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From a Birdwatcher’s Paintbox

Text and photos by Cristina Cinco 

Over the years I have seriously combined two of my life’s passions- painting and birdwatching.  As a birdwatcher,   travelling brought me to  destinations in the far corners of the country with inspiring sceneries where forests or uninhabited beaches still exists.  As a visual artist, vivid  memories from these trips became my subjects for paintings.

I began painting as a hobby thirty years ago after finishing college. My parents then considered  art  as a mere distraction to my academic pursuits. After graduation, it was my mother who even prodded me to take an intensive  workshop in oil painting, after which she became my number one supporter and art patron.  My earliest landscape painting in oil was of Shosenkyu Gorge from Yamanashi prefecture . I must admit that back in the 1980’s travelling within the Philippines was very limited and quite expensive. My very first trip abroad was in Japan. I was totally amazed by the earthen  colors of the autumn season  which was totally different from the verdant foliage I was used to back home.

Early Landscape Paintings in Oil

Shosenkyu Gorge, Yamanashi, Japan 1984
Landscape, 2002

In the succeeding years, I totally stopped painting due to demands of work and every day life.  But realizing something was missing, I went back to picking up the brush in 2003. My shift to watercolor came by chance.  After joining a regular oil painting workshop, I  met  Peter Sutcliffe, my current mentor in watercolor. It was the reverse case for Peter.  He was attending the oil painting workshops  to further improve  his skills. The oil painting sessions eventually ended after three years. In the absence of a teacher   Peter offered  to teach the group in watercolour backed by his more than 50 years  of experience  in this media. As a legacy, he wanted to impart his knowledge and skills,  mentoring our  painting group from 2006 up to the present. Aside from being a watercolorist, Peter too is a birdwatcher! He was instrumental in introducing me to this nature oriented hobby.   Landscape painting was his forte having grown up in the English Lake District.  The terrain and the sceneries of his homeland became  his favourite subjects reminiscent of  youthful memories. Having retired in the Philippines, Peter observed  that there are very few local  artists who painted the beautiful landscape in the country. Inspired by Peter’s watercolour landscapes, I took on  this challenge, which later became  my personal advocacy.

Watercolor Paintings by Peter Sutcliffe

English Lake District
Sabang Beach, Palawan

It took me several years of  training  to  gather enough confidence to paint landscapes. What seemed to be a simple subject such as a tree, a mountain or the sky proved to be difficult to portray. I continued to persevere in this water media after learning from the many failures and a lot of encouragement from my mentor . These art works are a result of my  travels as observed from a  viewpoint of a birdwatcher  and a watercolour painter.

FIshermen of Navotas
Mangrove Forest, Navotas

The  scenes from Navotas in the northern part of Manila Bay reflects the coastal life in Metro Manila.  Fisher folks still depend on the bay for way of living.   While the last patches of century old mangrove forests exist randomly along the shoreline.  Manila Bay serves a valuable source of food for its residents while its mudflats are important wetland habitats for birds during the migration season for birds. From the months of  November  to April, shorebirds like plovers, egrets and terns abound with a couple of  the critically endangered Chinese Egrets can be seen foraging in the area.

PAMARAWAN RIVER, BULACAN. The Bulacan river system showcased  a different aspect in rural  life among the people   of Malolos, Calumpit and Meycauyan.    Transport is mainly by  boat, ferrying residents   through its maze of rivers, streams and estuaries.  These waterways are their means  to go to the market  or for reaching the town center.  Certainly a convenient way for mobility without the stress of  being caught in heavy traffic.
PAMPANGA RIVER DELTA. This was a typical view while taking a land trip along the banks of the Pampanga River. Thousands of gulls, terns and other shorebirds were counted. Varied land forms, the reflection of the sky upon the waters with Mt. Pinatubo in the background prompted me to paint this composition. The bright sunlight further enhanced the browns of the dried cogon grass in contrast to the green foliage of the islets.

These paintings are the typical landscape views while  cruising along the Bumbungan river on the way to Pagsanjan Gorge  National Park.  Waterfalls, interesting rock formations, bamboo groves and Narra trees in full bloom with its bright yellow flowers dotted the riverbanks. As a birder, I had good views of  Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Kingfishers (Collared, White Throated and the Indigo-banded Kingfisher), and even some migratory birds like the Common Sandpiper,  Eastern Yellow Wagtail and a solitary  Little Egret.

Coral Beach at Negros Oriental
Apo Island, Negros Oriental

Negros Oriental is a favourite destination in the Visayas region.  On a stop over at a seaside restaurant, I came across this scene by the beach. I was enjoying the view of clam diggers, families taking a walk or people sitting  by the rocks to enjoy the sea breeze as the gigantic Talisay tree in turn provided some shade during the sunny afternoon.  Apo Island in turn was one of my trip’s highlight experiencing the closest thing to having the island to one’s self.  A marine protected sanctuary, corals and colorful fish were seen while snorkelling as Pied Imperial Pigeons became lifers while sitting on the beach.

Pasonanca Natural Park, Zamboanga City
The Bog Lake at Calarian, Zamboanga City

In 2014, the 9th Philippine Bird Festival was held in Zamboanga City. The city then was just  liberated from the rebel forces  a few months before  the event.   The  holding of the festival  right after the siege  boosted  the morale of its citizens. Being one of the oldest cities in the country,  Zamboanga also took pride in its  natural attractions such as  Pasonanca Natural Park and the Bog Lake at Calarian. The introductory birdwatching at Bog Lake was one of the festival activities for  the students providing them  good views of  waterbird species like the egrets, herons , Philippine Ducks and the  Philippine Swamphen.  The Pasonanca Natural Park within the city serves as its watershed.  The Tumaga river is part of the natural park and while still heavily forested, serves  as home to a myriad species a birds.

DAVAO RIVER, BUHANGIN, DAVAO CITY. In the recent past, this was the view from cousin’s home of the Davao River in the Buhangin district of Davao City. Banana plantations used to abound in the area where sunbirds, Common Emerald doves were plenty. I have also seen a Crested Serpent Eagle and a Brahminy Kite hovering about the open fields. Sadly , Davao has become highly urbanized converting this area into a residential subdivision.
JASMIN BY LAKE HOLON, SOUTH COTABATO. Last summer, the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines held its 12th Philippine Bird Festival in Central Mindanao. Currently under Martial Law, Mindanao is depicted in the news as a land of strife, tensions and conflicts. My personal experience was just the opposite. Coming across the photo taken by Ruth Francisco, this scene of Lake Holon during the post festival activities was a picture of serenity. A description lifted from nature’s palette with the blue calm waters of Lake Holon, the soft tint of the cerulean sky as Jasmin sat beneath a tree as she was looking towards the verdant mountains.

These  watercolour paintings serve as a journal of my travels.  Each composition is still a learning process faced with a lot of challenges.  Future trips will translate to subjects yet to be painted. As a birder and a nature lover in  these changing times of rapid development, the scenery are memories of places of what they were, an environment unspoiled  where various species of plants and animals can thrive.  Hoping that this art form will raise the awareness of nature conservation from the perspective of  being an avid birdwatcher and watercolour painter.

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