Saturday, 4 October 2014


18 - 28 SEPTEMBER 2014

A drawing installation made by Chris Wallbank in collaboration with Professor Tim Birkhead for Festival of the Mind, exhibited throughout Sheffield Cathedral.


Skomer Island off the Pembrokeshire coast, is famous for its unspoilt scenery, carpets of wild bluebells in the spring and populations of breeding seabirds in the summer. It is also the site of one of the most important scientific studies of one particular seabird species: the common guillemot. This study was established by Tim Birkhead, Professor of Behavioural Ecology at The University of Sheffield and a leading expert of ornithology who has returned to Skomer to monitor the island's breeding guillemots every year since 1972. The value of his research lies in 40 years of experience and data collection. The long term insight it presents reveals remarkable natural history discoveries of a species that can live for 30 years, returning to the exact same tiny breeding site to reproduce with the same partner year after year. The guillemot breeds at high densities on cliff ledge colonies known as loomeries, laying a single egg on the bare rock. Under these conditions they develop loyalties, alliances, friendships and rivalries which makes guillemot society one of the most complex and fascinating of the entire animal kingdom.

Guillemots are highly vulnerable to oil pollution which has been a major factor in the species’ overall decline. Skomer's population today is a considerable 25,000 pairs, but even this is a long way off  the 100,000 pairs estimated to be on the Island as recently as the 1930's. In February 2014 consistently heavy storms, the likes of which have become more common as a result of climate change, led to the death of at least 40,000 seabirds including a high proportion of guillemots. These birds were counted from those found washed up in 'wrecks' along the Atlantic Coast of Northern Europe and only reflect a small proportion of the total loss at sea. Three times the average number of Skomer-ringed birds were found dead during this period. Guillemot populations can withstand very occasional years of high mortality, but a run of them could spell disaster and the added pressures of oil pollution, on-going depletion of fish stocks and climate change make that a real possibility. Long term studies like Tim Birkhead's are vital for understanding the health of a guillemot population, but they also enable us to gauge the state of a constantly changing marine environment. It is tragic then that Natural Resources Wales has recently withdrawn the modest funding needed to run Skomer's guillemot monitoring project, disregarding the benefits of continuing this long-term study.

In 2014, for what may be the last season of the long term guillemot project on Skomer, visual artist Chris Wallbank, supported by The University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind, travelled to the Island to draw the loomeries that form the basis of Tim Birkhead's research. Wallbank worked on a large scale, necessary to capture the impressive size and formation of a loomery with enough detail to describe many of the individual birds and behaviour that the monitoring project focuses on. His method was to observe with a telescope, panning through the mass of squabbling, preening, copulating birds, unrolling and re-rolling a large paper scroll as the drawing progressed. The resulting work exhibited around the cathedral, tracks the changing dynamic of Skomer's Loomeries throughout the breeding season. Made from direct observation and informed by Tim Birkhead's insight into guillemot society, close examination of these drawings reveals the order hidden within Skomer's spectacular loomeries.



The guillemots in these drawings have recently returned to breed at their loomery located on the scree and gullies that cascade down the cliffs of a precipitous inlet on Skomer Island known as bull Hole. It was early spring when this drawing was made, but Bull Hole still roared with the surge of a long fetching Atlantic swell and winds gusting over 40 knots. Even this storm however could not drown out the raucous chorus of the thousands of guillemots at the loomery on the other side of the inlet. Their breeding season had begun and the whole colony  buzzed with social interaction as returning birds re-established old territories and reinforced bonds with their partners and neighbours. Guillemots are capable of great tenderness towards one another, developing friendships which at the very least serve to strengthen a loomery's cohesion and its defence against predatory gulls and ravens. Displays of aggression between guillemots are nearly as common in the loomery and squabbles over territory frequently erupt into brutal fights. This is particularly true at the beginning of the season when males desperately attempt to steal copulations from the partners of other males.

The loomery at Bull Hole was the focus of Professor Tim Birkhead's research when he first arrived on Skomer Island in 1972. In the lower part of the left hand scroll it is possible to see some of the artificial slate ledges he and his student Ben Hatchwell installed to enhance breeding success at Bull Hole. In these early years of his Skomer research the island's guillemot population averaged 2000 pairs, a fraction of today's total, now in the region of 25,000 pairs. This increase in guillemots on Skomer bucks the trend, because most of the UK's breeding sites, particularly in the Northern UK are in decline. Read posts on making Bull Hole Loomery here.

Bull Hole, detail


In this scroll, many of the guillemots can be seen incubating eggs, a marked transformation from the Bull Hole drawing made just a week previously when no eggs had yet been laid. Guillemots at a loomery are synchronized in their breeding, so laying tends to occur at the same time. This synchrony enhances the value of dense breeding groups which form an essential barrier against avian predators of eggs and chicks.

The loomery in this drawing is found on an elbow of volcanic rock folding out to sea known as the Amos which has been Professor Tim Birkhead's main study plot colony on Skomer since the mid 1980s. Every year towards the end of the breeding season Tim Birkhead and his team mark about 300 of the Amos guillemot chicks using uniquely numbered colour rings. As guillemots return to the same spot to breed every year Tim Birkhead has been able to build up a database of life histories from the observations made of these colour ringed birds. Being able to recognise the returning birds in this way makes it possible to monitor factors vital for assessing the health of a guillemot population such as adult and immature survival, breeding success, timing of breeding and the chick’s diet. Any of the colour ringed birds seen by Chris Wallbank as he drew the loomery are included on this scroll along with their history. For example there is a yellow ringed bird Y366 at the bottom right corner which the data reveals has been returning to the Amos to breed for 14 years. It hatched at a nearby site in 1993  making it the oldest bird identified in these drawings. Read a post on making The Amos Loomery here.

Detail of the Amos showing some of the colour ringed birds

Notes taken from the monitoring project's database, correlating to the
colour rings recorded in the drawing


There was no text accompanying this scroll in the exhibition. It was made with brush and ink over a single sitting at a South Pembrokeshire coast site where the guillemots form very dense loomeries on top of sea stacks. The piece was an exercise in shorthand, using calligraphic characters to describe the multitude of individuals as a whole. Read a post on making Elegug Cyfnos here.



In these scrolls, Chris Wallbank has drawn the same ledge repeatedly over several hours to produce a time-lapse image that records the changing dynamic of a loomery. They are drawn after the main laying period on Skomer, when guillemot pairs take it in turns to incubate the egg, relieving one another to forage and feed at sea. During this period the density of guillemots on the ledge rises at certain times of day, usually early morning and late afternoon when the pairs swap incubating duties. This process known as 'change over' can often be lengthy, since the incubating bird is usually reluctant to move off the egg and needs to be persuaded through long reassuring bouts of allopreening combined with gentle nudges that become firmer as time wears on. Despite breeding in incredibly close proximity, in some cases up to seventy breeding pairs crammed onto a single square metre of ledge, guillemots are able to recognise their own egg because each one has markings unique to the female that laid it. This results in an infinite variety of colour and pattern occurring in guillemot eggs, ranging from dark turquoise to pale orange, wispy streaks to heavy blotches and spatters, as can be seen in the long ledge drawing here as well as in the Amos scroll. Read post on making the time lapse scrolls here and here


 Land - Loom - Leap, guillemots landing and their fledgling leaping from an imagined loomery to form a repeating pattern on a 4 metre long hanging scroll.   

The guillemot young leave the colony around 21 days after hatching. Although barely one third the size of an adult and still unable to fly the young jump from the cliffs, often falling hundreds of metres to the sea below. The young, make this leap of faith with encouragement from their fathers who calls to them from below. On the breeding ledges they were vulnerable to avian predation, now at sea they stand a better chance of survival, diving under the waves and staying close to their father. They remain at sea with their father for two or three months until fully fledged and it will be a further two years at least before they return to Skomer and a further five years after that before they attempt to breed. 


After the young have fledged Female guillemots remain at the loomery for some 14 days defending their territory and laying claim to the breeding site for the following season. Professor Tim Birkhead's research on Skomer has found that the optimum breeding sites for guillemots are on ledges where the greatest density of birds can occur. In this scroll Chris Wallbank uses colour to offer an impression of where these 'hot spots' might be found on Skomer's Amos loomery. Of course the paradox for guillemots seeking such optimum sites is that they are protected from imposters as well as predators by an alliance of neighbouring birds. How guillemots decide which ledges to colonise in the first place is more of a mystery, although watching guillemots re-colonise Skomer since the 1970's, Professor Tim Birkhead has noticed their loomeries grow into the same formations as those seen in photographs taken on the island 80 years ago. 

This project has been made possible through the support of The University of Sheffield's Festival of the Mind and Sheffield Cathedral. Special thanks to The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, Shenaz Khimji and Skomer researchers Elspeth Kenny and Julie Riordan  for their assistance with the Loomery Scrolls project on Skomer Island. 

Tim Birkhead presenting a lecture on his research at Sheffield cathedral
during the exhibition

Thursday, 17 July 2014

ORCA Survey to Svalbard on the Saga Pearl II

Between 22 June and 6 July I took part in a marine mammal survey for ORCA on the Saga Pearl II as she cruised North as far as Svalbard. The drawings below were made whilst on half hour breaks in surveying and brief moments ashore in an attempt to capture a sense of the breathtaking landscape and abundant diversity of wildlife during my first encounter with the Arctic. 

North Sea

The North Sea tested our endurance as surveyors, we were faced with rough seas and an ever strengthening wind chill as we headed further north towards horizons studded with the contorted steel frames of oil rigs. A brief stop in Stavanger offered a glimpse into the affect of this industry on a booming Norwegian economy. Layers of old and new; the old town with it's fish canning factory and wooden houses sandwiched between a skyline of modern blocks of flats and a sea front dominated by the mammoth hulk of oil ships.
It's another day out of Stavanger and our forth day into the survey before the first shout of 'sighting!' ends the long wait since leaving Dover. Two fin whale roll in front of the port bow, the hanging blows whipped away in the north wind as fast as they exhale and they are gone. It is 04.40 June 26 and at 67 degrees North we had crossed into the Arctic circle. Here the Gannets that accompanied us further South have been replaced by fulmar and kittiwake gliding effortlessly on the ships updraft. The direct and purposeful flight of foraging auks such as puffin and Brunnich's guillemot contrast the fulmars euphoric movement dissecting our passage in ever strengthening numbers as we approach land. Soon after we arrive at our second port of call Leknes in the Lofoton Islands.
That evening we skirted the stretched Archipelago and in the calm southern lee of the land picked up further sightings of harbour porpoise and minke whale, their subtle presence on the surface given away by the disturbance of a bait ball. The evening ended with our first sighting of Orca, a sign of things to come.

Nordic Sea

We surveyed all the day of the 27th on deck as we crossed the open Sea that separates Svalbard from Norway. Sightings ranged from early in the morning with an amazing three separate counts of large pods of orca within a couple of hours, the tall black upright dorsal of the big bull males unmistakable on the horizon. Although all these views were distant, around 2km away and viewed in the binoculars, the ferocity of these animals could be recognised in the way their sail like dorsal fins quivered and reverberated with a force that belied the power of their thrashing movements under the waves.
By midday sightings of orca, minke and white beaked dolphin had been replaced by the visible blows of the largest whales. A quick look at our position confirmed it, we had crossed over the land shelf and into the deep water where the ultimate megafauna thrives. Fin whale sightings were in abundance now, but also present were the rarer seen sei whale, which due to the confusing similarity between both species in the field presented one of many id challenges for me. I was however fortunate to have several sightings of sei whale, some even in close association with fin whale and was able to discuss each with fellow surveyors, Paul Burley, Kathleen Neri and Rachael Barber. I learnt first hand to distinguish the shallow surfacing sequence of the sei compared to the prolonged roll of the fin and the diagnostic but subtle difference between the dorsal of each species.
Soon we catch sight of distinct angled blows and closer encounters confirm sperm whale logging on the surface and occasionally with luck we catch the dramatic display of a fluking tale as these true giants of the deep point into a dive heading one, two thousand or more metres down. Perhaps the most memorable sighting for me that day was another personal first; the cue was as normal a blow near the horizon caught in a scan of the binoculars then more unusually a big splash which at over a kilometre away had to be caused by something big. Then confirmation, a tall white flipper rising straight above the duller white caps before crashing down heavily on the water, again and again, unmistakable, a humpback whale! Okay, it may only of been a dot on the horizon but it was an ambition realised and I could even make out the characteristic fin slapping and breaching behaviour.

Svalbard: Isfjorden and Longyearbyen    

On the morning of the 28th the view from deck is of calm waters reflecting monochrome contrasts of dark rock and white glaciers surrounding Isfjorden, Svalbard. The mirror smoothness is broken only by the occasional scuffing of a wind pocket, a cluster of little auk rafts and the slap slap of paddling wings as brunich's guillemot scuttle away from the ship's wake. That is until  the slick dark shape of a whale arches silently out of the water, the body silhouetted black but glinting a brown almost gold where it catches the light. There is no distinguishing  blow but a swept back dorsal suggests a fin whale. We pass two more fin whale in the fjord, all swimming shallowly it seems with few visible blows.

On land we hike up the Longyearbyen valley to the edge of a glacier where we find fossilised plant material in the rocks scattered amongst the moraine under foot and hear the wonderful call of little auk on the colony ledges high overhead. On the outskirts of the town but within the permitted safety of its perimeter (beyond is polar bear country), boggy tundra holds a wealth of bird life; eider duck nesting in the safe shadow of the husky kennels, brackish pools on the side of the road attract purple sandpiper and the grey phalarope which is in fact a deep rusty red here in its breeding plumage. There are barnacle geese on the estuary and the mountainsides whilst Arctic-turn defiantly guarding their nests are a constant hazard even in the most built up areas.

Fossil leaves

Svalbard: Ny-Alesund

Undoubtedly Ny-Alesund was my favourite land day, our Captain Wesley Dunlop had secured a long stay at port until 11pm and with sunset not due for another month at least, I had time to explore and sketch. The painting above is of the peaks and glaciers surrounding Kongsfjorden from a beach below where the Pearl was moored with the small town of Ny-Alesund behind me. The day was still, sunny and mild and with the air incredibly clear views appeared bright and sharp.

Anyone who had not seen a whale from the Saga Pearl II up to this point, had done so by the end of today because kongsfjoren was being patrolled by a single humpback whale for most of our stay. Not only could we see it as it lunge fed, surfacing with bulging pleats ahead a tell tale sequence of bubbles, but it was possible to hear the exhalation with every surface. Also audible was the loud cracking of the glacier it fed below, diving repeatedly around a large ice-flow dotted with resting terns. Eventually it entered the centre of the bay and closer to the town, which is when I drew the sequence below before it finally swam towards the open sea passing close off the Pearl's port-side to the delight of everyone on-board.

Svalbard: Magdalenefjorden

At almost 79 degrees North Magdalenefjorden is our most Northerly destination after which we begin the Southward journey home. The fjord is a large horseshoe bay surrounded by formidable mountains rising steeply and immediately from the waters edge.  At the Eastern, opposite end to the seaward entrance a large glacier feeds ice flows into the bay; drifting jewels of refracted blue light in a monochrome landscape.

The scale of this landscape is immense, almost incomprehensible and my instinct is to put my binoculars to the mountain slopes to search for a recognisable detail that might give me better bearings. But nothing is familiar here and I am again astounded as I focus my binoculars on an apparently barren slope of ice and scree to find it teeming with life. Clouds of what seem like insects in their hundreds of thousands swarm on and off the slopes, a quick adjustment of scale and I realise I am looking at a vast breeding colony of little auk. It is possible to just make out the auks in this picture represented as tiny groups of dots.
Whilst I paint the little auk colony, Paul picks out distant walrus in his scope for people to see. Just before we leave at midday I have to train my scope where he is looking, far far away I can just make out the bulk of walrus hauling themselves onto a beach, though they are hard to make out I am very pleased to be able to draw the first walrus I have ever seen.

As we depart, the Pearl passes closer to the walrus and from a new angle we can just make out approximately twenty hauled out on top of one another. After this we start to pack up ready for dinner when there is a shout, someone has spotted movement in the water, we rush to starboard to see a group of walrus swimming in a porpoising fashion. They move fast in a tight group that seems to rive with blubber and tusks in a wild frenzy. What seems like panicked behaviour is in fact typical I am told and not just a reaction to the ship; travelling in tight packs in this way to me seems an effective way for the walrus to deter aquatic predators.
We pass through the mouth of the fjord into a heavy sea. After an hour or two surveying in unproductive conditions of sea state 5-6 we notice a band of calm water on the horizon, we cross this visible divide and as if by some sudden enchantment the sea state instantly drops from 5 to 1 and then zero. Along this boundary we immediately pick up sightings of porpoise, minke and white beaked dolphin and then continue with more and more sightings of blows sometimes accompanied by the role of a fin whale or hump back. Amidst all this, the level of excitement is suddenly turned up when amongst a trio of blows Rachael notices something very different, I rush over from port side and get onto the blows as she confirms it, a blue whale! along with two humpback and a fin whale.

Blue whale

The most unexpected sighting of the trip was of harp seal travelling in packs sometimes several hundred strong. The video below is of one of several of these travelling packs.

Barents Sea

Heading South again on July 1 we traversed the Western edge of the Barents Sea. For most of the day we followed a land shelf where deep water upwhelings provide conditions for nutrient rich habitats that sustain the top predators we hope to catch sight of. The water boiled with the tell tail sign of bait balls, prolonged scrutiny of which was rewarded with the sight of minke whale patrolling the corralled fish. Further out in the distance the horizon was interrupted by regular blows from the large whales feeding along the deep water drop off; fin whale 14, Sei whale 1, hump back whale 5 and other unidentified rorqual whale totalled 15. At one point a fin whale blow caught the eye at 4km or so, a flash of white that dispersed quickly, but then behind it something different, a blow that began to rise and rise until it broke above the horizon, a vertical jet of water powering straight up and reaching a height that dwarfed the others before it. The volume of water must of been immense because it kept powering upwards before a second slightly weaker but equally tall blow refreshed the drifting cloud of vapour marking the distant spot. By now some of the other observers were onto it, it had looked like a blue whale blow, we watched the approximate patch of water as we passed closer hoping to glimpse a view of the giant, but the moment slipped behind us as we steamed on ever southwards. 
More conclusive was the view of this fin whale which I was able to draw as it passed at one point no more than one hundred metres off our Port bow. It had been the most incredible day of surveying with little let up on sightings, many now engraved onto my memory especially that tentative glimpse of a blue whale blow erupting silently on the distant horizon.

Off Nordland

The next morning, July 2, we docked in Tromso after which our onward journey took a course through the narrow fjords before emerging into the open water of Vestfjorden, South of the Lofoten Islands. In the fjords we only sighted small Cetacean; porpoise and white beaked dolphin. Bird highlights included a very distant soaring white tailed eagle, Arctic and great skua, eider ducks and Arctic tern for whom nothing is to big to take on when protecting a nest, even our ship which they would mob without fear if it passed too close.

Long finned pilot whale

We woke on the 3rd in Vestfjorden with conditions a perfect sea state 0-1, mist hung threaded between scattered islands and below the snow strewn massifs of the mainland. There was the faintest orange glow, suggesting a mellowing in the sunlight that until now had been relentless. The water rolled silver and smooth so it was easy to pick out the distant black shapes of long finned pilot whales. For several hours we traversed the coast and this tranquil scene remained as we picked out the forms of more pilot whale, white beaked dolphin, minke whale or porpoise silhouetted in the mirror calm.


By mid morning land was out of sight and the wind strengthened as the sun rose. As the sea state deteriorated sightings became more infrequent, but there was one more surprise in store as Rachael picked up the unmistakable quiver of black dorsals on the horizon. Orca! and this time we were on a direct course to pass close to them. Everyone on the sun deck were able to hone in on the dark shapes of ten dorsal fins rising out of the water in staggered formation. As the distance between us and them closed, the white patches around the face of each Orca became obvious as they surfaced. Passing them on Starboard the biggest bull male (there was at least two in this pod) suddenly erupted into a display of breaching and tail slapping.
That afternoon we hit a long distant swell pushed on by a deepening low off Iceland to the West later accompanied by heavy winds and a sea state 6 which puts an end to our day's survey.

Final Ports

In the days that follow Saga Pearl II navigates an inshore route similar to that of the famous Hurtigruten. We find ourselves often amongst jaw dropping scenery of fjords fed by free falling waterfalls emerging from a carpet of forest at the base of dark massifs; serrated ridges, jagged peaks and snow filled cols. It is the perfect place to recover and reflect on our journey into the Arctic, although we continue to observe finding the fjords rich in life, especially recording incidental sightings of porpoise frequently. It is pleasing that after all the big and showy animals of the deep, everyone on deck is just as keen to scour the waters in the hope of glimpsing the brief splash or role of these more diminutive of cetacean. We visit Geirangerfjorden, the archetypal picture postcard scene, before heading on to arrive in Bergen. In Bergen I entertain myself drawing hooded crows, coxed down from their perches with crumbs of 'the best in Norway' Skilligsboller, a cinnamon bun I didn't think much of, but I needed to get rid of my kroner on something. The final voyage on the 6th took us back across the North sea in rough conditions producing few sightings, although that night I am happy to see darkness fall for the first time since our departure two weeks earlier. The following morning we a greeted by brilliant white cliffs on a sunny day in Dover.   

Fulmar in the wake of Saga Pearl II

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Castlemartin Scrolls

Drawing Craig Elegug

Vertical section on Elegug

I visited Castlemartin this weekend, an area of coastline used as a firing range by the MOD and closed to the public except on odd occasions. It is the site of some spectacular loomeries, mainly on flat topped sea stacks close to the cliff ledge, most notably Craig Elegug (guillemot rock) which allows close eyelevel views of the birds. I wanted to focus on these really dense groups, as a type I had not yet explored in the loomoery scroll drawings. This density resulted in some pretty intense and laborious drawing, working in detail over the whole weekend to produce a drawing of a long vertical ledge cascading down the left side of Elegug. Last night there was no night firing so I had a chance to visit Castlemartin from five until dark. As a remedy to the detailed drawing of the weekend I wanted to cut loose and did this by working in ink and brush, using minimal brush strokes to describe each bird. I was able to cover a lot of ground quickly this way and see the colony as a complete entity. As the drawing progressed from left to right as I always work on a scroll, the colony became denser and I soon lost individuals in the mass of movement. In response my mark making had to grow faster to cope with the constant movement and I soon found a new rhythm of working to describe whole formations of birds rather than individuals. I felt my drawing became more energetic the more intense the energy of the colony became deep in the densest sections. In this respect, despite losing my more illustrative approach I feel this drawing approach responds to and therefore documents the energy and cohesion of a loomery even if it is visually a more abstract expression. I finished the drawing at 22.47 in total darkness which may of helped the drawing progress as well.

Detail of very dense section on Elegug, brush and ink

This may be the last of these drawings I make form observation this season, unless I can return in time for fledging. It seems appropriate to end with a night drawing, on a still night and a near full moon rising but also with new ideas to give the project momentum.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Skomer Day 13: Last Day

Time-lapse ledge, showing imposter
being challenged.
I have had to manage my last day on Skomer carefully to make sure I collect all the information I need to help make the final scrolls for the exhibition in September.
First stop the Wick to try out a different time-lapse drawing to yesterday based on a shorter ledge. I wanted to try this because the shorter ledge meant drawing versions of the ledge in quick succession (about 20 mins each, the theory being I would be more likely to capture any changes happening over a short period, about an hour in this case. In fact I did manage to record an interesting interaction, which came as a complete surprise. In the image below, the first line in the series to be drawn being at the bottom, I recorded one bird returning to the group of four on the left making it five in the second row from the bottom. This guillemot allo-preened the nearby bird for the next forty minutes or so until, as shown in the 5th line up, another guillemot returns flying straight at the back of the first and wrestling it off the cliff before taking up this usurped birds position to make up the pair. I can only assume that the first returning bird was an imposter and the second, having made a direct line of flight to this spot was the true partner. In the last line at the top we can see it courting its mate. Only by using this time-lapse approach to observational drawing could this relationship reveal itself to me. 
After this I move further down the Wick to add another line to yesterday's long ledge time-lapse drawing. I wanted to include midday because this is supposedly a quieter period for the colonies in comparison to the morning and evening periods I already had represented in the drawing.

8pm at the Amos
Next, I move on to the Amos for the evening, where I recorded the major groups on the South side of the peninsular for a second scroll. This scroll, combined with the one from the beginning of the week will complete a panorama of the entire Amos loomery. Finally, I couldn't leave the island without another night amongst the returning Shearwater. A particularly still night and with so many breeding birds, I could stop and listen to the whole island alive with the gurgling whoops and cackles of hundreds of thousands of shearwater. This noise of the whole islands subterranian world reverberating gave me a sense of Skomer as an enormous breeding colony, dormant in the day and coming alive at night. Bleary eyed and half asleep at one in the morning surrounded by birds flopping in and out of burrows, brushing my head as they crash to the ground is a surreal experience; surely there must be folklore explaining this fantastical night time realm. For me the whole dreaming experience is epitomised by the wonderfully bizarre contrast of these sleek, hardy ocean navigators grounded amongst a fairy landscape of midnight blue bells and curling bracken furls.
Shearwater grounded in midnight blue bells

Shearwater movement, slow, frantic, sometimes
almost stealthy but not quite

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Skomer Day 12: The Long Ledge

Wick ledge time-lapse

I returned to the Wick this morning and the long ledge I discovered yesterday. I began drawing the ledge at 08:30 and ran out of paper (3 metres) a third of the way along at Midday. The plan was to repeat the same section of ledge below but Skomer was hit by an incredible thunder storm and I had to escape the cliff. On the way back the rain was so heavy the paths ran with a foot of water, draining into the burrows, even flushing out Manx Shearwater that would never normally leave or enter their burrows outside the cover of darkness.

Manxie above ground in daylight, rare opportunity
for a close study before it shoved its head into a
hole as if in the hope that if it can't see me
I can't see it (bottom left of page).

The storm passed quickly and I managed to return late afternoon to add another two drawings of the ledge section. The aim here was to create a time-lapse drawing that showed any change in the number, density and behaviour of guillemots on the ledge throughout the day. In the evening I certainly noticed an increase in numbers as expected because around 4-8pm is a change over period when pairs swap over incubating the egg, there is also apparent heightened tension around this time with allo-preening and aggressive behaviour seeming to increase. However what really stands out when comparing the time-lapse is the way the overall composition of the groups remain unchanged, so that hour after hour it is possible to pick out the same birds by their location within the mass of activity, because of their loyalty to the same few centimetre square nesting site.  

Monday, 19 May 2014

Skomer Day 11: Exercise Lines

View on emerging from the crevice
Today I decided to explore a part of Skomer I have never seen despite it being the number one destination for most visitors to the Island. Many come to the grassy cliff top plateau known as the Wick for close encounters with its particularly amiable colony of puffins, but I am more excited about the rocky ledges below the main attraction. For the last three days I have been drawing guillemots in clumps on flat wide ledges and in the week before that more clumps on steep broad scree slopes. The Wick cliffs are different; they are sheer and flat with straight narrow ledges that underline neatly formed strings of guillemots. Amazing, that this slightly new type of loomery formation should seem so exciting to me, but after days absorbed in the detail of one site it comes as a revelation. With barely time to smile at the puffins whirring in and out of burrows around my feet as I carefully tread the path shown to me previously that leads past the boulder and into a shoulder width head high crevice. Squeezing through I feel like a pot-holer bursting into a forgotten subterranean world, the water is sapphire blue in a cavernous inlet; a hidden sanctuary away from the mingling puffins and puffin-lovers above, their hubbub replaced by the bustling of breeding kittiwake and guillemot clinging to the shear rock face, cutting the squeezed airspace with their lung bursting calls.

Brush and ink - quick and fluid, possibly good for
dense groups later.
I have often thought of the rhythm of drawing guillemot over again as being like forming characters in calligraphy. Seeing the groups of guillemot punctuating the wick cliffs in neat lines left to right makes this idea even more legible to me. So I begin to write guillemot, copying one of the ledges nearest me over in neat lines as an exercise. Each line takes between 7-8 minutes and I realise that this is a way of recording the changing structure of guillemot groups. A recurring theme throughout this project has been the way loomeries fluctuate in density at this period in the season, first during re-establishment of territory and later the sharing of incubation between pairs. I try this method in both ink and as a line drawings. Ink is fantastic, fluid and fast but less legible for what I want to do here – the line drawing works better to record the behaviours more precisely.

The same ledge drawn repeatedly to record change.
Later I explore further along the inlet out to sea and find a continuous ledge of guillemot, several hundred metres long. Evening spent painting studies at the Amos.