Monday, 24 December 2012

Friday, 21 September 2012

Return to Eden

On the hill, 7.30am, Singapore 14.8.12

Through the unbelievable generosity of big-hearted friends I have returned to Singapore and to the hill. An Eden that I believed was only ever to be accessible to me through memories, sketches and photographs. After a year away it is familiar yet still every bit as alien as before. It is hot and moist, the air is full of the constant whine of Cicadas, the 'chak-chaking' of Geckos and the exotic calls of what to me are 'jungle' birds. Most of the calls are unknown to me and I am reminded of every film or TV programme featuring jungles of any description from any part of the world. The heat here is unlike the heat of even the hottest day in England. There it is a direct and dry heat, a little like standing by a fire, and it is readily avoided by seeking a little shelter and shade. Here the heat is enveloping and penetrating and it makes you warm to your bones even in the shade. To some this type of heat is a discomfort to be avoided in the artificial cool of air conditioning, but to me it is welcome.

The hill

One call that I can distinguish is the laugh of the White Collared Kingfisher. My friends know it as the 'squeaky toy bird' because the sound resembles the noise that a dog's toy will make as the dog bites it. It was one of the first calls of any Singapore bird that I could recognise. They call loudly and can often be tracked down quickly by following the call. It feels right that the first bird in my sketchbook is a White Collared Kingfisher, a personal favourite. My first scribbles do prove that lack of practise has made the shapes of the birds unfamiliar. A Racket Tailed Drongo is calling from cover, loud and insistent. I spy him and he spies me with his bright, blood-red eye. Both of his magnificent tail streamers are still intact which is unusual and I try to photograph him. My photos are shaky, perhaps from the lack of light or, more likely, from my ineptitude with a camera. The sketch that goes in the book is little better as I underestimate the length of his streamers and end up adding them to the side as an extra.

White Collared Kingfisher

Racket Tailed Drongo

There are Myna birds on the hill (Javan Myna aka White Vented Myna) they patrol the slopes in gangs, like overgrown and over-dressed Starlings. They are noisy, boisterous, gregarious and funny. They strut around with that 'Ministry of Silly Walks' approved step of theirs and they make me smile every time.

Javan Myna

The beautifully named Olive Backed Sunbird is as common here as Blue Tits back home, they are almost as small and their call is similar too.

Olive Backed Sunbird

Yellow Vented Bulbuls are another very common bird here, singly or in pairs and trios they root around the bushes, trees, vines and grass looking for berries, fruits, young shoots and insects. I sketch one on 'the stump', just to loosen my wrist and to get used to the accursed finger splint that I am currently sporting on the ring finger of my right hand. (I injured it in a bizarre underwear related incident just a day or two before my trip.) 'The stump' is somewhat unusual for Singapore. I am in a public park, not a reserve, and the Singaporeans have a bit of a penchant for tidying things up. There are always gangs of workers trimming the trees beside the roads, or sweeping leaves and so on. Even Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve is currently undergoing a bit of a 'make-over'. Hopefully the powers that be will not tidy it up to the point where it stops being a reserve and becomes just another park. Already there are visitors being attracted to the place who treat it more like a park than a reserve: They talk loudly and they laugh and shout, generally not showing any real regard for either the wildlife or those visitors that come to the reserve to enjoy it.
OK, rant over, back to the stump. It was here last year and here it remains so maybe someone somewhere has suggested that it should be left to rot down naturally into perfect insect habitat. It would be good to think that there is at least one voice of reason arguing for the value of non-intervention from time to time. I like the stump and I hope that it is allowed to decay with dignity and that it doesn't fall victim to the sweepers, shredders and removers for the sake of a 'tidy' hill.

'The stump' with Yellow Vented Bulbul

Friday, 31 August 2012

Home Turf

Lots to tell from my two week trip to Singapore and Indonesia. I have been spending time with birds and other exotic creatures of the 'Mystic East' and my sketchbook has been well used.

Since my return I have been preparing for a small show at the RSPB reserve at Northward Hill Country Fair next weekend Sunday 9th September, so I have not really had the time to sort all the photos and sketches from Asia, but they are on their way! As a little taster here's a sketch of a Lineated Barbet which was just one of the birds that I saw pretty regularly during my stay. What a bird and what a place!

If you are in Kent next weekend and fancy a bit of a day out in the country why not pop along to Northward Hill and say Hello.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Website updated

I confess I'd let my website remain stagnant for too long so, over the past few weeks, I've been beavering away trying to create a new look and uploading some of the work done over the past year or so.

Making a website from scratch is a tough ol' business when you know next to nothing like me. I've had help of course, there's no way I could have done it without the advice and occasional troubleshooting of an expert. Luckily I have such an expert who is willing to help and answer a constant stream of silly questions.

The whole process is frustrating in the extreme, you think you've got something nailed, then you look at your beautiful page in a different browser and it turns into a cubist's nightmare without rhyme nor reason!

Maybe I should have used a template like everyone else!

Anyway after much wailing and gnashing of teeth the results of my toil and my friend's patience are now on the interweb for all to share. The website address remains as it was please drop over and let me know what you think.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Something special

A trip out, even to a familiar place, can never be entirely disappointing. Someone once said ‘If you would see something new, walk the same path every day’. I know what they meant. I visit the reserve at Elmley virtually every week, I travel there by virtually the same route every time and walk the same paths to the same hides every week too. But that doesn’t mean that the experience is the same every time, in fact no two trips are ever the same. The season, the weather, the light, the time of day the speed that I travel or the length of time I spend in any one spot, all these things make every trip unique.

Sometimes a trip is made special by seeing an unusual bird or animal, perhaps even one that I’ve never seen before. I see marsh harriers regularly on Elmley and on one occasion when I stopped to look at what I thought at first was a marsh harrier it turned out to be a passing osprey! I’d never seen a wild osprey up to that point and my heart certainly beat a little faster when I identified my first one flying overhead being pursued by a lapwing and a crow. In some places osprey are common birds, but not here, not on Elmley, and it was thrilling to me to be seeing such a special bird in such a familiar place.

Other times perhaps the sight of a bird that is returning to the reserve for the Winter or Summer or one that is passing through on passage, might pique my excitement. I always look forward to seeing my first swallow of Summer for example, or hearing the song of the first yellow wagtail of the year. Sometimes it’s the absence of something that’s an indicator of the change of season; The background noise of wigeon whistling is a constant during the Winter but at some time I will have a trip out where the absence of that sound means that most of the wigeon are gone and Spring is on the way. Wheatears are a favourite bird of mine and each year from mid-March I look out for the smartly plumaged Spring males as they pass through on their way to breed in Northern and Western Britain, and later in the year I look for the youngsters moving through on migration to sub-Saharan Africa.

Sometimes it’s not that a bird is new or unusual, it could be simply that a particular species is always a thrill to see, even if it is just a glimpse. Merlins always excite me, as do sparrowhawks and peregrines. Other birds are perhaps not so thrilling or dramatic but are simply beautiful to watch. Lapwings flying in a huge flock, flickering light and dark as they twist as one showing first belly then back.

Dramatic events and behaviours can materialise in front of your eyes, a helpless chick being taken by a heron or a gull for example. Or a peregrine chasing prey through the sky in a stoop from a height, or a merlin splitting a starling flock perhaps.

This Sunday it was a familiar bird that made the day special; A little owl. They are full of character, delightful and feisty and have always been one of my favourites. Last year I had a glimpse of a little owl as it vanished into the void between two big old chunks of concrete which are used as part of the sea defences down by the River Medway. I stopped to look but the owl didn’t re-emerge and I suspected that there may be a nest somewhere amongst the crevices. The following week  I saw an adult owl perched on a signpost not far from the site and that pretty much cemented my belief that the nest was there in the sea wall. I drew up a painting with the little owl perched on the rubble because I liked the shapes angles and textures.  I continued to see the owl(s) around the area but not often on the sea wall itself and by the Winter my sightings had dropped away.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed the owls around the wall again but conditions have been awful and I’ve not had the opportunity to stay and watch for any length of time. This week was different though, it was Father’s day so I felt it was okay to stay longer and the sun had at last managed to make itself known between scudding clouds. The owl was perched in his spot on the wall as I passed him on my way out to the reserve and I made a mental note to look for him on the way back when the light would be better. Sure enough after a fairly uneventful reserve visit my little owl was still in place on his perch. I stopped the car and set up my scope in the window, I felt that if I left the car then he’d probably fly off or disappear into the nest. Then I simply watched. He didn’t get up to much really, he just sat there enjoying the warmth of the sun when it appeared from between the increasing cloud. His attention was drawn by various things and he’d bob his head up and down a bit, preen a few feathers, scratch an itch or stretch a wing. At one point he scratched at his head and loostened a feather which got stuck upright so he looked like an Indian brave from a 1960’s movie. I could tell it was irritating him, especially when it caught the wind and blew down to hang in front of his face. Eventually he turned his head upside down and scratched furiously until the errant feather gave up the game and took flight with the wind.

Despite my position being a bit awkward I got the sketchpad out and sketched away happily, losing track of time. After half an hour or so he did begin to get a little more animated and hopped about from one point to another but it seemed that he’d always almost instantly settle back down and start to drop off for a snooze. One of the more endearing things about little owls is that they have eyelids like ours and it gives them a very human looking face.

I spent about an hour and a half with my owl until finally he was disturbed when a pair of cyclists, chatting loudly, came by and he jumped down into a crevice again. It was an intimate encounter, sharing time and watching him relaxing.

Little owl is not an unusual bird for me to see, they are common enough hereabouts, neither is it a particularly dramatic bird to watch, if it makes a kill it’s pretty likely to be a beetle or a worm! It’s not a great harbinger of the seasons, it’s small, unobtrusive and mostly brown.

But a bird doesn’t have to be special to be something special. There is beauty to be found in the everyday if only we take the time to see it.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Summer for a day

The sun cast an oily stain in the sky at the horizon. The sky was almost clear of cloud and the air was near windless. The start of a Summer’s day. Not unusual for late May or June...Usually. But the weather this Spring has been dreadful: April was the wettest on record, May must have been close and now June has started with  days where the expected rainfall was more than the average amount for the entire month. The rain has been seemingly constant, almost without let up. In short it has been what might be called ‘Fine weather for ducks’.

Sunday morning’s ascent into Summer was both a surprise and a relief. The fields either side of the road were carpeted with the mists of Summer before full sunrise and there was a surprising amount of wildlife on the road itself, most of it still alive! Collared doves, woodpigeons, crows, magpies blackbirds, robins, dunnocks, chaffinches, pheasants and, of course, rabbits. They all scattered ahead of the car, not all at once of course, that would have been remarkable. There was also the all too obvious evidence of those creatures not nimble enough to continue contributing to the gene pool. Their remains made conspicuous smears of mushed flesh, bone, feather and fur, food for magpies and crows and bait for more victims.

The mist lingers longer on the marshes, fuelled by ditches, rills and dykes filled with weeks of rain. The entrance track to the reserve was only visible for a few metres ahead before it plunged into a solid wall of white. At the side of the track a pair of red legged partidges sat off of the wet grass. The female of the pair looked thoroughly dejected, soaked through and unwell, I could almost see concern on the face of the male as he stood guard over her.

As the sun rose higher it began to light the mists and colour them in saturated golds and oranges. Cattle moved slowly through the glow. Other, smaller denizens of the marsh began to appear as the mists lifted.

There were whitethroats in the orchard, probably the same pair as last week since they were busy foraging for food for their hungry chicks. On the way out to the hides the last remnants of the mist cleared and revealed the almost clear Elmley sky. There was very little wind and the water in the dykes and pools was millpond still, reflecting the blue sky above. I have photographed this group of rushes many times, I love its simplicity, and, with the sky reflected so clearly in the water surrounding it, I couldn’t resist just one more. This time the rushes appeared to sail across the calm waters of a surreal sky like some sort of fairy ship.

The islands on the scrape have been largely taken over by black headed gulls. They are raucous and bellicose and they will not tolerate any other birds in their airspace above the nests - everything is chased and harassed, benign or otherwise. Consequently I didn’t spend much time at the hide and I made my way slowly back to the car park. As I walked the sky began to cloud and the wind picked up. A short eared owl made a brief appearance and the local redshanks, protecting their young, vulnerable chicks, harangued it mercilessly. This is a sketch from last week when my encounter with the short eared was much longer and actually gave me the opportunity for some sketches.

As I write this I am listening to the incessant drumming of heavy rain on the conservatory roof. The awful weather has returned, once more Summer is on hold.