Monday, 20 May 2013

Ayr: nesting black guillemots; diving gannets; a boat crash

Ayr hadn't been on my list of places needing visited, but I made the trip last week and I'm really glad that I did. I was due in the town to deliver two paintings -handover scheduled for Ayr Station car park- and decided to take my paints and make a railway day of it.

The main centre of Ayr is busy and full with shops and shoppers. It feels a bit tattered around the edges but there are really good charity shops and lots of caf├ęs. Once beyond the central shopping streets you find nice individual old houses and pleasant terraced rows.

I walked north to the River Ayr and followed it for a kilometre to the shore. A wide barge was being loaded and black guillemots sat on its edges. The birds were nesting in cavities in the stone river wall: I heard a constant cheeping that could have been chicks or could have been adults; I saw their bright red legs and webbed feet that hang behind as they take off and land. When a black guillemot opens its mouth you see the same brightness in there, as if it's just swallowed a burst tube of cadmium red.

black guillemots, black tyres, red legs, red boat

At the mouth of the river a pier curves out a hundred metres. I stopped to watch a rock pipit that was gathering grubs. A rock pipit is much darker and blue-greyer in plumage and beak and legs than the similar meadow pipit. A beautiful slick razorbill was diving nearby.

I sat myself in the lee of a rust-streaked beacon tower at the tip of the pier and watched bird activity all around me; gannets were flying and diving, two or three always in sight. Far off they sparkled against a darkened sky; close up I could barely believe the span of their wings. In attempts at a fish they suddenly swivel to point head downwards, tuck wings two-thirds in, and plummet. Sometimes the dive happens from high, high up, sometimes from just ten or twenty feet. In the split second before impact wings fully tuck-in and head and neck seems to stretch forwards and downwards as if in eagerness to reach their prey. Like javelins they pierce the waves with a dull splashing thump.

gannet at Ayr, pen & watercolour, 19x28.5cm

gannet take-off

I used elastic bands and a bulldog clip to prevent sketchbook from blowing forever open in the gusting wind. Spits of rain were coming and going as I painted. I stopped one watercolour to prevent the detail being destroyed.

As I was sitting painting a second rusty beacon that sits on the north breakwater, a large red cargo ship approached from the river-mouth docks, followed by a pilot. I thought my sense of perspective must be faulty as the large boat got closer and closer to the little island at the end of the north breakwater, then, 'thump', and the prow swung a few degrees towards me. The ship passed but left its mark in a now crumpled patch of concrete and stonework, scraped with red paint. On the BBC Radio Scotland 11pm news I heard that a ship had been "holed above the waterline but not sunk, today in Ayr"!

Breakwater and black guillemot, watercolour, 15x21cm

I was counting birds of course:

On or from the shore I saw:

black guillemot
sandwich tern
herring gull
lesser black-backed gull
feral pigeon
red-breasted merganser
rock pipit
house sparrow
pied wagtail
mute swan
an unknown small wader that flew in from the sea. Grey and speckled/streaked but I'm not good at waders and didn’t manage to catch any more details.

Elsewhere between station and shore were:
blue tit

How to get there:
Ayr is easy and quick to get to - it's only an hour by train from Glasgow Central. I explored just a small part of what there is to see and do: there are also lots of historic buildings; the Maclaurin Art Gallery; a walk south along sandy shore that in a couple of miles takes you to Alloway, birthplace of Robert Burns and location of Tam o' Shanter's famous Brig o' Doon.

the offending boat

after the crash

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