Friday 29 March 2013

Sketching & Song in Rosslyn Chapel (again), Heriot-Watt Choir

Heriot-Watt at Rosslyn Chapel, blue pen & black biro on concert programme, 28x21cm

Last Saturday, March 23rd, the Chamber Choir of Heriot-Watt University, Excelsior Per Cantum, were performing in Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh. I was there for the second year in a row and again I sat in on the rehearsal.

Last year I had my sketchbook - - but this time I'd forgotten it. I drew in blue pen and biro on the concert programme, sitting in a side aisle to get a different viewpoint.

The music was choral, 'South American Baroque'. Excelsior Per Cantum were as excellent as always.

Find out more Heriot-Watt music on the Heriot-Watt website or by emailing Steve King to be added to their music mailing list - .

Wednesday 20 March 2013

2013 - March BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow - Philpstoun

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

Thursday 14th March.

Start time 8.45am.
End time 12.30pm

Weather fine. Cool. Overcast. Not wet. A bit breezy. It had been very cold overnight. When I started out the canal was almost completely iced over and I expected to see very little but as I got a few fields away from the town the ice got less and less. The valley that Linlithgow sits in does seem to effect our weather. Frost or snow sometimes lingers when elsewhere it's gone. Or sometimes it doesn't come when elsewhere it has.

canal count notes, pen (on Edinburgh Military Tattoo 2011 invite!)

Flood-field lived up to my expectations. On it today I saw:

mallard - 10
widgeon - 4

snipe - 1 - almost impossible to spot, as always. Only spotted after much scanning with binoculars and thanks to those thick light/dark/light stripes that run the length of head and back.

lapwing - 4
curlew - 15
oystercatcher - 18
pink-footed geese - 1
27 - The closest views of pink-foots that I've had.

pied wagtail - 5+ (hadn't realised until today that wagtails are eligible for Wetland Bird Survey counts)

On the return leg of my journey I stopped and spent half an hour sketching four lapwings that probed the sodden ground for worms and beetles and other invertebrates. As far as I can recall it's the first time I've drawn lapwings.

A wind was blowing and head plumes were flicking elegantly skywards. When the birds faced a certain way the plumes blew out of their expected position and created rather a comical impression. I heard the lapwings give their melancholic 'pee-wit' calls but didn't observe any signs of displaying. The first time we saw the tumbling display flight of a lapwing Jennifer and I thought the bird must be in distress, so plaintive were its calls and so odd its movement.

lapwing sketches, coloured pencil on card, 14.5x21cm

lapwing sketches, pencil on card, 14.5x21cm

Five or six pied wagtails or more were hopping and running around the flood field, constantly bobbing their tails up and down. A kestrel flew over and the wagtails darted up and at it to chase it away.

All other wetland birds eligible for the count:

mallard - 7
moorhen - 4

lesser black-backed gull - 1
common gull - 3
black-headed gull - 2

No swans this count. That's not unusual, sometimes they're there, sometimes they're not. But there's one swan that definitely wont be seen again - a fairly young one, plumage still mostly brown, it's been on the canal in Linlithgow for the last few months. It was killed a couple of weeks ago by an alsatian dog, or similar.

I didn't see the incident but a friend did. The dog walker seemed to do little to stop the attack and continued on their way. The SSPCA took the corpse away. A few times I've seen dogs running through the reedbeds and weedbeds that ring Linlithgow loch - what chance have birds of nesting then?!

All non-count birds seen:

skylark - singing intently, high over the Park Farm fields
tree sparrow
house sparrow

reed bunting

collared dove
song thrush - singing, not seen

blue tit
great tit

coal tit

35 species for the day

flood-field, train passing

flood-field, pink-footed geese

Between the Philpstoun bings, the remains of a bridge. Something I keep meaning to paint. I see it as an impenetrable fortress. A few small square windows for those inside to look out from. (My childhood involved a lot of reading of fantasy books!) 

scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea)  in Philpstoun wood

scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea)  in Philpstoun wood

Thursday 14 March 2013

A London weekend - Manet at the Royal Academy & birds in Hyde Park

Last weekend Jennifer and I were down in London. An eventful journey saw us draw into Kings Cross an hour and a half late. Our first train hadn't started so all passengers were moved onto the next scheduled train - already quite full. Jennifer spent several hours sitting on the floor in first class. I was luckier and found a seat at the far end of the train in the quiet coach. The corridors were too full for us to reach each other.

Arriving in London, I went first to the Fleming Collection near Green Park to see a retrospective exhibition of the work of James Morrison. He's a Scottish landscape painter, now in his early 80's and still working from his home in Montrose. You see his paintings in most of the annual Scottish exhibitions - the RGI, RSA, RSW, etc. Large oils, always recognisable as a James Morrison. Painted thinly, almost like watercolour. Loose yet detailed. Amazing skies. Very inspiring.

I re-met with Jennifer and we went together to the Royal Academy to see the Manet exhibition - open until 11pm on Fridays. Members of the Friends of the Royal Scottish Academy get free entry into all RA exhibitions, and get to skip the queues! It was packed inside but when I got close to certain paintings I enjoyed the strength and confidence of brush marks and the high contrast between light background and dark clothing in some of the portraits. Light-dark contrast always entices one to look at a painting more closely.

Birds in Hyde Park
Saturday was great. A couple hours meandering slowly from Marble Arch tube station to the Natural History Museum. Between the station and Hyde park is a massive horse-head sculpture surrounded by road. In Hyde Park there are beautiful Egyptian geese coloured in the ochres and earth reds of Egypt, and other exotic waterfowl. It was interesting to see birds in London parks much tamer than up here. They must be so used to humans being always around.

I was diverted from my walk by a green woodpecker that I faintly heard call. I rarely see these birds so decided the museum could wait awhile. Having wandered in what I thought was the right general direction I heard a second call, a laughing sound just like the green woodpecker's local British name - the 'yaffle'. A different bird yaffled in reply. I spotted one of the pair in the tree beside me, but high above. Backlit by bright grey sky I couldn't make out the soft green body plumage and could only just see the bright red of its head cap.

Whilst looking for the woodpecker a group of jays were flapping and hopping in trees nearby. Three were close enough that if I'd had my binoculars I'd have had a perfect view. Much less flighty than when I see them in Scotland.

The third (disputably) UK bird of note was the ring-necked parakeet. They're everywhere in London. Not known exactly how they first spread to the UK, they're now firmly established and their population in south-east England is thought to be around 30,000. The ring-necks in Britain are now the most northerly breeding parrot populations in the world. When you're in and around London look up if you hear not very pretty squawking and raucous cries (see film clips here). You'll hopefully see a bright green bird (very pretty) with a long tapering tail. A ring-necked parakeet. It's likely you'll see whole flocks of them flying to their roosts as night falls.

pretty pigeons outside Marble Arch tube station

horse head sculpture, Marble Arch

remains of Hyde Park blossom - hawthorn or cherry I think

MuseumIn the museum there were even more people there than had been on our train or in the Manet. I spent most of my time learning from old display cases on the anatomy of birds and collections of British minerals and fossils.

Death at Westminster
Through the ornate fencing of Westminster I spotted a scattering of light feathers around a freshly dead black-headed gull (headless!). It may well have been killed by one of the peregrine falcons that have sometimes nested on the tower of Big Ben. More at

Chatting with friends
Back in John's Shoreditch flat we spent the evening chatting and catching up with friends from home who now work in the London area. In the morning I'd done a watercolour sketch of the views from his floor-to-ceiling windows. On John's walls are works from my college years, painted in 2004 - 2006.

from John's flat, pencil, pen, watercolour, 14.5x21cm

imagined worlds, on John's walls, from my college days

imagined worlds, from my college days

imagined worlds, from my college days