Every now and then I get a commission, sometimes a portrait of a pet or person but never before such an extraordinary bird as the great bustard. If you’re not familiar; and why should you be, they’ve been extinct in the uk since 1832, these charismatic birds are to be found on Salisbury Plain where there is a breeding and conservation project dedicated to rebuilding a strong population for reintroduction.
I live in Wiltshire with Salisbury Plain on the doorstep so upon agreeing to the commission I felt it was only fitting to go and visit the great bustard project. Anyone can visit via booking online. Meeting our very knowledgeable, intrepid and well travelled guid in a car park, only a slightly clandestine experience , you’ll be transferred into a land rover and driven through restricted areas of MOD land and farmland, in pursuit of these not so elusive birds. They’re too big to hide. Furnished with binoculars and telescope we bounced happily around the tracks until we spotted our quarry in the distance. The males and females stay in separate groups and we had planned our visit coincide with mating season. The females looked very relaxed, busy feeding and preening, occasionally raising their heads to check out the male group and casting their disdainful eye they would then return to foraging. Males were taking it in turns to put on a magnificent display in the hope of attracting a mate. They have an inflatable pouch on the breast which shows flashes of bright blue flesh and the most extraordinary moustache which, when the pouch is inflated turns upwards giving them a comical sergeant major kind of expression. Their wings, in the meantime look as if they have been turned inside out and then the whole affair is gently vibrated to finish the effect. You couldn’t make it up and my overall impression was of how unlikely this amazing bird is.
These are ground nesting birds which leave them and their eggs quite vulnerable to predators. They have three forward facing toes and none facing back so they cannot perch in trees. They are the heaviest flying birds in the world and their wingspan reaches up to 8 feet. Female birds have a protected enclosure where they can nest naturally in safety. The first of their eggs is taken to be incubated in safety and the second egg is left for them to hatch on their own. The males only contribution to the next generation is his fancy pants dance and deeply impressive if somewhat comical plumage. (Yet again the next generations genes are decided by the aesthetic choices of the female. ) He plays no further role in the rearing of the chicks.
The painting took a few months to complete and I had to build up some courage to make a start. All those feathers felt quite daunting. I worked from a photo by taken by Steve Colwill who works for the project and kindly sent me some images of their birds. My plan is to give the digital image of the painting to the great bustard group to use for raising funds for the project.