Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Snow and high summer

Sunday I rose before dawn, expecting to see that special glow of light created by a world crusted with white. But there was nothing special about the light seeping through the curtains and no sign of the snow the weatherman had promised. Instead the ground was clear, lacking even a heavy frost. Even so, I wrapped myself up warm under many layers before leaving for Elmley.

After my sighting of a barn owl last week I was alert to the possibility of another encounter in the same area this week and I was delighted to spot it sitting on a fence post in the dark just a few yards from where it was the week before.

Out to the reserve road and the light began to build as the car thermometer warned of temperatures dropping to be low enough for ice. We parked up to watch for the sunrise and weren't disappointed as the sun tore a fiery strip between the land and the cloud. The 'crumph' of shotguns prompted flights of geese, greylag and Canada, to hurtle overhead and into a sunrise that looked like the mouth of a giant, celestial furnace. Eventually the fire was extinguished as the sun rose above the increasing purple cloud layer and the light took on the strange metalic tinge that is always the prelude to snow.

'Merlin corner' lived up to its name this week, the feisty little falcon was resting on the trackway, I wonder if the tarmac retains heat and that's what makes it such an attractive place to sit when it's so cold? The merlin was certainly not going to allow a close approach and he flew off into the morning gloom as we got to within a couple of hundred yards.

Steely grey skies and bitter winds made for uncomfortable companions on the walk out to the hide and, just as I crested the sea wall, the first flakes of the approaching snowstorm began to fall. There was not one bird visible on the semi-frozen scrape but the hide provided welcome shelter from the wind driven snow which soon obscured any view outside much further than a couple of yards. After a while the snowfall thinned and I began to see groups of oystercatchers flying through, emerging from the wall of white briefly before being swallowed up, leaving just the sound of their calls as evidence that they were still in the sky.

A small flock of brown birds flew in low and fast, against the wind, there was no time to get the binoculars focussed on them as they suddenly appeared from the snow only to vanish amongst some reeds, but I thought I caught sight of a crest raised and I dared to hope that I may have stumbled upon some waxwings. However my hopes were crushed when the birds broke cover and began to feed among the snow covered grass on one of the scrape's small islands.
The waxwing impersonators were actually skylarks, a group of seven, one or two with raised crests. Here were birds, absolutely iconic of high summer, foraging like snow buntings in the midst of a snowstorm, crouching low to avoid the worst of the vicious wind. As an artist I am always on the lookout for different ways of representing familiar birds so the somewhat incongruous image was recorded in the sketchbook, despite the numbness in my fingertips, for possible future development.

We made a start on the walk back to the car as the snow eased a little. The wind was still fierce and the small, icy snow tinkled against the metal legs of my tripod making a strange, and beautiful crystalline music. The wind blasted these same crystals to sting against my face and bring numb redness to my cheeks.

On reaching the car park I took one last look out over the scrape in the field behind and as I did so I heard the thin, high-pitched 'seep' of a goldcrest in the bush to my left. I watched it briefly as it searched frantically for enough sustenance to see it through the conditions, a fantastic gem of a bird, a tiny spark to make me feel warm against the ice and wind and a great way to end the trip.

On returning home a mug of hot coffee and a brunch of bacon and egg sandwich was just what was required to fortify me for an afternoon of Christmas shopping. Oh, the joys of the season!


Andrew H said...

great sketches Mike.....

Jo said...

Who's "we". Is there someone else in your household mad enough to get up so early? Lovely scene building once again Mike, I was feeling pretty cold in that hide. If we come back to the UK, you will have to take us there one day.

Mike Woodcock said...

'We' is Andrew H above, photographer and good friend. Most Sundays it's the two of us.