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!