb.
I couldn’t resist including a Crimson Rosella at the centre of that line-up of Australian icons. A Rainbow Lorikeet, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and a Galah complete the scene, all quite familiar to me even after years away from the easel; although these days I find myself less concerned with extreme ornithological accuracy, and more intent on capturing their character.
But the Pale-headed Rosella still eludes me. Some of my neighbours recall seeing them here on Coochiemudlo Island, but not for a few years, so I decided to closely observe various photographs of this exquisite bird in preparation for encountering one.
Sporting a full spectrum of colours, including a flash of red under its tail, a magnificent pale gold crown, and the finest ultramarine blues across its cheeks, wings and tail, the Pale-headed Rosella managed to avoid definitive taxonomy for close to a century.
This was undoubtedly because early ornithologists either hadn’t seen more than preserved samples shipped to England, or mistakenly thought they were the first to encounter the bird in the wild. It was surely also because the Pale-headed Rosella had gotten busy interbreeding with very similar species such as the Eastern Rosella and the Yellow Rosella, producing an array of hybrids.
The first European to visit Coochiemudlo Island – explorer Matthew Flinders – saw white and black cockatoos, and a bird he called “the beautiful lay lock [lilac] headed parroquet” here in 1799, but no Pale-headed Rosellas in his short journey through the island’s interior.
As one of the commonest parrots seen by early European settlers in the Brisbane region, the Pale-headed Rosella was known simply as the ‘Moreton Bay Rosella’ or ‘Parakeet’. Prussian explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt referred to it as such while traversing the region in 1844, and noted in his journal that it was “very numerous”, appearing with the same frequency as the Cockatiel and the White Cockatoo.
‘Pale-headed Parrakeet (sic)’ was the common name applied from 1848 by English ornithologist John Gould, although he was apparently unaware that the Pale-headed Rosella had already been named in 1790 by his predecessor John Latham.
The ornithological establishment seems to have hedged its bets and let both men’s identification stand as two subspecies, with Latham’s Platycercus adscitus, a generally bluer-cheeked variety found in the northern zone of Queensland; and Gould’s lesser blue-cheeked Platycercus palliceps found in southeast Queensland.
There’s a problem, however. Gould identified (or thought he had) another ‘Blue-cheeked Parrakeet’ he named Platycercus cyanogenys, but his Platycercus palliceps also bears the common name ‘Blue-cheeked Rosella’.
And having observed the colouring of the bird in order to paint it, for my money there’s simply not enough blue on the cheek of Platycercus palliceps to justify that name.
Looking at another artist’s earlier work might clear matters up. When Elizabeth Gould painted Platycercus palliceps in husband John’s Birds of Australia in the 1840’s, it appears below two truly blue-cheeked birds – the Yellow Rosella and the Yellow-bellied Parakeet (see image above).
Now emerging from her husband’s shadow thanks to a new novel – The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press), Elizabeth Gould’s skills of observation suggest elements of John Gould’s taxonomy may not have passed muster.
Her Platycercus palliceps carries the merest hint of blue on what could only be defined as the very, very lowest margins of the bird’s cheek.
It takes a fellow painter to recognise the palest blue brushstroke that I imagine Elizabeth added a little begrudgingly at John’s insistence, to avoid a blue-cheeked argument.
So I hedged my bets too, and added more blue than I thought necessary, but less than the name required, although I’d love to see a local Pale-headed Rosella to check for sure.
Despite our plethora of walking birds like curlews and plovers, much of the bird life on Coochiemudlo Island, especially where parrots are concerned, lives high above our heads in the old-growth trees.
I’m thinking of investing in a pair of binoculars, and I’ve noticed several well-known Australian artists have added Gould League art award prizes to their online resumes.
I’ll probably do the same. I’ve already earned my plumes, after all.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.