New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"A Tale of Two Red-billed Tropicbirds"- Chapters Two and Three!

     Chapter One- Last July, Jen and I spent a week in Maine for our summer vacation on the island of Vinalhaven. The highlight of the trip was the two days we spent with John Drury going out to Seal Island for the Seabird extravaganza.....and the star being the Red-billed Tropicbird. Here is a link to that unbelievable experience:

     John is a excellent seabird guide from Vinalhaven and offers wonderful seabirding trips to the waters around Seal Island NWR....lately the summer home for this Red-billed Tropicbird. You can contact John directly here:

     What turned out to be one of the best birding experiences imaginable for Jen and I, now has a second and third chapter! .........

     One of my objectives on the "Quest for the Tropicbird" besides hopefully experiencing this magnificent seabird, was to photograph the bird swimming on the sea (and maybe) with my Tropicbird decoy that I made for this trip.-

      John and my decoy from last July-

     The Tropicbird put on a wonderful show for us. I am able to describe it as the second most memorable birding experience in all of my nearly 40 years being an avian artist! The best one being the first time I saw a Resplendent Quetzal in the southern cloudforests of Costa Rica. It was perched on a tree limb just ten feet over my head. I was standing there looking up at the bird and the bird was leaning forward peering over its bulbous chest looking down at me. That few minutes of quiet interaction will always be etched in my mind like a perfect thumbnail painting! Jen describes that moment as "one of life's precious jewels"! That's how we feel about this Tropicbird.

     Nearing the end of the day, the Tropicbird flew directly towards my floating decoy.......

     .....and passed by skirting the decoy by thirty yards.-

     Success #1-

     The Tropicbird started to pass by John's boat........

     .....when it pulled its wings up and landed on the sea. Success #2!!-

     Chapter Two- After we returned home, I couldn't stop thinking about that Tropicbird. A mega-dose of inspiration overwhelmed me; I wanted to carve another Red-billed Tropicbird (or two). I also wanted to make a decoy for John, after all without him, we would never have experienced this magnificent seabird. So I started vigorously sketching; my right hand and pencil consumed many pages of bristol board like a paper shredder feeding on old credit card statements. I was drawing Tropicbirds in all styles: decoys, mantle birds, decoratives, etc. But as I was drawing it occurred to me. We experienced this spectacular bird with John in Maine....what would be more appropriate than a classic traditional style Maine decoy? I know that there has never been a Tropicbird decoy carved in the traditional Maine style, I wanted to make the first!

     What is a traditional Maine decoy?? This is the finished decoy that I carved for John, how I made it follows.-

     First, I selected top quality Eastern White Pine which I purchased in Maine. Classic decoys from Maine were always made from Swamp Cedar (Northern White Cedar) or Eastern White Pine. The species most commonly carved by Maine's decoy makers were sea ducks: Eiders, Scoters, Oldsquaw, Red-breasted Mergansers, Goldeneyes and Black Ducks.

     In keeping with the "traditions" of my decoy making ancestors from Maine, I carved the bird completely using hand tools (draw-knife and a carving knife). I designed and styled the pattern after Maine's most famous decoy carver Gus Wilson.-

     To insure the strength of the tail streamer,  I used and inserted local Dogwood....a very strong and durable wood.

     The "main" feature to a "Maine" style decoy is the unique head to body attachment method...... is called an "inletted head" by decoy collectors, but it is also more commonly known as a "mortis and tenin" joint. This joint is a common boat building joint attachment. Since many of the older decoy makers from Maine were boat builders, this joint was used extensively by the most well-known decoy makers from Maine's history,-

     Maine sea duck decoys were carved solid for many reasons, mostly because of "Yankee frugality". Other than the basic shape, basic plumage paint and old sash weights used for ballast,  extra time spent with additional carving, painting, making lead weights, and even "hollowing" the decoys were a waste of time. Solid decoys rode the heavy winter seas just fine, the birds could recognize the (usually) basic shapes and paint just fine, so no need to spend all that time making them lighter in weight. Here is where I break tradition (just a bit)!

     I wanted this decoy to sit gracefully on the sea, to float proudly. The lighter in weight the decoy, the higher it floats,  so I hollowed the decoy.-

     After I hollowed the decoy, I epoxied it together with marine epoxy (yes I know-not traditional). I used the marine epoxy to insure the decoy would never come apart and separate. One of the other classic Maine features to this decoy is the carved eyes.-

     For the insert plate in the bottom of the decoy I used Red Cedar, again purchased from Maine. My other (slight) departure from the classic Maine decoy is the keel. The decoy makers in Maine didn't use them or make them. But I wanted this decoy to be easy for John to handle when (if) he deployed the decoy near Seal Island. Plus the keel made a stand for the decoy when John put the decoy on a shelf. For the keel I used a Caribbean wood species: Mayan Walnut which signifies this bird's home.....(assuming of course) it does travel from the Caribbean to Maine each June not the Azores?!-

     The finished decoy painted in oils. I think I can also safely say that this is the first Red-billed Tropicbird carved traditionally in the classic Maine style!-

     I shipped the bird soon after the paint dried, and John received his decoy. The Tropicbird had left Seal Island just a few days after we did. John sent me a nice letter and this picture showing the decoy floating by a now deserted Seal Island. I really appreciated this picture.....the decoy had found a home!

    This photo and all the remaining photos courtesy John Drury and being used  with his    permission)-

       John sent me this picture later showing the decoy swimming in the sea with "Fluke" in the background.-

     Chapter Three-  John and I kept in touch off and on over the winter and John sent me many incredible images of birds he photographed around his home from late summer through winter: Jaegers, Owls, Eagles, Seabirds, Hawks, etc. In June I received an email from John letting me know that the Tropicbird had returned again to Seal Island! That was fantastic! Jen and I had planned to return to Vinalhaven this year to spend a few more days with John and the Tropicbird. In fact we were planning a trip with a few birders from CT and Mass. Unfortunately, we had to cancel our vacation plans, Jen and I were a bit "bummed" by this. So summer continued....and it is a hot one!!

     Three days ago, I received an email from John, and it was unbelievable!! It took me completely by surprise, and it was one of the best emails ever! John told me that he put his decoy out near Seal Island, and the Tropicbird landed nearby the decoy! In John's words- "He seemed to ignore her at first, but not two days ago. He flew by her than landed a ways off, then moved closer. I thought he was coming in, and sure enough, he moved right to her"-

     "He was clearly smitten, he displayed for her"-

     I couldn't hardly believe what I was reading (and seeing with his attached images). This was the best news.

    Than John's second email came!-  "Keith, Well he attempted to mate with her! He moved away and came back and defended her when I went to leave and take her from him; he got between us and her"!!-

    I stared at John's second email and the images and was completely stunned! Not only did the Tropicbird approach the decoy and "nuzzled" her a bit, but he attempted to mate with her and then defend her!


                         John Drury holding his decoy at the town dock in Vinalhaven Harbor-

              This photo used with the permission of and the courtesy of John Schwarz

                        Check out John's  great bird images website:

     This is a once in a lifetime experience for me as an artist/decoy carver and great appreciator of birds....especially seabirds, and one of my favorite seabirds: the Red-billed Tropicbird! John, I can't Thank You enough for bringing this great bird into our lives, but also the wonderful interaction between this bird and one of my floating sculptures......I will always cherish this! Everytime I carve a Tropicbird, I will think of Seal Island.

Keith Mueller
Killingworth, CT