The Quintessential Bird

To: Kevin and Gwenyth Bray <>
Subject: The Quintessential Bird
From: Denis Wilson <>
Date: Mon, 23 Jul 2012 14:07:38 +1000
Kevin and Gwenneth Bray; and other COG Chat lIne members

Sorry for the delayed response, but I was away with some of the Canberra Native Plants people at Shoalhaven Heads on the weekend, looking at Orchids.

I am one of Steve Wilson's sons, and so I can confirm Mark Clayton's personal testimonial to Betty Temple Watts.

I was not her favourite bird-watcher, because on several occasions I caused her to need to redraw several illustrations for Birds in the Australian High Country, by finding a particular bird in the ACT which had not been known there previously.

My discovery of a small family of Swift Parrots on Rocky Knob (still an iconic birding spot, thanks to Geoffrey Dabb having taken up residence nearby, in more recent times) caused the Lorikeets and Cockatoos plate to be re-painted.

I believe the Pink Robin which Dad banded in the Brindabellas similarly required a plate to be re-painted. That was an interesting case, as when discovered in the ACT, it was not yet reported from NSW - an anomaly which has long-since been rectified.

Mark's comment about Betty Temple Watts' garden is spot on, as Betty was trained in botanical illustration, but she taught herself to do quick sketches of birds, and she would sit in her study and sketch maybe just a foot, or the head of a small bird, which it was feeding in the Grevilleas just outside her window. These tiny details were important to her ability to paint the birds in life-like positions, unlike the stilted poses normally used in most Field Guides. She had the eye of the Artist, not a mere illustrator.

I have one of her paintings, of a White-throated Treecreeper, and my brother Brendan has another small painting, of a Yellow-faced Honeyeater.

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a huge growth in the number of birdwatchers resident in Canberra. In my family's case, it was due to the decision by the Menzies Government to centralise the Defence Departments in Canberra, around the Russell Hill complex. My father worked in the Navy Department and his job was moved to Canberra in 1959. He soon met up with key birdwatchers, notably US Diplomat Don Lamm, who was on his second posting to Canberra, and who and already met the key birders in Canberra.

After arriving in Canberra in September 1959, Dad soon made contact with CSIRO birders, notably Warren Hitchcock and then Dr Harry Frith. Dave Purchase, who will be familiar to many COG members, replaced Warren Hitchcock upon the latter's retirement. Harry Frith was Chief of Wildlife Division of CSIRO when the words Chief of Division meant something.

Harry Frith decided to publish "Birds in the Australian High Country" and selected Betty Temple Watts to be the illustrator. He then selected a number of CSIRO specialists to edit various families of birds for the book. My father was the only "amateur birdwatcher" to be invited to be one of the selected contributors. The rest were CSIRO officers (or in the case of Ken Simpson, a former CSIRO officer, who had moved to the National Museum of Victoria, in Melbourne).

There is more detail about the writing process in the Foreword by Francis Ratcliffe, and in the Editorial Preface by Harry Frith, in the First Edition of the Book, dated 1969. I am pleased to note that Mark Clayton was recognised in the list of contributors to the Revised Edition of the Book, in 1976.

The people involved with the "Birds in the Australian High Country", were key members of what became COG. Initially it was the ACT branch of the RAOU.  That body undertook a strategic review of its role and constitution in 1969. Members of the Canberra branch of the RAOU  were involved in that review and in 1969 and 1970 decided to form the Canberra Ornithologists Group.

Interested readers can find much more about the early days of COG, from the on-line scans of Canberra Bird Notes which are linked from the COG home page.
  • “The old order changeth....” Thus spoke the
    legendary King Arthur before his death. But what has this
    to do with us? This month I am handing over to Dr. G.F.
    Van Tets, A.C.T. Branch Chairman, to explain changes in
    the branches status and name. Dr. G.F. Van Tets writes:
    In the new RAOU Articles of Association State and
    Territory branches are to be abolished. There is a
    provision for the formation of local RAOU groups, but
    under rules which do not meet our local conditions and
    procedures. While firmly supporting the adoption of the
    new articles as part of the reform of the Union, and in
    anticipation of these articles it is proposed that:-
    “At its meeting of April 15, 1970, the A.C.T. branch
    of the RAOU changes its status and name with no change in
    aims, activities or administration, to the Canberra
    Ornithologists Group, which will then apply to the RAOU
    for affiliation
    • Source: Canberra bird notes No.7 April 1970
  • On April 15, 1970, our organisation was officially renamed
    the Canberra Ornithologists Group. As such it has
    ceased to function as a branch of the Royal Australasian
    Ornithologists Union, but is seeking affiliation under
    article 67 of the Union's Articles of Association.
    • Source: Canberra bird notes No.8 July 1970
    September 10 1969
    Mrs Betty Temple Watts gave a very interesting talk
    about illustrating the book Birds in the Australian High
    Country. One of the major problems in drawing the plates
    for the book was that nearly every time a plate was
    completed another bird was discovered for the Canberra
    area which had to be included in that plate. As a result,
    plates had to be altered to show these birds, and to
    illustrate this procedure several slides of plates
    "before and after" were shown. In many cases the plates
    had to be entirely re-drawn.
    Also on display at the meeting were many of Mrs
    Temple Watts’ field sketches and preliminary drawings
    which gave some indication of the tremendous amount of
    dedicated work that must have gone into the book. Slides
    shown at the meeting
    • Source: Canberra bird notes No.6 January 1970
Those PDF scans of the early editions of the Canberra Bird Notes on the COG website were provided by Martin Butterfield, and provide a great insight into the early days of this remarkable organisation. I take this opportunity to express my appreciation to Martin's work in bringing these early, hand-typed, roneod documents in modern pdf format and then making them available on the Web.

Denis Wilson

On Sat, Jul 21, 2012 at 5:40 PM, Kevin and Gwenyth Bray <> wrote:
I have just been given the book The Quintessential Bird - the Art of Betty Temple Watts.
Betty Watts was a foundation member of the Canberra Ornithologists Group and one of the first two life members.  She provided the illustrations for some pre and post decimal bird stamps as well as to several different bird books.
Is there anyone in COG who was here at the beginning and therefore knew Betty Watts?  She moved to Queensland in 1972 and died there in 1991 aged 91.
Gwenyth Bray
Kevin & Gwenyth Bray

02 6251 2087
0406 376 878 (Mob Kevin)
0409 584 342 (Mob Gwenyth)

Denis Wilson
"The Nature of Robertson"

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