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.


7th November- pink-footed geese and bramblings

A glorious afternoon for a walk. Lingering fog had only just started to clear by early afternoon, revealing a clear cerulean blue sky. It was lovely to have Tolly with me again having shared this route with him so many times during the spring lockdown. The weather was so calm, with many leaves still hanging on beech and oak trees. In fact it was so still that the few falling leaves we did see seemed to clatter in the silence. We refound features of our spring lockdown walks including a great spotted woodpecker hole high in a beech tree and patches of wood sorrel that we grazed from on warm April mornings.

We hadn’t been walking long when the sound of pink-footed geese filled the air. We watched a large skein of perhaps 75 head south east over the village. This is a sight I feel so privileged to see. Like each flypast from swifts in summer a skein of migrating geese is always special. They are probably well on their way to North Norfolk now, or perhaps the Humber estuary. But it it shows how birds can connect us all; I immediately thought of friends in Norfolk and the magnificent sight of thousands of geese I have had at places such as Holkham bay.

We found a large flock of chaffinches at least two hundred strong, under a magnificent old beech. Careful searching revealed a couple of brambling and we had stunning views of very bright puffed up male in an ash tree.

As we returned to the village, fog was starting to reform in the valley. Our thoughts turned to lighting the fire; sweet chestnuts gathered at the arboretum this week will be roasted and Tolly said he was looking forward to hearing them explode amongst the flames! This morning we awoke to fog reducing visibility to little more than fifty metres. But today was a day filled with autumnal atmosphere. The very dull foggy morning making this afternoon’s gin clear sky all the better!

Male Brambling- watercolour in sketchbook.
Pink feet arriving at Holkham.

November 6th- thrushes at twilight

I have always loved being out at twilight and I love to paint this time of day throughout the year. The end of late autumn afternoons can be very atmospheric with tree colours singing out of the gloom until dark. Late autumn sees most of the leaves down, but many beech, oak and larches are at or near their most intense colour here in Gilling East. Look into a wood as dark approaches and notice the bright cadmium yellow hazel leaves clinging on to the last.

As the gloaming nears owls begin to tune up for the night. Little owls call first here, soon followed by tawny owls. As the local blackbirds “chink chink” their way to roost, others can be seen climbing high into the sky to migrate south and west. Redwings call as they fly over at the start of their night flight. It never fails to move me to watch them heading off to fly beneath the stars. Where I wonder will they be at first light?

Ampleforth lower lake- November afternoon
Blackbird, before ascending to migrate overnight.

November 5th- new daily sketches and notes from Gilling East

I have been walking familiar local routes and this will be the first of a new series of daily lockdown diaries. The transition from autumn to winter is a time I really love, while the days become shorter with long dark evenings, winter can offer tremendous light if you go outside. Make the most of the intensity of winter sun when you can. Take in the glorious sight of Orion on clear winter evenings. A walk in the woods in winter offers light; with the canopy now open the woods are much brighter than in summer. Look at bare tree trunks and the way shadows of branches fall upon them, listen for flocks of tits moving through the trees, they may well include other species such as treecreepers and goldcrests. Over the next few weeks I will share some of the joy and light I find during late autumn and winter.

We were gardening last Sunday when I heard two sharp “zeee” calls followed by an abrupt “tic”. Without looking I knew they were made by hawfinches and quickly found two high above the garden. They descended into the the top of an ash tree a couple of hundred metres away. From here they descended to feed in yew trees near Gilling Castle. I can monitor these birds from my studio with good views through the scope.

I have also been spending time sketching autumn at Yorkshire Arboretum where I have seen up to nine hawfinches. There are almost certainly larger numbers earlier in the morning before the grounds open. The hawfinch is a magnificent looking bird, the males display beautiful but subtle colours in bold markings. As such they are a joy to draw and paint. In fact while drawing them I feel I am drawing a cartoon bird with huge bill and head and the most intense staring eyes! Their ability to crack large seeds to eat the kernel is incredible. I have watched them casually cracking sloe stones, don’t try it if you want to preserve your teeth! Sometimes, at the arboretum I have first located them by the sound of cracking seeds. Here they eat hornbeam seeds. The hornbeam seed which is covered by beautiful raw sienna bracts is very hard, but inside is a highly nutritious kernel.

On a recent visit I watched several hawfinches in a hornbeam copse near the visitor centre. But there are only a few cropping trees this year and I expect the seed supply will dwindle fairly soon. An alternative food is yew; they eat the seed within the waxy, scarlet berry. So with hornbeam in short supply yew will likely be the best tree in which to find a hawfinch this winter; churchyards are therefore a good bet. Don’t just look in the yews. Hawfinches can hide so well in yew trees and sometimes the best views will be in surrounding tree tops before they descend into the dark evergreen foliage.

Seeing a hawfinch in winter is amongst the birding highlights of the year for me. They are a challenge to find and observe well, but they are a captivating bird to see and I find myself lingering until well after my hands are numb with cold as I wait for the next good view. For as long as I have been birdwatching the hawfinch has been a favourite species to study and I have been very fortunate to find myself living somewhere where they are not uncommon during the winter months.

Watercolour sketch of sweet chestnut trees at Yorkshire Arboretum- November 4th. I gathered many chestnuts to roast on the fire this weekend!

October 28th- autumn landscapes in watercolour

I have been painting the landscape several times a day in the last couple of weeks, making many studies of the spectacular autumn tree colours and the dramatic skies which have accompanied fast moving Atlantic weather systems. These skies and their effect on the landscape below are a constant source of inspiration so I have dozens of recent watercolour studies piled up.

I have included here a study of the Holbeck near Gilling East made back in May for comparison with the same scene sketched last Sunday. The brilliance of the autumn version sketched on a very bright afternoon is perhaps proof that although the days are shorter and colder the landscape can offer an incredible feast for the eyes. Sketching can help make the most of these short days; by really looking and taking in these intense scenes I can hold on to them through the dark evenings and I find myself incredibly excited at what the next short day may bring. So look at the weather forecast anew, see wind and changeable conditions as a blessing and the next source of inspiration.

Enjoy looking hard at all autumn and winter have to offer and before you know it signs of spring will be gathering each day!

Holbeck near Gilling East- early May
Holbeck near Gilling East, late October
North York Moors near Helmsley 28/10/20
Sky study near Gilling East- 26/10/20

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

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.

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.


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.


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