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 - 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

Monday 18 November 2013

favourite animals (& a boat) at the Edinburgh Art Fair 2013

Last weekend over fifty galleries and individual artists took part in the ninth annual Edinburgh Art Fair. I was running children's art workshops at the fair - three a day for each of the three days. Exhausting work but I really love it.

Art in Healthcare

My workshops were organised by Art in Healthcare, a charity with whom I've worked a lot over the past few years. Scottish or Scotland-related artworks from the extensive and expanding Art in Healthcare collection liven up the walls of many hospitals and healthcare settings in the Lothians and beyond. Funds raised through donations and grants are used to run workshops with a big variety of healthcare groups. Some of my own AinH workshops have been at the Edinburgh Sick Kids Hospital, with an older mens' group in Pilmeny, and with severely autistic children at St Crispins school.

I'm lucky to also be on Art in Healthcare's Arts Advisory Panel, duties including meeting regularly to assess the collection and to discuss possible new acquisitions and donations. View the AinH collection here -

You can find out all you might wish to know about Art in Healthcare online,
including the different ways you can support their valuable work -

An AinH blog post about my work -

My post about my AinH Sick Kids Hospital workshop -

Edinburgh Art Fair

- kids are so uninhibited in their art, they have such creative minds and get so much enjoyment from it. They (mostly) haven't reached that stage that so many of us do as adults - the fear and embarrassment of our art not being quality, therefore not doing any art at all. A big part of art is about pleasure; the satisfaction and stimulation of creating, the joy of the materials. If a masterpiece appears at the end - great! - but aim for a masterpiece and it rarely will happen. Just as true for professional artists as for anyone else - you should see some of the pages in my sketchbooks! But it doesn't stop us from doing it.

Here are some of the pictures made over the weekend. Drawing, cutting, glue-ing, colouring. Many thanks go to the Edinburgh Art Fair, to Art in Healthcare and especially to the numerous Art in Healthcare volunteers and interns who were always on hand to assist with my workshops. Also to art supplier Great Art who provided AinH with a fantastic array of materials for the children to work with.

The Edinburgh Art Fair takes place at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange each November.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

2013 - November BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow - Philpstoun

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

Tuesday 12th November 2013.

Start time 8.20am
End time 11.10am

Low winter sun. Cold wind – especially on the fingers when using binoculars. Wind perhaps hiding some birds. A speck or two of rain.

Is there a flood-field?:

Yes! Though it's a minor flood compared to previous years. The draining appears to have largely worked. Nevertheless, there were some birds...

Flood field. Greylag geese, oystercatchers, gulls.

count notes 12.11.2013

The count:

- A beautiful winter morning but sun strongly in my eyes at times, difficult to look for birds on the canal.

- A large number of gulls - hundreds; black-headed, common and herring - were following a plough.

- Fieldfares 'chacking' and redwings 'tseeping' all over, seen and heard the whole length of the count. No more than a month since they arrived from northern Europe.

In Philpstoun woods:

A mistle thrush was shouting at redwings, chasing them off its ivy cloaked sycamore. On the ground chaffinches of both sexes plus a lady great tit with her slimmer-than-the-male black breast stripe foraged the beech leaf litter, almost invisible without binoculars. A robin hopped close as I wrote these notes and goldcrests squeaked high up to my right. A blue tit performed acrobatics lower down in the same sycamore, searching leaves and bark for grubs. A wren was singing loudly and a squirrel (grey) was scolding. A second grey approached through the trees, attracted by the noise of the first.

Tree sparrows:

A tree sparrow – a little smarter than his/her cousin house sparrow. Tree sparrows have a fully chestnut head, the house sparrow (male) has a grey-cap on top of his chestnut. Tree are the more delicate of the two and have crisp black patches on white cheeks, house sparrows are overall more grey. Male and female tree sparrows are identical whereas house sparrow male and female are quite different from each other - the female is fairly indistinct, what birders refer to as an lbj ('little brown job'). 

House sparrows are more associated with urban areas, tree sparrows with farmland. I've only a handful of times seen tree sparrows in our garden but half a kilometre east along the towpath, out of Linlithgow, and suddenly they become as common as house sparrows. There are good numbers of tree and house sparrows in the hedgerows around Park Farm, half way along my count, though sadly no longer in the immediate grounds of the large house since feeders were removed and most of the garden shrubs and hedging replaced with lawn.

All water birds eligible for count:

moorhen - 5
goosander - 1
grey wagtail – 1
greylag goose – 33
oystercatcher – 48
curlew - 10

black headed gull – 10
common gull – 5
herring gull – 1
(Plus the hundreds of uncounted gulls following that plough) 

Of the above, the following were on flood field:
black headed gull – 10
common gull – 5
herring gull – 1
oystercatcher - 48
curlew - 10

All birds seen:

Black-headed Gull
Blue Tit
Carrion Crow
Collared Dove
Common Gull
Feral Pigeon
Great Tit
Grey Wagtail
Greylag Goose
Herring Gull
House Sparrow
Long-tailed Tit
Mistle Thrush
Tree Sparrow

34 - species

Starling. Spot the spots.

Spot the redwings. No, those are hawthorn berries. The redwings are much bigger, and fewer in number, and birds.

An interesting tree:

Look closely. This tree has grown a loop.

The large branch grows downwards then left. At the very edge of the photo a small branch, um, branches right and heads back up towards photo top-right. The photo below shows the joining point, close-up.

Not in the woods:

a train, 'Clearing Britain's Railways'