Great Auk Summer and Winter plumage by John Gerrard Keulemans

Great Auk Summer and Winter plumage by John Gerrard Keulemans from Wikipedia


The Return of the Great Auk

This month scientists announced that it may be possible to use DNA to reintroduce the Great Auk, a bird extinct since the middle of the 19th Century.

The Great Auk was great indeed, standing at over 30 inches.  Get a tape measure.  That is a big bird!

When not making baby Auks, these birds would hunt the North Atlantic, weaving gracefully through the water. Unfortunately, on the ground they shared the same failings as the Dodo; they couldn’t fly, they couldn’t run very fast and they were damned tasty.

The Great Auk is no more.

The last pair were killed in 1844 on an island near Iceland but a reliable sighting was reported in 1952 of a single bird off Newfoundland.  Great Auks mated for life, and the thought of a solitary bird is especially sad.

I recently finished a set of Warwick Goble illustrations from Charles Kingsley’s ‘The Water-Babies – A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby’.  Mr Goble’s illustration below must undoubtedly be based on the last Great Auk, his ‘last Gairfowl’ sitting on the ‘Allalonestone’, all alone.

There he saw the last of the Gairfowl original by Warwick Goble

There he saw the last of the Gairfowl original by Warwick Goble


The announcement then is amazing news; the word ‘extinct’ may no longer mean ‘gone for ever’.  That these impressive birds might be living and breeding again in the Farne Islands, (off the coast of Northumberland, England) towering over the Puffins and Razorbills that nest there, is incredibly exciting.

Alca impennis by John Gerrard Keulemans

Alca impennis by John Gerrard Keulemans


Pinguinus impennus by John James Audubon

Pinguinus impennus by John James Audubon


Great Auk original watercolour by Edward Lear

Great Auk original watercolour by Edward Lear


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The Last Gairfowl by Warwick GobleGreat Auk by Edward Lear

Charles Darwin Day


It’s Darwin Day!

I can think of no better way to celebrate Charles
Darwin’s birthday than with his Galapagos finches, the
most famous birds in Natural History.

The illustrations below are from The Zoology of the
Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain
Fitzroy, R.N., during the years 1832 to 1836, Part 3,
Birds.  This five volume work was edited by Darwin, who
was the ship’s naturalist on the expedition to South
America, Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand and of course
the Galapagos Islands.

On Darwin’s return, the birds he collected were sent to
John Gould for classification. Gould’s wife Elizabeth,
by now a gifted artist, used her husband’s sketches to
draw and lithograph the new discoveries.


This is Cactornis scandens, now known as Geospiza scandens, the Common Cactus Finch.  ‘Common indeed, I inspired the theory of natural selection!’

Darwin's Finches

Darwin's Finches by Elizabeth Gould

Above, Camarhynchus psittacula, the Large Tree-finch.  Below,  the magnificently beaked Geospiza magnirostris, the Large Ground-finch.

Darwin's Finches

The next illustration – not a finch – is Tanagra darwini, named by Gould for Charles Darwin.  This species is now known as the Blue and Yellow Tanager (Thraupis bonariensis darwinii).

The Blue-and-yellow Tanager (Pipraeidea bonariensis)

Finally, I couldn’t resist this little Flycatcher eyeing up a bug.  A nice touch by Mrs. Gould.  Happy Darwin Day 🙂

Galapagos Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus nanus

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird


‘Lost’ Novel to be Published After 55 Years

A few days ago, the internet (and appropriately Twitter) was a flurry of excitement over the news of a sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.  The rediscovered manuscript, actually written before Mockingbird, is called Go Set A Watchman, and takes place 20 years after the original story.

I would like to celebrate this exciting news, not with a Finch, Peck, rabid dog or chifferobe but with real Mockingbirds.

Firstly, a classic from the bird-meister himself, John James Audubon. This famous illustration of mockingbirds defending their nest against a scary rattlesnake caused Audubon a certain amount of trouble. Rattlesnakes, many naturalists mocked, do not climb trees, even on the promise of mockingbird eggs for breakfast. Audubon insisted that he had sketched the scene after witnessing it first hand. Whatever the truth, it’s pretty impressive.

Audubon's Birds of America

Below is Mark Catesby’s Mock-Bird in a Dogwood Tree from his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, published from 1729 to 1747.  This two volume, 220 plate epic took Catesby seventeen years to complete, following four years of travelling and collecting, and was the first fully illustrated natural history of North America.

Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands

The last illustration is from Alice E. Ball’s A Year with the Birds, published in 1916; just one of fifty-six beautiful images of American birds by Robert Bruce Horsfall.

But hark! what is that?  Distinctly we hear
The pop of a cork, a whistle clear,
A call to a dog, a whip-poor-will’s cry,
A phoebe’s hoarse note.  Against the blue sky,
The same gray-coated, white-vested bird
Is uttering all the sounds we have heard.’

Alice E. Ball

Alice E. Ball - A Year with the Birds



john gould F.R.S. Ornithologist

A Monograph of the Trochilidæ, or Family of Humming-Birds

John Gould (1804-1881) was a top bod in English ornithology, curator of the Zoological Society of London and identifier of Darwin’s finches. He also loved hummingbirds.

Although he’d never seen a live hummingbird – he would see his first in 1857 – Gould had a collection of 320 species. These he exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851, garnering public interest and subscribers to his Monograph of the Trochilidæ, which was issued in 25 parts between 1849 and 1861 and subsequently published in 5 volumes.

The illustrations – lithographed by Henry Constantine Richter and William Hart from sketches by Gould – are as delicate and beautifully coloured as the little birds themselves.

There are over 400 plates and I must use them all. However, since I don’t think Zazzle is ready for that many hummingbird products all in one go, I’m going to use one illustration a week.

This week….


Cyanomyia franciae – Francia’s Azure-Crown – on Cuphea cordata

John Gould prints, posters, cards, postcards, notebooks

From Mr Gould’s description;

“Of the five or six known species of the genus Cyanomyia the C. Franciae may be regarded as the most beautiful….The glittering of the parts referred to is so resplendent, that it is out of the power of any person, I believe, to portray them; hence art and device are in this instance at a nonplus. In the accompanying plate a representation of these feathers is attempted with the ordinary media. If the reader can imagine the neck-plumes to be lit up with the most brilliant and glittering light possible, he may have some faint idea of their loveliness….”

John Gould - A Monograph of the Trochilidæ

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Cyanomyia franciae - Francia's Azure-Crown - on Cuphea cordata