Thursday, 25 September 2008

Windy morning, landscape afternoon

Wednesday was a day of wind. I'm used to the strong winds that sweep across the open spaces of Elmley marshes. In the late summer they are welcome as they cool the heat and set the grasses and rushes into motion like waves on the water. In winter they can be bitter, rushing across the marsh with nothing to impede their icy, salt scented progress. On the farm the winds were more broken, scattered by a million, million leaves on the trees in the woods and hedges. Sheltering by the edge of the woods I spotted movement ahead, the wind was in my face, a good thing, as my scent was dissipating behind me. The movement was a young fox which was sniffing about at the edge of a field. I wondered if she was seeking out the tiny frogs that were relatively easy to find in the area, they surely must have made an easy meal in plentiful supply. She stopped sniffing and brought her face up several times and she was chewing each time she did so. Despite the advantage of wind direction the fox soon spotted me with her keen eyes and ears. As she stood and stared at me I expected her to turn and run or slip into the woods and vanish. But she didn't. She stood her ground for a few seconds then, extraordinarily, she began to walk towards me. My heart began to pound as she closed the gap between us and she just kept coming. Not aggressively, she was just behaving as if I weren't there. She moved to my left and passed by, unhurriedly, within a metre of me, continuing on her way with no more than a glance in my direction. Encounters with wild creatures tend to be distant and fleeting affairs so when an animal or bird approaches that closely it feels like a privilege to me. A couple of years ago, on the farm, I had a similar experience with a fox. I had sat at the base of a tree in a quiet spot where I dozed off for a while (I was on holiday after all). I woke up to see a young fox approaching my position from 10-15 yards off and I stayed stock still. The fox passed literally within a couple of inches of my outstretched feet and I couldn't help thinking that my camouflaged clothing had been worth every penny for that moment alone.

From my encounter with the fox I moved on to the paddocks where I glimpsed the barn owl hunting away across the far side. As I moved to one of the ponds I disturbed a juvenile heron from his fishing. He had been on the pond every morning and had always flown off into a potato field where he would wait for me to move off before returning to his spot by the water. The potato field had been treated with sulphuric acid which burns off the material above ground and concentrates the plants' energies into the tubers below. It looks drastic and nasty but the acid dissipates quickly and has little lasting impact on the environment. It does, however, leave fields of grey, dead material, perfect for the camouflaging of a heron. I set up my camera and waited for the kingfishers to return to a favourite fishing perch that I'd identified earlier in the week. Since there was no sign of them I sketched the heron as he faced into the wind. Whilst drawing I glanced up from my scope and pad and there, right in front of me, was a kingfisher hovering. Its wings were a blur as it maintained its position like a hummingbird at a flower. I debated whether to reach for the camera or start a quick sketch and off it went, flying low and fast towards the main pond and out of sight. And so it was that I had missed a brilliant blue, orange and white bird, hovering like a suspended jewel in front of me, in favour of drawing a grey bird in a grey field surrounded by dead plant stalks. Such is life I suppose.

The sun came out as the clouds were pushed off into the west by the wind and swallows began to fill the sky above me. A horse sauntered closer and I could hear his teeth tearing at the grass as he came. I had plenty of time to draw the scene as I waited for the still absent kingfishers. Sitting still and drawing a landscape is a really relaxing experience, far removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday and I decided that I would make the day a landscape day, take out my easel, paints etc. later, set up, record and enjoy. As I drew the landscape in front of me I was aware of birds all around. There were swallows everywhere and three times they alerted me to the presence of birds of prey in the area. Their chattering calls first announced the arrival of a large female sparrowhawk. She was using the tailwinds as an aid to speed but I don't think she had any real ideas of catching swallows as they were quite aware that she was there and sparrowhawks like to hunt by surprise and ambush. The second bird of prey that the swallows spotted before I did was a marsh harrier passing high overhead. Marsh harriers are relatively common on Elmley and if I have a trip there when I don't see one, it's unusual, but this was a first for me on the farm. The final raptor of the day was a fabulous light coloured male kestrel, again no real threat to the swallows but they were taking no chances and they called their disapproval loudly.

The pond seemed quiet and I realised that what was missing was the almost constant 'pipping' of the juvenile kingfishers as they begged for food from their parents. The adults must have started to ignore the youngsters, an approach which forces them to begin fishing for themselves. It seems harsh but they must learn the skills they need to survive, and quickly too. Many will not aquire them in time for the coming winter and, sadly, many will succumb to hunger and bad weather.

Later in the day I tramped out to the fields, laden with all my gear and I settled to paint a landscape. The farm is criss-crossed by paths, tracks and bridleways and I like the idea of including them in my landscape paintings. I always feel it gives the viewer a place to go in their imaginings and creates a certain sense of mystery in a landscape; What's around the next corner along the way?


gynie said...

I feel like it is a privilege too when you encounter an animal like you did ^^

thanks for the lovely ballad, it sooth me a little from my so urban life !

Mike Woodcock said...

Nice for me to write up my notes and remember my holidays too as I'm currently stuck in central London.