Tuesday 19 February 2013

Running a mixed-media workshop, then Beethoven in St Giles.

Last Sunday, 17 February, was a full day. I was leading an all-day mixed-media workshop for members of the Livingston Art Association. Our venue was the excellent studio in the Howden Park Centre.

We started with pencil sketches then worked into them using watercolour, oil pastel, chalk pastel and crayon. Finishing off by using bold black ink. Then people tried painting in watercolour with no underdrawing - a great way to free up one's work. It was a lovely relaxed group and the results were really good.

Sketching in St Giles

In the evening I was back St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh for the second Sunday in a row. Heriot-Watt Orchestra were playing, after the Heriot-Watt choirs had sung there last week. Both part of the regular St Giles' at Six series of free concerts. The cathedral was packed and the music was great. Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and a really stirring shorter piece, Coriolanus.

Again I sat at the back and made a sketch. This time in biro:

St Giles Cathedral, Heriot-Watt orchestra, 17th February 2013. biro on paper

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Pitlochry - courting goldeneyes, red squirrel, second-hand books

Thursday 7th February 2013

I was going to
Frames Gallery in Perth to collect paintings from their Christmas show so I decided to make a railway day of it. I intend to do at least one of my railway days every month, but hopefully more.

I chose Pitlochry, two stops north of Perth and under two hours from Edinburgh. I left Linlithgow at 7.44, Edinburgh Waverley at 8.35, arrived in Pitlochry at 10.19. To make my railway day trips worthwhile I tend to need to leave Linlithgow pretty early, trying to catch one of the first trains departing Edinburgh or Glasgow for the main part of my journey. I like this early start. As I step out of the house it's often still dark, the air is cool and the world feels a new and fresh place. The birds are singing and I walk to the station with a smile on my face.

In the past I got a lot of reading done on trains but nowadays I often just sit and look out the window. There's always something to see, often birds to spot. Sometimes I make quick sketches. I saw my first oystercatchers of the year, a big host of them on the grassland in Burntisland, probing for worms with their long red beaks. The tide was out and on the shore were lots of waders, including quite a number of godwits, too far away to tell if they were bar-tailed or black-tailed. A kestrel was perched in a tree beside the track.

The further north we went the more pheasants I saw strutting their way across the fields. The males stand out well but the sandy brown mottling of the females is difficult to pick up against dead grasses and crop stubble. I watched a male land against a breeze, half hovering, head down. I hadn't seen this action before and was interested by the sinuous shape that his head - neck - chest - underbelly - tail made. A headless scarecrow stood in a field, long arms dangling. A long-dead tree stood alone, solid and tall and fantastically twisted.

train sketches, Edinburgh to Pitlochry, pen, 19x28cm

Reaching Pitlochry I decided to walk the main street to get an overview of the town. This was my first visit. It's nice, what you'd expect of a touristy Scottish town - gift shops, cafes, restaurants, information signs. The highlight was the
second-hand bookshop in a part of Pitlochry Station, part of ScotRail's Adopt A Station scheme. Sadly I only had time for five minutes browsing whilst waiting for my return train. The stock seems extensive and the prices are good. The staff volunteer was extremely friendly... and you can have a coffee while you look! Since November 2006 the bookshop has raised around £80,000 for various local and national charities.

I left the town by passing south over a long and bouncing suspension footbridge that took me past
Pitlochry Festival Theatre and beyond to Pitlochry Power Station and Dam. When the dam was completed in 1951 a fish ladder was required to be constructed alongside to ensure that salmon could still reach their spawning grounds up-river. In most seasons over 5,000 fish pass through. 

suspension bridge over the River Tummel

Like the salmon, though getting less wet, I too moved up-river. I walked along a small stretch of country road, quiet and isolated yet only metres from the A9. I was striding along, probably thinking about birds, when suddenly there on a branch just beside the pavement I saw red squirrel. We both stopped still, surprised, and watched each other for several moments before the squirrel scampered down and moved off a short distance in a bounding run. It scrambled up another tree and stayed there, working busily at a pine cone which it held in both paws and extracted seeds from with its teeth. I could hear the noise as it munched away.

red squirrel

I crossed back across the river on a footbridge below the road bridge. Now I walked on footpaths through the trees, sticking to the shoreline where Faskally Wood met Loch Faskally - a part of the River Tummel, created by the Pitlochry dam. I followed the shoreline for as long as my time would allow but I only had four hours before the train to Perth and I wanted to give myself an hour to paint. It's always a toss-up between exploring and sketching.

The water is slow here and the river is wide. Combined with snow on distant hills and a beautiful winter sunlight it was an enchanting walk.

On the water of the River Tummel and the loch were a variety of birds, though none in great numbers. There were four or five teal - our smallest ducks. And tufted duck and goldeneye and mallard. One little grebe swam like a speck in the distance and a solitary mute swan glided across the calm surface, causing ripples to break the mirror reflections of trees and hills. I saw a dipper perch and fly and perch and fly. When it stood on a stone nearby it sang its burbling chittering song. A cormorant was still as a sentinel on a rock close to the distant shore, beside a yellow buoy.

Birds are behaving differently now that spring approaches. I watched a drama unfold between three goldeneye ducks - two males competing for a female. As the female floated nearby the males swam in a race, necks long, heads held high, flicking their heads back. In courtship goldeneyes flick their heads right back so that their beak points upwards. It looks really odd. One of the males dived, swam underwater and rose directly behind the other, frightening him into flapping a short distance away. At one point they swam on either side of the female, flanking her like the minders of an actress who tries to avoid the press.

Loch Faskally goldeneye studies, pencil, 19x28cm

I chose a solitary beach of shingle, a river beach only 3 metres wide, and spent an hour there using watercolour to try to capture the scene of reflected trees. I wanted a dipper in the foreground, as it had been when it flew past me earlier. White neck and breast shining out against dark upper head, wings, back, and against dark reflections on the water. I've worked it up further back in the studio, in watercolour, gouache, graphite pencil and coloured pencil - I should probably just say mixed media. These days I'm enjoying trying to combine free-er painterly marks with areas of detail.

Loch Faskally dipper, mixed media, 25x35cm

It was difficult to drag myself away but I didn't want to miss my train. I walked back through Faskally Woods to the A9 underpass. From there I walked now on the Pitlochry side of the river, still through nice woodland, until emerging at the north side of the hydroelectric dam. Then five minutes to the station and a further five minutes to browse briefly in the second-hand bookshop.

A good day, and a town to which I shall definitely return. There are walks to be done in all directions.

Pitlochry bird list:

tufted duck
little grebe
blue tit
great tit
coal tit
long-tailed tit
herring gull
black-headed gull
redpoll - I need to learn to i.d. these little finches. In this country we can get the lesser redpoll, the common redpoll, the Arctic redpoll. I know no more than that. This one was smaller than a robin, very delicate. Ochre/grey legs. Body darker than legs, but streaked. Some white in the streaking and quite a lot of it on the underside. A daub of red on the forehead, quite bright. Beak and 'bib' area dark, almost black.

32 species

purposeless steps

Loch Faskally sketch spot


dipper studies from photos, 19x28cm


Loch Faskally

in Faskally Woods

Pitlochry hillside through binoculars

Monday 11 February 2013

Sketching & Song in St Giles Cathedral, Heriot-Watt Choir, Sunday 10th Feb 2013

A post that doesn't fit with my normal themes - no landscape, no nature, no birds...

St Giles Cathedral, Heriot-Watt choir and chamber choir, 10th February 2013. pencil on paper
... but music...

Last night the choir and chamber choir of Heriot-Watt University performed in St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Every Sunday a 6-7pm St Giles' at Six free concert takes place there, anyone can go along.

I really look forward to the two Heriot-Watt concerts there each year - one the choir, one the orchestra. It's a treat to spend a whole hour in such special surroundings, sitting looking and listening as music echoes in and out and around the dark-stone arches and columns.
This time I sat at the very back so I could sketch without disturbing anyone, but I had to stop often to listen fully to the music - especially a beautiful spine-tingling solo sung by a member of the chamber choir.

Heriot-Watt concerts are really really worth attending (not just because Jennifer performs in them.) Keep an eye on what's coming up on the Heriot-Watt website or email Steve King, conductor and Director of Music, to be added to their music mailing list - .

Saturday 9 February 2013

2013 - February BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow - Philpstoun

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

Saturday 9th February.

Start time 8.45am.
End time 12.30pm

A misty day. At no point did sun break through. Airngath Hill was hidden in the mist, making Linlithgow appear as if it may not be situated in the dip of a valley at all. No wind. No rain.

Spring is coming and birds are starting to sing. The song of the chaffinch is one I've been noticing most, I heard them start up about a week ago. Have a listen here, under 'audio', halfway down on right-hand side.

As often, the flood-field was the highlight. Today on and around the water there were:

mallard - 10
widgeon - 125
curlew - 13
oystercatcher - 35
common gull - 3
black headed gull - 204
greylag geese - 5

All other water birds eligible for the count:

mallard - 5
mute swan - 6
moorhen - 2
oystercatchers and widgeon, flood field

assorted grey geese

All non-count birds:

greylag and pink footed geese - 720+, in huge flock that spread across a field to the east of Park Farm, on the other side of the Edinburgh-Glasgow railway line from where my canal walk takes me. It's very difficult to count large numbers of birds and I spent a long time trying to get as close to accurate as possible. It seemed easiest to count them in batches of ten. The undulations of the field made it extra hard and I'm confident that my total is an under-estimate.

The geese were were greylag and pink footed, although I'm not 100% certain of the pink feet - there are also bean geese, which are possible here, though unlikely. Looking through all my books the beans are similar to the pink footed but a little larger in size, taller in stature, and with a significantly larger beak. Both are quite distinguishable from greylag - they have darker and brown rather than grey heads and necks, and lots of darkness on the beak compared to the carrot-orange wedge of the greylag)

During the rest of my walk skeins of geese were quite regularly flying in towards this one field. The largest skien comprised 140 birds, in two or three rippling V-shaped lines.

None of these geese can be included in my WeBS count as I only record birds using the canal, or on field-width on either side of it. We have to strictly stick to the same rules every month.

redwing - but only one, in the woods at the Philpstoun Bings. Funny, because yesterday evening in Real Foods I bought an RSPB redwing pin badge.

tree sparrow
house sparrow
collared dove
song thrush - as with most of the songbirds, thrushes are starting to sing territorially, in preparations for courtship and mating. In the trees above our house one sings each morning, from really early early. I want the windows open to hear the song even more clearly. Jennifer prefers to have a decent sleep, so we compromise. (i.e. some nights I leave it ajar without telling...)

blue tit
great tit
coal tit
goldcrest (heard not seen)

35 species for the day.

canal count notes, pen on card

And ivy and fungi: 

In the small stand of beech wood just beyond Philpstoun my eye today was caught by this strand of ivy. Fascinating how the creeper slowly crawls up a host tree, securing itself with caterpillar-feet tendrils no more than a few millimetres long.

The small slug-like fungal growths that I looked at last month seem to have grown a little:

Friday 1 February 2013

Birds, deer and hares in snowy Northumberland

Last weekend I had my first trip to Northumberland for my friend (and fellow artist) Kittie's birthday ceilidh in Lowick village hall. Jennifer had to drop out because of work which meant there was space for me with Kittie and her family in a beautiful self-catering cottage - 'Skylark' cottage at Laverock Law. I had hoped to visit Holy Island/Lindisfarne at least one of the days but circumstances didn't allow. It didn't matter at all - Skylark was perfect for exploring from, and cosy and homely to be in in the evenings. (Details of an ongoing competition to stay at Laverock Law Cottages are at the bottom of this blog.)

view from Skylark cottage

We arrived on Friday evening, leaving Edinburgh in a soaking sleet which quickly became snow as we travelled south. In Northumberland the snow was lying deep. That night, after a veggie haggis Burns Supper we went out in the snow from midnight until 1.30am. We were walking through a magical landscape, blanketed inches deep in white. The crunch crunch crunching of wellies and boots followed us except when we stopped to listen and look, which we did often. We walked on track and in woodland and on open field. Fields were wide expanses of nothing, sky and land matching in colour and in tone. Where there weren't hedgerows and trees we couldn't tell where land ended and sky began. Bending down to hang our heads upside down we watched the land become the sky. The sky become the land.

Several times deer bounded across the landscape. Indistinct to our bare eyes but quite crisp through binoculars. We looked at their hoofprints and saw where they had walked close-footed, then where they had run. Where they leapt they left three or four metre gaps of untouched snow.

Tawny owls began calling and we stood for minutes, motionless and listening. They were all around, near and far, whoo-oo-ooing to and fro. It sounded like there were four or five at least. One called so close that it must have been only two or three trees from us, but we could never see it. Captivating creatures, teasing this owl-obsessed human with their invisible presences.

We also heard pheasants chattering and a burbling bubbling that I think was grouse or the red legged partridges you see around there. This night, and on every other walk, we saw hares with their long slender hind legs and ears dipped in black ink.

On Saturday during the day, after a communal breakfast I walked the snowscape alone for four hours, from 11 until 3. I did an extremely slow circuit, an angular loop of no more than 4 or 5km along field boundaries and tracks. I forded a burn in my wellies, entered woods to seek tracks and signs - hoof and paw and foot prints and droppings of deer, rabbit or hare, fox, birds, and badger perhaps? My route took me to the hamlet of Holborn and back.

When I was nearly back at the cottage I sat in a snowfield and painted the land using watercolour on top of pencil. It was bitterly cold. I had to stop very quickly and whirl my arms round and round to bring blood back to my fingertips. The snow must have been affecting my brain too... I do tend to carried away when out in nature, but the caption I wrote here is particularly strange - "Nostalgic, British, BBC bliss!"

Northumberland snow, pencil & watercolour in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm

After the Saturday night ceilidh we stopped cars on the way home, necessarily, to avoid running over a woodcock that stood docile in the road. It was feeding in the areas of meltwater. The first woodcock I've ever seen. It's quite a large bird, almost pigeon sized. Long straight beak and perfectly camouflaged plumage (perfectly camouflaged when in woodland or marsh, but not when standing in headlight-illuminated snow). Earlier in the evening Kittie's sister had found a pair at this same spot. They let her walk so close that she could have leaned down and picked them up.

On Monday morning there wasn't much time to walk but we watched hordes of birds on and below the bird feeders of the cottages, including at least 10 bramblings Just in that one time were at least:5-10 blue tits, great tits, coal tits
5-10 long-tailed tits
5-10 house sparrows
5-10 greenfinch
10+ brambling
5-10 tree sparrows
15-20 chaffinch
15-20 siskins
15-30 goldfinch
a great spotted woodpecker
... and probably more!

As I've said before, enjoyment of a trip isn't entirely judged by the numbers of birds seen... but in case you're interested, over the whole weekend I saw 38 species:

blue tit
great tit
coal tit
long-tailed tit
house sparrow
tree sparrow
great spotted woodpecker
geese (grey, unidentified, flying over)
cormorant (white belly of a juvenile, flying over)
herring gull
tawny owl
sparrowhawk (flying across a snowy field - I'm always surprised to see these in the open)
red-legged partridge
unknown ducks (in flight, far away)
grey heron

long tailed tit, goldfinch, mrs great spotted woodpecker (no red on her head)

brambling, chaffinch, siskin, goldfinch, at Laverock Law Cottages

Three male bullfinches in the field by Laverock Law Cottages

animal tracks and signs

fox trail? notice where the tail has brushed the snow...

the field where I sketched

Win a stay at Laverock Law:
(Laverock Law Cottages have an ongoing competition to win a stay with them. Anyone can take part in their regular 'Northumberand Mysteries' competition on their facebook page.

my cosy bedroom

Skylark Cottage

 And finally a dog:

 It's snowy. Or Snowy!