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.