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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
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September 30th- red kite

A look around around my moorland patch this morning yielded some good sightings. I had my best ever view of a red kite as it perched on a fence post. I had time to make numerous sketches. They are only just starting to populate this area. I was instantly reminded of a time in the 1980s when red kites were very scarce as a small population in mid Wales. On a long car journey on our way to a family holiday in North Wales we stopped in a layby surrounded by big hills.

As I recall we hadn’t long been out of the car, stretching our legs when a red kite drifted out over the ridge in front of us. It remains one of the best bird sightings I have ever had; at the time the red kite was rare enough to be almost mythical to me. I dreamed of seeing one as I pondered over illustrations in my first bird books. Here in front of me was a red kite, its shape was so beautiful with long wings stretched to the full and forked tail spread to take advantage of the lift off the slope. My brother and I ran as fast as we could up the hillside, soon breathless, but it had gone back over the ridge and we never saw it again.

The next time I saw a red kite was about twenty years later after introduction schemes in Central Southern England. This morning’s sighting gave me a chance to study the beautiful russet colours of the bird’s underparts and the silvery grey head markings. As it took to the air, a chance to paint sky, moor and kite to place the bird in its habitat.

The morning was also notable for the large numbers of mistle thrushes seen. They congregated around well laden rowan trees on the moor edge, one flock about twenty strong. With them sizeable flocks of starlings, soon to be swelled further by Continental birds. Crossbill calls were heard often. One pair crossed a remote section of moor completely devoid of trees, heading purposefully south west. They seemed likely to be migrants as some coastal movement of the species was observed today. 

A pair of stonechats seemed settled in a winter territory on the moor; definitely a subject I will return to, but today was all about the kite, simply sublime.

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September 25th- marsh tits, bullfinch and autumn skies

Today feels like we have taken a short cut through autumn straight into winter. There is a howling wind, the trees on the edge of Gilling Woods are taking a battering with many leaves taking flight. However such weather is inspiring to me. Beautiful though the weather was recently, I soon crave clouds, showers and wind when faced with blue sky for more than a few days. Yesterday, we found ourselves near the centre of the low pressure system that now sits above the North Sea. The winds were slack and the unstable air encouraged the development of some huge Cumulonimbus clouds. I found a glorious view of them near Oldsted. Here, looking south across the Vale of York, I could see areas completely obscured by the torrential rain or hail and could study the height of the impressive shower clouds.

Marsh tits have returned to the garden on a permanent basis. They leave us for a few weeks in the summer but they are now around from dawn until dusk. Last winter we had at least five individuals (including a distinctive white tailed bird) visiting the feeders. I suspect these are birds which breed in Gilling Woods and Yearsley. They are very partial to the seeds of honeysuckle which they extract from the bright crimson berry. They grab a berry and fly off to consume the seed or cache it for winter. In the winter period after Christmas we sometimes attract the very similar willow tit. Comparing the two species at the same time is interesting, they are behaviourally quite different and usually at that time of year plumage differences are obvious.

Bullfinches compete with the marsh tits for the same honeysuckle seeds. By contrast they sit messily munching through the berry flesh to extract the prize. This individual was at an interesting stage of moult. Clearly it is a male as it is starting to display areas of pinkish plumage on its breast and flanks but its head has not started to turn black yet.

We had a very sad end to our first year with house martins. Yesterday I decided to inspect the nest. The adult female was found dead alongside her three dead chicks. The male bird left earlier in the month with the main departure of martins. It was always going to be tough for the female to raise three chicks on her own , especially this late in the year, but I rather expected that she would save herself by migrating if food was scarce. Perhaps she was an older bird and this was just her time to die, or perhaps the poor weather of June and July contributed to a decline in her condition. Whatever the reason we have plenty of hope for next year with so much martin activity around the house and birds visiting other nests on many occasions.

I saw a few skeins of pink-footed geese heading south yesterday. This follows a large arrival of the species from Iceland. They will continue south to The Humber estuary and Norfolk. They are a wonderful sight and sound, spine tingling for me; just as the first swift indicates the return of summer, the arrival of pink-feet signal the excitement of autumn and winter, still all to come.

Below- 24th September, Vale of York from Oldstead.

Below- pink-footed geese over Bransdale

Below- marsh tit.

Below- young male bullfinch moulting into adult plumage.

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September 18th- dawn and dusk skies and long- tailed tits

The last few days have been fine with cold nights and warm afternoon sunshine. I was up before dawn this morning to paint the sky. A walk to the west of the village and I found myself on frosty grass. I watched a beautiful dawn with wispy cirrus cloud blowing south to north. A few song thrushes were flying around looking rather lost; often an indication that they are arrivals from Scandinavia. They might have travelled overnight and were perhaps looking for an area to rest and feed.

Long- tailed tits are occasional visitors to the garden at the moment. As the weather turns colder I would expect to see them more frequently. The flock often contains a chiffchaff or two. They are a challenging subject to sketch, never really staying still for long.

I painted a sequence of four fast watercolour skies on Wednesday evening. Sketching skies in watercolour is great practice for an artist. It fine tunes observation of subtle colour but perhaps more importantly teaches you to look closely at, and never take for granted, your chosen subject.

Sky studies after sunset- 16th September 7.08-7.31pm
Before sunrise- 18th September 6.30am
Long-tailed tits in the garden.
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September 16th- garden insects and wren singing

Much cooler air today on a breeze straight off the North Sea. A lot of cloud cover too meant there were precious few insects on the wing. I made some sketches of a few insects in the garden yesterday; plenty of tortoiseshells were swarming around the buddleia, Sedum spectabile, rudbeckias and Verbena bonariensis. I enjoyed sketching some buff tailed bumble bees which preferred to nectar on our Cephalaria gigantica. All these plants are superb nectar sources for autumn butterflies and other insects. Watermint and purple loosetrife are also great and our native ivy should be left to flower and can swarm with insects through to October. These late sources of nectar are very important for butterflies that hibernate over the winter. With the temperature peaking at around 26C yesterday I suppose it is unlikely we shall see this degree of warmth again before next May.

A wren was very active around the garden and singing with great gusto by my studio. I was amazed also to hear a blackbird singing yesterday afternoon. Not quite the volume of spring and summer song but certainly much louder and more complete than I have heard before at this time of year.

There was a notable absence from the garden soundtrack today. Most house martins left the area on Monday, leaving behind the straggling breeders. In fact our pair feeding their young seem to be alone today. It is lovely to have them still and I hope for reasonably warm weather into October to give them a chance to raise their three chicks successfully. But with the near constant calls of house martins now gone I am very aware of the change to autumn. Very soon we shall be hearing the ‘tic’ calls of migrant song thrushes as they arrive from Scandinavia, followed closely by redwings and fieldfares.

I look forward to autumn and winter immensely. I love painting winter landscapes and birds in colder weather. Sketching in cold weather is both challenging and satisfying. Autumn skies, especially late in the afternoon can be spectacular. Winter wildfowl and waders are a favourite subject. I love to observe and sketch flocks of lapwings, which contain a seemingly endless variety of plumage, as they hunker down. I begin to yearn for the chance to paint in a snow covered landscape again. There is so much to look forward to as the days become darker and colder.

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September 14th- September dawn, late house martin brood and studio pond progress.

I painted one of my favourite lockdown walk views again on Saturday morning. The Holbeck is now quite clogged with summer vegetation compared to the sketches I did in spring. It was a glorious sunrise with a heavy dew on the grass with just enough wind to prevent mist from forming. The dawn chorus consisted of robins singing their soft winter territorial song. But above there was a very transitory chorus of migrant birds moving south. Siskins and meadow pipits were calling almost constantly, sometimes too high to find. Siskins were scarce last winter and in spring, but around midsummer they suddenly started moving over the east coast in large numbers. A sizeable flock spent the summer in gardens here in the village. They fed almost entirely on aphids in fruit trees- behaviour I have not seen before. I think that they could be common on garden feeders this winter.

House martins gathered around our house at the weekend. It was a chance to study some different plumages. The sketch shows a bird which fledged this summer. It has duller quite brown plumage compared to adults save some glossy blue on the back, but the real distinguishing feature is the white outlined tertial feathers. Most adult birds are looking very worn now. The other sketch shows our two week old young in the nest. They are cutting it so fine. Fledging will be around 22nd September all being well, but then they have to build up flying strength to migrate to Africa. I wonder how many of these very late broods actually make it? Hopefully this all bodes well for the start of a colony next year though. I often think of our swifts arriving back during the winter months. Now I will will eagerly await our house martins too. 

I have attached some pictures of our pond finished at the start of June. It is establishing so well. Dragonflies and damselflies have laid eggs and it is a magnet for birds coming to bath and drink. Great diving beetles have bred. One of the highlights was sitting having lunch with the family while a female emperor dragonfly laid eggs in the weed in the middle. If you are wondering whether or not to build a pond, just start digging!

To date the pond has attracted emperor dragonfly, brown, southern and migrant hawker, broad- bodied chaser, common darter and azure, common and large- red damselflies.

Below. The studio pond.