Ross Coupland’s bird photography in the time of COVID-19

Here’s a fabulous selection of bird photographs taken recently in the Queensland outdoors by Australian wildlife expert, Ross Coupland. Great images! A great read! Great Lockdown Beautiful Stuff!!


During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was reduced to three days’ work per week. This gave me time to get out into ‘the bush’, in isolation; watching and waiting for good photo opportunities. I have selected my favourite shots from this time for Talking Beautiful Stuff.

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Beach Stone-curlew

As the global pandemic gathered pace, in March 2020, I took a trip to Rainbow Beach north of Brisbane. The area is part of the Great Sandy National Park, an area of over 2000 km2 comprising threatened coastal habitats and including Fraser island, the world’s largest sand island. I found a family of Beach Stone-curlews living on a spit of sand, close to where the ferry loads and unloads thousands of 4WDs every year. Returning at sunset, I was able to get close to one of the birds as they are less shy and become more active towards the end of the day. The setting sun provided a beautiful, golden backlight. The species is threatened in parts of its range, as coastal areas are continually developed for tourism and local recreational use.

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Comb-crested Jacana

With COVID-19 restrictions being placed on travel throughout the state of Queensland, I was limited to areas close to home. Thankfully, here in Brisbane there is no shortage of parks, reserves and forests within an hour’s drive. Visiting one of my favourite lakes early one morning I saw a lone Comb-crested Jacana foraging on the lily pads. Their incredibly long toes make walking on the flimsy substrate a breeze; some people call them Jesus birds. I was able to get a nice, low angle by laying on the lake shore, blurring the lilies in the background.

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Forest Kingfisher

At the same lake, there is a family of Forest Kingfishers that hunt the shallow waters around the vegetated inlets. They use a few, select perches to watch for small fish and insects, one of which is a dead tree close to the walking track. I set up my tripod and camera behind a tree on the bank with just the end of the lens protruding and waited…. and waited.. Finally, after 2 hours, one of the kingfishers settled right in front of me with a small fish in its beak.

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Rose-crowned Fruit Dove

By August and with restrictions easing in Queensland, I took a trip to Bribe Island that is accessible via a road bridge to the mainland. It is an important area for many bird species. There is a small population of Rose-crowned Fruit Doves which are known to over-winter there, in a small patch of remnant, coastal rainforest. They seem to feed almost exclusively on the berries of a single Corkwood tree. These are normally shy, secretive birds that live in rainforest canopies on the mainland, so this was a good opportunity to capture an image of this spectacular species.

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Regent Bowerbird

As spring approached, I visited a friend’s property where several Giant Spear Lilies had sprung into bloom. These impressive plants produce enormous flower-spikes with bright orange-red flowers that act like a beacon to birds and insects from the surrounding green rainforest. One of the birds that visited was this male Regent Bowerbird. The males have a striking combination of yellow and black feathers, whereas the females sport a rather drab, scalloped brown. Male Bowerbirds are well known for their habits of building unusual and sometimes spectacular structures out of twigs and decorating them with a wide variety of foraged items. These structures are used as display platforms to entice in female birds to mate. The females then build regular nests in the forest nearby and raise the chicks alone.

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Paradise Riflebird

The species I was really hoping to see on the Giant Spear Lilies was the elusive Paradise Riflebird. This is one of four species of birds of paradise found in Australia and the most southerly occurring. They are hard to see at the best of times; it is rare to get a chance of a good photo. The males have an iridescent quality to their plumage, only visible at the right angle of light. In the hope that a male bird would visit, I set up with my camera underneath a special camouflage net and waited. Sure enough, after about an hour the male arrived to probe the flowers for nectar with his specialised bill. The thin fog in the area gave a nice, diffused light that was perfect for bringing out the subtleties in the bird’s plumage.

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Crimson Rosella

Another bird that is common in the same area is the Crimson Rosella. These colourful parrots are generally found in more temperate regions and in Southeast Queensland are restricted to mountainous areas with cool, wet forest. I found one feeding on a roadside Rondeletia bush. When parrots are feeding, they can be quite approachable if you do nothing to alarm them.

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Musk Lorikeets

On a trip to the western part of the Scenic Rim, a crescent-shaped mountain range southwest of Brisbane, I found a group of huge Grass trees in full bloom. These impressive flower spikes are particularly prolific after fire and are a magnet to nectar-feeding birds such as Honeyeaters, Lorikeets and Spinebills. I have struggled to get close to Musk Lorikeets in the past as they are nomadic and usually feed high up in flowering Eucalyptus trees. I was delighted to find about ten of them feeding low down on the Grass tree flowers. When a pair was feeding on a close flower spike, I turned the camera to portrait orientation to capture both birds in the image. They seem quite content with me being close by while they fed.

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Barred-cuckoo Shrike

The weather begins to really warm up in Brisbane around the beginning of October; migrating birds from the north appear. Among them is the secretive Barred-cuckoo Shrike. I had never seen this species in Brisbane before and was able to get a clear shot of this one perching high in a Small-leaved Fig tree.

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Channel-billed Cuckoo

Reports of Channel-billed Cuckoos arriving in the area had started to come in on social media! These raucous brood-parasites from New Guinea make their annual southerly migration to Australia around October; they use unstable air masses and thunderclouds to ease the effort of the long-haul flight. They are consequently known by their colloquial name ‘Stormbirds.’ They are the largest cuckoo in the world. Many folk dislike them for their sullen appearance and loud squawk while flying around at dusk and dawn. However, I rather like them and consider their presence a welcome omen of warmer, productive times ahead for the natural world!

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Pale-headed Rosella

We are fortunate in Brisbane to have several sizeable botanic gardens which are beautifully maintained by the council. One of them has an impressive native plant section including Grevilleas that when flowering attract one of the most spectacular parrot species in the area, the Pale-headed Rosella. These are notoriously hard to get good, close views of. They are intelligent birds and highly wary. However, the birds in these gardens are perhaps more accustomed to human traffic and seem happy to be approached while feeding.

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Diamond Firetail

In mid-October, my wife, Kelly, and I took a trip to the Granite Belt region, about 3 hours southwest of Brisbane. The striking granite outcrops make for interesting scenery along the way. This area offers glimpses of a stunning variety of birds. On this trip, I clocked up 87 species of which ten were completely new to me. A highlight was staking-out a muddy puddle on the edge of a road where different birds would busily vie for position to take a quick drink after a hot day’s foraging. The star of the show was the spectacular tiny Diamond Firetail. This is one of Australia’s beautiful, arid-adapted finch species. It lives on the edge, making the most of the boom and bust climate when times are good.

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Zebra Finch

Possibly the most successful arid-adapted finch species in Australia, is the Zebra Finch. Found over much of the dry interior of the country, they can survive for extended periods on only dry seeds and have been observed drinking water of high salinity that other species could not tolerate. This was another first for me and, in this image, a male bird is being harassed by his sizeable brood for a meal of regurgitated seeds!

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Red-rumped Parrot

The final image of my selection is a male Red-rumped Parrot. The species is generally only found west of the Great Dividing Range (a north-south spine of mountains separating the greener coastal strip of eastern Australia from the drier interior) where they live a semi-nomadic existence taking advantage of green, seeding grasses and vegetation where available. To get a low-angle to throw the background out of focus, I had to lay down on angry-ant-infested ground! Worth the effort, I reckon!

All images were taken on Canon equipment, mainly the Canon 1DX full frame DSLR body, paired with the EF 600MM f4/L IS II lens and 1.4X and 2X teleconverters in some cases. I shoot exclusively in RAW format and process in Adobe Photoshop CS5 using a monitor calibrated by a Datacolor Spyder 3. Some images were handheld, others used a Gitzo carbon fibre tripod paired with an Arca Swiss Z1 bullhead and Wimberley mounting plates.


Copyright on all photos: Ross Coupland

A tribute to William T Cooper, bird artist (1934 – 2015)

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Red-tailed Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus magnificus)

I am in the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland, Australia. I catch just a flash of colour high in the trees; one of this country’s wonderful parrots. I am reminded of a treasured book at home: Joseph M. Forshaw’s “Parrots of the World” exquisitely illustrated by William T. Cooper (Doubleday, 1978.)

At an information centre near Malanda, I have a leisurely coffee and spot a DVD for sale of a documentary by Sarah Scragg entitled “Birdman: The art of William T. Cooper.” Quite a coincidence! But then… maybe not. It turns out that this genius ornithological illustrator was Australian who lived and worked just around the corner!

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Rosella species (Platycercus Sp.)

The film briefly documents Cooper’s artistic life into his eighties but concentrates on him creating some thirty paintings for his last exhibition. It was filmed over the two years it took him to produce these works. It was fascinating to watch this modest and kindly man bring to life his subject matter on canvas. Cooper was completely likeable, described by Sir David Attenborough as ‘the best ornithological illustrator alive. You cannot better this. This is it!’ Sure is!

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St. Vincent Amazon (Amazona guildingii)

Cooper started his career as a self-taught landscape and seascape painter. He illustrated his first bird book in 1968 and, with Foreshaw, published Parrots of The World, Birds of Paradise & Bowerbirds of The World, Kingfishers of the World, definitive works on Turacos, Bee-eaters, Hornbills and Pigeons of Australia. He must have walked the same tracks as I did through the Tablelands.  

He called himself a professional bird illustrator. It was his life, his passion and his daily work. His output was prolific. Over 45 years Cooper made hundreds of astonishingly accurate and beautiful illustrations and paintings of birds. In the film, he states that as a child “birds drove me insane.” I know exactly what he means. That total absorption in the study of amphibians and reptiles is similarly an insanity for me. I recognise that ‘insanity’ – that ‘love’ – at play in his work. The birds and backgrounds are perfect.

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Vulturine Parrot (Gypopsitta vulture)

The film shows Cooper collecting reference material for the backgrounds to his birds. He shot fruit down from the canopy with a powerful air rifle. He brought home lichen-covered boughs from the forest floor. Latterly, digital photography replaced his thousands of sketches of background landscapes and wildflowers. He was rare among illustrators in that he would travel abroad to sketch as many of his subjects that he could in their habitats. Often a zoo visit would have to suffice. This practise, he explains, enabled him to put that final layer of accuracy into his birds; their ‘jiz’, their essence, the characteristics that are unique to each species. His studio included drawers filled with bird skins, feathers and much more. This complete dedication to accuracy, not only in the subjects but also in the backgrounds too, makes him one of the foremost scientific Illustrators of all time. Attenborough describes the difference between Cooper’s scientific illustration, where points of identification are necessary, and the paintings that he did for exhibitions. He could be free from science then and his work takes on a liveliness not seen in his book plates. However, as evidenced by the parrots shown here, he managed to make his scientific illustrations vibrant too and Attenborough acknowledges this as one of Cooper’s greatest skills.

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Great-billed Parrot (Tanygnathus megalorynchos) and Blue-naped Parrot (Tanygnathus luciorensis)

As I watch Cooper at work and listen to his commentary I can’t help noticing the similarities between his working methods and mine. There is dedication to accuracy. There is collection of background materials and photography of subjects for reference. He uses transparent overlays to test ideas. With a mirror he can check composition and symmetry. He speaks of often being dissatisfied with his work and will destroy the output of days if it does not reach his exacting standards. But there the similarities end. I can only stand in Cooper’s shadow. I only work in one medium whereas Cooper is master of all. My output is limited and I’ve hardly ever sold my work. Quite simply, I finally realise, I am not in the same league.

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Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus)

The film ends at the exhibition. Every painting was sold within ten minutes. Cooper states that he is pleased but appears genuinely embarrassed by his success and fuss people are making of him. He can’t wait to get back to his rainforest home in Malanda to enjoy a cup of tea on his veranda; brewed precisely for five minutes as set by a timer. What a guy!

David Stacey: significant, unique and original

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I am back in Tropical North Queensland in Kuranda. The township is a small but internationally renowned destination that sits atop a mountain ridge surrounded by the oldest rainforests on Earth. By day it’s a tourist mecca of art galleries, a famous hippie market, zoos, eateries and craft shops. By night the indigenous Australians claim back the empty streets. I am here once again to visit David Stacey in his studio.

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As I walk in, my friend David is applying acrylic paint to a large, colourful and incredibly complex painting. Tourists dawdle past perusing his works on the walls. A woman asks as if in disbelief “Did you paint this?” Others just go straight through to the indoor market beyond. How does David feel about painting in public? This new activity, plus a subtle change that I detect in his work, prompts me to think about a third article about him and his work for Talking Beautiful Stuff.

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I look around at his new works. The guy has a prodigious output! They are larger and more colourful, if that were possible. There are fewer species’ portraits and more surreal, dreamlike paintings. It is subtle and he agrees that he has evolved in some way. However, the busy gallery is no place for digging a bit deeper so David invites me to go ‘bush’ with him on his next walk deep in the rainforest of the Atherton Tablelands.

A few days later, in khaki and with backpacks filled with water and tucker, we enter the trackless rainforest near Malanda. David has just told me how he was once lost in the bush south of Cairns for three days and, on top, nearly died after being bitten by a venomous Red-bellied Black Snake. I admit to being nervous. I too have been lost in forests. I’d like to avoid a repeat.

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We chat as we go. With apparent ease, David finds the exact place where, years ago, he had discovered the extraordinary twin towers of the bower built by the male Golden Bowerbird.  We sit and observe this beautiful rare bird at work. On navigating back out of the forest, David constantly points out things of interest: leaves, flowers, fruits, droppings, tree bark, insects and birds calling from the canopy. The eye of this artist-naturalist misses nothing. I am an obsessive natural historian and can tell you that David Stacey knows his stuff! This knowledge and love of his native flora, fauna, landscape and ecologies shines out from his work. I am privileged to watch and learn from this very private man, now in his true element.

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Here’s the Golden Bowerbird in one of David’s new paintings. That’s him sitting right above the frog!

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Next stop is the home of a Tablelands animal carer who rescued a possum joey after its mother had been road-killed. My job is to photograph the animal in various poses and take close-ups of its anatomy. David is planning a painting that will include this animal; accurate detail of species is part of the power and beauty of his work. The Green Ringtail Possum is endemic to the high canopy of the region’s rainforest. Having this incredible creature climbing over me is thrilling. In many people’s opinion, it is the most beautiful of mammals. I cannot disagree.

So what did we talk about as the day’s adventure unfolded? David does not enjoy painting in public. Constant questioning and repetition of the questions interrupt him. People touch his work, jostle him and get too close. He has to man the gallery nevertheless. Painting at the same time increases his output and he recognises that observing him with brush in hand creates more interest in his very particular beautiful stuff.

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Technique intrigues me and I wanted to know how David achieves the smoky mist effect in this painting. He uses an old, worn-out brush in a ‘feathering’ way. Ingenious! There was me thinking airbrush!

We discussed the similarities and differences in our working practices and attitudes to our creativity. This was revealing. I call achieving accuracy at every stage of the work “keeping my eye on the ball.” He calls it “keeping my hands on the reins.” In terms of the ego we differ. I need accolades to boost my credibility and self-confidence. David wants to have a place in art history: his “legacy.” He wants it to be “significant, unique and original.” He has pretty much achieved that. A “Stacey” is instantly recognised, but above all, admired. However, I wanted to know what he meant by “significant.”

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He is happy to explain what is “significant” about his new work. Before, he would paint the landscapes and species because he was inspired by his interest in and love for them. Now that inspiration is underpinned by a profound concern for the state of the planet. He feels that he is now driven by a need to inform by expressing the beauty of his subject matter. He tells me he is “informing through art as a catalyst for change in attitude.” He uses the terms “visual literacy” and “stories through images.”

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This makes sense to me as I could see it working in the larger, more surreal works that he is creating. “Surreal” is his description; he explains it as ‘juxtaposing different aspects by a form of collage or montage. This, he says, gives more value for money. There are more aspects and subjects to look at and because of this more can be hidden; this then allows the viewer to a more open and personal interpretation. However, he adds, more can also be revealed, and that includes more obvious messages, stories and information. He always places importance in his own meanings within the work.

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I am now back in the UK. David sends me a photo of the painting he was working on. He tells me that he didn’t enjoy doing it. Well, the world will enjoy it. Like its creator, it is definitely significant, unique and original. 

Thank you for everything David. I wish you and Sandy the very best for the future.

Discovering David Stacey’s natural world

I spent Christmas with my daughter who lives in Kuranda, a tourist destination in Tropical North Queensland, Australia. This small, unique village sits atop a mountain range cloaked with ancient rainforest and is accessed from the coastal plain below by a colonial style railway, a winding, mountain road and a cable car. In the 1960s its famous Hippie Market established it for tourism; hence its art galleries, souvenir shops, small zoos and various eateries.

In his small, walkthrough gallery in Kuranda’s centre, David Stacey sat working on a pencil drawing in the corner as I walked through to get coffee in the square beyond. I never got beyond. I was stopped in my tracks by the unusual and amazingly colourful, original paintings and reproductions by Mr Stacey.

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My first impression was that his work lay somewhere between graphic design and picture painting and that the colourful renditions of his rainforest subject matter would appeal to the tourist market and that he would do good business selling his professionally presented greetings cards, prints etc. But there was an element about every work that appealed to something deep within me that kept me looking and kept me very interested. Mr Stacey was botanical artist, landscape painter, scientific illustrator and graphic designer all rolled into one.

Some of his paintings were conglomerations of maps, landscapes and the creatures and features contained within. I felt that each painting was conveying ideas, feelings, incidents and stories. I was convinced that he was telling of and expressing, in an holistic way, his affinity with, his understanding and appreciation of and respect and love for the surrounding country; particularly the rainforest. I was not therefore surprised that when I eventually spoke to him and asked him what his favourite work was he told me it was the Flaggy Creek Triptych above.

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I realised why Mr Stacey’s work was reaching me. Although he does not paint in a strictly realistic style I noted the accuracy of his drawing in his portrayals of different species of flora and fauna; from forest fruits to birds and frogs. I applaud accuracy and this level of it only comes from an intimate familiarity, born of respect and love, for these denizens of the forest. As a student and illustrator of Natural History and familiar with many of his subjects, including some of the landscapes, I believed myself qualified to make such judgements but nonetheless was eager to test my ideas by asking the artist himself.

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David, from Sydney, came to Kuranda already a lover of Nature in the 1980s. He confirmed to me that he spends much time in the bush and rainforest walking the tracks and studying the species. He uses a headtorch, like me, to find and encounter the nocturnal species such as the wonderful Waterfall Frog – Litoria nannotis in this painting which coincidentally I went on to photograph at Davies Creek that night after speaking with him! It is no wonder he loves this landscape. Davies Creek is the most gorgeous of places and the habitat of this endangered and beautiful Frog is so well portrayed in his painting.

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David agreed that his style was not unlike Aboriginal art in the way that it expresses his world in an holistic way rather than concentrating on a single subject. However he stated that his style had evolved from his personality rather than having been influenced by Aboriginal art. I thought convergent evolution manifests itself in more ways than we think! The Aboriginal and David Stacey both expressing their world by painting it in their own individual way but in a way that displays much similarity.

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When I asked David “why do you paint?” he thought for a while then said “what else can you do?” We discussed what he meant by this and agreed that, like me again, he is driven to recreate that which he finds aesthetic; only in his case it is a whole ecology that he has to recreate and thus his conglomerate paintings reflect this. He says that in this modern world he believes that “people are losing their sense of aesthetic and beauty.”

He is a thoughtful man; never answering a question without pause for consideration and whilst reflecting on our interview I later wondered if David Stacey was in his gallery in body but his mind was wandering the rainforest where he was most happy?

David is creating a book with a publisher already very interested. It is an illustrative narrative about the journey of water in a certain creek from source to sea. I was very privileged to be shown some of the plates for the book. It will be unique and quite stunning. It will be for young and old and filled with all the plants, animals, geology, stories and ideas provoked by a long love affair with the natural history of the rainforests of Tropical North Queensland. I shall certainly buy a copy.

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David Stacey sells well to the tourists. His limited prints are extremely well produced. This does not devalue his work but I believe that it was not created for this reason. His are works of passion; expressing his world of the rainforest. I think it sells well because it is simply very beautiful stuff about very beautiful stuff.

Aussie frogs

GarthThe last time I see him in England, he is wearing his trademark battered top hat. He struts his muscomorpha stage persona. A frenzied crowd reach out to touch of his silver-skull-encrusted costume. The Divide is pumping out wave upon wave of metal sound for the last time. The band’s front man, Mr Fly is buzzing off to Oz. Few fans know that this one-time-graphic-designer-outragious-cartoonist-retired-policeman who harbours a profound passion for and knowledge of herpetology is heading downunder forever; maybe because there is only one species of frog in England; there are 208 species of frog in Australia.

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Scarlet-sided Pobblebonk, Limnodynastes terraereginae

You have met Garth before. He Talks Beautiful Stuff from Queensland, Australia. I visit him there and we do a road trip to the Glass House Mountains. It is hot. Storm clouds gather. His excitement mounts. “Tonight,” he says with relish, “we go frogging!”

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Graceful Tree Frog, Litoria gracilenta

It starts with late evening lightning. Fat raindrops splash onto the dusty tarmac of a back country road. Fifteen minutes later, the downpour makes it is difficult to see through the windscreen. Moving at 5km/hour, our headlights are picking out hundreds upon hundreds of frogs that have lain dormant in the brutal Australian heat waiting for the rain and the opportunity for mating brought by the temporary puddles and streams.

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Great Barred Frog, Mixophyes fasciolatus

It is early morning and a soaked Garth is still leaping out of the car every ten metres to chase, net and photograph the objects of his life-long passion. Each image will be minutely examined and catalogued once the frog is identified.

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Stony Creek Frog, Litoria Wilcoxii

On the drive home through sleeping Brisbane suburbs, he tells me that he is going to turn his hand to serious herpetological illustration. For the results of this decision, see above! I am happy that Talking Beautiful Stuff is first to publish his truly beautiful and precise work. It is a labour of love.