Thursday, 8 March 2012

Low Light & Flying Golden Plover

A scene I have been returning to for four or five years, since I first found golden plover up here, in fact these were the first new and most 'wild' species I found; better still on my local patch. It was an experience to cement my interest in studying birds. The Golden plover are part of a sense of place that has a strong hold on me, drawing me to this the last spit of land at the end of the upland plateau stretching uninterrupted, North to Snowdonia. The greatest excitement comes in unknowing before I ascend, whether the place will have any affect on me that day since it depends on specific conditions of light and weather to transform it from an average patch of rough grazing to the wild, elevated Welsh upland that can send senses and imagination hurtling far away from valley drudgery towards wilderness spaces.
The grass here comes in short swathes of gold and blond, mottled with darker mosses, a palette mimicked exactly in the plovers plumage. I can only find the plovers on the ground because I once saw them land where it has transpired they often roost, so I look for movement by scanning this small area with binoculars, even then I can miss them, only to carelessly flush them a few steps later. Amazingly I have regularly counted between 45 and 48 birds here throughout the last few years. Sometimes I find them sometimes I don't on days over winter but Autumn and Spring are best and I haven't yet established how present they are over Summer.
A still, sunny evening is best to find the plovers up here, when it is possible to hear their piping and watch the memorising movements of their flight; a synchronised twinkling of White bellies to dark backs as they pitch and yawl over the ridge. At this time, low light ignites the ridge casting dramatic shadows and turning the muted soft tones into a blaze of gold, often contrasted against a darker sky of blue and brown clouds from the North West.
These conditions are rare though, as the ridge is exposed and magnifies the lightest of prevailing weather, making such days precious especially when the Winter light is at its best and the plovers most noticeable. But I always have one eye on conditions looking to predict the next golden plover day.

The painting above was completed over three days:
5th: Conditions near perfect, with the wind in the North and light. I paint in the shadows, basic rock forms and sky. Pleased that I can see Cadair Idris on the horizon, dusted with snow and catching the light around its base, a useful focal point in the far distance. First I place a red kite that passes over the left hand ridge, but quickly scrub that as I hear the piping of Golden Plover, I sketch the shape of the flock in my pad when they come into the frame and drop down to cover. I place them to the right of the picture, balancing Cadair and the light in the clouds on the left, which is not far off where they roost anyway. A final blaze of light catches the ridge casting long shadows and I map it out with a wash of NY, dropping in UM, BS, RU etc
7th: A hard climb today with Northely wind pushing against my A1 portfolio, containing the unfinished paintings. I make a start but soon its gusting over 40 and their is no respite, every angle is exposed as if the wind is coming straight down. Storm clouds on the horizon, I beat a retreat and make it down just as the hail begins to pour, good fun. Getting home, can see some progress made in defining the tones in the foreground so pleasently surprised. No Goldies today.

8th: Calm today, but low cloud flattens light. One late gap in the cloud cover around 1700 is my last chance and gives me enough light to define some areas and bring the picture to a close. No Goldies but I find a mossy rise strewn with feathers, clearly the molt is on and perhaps next time I see them the males will be even more striking with the black face and chest colour of their breeding plumage.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Displaying Goldeneye

1100, Sun and cloud, North Westerly rippling lake surface in gusts. Two drake and two female visible, already displaying on arrival. Female at North of lake postures low to surface with neck stretched, nostrils just above water, spinning gently. Male neck extends and head throws, simultaneous growling call reverberates across the lake to reach me seconds later, but male at South end has already reacted, flying in to confront the rival threat. Females are seemingly forgotten, drifting away, still posturing as males circle and size each other up through mimicry; synchronised head throws, tail kicks and neck extensions. Then they dive, surfacing in a grappling clinch, they squabble on the surface until one is seen off. However both seem to be paired up, the victor with his duck staying North, the vanquished heading to Southern end to join another female. Why then the display and aggression? territory, insecurity...?
Afternoon. Three female (possibly one is a juvenile) and two drake present. goldeneyes have remained separate, drakes feeding at opposite ends of the lake, two females South and one North. Constantly diving to feed, with only seconds at surface, I can only grab brief sketches and observations, learning when a subject is about to depart by the way it flattens its feathers and sinks down, deflating before kinking neck laterally before flipping its back end and slipping under, leaving a gentle footprint frothing on the surface.

1700-1800.After being given the run around by flighty goldeneye, manage to hide myself at the South end of lake where shore is closer, without causing disturbance. Air is almost still and in the shelter the lake is a sheer smooth mirror reflecting the warm golden palette of reeds and upland mosses lining the far bank. The goldeneyes slice and puncture this illusion with gliding dives and cork like rises, vapour trails and residue momentarily etching the surface, a memo of the birds movements and behaviour. Deep blue lines reflecting the sky on a golden ground. All five birds together now, drakes displaying a full repertoire of head and tail throws, the females snaking low to the water, then swimming in tandem at speed with their mates/potential mates. I muster one last attempt at capturing the scene in these rare perfect conditions, leaving only once the light has completely gone. Reluctantly I make my way home because the clicks, growls and snorts of displaying drakes are still vividly heard behind the dark silhouettes obscuring the lake,