How often have we seen exotic and ordinary birds, big and small, flit from branch to branch, fly from tree to tree or swoop down with lightning speed to snatch up that hapless but tasty morsel in the form of an insect or a worm? Glimpses of a flash of colour or a shrill cry [...]


Get to know your garden birds

Dr. Pathmanath Samaraweera who pursued his passion for our feathered friends following his retirement, will launch a book for the uninitiated bird watcher

The Black-hooded Oriole

How often have we seen exotic and ordinary birds, big and small, flit from branch to branch, fly from tree to tree or swoop down with lightning speed to snatch up that hapless but tasty morsel in the form of an insect or a worm?

Glimpses of a flash of colour or a shrill cry or even a constant twitter as we sit by a window in our home or walk in our garden, leaving a question mark in our minds!

What bird is that should puzzle us no more, for the answer now lies in the colourful ‘Common Garden Birds of Sri Lanka’ by Dr. Pathmanath Samaraweera, fondly called ‘Sam’ by his birder-friends.

While there have been many books for the ‘serious’ bird-watcher, for the vast majority like us, the uninitiated, there has been nothing and that is the lacuna that Sam will soon fill.

It will also be a joint event – the launch of this handy booklet with common garden birds in all their finery to cater to people like you and me and also an exhibition of real-life paintings of birds.

These works have been in “hibernation”, smiles Sam, when we meet on Tuesday, amidst a busy schedule of getting his paintings mounted, while his books just off the presses stand tall on his dining table.

Earlier he just did not have the time to indulge in painting all day long, what with his work as an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon who headed the Department of Anatomy at the Faculty of Dental Sciences, University of Peradeniya and later with his practice in Colombo and his family with three young daughters.

An active member of the Ceylon Bird Club since 1986, his retirement from dental practice about two years ago paved the way for him to pursue his passion — studying birds and not only painting them but also photographing them. Often accompanied by his wife, Savi, who is also a Dental Surgeon, long would be the hours they spent trailing birds, trying to catch them in their natural surroundings, the latest being magnificent Mannar.

The birds must come alive in the paintings and this is what Sam strives to achieve. Jizz is his ardent wish – describing through his works of art the overall impression or appearance of his ‘subject’, the bird, all its features such as shape, posture, flying style or other habitual movements, size and colouration combined with voice, habitat and location.

The look of jizz helps us identify the birds, says Sam, explaining that how the word came about no one seems to know, but some believe that it is linked to a World War II Air Force acronym GISS for  ‘General Impression of Size and Shape’ with particular reference to an aircraft. Of course, some of the other interpretations are that it is a corruption of the German word, gestalt, which means form or shape or even gist or just a shortening of ‘just is’.

For him it is just the general demeanour of the bird – how it holds its head and how it behaves and he is a strong believer that unless one captures that in one’s painting, that work is a failure.

He turns the spotlight on the Asian Koel, his own work and says the painting is “good for recognition but not for perfection”.

The need for a book on common garden birds he felt as a teenager just into birds, relying heavily on the few books he accessed in the treasure trove of the Trinity College library, where he was studying. He would borrow these books and paint the images found in them, while the school holidays would open up wider vistas when he visited his maternal home in Dondra or other relatives’ homes in Anuradhapura.

“There are very few books on common garden birds for beginner bird watchers or schoolchildren, since W.W.A. Phillips’ four-book series, the first of which was on Garden Birds,” says Sam, adding that he thought of publishing this book with this group of readers in mind.

He would go to the field not only armed with a notebook and pencil to make quick sketches as well as jot down the colours but also with a camera dangling from his neck to snap photographs and then return home to more detailed work, sometimes even looking up G.M. Henry’s book.

Dabbling with water-colours first, which Sam says is not very thick, he later ventured into ‘thicker’ gouache which gave the paintings a much better appearance. Ten years ago he began experimenting with acrylic, on a series of endemic birds, which is to see fruition.

As the interview comes to an end with the question whether he paints to his heart’s content, he smiles and says now there are equally important labours of love vying with the lure of bird-call.

Granddaughter Ruvee in Sri Lanka and grandson Ranik in Australia have got a very tight hold of his heart-strings, keeping him from the wilds. To them Sam has dedicated ‘Common Garden Birds of Sri Lanka’.

The booklet is a fount of information, with the introduction giving tips to would-be bird-watchers, from what to wear, how to alert a companion when a bird is spotted, learning bird-calls to buying binoculars, along with a detailed sketch of the external parts of a bird….and the names of birds in all three languages for absolute clarity.

It describes 30 species which you may very well observe in a ‘typical house garden’. So keep it handy not only when peering at birds but also to flick the pages at leisure.

For me, the favourite is on the very last page – glossy black, their feathers seeming to shimmer in the light, the lines intricate and almost within reach of the fingers. It is the mundane, very common or much-maligned house crow, which we tend to shoo away, in all its splendour. In the book it looks good, in the painting it is magnificent.

Book launch and art exhibition
Both the launch of the book ‘Common Garden Birds of Sri Lanka’ and the opening of the Exhibition of Paintings of Birds by Dr. Pathmanath Samaraweera will be on August 12 (next Saturday) at 5.30 p.m. at the Harold Pieris Gallery.The exhibition of 24 original paintings in the book, as well as another 25 paintings will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on August 12 and from 9. a.m. to 7 p.m. on August 13.

The hard-cover, 210mmX145mm, 60-page book printed by Gooneratne Offset Pvt. Ltd., has everything and more for the beginner. The 24 colour plates are all of his paintings, while the descriptions of the 30 species are his detailed observations over a period of time.

However, the beautiful paintings in the book should also make people snap it up as a collector’s item.


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