Sunday, 25 January 2009

An unexpected drama

The week had been a mixture of temperature and weather, one day bright and cold the next warmer and softer, but always dry. The forecast gave rain for one day; Sunday. And, for once, the forecast proved correct, we had steady rain overnight and in the morning I woke to the sound of tyres hissing on tarmac.

I didn't hold out much hope for the trip to Elmley so I wasn't disappointed that there was no sign of the barn owl, the road was flooded, the fields were flooded, the barn owl's world had changed, disappeared beneath sheets of gun metal water, as impenetrable to him as steel. Prolonged periods of heavy rain can be deadly to barn owls, their soft body feathers soak up moisture like a sponge once the rain penetrates the outer layers, and the resulting chill can kill. And the small rodents that barn owls depend upon can take shelter in their burrows and, if flooded, there they die thus removing much of the owl's diet.

Sitting in the car, listening to the rain as it was driven into the windscreen was uninspiring and the few birds that showed were looking dismal and drab in the grey so, before long, the decision was taken to cut the day's outing short and return home. But nature has a way of surprising you and often the unexpected saves the day.

Some birds benefit from the rain because it can encourage worms and other subterranian invertebrates closer to the surface and that makes them easier prey for probing beaks. The starling is one of the birds that takes advantage of this and huge flocks can sometimes be found in winter rain feeding in open grass areas. The whole flock can appear to undulate across the grass like gentle waves as one bird leapfrogs another to gain a position at the leading edge of the masses. There are advantages to gathering in such numbers, many pairs of eyes are on the lookout for potential danger and being one amongst many lowers the odds on being taken by a predator. Predators though have developed ways of combating the starling's tactics and large concentrations of prey can draw them in like a magnet.

As we drove slowly down the track off the reserve a drama unfolded which made the whole trip worthwhile for me. Seemingly from the very earth, hundreds of starlings rose into the rain streaked air and instantly formed into a giant liquid cloud of tightly packed birds moving as a single entity. The tight ball of birds twisted and shimmered as it smoothly turned like a smoke filled bubble. This meant only one thing; An aerial predator was on the wing and the flocking behavior of the starlings was an instinctual defense response. There, on the edge of the seething mass, a solitary shape dived and swooped at the flock and I knew I was watching a merlin making a determined effort to win her meal for the day. She slashed at the pack, probing the outer edges and the starlings tried desperately to maintain coherence in an attempt to dazzle and confound the marauding falcon. She was not to be so easily deterred and deftly she severed the flock into two unequal parts. The larger part broke off and headed away from the menace whilst she doggedly pursued the smaller and continued to slice it into ever smaller sections by rushing into the heart of the mass repeatedly. She eventually separated a group of only ten or so and locked on to one hapless individual. I saw the chase but not the kill as the desperate group plummeted earthwards with streamlined death at their heels.

The whole drama was over in scant minutes and scarcely five minutes later the starling flock resumed its feeding as if nothing had happened.

The day could not have given me a better end and I returned home still feeling elated at having witnessed a true spectacle in the rain. My current project was put on hold as I simply had to record the morning's drama.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Golden light and hidden treasures

When I looked out this Sunday the sky was dominated by the fat, full moon. Not many stars were showing and the trees and bushes rattled and shook under the fingers of a striking wind. The grass was coated with icy frost and the last remains of snow clinging to frozen existence after a week without fresh reinforcements. The wind was biting and strong but, despite the effect it had of chilling me to the bone, I knew this was a 'warm' wind. The delicate forms of the ice crystals retreated under it's touch, melting away from sharp tracery to soft rounded near drips. The temperature showed as above freezing for the first time in what seemed like months and the wind carried the promise of clearing the marsh of otherwise stubborn and impenetrable mists. Leaves and debris hurried across the road ahead of the car joined by a mouse who looked somewhat overexcited by the turbulent air.

Out on the marsh the sky was lightening to purple, brilliant stripes of orange and magenta bordered a lighter area of greenish blue. The vapour trail of a jet made a single, discordant purple slash running counterpoint. Like a huge celestial painting, the whole glowed with internal fire and abstract energy.

I checked the box where the barn owl roosts and there, on a branch close to the entrance she sat. She tipped forward and hopped up into the box disappearing into relative comfort to snooze the day away while I began the cold walk out to the hides.

As I walked, the sun started to rise above the horizon, bringing golden light to set the tops of the reedbeds glowing and, as it rose further, it caught the ranks of dry, dead grass on the banks of the dykes. The wind rushed through and pushed at the stalks making them wave and shimmer in the sunlight like fur on the back of some giant, golden animal.

A peregrine passed overhead, setting to flight the mallard, wigeon and teal that rested on the open water between the slowly melting ice sheets that covered most of the pools and dykes. A look out over the scrape from the first hide showed no movement, the shallow water totally frozen over making it an unwelcoming proposition for waders and wildfowl. The prospect of watching a near empty and apparently lifeless frozen pond didn't really appeal so the longer walk out to a hide overlooking the Swale began.

Two shapes burst from the grass ahead, unseen until they took flight, two short eared owls floated out over the sea wall towards the river. Their camouflage was so so good that, had they sat tight, I would have passed by within feet of the hidden treasure and never known just how close I'd been. Further on, small groups of brent geese began moving and gathering together into a larger flock. A group of teal moved towards me in a loose formation that morphed seamlessly from one fluid shape to another. As they passed close by I heard the sound of the wind whishing and sooshing through their wings like the surf on a sloping beach of fine sand.

From the hide overlooking the Swale I could see huge numbers of waders and waterfowl feeding out on the mud before the advancing tide and bobbing around madly on the grey, cold water. There were dunlin, curlew, redshank, lapwings, black headed gulls, lesser and greater black backed gulls, common gulls, mallard, wigeon, teal, pintail, shelduck, grey plover and ringed plover all milling around one another feeding in their own specialist ways. The wind tore in through the viewing slots, straight off the water, trying to rip the skin from my face and freezing my fingertips to numbness. After a relatively short stay I had to give in and retreat back outside where the seawall offered some protection and the activity of walking brought tingling, burning warmth to my face and hands.

Crows and gulls played the turbulent winds above the sea wall effortlessly gliding, twisting and turning. Back towards the car park a lone grey plover sat on the blue ice of a frozen scrape, it's head tucked into it's shoulders and one leg hidden amongst warm belly feathers. It seemed ready to sit out the worst of the wind and cold and even managed to seem calm and comfortable. I left him to it.

Once back home I thawed out with coffee and settled to the rest of the day in a warm studio. I have completed another painting from a sketch made on my holiday in the summer. With 'The woodpecker tree' I wanted to show the green woodpecker as part of his environment, blending with the rotten, lichen encrusted tree where he searches for the bugs and grubs that slowly eat away at the wood.