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November 26th- lockdown contrasts and great spotted woodpecker

I walked a regular lockdown route today. In spring Tolly and I walked often in casual shoes across bone dry fields. Today these fields squelch and hold some very large puddles. This is a new opportunity for me to paint landscapes incorporating areas of water. I painted one such field today not far from the Holbeck. The hedgerows were full of redwings and fieldfares, nervous and quick to take flight as I approached. In spring we could stand in this spot and listen to yellowhammers, skylarks, lesser whitethroats and garden warblers singing. Lapwings displayed over this very field and curlews called nearby.

This chorus has been replaced by redwings and fieldfares from Scandinavia. There is no substitute for walking a regular route to really experience the contrasts in the natural world through the seasons. I looked at rose hips in the hedgerow today; hips from pollinated wild rose flowers that Tolly and I had paused to smell back in June; today I could recall that subtle smell. Similarly some branches dense with frosted sloes, the fruit of blackthorn blossom we had admired back in early April. Some of these we picked over a month ago for a couple of bottles of sloe gin which are now maturing in a cool larder.

A great spotted woodpecker ‘crashed’ onto the peanut feeder this morning scattering all the smaller birds. Though reasonably common in our garden they never fail to impress me with their pied and crimson markings. After feeding the woodpecker rested for a while on a trunk very close to my studio allowing these studies.

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November 24th- dawn near Gilling East

This is a studio watercolour composed from field sketches. As well as being enjoyable in itself sketching skies in watercolour gives me a huge amount of reference. This is a late autumn sky at dawn. The meadow just west of the village was covered in a heavy dew with a few small patches of frost. I regularly see barn owls here at dawn or dusk, by standing very still the owl is often so intent on hunting that it fails to notice me and flies very close. I have surprised several barn owls by doing this; on one occasion the encounter was so close that the owl hissed loudly at me as it air- braked and swerved to avoid me.

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November 23rd- autumn turning to winter

We have had a couple of really cold nights. November has been so mild to date but the colder weather has seen a big increase in birds visiting the garden feeders. Blue tits and great tits in particular are visiting in much higher numbers than they were a week ago and the increase was very sudden.

I made some studies of a wren yesterday as it approached one of our artificial house martin nest cups before roosting. They make superb roosting sites for smaller species during the winter, particularly blue tits and wrens. I have seen around ten wrens roost in a house martin nest on very cold nights. Normally, like robins, wrens hold separate territories during the winter but in extreme cold these boundaries break down as they decide to huddle together in a roost site for life saving warmth.

This morning I made a landscape study of a favourite old oak tree to the west of the village. It was interesting challenge painting the very subtle tone of frost covered grass. Its light icy green colour seemed to accentuate the darkness of the bare trees in the wood behind. Many trees are now completely stripped of leaves and I can again enjoy looking at the structure of the trunk and branches previously hidden by foliage. I have painted dozens of skies in watercolour this autumn. The late afternoon sky below shows an approaching weather front to the west. The evening started cold with the temperature dropping fast but overnight that frontal cloud arrived and the temperature climbed again. All my skies are accompanied by detailed weather records for that time.

Wren studies
Frosty ground- November 23rd
Late autumn dusk- November 15th
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November 18th- redwing, hawfinches and hornbeams

A morning sketching at Yorkshire Arboretum in very mild but windy conditions. I found a great spot to shelter and paint under a pine tree. This afforded great views of the hornbeam copses whilst offering me a natural hide. Winter thrushes were abundant and I had some great sketching views of redwings and fieldfares as they perched in the top of a small oak before descending to feed on hawthorn berries.

I had some very close views of hawfinches, but finding them requires patience and especially, knowledge of their calls. This morning they frequently used the “ticking” call. They were feeding on hornbeam seeds. Although the seed crop is sparse, closer inspection revealed that there are plenty of seeds left. In the strong, mild wind seeds were being lifted from the branches on their distinctive bracts. Once airborne I watched the seeds carried by their bracts up to about a hundred feet, held aloft by their very fast spinning action. Hornbeam seeds are such a delightful things to look at, firstly the clusters of seeds in their bracts on the branch look like beautiful hanging decorations. Once separated from the branch the bract lies attached to the seed on the ground.

The hard seed case is filled with a softer kernel that tastes a little like flour, but a word of caution, they are best not opened with your teeth. This would be asking for trouble at a time when dentists are quite busy enough! I listened to the substantial cracking noises made by a feeding male hawfinch this morning and made some pencil sketches of the head on view. They are fantastic birds to draw and just ooze character with that intense stare and huge bill. I have always loved hawfinches and feel so privileged to be spending so much time with them.

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16th November- oak study in watercolour at Yorkshire Arboretum

Last week saw immense change at the arboretum as large quantities of leaves dropped in strong winds. Canopies were opened up giving the space a very different feel; light penetrating where it has been blocked since May. I am starting to really look forward to winter. I wandered around concentrating on tree trunks, the different textures of bark on different species and the play of light and shadow.

I spent some time studying and sketching a large oak. What struck me was the intensity of shadows on the bole. I am excited about sketching trees now, especially winter trees. This is a reminder that at any level sketching teaches you to really look at and appreciate a subject in a new way. Before my arboretum residency I probably wouldn’t have stopped to sketch this oak, but here I am doing just that and I feel so inspired.

In sitting and sketching there is so much more to be gained beyond painting the subject in front of you. Time in a clock watching sense disappears as I become aware of shifting shadows and the passage of clouds. I heard crossbills, a hawfinch, redwings and fieldfares and a jay. A treecreeper spiraled up the trunk before flying into the wood behind. I become completely immersed in the scene and each time I pass this oak I will be thankful for the time I spent with it and the joy that this gave me.


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November 13th- goldeneye, grey wagtail and kingfisher

Tolly and I had a walk to the lake before lunch. The weather was misty and damp, but very still. One advantage of a day like this is how well sound carries in the damp air; there was very little noise in the trees so every bird call could be heard with ease. Most of the species we saw we heard first, including species with very quiet contact calls such as treecreepers and goldcrests. The sneezing “pitchou” calls of marsh tits were heard several times. We are very fortunate to have a healthy population of this red listed bird in the woods around Gilling and they are seen or heard on most of our walks at any time of year.

Down by the lake calls and other sounds carried across the water. Though at least fifty metres away we could literally hear the water run off a mallard’s back as it up ended to feed. There were several mallard present including a couple of really smart drakes, but the main attraction was a goldeneye. This diving duck is an uncommon visitor to the patch and it was great to watch it feeding successfully towards the south of the lake. We hoped that this first winter bird may yet be joined by an adult drake, one of our favourite ducks.

A shrill piping call gave us warning of an approaching kingfisher, which we were fortunate to find with the scope perched in a bankside willow. It was a male, a jewel even (or perhaps especially) in the dullest conditions. Equally bright was a grey wagtail flashing lemon yellow as it fed very close to us by the water’s edge; what a sight as it picked food from washed up fallen leaves. Fieldfares “chack chacked” above us at times and siskins called as they fed restlessly in the birch tops.

We remembered the dragonflies and damselflies we had watched in the same area on warm days in summer as we walked on a carpet of fallen leaves and took in the sights and smells of a late autumn day.

Kingfisher by Ampleforth lower lake- November 14th
Goldeneye
Grey wagtail feeding amongst fallen leaves

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November 12th- redwings and fieldfares by the Holbeck

After so much gloomy weather this week, today’s magnificent ever changing skies were a joy. I walked round a regular route taking in a section of the Holbeck. Redwings and fieldfares were plundering hawthorns near the beck, but looking around I was struck by how many large hawthorns had virtually no berries. Should the weather freeze this winter I expect winter thrushes to move right out of the area for lack of food. The poor crop perhaps relates to some very hard frosts in May when hawthorn was in flower. It is hard to see redwings and fieldfares well in this milder weather; they are very skittish and hide or take to the air fast. However I did manage to see a stunning fieldfare taking haws for a few seconds. I will, set out to sketch them specifically on another day concealing myself so they are less nervous.

A fine roe deer gave great views in a meadow, its chestnut coat looked stunning in the strong late autumn sunshine. In the hedgerows holly, rose hips and sloes provided the predominant bright colours. I stopped to paint the Holbeck looking west. The contrast in colours from blue grey sky to the rich ochres and siennas of dying plant material reminded me why I love painting in winter.

Yorkshire Arboretum- artist’s residency

I feel privileged to be chosen as this years artist in residence at Yorkshire Arboretum. I am relishing the chance to really get to know the site and in particular individual trees. I tend to gravitate to more open landscapes, particularly those with water so it has been a challenge and an inspiration to be around trees, to really look at the smaller details of leaves and bark, the colours of leaf litter and the way light strikes in between trees. I am already really enjoying this opportunity. I want the project to challenge me artisically but above all hope through my work I can encourage others to really look at nature and benefit from this, not just the grand vistas with autumn colours but at the smaller details. I also want to show the relationships birds and other animals have with trees. I am already fortunate to have spent some time with the hawfinches and feel that part of my mission is to really put Yorkshire Arboretum on the birding map as one of the UK’s premier sites for this enigmatic finch!

This blog will share my work at the arboretum through the coming months.

November 12th- Holbeck near Gilling East looking west. Watercolour.
Hawfinches at Yorkshire arboretum 2018. A study of hawfinches in hornbeam leaf litter.
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November 11th- tree sparrows and December moth

The tree sparrows are actively searching for nest sites, particularly during the first half of the morning. They are visiting the swift boxes which reminds me that I must block the entrances up until next spring. I have plenty of alternative boxes for them and four or five pairs nest under our roof tiles. I have to remind myself of the decline this species suffered. Fortunately in this and many other areas their numbers are increasing again, they are easily the most common species in our garden and far outnumber house sparrows. They are certainly a delightful species to watch and sketch.

We caught two December moths in the trap last night. This is a remarkable species because it flies during some of the coldest months of the year. They are attracted to outside lights or windows. Their blood contains a sort ‘anti freeze’ made up from alcohols and they are able to expel fluid from their bodies to prevent freezing. The moth is unable to feed so from the moment it emerges from the chrysalis it will start to use up the energy it stored as a caterpillar.

The December moth is a good example of an animal that I feel I must see every year. It is as important as the first swallow in the natural year; think of the millions of birds that the December moth caterpillars feed showing that each species plays a vital role in our eco system. But in addition, to my eyes they are gorgeous creatures to look at, jet black with rust and cream markings and a very furry body to keep out the winter chill; observing nature can help make us feel good on the shortest days of the year.

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November 10th- little owl, hawfinches and hornbeams

Yet another very murky morning, but very mild. I spent the morning working at Yorkshire Arboretum. I almost turned back, it was that gloomy, but I am glad I didn’t. Nature offers beauty in all conditions and the trees were so still in the warm misty air. The remaining leaf colour was very muted but no less beautiful.

I spent some time sketching a hornbeam copse. I liked the patterns of the branches and the dark grey and green mossy trunks. I have watched these copses alive with hawfinches, but there are no seeds on the vast majority of trees. The branches were almost bare save the occasional withered cadmium yellow leaf. I could hear every sound it was so calm, blackbirds rustling leaves as they searched the leaf litter and the high pitched calls of goldcrests and treecreepers. Kingfishers called frequently from the nearby lake.

Having sketched the copse I moved on to walk around the perimeter of the site. I found a little owl in the top of an old sweet chestnut tree. They are such entertaining birds to draw. The whole sketching session felt like a staring match as we eyed each other with great intensity. With the scope set up I could relax and enjoy sketching this very cooperative life model. It typically held a pose long enough for me to record the necessary shapes in pencil, then moved to a new pose. This reminded me of quick pose sessions in life drawing classes; a great test for observational skills. A seven spot ladybird rested on my sketchbook for a while and a mistle thrush sang full spring song in the mild conditions.

The sun never broke through the cloud and mist as forecast. I am looking forward to more changeable brighter weather now, but I have made the most of these dull conditions. As I waked back I admired some stunning patches of fly agaric toad stools and looked down at the infinite variety of leaves. Redwings and fieldfares called as they flew over and best of all four hawfinches dropped in to some tree tops So much to enjoy!

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November 9th- fieldfares and disoriented pink-footed geese

We have had some great contrasts in the weather over the weekend. Some of the most dense fog I have seen since we have lived here lay like a very heavy blanket over the village on Saturday morning. It wasn’t until early afternoon that some signs of a break in the fog opened up to reveal a stunning cerulean blue sky. Sunday saw more gloomy foggy conditions which failed to clear leading to a long slow darkening of the afternoon.

Yesterday evening Hannah messaged me from Ampleforth to report pink-footed geese calling there. I could just about hear them three miles away in Gilling but as the evening went on the calls became frequent over here too. It seems that migrating pink feet were confused in the foggy conditions. Stood on the back lawn I could easily hear their wing beats along with their distinctive “wink wink” calls. It was actually very disconcerting to hear and I couldn’t help wondering if the birds were in a state of panic; it was clear from the volume of the calls and the audible wing beats that they were very low. Sleep was almost impossible for me with all the noise outside. Not only that, the temperature outside would not be uncommon on a midsummer’s night.

This morning, rather weary from lost sleep I walked across some local fields. The fog was beginning to clear revealing some dark chestnut brown woodland edges. The old oaks near the village hall looked very dark against the misty landscape. It is however very mild. A peacock butterfly flew across the garden, stirred from hibernation. Many species of small birds were making aerial sorties to catch small flying insects. Fieldfares and blackbirds were the predominant thrush species. Fieldfares took to the skies as soon as the fog cleared, roaming slowly west across the grey sky.

The morning was so gloomy so I decided to sketch some long-tailed tits, though in the mild temperature they didn’t linger on the feeders, preferring instead to find natural food in various trees and shrubs around the garden. But what cheer they bring on some of the dullest days of the year.