Tuesday 24 November 2009

The long walk with no badgers

In previous years at the farm I have encountered foxes on a regular basis. Although there were hunts in the area, this farm had never had them on their land and consequently has a thriving fox population. My first fox of this year was spotted out across the paddock at the back of the cottage. From the shape of the face it looked to me like a male. I watched him as he pounced the classic springing pounce onto some small prey item, perhaps a beetle as he came up chewing on something. As his head came up from the dew soaked grass he obviously spotted me too. He froze and we stared at each other until I got my sketchbook out and he faded back into the wheat crop.

I followed him along the track past the ice house and a brown streak, all legs and ears, shot off in front of me. I've seen hares on the farm before but always away off at the far ends, never this close to the cottages. I hope that it's an indication that they're doing well and expanding into previously unoccupied habitat.

Once again there were deer prints in the sand of the track and, although there were no deer to be seen, they could well have been watching me from the safety of the shadows and the undergrowth of the old orchard. Also on the track were a large number of large, fat, juicy looking, black slugs going slowly about their sluggy business, no doubt enjoying the dampness of the early morning.

Since the little owl tree was once again empty, I made my way to the horse paddocks. Sure enough, as hoped for, way off beyond the dove cote the unmistakable, moon white wings of a barn owl flashed. I adjusted my position for a better view and focused the binoculars quickly on the soft round form. She was very active, moving quickly from post to post, concentrating intently on the grass with the single mindedness of an owl that needs a catch. She hovered briefly and dived, her sharp talons followed her sharp eyes and ears and her legs swung forward at the last moment into position for the deadly strike. Up she came, almost immediately, and flew off in the direction of the road. As she passed by me I could see that she was carrying a plump looking vole. Since she had winged away so quickly and made no attempt to eat her prize I surmised that she must have had a chick or chicks in the nest and a vole of that size would have made an ideal last meal of the morning for them.

Still breathless from the owl sighting I saw an arc of electric blue flash past around the stag oak towards the pond and the dragon log. I chased after. I made a careful approach, using long grasses as cover, and saw that the log was occupied by a wonderful adult male kingfisher. I fixed him in the scope and began to sketch. As I watched, my entire field of vision in the scope went dark and I looked up to see a horse casually feeding right between me and the bird. By the time he moved the kingfisher had disappeared. Such are the frustrations of sketching wild birds!

With the kingfisher and the barn owl gone I decided that I'd make the long walk down into Manor Wood to make a visit to the badger sett and look for signs that it was still inhabited. It's a long walk and I stopped on the path to rest and take a drink. As I stood quietly I saw movement to my right and I wondered if I might be lucky and see a badger out foraging later than usual. It's difficult to stay still and calm when there's a possibility of a close encounter with a badger and I felt sure that whatever was moving in the undergrowth would be able to hear my heart thumping in my chest with excitement. The quiet rustling in the grass moved closer and a head appeared cautiously from the leaves. A female roe deer daintily moved past me, not a badger but just as exciting. It's a mystery why this little bundle of nerves didn't see me but she continued on and tip-toed past without even glancing in my direction until she disappeared back into the brambles two or three yards further on. I stayed stock still and watched, occasionally catching a glimpse of chestnut fur through the leaves. The little deer moved another ten yards or so before turning onto the path to cross into the trees. Once onto the path she stopped to look in my direction, she looked, sniffed and her ears swiveled forwards and back and I stood statue still until she slowly moved off into the wood, apparently unperturbed.

I was finally able to relax and finish my drink and I continued on, round the path, past the badger sett and into the place that I call 'badger dell'. It's a magical place formed by a dip in the gentle slope of a hill. At the bottom of the dell there is a tiny stream, heavily overgrown and, in drought years, virtually dry, and, in the centre, a fallen log covered in luxuriant moss makes a perfect seat from which to enjoy the silence. Directly in front of the mossy seat is an old oak tree that treecreepers love and I made a mental note to return and draw it's cracked and fissured trunk.

The long walk around the outside of the farm takes me along field edges and hedgerows and there are often cattle grazing the fields and meadows. A group of young males were curious about me and they approached the fence cautiously to stand in a huffing, steaming gang by the wire and there they stared at me and I at them. There was no menace to them, just pure curiosity. I like cows so I took their group portrait for posterity.

My boots were soaked with dew and I was ready for a mug of tea and a slice or two of hot buttered toast by the time I got back to the ponds. The heron was fishing, the swallows were gathering above the wheatfield and the sun was starting to show some promise of the heat that we had for the rest of the day. I'd not seen any badgers but a walk is never wasted and I reckoned that, with all the other wildlife I'd seen, the badgers could wait.

Friday 9 October 2009

Kestrels and memories

Sometime in the night the sky clouded over and the rain fell steady but light until the morning when I woke at around 4.30. In early August the sky is just beginning to lighten at that time so I opened the top half of the stable door and watched as the pipistrelles flitted and flittered above the walled garden. The remnants of the night's cloud still hung in a soft grey blanket but there was no rain so I set off for a long patrol around the perimeter of the farm.

I was first stopped in my tracks by the sight of a muntjack deer as it dissolved into the trees at the top of the cedar tree field. It was a nice start as deer can be cautious creatures and difficult to spot, although last year I spoke to a horserider who regularly uses the bridleways on the farm who said that deer are relatively easy to see from horseback. Perhaps these nervous herbivores don't associate the horses with danger and don't recognise the riders as human. I moved to the area where I had seen the deer and picked up its tracks in the damp, sandy soil. They were clear and crisp edged which attested to their freshness but the animal itself was long gone.

I moved on to the little owl tree and scanned it's gnarled branches for a sign of the owls without success. I watched the tree for some while as the sun began to remove some of the cloud but still the owls remained absent. I found out later in coversation with one of the local fishermen that earlier in the season the tree had been occupied by a pair of Egyptian geese who had bred there and obviously kept out the much smaller little owls. The geese failed to raise their brood as they were picked off one by one by one of the farm's foxes with cubs to raise.

With no owls to watch or sketch I carried on to the kingfisher pond and saw the young heron take off as I arrived. He circled, calling for 'Frank' all the way before settling into a tree some distance off. Watching herons perched in trees is oddly off kilter with the more usual views of them stealthily stalking the shallows, stabbing at the water with their stilletto beaks. Actually, despite the gangly legs and the size, herons are quite at home in the branches and nest in treetop colonies known as heronries. Close to my home in Kent, on an RSPB reserve, is one of the largest heronries in the UK and it's always worth a visit in the spring.

Above the paddocks a kestrel was hovering, her head perfectly still and her position fixed in spite of the breeze. Kestrels are probably the bird most responsible for my fascination with and love for nature and they are a favourite of mine. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a place which backed onto classic Kent chalk downland and I would spend many happy hours there after school, at weekends and during the summer holidays. In times when children were granted much more freedom that they are now I was free to roam and explore all day and I remember long, hot summers there discovering and watching all manner of creatures. Lizards and slow worms were really common and I took great delight in capturing and handling them. I remember on one occassion I took home a slow worm and put him in a dresser drawer, naively believing that he would simply stay there, covered in a handful of grass, overnight. I was woken the next morning by my Mother's cry of 'Snake! Snake! There's a snake in the bedroom!'. I watched as she fled down the hallway in her slippers and nightie, clutching her dressing gown. I knew immediately what had happened and hurried to rescue my slow worm and reassure my Mum that he wasn't a snake and that she was in no danger from this charming and harmless little legless lizard. To this day I'm not sure if she was grateful to me for rescuing her or mad at me for bringing the hapless creature home in the first place. After that she bought me a small vivarium and various lizards and slow worms lived there for short spells before being returned to where they came from and the tank was turned into a home for a pair of smooth newts. I never did bring home any snakes...

One of my greatest pleasures in those days, other than reptile wrangling, was lying on my back in the grass on one of the steeper slopes from where I could watch the kestrels hunting. I was fascinated with them, particularly that hover, and I would watch them for hours. I remember trying to draw them even way back then. The kestrel hunting over the paddocks dived and came up from the grass clutching something in her hunter's talons. She immediately flew off in the direction of the trees where I had heard young kestrels calling the day before and, since there was no sign of kingfishers on the pond or barn owls in the paddocks, I set off after her. I heard the young kestrels long before I spotted them, they were obviously just recently fledged and still fairly dependent on their parents for food. I tracked them down and found three youngsters in and around one of the oaks that stood isolated in fields bursting with soon to be harvested barley. I settled down to watch and sketch them as they tested their wings in halting and uncertain flight against a sky where, slowly, the patches of blue began to win the battle with the night's cloud. With my back against a tree I rested and soaked up the sun as it rose higher into the new blue. When the sun was high enough and hot enough I could hear the heads of barley cracking in the heat and I could tell that it was the start of a dry summer's day just like those kestrel watching days of my childhood.

I confess that I snoozed there against that tree before returning to the cottage for breakfast.

Thursday 10 September 2009

Tea, cake and a heron.

On the Friday morning I sat and watched the sky whilst the sun struggled to break through. The early birds were moving against pearl grey skies streaked with white. Wood pigeons reminded me of businessmen hurrying to their breakfast meetings together with their grey clad colleagues. Occasionally collared doves would join them, like beige trouser suited businesswomen would join their male counterparts. It all served to remind me that I was bound for Norfolk and a week on the farm that I love and thoughts of grey suited commuters with their grey exsistances could be left behind for a blissful while.

The journey was a drag but somehow that doesn't matter when you know what's waiting at the end of it. The cottage was as I remembered it and a welcoming cup of tea and slice of cake awaited us as always. Once settled there was time for a quick stroll around to see what there was to be seen. Stark against a now bright sky the upper branches of a leafless and dying oak made perfect perches for a group of fifteen or so mistle thrushes. Although these birds stay with us all year round I tend to think of them as one of the winter thrushes; Not a good omen! Just the day before we left to come on holiday the Met Office revised their forecast for the main part of the summer. The experts backtracked on their assertion that August would see a 'barbeque summer' and, instead, their new promise was for cooler temperatures and periods of wind and rain. A typical British summer then! It crossed my mind that we may have a repeat of the summer of 2007 when the weather was awful for the entire week.

I walked on down to the fishing pond and beyond to the kingfisher pond. As I approached I saw a young heron on the kingfisher perch that I know as the dragon log because of its strong resemblance to a sea monster rearing its head from the water. The water levels seemed low and I imagined that the long, dry spells we'd enjoyed through June and July must have left this legacy.

I sketched the heron onto the first page of my brand new sketchbook and moved on briefly to the paddocks and the fields opposite where the swallows swooped low over the golden, ripe barley crop. There was no sign of any little owls in their usual tree but in the woodland nearby I heard the cries of young kestrels and watched as a female flew directly overhead and into the canopy, clutching some small food item. I made a mental note to return and see if I could identify a nest site. So, as the sky turned to gold and the tops of the barley whispered with light, I returned to the cottage to enjoy a good meal and the first of the week's many welcome glasses of wine, content that all seemed as it should be and that, in the morning, the week proper could begin.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Little owls and little surprises

Visiting the same place over and over it's possible to get a feel for what will be where. I know, for example, that, at this time of year, the scrapes will be full of avocets and the marshes will be full of yellow wagtails, skylarks and meadow pipits. But it's the little surprises that always give the biggest thrills and make the early weekend starts worth the effort. This week I rose especially early to take advantage of the longer hours of daylight and made my way out to Elmley.

The second tree behind the farmhouse hosts a pair of little owls and I planned to get straight out of the car and head for the viewing platform to scan the oak for them. However, as I pulled into the car park I caught sight of one of the pair sitting on the barn porch, obviously hunting the paddock. It looked over at me as I pulled up with a good angle of view, it was very squiffy parking but, hey, it was early and there was a little owl sitting in the open.

Although it was obviously aware of me it soon settled back to its scrutiny of the grass, carefully watching for a juicy worm or a soft centred beetle. Many people think that little owls would turn their noses up at invertebrates but, in fact, worms and beetles make up the majority of a little owl's diet and they take small mammals less frequently. A little owl pellet can often be identified by the presence of shiny, black beetle wing cases. I watched as the little owl bobbed its head and adjusted its position until, after fifteen minutes or so, it pounced on something and flew off around the barn. I reparked the car and began to pack my gear, quite happy with the sketches I'd made. As I put the sketchbook away the owl returned and perched on one of the buttresses supporting the three sided barn that forms one side of the paddock. It had placed itself perfectly for a painting which immediately formed in my mind. I restarted the car and repositioned again for the best view and started back in with the sketchbook.

As I watched the owl was 'buzzed' several times by the swallows that currently have at least four chicks in the nest in the ladies toilets. The owl, however, seemed totally unfazed and continued its watching. The swallows can't have felt too threatened either as they soon gave up and went off in search of flying insects to feed their own young. I spent another twenty minutes or so just watching, sketching and photographing the owl.

At one point the silence was broken by a loud squealing from behind the car. I turned and was rewarded with the sight of a stoat determinedly pursuing a rabbit kitten. The rabbit jinked and leapt but the sinuous streak that was the stoat stuck to its tail with deadly purpose. The participants in this life and death tag race disappeared into the undergrowth and witnessing the outcome of this everyday drama was denied me. I've seen stoats many times and I've seen them with dead rabbits too, I've even 'squeaked up' a stoat or two in the past but I've never before seen a chase like that one. I feel privileged to have been witness to such a great little surprise.

I stayed with the little owl until it finally flew off and I got ready to walk to the hides. My path took me past the farmhouse and, as I emerged on the other side of the building, I saw a little owl fly up onto a fencepost whilst making a racket, calling loudly. Other birds shouted alarm and mistrust at the owl as it continued to call and bob its head like a demented Jack-in-the-box on its spring. I got the owl in my binoculars and noticed that this one wore a ring on its leg, unlike the owl I'd been watching in the paddock. I wondered what all the noise was for and I scanned the area for a cause but it wasn't until I got the bins back on the owl that I realised what I had missed at the first sighting. Two or three feet beneath the adult was a fledgeling, clinging precariously to the side of the post. I took one or two quick photos and, even though the adult had settled, I moved away quickly so as not to risk stressing the owls. I wondered if the owlet was out of the nest for the first time. Sunday was Father's day so I like to think it was the male that was keeping an intense yellow eye on his offspring.

The walk out to the scrape was accompanied by the sedge warblers singing their ratchety, scratchety song from the reeds whilst the skylarks sang sweet summer from skyperches overhead. As expected the scrape was full of avocets. Some are still sitting on eggs and young and others are still mating and squabbling. Running the gauntlet of the crotchety avocets were a couple of pairs of ringed plovers. They are charismatic little birds and one or two went into the sketchbook. But mostly I just enjoyed being out and watching the comings and goings of daily life on the scrape.

The sun had come out and the skies cleared by the time I made my way back to the car. The blue sky was criss-crossed with the vapour trails of aircraft and, with the skylarks singing and butterflies flying, I wondered if this was what it was like in Kent during July of 1940, skylarks and spitfires, now there's a thought for a painting in the future.

I checked the oaks one last time for the little owl family and, sure enough, both adults were in sight. The sketchbook had to come out again, I love little owls.

Friday 8 May 2009

Ancient tracks and bluebells

There really is nothing that can compare to an English wood at bluebell time and I rose before dawn to arrive at the wood early and wander amongst, and marvel at, the beauty.

The sun splashed through the lime green canopy of new growth and the sweet scent of the flowers was complimented by the subtle aroma of damp earth rising up, carried on delicate tendrils of mist. A dazzling carpet of intense purple-blue accented by the dappled light drew the eye and there was birdsong everywhere to delight my ear. Blackcap, wren, robin, dunnock, wood warbler, chiff-chaff, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit, all chattered away constantly, and then I heard it, the loud, liquid, exuberance of perhaps the greatest of spring songsters and certainly one of the most romantic; The nightingale. It is almost impossible not to stop and listen to that song and, when it finishes, it's as though the whole wood bursts into silence, despite the exquisite efforts of all the others.

As I wandered the ancient drove track I could sense the thousands of footsteps trod here over the ages and I knew that all those who had walked here in past springs, and all those who were yet to walk here, had and would share the same sense of joy and contentment that I was feeling.
It's an all encompassing experience that simply cannot be captured with images or words and has to be experienced first hand.

The foliage tends to hide the birds in spring woodland and most are only glimpsed briefly as they flit from tree to tree and bush to bush. Sketching them is challenging to say the least and, since I was feeling so relaxed, I decided not to even try and I sat in the soft, damp loam at the base of a giant beech and drew the butresses of his brother across the path instead. There are paths here in this part of the wood, tracks trodden by generations of badgers from the sett at the top of the hill, they trundle along them every night in search of worms and other tasty morsels.

I returned home content that I had caught the bluebells at their peak, by next weekend they will be beginning a noticable decline as the thousands of delicate blooms begin to give way to the dry seed heads and I will have to wait a full year before I can drink in the unique experience again.

Sunday 5 April 2009

Easter eggs and remarkable birds

As Spring advances the scrapes at Elmley become dominated by avocets. They are beautifully elegant birds, black and white, finished with long legs of pale grey blue. They look as though they were designed sometime in the thirties at the height of the Art Deco era. Under that chic exterior though lies a vicious streak, a warrior spirit. During the breeding season avocets will defend their nests and chicks vigorously against all comers, predator or otherwise, real threat or imagined. Last year I watched avocets relentlessly chasing shelduck chicks and their parents all over the scrape as well as watching hastily scrambled squadrons take to the air to ward off the menace of a passing heron or marsh harrier. This Easter the first avocets have begun to settle on nests and the first eggs have been laid, real Easter eggs, a success story. Avocets were extinct in Britain by the 1840s due to marsh drainage, shooting, egg collecting and other pressures but largely because of conservation efforts by the RSPB, (and the reflooding of coastal marsh as a defence against threatened German invasion), by the late 1940s they had begun a return as breeding birds. There are currently estimated to be somewhere in the region of 900 breeding pairs.*

Remarkable birds come in all shapes and sizes, the bee hummingbird for example is remarkable for being the smallest living bird (the clue is in the name). Or the lyrebird, remarkable not only for its extraordinary plumage for which it is named, but also as an amazing mimic, a quick search on Youtube will prove just how remarkable. Not to mention the remarkable plumages of the birds of paradise or the intelligence of the crows that have learned how to use traffic to crack nuts for them in Japan. All remarkable by any standards.

This weekend I have seen my own remarkable birds. The first is a small brown bird whose song is loud and distinctive but not remarkably sweet or unusual. A common bird that can be seen in just about any reedbed in the UK; The Sedge Warbler.

The second is, again, small and common. Its feathers are a mix of dull olive green and a bright, intense yellow, pretty but not remarkable for that in itself; The Yellow Wagtail.

Third is another common bird, this time a deep, dark blue black with a contrasting belly and flanks of warm cream and a throat and face of deep red. That sounds remarkable for colour and it is indeed a beautiful bird but from a distance it appears black and white; The Swallow.

These birds are not remarkable for their rarity or their plumage or their song but they are remarkable to me for two reasons. Firstly they were my first sightings of the species for the year
but, more importantly, they are remarkable for the journey they have just made. They have all returned to the UK to breed having spent the winter in Africa. A journey of hundreds of miles, utterly fraught with dangers of all kinds, predators, the weather, fickle winds and countless others. Yet, every year, they return. The swallows that I watched on Saturday could very easily have been the same birds that I watched in the same place last year, or perhaps the young from the nests that have remained solidly glued to the walls of the farm building. And, remarkably, after a summer working hard to raise a brood of youngsters, they will make the arduous journey once again and return to Africa for another winter until, if they survive, they and their young, return again next spring. It is astounding to think of these small and vulnerable birds making such a trek and it makes them remarkable indeed.

Finally a common bird and this time a resident; The Siskin. Remarkable to me only because I noticed them in my garden as I worked on a painting in my studio. To the best of my knowledge this was the first time I had ever seen this bird, it was a 'lifer' and there it was feeding on my new nijer seed feeder. There is always something new to surprise and delight in nature, even in your own garden.

The first Sedge Warbler of the year.

The first Yellow Wagtail of the year.

The first swallow of the year.

Avocets with easter eggs.

A pair of Siskin in the garden.

*It is an offence to disturb nesting avocets either at or near the nest and it is important to note that my sketches and photographs were made from a public viewing hide and there was no disturbance to the birds whatsoever.

Monday 16 March 2009


By the road, atop a weather worn post sat a phantom, a pale ghost visible in the light of dawn. Barn owls send chills down the spine and astonish with their beauty. With the turn of the season the day starts earlier, the sun rises sooner and clearer skies allow light to encroach on their hunting time making conditions ideal for watching these silent spirits. He left his perch and cut across the road behind the car, soon vanishing from sight only to reappear in a field ahead, or was this a second owl, a pair checking the usefulness of the territory around them for the upcoming raising of young?

A merlin showed briefly and thrillingly, and the sun filled the sky with the promise of good weather for the day. The wind has had its teeth filed by spring now and it has lost its bite, its cutting edge blunted so that it no longer slices through layers of clothes to cut at the flesh and bone beneath. It is still cold but it is not the killing cold of winter now, most birds seem to be strong and ready to take up the challenge of breeding, on the scrapes ringed plovers are mating and there's promise of new life everywhere. But not all can survive, there have been casualties along the way. A lifeless bundle of white sat on the mud, the wind ruffled through feathers no longer held close to ward off the chill. Around the corpse ran ringed plovers, at times one of them would stop and regard the dead black headed gull with what looked like curiosity but it would soon move on to continue the urgent business of feeding. When the plovers settled it was at a distance from the body, as if they were worried to be too close to the dead.

Caught in the grass like gossamer ghosts was an ill defined circle of feathers, a wigeon had met its end here. The feathers had been plucked, not bitten, so I suspect the duck had fallen to a bird of prey, perhaps one of the peregrines or a sparrowhawk. The delicate filaments fluttered and some few broke free of the grass to scatter on the water of a nearby dyke where they floated like little fairy boats, tiny echoes of the the bird which once wore them.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

It starts with a trickle

Winter has been reluctant to give up it’s grip this year. We’ve had winds from Siberia bringing enough snow and ice to shut schools and give a bonus day or two away from work for some. Children made snowmen and improvised sledges to speed down any available slope. I walked in the heaviest snow taking a childish delight in being the first to break the smooth white coating. My daughter came with me, released from school for the day, out of the confining classroom to experience the pure joy of a very close encounter with a robin that came within a few feet hoping for a morsel or two. Like a living Christmas card he sat on the snow laden branches and cocked his head to examine her with glittering, bright, black eyes full of charm.

For weeks the cold has made the countryside retreat into itself and huddle in an expectant hush. But now, at last, there are signs that the season of new life is on its way, I haven’t seen a fieldfare or redwing in the last two weeks and the wigeon are gathering in huge flocks on the Swale. Throughout the winter these birds are evident all over the marshes and estuary, their soft, insistent whistles ambient music to accompany every walk. But most wigeon voices in the South of England have Icelandic or Norwegian accents and, come the spring, they will return North to breed and their constant soundtrack will be replaced by the skylarks’ sweeter song. This week I have heard that song and seen a single lark hanging high in the sky, a tentative beginning.

A day spent in the studio this weekend was graced with sunshine that quickly melted the thick overnight frost into droplets and shone through them, creating strings of glistening diamonds that fell from the branches to disappear for ever at the slightest touch of bird or errant, still cold, wind. I haven’t seen a single blue tit in the garden of late, they have been in twos and, I have seen them checking the new nestbox outside the studio window, exploring the possibilities for the coming weeks. Male brown hares are already following the females around the Elmley reserve and soon the boxing will start and I can enjoy the frenetic activity of the mad march hares. In the early morning, just before the dark begins to melt away, blackbirds and song thrushes are singing along with the robins and wrens. On the marsh the oystercatchers are beginning their crazy shouting matches, like bad tempered children on a playground they square up and hurl insults at the top of their voices, egging each other on but reluctant to resort to any real violence.

The signs are subtle, but they’re there, it begins with a trickle and slowly turns into a brook, a stream, a river, and finally a torrent. The season is turning.