Saturday, 26 November 2011

Great grey shrike, Hafren forest

Great grey shrike did not take long to locate at Hafren forest, advertising its territory perched at the top of a bare birch shrub. This bird stakes its claim on the surrounding clear-fell territory from the top of the highest perches, waving in the wind like a tricolor of striking black primaries sandwiched between a warm grey mantle and pure white underparts. Its song bird appearance is deceptive to the untrained eye, but to the birds, of which no sound can be heard here today, this starling sized shrike is a fearsomely territorial predator. A fairly rare winter visitor in the UK, the great grey shrike feeds mainly on voles but also other birds. It impales its prey on sticks and thorns, to preserve them in 'larders' for later consumption, a gruesome habit that has earned it the name of butcher bird. Whilst obvious when standing sentinel over its territory, the shrike can be equally elusive when it chooses lashing out towards the ground not to be seen again for hours at a time. Sometimes though, the shrike will disappear from a perch only to almost instantly be noticed standing boldly at the opposite end of its territory, a slight of hand that adds a dose of Cheshire cat trickery to the butcher birds curious personality.

The shrikes behaviour sets a pattern for my day, as I draw it during its periods of sentinel duty in the open, and spend long periods waiting and wondering about its secret life out of sight when it becomes conspicuous by its absence. Finally as darkness falls I catch sight of the shrike low to the ground in amongst brush wood under decapitated tree roots, it is jabbing at something with its bill, but I can't make out what. The shrike flies up and pauses on a low branch, I snatch this sketch before the light in my scope fades completely. cb, cr, ru, bu

Monday, 21 November 2011

A day of firsts - Nene Washes

Dense fog as I arrived on this stretch of the Nene Washes, a long straight track with flat arable fields either side. With nothing to see i could only use my ears to locate the pee-wit call of wheeling lapwing and then the whoosh of golden plovers darting low overhead. A buzzard and a marsh harrier appear out of the white gloom. The midday sun lifts the fog from the ground for a time but shortly falters and drains away into a pink pool collecting along the Western horizon. Pockets of mist reform, solitary in the cold dykes at first, but with growing strength of sorcery they multiply and soon spill out to blanket the fields and fenland, submerging the few remaining marginal oaks and ashes up to their waists. In this brief window short eared owls swoop and glide silently close to me, sometimes rising to lock talons high in the air. Following them I see one dip and stall on the ground as it makes a kill, it stays on this spot; wings relaxing and flopped to the side, head swivelling, golden eyes alert in the gloom, still for a while, my opportunity to paint, this, the first short eared owl I have ever seen.

The owls move further East out of sight and perhaps on this cue a family of red legged partridges tentatively pick their way through the undergrowth and out into the open of the owl's field. The first time I have seen these skulking birds, rare in Wales, clearly enough to paint. Dampness in the air saturates everything helping me to work rapidly before they melt away.

Finally as if good things come in three, I am instantly alerted to a sound momentarily alien as I am incredulous to place it here but soon recognisable as it is so charismatic, commonly evoking the wild spaces of central Europe I have seen in TV documentaries and now for my privilege a wilder fenland of the past! Suddenly so much richer is my feeling for this flat land and the family of common crane awakening me to it, trumpeting to one another as they come in to land somewhere nearby. By now night and fog colludes in a pitch black sky, ensuring I would not see this unexpected species(despite reports of their recolonising pockets of East Anglia), in most other circumstances this would be an annoyance but on this occasion it seemed appropriate, adding to the mystery of an evocation which will stay with me all the more for it.

Wild-fowlers line the route home, motionless figures in the dark between the fence posts who I greet enthusiastically... a little clumsy I realise in retrospect as they remained silent to me.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Red Kites, Nant Y Arian 1st - 15th November

Red Kites in their hundreds take advantage of the daily 2pm (dst) feeding at Nant Yr Arian. The official viewing areas are on the lakeside and from a hide a few metres in front of the feeding area. These spots give close views of the frantic action as the kites circle in ever closer tighter formation waiting until simultaneously regarding it safe to come to ground and take the bait. Normally it is one brave individual who makes the first move triggering others to line up in a kind of vertical conveyor of aerial dive bombs as each bird lifts its broad tail and spills the air from its wings and drop in a twisting spiral to the ground. Rarely do the birds land, preferring to clutch a piece of meat in one swoop and eat on the wing, some individuals have perfected this technique so adeptly that they can fish for morsels dropped into the lake osprey style. This may be perceived as a safer method to some birds than taking food from the ground, others I am sure do not dare to use the feeding station at all, resorting to piracy in the air even though plenty of food remains for the taking on the ground. Once they have eaten, the kites who use the feeding area regroup to swoop once more, repeating the process three or four times before the crows move in to finish off the bait. Other birds including buzzards and occasionally goosander also take advantage of the rich pickings. The splintering whistles of kites being mobbed by other kites for their food can be heard long after the feeding frenzy has died down but as dusk approaches all the birds have drifted away on every point of the compass towards their more sedentary lives along the coast, over the wind turbines and into the wilderness of upland Mid Wales.

Chaotic and confusing, the view of kites at the food source is not the best for drawing and I have taken preference to working on a ridge above the action and away from the crowds. Here it is possible to almost be among the kites as they rise in formation before disappearing below the tree line to feed. With the right wind, luckily the prevailing South Westerly, the birds will hang above my ridge affording excellent opportunity for drawing postures of flight as they glide, chase and feed on the wing. Often here high above the fray I will notice other raptors, the ubiquitous buzzard, also kestrels and on several occasions a stooping peregrine falcon, why does it seem attracted to this gathering? would it dare mob a kite or even attempt a kill on these apparently easy targets or is it purely drawn to the energy and curiousness of this quasi-natural event?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Biscay Bonxie

Mono print of a lone Great Skua low over the oily dark waters of Biscay. First attempt for a series of prints on birds and cetaceans seen from the bridge of Pont Aven (Portsmouth - Santander ferry) whilst on our annual marine mammal surveys for ORCA. The inspiration being the depth of space, darkness, light and elements that engulf the ocean-goer. Massive? V&A Chinese woodblock (02.01.12)

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Building Wigeon Flocks

Porthmadog cob stretches North to south, spanning the Glaslyn estuary, carrying main road and ffestiniog light railway. The East side of the cob looks over tidal lagoons and up river towards Moel Siabod; on the other side of the Railway is the West and saltmarshes exposed to Cardigan bay and its relentless onshores. The lagoons and saltmarsh hold large numbers of wintering waterfowl including whooper swan and pintail, today the main event was a flock of several hundred wigeon in eclipse.

East: On sunshine and cloud day, focus here was on light from cloud breaks and colours in landscape. Constant change has meant this study has not been comprehensive. On flooding tide, restless flocks take off in splashing waves filling the air and circle across and above the mountain background. Limiting palette further will help capture atmosphere in future, as well as larger works and charcoal studies. Low tide best for birds and composition. (cb, cr, rs, cy, az mainly and introduced um for heavier tones in foreground as experiment) Palette needs work.

West: Exposed to the building onshores and looking into the sun back-lighting the flooded marsh and swirling flocks of wigeon erupting and settling from out of view within the tussocks. A more exciting study, exposed, elemental full of movement and rhythm with rapid flight of overlapping flocks, crosshatching of wind stirred water, bright water contrasting against inky black marshland silhouettes that switched to rich purples, green and brown as the clouds blew over obscuring the sun and darkening the sea. (cb,cr,cy -sky, bu, um -fore plus rs and az).

Monday, 26 September 2011

Snettisham High Tide

Knot on advancing tide

Dispersing at high tide

Two sketches from Snettisham on the Wash, showing knot and other waders pushed inland by advancing tide and dispersing at high tide when the mud flats are completely covered. My first visit to Snettisham, not even sure whether the wader event, when tens of thousands of birds come to roost, would take place. From out of sight the tide advances rapidly and not knowing what to expect I had to choose my position and what to work on, then stick with that idea. I chose to describe the overall scene; big sky, bird flocks Peter Scott style, painting in the landscape before the birds arrived and then quickly marking in the formations as they happened. There is also scope for drawing closer, the dense flocks picking out individuals and movement of the bustling numbers as they run, take off and roost. (cb, cr, cy + wh in sky - wh allowing wet on wet to flow and describing the slight milky colour of the light. Ny + az dropped in on horizon. Lr, cb + az in places, not quite right for sand perhaps. Birds; darks of cb + bs mainly -going greener/bluer in distance, darker for densest flocks of knot. Species - bt godwit, redshank, knot, dunlin, little stint, golden plover, grey plover, shelduck, curlew, egret. Possibly enough info to develop in studio. Next visit fast drawings through optics of close action for multi plate print - using ghosts to describe movement.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Dyfi Ospreys

Three remaining Ospreys on the Dyfi, two visible. I believe bird on left is the young female named Leri. On nest, birch and telegraph pole.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Dyfi Osprey

All have fledged and female already gone. Not always using nest site so more patience required, in order to see fledging practicing flight or male returning with mullet held head on; always cries and high pitch screeches help to locate the birds. Male less willing to share catch now, with young constantly begging. After slow day and sleep in car, last light offered more productive behaviour as male brought large mullet to platform - watching them feed with twisting ripping motion until light failed. rts for artificial light in this location offering night painting possibilities, likely composition with more flight studies if time permits.Behaviour studies - usual approach, careful timing ... washes rich either bs/um or r/b/y offers plenty of possibility for subtle browns of plumage ranging from purple hues to grey to rich umber. No Manx on coast to see.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Craig Y Aderyn - Prehistoric Roost

Cliffs at the widening of a particularly rugged valley, used to meet the sea, but now stand two miles inland from the coast. An ancient landscape given resonance through the calls of those prehistoric looking cormorants that still roost/nest on the cliff today. Not a lot of birds around today, not sure if cormorants roost here in large numbers all year (waited til dusk) - only a few juvs on the cliff, also choughs and a peregrine. Nearby clear streams with good views of trout.cb,rs,cr + bs etc (also ny in fore and sky); dropped in heavy washes mid-fore ground. Back hills several separated washes allowed to run in completely. rts, for larger canvas close and below, similar colour approach making use of bold form, hopefully birds will roost. Good light around 20:00, but 16:00 onwards fine.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Manx Shearwater & Dyfi Osprey

A good combination today, Manx Shearwater passage/feeding close in off Ynys Las on the morning spring high, followed by Ospreys on the Dyfi this afternoon. The Dyfi Ospreys have reared 3 chicks which is outstanding for this species in general let alone such a young pair breeding here for the first time. They are using a manmade platform nest erected by MWT volunteers. With one bird fledged the other two are close, exercising their wings and building up strength. Albeit fascinating to watch the intimate lives of such magnificent and rare raptors, I am drawn back to the excitement of the Manx Shearwater passage at Ynys Las where groups of thousands passed this morning. Half way down towards Borth a large group rafts close in (LT), their silhouettes black and crisp against the low light, so I can make out every curve of their buoyant form. Further out the action continues as groups mass and disperse to form a long sinuous swarm sifting over the water, presumably echoing a similar momentum in the shape-shifting shoals beneath them but out of our vision. Hard to predict Manxies, usually HT brings them close in, but theory that they feed close in here at low tide also, morning and evening seem best and on calm days, pos prey fish shelter in warmer coastal water overnight/am, sometimes birds just not here for no particular reason. RTS for Manx seascape, feeding in distance and passing close in, ref sketches today.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Black Guillemot

A few pairs visible around the harbour wall at Holyhead, one of few sites they can be seen in Wales and England. Noted circular swimming display.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Severn Dipper

Monoprint dipper from the balcony at Pen-y-Graig. wading in torrents, colours from the reflection of the moss clad wall as morning light hits it, an affect that lasts a few minutes and emphasised through cropping affect of scope. Two juveniles about and some territorial disputes. Perhaps because of close proximity of possible nest, the dippers seem more sedentary than usual. Also seem attracted to this stretch during receding flood waters.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Glaslyn Peregrine

Finished Glaslyn painting in the studio, see preparatory work: 26/04/11

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Trilling Wood

Hafren forest today has a full set of Welsh woodland specialties: Pied fly-catcher, spotted fly-catcher, redstart and this wood warbler. Easy to find thanks to it's constant singing, I painted the plate for this print on site. The trilling crescendo to the wood warbler’s song resonates around the wood and the idea was to capture this as a visual representation echoed in the repetition of the foliage and light. I hope to make similar pictures of the pied fly and redstart, though they are proofing to be even more flighty than the wood warbler.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Drawing Frenzy

From Borth cliffs, close offshore rafts of manx shearwater thousands strong and hundreds of gannets. An endless convey-a-belt of activity moving around the bay and culminating in a feeding frenzy. Diving gannets, bobbing to surface like corks, shearwater less elegantly crash into the water at a shallow angle, almost head over heels and then more mass movement as the gannets take off and the manxies follow to the next attack. Snorkeling around the rocks later, find the water thick with sprat and also grey mullet. Image is a monoprint of the days drawing frenzy.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

River Birds

Birds along the Severn (Caersws), linnets bathing and a yellow wagtail amongst highlights.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011


Longer evenings and warmer temperatures now, means painting for longer and in new areas that have been inaccessible all winter. Plynlimon, our highest mountain in Mid Wales has taken much of my attention recently. Not so much a classic mountain with any discernable summit but a high sprawling plateau of boggy wilderness. A desert (easy to get lost on) in the centre of Wales, only one teeming with life, subtle character and a variety of discoveries on closer inspection. To the North West is Glaslyn, a lake cut off by steep rocky gorges on three sides. This gives it the strange appearance of floating, especially when it reflects a clear blue sky. There is enough heather here to make the area one of the few good places I know to see red grouse in Mid Wales as well as Hen Harrier. On this day a Peregrine was busy seeing off any buzzards or kites that dared fly through the gorge.

Above, an A1 sketch made at a later date, same conditions of clear blue sky and lengthening afternoon shadows. Preparation for a more rendered studio piece of the same size.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Printing Plovers

These prints are based on drawings of the Plovers I've been watching this week. The top one is of a pair of little ringed plovers which have been busy dancing their mating dance along the shingle banks of the Severn at Caersws. The second image shows one of my favourite birds, the golden plover. I first saw these on a moorland ridge above my house in Carno and I've watched them every winter since, always in the same place amongst mossy hummocks and acid grass. This week was the first time I've seen them in spring with the dark black face and bib of their summer plumage. I hope they might breed. I stayed with them all day in really hot sunshine; mainly they stayed still tucked into the grass, disappearing completely when disturbed by a passing jet. In the evening they became more active, grooming like (this one in the foreground is shown mid preen) then feeding and squabbling - By 19.00 when I left, they seemed to be preparing for something, maybe to roost in a different location.

I'm really into this method of watercolour printing at the moment; It tends to keep the freshness of my original sketches whilst allowing me to use a strong palette - I'm hoping it will help improve my use of colour in the field which I really struggled with on the golden plovers - many subtle yellows and greys.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Little Ringed Plover Return

Top right: digging scrape

Courtship dance

Found Little Ringed Plover in the same place on the Severn as last year; a wide gravel bank on the inside of meander. For a long time I watched a single bird, a male I think (with more black on the face?), constantly on the move, stalking invertebrate (the rare 5spot ladybird recently discovered only here), its large eye bent to the ground as it ran in rapid whirring sprints. Occasionally it flew up and around the bank vocalising - a display. Occasionally it would sit in a favourite spot wings half open and rub its belly through the shingle, craning its neck and lifting its tail or pick pebbles from the indent; I guessed this would be a scrape for any prospective partner to lay in. At this point it was joined by a female and the courtship began. Chasing the female in a fast low sprint the male spread it's white flanks so the feathers stuck out beyond the dark upper body. The female would stop and allow him to approach and in doing so he would grow in height, pivoting his body upright and straightening the neck, creeping closer on tiptoes he would prepare to mount, jump and more often than not miss as the female steps out of reach, initiating another chase. Eventually the pair succeeded to mate a couple of times while I was there, the male returning to the scrape after each time.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Odd Ones Out

Since the Ynys Hir Barnacle geese left the estuary, I did not expect to see another this season so couldn't resist drawing this solitary bird at Dolydd Hafren. A different setting in amongst the green pasture and debris of the now receded river, with pheasants, curlew and the ubiquitous Canada geese that only just tolerated its presence.
As I was packing up at dusk a 50+ strong group of curlew flew in and landed on a point in the river. The birds bodies were dark, silhouetted against the river apart from the slightest golden highlights picking out their contortions as they stretched, preened and bathed. In amongst the mass of silhouettes it was easy to pick out the much blogged leucistic bird, completely white apart from a few black tips to the primaries, tail and a pink ridge to bill and eye. I never thought I'd be interested in a leucistic bird the way people marvel at them, but it truly was striking in contrast with the silhouettes of the darker birds and mass of goosander, teal, wigeon, gadwall and pintail all gathering around the point to roost - definitely a subject to return to. (palette cb,cr,cy on all 3).