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February 23rd- barn owl

Out running yesterday afternoon, Tolly cycling alongside me, we saw a barn owl some 200 metres ahead. It was flying towards us, eyes down looking for food along the verge. We stopped and kept very still, it continued straight towards us, dropping suddenly into the grass about 50 metres away. The strike was fruitless and it powered up from the ground and continued heading right for us, 40, 30, 20,10 metres away! What a view, then it saw us; appearing almost to jump with shock it banked sharply away to its left, soon slowing down again to hunt over the rough grass that surrounds the young apple trees.

We were fortunate that on our return it was hunting in the same area. We stopped again after a good continuous spell of exercise! It perched on a near fence post. With strong late afternoon sunlight coming from our left the owl shone white and gold. This was a rare occasion where I had no optics or even a sketchbook. A view to just enjoy and remember. Away it went again, quartering the rough field occasionally dropping into the grass.

We have been unlucky this winter with barn owls. Several attempts at seeing one on the patch had been unsuccessful and we hadn’t encountered any on our regular walks. Like many of the best sightings this one was unexpected. I found a selection of old sketches when I returned home and used them to create these sketches from memory. What a beautiful bird, close up the markings on the wing and back feathers are so complex, but most views are an impression of rich ochre and pale grey set against those brilliant white underparts. This is what I strive to capture with sketches of the bird perched and in flight.

I like to paint the owl in its habitat, to try and picture it as I see it when I walk. The composition below is of a field near the village. I used the dense hawthorn on the left of the composition as cover. The owl has come through the hedge and the picture shows the moment just before the owl realised I was there. Each sighting of a barn owl feels like seeing a new species, a visual shock, the sheer beauty of this bird never fails to amaze and inspire.

 

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February 20th- the lapwings are back!

The lapwings are back. Lapwings are one of my favourite sketching subjects. Sketching the variety of plumage in a jostling winter lapwing flock is something I have really missed in this recent lockdown. Tolly and I were walking towards an area we call Warbler Corner (for its variety of breeding warblers in summer) when we saw two lapwings in the adjacent field. I am fairly certain that they are returning local breeding birds, quite possibly the same individuals I sketched in April last year. They have some ideal feeding conditions with the set aside field partially flooded.

A vivid memory of the first lockdown last April was standing in the back garden at midnight listening to lapwings displaying over nearby fields. There was no noise from human activity, it was a moment that has really stayed with me. Hearing the lapwings displaying was a great comfort, a knowledge that the natural world at least remained constant. We watched the lapwings attempt to breed through that first lockdown feeling a true sense of privilege, whilst mindful of so much suffering elsewhere. We are not sure whether their chicks fledged, but our lapwings left in the summer and we have not seen them since.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder they say and seeing lapwings after so many months was magnificent. At the same time we heard our first skylark singing. Lockdown has again made a familiar bird feel exotic. I like to think I have always looked at lapwings in this way and have undoubtedly missed rarer species whilst captivated by their beauty, but yesterday’s sighting shared with Tolly took me by surprise; there and then it gave me an emotional jolt and reminded me of the healing power of observing the natural world.

 

Lapwing studies- back lit in flooded set aside field.
Lapwing in flooded set aside field.
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15th February- woodcock

Woodcock have been seen regularly on our recent walks. Yesterday morning I braved the icy wind at dawn, actually a wind of change with the slow progression of milder weather from the west. It was certainly slow though, the temperature crept up from freezing at dawn to two degrees above by dusk. I walked a regular circuit along the Holbeck. This freezing weather has been something of a luxury for walking, with solid ground beneath our feet. With the thaw will come very muddy, hard going terrain again.

I flushed several woodcock, however despite relentless scanning I failed to obtain a view of this gorgeous woodland wader feeding. I looked back at my sketchbooks to find some studies of feeding woodcock shown below. Numbers have certainly been swelled here by a cold weather influx from the Continent in the last week. Redwings were unusually confiding, turning leaves on roadside verges in the village, a small flock of yellowhammer showed well, their yellow underparts easily the brightest sight on the walk and there were occasional snipe bursting up from the Holbeck banks. All this before very welcome coffee and croissants for breakfast!

I spent the afternoon watching three fieldfares in the back garden, enjoying the opportunity like so many in lockdown to see this normally shy Scandinavian thrush up close. I pondered its journey back over the North Sea, trying to picture in my mind its nesting habitat in May. Our goldcrest made it through the cold spell, often sustained by the fine grated suet on our Christmas tree, which incredibly still looks good in its new position on the patio!

Today as I write the lawn is green again. In a brief burst of sunshine I saw a peacock butterfly and a flock of lapwings flew over, perhaps heading towards their breeding grounds. As the thick ice melts the natural world will respond rapidly this week, signs of spring will accumulate and as an artist I will struggle to keep up with the frenzy of sketching subjects presented to me between now and late May.

Below- woodcock in snow, available as an A3 limited edition print in my shop https://jonathanpomroy.wordpress.com/prints/


Woodcock- field sketches at Ampleforth

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February 12th- -10.4C!

We’ve had a brilliant week of very cold winter weather. The snow which fell in showers at the start of the week has hung around in temperatures that have struggled to get above freezing by day and really plummeted by night. Last night was our coldest for some years at -10.4C, the night before -9.4C.

Weather this cold inevitably has a big affect on birds. I suspect some will have perished, but others have probably migrated away from the coldest weather. Our garden has seen a very big drop in numbers of finches. As if by magic chaffinches, bramblings and siskins have vanished. Since Wednesday numbers of finches have dwindled to single figures from around the fifty mark. A fieldfare has arrived to feed on the large cooking apples I bought from the green grocers. He has dominated the garden, chasing all blackbirds away any time they try to eat the fruit. Interestingly he has no problem with them eating fat or seed, but if they so much as approach an apple he attacks with tail fanned and raised.

Fieldfares are great favourite of mine and I have relished the opportunity to make some studies of this handsome bird. In a strange way they remind me of swifts; as I gaze on the snow covered lawn and read the temperature at -10C watching this Scandinavian visitor I feel that this is just about the antithesis of sitting outside on a warm summer’s evening enjoying swifts screaming overhead. It also reminds me that every day brings something to enjoy, from the height of summer to the depths of winter I have had something to paint.

I awoke early this morning and leapt out of bed, keen to see how cold it had been overnight, and so, well before dawn I was out on the snow fields close to the village to sketch. I made some studies of a favourite oak tree in a field by the village hall. Rather than face the south east where the sun was rising I made some studies of the western sky. At dawn and sunset I often take the time to look away from the sun to appreciate what can be an equally beautiful but softer sky. The western sky was glowing very subtle crimson and blue. With no breakfast inside me I was really starting to feel the air sting my skin, but what a feeling, I felt so awake, even though I was sound asleep half an hour before!

I had a brisk walk on the water meadow. Normally I would be sinking but it was frozen solid between the tussocks of grass. As I walked I heard great-spotted woodpeckers drumming, green woodpeckers yaffling, marsh and blue tits singing in the woods and the calls of hungry redwings and fieldfares beginning their search for food. I had gained so much inspiration, so time to head home for coffee and porridge while watching the fieldfare. The cold is due to end on Sunday evening, possibly with a last blast of snow. We have a day of intense wind-chill to come tomorrow before the weather gradually turns milder.

My project around Gilling East started last April. I have amassed hundreds of watercolours, some in 17 filled sketchbooks. I can remember at the start of the project wondering what winter would throw at us. I was desperate to see deep cold and snow. I have so enjoyed sketching and writing about January and February’s weather and its effect on birds and landscape. If there is more to come still I will be out painting and enjoying it, but if not my appreciation of the transition to spring will be all the greater for having experienced conditions like this morning’s dawn.

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February 9th- sketching in snow showers

I managed some plein air watercolour painting this morning. It is always very rewarding to work outside in snow; it often leads to unexpected, interesting and if I’m lucky beautiful results. I don’t struggle to sit in cold conditions as I am so absorbed in the painting and landscape before me. The palette and water laden brushes freeze solid, but the trusty Stanley flask filled with warm water contends with this problem.

I painted a now familiar scene by the Holbeck near Gilling East. The last year has seen me return to same or similar views again and again. I am so inspired by snow and today’s skies were magnificent as showers rolled in from the North Sea, each delivering it’s own unique brand of snowflakes. I decided not to add any wildlife to the scene as I saw very little on this morning’s circuit. I wanted the picture to reflect the quietness of the snow covered landscape. The falling flakes left soft marks where they settled on the sky wash.

I am often asked why I don’t always include a bird or other animal in my landscapes and some people seem to expect it. But much of the time I walk I am not seeing wildlife and I like to invite the viewer to imagine what might be there; whilst sketching this morning there were the occasional calls of redwings and fieldfares hurrying across the sky in their search for food and the calls of a pair of marsh tits feeding in the beck-side trees. When I do paint an animal in a landscape I like to portray it as it might be seen while I walk, often this means it is well camouflaged. A few years ago I sold a picture of the North Norfolk Coast where the buyers only spotted the shorelarks on the strandline after they had hung the picture at home!

Frozen painting conditions
Snow starting to fall on the sky wash
The finished field painting
Another study of the same scene painted in the studio immediately on return
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February 6th- bramblings and song thrush

I’ve been painting further watercolour studies of bramblings. They are a fascinating bird to paint. You can’t just paint a male brambling, they vary so much in plumage. This is due to a process of moult described in an earlier blog. Abrasive moult sees the outer tips of feathers gradually wear down to reveal the colour of the inner feather. A male brambling will have fully black upperparts by May. In addition his beak will turn jet black making it a very striking bird indeed. Not that bramblings are not striking at this time of year; their bold orange and white underparts and bright orange shoulder stand out well amongst the superficially similar chaffinches. The female, though duller has a subtle orange glow and very light underparts. Both sexes have a striking white rump easily seen when they fly up from the lawn. Pay close attention to your chaffinches and you might pick a female brambling out. A male brambling is usually very obvious.

I still remember my first sighting of bramblings. My granny in Newbury had them regularly feeding beneath her bird table. We missed them on visit after visit over several winters, then on one visit there were, about twenty feet from her kitchen window. She showed me the identification plates in her bird guide; the bramblings and my granny’s enthusiasm significantly added to my growing passion for birds and the wider natural world. Never miss the opportunity to show nature to a child.

We have up to seven bramblings visiting the garden at the moment and they always remind me of granny. I scatter black sunflower seeds widely over the lawn and amongst the flower border and this suits them very well. Individuals break away to use the hanging feeders at times. They are a lovely addition to the garden list, shy but so colourful, they often announce their presence with a rather cross sounding “wheeze” call. They feed in the company of chaffinches and greenfinches. The last week has seen a real increase in greenfinches in the garden with ten or more regularly present. Siskins have joined them. Siskins chatter constantly in the trees when not feeding. Some of males are looking really smart now.

Song thrushes are arriving back on their territories. Their loud song is most often heard at first and last light. We had one down on the lawn a couple of mornings ago, such a beautiful bird with warm browns and ochre on top of white belly. The dawn chorus is picking up nicely now with song thrush, robin, wren the earliest songsters, joined later by blue, great, coal and marsh tit. Sparrows and finches start late with house and tree sparrows here chirping loudly by potential nest sites. Drumming great-spotted woodpeckers accompany piping nuthatches in the woods whilst green woodpeckers utter their rather mournful yaffle call with increasing frequency. Blackbirds remain silent for now…

I am looking forward to painting more winter this week, though the forecast weather will undoubtedly present some real challenges for birds. At this stage of winter many natural food supplies are exhausted; seeds, tree mast, berries and orchard fruit have been consumed, though ivy berries are just ripening, highlighting how important this plant is to birds for food and shelter. Do put out extra food for birds- I feed husked black sunflower seeds in feeders and on the ground, sunflower hearts, peanuts, home made suet cakes and apples. This has been a very testing winter for many birds and this coming cold spell could well prove to be the hardest test yet.

 

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February 3rd- more snow!

We had another fall of snow yesterday morning. From 5am I peered out of the window watching the flakes swirling around the lamp in the gusty wind; they settled with ease on road, grass and trees alike. A good day lay ahead. My thoughts turned to home schooling and PE in the snow again!

We walked mid morning. The snow was by that time falling lightly but there was a bitter south easterly wind. As we walked across the damp meadow we stumbled (literally) upon a familiar hazard- frozen mole hills. They are hard as rock and well hidden by snow, presenting a real trip hazard, perhaps more so to those of us who constantly watch for animals as we walk! Areas of frozen flood water under the snow were another trip hazard, but fortunately we know the terrain well now. Not that I am complaining, I see this as part of the natural world we inhabit; something to be remembered on very warm days in summer, a reminder of the wonderful variety of weather we experience through the year.

The scenes before us were beautiful. A soft grey sky, still dropping fine ice pellets that made our faces sting. The land was lighter than the sky above, a great subject for artists and for us watercolourists cheap on pigment! We wandered as if we were in a new world. Ditches held small flocks of redwings who ‘tucked’ angrily as we approached. A woodcock flew up a few feet in front of us, its chestnut garb bright against a neutral white background. Walking along a hedge line we saw a roe deer feeding, probably the same animal we have encountered dozens of times on our walks. For a while she carried on but inevitably sensed our presence, lifting her head and pausing to look and sniff before bounding away.

In the margin of a stubble field we walked in badger tracks which took a sudden swerve right into a blackthorn thicket. The return walk saw us facing the keen easterly wind, so bitter, as cold as we have felt this winter even though we have experienced much lower temperatures. The stinging ice pellets were relentless under a leaden sky. A last visual treat before we reached home was a male bullfinch stripping dock seeds. The final hundred metres saw us throw snowballs galore in the knowledge that a warm house and hot soup were nigh.