I have spent the last few days enjoying, observing and sketching snow. We feel so lucky to have experienced a good fall of 4-5 inches last Thursday. My local sketching project which started at the beginning of April 2020 is now over eight months in. I have been fortunate to record the seasons within a couple of miles of home; it has been amongst my most rewarding painting projects. I have filled fifteen sketchbooks and accumulated scores of unframed watercolours including several large sub projects, all local.
Since April when I decided to make the project a year in duration I wondered whether we would be lucky enough to have a good covering of snow and the last couple of weeks have fulfilled my hopes. If forced to choose I would pick snow as my favourite weather; if it is forecast during darkness I find it hard to sleep as I gaze at nearby lights to watch for the first falling flakes and I am out in the snow at the earliest opportunity. This time more than ever before I have observed the new compositions created by snowfall, a consequence of walking the same route again and again. Familiar features are accentuated in an entirely new and beautiful way.
We awoke to about two inches of snow which became around four inches by mid morning. A slow thaw set in late morning, but now it is all freezing up again. A long exercise/work walk this morning from home, first around the woods and then along the Holbeck. Familiar scenes are entirely new compositions in the snow. After the walk Tolly and I did some 3D figurative sculpture work in the garden! I am so inspired in the snow I hardly know where to start, so many sketches made today including this simple watercolour started in the field and finished back in the studio. More soon.
I’ll be honest, I have looked at other birders’ lockdown lists and felt quite envious. Assuming they are sticking to the rules there are some impressive local exercise bird lists. But balancing this my more considerate side says “stop, think how lucky you are”, and this is true. I may not have coast or even wetland large enough to hold more than a few mallard, but I have mixed woodland, a stream, damp meadow and some wonderful views on my doorstep. To walk with my 8 year old son and see this world through a child’s eyes is also deeply informative and enriching. He is not craving more unusual species but delights in the everyday things.
There is however one species I must confess to missing even when our wonderful locality is taken into account- the lapwing. Each winter I look forward spending hours sketching flocks of lapwing. The variety of plumage in a winter flock is astonishing. This relatively common (but seriously declining) wader is surely a contender for Britain’s most beautiful bird? There is also the experience of being out in the cold listening to the flock, studying reflections, seeing it rise when disturbed and enjoying watching the birds settle again. We do however have one or two breeding pairs ten minutes or so walk from the door and it will thrilling, hopefully, to see them return in February or March…
But today I sat in my warm studio and enjoyed sketching blue and long- tailed tits. The long-tailed tits are on the feeders for a larger proportion of the day, probably several different flocks visiting in turn. I have been watching them feed in a bird cherry tree (Prunus padus) which I planted outside my studio. The tree has been established for just three years now but has proved to be a magnet for birds. In autumn chiffchaffs loved feeding on the aphids in its leaves. The now bare branches continue to attract birds. The long-tailed tits explored every branch of the tree today a few feet from where I work.
Some local male blue tits are changing their behaviour as the days lengthen. Many are singing now and some are investigating nest sites, displaying to passing females as they do so. Male blue tits have a beautiful gliding display flight often performed in the vicinity of a potential nest site.
So, as I read impressive lockdown bird lists on Twitter this evening I shall remind myself how lucky I am. There are so many people out there, perhaps some of you reading this now, who would be so grateful to be able to see half of what I can see each day.
It snowed and snowed yesterday, but unfortunately at Gilling’s lowly sea level height snow fell snow upon thawing snow, snow upon thawing snow. I looked with envy at photographs of deep snow at higher elevations only a few miles from here. But there was enough settled snow early in the morning to see the Holbeck and surroundings white, so I set off to revisit a favourite view which I have painted frequently since the first lockdown.
The Holbeck is now flowing fast and the surrounding fields are waterlogged beneath a layer of ice. I knelt in the snow and sketched in watercolour using a flask of warm water to unfreeze the paint on my palette; the silence accompanying the falling snow here was beautiful, perhaps especially in this time of unbearable news. Watercolour does some really wonderful things in freezing temperatures. The experience of painting outside in snow cannot be replicated in the studio; my fingers numbed eventually to the point where I wrestled to keep control of the brush. Walking back I didn’t hear any birds until I approached the village where great tits and blue tits were singing their full spring song. the days are getting longer and signs of spring are gradually accumulating. But for now I am relishing each day of winter.
When the snow stopped in the evening, skies cleared and everything froze solid. We awoke this morning to a hard crust of frozen melting snow and very hungry garden birds. There was a fieldfare down on the lawn at first light, sixteen long-tailed tits on the bird table and marsh tits dashing back and forth all day. The trip to buy some essential shopping required one of the longest car defrosting sessions I can remember. Opening the doors took several minutes, wipers were encased in big lumps of ice, the road beneath treacherous. But as I scraped I listened to the first drumming great-spotted woodpeckers. Driving to Helmsley my eyes were drawn to the moors beyond, clean white, but I am unable to visit them for now.
The cold has brought redwings and fieldfares into the village in greater numbers. I have put windfall apples down and the blackbirds have been challenged by a larger member their family for the first time this winter; fieldfares have no problem seeing them off. One beautifully marked bird was a regular visitor today. It was a luxury to use my studio as a warm hide from which to make these studies. A redwing appeared for a while but was too shy to descend to the lawn. Its feathers were extremely fluffed up , the temperature at the time still -3C. These winter thrush species are not unexpected in cold weather, but they always add a touch of Scandinavian wildness to the garden; I know that as soon as there is a hint of a thaw they will be gone again, back out into the fields to feed on invertebrates so I make the most of their presence.
In the second half of the gloaming I can sit in my studio and see woodcock fly between the woods to the south and the damp fields to the north of the garden. They fly very fast twisting as they go on arched wings. When they are low I can clearly hear the air moving over their stiff flight feathers. I would love to be able to see them feeding in the flooded fields at night. In the winter of 2010/11 and living in Ampleforth at the time, we were very fortunate to be able see a woodcock feeding area from our house, a spring which remained unfrozen in severe frost. I remember several nights when the moonlight was so bright I could comfortably watch them feeding in the snow. One evening a little owl made an attempt at catching one, ambitious to say the least, but also a measure of how hungry animals were in that very cold December. Bobbing woodcock feeding on moonlit snow with Orion sailing majestically above, still amongst my most memorable birding experiences.
Tolly and I had a conversation this morning about counting long-tailed tits; more particularly about how difficult it is! There are often more on and around the feeders than you think. Pink and white balls of fluff with pied pin-tails sticking out can easily fool the eye; one or two retreat to cover, another flies in from elsewhere to join the feeding frenzy, meanwhile there are more even further away, newly arrived or just ready to depart. Essentially though, they all arrive and leave the garden together.
Yesterday we saw them come from a nearby hedge. They gathered in a large cotoneaster before descending in ones and twos to the feeders. This was our chance, counting them as they flew in the same direction across a gap to the feeders. Fifteen we counted, one after the other! Once the flow had stopped and they were all on the feeders it was impossible to recount them accurately, but we had recorded a maximum. They have been visiting the feeders very frequently during this cold week. The temperature has struggled two or three degrees above freezing at best and ice remains thick on the pond we built last summer. Once again facing a new more severe lockdown, birds will help us through. The whole family is home working again and feeders have been moved so we can all see birds.
The year has started cold. Our part of North Yorkshire has been pummeled by frequent wintry showers. They are falling readily as snow on the hills and moors. It is wonderful to see the white hills just above Ampleforth in the morning. I still long for a good covering of snow here in Gilling, but with the air coming off the relatively warm North Sea it is not quite cold enough. Having established that we will all be working at home again we will find a new routine. Exercise in the form of brisk local walks for Tolly and I will start tomorrow and the lockdown blogging will resume in earnest.
It is not often I go for a walk and record just one species. A family walk on a local moor dusted with snow was just what was needed after a few rather lovely, lazy days enjoying a very quiet Christmas, just the four of us.
The moor needs a lot of snowfall to look pure white as clumps of heather nearly always provide some shelter. They make a great subject to paint in their winter garb, with dark sepia areas of heather contrasting with the topping of snow. The old Scots pine looked dark against the wintry landscape. The skyscape consisted of a variety of cloud from low mist above the moors to cold blue above when viewable through the moving gaps. To the north we could see majestic cumulonimbus clouds twenty or so miles away over the relatively warm North Sea.
I wouldn’t normally expect a big list of birds in these conditions but coal tits and bullfinches are usually found feeding on heather seeds and red grouse often shatter the silence as they speed away on arched wings. But after nearly a mile we had seen no birds. As we approached an area of larch I remembered making some studies of crossbills back in October. We were in luck, very soft calls in the exact same trees gave away a small flock and as they clambered parrot like amongst the branches, puffs of snow fell to the ground together with larch cone shrapnel. They were only twenty feet away and feeding at eye level. We stood mesmerised by these colourful finches, enjoying their acrobatics as they used their crossed mandibles to extract the seeds.
Snow up-lights birds adding additional beauty to plumage. The pattern of nobly larch branches and crossbills against snow made an irresistible subject. They were very tame and totally absorbed in feeding; it turned out to be one of those situations in birding when you almost feel guilty for leaving such stunning views, but having dragged ourselves away we snowballed our way to hot drinks back at the car. I think I broke a personal best for the lowest number of species seen on a walk, just one, but what a species!
I was almost grateful for the heavy cloud and rain this morning. The shortest day of the year did it in style here in North Yorkshire, piling on maximum gloom. The day went from black to dull grey at its peak about an hour ago; a slow return to black over the next couple of hours looks inevitable. I actually really enjoy the shortest day of the year, not particularly as a turning point, but for its own sake. It is a true marker in the natural calendar. But I don’t automatically look forward to spring; I crave winter and so far we have had very little cold, frosty weather, let alone snow. I truly hope that before spring comes I will see Gilling East blanketed in snow- a subject I love to paint.
We find ourselves isolating due to Tolly’s persistent cough, likely a cold, but we are sticking strictly to the rules. The test has not arrived yet and we are craving a walk but can’t leave the garden. Even the rare planetary conjunction is a few hundred metres out of reach because it is hidden by the hill. So today is a day for appreciating our garden birds. Yesterday was brighter and I sketched our regular robin. The colour in its breast ranging from the light warm cadmium highlights to deep brick red in shadow. The warm slightly olive brown of the back separated by gorgeous icy blue grey. What a stunning bird, just take some time to really look closely.
Both male and female robins are territorial in winter, but sometimes in very cold weather the boundaries are temporarily eased and several may be seen together around the bird table. With a change back to warmer conditions they return to their former territories. But we are not far away now from the time robins pair up. This often happens in February but sometimes earlier. The soft winter song will be replaced by much more vigorous singing by territorial males. From that time more is at stake. They are guarding a mate and an area to raise young and the great gusto with which the song is performed reflects this.
Now at 2.38pm, the rain continues to fall, a damp fog has descended on the valley. In an hour it will be all but dark and time to light the fire. Due to cloud we wouldn’t have seen Saturn and Jupiter in their conjunction anyway. The weather forecast is increasingly showing some signs of cold and perhaps some wintry showers from Christmas Eve on. So on the shortest day I will look forward with hope not to spring but to the beauty of a winter which is still to come.
I have always loved weather of all varieties, but I have to admit that this week has tested me. We have had day after day of murk and cloud, often with drizzle or heavier spells of rain. The light has been very dull and grey and visibility often poor or very poor.
A visit to Yorkshire Arboretum yesterday to continue my year long artist’s residency there was just what I needed. It was a real privilege to have the arboretum to myself. As I approached the lake I hoped that with fewer visitors I might have a chance of seeing a kingfisher. I found one almost immediately making use of the lakeside fence. The bird was a male with all black beak and allowed approach to within about 75m. On this dull morning the kingfisher was a real treat. It is amazing how a kingfisher’s colours can shine out on the dullest day.
I managed good views by scanning likely perches as I approached the lake. If you are looking for kingfishers this is your best chance of prolonged views. Most people see one flying away as they approach, but taking the time to look ahead can afford great views. Look at likely perches over-hanging or next to the water and you might be lucky. Knowing the call is also very useful in locating them. They can be surprisingly camouflaged, especially in shade, or even amongst bright leaves .
I had time to make numerous pencil studies and then began to block in watercolour. Having finished one study the bird flew but I had enough reference to finish a sheet of studies. It was very fluffed up in the cold conditions.
I moved on to make a study of the the lake with reedmace in the foreground. The aim of this watercolour was to try and capture the really dull light in mid-winter. The reedmace makes a really nice foreground subject. Looking more or less south the lake takes the eye up the Main Vista. As I sketched I listened to a group of crossbills in nearby larches. A large mixed flock of tits, treecreepers and goldcrests fed around me filling the damp air with their high pitched contact calls and behind me drake teal whistled whilst displaying. A mistle thrush sang heartily nearby, turning my thoughts to spring. Premature perhaps, because it really doesn’t feel like we have had any winter yet, but certainly a reminder that within two weeks the days will start to be longer.
I had a productive morning sketching gulls at Newburgh Priory Lake. The light was beautiful under high cloud, bright but not sunny. I don’t sketch gulls very often but they are a great subject; their structure and very subtle colour is quite a challenge to get right. There were only five black- headed gulls present and just one common gull. They all thought I had brought bread with me and flew straight over to the lakeside layby where I parked. They hung around expectantly, often squabbling.
I worked fast in pencil and watercolour, first painting a view of the lake and sky, then moving on to the faster moving gulls. The black-headed gulls are very elegant birds and such tame life models. The single common gull was always more shy. This species is a favourite of mine. It is rather misnamed for it is certainly not the most common gull in most areas. They breed further north and winter here in variable numbers. There are far fewer of both species this winter than last.
The day turned wet after lunch, but it remained cold. Back at home birds, especially tits were absolutely piling in to feed on black sunflower seeds. I love watching them and sketching them. If you really look carefully their markings are so variable and some individuals can be quite easy to recognise. The intensity of yellow on both blue and great tits can range from extremely pale, even greenish to the brightest cadmium yellow. Blue tits vary so much in the intensity of blue with some almost pale grey blue and others, probably older males, the most intense cobalt.
The days have become so short now. On a dull afternoon like today the school run takes place in the equivilent of twilight. By the time we are home it is nearly dark. Most birds have already gone to roost. The marsh tits are always amongst the first and last few visitors of the day so they must roost somewhere near. They have a final feed from the feeder on our lounge window, lit more from the light inside the house than the remaining traces of daylight outside. It is a reminder of the length of time small birds spend roosting at this time of year. A marsh tit may feed first at about 8am retiring to roost at 4pm. As I write (4.18pm) these tiny birds have just started their 16 hour night.