Friday 30 November 2012

November BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow - Philpstoun

This is my second month of blogging the results of the union canal bird count I do for the BTO's WeBS scheme. My route is Linlithgow to Philpstoun. Read about the route and the reasons for doing the count in this previous blog post -

The count - Friday November 23rd, 2012

Started 9:10 am. Turnaround time 11:25 am. Finished 12:40 pm.

Weather was good, bright but quite breezy. A cool autumn day. - autumn or winter..? There are almost no leaves left and we have light frost a lot of mornings. Several times I've had to to break the ice on the bird water. Today the sun was a little too much in my eyes as I started out - it was easy to scan the fields on my left but not so easy looking across the canal on my right. I'm used to this. A peaked hat helps.

This month was my best ever in terms of numbers of birds seen. We've had a lot of rain and the flood field was at its fullest. I've never before counted so many birds there. I spent such a time standing watching that I felt I must eat breakfast as I continued my walk, rather than sitting on my normal patch of wall.

A few interesting sightings:

- Much more goosander activity than normal. I saw five individual birds -male and female- but also a group of six that flew past following the line of the canal then veering right to head towards Linlithgow Loch. Normally I'll see one or two lone goosanders on the water at most, sometimes a pair. A couple of months ago Kittie ( and I on an Aberdour drawing day saw a gathering of around 30 goosanders swimming in one of the bays.

- Three bird of prey species - buzzard, kestrel, sparrowhawk. I always see buzzards but rarely either of the others.
- When this kestrel moved in flight it was buffeted violently by the wind yet seemed to have no problem hovering motionless above fields as it scanned for prey. An old local name for the kestrel is windhover. A perfect title.
- The sparrowhawk was when I was only two minutes from home. Normally you have no more than a glimpse as one flashes past your bird feeders into surrounding hedgerow and gardens, but this one was perched and preening. It was far away but I made a quick sketch. Its warm cream and orange chest shone bright against an earthen scene - the slope of the railway embankment, dead grasses and undergrowth, bare branches.

- Just beyond the flood field I heard the call of skylarks. With my binoculars I could see two dark specks high above. It sounded like there were more. I don't recall ever seeing them on this count.

canal count notes plus sparrowhawk sketch, pen & pencil on cereal box

Waterbird count:

moorhen - 5
mallard - 3
tufted duck - 1 (female)
goosander - 11
black-headed gull -6

On the flood field:
oystercatcher - 59
curlew - 22
lapwing - 65
black-headed gull - 86
herring gull - 6
common gull - 32
mallard - 30
widgeon - 49
snipe - 4

All other bird species seen
and heard:

song thrush
long tailed tit
tree sparrow
reed bunting
house sparrow
blue tit
great tit
feral pigeon
collared dove

Total: 39 species

Thursday 8 November 2012

Linlithgow - Airngath Hill, circle walk, Saturday 3rd November, 12.30pm to 2.40pm

Something I love to do when out on a walk is to make a complete list of all the bird species seen. It makes me that little bit more observant and I end up with a page in my notebook (more often a scrap of paper) that I can look back at and compare the next time I take that route. The British Trust for Ornithology's BirdTrack is an easy-to-use online system where you can record these complete lists. The information is really valuable in the understanding and protection of our wildlife and countryside.

So, last Saturday I decided to treat myself to an afternoon break. It was a nice day and I'd been indoors all morning. My brother's 'Hallo-Fawkes' fancy dress party was that evening and I'd nearly completed the owl mask I was going to wear. I made a circular walk through Fiddler's Croft at the east end of the Loch, up the tree-lined avenue towards the Grange then turning right at the top into the thin stretch of wood along the south side of Airngath Hill.

A deer a little upslope -antlers starting to grow- looked alertly then bounded away, white rump bouncing. I stopped in the woods to climb two trees, both horse chestnuts, one still living but lying on its side. I got far further 'up' this one than under normal circumstances! My circle was completed by coming down the country road past the Bonsyde Hotel and skirting back into Linlithgow.

Birds seen:

coal tit
blue tit
great tit
siskin - three or four, in large hedgerow at the east end of Fiddler's Croft.
song thrush - in Airngath Hill woods. Probably two. Beautiful fawn-white-tan colouring.
pied wagtail
tufted duck
greylag goose
great crested grebe
little grebe
common gull
black headed gull
mute swan

30 species... only two hours. You don't realise just how much is out there until you really start to look.

Of course, the walk being over I then have to come home, write it up, prepare it for my blog, log my bird list online - a two hour walk becomes rather longer.

Friday 2 November 2012

Inchcolm Island, in the Firth of Forth

Last weekend Jennifer and I went to Inchcolm Island for the first time since either of us were children. Jennifer was last there on a holiday club trip from school and my last visit was the birthday party of a friend - we played pirates on the boat across and on the small swing of beach below the Abbey. This time we were with her parents, making the trip thanks to vouchers I'd been gifted.

Inchcolm Island and Abbey are owned by Historic Scotland. The island sits in the waters of the Forth, four miles from the Forth Rail Bridge in the seaward direction. We were booked on the 12.15pm sailing of the Maid of the Forth, a 225-seater blue and white ferry boat that departs from Hawes Pier, South Queensferry, right beside the railway bridge. It's quite awesome, to set sail and get closer and closer, and eventually pass right alongside those massive red iron legs. Legs that support the weight of up to 200 trains a day. Think of the thousands of men who constructed it, 130 years ago! ... 57 lost their lives in the process.

Directly after passing under the bridge we're alongside Inchgarvie Island which is made as much of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements as it is of rock. Memories of war. Cormorants and shags were perched all over and eight or more herons stood solitary but together on one small area of island wall.

Inchgarvie & Forth bridges

herons on Inchgarvie

looking to Inchkeith, from the Maid of the Forth upper deck, pencil in sketchbook, 41x13.5cm

The weather was perfect - a clear and crisp autumn day with no more than a ripple of waves. From the open-top upper deck I saw guillemots and gulls and more cormorants and shags. A pair of eiders floated close beside us and a few times gannets in threes and fours flapped past in their dark juvenile plumage. I did only one quick sketch, showing Inchkeith island with a white and red lighthouse in front, a boat behind that, and another further off to the side. The Forth is always busy with boats. It's a working river. Conical Berwick Law peaked its head above the outline of the island. 

After 45 minutes we were arriving at Inchcolm where the beautiful 12th Century abbey offered itself up for our explorations. It's a peacefully impressive ruin, quite small. I imagined monks strolling the cloister and tending to their gardens of herbs and medicinals. You can walk up the narrowest spiral staircase I've ever seen until you reach the top of the abbey's square squat tower and have views all around. East, south, west and north: East Lothian; Edinburgh; the bridges; the Fife coast; and out to sea beyond Inchkeith.

Inchcolm Abbey cloister, photo by Jennifer Alexander

Inchcolm Abbey, photo by Jennifer Alexander

We only had an hour and three quarters until the ferry returned so we didn't spend too long at any one spot. We wanted to see as much of the island as we could. It took about an hour of fairly brisk walking to get along all the paths and not-paths, to see each of the many leftover war emplacements. We walked on top of some of these bunker buildings and I noticed on one of the roofs a colony of unknown (to me) small succulent-leafed alpine plant. Thriving among the pitted concrete. It's amazing how nature always finds a way to fight back at man's creations.

Most exciting is the brick-lined tunnel running about 100 metres through the hillside that makes up the east of the island. There's a kink in the middle so when you enter you think you're going to be walking into complete darkness. It was built around 1916 by the Royal Engineers, used probably to take ammunition to the far east of the island.

Inchcolm ammunition tunnel, photo by Jennifer Alexander

deserted building on Inchcolm, more wartime ruins beyond

Jennifer on Inchcolm, the Forth bridges beyond

The buildings are mostly open to the elements, there's no glass in any of the windows and possibly never was. All that we went into had signs of having been used by nesting birds - droppings decorating the floors, nest piles in corners. In a couple of the buildings were the remains of gulls: one long-dead juvenile lay on its front, wings half spread, beak half open. I turned it over with my foot and was surprised to feel how light it was. A collection of feathers but not much more. Despite the weight, the skeleton must have still been inside because bodyshape and skin were unbroken. It was just completely dried out. A desiccated gull. 

It's not only birds - grey seals come to Inchcolm too, to have their pups. October and November is the right time of year but we didn't see any young, just a few dark adults enjoying the waves. With visitors around most days of the week I'd have thought they wouldn't want to birth there.

Our explorations used most of the time available to us so I didn't have long to sketch, only 20 minutes before our ferry came back. Jennifer looked round the visitor centre and I got two quick pencil studies done. This sort of sketch can still prove very useful. I often write colour notes and sometimes add watercolour at a later date.

Inchcolm sketch, pencil in sketchbook, 41x13.5cm

Inchcolm sketch and bird list, pencil in sketchbook, 41x13.5cm

I kept a list of all the birds I saw on and from the island:

pigeon - by far the most numerous bird here. There were hundreds on the less-walked rocky areas.
pipit - meadow pipit I think, down on the seaweeds and rocks at the water's edge.
lesser black backed gull
black headed gull
gannett - juveniles - out at sea
guillemots - out at sea
razorbill - just one, out on the water. Looking so similar to a guillemots at this time of year, only the stub-end beak and white wing line distinguish between these two chunky auks.

15 species seen.

How to get to Inchcolm:
From Edinburgh you can get to the ferry easily by rail - take the train to Dalmeny station. It's only a ten minute walk from there down to Hawes Pier.

Monday 29 October 2012

St Cyrus in verse - a Scottish Natural Heritage competition

I've just entered Scottish Natural Heritage's poetry competition celebrating 50 years since the wonderful St Cyrus was granted protection as nature reserve. The winner will have their poem plus four suggested images carved onto a stone monolith placed outdoors on the reserve.

My mum has a static caravan in nearby Montrose and for the past year and a half we've been exploring the surrounding area. There's so much to inspire - sands, dunes, cliffs; woodlands, mudflats, gentle rolling farmland; red-earth landscapes and stunningly open skies. And the birds...! At the Montrose Basin (Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve) are thousands of eider ducks all year round. In winter 60,000+ pink-footed geese descent each evening on the mudflats to spend the night in safety. In summer common and arctic terns arrive to hatch their young. Arctic terns fly incredible distances - some have been tracked flying from the Antarctic winter to the Arctic summer, and back, each year.

I'll write more about Montrose another time.

Here's my poem:

St Cyrus
St Cyrus - sea, sand, sun sky, storm sky.
On the water - eiders, gulls, mergansers.
In reeds and grasses - stonechat, robin, wren.
And buzzards circle, falcons soar, from ancient seacliff.

St Cyrus emblems, SNH Poetry Competition entry, October 2012


Montrose is easy to get to on the Edinburgh-Aberdeen rail line, trains are close to hourly.
St Cyrus is only a 7-8km cycle north of Montrose station, half on off-road cycle paths if following the Sustrans National Cycle Network. The other half is minor road.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Counting canal birds, Linlithgow to Philpstoun, for BTO

Every month I do a bird count along the Union Canal from the canal basin (it has a cafe!) near my home in Linlithgow to the old shale bings just east of Philpstoun. It's voluntary, as part of the BTO's Wetland Bird Survey scheme (WeBS). As close as possible to a specified date each month volunteers across the UK go out individually or in groups to count all non-breeding waterbirds in their designated patch. 

The data is the main source used in assessing the conservation needs of these birds' populations and habitats so it's important that counts are scientific. You have to stick to the same way of counting each time. My rule is that I count all waterbirds on or obviously using the canal and/or one field-width on either side of it. I start my count at roughly the same hour each time - first thing in the morning is best as birds are actively feeding to replenish energy lost in the cold of the night. If weather is particularly wet or foggy or icy that gets documented as it may lower the numbers of birds seen.

Being a WeBS volunteer also gives an excuse to get out -not that one should be needed- and regularly explore an area. There's a lot to be said for getting to know your local locations. You start to notice much more than on one-off visits. I now know for instance that if I walk the towpath to fields five minutes east of my house I'll almost always see yellowhammers - the males with their stunningly bright canary-yellow chestnut-streaked heads. Remember their call by the mnemonic 'little bit of bread and no cheeeeeese'. 

A kilometre further and there will be tree sparrows in and on the hedgerows and garden feeders at Park Farm - brown-capped birds with males and females identical unlike their house sparrow cousins. In spring and summer the wires above the popular Park Farm Bistro are laden with swallows and martins. A quarter of a kilometre further is the flood field - the name tells it! I see gulls here, mallards, often curlew and lapwings. Sometimes oystercatchers and widgeon and on recent counts I've watched beautiful little snipe probing the damp soil around the edges of the flood, unbelievably well camouflaged even once I've spotted them through my 10x magnification binoculars.

When I get home I record my waterbird sightings on the BTO website and write up the walk for my own interest. I make a list of every bird species I saw on my count, not just the WeBS ones. It's really interesting to look back on my records from the past few years.

Anyway, I thought I'd start including my monthly write-up on my blog. So, welcome now to canal count number one.........

WeBS Count, Union Canal, Linlithgow to Philpstoun, Sunday 16th September 2012

Started 8.40am. 
Breakfasted at flood field, 9.30am - 10am ish. 
Turnaround at Philpstoun Bings 10.50am. 
Finished 12.15pm.

A beautiful morning. Gently breezy. Not cold. Mists over fields and low winter sun through some cloud cover. A good day, especially after large amounts of rain in recent weeks and a very large amount in the past in couple of days.

All this precipitation definitely affected this month's count - the often slightly flooded field was very very flooded indeed, stretching tens of metres into the adjoining field. On and immediately around the flood I saw:

waterbirds: (these can be included in my WeBS count)
mallard - 43
oystercatcher - 5
goosander - 1
lapwing - 10
curlew - 6
widgeon - 25
black headed gull - 130
common gull - 2

These numbers are massive compared to most months. Keep reading my future reports - you'll see!

other birds making use of the flood field:
swallow - 4
pied wagtail

As I normally do, I ate my breakfast pot of cereals and sunflower seeds on a stone wall overlooking the flood field. I love this spot. I love the time spent sitting and watching, having already counted the birds on the water. I often spot more once I'm sitting quiet. I couldn't find any snipe this time but felt sure they were there. They're small and tentative and almost impossible to see even when you know to look. Their head and back is streaked with the browns and tans of an autumn woodland, their beak is a long dark screwdriver, probing for worms. Once as I sat here a great-spotted woodpecker alighted on a dead tree across the canal beside the allotments, started drumming the wood in courtship or in search of insects.

Total count for the morning:

Water birds:
moorhen - 5
mallard - 48
oystercatcher - 5
goosander -3
lapwing - 10
curlew - 6
widgeon - 25
mute swan - 4  
cormorant - 1

black-headed gull – 132
common gull - 2
herring gull - 9

The swans were interesting - On my August count I'd met members of the Lothians & Fife Swan Study Group where the towpath passes behind the houses at Philpstoun. They were ringing two adult swans and I was able to watch. Amazing to be so close to such powerful elegant birds. The swans I saw today were the same, with their two surviving cygnets. Three of the four birds had coloured rings on their left leg - the adult male green with white lettering NVP, the adult female green with white lettering NVS. The larger juvenile with light green leg ring with black lettering PCF. The smaller cygnet hasn't yet been ringed - it's underdeveloped and may not survive to adulthood. If it does it'll be ringed too. 

Anyone can look for swan leg rings. The rings are bright and the lettering easy to read without disturbing the birds, particularly if you have binoculars or can take a photo on your camera. Note the colour and letters, plus time, location and any other potentially useful info and send to the group through this link.
If you notice other ringed birds and can get a photo or accurate ring reading you should send in the data here.

The cormorant was interesting too – I rarely see them on the canal. This one was by the beaver tree - the imagined beavers of my childhood that is. 'The beaver tree' was a top excursion spot just a ten minute walk from our house. Mum would wrap up snacks for Roan and I in Dick Whittington bags of tea towel hung on bamboo-stick and carried over our shoulder. We'd walk like this along the towpath to excitedly search for beavers before continuing to the remains of an old bridge where we'd clamber up and sit looking over field and canal. Munching on chocolate crispy cakes or chocolate biscuit slab and half-apples and chunks of cheese. In summer to autumn there were blackberries atop the wall beside us.

All other birds seen on the walk were:
blue tit
long-tailed tit
great tit
bullfinch (heard only)
house sparrow
tree sparrow
redwing (1 – just east of Philpstoun. The first I've seen this year.)
wood pigeon
collared dove
swallow (6 – this surprised me, shouldn't they all be headed south by now?)
siskin (1 – feeding on canal-side seedheads at west-end of Philpstoun)
treecreeper (1 – seemingly accompanying a flock of long-tailed, blue & great tits -does this happen??- in the shadow of the Philpstoun bings, at my turnaround point)
linnet or twite or redpoll or...??? ( I must try to learn these birds. Flitting to and fro around, and perching on, telegraph wires across the first fields east of Linlithgow. Mingling with yellowhammers, goldfinches, greenfinches and chaffinches.)

And one more canal sighting, an hour and a half after I'd finished my count, as I was walking from station to house having met mum on the platform to receive a chunk of home-made apple cake as she passed through from her printmaking in Dunfermline (and here). A sparkling kingfisher... Definitely a WeBS-worthy bird! Sadly too late for my count - got to stick to the rules. It buzzed out from overhanging bushes opposite the ramped path down to St Magdalenes and whirred away along the water in the direction of our house. Exactly the same spot that I watched one perching for five or ten minutes on 28th August early this year.

If you've got this far you'll see that this posting is mostly text. I don't normally take camera or sketchbook on my count, I'd get too distracted. The purpose of the morning is to count. I'm including my notes from the walk though, this time on the back of a tea box. See if you can make sense of them! Also a one-minute sketch of two jackdaws that looked particularly poetic as they perched on a squinty chimney pot on the old house at Philpstoun. Perhaps it'll become a little painting one-day.  

WeBS count sheet, 16th September 2012

jackdaws at Philpstoun, biro on tea box, 16th September 2012

Sunday 23 September 2012

Lochwinnoch RSPB reserve & second-hand books

I've been meaning for some years to go to the RSPB's Lochwinnoch reserve in Renfrewshire. It's only 25 minutes from Glasgow Central, and trains run every hour. RSPB members (I am one) get free entry and so do visitors arriving by foot or bike or train or bus. Come by bike and you can also claim a free hot drink. Anyway, it was about time I did another of my railway days-out and it happened that a free Saturday in my diary coincided with a sale of second-hand books at the reserve, so I made the effort to go.

Leaving Linlithgow at 8am got me to Lochwinnoch at 9.40am. The station is nice, really nice. It obviously has a dedicated someone or several someone's looking after its platforms, probably as part of ScotRail's Adopt-A-Station scheme. There are planters all along filled with mixed herbs: rosemary, thyme, mint; yellow cornflower or marigold, chamomile or pineapple mayweed; (I need to learn my plants) some heathers too. In one of the planters I noticed a green-veined-white butterfly, perfectly camouflaged, perched with closed wings showing the thick furry veins that the name suggests. A black dot is on the underside of the upper wing. It's a great idea having such a variety of flowering and scented plants on the platform to liven things up for both humans and pollinating insects. I wonder if anyone's been tempted to sneak a sprig of rosemary to add flavour to their sandwiches...

From the station it's only a five-minute walk along a not very nice busy road to the reserve. Don't worry though, there's a pavement the whole way. I spent 3 or 4 hours, walking south for a way alongside Barr Loch then north-east to explore the paths and hides running alongside Aird Meadow Loch. Also I chatted for an hour or more with volunteers and staff in the visitor centre. There are telescopes and binoculars set up to watch the happenings on the reserve.

I didn't actually see a great variety of birds but I enjoyed taking the time to sit and do a few sketches of the scenes around me. The first was a panorama looking west across Barr Loch. Out on the water were mute swans, tufted ducks, mallards and one solitary pochard with its warm chestnut rounded head. Flying over the water were gulls and crows and swallows, having to battle a bit in the strong wind that blew drizzle the length of the loch. The reeds didn't take up the fight - they bent strongly under its force. I was sheltered by a stand of saplings as I made my sketch and ate a packed cereal breakfast.

Lochwinnoch panorama, pencil in sketchbook, 14.5 x 41cm

My other two sketches were of a wooded archway that I looked at across the reed beds. I've always had a taste for the fantastical - my paintings at art college were pretty much dominated by this (see the imagined worlds gallery on my website). As I've become increasingly interested in natural history I've not really done these imaginative landscapes. Not because I've lost that interest, just because there's never enough time to paint all that could be painted. Anyway I've felt that urge creeping up a bit more recently and have decided to start building a collection of sketches - scenes I encounter in the real world that have something of that other-worldly feeling about them. They may or may not be turned into something more finished one day. These two sketches are a good example.

Lochwinnoch woodland archway, pencil & pen in sketchbook, 14.5 x 20.5cm

Lochwinnoch woodland archway, 2nd sketch - much quicker, pencil & pen in sketchbook, 14.5 x 20.5cm

And the books - I came back with a wallet £17 lighter but a rucksack six books heavier - two about owls (Always my favourite. I seem to dream of owls, perhaps more often than is healthy - I've had eagle owls, snowy owls and at least one great grey owl, all in my West Lothian garden! Jennifer knows.) Also The Life of the Robin by David Lack which has been recommended to me lots of times, and a book of sketches by Charles Tunnicliffe - beautiful to look at and important to learn from. And a book to go in the present stock for Jennifer's Christmas...

Friday 14 September 2012

painting birds in the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh

I was asked by Art in Healthcare to run two art workshops at the Sick Kids Hospital in Edinburgh, on 10th & 11th September 2012. I was to base my workshop on an artwork from the collection of 1400+ paintings, drawings, photographs and prints that Art in Healthcare makes available for display in hospitals and healthcare centres. You can look through the collection by clicking here. It was great fun browsing so many works of art and deciding eventually on a lovely lithographic print by Edinburgh-born artist Colin Thoms of a cheeky dark bird standing against a sunny yellow background.

Colin Thoms - Bird, Tree and Red Sun - lithograph, 49x65cm - image courtesy of Art in Healthcare

Working in a hospital was a new experience for me, one which I now hope to repeat. The atmosphere in Sick Kids is great, staff are friendly and relaxed, wards are bright and airy, the playrooms... well... they make you want to stay all day! And most importantly of course - the children. The kids I worked with ranged in age from 3 to 11. All were really enthusiastic and had a great time using paint and crayons and pastels and glue to make their own collaged pictures of birds. Every child who took part created a beautiful artwork which will hang on the hospital walls to brighten the days of all who visit and work there. Here they are for you to enjoy too...

barn owl, by Luke, age 8

blackbird, by Finn, age 5

two owls, by Toni-Lee, age 7

colourful bird, background by Keegan, age 4, bird & leaves by Jessie, age 6 

buzzard, by Bethan, age 11

eagle, by T.J. age 8

flying gulls, by Sean, age 7

kingfisher, by Rhian, age 4

owl & woodpecker, by Caitlin, age 7

rainbow owl, by Joy, age 11

robin, by Abby, age 3

owl, by Adam, age 11

(thanks to Amelia Calvert, Volunteer and Outreach Manager, Art in Healthcare for taking all the photos)

Monday 3 September 2012

an ancient beech, before and after

I was delighted yesterday to be back at Avonmuir House near Linlithgow, invited for the second year running to be artist in residence -for one day only- whilst the garden was open to the public under Scotland's Gardens Scheme. Entrance fees went to charities supported by the scheme and to Combat Stress.

Avonmuir is a beautiful house built at the very end of the 18th century. The garden is large with a walled area of lawn and fruit trees and beautiful flower borders - yesterday attracting small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies, but not as many as you'd expect. And as seems also to be the case across Scotland this year the apple harvest is disappointingly low, although those that were on the trees were juicy red and tempting. I had a display of my work in the little lichen-green summerhouse here, and another in the tea tent (wonderful mini carrot cakes!) I did my painting elsewhere, in my favourite part of the garden - by a little burn that babbles under trees and ivy, a path winds alongside. It's shaded there but dappled sunlight filters through, twinkling in the branches.

tree stump and burn, watercolour, 28 x 38cm

I finished the day with a half-hour sketch done from the exact position I painted in last year. What a difference a year makes... 364 days ago I was looking at a beautiful wide spreading beech - now all that's left is a massive stump with logging all round. Major boughs were lost in the winter storms 2011/2012 and the rest had to be felled. It's sad to see such a magnificent tree gone but I'm glad I was able to paint it last year. It'll be interesting to see what new plant life develops now that the area is open to light. Counting the rings showed that the tree was 400 years old. Think of all that's happened in those four centuries.

Here you can see my 'before' and 'after':

blackbird & wren by the ancient beech, acrylic on card/board, 18.5x23.5cm, 4th Sept 2011

no blackbird, no wren, but a robin singing merrily beside me, watercolour & pencil, 27.5x38cm, 2nd Sept 2012

Wednesday 29 August 2012

mourning cloak & camberwell beauty...

I was interested to discover in our book that the mourning cloak butterfly -Nymphalis antiopa- so admired by myself and Jennifer in a park in New York in June (read more here) is the same species as the camberwell beauty which can sometimes be seen here in the UK, being a rare migrant to our shores.

It's so hard to believe that such seemingly fragile creatures actually can migrate, but they can and do...

The monarch butterfly in Canada and northern states of the USA is the best-known example - it makes a 3,000 mile journey south each year to overwinter in Mexico and California. A number of species that we see here in Britain are migratory too - red admiral and painted lady butterflies and silver-Y and humming-bird hawk moths all travel to us in the spring from as far away as north Africa and southern Europe.

Read more about the camberwell beauty on this excellent website -, in association with Butterfly Conservation.

mourning cloak butterfly, New York, photo taken by Jennifer Alexander, 17th June 2012

Friday 17 August 2012

My Favourite Place in Scotland

I've just posted my entry to BBC Radio Scotland's Out Of Doors Programme and Scottish Book Trust competition to write about 'my favourite place in Scotland' in 1,000 words or under.

Here's my entry:


My Favourite Place in Scotland 

What a difficult task the Out of Doors Programme and Scottish Book Trust have set.

To write about 'my favourite place in Scotland' sounded simple enough, until I actually started to think... Just what is my favourite place?

I know – Orkney! I've been only twice but long to go again: birds, sealife, incredible coastal cliffscapes. Gentle inland farms, numerous small isles. Ancient history, archaeological digs. On the Brough of Birsay tidal island it all comes together as fulmars and rock doves glide and dive around sheer flagstone cliffs. A wheatear flitted amongst the stones of the 12th-century monastry (built atop a 9th-century Viking settlement). There's a Pictish stone there that's older still.

The Ring of Brodgar stone circle - Jennifer and I cycled here aided by a powerful tailwind. Returning to our Bay of Skaill cottage the tailwind became a headwind too strong to cycle in. Mrs Poke's husband collected us in his farm truck. In nearby 3,000 year-old Maes Howe chambered tomb the Historic Scotland ranger mistook us for a married couple, discovered we weren't and offered to perfom the ceremony there and then. The awkward situation was averted when I pointed out that we had no cake.

Rackwick Bay on the Isle of Hoy - Stopping part way at the huge Dwarfie Stane - what apart from faerie magic could possibly have so crisply carved its two-celled interior? The walk from Rackwick to the Old Man sea stack - mountain hares in mahogany-grey-white summer coats watched us intelligently. Great skuas -bonxies- circled overhead. At the headland fulmars wheeled below and beside us.

In Kirkwall we marvelled at the red sandstone of St Magnus Cathedral and had hot chocolate and a kitkat each in a quiet church cafe.

In Stromness we ate wholemeal pasta in the living room of our hostel and played Scrabble as the evening sky darkened outside. Quirky buildings, giftshops and galleries of the cobbled main street. Elegant stringed instruments in a window near the museum. Artist Tim Wootton in his wildlife art gallery - told me of a Sandhill Crane sighted on a nearby island. Cycling out of the town to look at fossilised wave-ripples on a flagstone shore. From a derelict gun emplacement I sketched a distant lighthouse and watched curlews that flew low across the waves.

That's Orkney.

I also rather like the area around Montrose, where my mum has a static caravan. Miles of pristine white beaches, river estuaries, red-earth landscapes. Just walking up the dunes from the caravan you spot eiders and cormorants, guillemots and gulls. In spring and summer terns flap balletically and scree scree their creaking calls as they dive for little silver fish. Come here if you're into birds - the Scottish Wildlife Trust's Montrose Basin visitor centre overlooks the tidal lagoon. One evening they led a dusk walk and a brown hare came leaping and bounding towards our group, closer and closer through stubble field, completely unfazed. We listened to pipistrelle bats on electronic detectors then walked in the dark to the old Bridge of Dun where a tawny owl glided silently away towards a group of barns.

In woodland above the Basin a ruined mill offered its treasures in the stream that bubbled below what must have been a midden. Coloured glass and copper buckles, pitted and greening. Clay marble stoppers to keep the fizz in lemonade and a glass jar with three bears prowling around its sides - one little, one middle, one large. A white doll figurine less than an inch high - to carry in a purse, or hide in a special steam pudding?

Yes, Montrose is the place.

Or... what about the north-east coast, between Aberdeen and Peterhead... The cliffs are what you go here for. Arches and caves and a giant stone-walled cauldron known as 'the pot'. A mile or two north of Cruden Bay are the ominous ruins of Slains Castle. You can see why Bram Stoker was inspired to write Dracula here. The drop from the tallest tower is the height of the castle then the same again, down near-vertical rockface to crashing waves below. On a spring day I painted here and counted 15 bird species in an hour. Short-eared owls flew to and fro, rising from coarse grasses to quarter over field and cliff. One came directly towards me and hovered above for a few wingbeats before uttering a single shrill shriek and flying back the way it had come. I don't know whether or not I passed its test …

Below the cliffs between Cruden Bay and Peterhead boulder-floored caves resonate with the otherworldly wails of colonies of seals. If any map should still show the words 'here be dragons' it's the Ordnance Survey Explorer 427 of Peterhead & Fraserburgh.

And seabirds nest all around - razorbills and kittiwakes, guillemots and shags, lesser and greater black-backed gulls. Fulmar and of course the iconic -and comic- rainbow-beaked puffin. My best ever views of a peregrine falcon - a lone bird sitting surveying the grasslands. I sketched it over and over before it flew to the cliffs to give me perfect close-up views of its cadmium yellow talons and eye ring, its puffed white chest speckled with dark and that wonderful but terrifying hooked bill.

Shortly after the peregrine I heard far below a splashing blow... A whale! I looked just in time to see a long blue-black shape slide below the water, heading north. Rushing that way I saw its dark mass break the surface several more times, ploughing a straight line through calm water. Finally the curved blades of the tail flipped right up vertically before the whole thing disappeared completely. It must had dived.

But wait, I nearly forgot - Linlithgow, my hometown! Our winter starling roost in the station monkey puzzles, and the springtime displays of great crested grebes on the Loch...

Oh dear.

Is it cheating to say that Scotland is my favourite place?