New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Pelagic Trip to Block and Alvin Canyons (Part 2)

                           Full Moon and Cool Waters

            Part 2- “Wood, Oil Paint, a Little Rope & a Tiger Shark”

   When Tom gently suggested that I go on this pelagic trip, my mind began to race. As I mentioned in Part 1, I was busy trying to finish up a few promised commissions by the date of the trip, and I hadn’t considered going on it for that reason. But as I stated above, I don’t need too much coaxing to go on a pelagic trip. My biggest concern was if I were to take the time off for the trip would I still be able to finish the birds in time? I had planned my time carefully starting with the carving and completion time including the normal drying time needed for oil paints. But, that was only the beginning of my dilemma. As usual, I had to complicate it.

   I have been carving bird and duck decoys and carvings since the mid-1970’s. My specialty was and is waterfowl and shorebird decoys, at first for hunters and now for collectors. I stopped waterfowl hunting in the mid 1990’s but still carve decoys everyday of my life. Although my decoys now sit on collectors shelves a few of them do actually make it on the water now and again; some for affluent waterfowlers, some for my new found purposes. Over the last decade, besides the collecting aspect of the decoys, I have developed another function for my decoys. I began to use decoys as “photographers decoys” to lure birds into closer camera range. I had made mostly waterfowl and shorebird decoys over the span of my career, but that was also evolving. About seven years ago, Jen and I took our first trip to Costa Rica. In fact we became engaged there under a torrential downpour in a mountain cloud forest.

   My photographic expectations were humbled by the fact that many of the birds I wanted to photograph spent most of the time hiding from the heat in the upper reaches of the canopy keeping a distance from my camera. I was a bit disappointed when I returned home with only a few bird images way below my expectations. Throughout that year, It dawned on me to try decoys to possibly use and hopefully try and bring the birds closer. I made a few Toucan and Quetzal decoys to bring with us the following year on our return to Costa Rica. Our first experience with the new decoys opened my eyes to carving and deploying tropical bird decoys. Simply, I hung them up in a fruiting tree and the birds came to them! From that point on, I was greatly inspired. They worked so well, that I have carved many tropical species decoys for friends in Costa Rica who now use them for their studies and research. Since I have been birding and bird carving for a very long time, and enjoy birds through feathers, wood and oil paint, my new aspiration is to photograph birds in their natural environments associating with their wooden counterparts which I have carved. This is the subject for my next book which I am currently working on.

   As with any art, it begins with inspiration. When Tom suggested I go on this trip, a very profound and clear inspired revolation came to me; this made my life pleasantly complicated!  For fun, (and of course for my reference), I decided to carve a single decoy to take with me on the pelagic trip. My plan was to float the decoy in the chum slick when the boat was nearly stopped so the tide would carry it out away from the stern of the vessel. Of course, I wanted to get permission from the trip leaders, and I wanted to make it clear that I didn’t want to disrupt the normal routine of the trip. If it was going to create a problem, the decoy would remain in the bag.

   But for now, what species should I carve? On most summer pelagics, the two most common species that visit the chum line are Wilson’s storm-Petrel and Greater Shearwater. The shearwater is also an old friend; a bird I have seen just about every cod fishing trip I have ever been on at Coxes Ledge and Stellwegan. If I carved a Greater Shearwater decoy for the trip, I could also use it when I am codfishing. This made my decision easy; I would carve a Greater Shearwater.

  The inspiration materializes- Since I decided that I was going to carve a Greater Shearwater decoy, I searched through my Greater Shearwater image files and located several reference images that I had taken. For any art recreation, especially when it will be reproduced realistically compared to interpretively, accurate reference is essential. I had many images from many angles of this species that I photographed fairly close from the rail of cod boats which I used as carving reference for the decoy.

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   With the reference for this species accumulated, what was I trying to accomplish with the decoy? My idea was to photograph the decoy in the company of real birds so I would have both of them together. But, one decoy would not be enough to attract shearwaters, nor would a dozen. The chum line and offal would do that. My biggest hope was to set the decoy where it would be in a good position to find itself in a group of sitting shearwaters. But I also wanted to initiate a response from the other shearwaters. I have seen Greater Shearwaters many times squabbling over a fish or food item. In fact, on the June pelagic (below) I watched a group of feeding shearwaters feeding on a school of squid (which happens to be an important and favorite food item of this species). When a bird would pop back to the surface with a squid in its bill, it would swim quickly or fly away from the other birds to insure that its catch remained with it. Using this natural behavior as a “concept” this decoy should have a food item in its bill. Although a squid would be ideal, it would be too difficult to carve, and would be vulnerable to breakage. A fish would be best!

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   On (successful) cod trips, the fish are cleaned by the mates on a ride in. The skins and frames are tossed into the water off the stern. This of course invites large numbers of hungry gulls and Greater Shearwaters as well. I am amazed at the thievery displayed by the gulls towards each other as they squabble and fight over scraps of offal tossed into the sea. I have also seen this between Greater Shearwaters and Gulls with Shearwaters. To have a gull or another shearwater try and steal the carved fish from the bill of the decoy would be quite exciting. I have seen this many times over the years. A Herring or Greater Black-backed Gull would drop in next to one of my Common Eider or Scoter decoys that had a carved wooden mussel in their bills. The aggressive gull would tug, pull and twist at the mussel so hard the wood splintered from the force of the gulls bill manipulations. I have even carved a few decoys showing this interspecific kleptoparasitic behavior such as this pair of Common Mergansers and Double-crested Cormorant fighting over an American eel.

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The decoy making procedure:

Drawing the pattern-

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  Choosing the wooden block. For the carving of this decoy I chose local basswood (Tilia Americana). The design of this decoy was “hollow carved” which means the center of the decoy would be “hollowed-out” (similar to a “scooped out” coconut or winter squash). The reasons for hollowing a decoy is simply to: reduce the weight of the decoy for proper floatation, acclimate the wood and allow it to breath with drastic temperature changes. If the decoy was solid construction, the wood would crack or check because of swelling and shrinking when the wood adapts to the humidity in the summer, and dryness in the winter. The actual hollowing would be done when the decoy was all shaped before it was epoxied together (later demonstration). On this step, the decoy block was cut in half and screwed back together with two wood screws from the bottom of the decoy. The two screw holes would be covered when the decoy is glued together later in the process.

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The side and top views of the body and head are cut on the band saw

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I do much of my preliminary carving on the band saw such as the “roughing-out” step as shown.

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After the decoy is “roughed out” on the band saw, I smooth out the shape with a pneumatic sanding drum.

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The shaping of the decoy continues with more accurate shaping of the head and preliminary carving of the major feather groups: primaries, tertials/secondaries, side pockets, scapulars and mantle.

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With the decoy generally shaped including the feather groups, the screws are removed and the two decoy halves are separated. The inside wood of each half is removed using a drill press and a fostner bit completing the “hollowing” process.

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The decoy is then epoxied together with marine epoxy and then re-sanded along the seam to remove the excess epoxy when it cured (usually overnight).

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When the body and head is completely sanded, it was time to address the details. The glass eyes were set and positioned correctly. Greater Shearwaters have a very forward eye set angle (meaning the eyes when viewed from the front) have an angled forward look to them. Re-creating this look is important to capture the natural look of this species. When the natural eye set angle has been accomplished, along with the eyes expression, the eye rings are sculpted with epoxy putty and set aside to dry. The bill details are created at this time. Most sea birds such as Albatross, Shearwaters, Fulmars, Petrels. Jaegers, Skuas and Frigatebirds have a very unique bill construction. Some of these species have “tubular projections” around the nares or nostrils such as Fulmars and shearwaters. Others such as Skuas and Frigatebirds have slits in the bill exposing the nares. All have one feature in common: their bills are made of external plates that cover the bill’s sheath. The bill on the top surface of the top half of the bill or “maxilla” is called a “culminicorn”, on the side of the maxilla is the “latericorn” and the side of the lower bill or “mandible” is the “ramicorn”. These are clearly defined and articulated on the decoy. The “nail” of the bill is called the “maxillary unguis” on the maxilla, and the “mandibular unguis” on the mandible, also shown on the bill carving.

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The decoy is now completely carved and sanded.

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The fish is carved and epoxied into place. I originally wanted to carve a sand lance for this decoy, but it would have been too large for an actual sand eel, so I chose a “generic” fish species that resembled a large sand lance. To strengthen the vulnerable and weak points of attachment of the bill and fish, the tail of the fish was “pinned” with a small brass pin and epoxied into the body of the decoy. The fish was also epoxied in the open gape of the bill, with a brass pin that passes through the maxilla, through the fish into the mandible. When the epoxy and filler was dry, the entire decoy was sealed with a light coat of lacquer sealer.

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Because the decoy was screwed together and now epoxied together, the remaining screw holes need to be filled to prevent water from entering the decoy. Instead of simply filling the open screw holes with epoxy filler, my signature technique is to add a decorative “natural wood” bottom plate and carved keel also from natural wood. I like to select beautiful woods from the bird’s range which adds an appropriate natural detail to the decoy. An example being a Wood Duck. Since an important food item for Wood Ducks are acorns, I would select a beautiful piece of oak for this detail on a Wood Duck decoy. If you follow the migration route of the Greater Shearwater, it skirts and passes the coasts of western Africa and Eastern Brazil. I needed to select two appropriate wood species for the “wooden theme” of this decoy; one for the bottom plate and one for the carved keel. For the bottom plate I selected Balsamo (Myroxylon Balsamum) from eastern Brazil, and for the keel: Sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum) from western Africa. The decoy is now ready to paint!

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Painting the decoy: With the decoy being sealed, it was then primed with Japan sign painting oil paints. The basic shades of the birds plumage were “blocked in” which is called “Grisaille” painting. I began painting the fish using iridescent oil paints. When the fish was completed I then painted the bill, head, chest and mantle adding soft blended edges to the intermingled areas of its plumage.

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The balance of the plumage was painted with its individual feathers of the primary/tertiary/secondary remiges, greater secondary/lesser/medial coverts, scapulars and mantle, lower tail coverts, flanks and side pockets simply painted and blended. It was then set aside overnight to “tack-up” before the feather details were patiently reproduced.

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The details were painted with a small detailing sable brush.

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The completed Greater Shearwater decoy, rigged and ready to deploy.

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I  read a few Pelagic Birding Reports of a Great Skua dropping into a chum line and making off with a hunk of beef suet or a fish frame. I decided to make a second decoy just in case a Skua was seen (again) and maybe could be enticed to the stern of the boat with a carved mate. This is the adult Great Skua decoy I carved for the trip.

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I had cleared my idea of using the decoys with Ida and Steve, and their reactions completely surprised me; they were more excited about it than I was! When the Helen H began running a chum line and slowed to a crawl for the first time, and watching all the Storm-Petrels feeding just off the stern, I decided it was time to try the two decoys out for the first time. (Looking back to the construction steps) balancing the decoy is as important as the carving and painting procedures.

The decoy should be balanced for proper flotation which means not too deep or too high in the water (causing an un-natural silhouette or profile), and also level flotation free from listing to one side or the other. But most importantly: since the decoy would be thrown off the stern of the
vessel, it needed to “self-right” or “turn itself over” in the event that the decoy ended up on its back. If the decoy didn’t “turn over” it would have to be pulled in and tossed back hoping that it would land correctly. All of these features will be addressed with a ballast weight of the correct amount of lead on the bottom of the keel. I make wooden molds in many sizes and shapes and pour my own lead. I just select the correct one and secure it to the bottom of the keel.

Each decoy has a short line secured to the bow of the keel on one end, while the other has a trotline clip (used in sword fishing). The clips are “clipped” onto “loops” on the main trotline, a quarter inch dia. green nylon rope. I figured that I wanted the decoys to sit about 50 to 75 off the stern, but I had 150 feet of rope with me in case I wanted to send them out farther. The rope of course was secured to the rail, and the decoys were tossed into the sea!

(Back to the Petrels)- I made sure the decoys “self-righted” before I packed them for the trip. This was accomplished in my bath tub. Since salt water is lighter than fresh water, the decoys would float a little higher in the sea. Everything worked perfectly. I tossed the Shearwater decoy into the sea, and it turned over beautifully. It began to drift out into the feeding Petrels perfectly. Suddenly an announcement came over the pa system from Steve stating that everyone should go to the back of the vessel because something interesting is going on. At that point, Steve was standing above me and he asked me to float the Skua too! Tom heard that and went to the bow and retrieved the decoy for me; Thanks again Tom! I pulled in the Shearwater decoy, and added the Skua to the second loop in the rope and tossed them both back into the sea. Both decoys turned over and drifted out into the Storm-Petrels. I had an “ear to ear” smile on my face! Here were my two decoys that I just finished a few days before, now floating in the sea nearly 100 miles out from shore surrounded by at least 50 feeding Wilson’s storm-Petrels.

   Thinking this was about as good as it could get, someone shouted “Shark” and everyone saw the swirling dorsal fin and tail of a large Shark just a short distance off the stern in the chum slick. The Shark raised its head out of the water several times (see image in Part 1 above) and appeared to be checking us out. Its identity was announced; Tiger Shark, a very aggressive species. I snapped a few quick images and the shark sounded only to resurface again, with its head out of the water again. At this point all the images of sharks attacking floating objects seen on the nature shows became a reality, especially for this very aggressive species. The chum slick had attracted this large shark, and it occurred to me that a few small pieces of floating beef suet weren’t going to satisfy this large fish’s appetite being described as an “eating machine”! Only a hundred and fifty feet away from this awesome shark were my two floating decoys. I immediately thought about my options; not many. Maybe I should leave the decoys out since they weren’t making any commotion on the water. Maybe the Shark would not pay any attention to them. As I thought about this, the shark sounded and someone noticed that the shark was heading in the direction of my decoys. Are you kidding me?? I began to pull the decoys in as fast as I could, causing a wake behind them. I figured that if he was going to grab them anyway, I was going to make it work for them! Within seconds the decoys were at the side of the boat and the shark re-surfaced a bit closer this time. That was an experience I will never forget and hopefully never repeat!! Indeed, a great story for my book! To me, that was worth a long day and many miles of travel. Thank You Ida and Steve!

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Completely satisfied with the decoys and seeing them with all those Petrels, I reeled the line in and put the decoys away. I managed to take quite a few images as well, and I considered every aspect a complete success! Even though no Greater Shearwaters were present, I would have other opportunities, even if it is off the stern of a cod boat.

I put the decoys back in their bags and then in the large sea bag I carried them onto the boat in and stowed them in the cabin. On the trip back I was still thinking (and smiling) about the decoys and the Storm-Petrels. When all the Shearwaters suddenly appeared, I was enjoying them so much it never occurred to me to grab my shearwater decoy and try it again. Suddenly it dawned on me. I looked up to the upper deck and asked if I could have just a couple of minutes to send out the Shearwater decoy just to see if I could capture a few images of my decoy among the hundreds of Greater Shearwaters along the sides of the vessel. I was given a thumb’s up, and off I went. What seemed like only a few seconds, which in reality may have been five minutes, I ran down into the cabin, unpacked the shearwater decoy, grabbed the rope cradle and snapped the clip on the trotline loop while I was running down along the railing to the starboard stern. I was frantically unwinding the rope form the cradle fearing that the birds would suddenly take off dashing my opportunity in a flurry of flapping wings. The decoy was tossed into the sea for a second time, and it began to drift away from the starboard corner of the stern. I missed the angle just a bit and the decoy drifted to the side of all the concentrated Shearwaters. I was also tangled in the rope as I was trying to feed more line out to hopefully get the decoy farther out into another group of feeding birds. Matt, the first mate, noticed that the decoy was not where I wanted it to be, offered his assistance and said “let me help you”. He read the tide perfectly, and within a few seconds, he re-positioned the decoy so it was proudly swimming among the frenzied feeding Shearwaters. The birds continually surrounded my decoy, and I kept taking images as fast as the auto-wind on my camera would allow me to. Matt, if you are reading this, Thank You….I really appreciated your help!

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   Now that I am home writing this blog report, my mind is already in high gear deciding on the next pelagic species to carve. So I made a list of the species: 5 Wilson’s storm-Petrels, 2 Leach’s storm-Petrels, 2 Fulmar, and maybe a Cory’s Shearwater. I have already carved the Skua, I should have a Pomarine and Parasitic Jaeger or two. Future pelagic trips to NC, the Keys and Calif. are planned so that means at least 5 Tropicbird decoys will be needed. Then the trips to Maine which means a few Puffins, winter on the Cape means a few more Razorbills, Thick-billed Murre, and Dovekie, late winter/early spring “gulling” in Mass. means a bag full of Bonapartes/Black-headed/Little Gulls. Jen and I will be going back to Costa Rica next year, so that means a few perched Frigatebird (which I have already started) and another use for the Tropicbirds….....and the list goes on and on!

   For now: I want to take this closing paragraph to Thank Ida and Steve for their generosity in extending me the opportunity to “offset” their schedule just a bit to allow me to float my decoys. I greatly appreciate the time I was given for this. This opportunity greatly increased my pelagic trip experience, and of course enhanced my art experience profoundly!

Thank You Ida and Steve!!

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