December 28th- crossbills in snow

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!

Crossbill studies- October

December 21st- isolating at the solstice and looking forward to winter

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.




December 10th- kingfisher studies at Yorkshire Arboretum

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.


December 8th- common and black-headed gulls at Newburgh Priory Lake

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.

December 8th- Newburgh Priory Lake
Black- headed gull hunkered down in cold wind.
Black-headed gulls squabbling
Common gull studies

December 3rd- birds from the studio on a very dull, cold day

One of those days when you remember that as we approach the winter solstice days don’t get much darker. With heavy rain bearing cloud throughout it was dull at best with the afternoon darkening rapidly. The maximum temperature was just over 3C.

I spent some time sketching common garden birds. They really do bring cheer at this time of year, especially on a day like today. The feeders were extremely busy; we are very lucky to have a good variety of woodland birds here including several marsh tits. Coal tits have been very numerous this year. The watercolour study sheet shows the most common visitors to the feeder outside my studio.


December 1st- redwings and fieldfares by the Holbeck.

The weather has turned cold and bright. There is an absolute feast of colour out there on days such as this. As vegetation dries and withers, russets and ochres line the Holbeck contrasting beautifully with cerulean blue skies. There were a few afternoon showers yesterday from dramatic clouds lit by a low sun that shone so bright in the clear cold air.

Redwings and fieldfares were clamoring in the hedgerows. The supply of berries will dwindle rapidly in the next week or so, until they will move on, especially if the weather remains cold. It was a day to spend really appreciating these common but beautiful Scandinavian thrushes. I made some studies of fieldfares in the tree tops. They were very sleek as they contemplated moving on, disturbed by a large female sparrowhawk; quite the opposite of the fluffed up fieldfares seen in gardens in freezing conditions.

A redwing gave superb views; again I use the scope to see it well from a distance, this frees up my hands to sketch. I manage to record much of the bird’s shape and features in pencil, adding colour as fast a possible before it flies. As I watch them and really take in their beauty I briefly cast my mind back exactly six months, thinking of swifts and house martins settling down to breed in Gilling East; not wishing them here, but being struck by the contrasts of the natural year.