Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The first day of Summer

I had wondered if we would see anything of Summer in June this year following the endless, wet, grey ‘Spring’. But on the very last day of June the Summer began. I was off out to Elmley early to make the most of it. My Mother has been in hospital for the last three weeks, (thankfully she is back at home now), so I have not been able to go out on my usual trip and I needed to reconnect with the wide open spaces and the wildlife that lives there. It really is good for the soul and a great help as an antidote to the stress that comes with a loved one who is unwell.

One thing always striking on the marshes is the sky, it is a big sky. One that runs uninterrupted overhead, a massive dome of the endless. In the clean blue of a Summer’s day the sky dazzles and makes you giddy with a kind of inverse vertigo as you turn your face to the breathtaking space above.

The wide, blue sky

The long awaited warmth has brought the marshes to life with insects and butterflies. Small tortoiseshells are everywhere, there are six visible in this photo.

 Six Small Tortoiseshells

I count myself lucky to be able to see sights like this because, contrary to appearances, these beautiful butterflies, like so many others, have suffered a huge and worrying decline in recent years. When photographing butterflies I find myself utterly focused on the beguiling beauty of the star of the show and it is not until later, when I review the pictures, that I often discover a supporting cast of creatures, equally interesting but not always as showy as the velvet winged wonders at centre stage.
The first photo here has a buff-tailed bumble bee busying itself on a thistle bloom and in the second is a hoverfly. Of course Small tortoiseshells were not the only butterflies about, there were Whites, Meadow Browns and Common Blues too.

Buff Tailed Bumblebee


The Summer sun has also brought other creatures out of hiding, cold blooded ones that need the sun’s rays to warm them and make them active. I saw this shining copper and bronze beauty crossing the track, taking extra warmth from the heated stones. When I was a young boy slow worms were plentiful and I would regularly catch them and release them just for the fun of doing so.  I once took one home and secreted it in a drawer in my bedroom. I suppose I should have realised that it would simply climb out and make its escape but I was young and that the poor creature would even think of doing such a thing didn’t even occur to me. I first knew  that this one had done just that when my Mum, who is not a big fan of reptiles, came hurtling down the hallway the following morning shouting about a snake that she had found snuggled up under her dressing gown on the chair beside her bed... Sorry Mum.

Slow worm

These days, on the rare occasions when I do see slow worms, I prefer just to watch and photograph them while they go about their business undisturbed. Besides which, I have discovered that I’m not as quick as I used to be but the slow worms are still just as fast. Although this one was obvious on the grey stone of the track, once he wriggled into the grass it was easy to see just how effective his camouflage was.

How a Slow worm disappears

Close inspection of the grass stems revealed yet more beauty in the shape of Damselflies. I’m afraid that my ID skills are limited when it comes to these fine insects so if anybody out there with greater knowledge than I would care to tell me what I have here I would be grateful. Whatever they are, they are certainly beautiful and elegant and great fun to discover. The Damselfly’s bigger cousins, Dragonflies, have been scarcer this year too although there are some about if you look hard enough.

For all the distractions of insects and reptiles I go to Elmley primarily for the birdlife and I decided to stop on a spot on the seawall where I had a view over the marsh and I could find a subject for sketching. The sun was so hot that I had to put my scrim net scarf over my head to protect the back of my neck from burning. This had the added benefit of helping to keep some of the mossies away too but, as you can see from this photo by my friend Andy, it didn’t look too glamorous!

The fashion choices of a discerning wildlife artist!

The next photo here shows the scene in front of me and I have circled the position of a lone Oystercatcher that was snoozing quietly in the sun. Through the scope I had quite a good view so I settled in to sketch and to paint. I decided to use watercolours for the first time in ages and this is the result. I think I probably need more practice! Oh well, that should give me a good excuse to go out next week!

Oystercatcher at Elmley 30/6/13

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Finalist BBC Wildlife Artist of the year 2013

I am delighted to be able to report that I have had three of my paintings accepted into the finals of the BBC Wildlife Artist of the year competition 2013.

I have work in three of the categories this year; British birds, World Birds, and Animals in their environment.

In the British birds category I have 'Highspot'.
I very often encounter Stonechats on the RSPB reserve at Elmley. They are charming birds that can be very visible. The reason they are so easily seen is their habit of using the highest spot they can find to use as a vantage point for spotting their insect prey. Often the 'highspot' will be a bush or a fencepost but on one occasion I watched a male hunting from a solitary stick which, for some reason, rose high above the surrounding reed bed, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb. He would perch and, when he spotted something, he would fly down into the reeds only to retake his place on his 'highspot' quickly after. This is great from a sketching point of view as I can focus my scope on the perch and know that my subject will pretty soon be back in the frame.


Stonechat sketch

In the World birds category I have 'Striated Heron, Sungei Buloh'.
I have been very lucky and have been able to visit Singapore for great holidays over the past two years. Sungei Buloh is a wetland reserve in the North of the Singapore and is a haven for wildlife on what is a pretty densely populated island. Striated Herons are common there and it would be very difficult to visit the reserve and not see at least one of them. They stalk the shallows using the stealthy technique typical of the heron family. I watched this one as he hunted and caught several small fish whilst he was being observed by a number of large mudskippers. I think they knew they were too large for the heron to tackle but it didn't stop them keeping a wary eye open! I used a letterbox format for this painting to accentuate the Heron's carefully crouched stance and leave room in front of him for him to move into giving the bird a sense of movement. If you follow the Heron's concentrated gaze you should see the small ripples which give the faintest indication of a tasty morsel just below the surface.

'Striated Heron, Sungei Buloh'
Striated Heron sketches

Finally, in the Animals in their environment category, I have 'Mellow fruitfulness'.
Lapwings feature quite a lot in my sketchbooks, mainly because when there is little else to be seen on the reserve at Elmley, there will almost always be a lapwing to rely on and they have such 'sketchable' faces that it would be a shame not to keep sketching them. One of the best things about sketching from life is that I get to observe situations that are just a little unusual from the way we think they should be. When I saw the Lapwing in the same field as the large fruiting bodies of the field mushrooms I knew it was a situation which would be ideal for a painting. The creamy, rounded forms of the mushrooms seemed to match the soft forms of the chest and belly of the Lapwing so I combined the two into the painting of the Lapwing showing how perfectly, if somewhat accidentally, it was camouflaged in its environment.

Mellow Fruitfulness

Lapwings field sketch

Monday, 1 April 2013

Happy Birthday Dad!

Today, 1.4.13, my Dad, James George Woodcock, celebrates his 90th Birthday. Congratulations Dad.

Dad at Ninety

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Target acquired

There are something in the order of ten types of Kingfisher listed for Singapore including the European species that I am familiar with from home. One of the more common ones on the island is the White Throated Kingfisher, but the most commonly encountered has to be the White Collared Kingfisher. I would probably say that I saw them just about as often as I would perhaps see magpies in the UK. They seem to be present just about everywhere, including the urban environment. Despite the moniker of Kingfisher they will eat a variety of prey alongside fish, including reptiles, crabs, insects, worms and frogs. Their ‘squeaky toy’ call is a normal accompaniment to any trip onto the hill and I don’t think I have ever visited there without seeing one and, at Sungei Buloh they are predictably numerous. They are a very handsome bird that at times in the sunshine, can shimmer between green and blue as they change position. I have many sketches of them because I find them hard to resist. There is also this small work which began as a field painting then was embellished and finished later in my friend’s studio, so it is now what I think of as a ‘worked up sketch’. I left this with my friend as part of what can only be considered as a somewhat inadequate Thank-you. In the pipeline there are two paintings featuring this bird but, as always, there are so many ideas and simply not enough time to bring them all to fruition.

Lovely as the White Throated and Collared Kingfishers are, there is a third species which I was keen to get into my sketchbook; The Stork Billed Kingfisher. I had seen this magnificent bird in 2011 but only fleetingly, or obscured by vegetation or both! As part of our holiday we were lucky enough to spend a few days in Indonesia on the island of Bintan. I was keen to explore as much as I could and rose early each day to wander around for a couple of hours on my own before breakfast. Behind our Hotel was a large, ornamental Lily pond that attracted all sorts to it including; Striated Herons, Monitor Lizards, White Breasted Waterhens, and White Throated Fantails (Along with more than its fair share of mosquitoes!) I was  watching this pond when, at the far end, I saw a flash of blue and orange disappear up into a pondside tree. I didn’t dare to hope but, with trembling hands, I focused my binoculars and there was my Stork Billed Kingfisher, and sitting beside it, a second one! I could not believe my luck. I had searched Sungei Buloh for hours and seen barely a glimpse of theses birds and, here I was, not 100 yards away from my hotel room, in the company of not one, but two, of the tangerine, chocolate and blue beauties! I hurried around the pond for closer views and one of the birds must have flown off before I got into a good spot but the other stayed for a while before it too flew off into an inaccessible wooded area. But those views had made my day I can tell you!

I had put a couple of quick, not very good, sketches in the book and, now that I knew where I could find them, I hoped I could get more.  I went back to the pond the following morning and located one of the birds fishing from a pondside tree. I discovered after a couple of sessions that the birds were quite confiding and I was able to watch, photograph and sketch them as they went about their business from fairly close range without disturbing them in the slightest. One day in particular, my wife and daughter went off jet-skiing whilst I elected for the more sedate option of sitting by a pond with a friend, a sketchbook, a Stork Billed Kingfisher and roughly 30 million mosquitoes. Stork Billed Kingfishers are fabulous birds and watching them was one of the highlights of my Singapore/Indonesia adventure, despite the incredible heat and the necessity of applying mossie cream every 20 minutes! I’m sure there will be a larger, more considered painting at some time in the future, but for now here’s some sketches and a quick study I did, purely because I could.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

More from Singapore 2012

So the festive season is over and another year starts. I'm still looking back at the moment though at my Singapore adventure last summer. I have hundreds of photographs and sketches to work through and remind me of the experience and every time I come to explore them I find something new and exciting. I am currently two thirds through a painting of a Striated Heron and there is another in development of a very special bird indeed. But more on that in later posts.

For now we'll take another trip onto the Hill. I suppose it would be possible to become accustomed to the common birds, given enough time but, just as it is in the UK, the same patch of ground can always throw up a surprise or two. Asian Water Monitors are common enough in Singapore and any walk around Sungei Buloh Reserve will be littered with them. Some are impressive beasts and lengths of about two metres are usual for adult males, more unusually they have been known to reach almost ten metres! They can be found anywhere there is water and that includes the canals and drainage channels that run through residential areas. There are no such channels up on the Hill, (It's a hill after all!), but on day two I was surprised to see one of these beautiful reptiles clinging to a tree trunk about eight metres from the ground. I knew that the lizards could climb but I didn't really imagine them getting that high for some reason. It had no difficulty holding on to the rough surface of the tree with its huge and devilishly sharp claws and, as it seemed perfectly at home and I was out early, I can only imagine that it had spent the night there.

Water Monitor

I was also fortunate to get some views of another new species for me; Hill Myna. Two sat for a short while high up in a distant tree but with the aid of my scope they were easily identifiable as the species commonly seen in captivity.

Hill Myna and White Collared Kingfisher

Although birds are obviously different all over the world it is often easy to recognise what families they belong to. The Laced Woodpecker for example is a pretty typical woodpecker and behaves in a very similar way to the Green Woodpecker that I am so familiar with at home, even the call is similar.

Laced Woodpecker hanging beneath tree branch

The Hill is my 'usual' patch whilst I'm in Singapore as it's literally just across the road and I can be there in five minutes, stay for a couple of hours and then get back in plenty of time to have a shower and then get breakfast with the family. Sometimes I rise earlier though and take a walk along the canal which runs through the area (Ulu Pandan). It is a popular area for joggers, walkers etc but the wildlife that lives there is used to all that and largely ignores the passers by. I do get approached by people, curious to know what I'm up to when I am sketching or watching through my scope, but the locals have all been polite and friendly and chatting with them has provided me with useful information about locations to visit etc. For me one of the most interesting birds to be found along the canal is the White Throated Kingfisher. These birds are distinctly different to the slightly more common White Collared Kingfisher and are a treat to see. They are a rich chocolate brown with a blaze of white on their throat/breast, reddish beaks and feet and an amazing, vibrant, electric blue back. One morning I found one sitting in a tree on the opposite bank who was quite happy to pose for me long enough to do a small field painting and fill a few sketchbook pages.

White Throated Kingfisher

I love the kingfishers in Singapore, they are great to watch and the colours are stunning. More later on my favourite kingfisher of all...