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October 23rd- autumn!

I’ve had a week fully embracing autumn. The change in the trees over the last few days has been rapid with many leaves beginning to fall and some of the best autumn colour reaching a peak. Beech trees are spectacular with a range of colours from green through yellow ochre, burnt sienna and chocolate brown. When it has rained their trunks and branches can look very dark, contrasting with the glowing leaves. Whilst autumn is spectacular in bright sunshine with crisp blue sky, I find on very dull sometimes misty days some autumn tree colours can really shine out of the gloom.

I have spent a couple of days at Yorkshire Arboretum this week. It has been joy to really explore the site and discover hidden corners. I have gathered pockets full of sweet chestnuts to roast on the fire this weekend and spent time right down on the earth with fungi. The most obvious of these are the fly agarics. I cannot stop looking at them and painting them. There are so many stages from magic little scarlet button forms almost hidden in the grass or leaf litter to large upright toadstools, so often battered or slug eaten. They are mostly found near birch whose bark can provide a fine backdrop.

There has been a small party of crossbills at the arboretum, quietly feeding in some of the collection conifers. I have had occasional sightings of hawfinch, though the hornbeam seeds this year are very scarce and I wouldn’t expect large flocks to gather. Redwings are very common now, once again a familiar bird in the area. But they are so shy and cautious and fly in an instant. I have had some good views this week when quietly sketching the fly agarics.

My sky project is continuing with well over thirty skies painted this October. It has been a very rewarding exercise which I will reveal to the full at a future date. In common with my lockdown project it has taught me the value of working close to home. Skies offer the artist a limitless subject and observing them is a constant inspiration. The only limit to painting skies is time. I could choose dozens of skyscapes each day.

Redwing sketches
Fly agarics at Yorkshire Arboretum
Sketching fly agarics in crayon and watercolour
October sky watercolour studies
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October 18th- great grey shrike, Pallas’s warbler, firecrest and short-toed lark

I have had a couple of days on the coast this week. Whilst racing around listing birds is not my preference I love to have a few days in the autumn experiencing birds arriving. Inevitably at this time of year, especially with a run of easterly winds it gives me the chance to catch up with unusual or new birds. I tend to restrict myself to sites within an hour and fortunately this includes a wide arc of the Yorkshire and Cleveland coast.

Friday saw me heading for Brotton, Hunley golf course to be precise, to sketch a Pallas’ leaf warbler. These diminutive warblers punch well above their weight when it comes to colour. The bright lemon yellows, white and green tones brighten the dullest autumn day. In fact sometimes I think the colours are almost enhanced on dull days as they appear luminous in the bottom of a dark hedge. I was fortunate to have prolonged views of this scarce Eastern vagrant for around twenty minutes as it fed along a well trimmed hawthorn hedge.

I was cashing in on someone else’s find to enjoy this beautiful bird. That’s how it goes in birding; I have found plenty of birds and shared them with others, including at least one Pallas’s warbler. My thanks to the finders of all the scarce species sketched in this post. As I sketched a hundred or so pink-footed geese flew over and curlew calls rang out from the nearby coast. The smell of damp leaf litter added to the autumnal atmosphere.

Yesterday, a chance to go birding with my younger son. We headed for South Gare near Redcar. We were particularly driven to see a reported great grey shrike. This species has always been a favourite of mine. The bold plumage always seems so crisp and clean. We first found the shrike atop a distant shrub alert and scanning for prey. The light colour of the shrikes back almost defied silhouette as it blended with the light grey sky behind. It was a “wow” moment! One those birds I used to dream of seeing as I flicked through books as a child, great grey shrikes never disappoint.

Several times it gave chase to smaller birds, probably goldcrests, it was just too distant to tell. These unfortunate crests have just arrived after a long sea crossing and are an obvious meal for the shrike. We watched mesmerised by this bird and would have been quite happy to go home after just that sighting, but just up the road two more treats awaited.

A firecrest fed in some scrub, especially elder, quite close to the road. We had wonderful glimpsed views of this stunning little bird. They move so fast, the mind takes snap shots, which I can hold to sketch. The bronze colour on the birds shoulders is extraordinary and shines intensely from the darkest cover. The makings on a firecrest are really exquisite and I was taken back to my first ever sighting of two amongst blackthorn on a dark January afternoon near Hungerford. Like favourite tunes sightings of birds can bring back vivid memories.

On the other side of the road a short-toed lark was feeding in an industrial rock strewn area. It took some finding, but find it we did and we had good views through the scope. It was a very attractive sand coloured lark, very good at hiding between rocks. Its usual habitat is very dry arid areas in Southern Europe.

So, I’ve had a few days of rather different species. I feel slightly detached from the local walks now, but there is an important link here. Many of the commoner species arriving on the coast will filter inland and it is nice to witness their arrival before they do so. Redwings are now quite common again over Gilling East and to have witnessed them arriving fresh from Scandinavia after their North Sea crossing enhances my enjoyment of the species.

We had a remarkable sighting before we arrived at South Gare. As we left Redcar, driving parallel to the beach a woodcock came over the top of the car, overtaking us, only a few feet above the windscreen. It flew off into nearby scrub. This bird had undoubtedly just made landfall after crossing the sea. Sightings like this really bring home the wonder of bird migration.

Great grey shrike sketched with a Sharpie pen.
Great grey shrike in a small oak tree.
Firecrest studies
Short-toed lark at South Gare.
Pallas’s leaf warbler near Brotton.
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9th October- crossbills

I have spent a couple of days this week concentrating on sketching crossbills. They are very obliging as subjects being very tame. I was able to sit quietly by a small flock as they fed in the morning sunshine. On occasion the birds would feed above me and I would have bits of larch cone raining down around me. Whilst feeding, the noises of the cones gently split by the crossbills along with their soft contact calls was quite soporific. They are full of character, parrot like in the way they feed, easily clinging upside down whilst clenching the cones and knobbly larch twigs. Their diet is exceptionally dry and they have a very frequent need to drink- this helps to soften the pine seeds.

Crossbills have been common in this area since birds started moving back in June. Here in Gilling their “chip chip” calls have been heard on most days. Some are undoubtedly migrating with many heading in a south westerly direction. A well loaded Douglas fir in a neighbour’s garden has nearly attracted them down to feed. Several times small parties have noisily circled the tree. I hope they might yet settle.

Crossbills are great wanderers and are known for invading countries. They move from Scandinavia when numbers are high and food is scarce. This does appear to be an invasion year with many records on the coast. Because they feed on pine seeds they are able to breed very early and birds are often seen preparing to breed around Christmas and into the new year. The young are fed on pine seed ‘soup’ regurgitated by the parents.

It is good sometimes to really concentrate on a single species. There has been an opportunity for prolonged exceptionally close views and I am making the most of it, filling sketchbook pages with pencil and watercolour sketches.

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October 7th- agarics, ink caps, goldcrests and October skies

I’ve had fun painting fly agarics and shaggy ink caps. The fly agarics are found around the roots of birch trees and each specimen I have found has lived up to its name in hosting flies due to its unpleasant (to us) smell. They always make me stop in my tracks and no autumn would be complete without some time right down at ground level with these truly magic mushrooms.

Also at this time, shaggy ink caps begin to appear. I know several regular sites for them and they are remarkably predictable in their time of emergence. I associate them with appearing at the time the first redwings arrive. I had my first good views of a redwing today as it settled in the top of a larch, agitated and ready to move on, but what a beautiful thrush the redwing is. It is easy to think about rare species of thrush visiting at this time of year, but the whole thrush family ooze elegance of stance and beautiful if subtle colours.

Goldcrests have started to appear in the village in greater numbers. After big arrivals of them at the east coast at the weekend they begin to filter inland and by Monday we were hearing far more than on previous days. Many of these will be Scandinavian goldcrests fueled up again after their North Sea crossing. Some sadly will not have made the crossing, ditching in the sea exhausted, especially in Saturday’s very wet weather.

I have embarked on a project to record autumn and winter skies. So far I have completed at least two sketches each day from the start of October. Each sketch is accompanied by weather notes and time of day etc. Skies offer a watercolourist great practice but the real value of the project is just to look and enjoy the infinite variety of colour and structure that skies offer us. I include very plain grey skies such as those on 3rd October and it is amazing when you really look at a grey sky, there is always beauty to be found.

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October 4th- hoopoe and hawfinches

I took my eight year old son Ptolemy to see a hoopoe on Sunday. I can remember pondering hoopoes, rollers and bee eaters in my bird books at his age, wondering if I would ever see such exotic looking species. With so many interesting birds on the east coast we could have been drawn in that direction, but I tried to see the choice through the eyes of an eight year old. The hoopoe won.

So we set off for Collingham near Leeds. The predictable gathering of birders gave the location away immediately. Camouflaged lenses twice the length of my telescope looked incongruous a few feet away from the star bird. But there was loads of room to distance comfortably from fellow birders and the views were spectacular. It was great to watch the bird feeding, wader like, as it probed the soft cricket pitch for what I think were leather jackets.

It often stabbed at the prey a few times with the end of its long beak before tossing it up and swallowing it. It did not stop feeding in the time we were there. I hope this means it will gain weight to reorient itself to join others of its kind in their wintering quarters.

Tolly loved the afternoon and despite the chill I had to persuade him to leave. It was good to see members of the non birding public showing keen interest. In these circumstances I would usually offer people views through the scope but of course this was not possible at this time. We left glowing from our hour and a half with the hoopoe and I could tell it was an afternoon Tolly would never forget.

Back in Gilling East today and continuing the lockdown project there was much to see. I work with the windows open ready to be alerted by interesting calls and there was plenty to delight. A skein of 22 pink- footed geese went east at about 10am, their calls easily audible against the roar of two USAF F-15 jets maneuvering high above them. A red kite was given away by the calls rooks make when mobbing a bird of prey, but best of all, sudden piercing “sip” calls revealed two hawfinches on the top of an apple tree. I had good views for a while before they flew into Gilling Woods. Hawfinches are not new to our garden. I have had them on the studio bird table a mere five feet from where I work and I hope that they might return this winter.




Hawfinch on the studio bird table
Hawfinch on the studio bird table