Tuesday 24 December 2013

2013 - December BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow - Philpstoun

My monthly BTO WeBS count along the Union Canal, Linlithgow to Philpstoun.

Tuesday 17th December 2013 

Start time 9am
End time 11.50am

approaching Philpstoun, the lovely Shirvalee at berth

Weather fine after heavy rain on preceding days. The flood field does now have a small pool in it but nothing like in previous winters, pre-draining.

The count:

- waterbirds were pretty scarce but lack of quantity was made up for in quality - nine beautiful crisp goosanders and a kingfisher kingfisher kingfisher! There on the canal behind my house and studio when I set out at 9am, there again or still when I returned around noon. Sometimes difficult to spot, rust-red chest blending into dead winter undergrowth when it perched. Then when it flew its metallic blue back flashed like a jewel.

spot the kingfisher.

Actually, that's a crisp packet. It was almost immediately after I'd taken this photo that I spotted the real kingfisher. 

- Fieldfares and redwings all around, as last month. Larger flocks now, at least 100 fieldfares and 50 redwings, taking full advantage of the red berries of canalside hawthorn hedgerows. 
N.B. If you haven't tried hawthorn berries you should. They have a nice nutty creamy texture and taste. Take care not to crunch on the big stone in the middle. Don't eat them all though, the thrushes need some.

fieldfare and black ash buds

hawthorn heaven for fieldfares (and maybe you too)

fieldfares and Forth Bridge (rail)

All water birds eligible for count:

moorhen - 2
goosander - 9
kingfisher - 1

black headed gulls present, not very many

Nothing on the flood field

All birds seen:

Black-headed Gull
Blue Tit
Carrion Crow
Great Tit
House Sparrow
Unidentified geese flying over

24 - species

In the woods, heavy flow:


A Very Happy Sprouty Christmas To You All

Monday 16 December 2013

Scotland by Rail - Dunkeld & Birnam. kingfisher, follies, salmon, an Oak

Thursday 12th December 2013
Departed Linlithgow 9.25am, Stirling 10.37am.
Arrived Dunkeld & Birnam 11.33am.

Stirling station

A glowering black blue bruised sky was pressing the landscape low as I waited at Stirling station. The Wallace Monument was dark when my train pulled out. The Allan Water, a favourite walk for me, my mum and my brother Roan, from Bridge of Allan to Dunblane, was in pounding high torrent.

Beyond Dunblane, briefly north then a steady north-east until Gleneagles, the Allan Water is still alongside. Here it meanders, carves deep curves through a wide and gentle U-shaped valley. As we proceeded the sky gradually lightened from "is it dusk already.." to a more usual heavy overcast. I watched the river and surrounding land. Two crows flew up. Two lapwings joined them, spooked by the train I think. A buzzard slid from a railside fence post. Twenty five or more pink footed geese on a green grass field, a bit later another group of similar number lighted on fresh ploughed dark clods. A bridge takes the train over that miniature hidden valley - blink and you miss it. I always think to make an expedition to find and explore it.

Dunkeld & Birnam station


The two platforms at Dunkeld & Birnam station are low, really low. There are a couple of two-step mounting blocks on each but jumping down is rather fun. When you come out of the station - don't panic. That's the A9. It's full and fast but we rail users have an underpass - turn left and a sloping path leads down and under. There's a little burn and on it was a dipper. It stopped its splashy foraging, looked, thought, decided, and flew. Whirring away from me upstream, flying only a couple of inches above the water.

Beatrix Potter loved Birnam. She holidayed here with her family in the second half of the 1800's and wrote her original Peter Rabbit letters whilst staying in a rented home on the Dunkeld side of the water. Birnam village green is a little wooded park. Sculpted creatures forage among the bushes. These are for you Jennifer:



I got a cakeaway from the cafe in the Birnam Arts & Conference Centre - cherry scone and a latte. I browsed the shop and exhibition and didn't, this time, go around the Beatrix Potter museum. The coffee was in the nicest 'to-go' cup I've ever seen. Here it is, with another nice thing, The Birnam Oak, in the background. The Birnam Oak is ancient, a relic of the medieval Birnam Wood that once grew all around these hills and valleys and played such a part in Shakespeare's Macbeth. A red squirrel scampered down its trunk as I left.

The Birnam Oak


I didn't see as much wildlife as I had expected. Partly due to the weather -overcast and often drizzling- and partly, probably, because I was always in woodland. Woodland is great habitat but it's difficult for the watcher to spot things in. There's so much cover! I saw tits, chaffinches, woodpigeons, corvids. I heard bullfinches softly calling and heard then saw a V of geese overhead. I still can't identify geese by call. Don't know if they were saying 'pink-pink' or 'wink-wink'... They flew over, northbound, until out of sight. They must have turned because almost immediately they were back above me, heading south.

There was also a kingfisher. What a bird! I saw its blue flash. Mostly that's all you see but this time I was lucky. It perched a few tens of metres away on a low-hanging branch then flew, across the river but not much farther off. It perched again, now on a sticky-up black stump. I got this photo through binoculars and cameraphone before it whizzed downstream.

spot the kingfisher

A big salmon was in the water, the best view I've ever had. I don't know about fish but I know it was a salmon. It was probably about two feet long and covered in lots of crusty white marks, like scabby growths. It also looked like its jaw had a portion missing. The National Park & Preserve Alaska (!) say this is a fungus - "Fish protect themselves from infections with a thick layer of slime that covers their scales. When that slime layer is removed, the salmon becomes vulnerable to fungal infections. Typically the slime layer is removed by improper handling from an angler, from commercial fishing nets, and/or other the physical hazards of migration."

spotted salmon

spotted salmon

I saw another salmon, dead, lying by the path. In fact just half a salmon. A second was down on an islet, flesh partially pecked away.

half a salmon

half a salmon

My inspiration for today - Cameron McNeish

The inspiration for this particular railway day was a mention by Cameron McNeish in The Herald Magazine. He writes a great little half page column ever Saturday, map and walk description, somewhere in Scotland. On 7th December it was a walk near Dunkeld and decided to follow it. The problem is that Cameron doesn't work sketching time and stopping-to-look-at-every-bird-tree-fungi-and-stone time into his schedule, so his 5 mile in 3-4 hours walk would probably take me double! I didn't manage his circle, skirting back through the trees of Craigvinean Forest and past the folly and waterfalls of The Hermitage (though I did see follies). My walk was from Birnam upstream on the south-becoming-west shores of the River Tay for about 4km then back by the same route.

The art

I stopped twice to paint. First only a mile or so into my walk, just west of the views across to Dunkeld Cathedral. I was attracted by the black eyes and mouth of a folly on the opposite shore - screw my eyes half shut, in the way of artists everywhere, and I could see these as the darkest areas of the scene. Firs and deciduous trees towered above and their reflections towered below. I sat here and worked on two pieces. The first, an A5 pencil underdrawing then watercolour on top, was rained off and is still to be finished. The second is closer to finished. Watercolour only, no underdrawing. Started, and nearly completed in the rain.

The sound of shooting was echoing through the hills most of the time I was sat painting. I find it difficult to understand that anyone can take pleasure in shooting animals. Towards two o'clock it stopped. Perhaps time for their sandwiches. Pheasant and hare anyone?

the things we used to build, such folly

Later I found two perfect glass bottles peeking out gem-like from a pathside bank. An old dumping ground. Here they are cleaned up. My favourite is the one on the left. I'd like to know what they may have contained..?

The second painting was an hour before the train. Dusk was firmly upon me when I saw a reflected scene of Dunkeld Bridge - all blues except four yellow bridge lamps and their corresponding water columns of sulphur. I had half an hour leeway so I sat down again to paint. Coloured pencils and watercolour.

Dunkeld Bridge

Dunkeld and Birnam are lovely places to visit. There are walks in all directions, river and hill and woodland. Dunkeld & Birnam railway station serves both villages. I didn't cross the bridge to Dunkeld this time. That will follow in a future post.

who needs New Zealand, Roan du Feu?

the things we used to build, such folly (2)

beardy lichen

riverside ruins

How to get there by train

Dunkeld & Birnam is one and a half hours by train from Edinburgh, an hour and twenty minutes from Glasgow and an hour and fifty minutes from Inverness. Regular trains throughout the day. Timetables on ScotRail website here.

creatures discuss

Sunday 1 December 2013

Pitmedden walk - to Udny Green. Castle, buzzard, sleeping man

The first day of December, 2013

Staying with our Pitmedden friends, between a fancy dress horse show with my cousin's daughter and the village Christmas lights switch-on with our hosts and their children, I managed a morning to myself, walking, birding, painting.

I did the Pitmedden - Udny Green circle. Starting through the woods of Pitmedden Gardens; onto tall old beech avenue (lots of these round here, feeling ancient); the road towards Udny Green past Udny Castle (stopped and sketched it in watercolour and pencil - the main plan for my walk); round the green of Udny Green, past Studio on the Green and Eat on the Green; along country road and across field to the little hedgerow tunnel track that leads back to Pitmedden Gardens woods. Stopped just before the House to do a watercolour of pool, reflections, lime kilns and fallen leaves.

On the road to Udny Green a buzzard flew down, far off, landed on the verge and started to peck a roadkilled rabbit.

A roe deer bounded away from me across a newly ploughed field, bright white rump completely obvious against dark brown soil.

A bit later a second buzzard, or the same one, flew directly towards the narrow stand of trees that I was beside. It didn't spot me until the very last minute and I watched it get closer and closer until yellow razor beak and piercing eyes filled my binoculars.

A fieldfare chacked in a beech, the only one I saw or heard all morning.
Skeins of geese, or individuals, flew overhead several times, as they do all the time in the north-east in winter.

By the path near the kilns a man was dozing with his alsatian. It wasn't dozing. Luckily it was friendly, but I didn't know that as it barked and bounded towards me. Owner and I walked along towards the kilns together, talking of local castles.

Then lunch, then carols, then Santa giving out free chocolate. Fireworks to finish.

Monday 25 November 2013

Scotland by Rail - Aberdour. An owl, kestrels, islands, thermals.

After quite some absence I return to... Scotland by Rail.

A top place, and sketch-spot-number-one when Kittie Jones and I go birding-sketching.

Inchcolm oystercatcher, watercolour, 14.5x21cm

It's 40 minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley along the start of the rail route to Aberdeen, one of my favourite of all journeys. Leaving Edinburgh and curving northwards you pass the airport on your left - look for a crashed-out small plane beside an orange windsock. Used for emergency training I assume. The plane, not the windsock. Then you're crossing the iron-girder Forth Rail Bridge. On the right are views down to wartime-fortified Inchgarvie Island (almost directly below you, home now to seabirds. See more in my previous post here), beyond to Inchcolm and other islands and eventually to the open sea. On the left is Port Edgar marina and the Forth Road Bridge. Soon also the Second Forth Road Bridge.

Immediately before leaving the bridge Deep Sea World can be seen down on the right, and various terribly expensive and terribly nice-looking houses on a rocky almost-island. Next the industry of Inverkeithing ship and scrap yards, then farmland... Dalgety Bay... farmland... Aberdour. Aberdour Castle lurks by the station, almost hidden behind a stand of trees. Crows, rooks, jackdaws always are up there, noisy and watchful.

watercolour, looking to Edinburgh 

A half hour walk - twenty minutes if you walk fast, fifty minutes if there's a lot of birdlife going on - gets us to our sketch spot. It's an area of a square kilometre or so, not much visited and great for birds. There's lots of scrubland but you try to stick to the paths because all sorts of birds will nest in the thick grasses. There must be plenty small mammals about because we always see a kestrel, hovering head-still, wings fluttering. Once there was a fox, fox-trotting across one of the beaches. Two times ago (October 2013) we saw a short-eared owl. Unfortunately I flushed it from its cover and out to sea, it spent many minutes battling the wind (and gulls) before it managed to make its way back to land.

spot the short-eared owl (hint - look between the eiders. There are no seals in this picture)

a bit easier to spot the short-eared owl (NB - two shags on the left, two eiders on the right)

this herring gull has spotted the short-eared owl

and short-eared owl has spotted this herring gull

everyone has now the spotted short-eared owl and short-eared owl has definitely spotted me.

view to Edinburgh, unfinished

We split up for our time there and draw what and where we fancy. Sometimes wildlife comes and sometimes it doesn't. I don't really mind. I'm happy to paint sea views. We have lots of food packed and hot drinks and layers of thermals. I have more warm clothes in my bag and usually I need them.

On our latest trip, Wednesday 20th November, our bird list numbered 42 species:

Aberdour bird list, 20th November 2013 (missing the bullfinch)

spot the oystercatchers, godwits, curlew

Aberdour features in my new book, Landscapes & Birds of Scotland, an Artist's View. (£20, buy from Jeremy Mills Publishing, or buy signed copies from Linlithgow's independent bookshop Far From the Madding Crowd, or buy signed and messaged directly from me by emailing jennifer@leodufeu.co.uk - excellent Christmas present!)

Here's my Aberdour entry:

Aberdour, from Landscapes & Birds of Scotland, an Artist's View

    It's very useful to go sketching with fellow artists. You can offer advice and encourage each other to get on with work. I often go drawing with printmaker-painter friend Kittie Jones. Our style is very different but our subject matter is similar: me – landscape and birds; she – birds and landscape.

    A favourite spot is a little peninsula south-west of Aberdour on the Fife coast. It's near farmland but feels remote and unused and has lots of great wildlife habitat. There are wartime gun emplacements to use as hides or to shelter in if weather is poor. Views are across the Forth to Inchcolm Island and the higgledy piggledy outline of Edinburgh.

    At the right time of year there are stonechats in the scrubland and shrubland, godwits probing the sheltered sand-beach shores, guillemots and razorbills in the two bays and gannets diving further out to sea. One October day we saw a group of twenty or more goosanders or mergansers sheltering in the northern bay.

    There's almost always a kestrel, and sometimes two. Magpies fly up to try to chase them off. The kestrel hovers as it hunts, head perfectly stationary, wings and tail flapping to keep airborne. It well deserves its old English name - the windhover.

kestrel dive

kestrel, rainbow, cold, blowing. biro & coloured pencil, 20th November 2013

How to get there:
Trains run half hourly at least and an adult return from Edinburgh is under £10. Less if you go off-peak. Timetable by clicking here.

Thanks as always to ScotRail for their kind support of my work to explore Scotland by Rail.

lighthouse, Edinburgh, Salisbury Crags. watercolour. Not quite finished

on the Forth, watercolour, 14.5x21cm