Birdwatching in Chile’s Atacama Desert
Upon my table is a splay of papers and color samples. Brushes of all thicknesses, watercolors distributed, and some ceramic palettes already have the mixtures ready to start painting. There is also an important folder of photos I took in the field, even some nibs that I managed to collect to have some tactile samples as a reference.
I am sitting at the table, but mentally I move back and forth between my studio and the vivid memory of that morning standing in front of the Machuca Bofedal. Binoculars in one hand, notebook in the other, camera hanging around my neck and a dazzled look on my face. Part due to the light, part due to the beauty.
The is a High-Altitude Wetland, very typical of the plateaus of the high plains, formed in this case among the tributaries of the Machuca River that have descended from Saye Hill to form a ford at 4000 meters above sea level. It is a dynamic scenario that, depending on the availability of water, expands and contracts revealing green cushions of peat, moss and grasses. These are the wetland’s plant species; they enrich this ecosystem and accommodate it to host a variety of desert animals.
Communities of vicuñas, for example, drink in the clearings of the ford; and some vizcachas and wild cats are known to hide higher in the hills. Of course, a very rich variety of desert birds come here to make their colorful displays and fill the silence with songs and choruses.
The light is special. At this hour, sunlight slants toward the water and makes it shine in such a way that you notice areas still frozen by the temperatures of the previous night. Some birds play and dive, others walk gracefully on the layer of frozen water that the morning sun manages to make shine but not melt.
Again, the light allows one to see colors reserved only for those who are lucky enough to be there, face to face with the species of inspiration. Under the right conditions, the sun reveals, for example, the iridescence of the feathers of the Puna Duck, which glow from a brown color to intermittent green every time the duck moves. A real challenge for my watercolors.
Interestingly enough, and after a sufficient time without interrupting them, we observe that each species expresses character traits that we humans understand to be “personality”. And why not anthropomorphize? Project human qualities onto birds to see if we can identify ourselves in them and thus feel more empathy towards them?
The humor with which the Tagua walks supporting its membranous legs contrasts with the mischief with which the Franklin Gull looks for traces of food. The flamingoes dip their heads in counterweight to keep the other half of their bodies afloat with a kick that looks more like a pedal, before graciously taking flight and piercing the bofedal sky with their pink flutter.
Capturing the traits of the different species through observation and being able to represent them on paper will make the illustrations convey emotions and become truly alive. They may even peel off the paper and flap, as when they were trying to peel off the ice.
As you can see, this profession of nature illustration is not just about representing shapes and colors, but about getting in touch with the complexities and webs that make up life: a gentle way to approach the birds and discover their details and their intimate world.