Monday, 21 February 2011

Feb 19th: OTD at last!

Today, I made a return trip to Oxfordshire to try again for the Oriental Turtle Dove, with John Marchant.  The weather forecast for the day was very poor and I was very pessimistic about seeing the bird with visions of wasted hours traipsing in the rain.  When we arrived, there was already a queue of some 400 people waiting for their time to view the garden of No. 41 The Leys.  Those at the front of the queue were there from 4am!  Clearly it was pointless joining the queue - even if it was in full view all the time from the house, it would be 3pm by the time we'd have made it through the door.  Judging by past days' performances, the dove tends to arrive at c. 07.00 and fly out about 08.30, so we felt the best tactic was to wait until it flew out hopefully into an adjacent tree.  Sure enough, at around 09.00 hours the bird flew up from the garden into an Ash tree where it stayed put for perhaps 5 minutes, just long enough for me to get my scope onto it and to see all the diagnostic features before it disappeared again.  I guess some 100 or so others managed to see the bird too at this point, and it was something of a crush as everyone tried to get their eye in.  Some half an hour later, the dove was spotted again to the west of the Leys, perched atop an Ash tree in bud.  Surprisingly it stayed put on the canopy of the ash for what seemed like over an hour, allowing excellent views if slightly distant for a prolonged period.  It was really satisfying and a huge relief to finally get the views I'd wanted of this bird; I had already wasted 9 hours on Tuesday searching the town, as well as patiently queuing, all to no avail.  I have to say that I don't really enjoy birding with large numbers of people around, but the pleasure of seeing the bird outweighed that.  It was also pleasing to see the bird given that I initially identified it.  See the Birdguides article.  It would seem that most people who have travelled to see the bird have now been successful; it has made a lot of people happy which is good!  It'll be good to do something different next weekend, a bit more relaxing and stress-free.  I attach the sketches I made today, as well as a re-worked version.  I've not got round to re-working the water colour painting but I plan to soon.  This paint sketch was done at the time in the field, with an umbrella in the pouring rain, whilst sitting in a cramped position facing slightly uphill, and with a terrible migraine.  So, about as difficult as it could possibly be.  Somehow I managed to keep the rain off and I have something tangible to show for it. 

Below: the above sketch with a bit more detail added in:

The residents of The Leys have been amazingly kind and tolerant of this invasion of people to their neighbourhood, and several had opened up their garden to allow viewing of the bird where possible.  Some have raised considerable sums of money for charities of their choosing which is great.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Feb. 17th: a great day today!

The first page from my A6 pad shows some Hare pics carried over from yesterday.  But the main image, a superb view of an Otter along Spring Walk at c. 08.55.  Very elusive animals to keep track of.  Amazing how you could chart its progress by the gradual stream of bubbles of exhaled air in its wake.  I tailed it all the way past a weir and lost it as it sped off through some arches of a sluice.  Last year there was a dead Mute Swan washed up in an area of slack water just upstream of here.  Otters were seen feeding on this corpse on a couple of occasions, although I only managed to see rats enjoying the feast! 
It's hard to imagine that they are on every major river in England now, that's how much Britain's water quality has improved over the past 30 years.

Just after 11am news came through that the Slaty-backed Gull found by Dominic Mitchell back in January had re-appeared at Rainham Marshes RSPB again today for its second day.  Yesterday I just wasn't in the mood for thinking about it, feeling so low after the misery of the previous day's dip on the dove in Oxon.  Anyway today was a new day and was already off to a great start with the Otter.  I'm not really a gambling man, so it was with enormous trepidation that I set off at lunchtime with my colleague John Marchant on a mission to try and nail the gull before it decided to move off.  I was extremely sceptical that we might score - I've been here many times before.  John had the good sense not to park at the RSPB car park (saving a 30 minute walk), but to drive direct to the last car park on Coldharbour Lane, overlooking the Thames.  From here it was a mere 5 minute sprint to the place people were looking from.  Even so we were passing returning birders saying 'it's still there'; how many times have I heard that before and the bird flies off seconds before you arrive?  Well, this time it didn't fly, and we were able to enjoy superb scope views of it.  What a bird!  A couple of shades paler than all the adjacent graellsii Lesser Black-backs, but darker than nearby argentatus Herring Gulls.  It has a very obvious extremely broad white trailing edge to the secondaries, obvious on the ground as well as in flight.  At one point it was immediately adjacent to an adult Caspian Gull.  Structurally the Slaty-backed was bulkier than a Herring/LBB and with a curiously domed head, broader-based and stubbier bill.  It also appeared very long-legged relatively, too.  On one occasion it took off with a hundred or so large gulls, and I failed to get onto it; thankfully it wheeled around and landed again back on Wennington Marshes, although I couldn't work out from people's imprecise directions.  So I quickly scanned back through the flock (some 600 or so birds) and incredibly picked it out in less than 30 seconds!  After enjoying satisfactory views for 45 minutes, the bird eventually took flight with other large gulls, and headed out east along the Thames estuary.  In flight I couldn't work out the precise pattern of black in the wingtip, although the 'string of pearls' effect was noticeable on the underside of the wings.

It was not seen for the remainder of the day, and perhaps joined an enormous roost of several thosand other gulls on the south shore of the Thames, just west of the M25 bridge crossing.  Who knows what it will do next?  Maybe it will be back tomorrow to delight more larid-disciples, or maybe it will continue its nomadic path around the tips of the South-East?...

These sketches were all done in pencil in my A5 pad. 

Wed 16th February, The Lakes

Fine views of 3 male and 7 female Goosander on Lake E, that actually didn't fly off for once - usually they are unbelievably wary.  Unfortunately I didn't have time to paint them as I was on my lunch hour, and it takes about 50 minutes just to do the whole circuit...
But still it went some way toward making up for the dismal depression of spending the whole of yesterday desperately trying to see the Oriental Turtle Dove which has been re-discovered in Chipping Norton.  It hadn't been seen since last December 18th.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

A better day

The other day I put up a posting entitled 'a difficult day'.  Well, in contrast, here are some from quite a good day, back on Sunday 14th November 2010, watching some of the 70-odd Waxwings near Exeter Street in Norwich.

Monday, 14 February 2011


Finally catch up with three Hawfinch on Barnham Cross Common.  Spend ages waiting for them to show despite lots of activity from nearby Greenfinches, Brambling and Chaffinches, not to mention local dog-walkers.  Then I finally heard them and three birds flew out of the Hawthorns and flew higher and higher into the sky, heading west all the time until I could no longer resolve them through my bins.  One might assume that that was it and they'd gone for good.  However the next day, two were reported again from here.  I recall in past years that Hawfinches have displayed this kind of behaviour before: clearly they must roam huge tracts of the Brecks seeking out favoured food hotspots.

Lackford Lakes SWT

6 February 2011: a great day at Lackford, with superb views of a Bittern, watched on and off for about 3 hours.  Then around 4pm, just as I came out of the visitor centre, a flock of 30 Waxwing flew over going northward.  They appeared to drop but despite a good search there was no sign of them, all the berries having long gone.  I guess they must have continued north below the level of the trees.   Unbelievably I've found seven different Waxwing flocks this winter!  Later still, at least 17 Goosander, 2 sinesis-type Cormorants and over 300 large gulls including 2 adult Yellow-legged Gulls on the Slough.  There was just so much to see to attract my attention, so many hundreds of potential compositions, and the light was perfect too, before it finally went.  I could see myself spending a bit more time here grilling all the gulls.

Er, yes slight scale issues of the giant Teal next to the Bittern in the reeds...  But there's no time to stop and think, painting live in the field I just have to get the paint onto the page as fast as possible.  Sometimes I paint without having any pencil lines as reference points.  That really focusses your mind.  I seem to have been left with a pile of half-finished paintings here that I feel reluctant to do any more to, as adding anything later would feel contrived. 

Finally one of the Waxwing flock, done when I got home.  The image of those birds was etched in my mind, and of the low evening light catching their undersides.

American Wigeon at Cley

Spent four hours studying the drake American Wigeon just east of East Bank on 23rd January.  Quite uncomfortable sat on a slope by the coast road.  A cracking bird and I could have spent even longer trying to do justice to it.  Half of the first page here is of some Waxwings in Thetford.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

A difficult day

A day of complete frustration trying to portray a group of Waxwings in Norwich.  I think I was just getting too carried away trying to put things onto paper and add paint before I'd really studied them sufficiently.  Sometimes it's better to calmly step back, take a breath, and just spend time looking at the birds rather than madly trying to rush something off on the page.  It is all psychology.  All rubbish pictures but I'm posting them here anyway so you can see what I mean when I say it was a bad day's painting.
Later did the sketches of a drake Smew at Barton Broad.  Extremely cold for painting in the field, minus 3 degrees centigrade, so not really helping to make things easy.  And I was having to stand up painting, which is seldom comfortable either.

Paintings from the cold

Common Buzzard, and also Whooper Swans - Welney in late December 2010;

The pen is mightier than the sword...

...or should that be "the Bic biro is mighter than the Canon lens"?!  Well, it is, when it goes well.  A few more Brecks sketches:

Winter Atlas fieldwork in North Yorkshire

More Bic biro sketches onto blank bits of my field maps. 

A few more from the Brecks...

Here are a few more pictures from local birding in the Breckland area.  Many of these have been done in the lunch hour so there's never enough time to do justice to the birds.  All in biro which is good as it makes you very decisive on the page, and makes you look at the subject.

One for the moth afficionados

In biro.

New Year... New Beginning

I decided at the start of 2011 that I would keep a blog of my birding year.  Not really sure what to expect of it, if I'll sustain it, but why not give it a go?  I like to record my observations in the form of sketches, and paintings too, if I have time.  Fieldsketches are just that, a personal expression of what I've seen in the field.  It's more important to record your impression of what you're seeing than make it perfect.  So there'll be quite a lot of unfinished pictures on here where the bird has flown off, and pictures that are wrong too.  If you are not prepared to make mistakes you won't be able to learn from them.  Drawing your subject from life is the best way to understand your subject and to get a feel for what it really looks like.  The sketchbook needs to be an honest expression of what you are seeing.

The first few pics are from the end of 2010.