Thursday, 30 June 2011

New life and swift death

Mists before dawn promised a clear day, a window in the relentless procession of grey, wet and windy days that seem to have characterised this early 'summer'. On the way to the reserve I looked out over the mudflats to where the rising sun had set the sky to glowing with metalic pinks and peaches and had lit up the smoke from the distant power station with delicate shades of lilac. Yes this promised to be a sweet summer day.

In front of the car a green woodpecker took flight from the ground and banked away over a field filled with ragwort, the green and gold of the bird matching perfectly the green and gold of the flowers. Further on I spotted shapes moving in the mist soaked grass of an old orchard. Rabbits were quietly feeding alongside two juvenile green woodpeckers. It's easy to identify the juveniles of this species because, much like our own youth, they are covered in spots! One of the youngsters flew off into the trees but the other remained and went back to feeding. It kept a wary eye on me, stooping to feed then raising its head in a strangely snakelike way to peer over the grass at me.

Off to the side of the road at one point is an alien looking landscape, like something imagined by a science fiction writer as the surface of a distant planet, there is a field filled with hundreds of strange mounds, wound about with tendrils of mist. These are known as 'Emmett humps'. They are the work of colonies of yellow meadow ants over years, 'Emmett' being an old word for ant.

Despite the rising sun the Swale retained a thick blanket of low lying mist, the result of a hot and humid night of unsettled sleep. I stopped on the road at the entrance to the reserve to give the sun the time to warm the ground a little and allow the moisture to rise away and return to the sky, before I continued on to the farmhouse and the access track. The farm buildings were dripping with water and a surfeit of starlings. These noisy scoundrels filled every available edge and ledge. Those that survive will go on to make up some of the numbers of the enormous flocks of Autumn that are such a magnet for predators like the Merlin and the Peregrine.

At the apex of one barn though there were no starlings. This was due to the presence of a family of kestrels that have bred in the barn's roof rafters this year. The youngsters are on the very edge of fledging now but still can't quite tear themselves away from the familiar safety and security of their birthplace.

When the mist cleared and the sun was still low in the sky it created a glorious effect of light through the seed heads of the grass. They lit up against the green and waved gently like a vast hoard of people bearing golden flamed torches.

When I reached the car park I saw the unmistakable form of a barn owl hunting out over the grazing marsh. I positioned myself where I could see the nest box and at the entrance were two, well grown youngsters who, like the kestrels, were not far from fledging. I watched over the course of an hour or so and during that time the adults brought in four prey items, field voles from the look of them. The youngsters though didn't seem overly interested in the meals. This is good news, it means that they are well fed and the frequency with which the adults were returning with prey backs this up.

Watching the barn owls coming in with bundles of protein clutched in their eager talons it's easy to view the story from just one perspective; The new life of the owletts is sustained by the numbers of prey and the parent birds' hunting abilities. But there is a flip side to this, the voles' lives are abruptly ended to provide food for the growing birds. There is no moralistic slant to this, it is simply the way it is; Life for some comes at the price of death for others.

I was reminded of just how swift and close death on the marsh can be whilst watching a moorhen leading her brood of three chicks around the water's edge. They were quite endearing little creatures, comical almost, nothing much more than blobs of black fluff propelled on impossibly thin legs and ridiculously large feet. They were pootling around, pecking at everything, beginning to learn what is edible and what is not, when, without warning, a lesser black backed gull swept down and snatched one of them. The gull grabbed the chick by the head and its powerful beak crushed the skull of the little bird easily. The gull flew on for a few yards, just to be clear of the startled and aggressive moorhen mother, then it landed and tossed the chick into its mouth, swallowing it in one. It then took off and flew away over the scrape. Death was swift indeed for the moorhen chick, the whole episode lasted less than 30 seconds.

By the time I had to leave the reserve at around 9.30 the sun was blazing hot and there was a shimmering heat haze making a distant buzzard waver and warp in my view through the scope. For once the singing of skylarks didn't seem out of place.

Summer on the reserve just as it should be, the dramas of new life and swift death continuing just as they always have under the heat and light of the sun.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Spring towards summer part deux

The birds of summer have taken over from the winter visitors. The huge flocks of wigeon are gone and the brent geese have returned to Greenland, Canada, Russia and Siberia to breed. Our greylag geese remain as they are resident, but I always think of them as a winter bird even though I can see them all year round. Their stocky, sculptural build makes them great subjects to sketch.

Brent geese sketches.

Greylag geese sketches.

Little owls are resident here too, although they’re more difficult to see in the summer when the foliage bursts out on the trees. As anyone who has ever read this blog or looked at my website before will know, I’ll always sketch them if I see them, they are such great characters. Another great bird that is difficult to see at the best of times is the tawny owl, in the summer, hidden close to the trunks of trees and obscured behind leaves they are almost impossible to see at their day roosts. Luckily I know of a pair that are regularly in the same group of trees and every year, before the buds break into leaf, I visit them to see them and, hopefully, their chicks once they branch.

Sleeping little owl sketch. Spring tawny owl, acrylic on illustration board.

The lapwing flocks of winter have dispersed and individual birds have paired and are breeding. The first chicks appeared a couple of weeks ago and now all through the rough grass little balls of speckled fluff scurry about, watched over by their ever vigilant parents. The youngsters look like they’re made from woolen balls stolen from the tops of knitted bobble hats from the ‘70s.

Lapwing sketches.

There have been flocks of Mediterranean gulls on Elmley reserve lately, sometimes up to c150 birds. They are a handsome looking gull that used to be pretty scarce in the UK. Indeed, up until around the 1950’s it was a decidedly rare bird. Their range has been expanding rapidly over the past twenty or so years and now, at times, they seem to outnumber the more familiar black headed gull. They’re very welcome as far as I’m concerned, the sound they make is distinctive and, as I said, they are a very handsome gull.

Black headed gull sketch. Mediterranean gull (front) and black headed gull (rear).

The scrapes are now totally dominated by the avocets and the sound of their constant bubbling chatter fills the hides. In the early morning the sunlight slants across the water and the strong shadows it makes help to describe the avocets’ delicate forms. Avocets are a really beautiful bird, elegant and refined to look at, all flowing lines and smooth curves. But their personality belies their looks, they are aggressive and irritable and, at breeding time, they won’t tolerate any intrusion from any species it seems.

Avocet sketches.

Amongst the best of the delights of summer on the marshes are the abundant yellow wagtails that flit around in the grass, on the road, and on the gates and fences that pepper the grazing fields. When the sun hits them from a clear blue sky they glow the brightest and purest of yellows. Less welcome for me are the swarms of mosquitoes that gather over the water or over my head! The wagtails must love them though as they represent a copious and ever present food for them and their chicks.

Sketches of the first yellow wagtails of the year and a male in strong sunshine from last week.

Yellow wagtail and mosquitoes,
acrylic on illustration board.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Spring towards Summer

At last it seems that Spring is breaking free from the shackles of Winter.

Just this week I have seen the first Bumble Bee of the year bumbling around the garden looking for a suitable nesting place and in London I watched as a brimstone butterfly fluttered around in the sun as if it were the height of Summer. In the garden the blackbird is singing and protecting his lady, the sparrows squabble for dominance and the starlings are gleaming and glossy. On the marshes the lapwings are displaying, swooping down and up with a loud ‘peewit’ and the rush of air through primaries, joining in ritual overhead battle with rivals. Avocets have returned to the scrapes and they are chasing anything that dares to land on their island claims.

I have seen the mating of urban peregrines, brief encounters high on the office rooftops. I have been lucky enough to have been watching one pair since last summer. All through the winter they have been resident on a girder that runs the length of an ugly, ‘60s designed block, lending a grace and beauty that only comes when nature invades the grey spaces of the city. It seems that the pair may have relocated to another place to lay their eggs and raise their young though as they have been absent for some while now. It’s disappointing for me but I wish them well wherever they’ve gone to.

Summer this year will be different for us because, for the first time in six years, we won’t be going to the farm in Norfolk. Instead we will be flying off to Singapore for three weeks. To say that I’m excited by the prospect would be something of an understatement! Exotic birds and wildlife await and there is a sketchbook tucked away ready for its moment in the sun. We’ll miss the farm though, as will our friends who’ve accompanied us for all those holidays. As a little reminder I’ve painted one of our friends in a favourite spot where she likes to paint by the fishing lake.

Summer on the marshes can be wonderfully peaceful, with the sounds of a million insects humming along to the songs of skylarks. Herons stalk the shallow dykes among the reeds and rushes, barely disturbing the surface of the water until, in a lightning fast strike their heads dart in to capture some unwary fish or perhaps a frog or newt. It’s this hazy, hot, still, summer’s day feeling that I have tried to capture in my latest painting ‘Summer Heron’.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Two crows and a hawk

Last week’s trip to Elmley was made despite some of the greyest, coldest weather we've yet seen this year, plus the prospect of a low tide and no birds on the scrape.

I think the weather was too cold even for the birds to want to venture out onto the mud of the Swale though and there was some activity in front of the hide. After scanning the flocks of wigeon, shoveller, mallard and teal I put the scope to the far shore where snipe hide in the scraggy rushes and grasses and their cryptic plumage with its stripes and flecks can render them invisible.

I got a couple of crows in the scope and watched them as their attention seemed caught by a particular clump of dead grass. I managed to make out a bundle of feathers lifting in the wind and at first I thought the crows had found a corpse, but the feathers moved and resolved themselves into a young male sparrowhawk, obviously on a kill which interested the crows.

They circled the spar like Native Americans around a wagon train in an old John Wayne movie. All the time the spar kept a wary eye on them until he'd had enough and he made a jump at one of the pair which convinced them to stay back a bit and let the feisty little raptor get on with his business in peace for a while.

So there he sat, sometimes hidden, but turning around on his kill so that he came back into view from time to time. After a reasonably lengthy sketching session of 15 minutes or so the crows returned and this time the spar made a break for it across the scrape carrying what was left of his prize (possibly a starling as it was small and dark). He went into cover with the crows in hot pursuit and I lost sight of him. Whether the spar was able to hang onto his kill or whether the crows won the day I’ll never know but at least the diminutive hawk had had the time to eat some of his kill.

I then went back to scanning the reeds and finally saw a group of at least eight snipe all well in the deep cover and only betrayed by their occasional movement and one bird on the fringes, not quite as well hidden as the others. Into the sketchbook he went. By this time though my hands were numb with cold and I think some of my bones were beginning to crack so it was time to call it a day and return home for a large mug of coffee and a slice of toast.

But the trip had been a success despite my initial misgivings. There’s always something new to see!

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Not long now

Elmley was bleak this morning and it was cold. Not the crisp, clean cold of deep Winter, but a dirty, grey cold, one that no amount of layers seemed able to keep out. Across the grey landscape grey clouds scudded, ripped and torn to shapeless shreds by an urgent and insistent wind racing in from the grey Swale, laden with the tangy scents of salt and mud. Drizzle driven by the same wind was flung into my face, it felt like fine sand and made my eyes water with emotionless tears. The cries of curlew whined out across the marsh and even the bubbling laughter of little grebes seemed more mournful than cheerful.

But perhaps it shouldn't have sounded so. Perhaps their laughter should have had the ring of hope. Because these are the last days of the season, these are the last days of the dour hand of Winter that brings the grey rain and the spiteful winds.

Spring is trying hard now to shake Winter's grey mantle and begin colouring the days. Cleaning the drab olive grass to a bright and luscious green. Scouring the grey from the skies, polishing them to blue and decorating them with a dash of fresh cotton white.

Hares are gathering together, the females are tetchy and will soon begin to fight off the advances of the increasingly excitable males. There are coots brawling in the grey and choppy water and I have seen great crested grebes presenting gifts of vegetation to each other and dancing on the surface together like lovestruck teenagers. Geese are pairing off and blackbird males are becoming aggressive in defence of invisible but solid boundaries. Feisty blue tits have started chasing rivals and staking their claim to the nestboxes. Out on the Fleet the teal males raise their crests, flick their tails and bow to the, as yet, indifferent females. I watched a pair of peregrines playing together on the grey winds, treating the sky as a playground, riding the turbulent air like a toy.

Spring is here, but it awaits its moment to burst through and clear away the last dismal stutterings of a stubborn and belligerent Winter.

It won't be long now...