Friday 26 July 2013

Montrose - cycling thanks to Edinburgh Bicycle Coop

Cycling Sponsorship:
Thanks to generous sponsorship from Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative I now have a bike. I used to love cycling but have done none for the past three years since my RSI problems came along (now greatly improved). This machine that I'm trying has huge back-curved handlebars and seems like it's going to be the solution. I'm riding upright in the 'continental' style and find it massively reduces pressure on shoulders, elbows, wrists; and the view is so much better. You're probably much more aerodynamic when leaning forwards over a mountain bike or road bike but that's not what I'm after. Having Edinburgh Bicycle come on board is going to greatly increase the reach of my ScotRail-supported explorations by rail.

I've used the bike lots over the past two weeks – a week each on Islay and Mull (more about those in future blog posts). This evening I'm writing from Montrose where I'm sitting outside my mum's caravan as terns cry their creaky calls over my head. I won't mention the low drone of engines, commentary and crowds that's travelling through the air from a summer motorbike stunt show a mile along the links.

We're here on a family holiday before my brother Roan heads to Australia for a year, but it's also a sketching trip for me. If you're inspired by long sweeping beaches of sand or of pebbles and geodes, by craggy coastal paths, by woodland walking, by cafes galore and by birds birds birds, then Montrose and surrounds is a place to visit. This time I came with my bike on the train - regular service throughout the day from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and intermediate stations. From Edinburgh or Stirling it takes only an hour and a half and much of the route is alongside beautiful coastal scenery. Be sure to book bike spaces in advance by calling at a staffed station or by phoning 08457 550 033. More info -

Birds in the fog:
In the morning, pre-breakfast, I headed out to see what was around and to sketch. The fog was thick -'a real pea-souper'- and as I walked along the beach I could imagine how easily one might get lost at sea, or among the hills and moors of the Highlands. Gulls and terns broke the soggy muggy silence but I could only ever make out the vague shapes of their gatherings before they sighted me and flew away. I did get close to a small flock of knot, still wearing the rust-red underbellies of their breeding plumage. A solitary turnstone accompanied the group.

As I got to the river mouth (the River South Esk) and walked a few hundred metres upstream towards harbour and Basin the fog was lifting a little to reveal eiders, oystercatchers, some gulls, and a grouping of 25 or more red-breasted mergansers all floating on the water. I stopped and painted; a half hour watercolour of a black-headed gull that stayed for most (well, some...) of the time that I hoped it would.

St Cyrus Nature Reserve:
A long, late, relaxed outdoor breakfast for the four of us before cycling the five miles to St Cyrus village; cafe stop in bright sunshine then down onto the pebbly part of the Nature Reserve to look for geodes and lots of butterflies; return cycle through the fog (now back with reinforcements); tea in the caravan and back outside to write this.

Common blue, St Cyrus

Two days later:
The above was written on Wednesday. Now it's Friday 26th July (my 29th birthday) and we've had more walking and cycling, and plenty of time for me to work. Hours of rain yesterday allowed me to start and complete a Staffa watercolour from my Mull sketchbook.


eiders preening, seal yawning

Friday 5 July 2013

Foxes in the garden - good or bad?


An amazing thing yesterday evening about 8pm. In dad's garden whilst doing pre-Islay bike maintenance... looked up and there, only 3 or 4 feet from me, up on the lawn was a young fox.

Foxes are controversial, lots of people think they're real pests, or worse - think they're dangerous to humans. I knew I didn't agree with that but I also knew I wasn't terribly well versed on the facts, so I decided to read up on the subject. If you 'know' something strongly and want to tell people about it then you have to make sure you're aware of the facts. Surely the more educated that people are about nature the more they will come to love and want to protect it. My feeling is that any wildlife experience is something to be made the most of.


So, foxes in our gardens?:

It was very tame, I certainly could have got it to take food from my hand. But you MUSTN'T HAND FEED FOXES - foxes are wild animals and if you try to that's when you may get nipped. It's okay to feed foxes but only IF you wish to encourage them to your garden.

In an interview for BBC News, Chris Packham, Patron of The Fox Project ( registered charity dedicated to the Red Fox) said, “These animals shouldn’t be hand fed, they shouldn’t be encouraged to be close to people... If you are going to feed them, feed them from a distance and then watch them through binoculars.”

This young fox stayed around me in the garden for half an hour. I did lots of quick drawings, knowing I might not get the opportunity again. It was beautiful, so slender, so sleek. An absolute treat to see a fox so close. It seemed young to be without its parent. It may be one of the cubs that I saw during my recent canal count, .

Some links:

The Fox Project -

Dispelling some of the many fox myths -

- Foxes are not a significant source of disease either for humans or domestic animals.

- Not in the UK do not carry rabies.

- Foxes are not killers, out to get us - the risks of people being attacked by a fox are negligible compared to the risks of being attacked by a domestic dog or cat.

My very quick sketches:

Monday 1 July 2013

2013 - June BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow - Philpstoun

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

Tuesday 25th June 2013.

Start time - 7.50am
Turnaround - 10am
End time - 11.10am

A warmish day despite being fairly overcast. A light breeze, no rain.


The most exciting sighting - foxes! A while out of Linlithgow, in a field on the left, I thought I spied hares; I raised my binoculars and found that it was foxes. Four of them. A parent and three young I think. They were far away but my view was clear. They young were mock-fighting, rolling and tumbling together. One carried a bright orange ball in its mouth, exactly as a dog might.
Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust write: 

"Foxes love to play, particularly with things that smell good – old shoes, dog chews, balls and gardening gloves are favourite items."
Lots more fascinating info by clicking the link above.

Young birds everywhere too. And this white-nosed foal:

hidden treasure:

At my turnaround point in the shadow of the Philpstoun shalebings I suddenly, unexpectedly, spotted a geocache. I've never gone looking for one but have found a few in the past. If you spend lots of time outdoors and observing you're probably going to find one every so often. There are lots around, all over the world, but I hadn't realised quite how many - have a look at the map here to get an idea of the scale. I recently found a really small one - in a black 35mm film cannister - but I can't now remember where that was! Possibly it was during my recent painting week on the Isle of May? Today's cache was a small plastic drinks tumbler, covered with camouflage fabric. I signed the notebook inside and put my blog address. If you haven't heard of geocaching and have no idea what I'm on about, have a look at to reassure yourself that I'm not going loopy.

Philpstoun bing geocache


The flood-field is no longer a flood field. As you'd expect, it tends to lessen in size as summer progresses; today there was no water evident at all, only two large patches of drying and cattle-churned mud. A hazy yellow blanket of buttercups flowered across the grasses. At first the field seemed empty of all birds but quickly I saw starlings, a house martin, woodpigeons and crows.  
And eligible for my count of water birds:

Lapwing - 17    
Oystercatcher - 1    
Pied wagtail - unsure of the number but less than 10 and more than 1. Some were young, lacking the full black-white markings of their parents.

flood-field - no flood!

flood-field buttercups

canal buttercups

All non-flood-field water birds eligible for WeBS count:

Mallard - 9    
Moorhen - 2 (plus 3 chicks, small enough to have only recently begun swimming)
Tufted duck - 2    
Black-headed gull - 1    
Lesser Black-backed gull - 1    
Grey wagtail - 2

The lesser black-back was floundering in the canal, attempting to lift a dead fish clear of the water to carry it away. It gave in and departedwith its meal. I smelled the fish as I passed it. 

All birds seen:

Black-headed gull                
Blue tit                
Carrion crow                
Collared dove                
Feral pigeon
Great tit                
Grey wagtail                
House sparrow                
Lesser black-backed gull
Pied wagtail                
Sand martin                
Sedge warbler                
Song thrush                
Tree sparrow                
Tufted duck                
Willow warbler                

Total bird species: 39 (same as last month)

WeBS count list, June 2013

Tesco oystercatcher:

As I passed through Tesco car park on the way to the start of my count were the oystercatchers that have been nesting on the roof there. Oystercatchers will nest on many flat, pebbly and gravely surfaces, they don't build a nest, just make a shallow 'scrape' in the ground. For at least the past three years a pair have successfully fledged young from above our local Tesco. Last year they had two chicks, this year they have one. It's now of a size where it can feed itself on worms and grubs from the grassy car park bankings, 'though its parents still watch it closely.

this year's oystercatcher, Tesco Linlithgow