Thursday, 28 August 2008

A barn owl and a blackberry breakfast

Saturday was our first full day on the farm. I never really need to set an alarm as I'm almost always awake before dawn and I'm one of those people who can't lie in bed and do nothing, especially when there are 700 acres waiting to be explored right outside the door. So by 5.15 a.m. I was walking down the familiar path through the woods to the fishing pond and the paddocks beyond. The sky was red with a shepherd's warning but what clouds there were didn't look too threatening. From the bushes beside the path came the sounds of a family of wrens and I soon picked them out, scurrying like tiny brown sprites among the undergrowth.

Behind the pond stands a venerable old oak, lonely in his potato field. Just like an old man, much of his foliage on top has long gone. He has raggedy limbs that stand proud from the top like the antlers of some great stag and his trunk is riddled with holes large and small. But still he stands, providing homes and shelter for a million different creatures. I spotted a movement from the corner of my eye and a barn owl drifted silently into view over my right shoulder. She swooped up into the uppermost branches of the stag oak and perched in the early light. Her attention was captured by something hidden from my view by what foliage the oak still has and I watched and sketched as she laddered down through the branches. Eventually she worked her way around to the opposite side of the tree. I didn't see her come out so, after changing my position several times and searching for a glimpse of her, I came to the conclusion that she must have gone to roost in one of the many holes in the old boy's trunk. Last year he played host to a family of kestrels so this year it seems only fair that it should have been the barn owls' turn.

I wandered up to anther of the stag oaks, the one that I know as 'the little owl tree.' There, sitting at the entrance to a perfect owl hole, was a second, grumpy looking little owl. As I watched he moved to the top of his tree, surveyed his territory from the vantage point and enjoyed the golden early light. When I moved on I felt the moisture from the dew as it soaked into my boots. When I looked down I saw a tiny frog, and then another, and another. They are such vulnerable creatures, snack sized for so many, that Nature has had to come up with a breeding strategy for the frog that combats the enormous losses that the young suffer. Hundreds of offspring are produced and this ensures that the fittest and the luckiest survive to continue their line.

The rookery by the church came to life in a cacophany of sound and a myriad of black shapes moved in a chaotic ballet against the rich hues of the sunrise. The early start was worth it for this experience alone, I breathed the air deep and the images imprinted themselves on my mind.

I took one of the longer walks around the farm, up to where the yellowhammers sing their song of bread and cheese from the tops of the hedges. I stopped to eat blackberries, some succulent and sweet, others tart and refreshing, all were dew soaked, delicious and fresh straight from the brambles.

When I returned to the pond I watched a hobby as it powered into an attack on a flock of swallows, swooping, diving, jinking and swerving, it was a stunning display of aerobatics and a suitable point to return to the cottage for (a second) breakfast.

The day was spent playing badminton, fishing, swimming and playing table tennis and the whole thing was rounded off with a barbeque, some beers and some board games. Ahh! What a way to live!

Monday, 25 August 2008

Swallows, little owls and other old friends.

We got back from holiday on Friday afternoon, tired from the journey but also feeling that we'd had a great week. We arrived at the farm around 3.15 p.m and the sun was shining, just as it had been all day, nothing but toy story clouds in a pure blue sky. Beth and I took a walk around the cottages and down to the fishing pond once we'd settled in and had the first of many cups of tea for the week. The farm and cottage are familiar to us and it felt a bit like coming home since it was our fifth consecutive year's holiday there.

Over the paddock pond we watched a shimmering display as a kingfisher hovered in front of us. I was (as usual) too slow with the camera but I didn't really mind. At least it meant that the kingfishers were around and sometimes it is better to simply enjoy sights and experiences. Above us a large group of swallows chittered and whirred whilst, on the power cables, the youngsters waited to be fed. They'll soon be independant though and starting the long journey south to the wintering grounds of Africa. It's amazing to think of the incredible journey through all kinds of dangers that these tiny, delicate looking birds make. A group of thirty or so goldfinches flashed black and gold amongst the thistles on the fallow paddock. I love the fact that the collective noun for a group of goldfinches is a 'charm'. It's so appropriate for birds as appealing as goldfinches.

As steely grey clouds blew in, bourne by a brisk westerly, the rooks began to gather, darker against dark, ready to return to the rookery by the church. The rain held off though and before tea I had time to drop Beth off back at the cottage and scoot off for a quick check on some familiar features that usually play home to various creatures. I was delighted to find that the first of the little owl trees was occupied, although I don't think he was quite so pleased to see me. Little owls almost always look grumpy with that permanent scowl that they wear, but this one's look was positively thunderous, what great little characters they are! A green woody put in a brief appearance on what I know as the woodpecker tree and stayed just long enough for a quick sketch, then I returned to the cottage for more tea and a much appreciated meal.

I spent the evening pleasantly digesting and chatting in the company of family and friends. It was a great start to the week and, when I eventually crawled into bed, I lay my head on the pillow and fell asleep, happy and full of anticipation to see what the morning would bring.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

A beginning

Hello, I'm Mike Woodcock, a wildlife artist from Kent in the UK, welcome to the Scolopax chronicles.

For some time I've been toying with the idea of starting a blog as a way of recording and sharing some of my experiences as an artist and I guess it's obvious if you're reading this that I've made a beginning
! I'll be posting some of my sketches and finished works along with updates on my time 'in the field'.

Next week I'm off on my hols to Norfolk for a week. I'll be staying with my family and some close friends on a 700 acre organic farm in a charming little cottage which has been our holiday destination for the past four years. The farm is criss-crossed with paths and bridleways and it has ponds and woodlands which are home to plentiful wildlife. It's like wildlife artist's heaven to have a virtually private 700 acre nature reserve to wander around and get to know for a whole week. One of the greatest joys of the week is being able to watch the resident barn owls and kingfishers and these two species alone give me enough inspiration for a whole year. When I return I will hopefully have a sketchbook stuffed with ideas and observations to share.

For now I'll just have to make do with a couple of pages from last year's holiday and a finished painting that developed from them. The weather, for my week away last year, was awful and this barn owl was constantly fighting the elements to keep herself and her young supplied with food. Here's hoping for better weather this year...