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.