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...