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.   

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Skomer (Week 2) Day 8-10: Eggs and Colour Rings

Drawing at the Amos, with a puffin onlooker.

I returned to Skomer on the 16th and with calm weather took the opportunity to work at the more exposed South West facing Amos site. At the moment I am tackling a larger composition on a 3m scroll of the entire study plot that is the main focus of the monitoring programme run here by Tim Birkhead. The majority of the Amos's Guillemot pairs have laid during the time I have been away, so there will be lots of colourful eggs in this drawing when finished. The patterning of birds across the loomery is also turning out to be different, not just because the geology of the ledges they use are not like the steep scree of the Bull Hole site I focused on last week, but because their behaviour has changed with many birds taking on a sitting incubating posture. 

Pairs take it in turns to incubate eggs in 12 hour shifts and there are change over periods at around 5-8am and 4-6pm. During these times, the loomery grows in density as birds return, from foraging perhaps and long greeting, allopreening displays and behaviour occur as guillemots commence in the process of persuading often reluctant partners to leave the egg they have been on for 12 or so hours so they can incubate it. Tension is often high at these periods as returning birds often need to reassert their dominance and claim over both nesting site and partner. Fights are common, often to deal with imposters - guillemot fidelity is not as clear cut as I previously thought. 
One of the main groups within the study plot

The main study groups are rich in ringed birds, recorded on the
drawing with a letter and number e,g R (red) 210
The other focus of this drawing are the guillemots which Tim has ringed with coloured numbered rings which enable researchers to keep track of individual movements, breeding success and even social bonds amongst the loomery. Putting the number on their rings into Tim's database will return a wealth of information about individual lives, I plan to include this information so that single birds can be identified and learnt about. Before evemn looking at the database, the rings have already proofed useful; I am pleased to include in the drawing, two birds which Julie identified as two which had laid early and lost their egg in last week's storm. Today we saw the female return hopefully to lay another egg after the usual four day average period away from the colony feeding at sea. These are the kind of stories that make the whole experience I want to convey so fascinating - only possible because of the dedicated monitoring on this site.

At the half way point by the end of day 2

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Skomer Guillemots Under Threat

The work I am carrying out on Skomer covered in the previous few posts has given me an insight into the value of long term research. In this case, data from forty years of uninterrupted monitoring of guillemots on Skomer provides a massively important and rare long term study on which to soundly base research,developing knowledge and conservation decisions. It would be counter-intuitive and irresponsible to end such a long term study as this, especially when its modest annual cost far out ways the long term investment of research over forty years or the damage caused by breaking the data set. Not to mention that the current need (and promises) to understand a natural environment under increasing pressure, should make long term studies of marine life including Guillemots one of the more priceless resources available to the environmental bodies who have the responsibility of protecting such important environments. However.....

Natural Resources Wales have cut the £12,000 annual funding they provide for the ongoing Guillemot monitoring study on Skomer Island. This is a hugely important study, and gives valuable insights into seabird life and what affects their populations. Not only is it a shame to end such a long-running (and therefore valuable) data set, but the cut couldn't have come at a worse time, considering the huge impact the recent storms have had on seabird populations (current death toll 25,000 and rising).
This is a very bad decision on the part of Natural Resources Wales, and we'd like to see it amended.

Please sign the petition to reinstate funding for Skomer Islands guillemot research here:


Sunday, 11 May 2014

Skomer Day 7: Bull Hole for a Triptych

Photo of Bull hole section taken at left, 08.15 and right 18.30 
When I arrived at Bull Hole this morning the loomery was extremely sparse, illustrated by the photo on the left. By 4pm however, the number of birds was higher than I had seen all week, with many new ledges occupied and familiar ones heaving with birds. As well as guillemot returning to claimed ledges I noticed groups in flight approaching the colony in sync but landing in different areas, usually being chased off only to regroup and try again. I began a third scroll around this time, of a section stage left of the second scroll that incorporates research groups B and C. Again I used the faster method of line drawing to capture most of group C before 6pm.

One bird attacks another and 
appears to couple with its mate
This third Scroll, makes up a triptych of vertically hanging scrolls partly inspired by groups of hanging scrolls made in the Chinese tradition (e.g Wang Jian 1598-1677) but necessitated by the formation of steep cascading colony ledges at Bull Hole. Developing the drawings has been a learning curve first to establish what is achievable in this environment, secondly to work as economically as possible and thirdly to practice patient observation so that reacting to capture every movement and posture becomes more and more intuitive. The drawings I made towards the end of this week are minimal almost diagrammatic in the way they describe the essence of each individual behaviour. However the view they present is an insight of the colony on an individual, pair or small group level of detail restricted by the speed I can draw one to a few birds. Next time I visit Skomer in a few days, I will be looking at how to describe mass or synchronised behaviour over much larger groups or the entire loomery, using rapid marks or symbols that can be later deciphered into a recognisable drawing - visual ethograms. Weather permitting I hope to carry this work out at the Amos, so I can aim for a series of drawings covering a range of study sites used by Tim and at the same time follow the progress of G907.

Bull Hole

Sea Studies at Bull Hole, auks on the water, razorbill
'butterfly flight'.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Skomer Day 6: Storm on a Cliff

The forecasted storm has hit Skomer over night, 40 knot winds and massive swell pound into the narrow inlet at Bull Hole, it is just as well that the guillemots have not yet laid as the biggest waves scatter the kittiwakes lower on the cliff and spray begins to lash even the tops where the guillemot are. Looking in detail through the telescope life in the colony goes on unperturbed, the guilemots as usual seem consumed in a storm of their own whipped up by strong internal urges, released through bouts of behaviour contrasting either aggression or pair bonding. For me though the raging storm heightens the experience.
I am determined to complete an entire scroll today and decide to work in the way I have developed, minimising the marks I make to capture each individual. I also start from the bottom of the scroll this time so always drawing the guillemot in front of the next. I mark out large areas of cliff for reference then individuals in a group using circles so I do not loose track of numbers and scale as the birds shuffle and reshuffle.
I complete the drawing by 6pm, having covered a large cascade of guillemot stage left of the Bull Hole 1 drawing. I am now familiar enough with the birds to be able to draw one after just one glance through the scope, meaning I have really been able to enjoy capturing the dramatic behaviour seen today, highlights below:

Guillemot with a fish greets it's partner, the interaction seems aggressive to start with then they settle into allopreening
Grappling rivals tumble down a steep ledge, one flings the other who, possibly caught in the wind falls approximately 60m to the ledge shown at the bottom of the main drawing. After knocking the birds breaking its fall off like skittles, it stands up and begins to preen.

Mating on the steepest ledges, requires a lot of frantic wing action

All the bridled bird in this section were found to be in the top left area of the drawing. One bridled bird B4 was possible to track, and I noticed it moving between two different birds, preening both.
The complete Bull Hole Scroll 2
Bull Hole Scroll 2, detail

Friday, 9 May 2014

Skomer Day 5: Scrolling On

Bull Hole Scroll Scroll 1, Detail
Bull Hole Scroll 1
With winds gusting around 40mph, I revert to working from inside the Bull Hole hide today, even inside I need to use six heavy duty clips to stop the paper lifting, but I'm grateful for the shelter.I draw solidly all day, finally complete the first Bull Hole Scroll at around 9pm. It has taken a long time, however making it I have learnt how to reduce my drawing to capturing the essence of each bird posture, so I am developing a way of drawing that allows me to move around the colony recording what I see accurately but quickly.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Skomer day 4: Squeezed on a Cliff

Detail of the Amos Loomery
A wet and misty morning with strengthening winds improving visibility enough that I can see the loomeries by 11am. I am forced however to abandon the first scroll I started at Bull Hole yesterday evening and take refuge in Elspeth's hide at the Amos. After what seemed like half an hour of human / equipment tetris I manage to compact myself into the tiny cliff top box and find a position I can draw in. My telescope is tilted at 90 degrees from the tripod so I can look down the angled eyepiece, worryingly my head takes on a similar concertinaed stance. However, there is no way I'm going to move anywhere as the rain hammers the hide head on and fills the plastic sheet I have used to block off the section of window, save for where my telescope peers out. Despite my slight discomfort, The world through its lens absorbs me for hours as I watch and draw the interactions within groups of guillemots jostling for position on an already densely populated flat ledge. 

In this period pre- egg laying I find the guillemots appear even more highly charged than I am used to seeing; jostling for position on ledges, shuffling and reshuffling with fights breaking out as birds lash out with sharp stabbing motions at new birds, often centred around pairing birds frequently coupling as rivals (presumably for mate and ledge) challenge and are fought off. Some apparent fights turn into tender allopreening (again courtship I have not noticed later in the season), other birds arrive with fish presumably as a courtship offering, but are mobbed by their neighbours. I imagine a sense of heightened awareness as birds always seem in tune with their neighbours and the network of social interactions threading throughout the loomery. Amidst this frenzy of activity, I discover colour ringed birds, but admit to having difficulty reading the numbers (usually three digits on left leg, T on right). One ring I can read, to the left of the drawing: Green 907. Later Julie looks up G907 on the database for me, it is a male presumably ringed as a chick in 2009 (check) with no subsequent data, which suggest that it is a young adult returned to the Amos for its first breeding season. If it was a bird that had bred previously, I would amongst other things be able to see where it nests on the cliff each year (normally pairs are faithful to the same square metre of ledge)and who it's neighbours are. 

Bull Hole Scroll at the end of the day.
The weather blows over and by late afternoon it is dry enough to continue work on the Bull Hole Scroll. The more I observe the more natural it becomes to draw and I feel the pace picking up after this morning's session at the Amos.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Skomer Day 3: Inky Drops

At Bull Hole today, I started an ink drawing of a stepped section of the loomery.Using three brushes with reservoirs filled with ink diluted with water to varying concentrations, I was able to work quite fast. I like the effect although it is a little over complicated for use in the field since it requires timing the period of drying between each wash. In the afternoon I decided to revert back to graphite although the ink method I was using with the reservoir brushes may be useful for making some of the exhibition pieces later on.

Bull Hole, top of group B
Start of Bull Hole, scroll 1
The wind dropped in the afternoon enough for me to work higher up the cliff, which helped if only for a change of scene. This time I felt I was beginning to get my eye in, really understand the birds. I am working on a vertical format which immediately felt right because I am following the grain of the colony so to speak. The drawing is beginning to work. By around 7pm, the sun is low behind the cliff and it becomes hard to reliably make out the birds in a shadowy haze through the scope.

Tide and swell around Bull Hole, Auks on the water and in the air
I finish the day painting the sea as a swell develops,reminding myself that this is the environment guillemots have evolved to thrive in. Translucent layers of colour in the water remind me of the crypt window by Keith New in Sheffield Cathedral.     

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Manx Shearwater

Shearwater and gulls in the moonlight
Shearwater, creeping into burrow, bottom

Tonight I took a torch out to see the Manx Shearwater that arrive under the safe cover of darkness on Skomer during the breeding season in their hundreds of thousands. As it fell completely pitch dark at around 11pm the Manxies began to arrive, a trickle at first like falling meteors rushing over my head then a storm of wings crashing out of the sky, and appearing instantly on the path in front of me. They are majestic in flight when I have seen them skimming the waves in Cardigan bay , but on land they flip and flop like fish out of water on account of their short legs, useless for walking. They creep into rabbit holes and the whole subterranean network soon echoes with the peculiar cackling, mewing sound of their birds safe below ground. Others unable to find a hole crouch motionless and silent amongst the bluebells, their inability to walk making them easy pickings for gulls as their numerous remains attest for. I shine my torch on the birds and draw them very quickly, imagining the long exhausting journey that has brought them here, the reluctance to be in this uncomfortable environment rife with horrible danger.    

Manx Shearwater amongst blue bells

Skomer Day 2: Bull Hole

Part of the flat section at Bull Hole, slow progress in graphite
Drawing at Bull Hole
At Bull Hole there is a small hide which I can shelter behind, offering enough protection from today's South Westerly for me to comfortably work on a large scroll drawing. That was the plan at least, however I soon encountered one problem I did not consider; the wet atmosphere of the island makes the paper very damp and heavy going to work on with graphite. By late afternoon I had made very slow progress and was coming to realise that attempting to complete the major drawings in the field was not going to be the best use of my time on the island. I needed a quicker way of drawing, even if it meant making rough records of what I'm observing which can be be reworked later on. I finish the day by planning a method using brush and ink which should be faster for blocking in the guillemot shapes and will also be unaffected by the quality of damp paper. I also try out different compositions using a vertical format, focusing on three downward cascading patterns within the loomery, shown below.

Colony Compositions at bull Hole in ink and the Amos in pencil

Monday, 5 May 2014

Skomer Day 1: Loomery Scrolls

First egg seen
I arrived on Skomer Island today to start work on a new drawing project called Loomery Scrolls which will be exhibited at the Festival Of The Mind 2014 from 18 - 28 September. This arts festival is organised by the University of Sheffield each year to showcase the work it carries out by supporting collaborative projects between artists and members of the Universtiy. I am on the Island to meet Professor Tim Birkhead, Professor of behavioural Ecology at the University and a leading figure in avian biology. Tim has studied Skomer's guillemots at their breeding colonies or loomeries every year since 1972 and today for the first time, he is going to show me the sites that have occupied this research.

A theme of festival of the mind this year is chaos, which could appropriately describe first impressions of the densely packed loomeries Tim studies; a single square metre of precipitous cliff ledge can be occupied by up to seventy nesting birds. However closer observation of individual behaviour reveals a strong social structure running throughout a loomery. Over the next five days and a subsequent week later in the season, it will be my job to make drawings that describe this order within the apparent chaos of the loomeries on Skomer. Thankfully Tim will be at hand to help me make sense of it all, along with his PHD student Elspeth Kenny and research assistant Julie Riordan who are also on the island. Happily for me; Elspeth is studying  the colonies from a detailed perspective, focusing on the allopreening behaviour that strengthens the bond between breeding pairs and their immediate neighbours, whilst Julie presents a wider picture of the colony by carrying out the work of monitoring populations and ringed birds that has continued uninterrupted on Skomer for forty years.     
 My approach will be to draw the loomeries bird by bird on long rolls of paper large enough to capture a sense of of the overall scene with enough detail to describe the posture and therefore behaviour of each individual guillemot within it (similar to work posted here on 26 May 2013). The overall aim being to exhibit drawing scrolls that capture the awe and wonder of Skomer's vast, seemingly chaotic loomeries whilst simultaneously describing the detailed and complex social order at the heart of their cohesion. 

The Amos

Tim meets me in the morning and introduces me to his two main study sites. First the Amos; a folding elbow of volcanic rock, curving out to sea and back on itself to cradle a steep sided basin around which the colony groups form on mainly deep flat ledges. The densest groups of guillemots here are all on one level, perfect for the kind of linear composition suited to the scroll format I am looking to make. This is Tim's main study site, where most of his colour ringed birds are; individually identifiable with a numbered ring that correlates to a database giving the life history of birds in some cases over more than twenty years. I hope these stories will play a part in my work, which I hope to engage viewers in through a strong sense of narrative. To continue the population monitoring this year, Tim's field assistant Julie watches the colony throughout daylight hours from a small wooden hide using a telescope. She plots positions and codes I am yet to fully understand, on a large photograph of the site pinned to the hide wall. Next door Elspeth, has a yet smaller hide from where she collects her data on allopreening behaviour in the common guillemot. I fold myself into the hide and try it out for size, It would be cramped to draw in but could well be essential given the unsettling forecast for this week.

The Amos is on the Western side of the Island facing South, exposed to the prevailing wind, which is strong today. Tim takes me to a more sheltered study site, the largest colony on the island, Bull Hole. When Tim first started studying this site for his PHD, there were approximately 500 birds in three groups he labelled a,b and c, shown on the drawing below. That was in the 70's, in 1966 there were around 5000 birds and the colony today is again close to that number. Skomer is one of the few seabird stations where guillemot populations have increased, making the research carried out here all the more important for tackling the declining population trend elsewhere, particularly the North Sea. Tim explains that since he started studying the Bull Hole site, guano and the treading action of the guillemots has broken down the grass and soil to once more reveal the bare rock ledges they need. Remarkably, this has occurred in such a way that the present day loomery is the same pattern and shape as that shown in photos from 1966. 

I have am interested in the way the pattern of a loomery is defined by the geology of the rock it is on; two forces of nature on different time scales causing an affect. At Bull Hole, I am finding two things visually striking, which makes the loomery unique to anything I have seen before. Firstly the ledges are very steep which means the loomery looks like it has formed in cascades flowing down the cliff face, narrow and dense in gullies, broadening out over spreading heaps of scree. The second difference is that I am seeing a loomery before egg laying has occurred for the first time. This means the birds, rather than incubating, seated and more stationary are standing upright with large groups facing the same directions determined by the angle of the ledge they are on, creating an overall monochrome patterned effect across the dark cliff face.

Over the rest of the day I get to understand the structure of cliff and colony at Bull Hole, shown in the drawings below. I focus on the nearest third and also densest area of the colony, drawing patterns, postures, formations of both groups and rock and finally compositions for the next days' drawing.  
Bull Hole, landscape, guillemot groups and patterns. 

Bull Hole, composition studies, rock formation and guillemot postures