Working for birds in Africa

Safari Sketchbook: A Bird Painter's African Odyssey

Fri, 21/12/2012 - 10:47 -- abc_admin
Martin Woodcock, 2010. Wiveton: Esker Press. 176 pp, many colour and black-and-white drawings. Hardback. ISBN 978–0-9564016–0-1.
pages 115 - 116

Anyone interested in African birding knows the Woodcock name. Probably for longer than he cares to remember, Martin illustrated the epic Birds of Africa: he painted all of the plates except plates 1–17 in the first of the seven volumes - a task all the more impressive given the series had five editors, and a long roll-call of contributors to its text, but just one stoic artist.

As Sir John Chapple writes in his Foreword to Safari Sketchbook, Martin's familiar illustrations first emerged in Ben King's Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia, a groundbreaking book that had a generation of birders hankering to visit the region. Now field guides are so readily available, it is easy to overlook the vital role artists like Martin played in opening up tropical birding.

Safari Sketchbook is organised into nine chapters beginning with Martin's first journey to Africa in 1961. Visiting his sister in Uganda, more than 15 years before the invitation came to illustrate Birds of Africa, Martin started to get to grips with the birds of Kampala, before going onto Murchison, taking a boat trip on the Nile and recalling that the birds 'came so thick and fast I had trouble keeping up with my notes'; a sentiment most first-timers birding in East Africa will remember well.

Each chapter deals with a specific site or two. Many are well known, like Lake Baringo and Kakamega Forest in Kenya, but others less so, like Ruaha National Park in central Tanzania and the remote Minzoro Forest in the north-west of the same country. Martin joined an expedition there in 1987. Mist-netting provided some difficult-to-see birds, like White-bellied Kingfisher Alcedo leucogaster, and Martin sketched one with its brilliant turquoise and blue barred crown fanned up and recalling its widespread open-country cousin, Malachite Kingfisher A. cristata. Indeed, many of Martin's site visits remind one of the staggering avifauna Africa harbours, not least Selous Game Reserve with Boehm's Merops boehmi alongside seven other bee-eater species.

Most of Martin's illustrations are sketches, either in pencil and watercolour, less often pen, but with occasional finished paintings of birds like African Blue Flycatcher Elminia longicauda, and the striking Blue-shouldered Robin-Chat Cossypha cyanocampter of his cover. There are also a few oils, or pastels, and full pages of pencil drawings of vegetation, including sketches of the bizarre whistling thorn, each black gall hosting a small colony of belligerent ants. With his handwritten notes reproduced alongside, Martin's sketches provide a strong sense of the painstaking work underlying the final Birds of Africa plates.

His text relates the circumstances surrounding particular drawings, and he has a deft sense of description for the inevitable close encounters - snakes and large mammals, as well as for the birds, with the pale pink-lidded Verreaux's Eagle Owl Bubo lacteus likened to Greta Garbo or Bette Davis, and swimming pelicans to planes that have cut their engines. Martin also painted the Ibis holotype illustration of that 'sensational ornithological find' Udzungwa Forest Partridge Xenoperdix udzungwensis. Famously, its yellow legs surfaced in a bowl of stew, stunning its Danish finders, and adding another endemic to the iconic species occupying the broken necklace of forests in Tanzania's Eastern Arc.

The book concludes in Cameroon where Martin joined a punishing trip ringing on Mount Kupé. Best bird for Martin was a Grey-necked Picarthartes Picathartes oreas. In the hand, 'it was half-way between holding a hare and particularly vigorous bantam cock', and 'The real wonder for me lay in its eyes - very large and intensely black, but also amazingly luminous, with great depths like a starlit night. I wondered how many millions of years eyes like this had been scanning the forest floor'. This acute sense of wonder is typical of the enquiring, warm-hearted spirit that flows throughout Safari Sketchbook. It lends a great sense of the generous man who has not only painted Africa's birds into critically acclaimed books and papers, but also played a pivotal role in establishing and running the African Bird Club.

John Fanshawe

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