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?