Wednesday 24 December 2008

A Merry Christmas to all

Just to wish everybody out there a Merry and Peaceful Christmas. I'll be chillin' with my family and, maybe, sneaking a trip or two out!

Monday 8 December 2008

An owl made me do it

The frost promised for last week finally put in an appearance this weekend. The skies were clear overnight with stars sprinkled like glitter over velvet. The ground and grass were crusted with white that sparkled in the moonlight and the roads were icy and uncertain. I wrapped up with two hats, cleared the windscreen and set off slowly and carefully.

As I got closer to the Isle of Sheppey the mist gathered in the valleys and hollows, separating the land into layers and flattening features to create a cardboard cutout landscape. A little owl replaced the barn owl, taking his spot on the fenceposts by the road. When I slowed down to take a look the car slipped slightly on the ice and I was reminded to take care. Little owls are lovely birds but if I'd pranged the car just for a view of one I don't think my dear wife would have appreciated the excuse, 'An owl made me do it'!

Mists covered the marsh but I could see the sky overhead and I knew that it wouldn't be too long before the blanket of white lifted and cleared. As the sun rose it worked its magic and transformed the marsh from grey to blue then to purple before burning it yellow, orange and peach for a short while. Whilst this went on the wigeon whistled, the plovers peewitted and the curlews cried. A reed bunting bustled through the reeds close to the car and meadow pipits leapfrogged down the track. Despite the cold, the low sun coloured the birds and reeds with a warm, buttery glow.

The barns around the car park were dripping with starlings, all chattering and chittering. It's a sound that always typifies winter to me. The path to the hide was littered with iced over puddles like pools of moonstone. The ice glittered, swirled and swooped in abstract patterns, portals to a world of beauty in a simple puddle. I recorded some with the camera and left them as I found them but I confess that I couldn't resist stepping on one or two just to enjoy that feeling of boyish joy that came when the ice squeaked and creaked, cracked and finally shattered beneath my destructive boot.

Short eared owls are often seen on Elmley in the winter and most of my encounters with them have been on days like Sunday, cold, clear and icy so I scanned the marsh for them, taking in the pastel landscape. The grass was peppermint green and the sky spearmint blue. Separating the two was a horizon of smoked lilac, all the deliciously sweet colours of sugared almonds. There were pheasants scattered here and there, highlights of burnished copper picked out by the sun.

A slow approach to the hide had revealed a large flock of lapwings resting on the islands in the scrape. I entered the hide as quietly as I could, knowing that one sound or movement too loud or sudden could send the whole flock into the air in a panic of black and white wings. Luckily the windows of the hide were crusted with ice and they disguised my entry as effectively as any bathroom window. I lifted a flap cautiously but, even so, some of the three hundred or so birds lifted to circle before settling themselves down among their fellows. There were no teal on the water at all in total contrast to last week. Indeed, the only other birds sharing the scrape were a small group of skylarks and an oystercatcher that was clearly unfamiliar with the saying, 'birds of a feather stick together. I enjoyed the company of the lapwings for a while, and sketched one or two before the time inevitably came for me to pack up and make my way home and I had to reluctantly make a start.

As part of the defences against the Swale, should she ever turn nasty and try to flood Elmley, an embankment runs around the outside edge of the path that circles the reserve. In one or two spots on the track it is possible to take a sneaky look at the mudflats without disturbing the birds that rest, roost and feed there. In one of those spots a wonderful sight awaited me; A short eared owl sat in the rough grass just on the Swale side of the embankment. All thought of Christmas shopping left me then as I set up my scope and began sketching. The opportunity to sketch an SEO on the ground was too good to miss. I love their catlike features and those eyes! Often as I watched she turned those eyes on me and stared a direct and piercing glare straight down the barrel of the scope as if to say; 'How dare you look upon my person Sir!' Although she kept a wary eye on me she seemed to be remarkably relaxed and she even closed her eyes and dozed intermittently. After a while I simply had to leave her to enjoy her nap in the sun. I was running a little late even before the owl but she had just delayed me to a dangerous degree. Nobody should mess with the schedule of a woman with Christmas shopping on her 'to do' list. When I got home with my tail between my legs I told her;

'An owl made me do it!'

Saturday 6 December 2008

A plan and a surprise

Duties as the family taxi driver meant an opportunity to get out to Stodmarsh National Nature Reserve on Thursday of this week, a bonus trek for me not to be missed. There is a hide there which has a couple of sticks planted in the shallows right in front of it. The sticks are there to serve as fishing posts for the local kingfishers and they use them regularly. Consequently they have become possibly the most photographed sticks in the whole of the western hemisphere, along with the kingfishers that use them. I planned to add my own photos to the many and to get my eye back in sketching one of my favourite birds.

When I woke the weather was less than promising. Heavy rain and strong winds had settled in over night leaving me thinking that the whole day could turn into nothing more than a damp squib. Not one to be put off however, I made the journey anyway, battling winds strong enough to take the car in unwanted directions and rain driven into the windscreen so hard that the wipers struggled to keep up. When I did get to the reserve the rain had begun to ease a little but the wind remained violent. I waited quietly in the car until I thought I wouldn't drown if I ventured out, and I packed my gear in plastic for the walk to the hide. The wind was bitter and biting, it whipped across the rain soaked fields turning the raindrops into a million little needles that buried themselves into my face, not pleasant, and why does wind always have to blow directly into my face I wondered.

The hide was like a little luxury, somewhere out of the stinging rain. I peeled off some of the dripping outer layers and settled to watch the activity on the pool in front. There was a large flock of teal out on the choppy water, bobbing about like a flotilla of small boats riding out a storm in an uncertain harbour, and once in a while a lone gull would wing past pulled at by the wind. Gradually the rain lessened and the birds began to relax a little. Three redshanks appeared and began feeding over the far side, constantly moving, their long beaks probing the mud and their sharp rear ends in the air. The teal flock moved on and a little egret flew in, amazingly dazzlingly white against the grey water. He settled into the lee of some reeds and began to preen, keeping his crisp, bright whites clean despite living a life closely tied to sticky marsh mud. Egrets are recent arrivals to the UK first being seen regularly in 1989 and breeding here first in 1996. They are now relatively common in Southern Engald and are extending their range steadily northwards. I must admit that because I see them so regularly I often take them for granted but I really shouldn't. They are graceful little birds all floaty plumes and soft white feathers. When they lift their feet from the water they seem to be wearing bright cadmium yellow slippers at the end of long black limbs.

The sun miraculously appered and drenched the reserve in clear, cold, liquid gold light and the bird I'd waited for appeared in a flash of blue and orange low over the water. He perched in the sun on one of the famous sticks and posed for me a while. It was good to get my kingfisher fix and I feel another painting coming on.

After a whole morning of watching from the hide I decided that I should walk the reserve for a while before it was time to pick up my son from uni. The ground was so sticky and slippery that it felt like skiing most of the time. Each time I planted my feet they would slip backwards or sideways and I must have looked comical trying to stay upright with my arms and tripod flapping about like rags in a tree. The reward though was worth the effort. A startled flock of lapwing alerted me to a bird of prey and, as I focussedthe binoculars I recognised the ring of white at the base of the tail that signals a hen harrier. A scarce bird here with less than 800 breeding pairs their numbers are boosted slghtly during the winter by birds coming over from the continent. I see marsh harriers regularly but the thrill of a bird seen maybe twice in a year is hard to beat and I left the reserve a happy man.

Friday 5 December 2008


Grey. That just about sums up the last few days. Near constant rain, from drizzle to downpour the clouds have been abandoning their passengers over the South East corner of England. The damp seeps into your bones when weather like this settles in for an unwelcome stay. Sunday morning promised nothing more than more of the same, a continuing, moisture ridden theme. The dawn was grey, leaden skies heavy with the expectation of sudden downpours deadened the sunrise to a lighter patch of grey on the dark grey horizon. As the day lightened the consequences of three days continuous rain showed as pools of quicksilver against the dripping ground. The mournful cries of curlews haunted the marsh, here and there the harsh rasp of a hidden snipe and the hoarse quack of mallard, a slightly melancholy chorus with just the soft peep of meadow pipits to provide a counterpoint.

Perhaps because of the damp I felt colder this week than in last Sunday's icy snow and I couldn't seem to shake the chill from my body. That was quickly forgotten though when I heard a familiar cry above me; The kek-kek-kek of a peregrine, and there, grey on grey storm, the unmistakeable bow shaped sillhouette tore across the sky. He circled and was joined by a second bird, this time a larger female. Together they continued to play the wind with consumate ease until, at an unknown stimulus, they raced into the distance and the dance was over.
That encounter made me feel considerably brighter, a peregrine is a magnificent bird always guaranteed to send a tingle down the spine and bring excitement to the dullest of days. Already bouyed by the sighting, my spirits were further boosted by a passing barn owl, returnuing to roost in the box behind the car park.

Once again the scrape was dominated by a large flock of teal with occasional wigeon scattered here and there, strangers in the midst of the flock. The wind was a northerly which blew in through the viewing slots of the hide and began to sap the warmth from me once more. The teal fed,stretched, preened and squabbled, turning thier backs to the hide to face directly into the oncoming wind. I made a couple of pages of gesture sketches just trying to capture something 'tealy' on the paper. Flights of wigeon rose and resettled in the distance disturbed by the quartering marsh harriers, or perhaps, an unseen peregrine. Two pied wagtails briefly visited the mud under the hide windows, more grey for a grey day, but by no means drab. I love their characteristic walk with tails constantly wagging and their 'chiswick' calls when in flight.

Time being short this week we made our way back to the car park and a view of the little owl sitting in his tree. The drive home was interupted by the sight of a mixed flock of fieldfare and redwing, there must have been hundreds of them, feeding on the hawthorn berries by the road. Fieldfares are big noisy birds with the look of the bully about them whereas the much smaller redwings seem delicate in a colour scheme of umber, cream and fiery siennas, but the two types of thrush seem always to be together.

I wanted to stay longer with the fieldfare and redwing but the christmas shopping is not yet done...

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Snow and high summer

Sunday I rose before dawn, expecting to see that special glow of light created by a world crusted with white. But there was nothing special about the light seeping through the curtains and no sign of the snow the weatherman had promised. Instead the ground was clear, lacking even a heavy frost. Even so, I wrapped myself up warm under many layers before leaving for Elmley.

After my sighting of a barn owl last week I was alert to the possibility of another encounter in the same area this week and I was delighted to spot it sitting on a fence post in the dark just a few yards from where it was the week before.

Out to the reserve road and the light began to build as the car thermometer warned of temperatures dropping to be low enough for ice. We parked up to watch for the sunrise and weren't disappointed as the sun tore a fiery strip between the land and the cloud. The 'crumph' of shotguns prompted flights of geese, greylag and Canada, to hurtle overhead and into a sunrise that looked like the mouth of a giant, celestial furnace. Eventually the fire was extinguished as the sun rose above the increasing purple cloud layer and the light took on the strange metalic tinge that is always the prelude to snow.

'Merlin corner' lived up to its name this week, the feisty little falcon was resting on the trackway, I wonder if the tarmac retains heat and that's what makes it such an attractive place to sit when it's so cold? The merlin was certainly not going to allow a close approach and he flew off into the morning gloom as we got to within a couple of hundred yards.

Steely grey skies and bitter winds made for uncomfortable companions on the walk out to the hide and, just as I crested the sea wall, the first flakes of the approaching snowstorm began to fall. There was not one bird visible on the semi-frozen scrape but the hide provided welcome shelter from the wind driven snow which soon obscured any view outside much further than a couple of yards. After a while the snowfall thinned and I began to see groups of oystercatchers flying through, emerging from the wall of white briefly before being swallowed up, leaving just the sound of their calls as evidence that they were still in the sky.

A small flock of brown birds flew in low and fast, against the wind, there was no time to get the binoculars focussed on them as they suddenly appeared from the snow only to vanish amongst some reeds, but I thought I caught sight of a crest raised and I dared to hope that I may have stumbled upon some waxwings. However my hopes were crushed when the birds broke cover and began to feed among the snow covered grass on one of the scrape's small islands.
The waxwing impersonators were actually skylarks, a group of seven, one or two with raised crests. Here were birds, absolutely iconic of high summer, foraging like snow buntings in the midst of a snowstorm, crouching low to avoid the worst of the vicious wind. As an artist I am always on the lookout for different ways of representing familiar birds so the somewhat incongruous image was recorded in the sketchbook, despite the numbness in my fingertips, for possible future development.

We made a start on the walk back to the car as the snow eased a little. The wind was still fierce and the small, icy snow tinkled against the metal legs of my tripod making a strange, and beautiful crystalline music. The wind blasted these same crystals to sting against my face and bring numb redness to my cheeks.

On reaching the car park I took one last look out over the scrape in the field behind and as I did so I heard the thin, high-pitched 'seep' of a goldcrest in the bush to my left. I watched it briefly as it searched frantically for enough sustenance to see it through the conditions, a fantastic gem of a bird, a tiny spark to make me feel warm against the ice and wind and a great way to end the trip.

On returning home a mug of hot coffee and a brunch of bacon and egg sandwich was just what was required to fortify me for an afternoon of Christmas shopping. Oh, the joys of the season!

Monday 17 November 2008

A magic moment or two

I was on my way towards Elmley RSPB reserve before first light on Sunday, it's not difficult in the winter because it's not light until seven or so. As I drive I'm always on the lookout for early birds, owls in particular. I was pleased to see a barn owl perched at the side of the road in almost the exact spot where I had placed one for my painting 'A moment of magic'. I had imagined him there and here it was, playing out for real, what a great start to the morning. The owl stayed put as I passed by in the car but he slipped silently away when I stopped a few yards down the road, no chance to photograph or draw him, but that didn't really matter to me.

I parked up within sight of the Sheppey bridge and waited for the light. As the sun struggled to make itself known through the cloud strewn sky a flock of greylag geese rose from the fields where they had been feeding, a honking chaos, the whole mass of them passed over the car and I heard the air rushing through their wings as they headed towards the Swale.

The second owl of the day was a winter speciality of Elmley, a distant short eared, hunting low over rough grass its wings longer than the barn owl and flight slightly 'harder'. I watched through the scope as it quartered, after a spectacular turn it plunged down into the grass and the death of a small mammal.

Raggedy groups of lapwings moved around, their flickering flight constantly moving from black to white on background of the wind tattered grey sky. Noisy starling gangs leapfrogged from place to place and everywhere there was the menacing presence of rooks and crows like scraps of bin bag blown by the wind.

A bend in the access road that I call 'merlin corner' because it seems to attract these dashing little falcons, provided another moment of magic as a superb Jack merlin shot through in low level flight typical of his species to strike terror into the hearts of the starling flocks. Again it was a very brief sighting with no time to react either with camera or sketchbook but sometimes it's as much about those things I don't draw as it is about those I do.

On the walk out to the hide a female stonechat popped up onto the skeleton of a large umbellifer, they love to sit on such vantage points and use them as platforms to hunt from. Stonechats are such characterful birds that I couldn't resist sketching her as she dashed from the perch and back again over and over. I spent some time in the hide watching and sketching distant teal as they fed, rested and preened on the far side of the scrape. The tide was out and most of the birds were out with it, feeding out on the mud while they had the chance before the returning tide covered everything once again.

The stonechat, or perhaps another, was perched on one of the gateposts on the walk back, so more sketches were called for. I arrived back at the car park just as a coach pulled in and disgorged it's anorak clad, thermos flask bearing occupants; Definitely time to leave the reserve and head home.

Thursday 30 October 2008

From the end to the beginning

The final morning's trip around the familiar paths is always bitter sweet. I don't have the same luxury of time as the rest of the week as we have to leave before 10 a.m. and all the packing needs to be done.

In the semi light of a fresh pre-dawn the pipistrelles were again over the pond and garden so I spent five minutes or so watching their erratic flight. I had to move on before I was ready but I wanted to check on the kingfishers one last time. Away off in the top field a young fox was intently scrabbling away at the earth, perhaps digging out a vole or mouse cowering at the end of a burrow, or perhaps he'd seen a large beetle or some other crunchy delight. Whatever he was after he was certainly hard at work and must have been determined that his digging would end in a reward. I left him to his labour with a silent farewell and continued on to the little owl tree. Sure enough he was there, high in the elder bush which has grown as a youthful companion to the venerable oak, helping to screen the little owl's nest site. I sketched him for what I knew would be the last time until he turned his back on me and dived down onto the ground at the far side of the tree. An appropriate last view that reminded me that I was the visitor here and the owl would continue on with his daily life regardless of whether I was watching to record him in my sketchbook or not.

One of the juvenile kingfishers was on the 'dragon log' and I was able to sketch him one last time. He dived and caught small fish which he bashed on the log a few times before swallowing it head first. 'Good for you' I thought, fish of your own and instinct enough to deal with it the proper way. The fledgling king flew off shortly after when the young heron flew overhead.

All then was quiet and calm until the rooks rose from the rookery in a great clamorous cloud against the sunrise. But even this had a certain sense of correctness and, perhaps, a peacefulness about it. With a last backward glance I made my way slowly back to the cottage as one or two swallows began to appear in the sky overhead. I wondered if they would be following me South or if they would enjoy a few more days at the farm. The little owl called from his tree, I answered a goodbye and resigned myself to the fact that this was the end of my holiday.

The homeward journey was uneventful and dull, after a couple of hours in the car it felt good to get home, but I couldn't help wondering what I was missing on the farm. I had my sketchbooks, photos, paintings and memories though. I knew that there were paintings in my head waiting to be made and I could barely wait to start. So far I have completed three paintings inspired by my time on the farm this year and these are a beginning. I'm already working on a fourth and I'm sure there will be many more over the coming months.

Friday 10 October 2008

An odd couple and a shape in the grass

The Thursday of the week was my last full day on the farm so I was determined to make the most of it. I got up at around a quarter to five and left the cottage by quarter past five. The sky was more or less clear with only a smattering of pale lilac, grey, white and peach clouds promising one of the warmest and sunniest days of the week.

I rounded the top field to see a fox bounding away between the rows of straw. On the ground there were deer tracks and they were fresh, still crisp around the edges, unsoftened by the light rain of the night. I followed the trail taking care to be as quiet as I could be, watching the placement of every step and moving slowly. The tracks turned the corner by the old ice house and vanished as they turned off into the field. The ice house is barely visible above ground, just a small brick arch covered with soil and blocked by heavy wire mesh with 5 inch holes. Once underground however it is quite an impressive structure, basically a large round hole which in times past would have been filled with ice, insulated with straw to keep the occupants of the manor supplied with ice for their drinks during the summer months and to preserve food. Now it is an ideal roost for bats, invisible in the darkness and secure from disturbance beyond the mesh at the entrance.
I wasn't looking for bats though, my quarry was in the fields opposite. Two dark shapes were clear against the light coloured straw and I zeroed in through my scope. There was the muntjac I had been following and, surprisingly, the second shape resolved into a fox. That made twice I had seen this odd couple together. It seemed a strange partnership to me and the only explanation I can come up with is that the fox was young and curious and the deer was something worthy of investigation each time it wandered close. Or maybe the fox just wanted to play! The fox was soon gone into the hedge but the muntjac stayed for five minutes or so and I simply watched and soaked up the atmosphere knowing that this could be my final encounter with the deer on the farm for the year.

After the deer moved on I wandered down to the fishing pond where the surface of the water was mill-pond flat, perfect conditions to sit and watch the tiny ripples made by small fish feeding at the surface. Occasionally there was a small splash and a flash of molten silver movement as one of the fish broke through the ceiling of its world to emerge briefly into an element not its own. Beneath one of the fishing platforms a huge golden carp snorkled up to make loud sucking noises as it gulped at morsels on the surface. I moved off a short way to get a better look at the stag oak, hoping to see the barn owl roosting there. On one of the bare branches an upright shape attracted my attention and, expecting to see a kestrel, I focused my scope. It was actually a male sparrowhawk, a 'musket'. The term comes from the French word 'mousquette' and it is likely that this is the origin of the name of the firearm. The male sparrowhawk is a dapper little bird, generally about one third smaller than the female and dressed in a wonderful combination of slate grey and burnt orange with the eye providing a highlight of pure yellow fire. They have an impressive armoury of needle sharp talons at the ends of long toes and legs specifically designed to capture, hold and kill small birds in ferocious ambush attacks. Intense is the word to describe their nature and views of them are always thrilling to me. This bird had only paused briefly and I watched him through my binoculars as he darted into the woods beyond the fields. I glimpsed the ghostly white shape of the barn owl as she glided up into the ivy covered branches on the opposite side of the oak and again it crossed my mind that this could be my last sighting of the year.

Having searched unsuccessfully for a view of the roosting barn owl that I knew to be there I decided to stake out one of the favourite kingfisher perches and moved off towards the ponds. On the way I spotted a green woodpecker high on the trunk of a dead tree. Many people when asked what colour the trunk of a tree is will answer 'Brown of course!' with conviction. In reality many tree trunks are a mixture of greens and yellows as they are covered in algae, mosses and lichens. Green woodpeckers can blend perfectly with such tree trunks as they cling tightly to the surface in an upright stance that follows the trunk's direction. The only real giveaways are their bright red heads and the loud, laughing call like raucous laughter, that gives them their country name of 'Yaffle'.

Hoping to get a good haul of kingfisher sketches and photographs I approached the ponds carefully. A blue flash, fast and low indicated that one of the birds was off to try its luck elsewhere. It was half past six and still that curious time when the sun shares the sky with the moon, like brother and sister. Once settled I concentrated on the 'dragon log', an old fallen tree that's shaped like a sea monster rearing its head from the water, and a favourite of the kingfishers. After a fairly short wait one of the juveniles appeared and perched on the log. He stared intently at the water and made one or two tentative dives as I watched. On one occasion he even managed to catch a tiny fish. It was nice to see him fishing for himself and, even though the fry that he caught wasn't too impressive size-wise, it still showed that he was able to hunt and catch successfully. I hope he makes it through the winter.

After a while and a few begging calls the kingfisher flew off in the direction that the earlier one had taken and I sat back to enjoy the early sun. As time drifted by I laid back in the long grass, uncaring of the moisture from the night's rain. Just to rest my muscles which were cramped from inactivity you understand. I closed my eyes for a moment to listen to the sounds of blue tits and longtailed tits sofltly calling as they foraged through the bushes, their mixed flock another small sign that summer was drawing to a close. Small fish made tiny splashes on the pond in front of me and and a soft breeze soughed through the grass....
I woke up sometime later and opened my eyes to see tiny swallows flying through the giant grass stems that arched across my face. They were inky dark against a tie-dyed sky of blue and white. I wondered if the kingfisher had visited while I slept and then I wondered if it really mattered. When I left to return to the cottage for breakfast I noticed that I had left a wildlife artist shaped impression in the long grass. It will stay there forever, at least, in my memory it will.

The majority of the day was sunny and warm and I spent the afternoon fishing with my family, catching occasional glimpses of the real experts as they shot past in a blur of electric blue brilliance. I painted another small en plein air study and later I spent some time photographing cloudscapes, fantastic castles of white and grey, massive etherial sculptures, ever changing and evolving. Swallows filled the sky beneath the clouds and I filled a couple of sketchbook pages with their streamlined shapes.

As the evening meal cooked I sat at the kitchen table and contemplated the week and the morning's parting from the place that has become special to us over the past few years. I didn't want to leave, I wanted to stay in the company of kingfishers and barn owls, deer and foxes. But I knew that it was nearly over and there would be just one last opportunity to revisit the creatures that I had become so familiar with over the week.

Thursday 25 September 2008

Windy morning, landscape afternoon

Wednesday was a day of wind. I'm used to the strong winds that sweep across the open spaces of Elmley marshes. In the late summer they are welcome as they cool the heat and set the grasses and rushes into motion like waves on the water. In winter they can be bitter, rushing across the marsh with nothing to impede their icy, salt scented progress. On the farm the winds were more broken, scattered by a million, million leaves on the trees in the woods and hedges. Sheltering by the edge of the woods I spotted movement ahead, the wind was in my face, a good thing, as my scent was dissipating behind me. The movement was a young fox which was sniffing about at the edge of a field. I wondered if she was seeking out the tiny frogs that were relatively easy to find in the area, they surely must have made an easy meal in plentiful supply. She stopped sniffing and brought her face up several times and she was chewing each time she did so. Despite the advantage of wind direction the fox soon spotted me with her keen eyes and ears. As she stood and stared at me I expected her to turn and run or slip into the woods and vanish. But she didn't. She stood her ground for a few seconds then, extraordinarily, she began to walk towards me. My heart began to pound as she closed the gap between us and she just kept coming. Not aggressively, she was just behaving as if I weren't there. She moved to my left and passed by, unhurriedly, within a metre of me, continuing on her way with no more than a glance in my direction. Encounters with wild creatures tend to be distant and fleeting affairs so when an animal or bird approaches that closely it feels like a privilege to me. A couple of years ago, on the farm, I had a similar experience with a fox. I had sat at the base of a tree in a quiet spot where I dozed off for a while (I was on holiday after all). I woke up to see a young fox approaching my position from 10-15 yards off and I stayed stock still. The fox passed literally within a couple of inches of my outstretched feet and I couldn't help thinking that my camouflaged clothing had been worth every penny for that moment alone.

From my encounter with the fox I moved on to the paddocks where I glimpsed the barn owl hunting away across the far side. As I moved to one of the ponds I disturbed a juvenile heron from his fishing. He had been on the pond every morning and had always flown off into a potato field where he would wait for me to move off before returning to his spot by the water. The potato field had been treated with sulphuric acid which burns off the material above ground and concentrates the plants' energies into the tubers below. It looks drastic and nasty but the acid dissipates quickly and has little lasting impact on the environment. It does, however, leave fields of grey, dead material, perfect for the camouflaging of a heron. I set up my camera and waited for the kingfishers to return to a favourite fishing perch that I'd identified earlier in the week. Since there was no sign of them I sketched the heron as he faced into the wind. Whilst drawing I glanced up from my scope and pad and there, right in front of me, was a kingfisher hovering. Its wings were a blur as it maintained its position like a hummingbird at a flower. I debated whether to reach for the camera or start a quick sketch and off it went, flying low and fast towards the main pond and out of sight. And so it was that I had missed a brilliant blue, orange and white bird, hovering like a suspended jewel in front of me, in favour of drawing a grey bird in a grey field surrounded by dead plant stalks. Such is life I suppose.

The sun came out as the clouds were pushed off into the west by the wind and swallows began to fill the sky above me. A horse sauntered closer and I could hear his teeth tearing at the grass as he came. I had plenty of time to draw the scene as I waited for the still absent kingfishers. Sitting still and drawing a landscape is a really relaxing experience, far removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday and I decided that I would make the day a landscape day, take out my easel, paints etc. later, set up, record and enjoy. As I drew the landscape in front of me I was aware of birds all around. There were swallows everywhere and three times they alerted me to the presence of birds of prey in the area. Their chattering calls first announced the arrival of a large female sparrowhawk. She was using the tailwinds as an aid to speed but I don't think she had any real ideas of catching swallows as they were quite aware that she was there and sparrowhawks like to hunt by surprise and ambush. The second bird of prey that the swallows spotted before I did was a marsh harrier passing high overhead. Marsh harriers are relatively common on Elmley and if I have a trip there when I don't see one, it's unusual, but this was a first for me on the farm. The final raptor of the day was a fabulous light coloured male kestrel, again no real threat to the swallows but they were taking no chances and they called their disapproval loudly.

The pond seemed quiet and I realised that what was missing was the almost constant 'pipping' of the juvenile kingfishers as they begged for food from their parents. The adults must have started to ignore the youngsters, an approach which forces them to begin fishing for themselves. It seems harsh but they must learn the skills they need to survive, and quickly too. Many will not aquire them in time for the coming winter and, sadly, many will succumb to hunger and bad weather.

Later in the day I tramped out to the fields, laden with all my gear and I settled to paint a landscape. The farm is criss-crossed by paths, tracks and bridleways and I like the idea of including them in my landscape paintings. I always feel it gives the viewer a place to go in their imaginings and creates a certain sense of mystery in a landscape; What's around the next corner along the way?

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Monday morning blues

On the Monday morning I awoke to the sound of rain lashing against the roof window of the cottage. Somehow my sleep fuddled brain had managed to lock onto the fact that it was monday morning and there was a small moment of panic as it went into autopilot; 'You must get up now! You'll be late for work!' ...It was 4.45 a.m...
The comfortable surroundings of the cottage and the warmth of the bed soon stilled the unfriendly thought that had sneaked unbidden, into my mind and I laid back and savoured the delicious moment. This was monday morning, it was raining and I could simply lie in bed until I wanted to get up.

After a few more minutes of blissful sleep I realised that the rain had stopped drumming its chaotic rhythm on the window glass and the urge to get out into the freshly rain soaked fields soon saw me dressed and closing the door behind me. By this time the rain had started again but now it was a gentle drizzle that smudged the landscape and muted colours. I made my way round to the little owl tree and immediately spotted the little guy sitting right out at the end of a gnarled branch like some kind of guardian gargoyle. His usual spot was occupied by a large woodpigeon and the owl really didn't look happy about that. He shook rainwater off his head and gave the pigeon his fiercest glare. The woodpigeon, for his part, glanced back at the owl with a totally vacant expression and then proceeded to ingnore him.

Woodpigeons have always seemed to me to be the dimmest of birds, the very epitome of the 'bird brain'. I have seen them at the feeding station I have set up in my garden desperately trying to work out how they can get from the tray part over to the actual seed dispensers which are designed specifically for birds much smaller than a woodpigeon. They cock their heads a thousand different angles, lean forward and lean back. You can almost hear their tiny little minds whirring as they peer over at the unattainable. If they could make it onto the seed feeders then the small birds wouldn't stand a chance of a look in as the woodies would hoover up the entire seed supply in minutes. Eventually they give up and hop to the ground beneath the feeders. That's when it finally dawns on them that they have entered pigeon paradise where food falls like manna from heaven in an almost constant stream as the sparrows drop seeds while stuffing their own beaks and bellies.

The drizzle was unpleasant but bearable once I reminded myself once again that it was monday morning and here I was sharing time with a little owl in a field in Norfolk rather than sitting in a traffic jam somewhere on the wrong side of the Blackwall tunnel. As I moved down toward the fishing pond there was no sign of either fox or muntjac and I confess I was a bit disappointed when the drizzle began to upgrade itself into proper rain. Monday mornings can be depressing and rain doesn't usually help the situation. This particular morning though I had a different kind of monday morning blues in mind as I headed for the fishing pond and its resident kingfishers. Both juveniles were again perched close by one another but on a branch of a different willow to before. This time they were more difficult to spot. It's amazing that these brightest of birds can be so difficult to see sometimes. They are only small birds though, roughly starling sized and their colours can appear quite dark especially in the gloom of a rainy monday morning. The intensity of their colours is down entirely to the light conditions that they are seen in. This is because the kingfisher's colour is not a result of pigment but irridescence. Light is broken up and refracted as it filters through the structure of the feathers, this is known as structural colour. I sketched the most visible of the birds as the rain upgraded once again from rain to heavy rain until I thought it best to take shelter for the sake of my camera if nothing else.

I tucked myself under some trees and into the shelter of a large ivy covered wall. This is a remnant of the architecture of a manor house that stood on the estate until the 1950s when it was demolished. It was dank and dark under the foliage, a land inhabited by spiders, mites, woodlice and other unspeakably long leggedy beasties. I sat on a rotting log that was relatively dry and comfortable and wrote my notes. The sound of the raindrops as they pit-pattered through the leaves was soothing and I dozed off for a while thinking what a contrast it was to a 'usual' monday morning. I woke as a mother moorhen wandered past with two well grown chicks in tow, they seemed unaware of me and I sat without moving until they were out of sight. The rain had slowed a little and I left the wall for the lighter cover of a guelder rose which was dripping with rain and intense red berries like glace cherries. A movement at my feet caught my eye and I watched a tiny, perfect toadlet as he struggled through the wet grass.

As the rain eased still further I made my way out to the paddocks and was rewarded with some close, but brief, views of the female barn owl as she hunted her way back to roost in the old stag oak. Thoughts of tea and toast were impossible for me to resist and I decided to call it a day and make my way back to the cottage for breakfast. In the sky overhead I heard the frantic chittering of swallows and, on looking up, I saw the reason for their calls. A hobby was approaching across the paddocks like a missile locked onto a target. Against the dramatic sky it powered into an attack run with breathtaking speed. These determined and beautifully streamlined falcons are the only british bird of prey that have the speed and agility to regularly hunt swifts and swallows. The hobby zoomed overhead and swallows scattered and swerved. I saw him jink and tuck into the tail of a swallow too slow to be out of danger. The swallow made a dive toward the ground with the hobby close behind and closing the gap. I saw the deadly talons swinging forward before the two combatants disappeared from view behind the trees. I didn't see the outcome of the chase but I suspect that the swallow won't be returning to Africa.

The rain continued into the morning and my younger son Ben beat me soundly at table tennis. I have always had the upper hand but this year age must be catching up with me and the student has become the teacher. By lunchtime the sun was shining strongly and fishing by the pond was wonderfully serene. The insects buzzed soporific tunes and every so often the kingfishers flashed by to the excited peeps of the juveniles. Dragonflies and damselflies skimmed the water on gossamer wings and they even landed on my arms to soak up the sun with me. By the early evening the clouds had begun to gather and I took my easel, paints and canvas out where I completed an en plein air study of one of the oaks that stand isolated in the fields.

Thursday 4 September 2008

From bats to The Beck

I was out before dawn again on the Sunday morning. The sky was grey, overcast and uninviting. I came out of the cottage by the stable door that leads onto a walled garden area adjacent to yet another of the farm's ponds. Above me, in the insect rich air, two pipistrelle bats flittered in seemingly chaotic flight like leaves falling from a tree. I stayed to watch for a while and the tiny creatures came close by me several times in their frantic, fluttering hunt. I knew that, despite appearances, and the old wives' tale about bats that get tangled in your hair, there was no danger of them crashing into me. My wife dislikes being around bats and will instinctively duck if they fly within a couple of yards of her, so I'm tempted to think that's one 'old wife' who still believes the myth! The reality is that small bats are supremely agile creatures in the air. They know precisely where they are going and are able to adjust their flight to jink in less than a heartbeat to snatch insect prey from the air. Galumphing great old wives must appear to them as slow moving mountains when seen on their inbuilt radar. There's no way that a healthy, hunting pipistrelle would get tangled in anyone's hair, besides which, my hair is so thin these days that I suspect a whole group of bats could crawl around on my head all day and still not get tangled.

I took a back route that lead me along the edge of some woods at the side of the field with the 'little owl tree'. The owl wasn't to be seen, he was probably off somewhere terrorising the local earthworms and beetles. I headed towards the fishing pond thinking to catch up with the kingfishers and I spotted a dark shape, 20 yards or so ahead of me in the field. I stopped dead in my tracks and stood absolutely still as I recognised the shape as a muntjac deer. She looked at me with beautiful, dark, liquid eyes and cautiously moved closer. I could see she was nervous and suspicious but my outline was broken up by my camouflage clothing and the wind was blowing in my face. I remained stock still, knowing that any movement would send her instantly running for cover. We stood in a solid silence and regarded each other until she decided that I must be some kind of possible threat, even if she couldn't figure out what it was, and she moved off quickly but without panic, showing me the flash of her white tail as she disappeared. Without my noticing, whilst I had been watching the muntjac, a gorgeous, light coloured, almost blonde fox had been in view between the deer and me. Certainly an unusual pair but the fox was no real threat to the adult muntjac. The fox slipped silently into the woods and my last view was of a luxuriant brush as it vanished into the undergrowth. Once in the trees the fox obviously abandoned stealth in favour of speed and I heard him move through the wood to my right. Further down the trail I spotted a second, much darker fox scampering away out of sight.

By now I could see the paddocks beyond the fishing pond and on the fenceline at the far edge of them I caught a glimpse of the ghostly moth flight of a barn owl. I went in search of it, ignoring for now the juvenile kingfishers as they peeped at their parents and begged for food. When I relocated the barn owl and focussed it in the scope I could see that it was a fabulous, white male. I sketched him as he hunted before he moved off, following the road into the distance.

The light was poor and a light rain began as I wandered back to the fishing pond in search of the kingfishers. I checked out a branch of willow which I had earlier made a mental note of. It jutted out over the water and I thought it would make an ideal perch for the brightly coloured little fishermen. I was delighted to find that my hunch had been correct and there, on the perch,, sat side by side, in a picture perfect pose was a pair of juvenile kingfishers. My camera wouldn't do the job quickly enough and one of the birds moved off to disappear in the branches of a second willow further down the pond. I sketched the remaining bird and promised myself that I would set up and wait for the birds to use the perch at another time.

Breakfast was followed by more fishing, table-tennis and badminton until, in the afternoon, my daughter asked if we could go for a walk together. I try very hard not to refuse time spent with my family and children so we took a long walk around the farm and down to the Beck. Beth declared that it was one of the most beautiful places she'd ever seen and I found it difficult to disagree with her. The water rushes under a little bridge and the Beck meanders through the trees, its waters sparkling with the green light filtered through the leaves of the trees. As we gazed, mesmerised into the stream, a family of mallards paddled away, much to Beth's delight. We walked on, up through the woods where we saw the badger sett. I pointed out the trails of fresh vegetation where the occupants had been dragging new bedding into their home. We watched what seemed like hundreds of rabbits, enjoying the afternoon by sleeping, eating or just sitting in the sun. We found hazelnuts nibbled by mice and I lifted Beth over patches of stinging nettles that she was too wary to cross unaided. She held my hand as we wandered the edges of the fields, putting up startled pigeons. Beth did her finest cuckoo impressions (but I don't think any cuckoos were being fooled). As we neared the end of the walk we were surprised by two birds as they burst from the grass practically under our feet. I was amazed and delighted to see that the birds we had disturbed were quail, a bird that I've only ever seen once before. They are fairly rare and always difficult to spot as they rely on camouflage and sneak off into the long grass when they hear anyone approach.

Life really doesn't get much better than that...

Thursday 28 August 2008

A barn owl and a blackberry breakfast

Saturday was our first full day on the farm. I never really need to set an alarm as I'm almost always awake before dawn and I'm one of those people who can't lie in bed and do nothing, especially when there are 700 acres waiting to be explored right outside the door. So by 5.15 a.m. I was walking down the familiar path through the woods to the fishing pond and the paddocks beyond. The sky was red with a shepherd's warning but what clouds there were didn't look too threatening. From the bushes beside the path came the sounds of a family of wrens and I soon picked them out, scurrying like tiny brown sprites among the undergrowth.

Behind the pond stands a venerable old oak, lonely in his potato field. Just like an old man, much of his foliage on top has long gone. He has raggedy limbs that stand proud from the top like the antlers of some great stag and his trunk is riddled with holes large and small. But still he stands, providing homes and shelter for a million different creatures. I spotted a movement from the corner of my eye and a barn owl drifted silently into view over my right shoulder. She swooped up into the uppermost branches of the stag oak and perched in the early light. Her attention was captured by something hidden from my view by what foliage the oak still has and I watched and sketched as she laddered down through the branches. Eventually she worked her way around to the opposite side of the tree. I didn't see her come out so, after changing my position several times and searching for a glimpse of her, I came to the conclusion that she must have gone to roost in one of the many holes in the old boy's trunk. Last year he played host to a family of kestrels so this year it seems only fair that it should have been the barn owls' turn.

I wandered up to anther of the stag oaks, the one that I know as 'the little owl tree.' There, sitting at the entrance to a perfect owl hole, was a second, grumpy looking little owl. As I watched he moved to the top of his tree, surveyed his territory from the vantage point and enjoyed the golden early light. When I moved on I felt the moisture from the dew as it soaked into my boots. When I looked down I saw a tiny frog, and then another, and another. They are such vulnerable creatures, snack sized for so many, that Nature has had to come up with a breeding strategy for the frog that combats the enormous losses that the young suffer. Hundreds of offspring are produced and this ensures that the fittest and the luckiest survive to continue their line.

The rookery by the church came to life in a cacophany of sound and a myriad of black shapes moved in a chaotic ballet against the rich hues of the sunrise. The early start was worth it for this experience alone, I breathed the air deep and the images imprinted themselves on my mind.

I took one of the longer walks around the farm, up to where the yellowhammers sing their song of bread and cheese from the tops of the hedges. I stopped to eat blackberries, some succulent and sweet, others tart and refreshing, all were dew soaked, delicious and fresh straight from the brambles.

When I returned to the pond I watched a hobby as it powered into an attack on a flock of swallows, swooping, diving, jinking and swerving, it was a stunning display of aerobatics and a suitable point to return to the cottage for (a second) breakfast.

The day was spent playing badminton, fishing, swimming and playing table tennis and the whole thing was rounded off with a barbeque, some beers and some board games. Ahh! What a way to live!