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April 15th- spring at Yorkshire Arboretum. Observations from my artist’s residency.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at Yorkshire Arboretum as artist in residence, catching up on the many changes as spring progresses. A subject I have been really keen to paint is shadows of branches on tree trunks. From the start of my residency I began to notice the strength of tone in these shadows on larger oaks in particular. Tonally they are as strong as the branches themselves often continuing over the ground around the tree. They make a fascinating subject sometimes forming some really interesting shapes. It has become something of an obsession, the painting process feeling almost abstract at times although very much the result of life observation.

The shadows of bare branches are a particular feature of winter and early spring so I have been making these studies in anticipation of emerging foliage. It really teaches you to draw what you see rather than what you think you know. Painting a dark shadow of a branch on a trunk can at first seem daunting, but with careful observation of the subject you start to realise that this is what we see all the time. Next time you pass a large tree try looking at the shadows rather than the bark and you may see what I mean.

It has been a delight to be in the grounds as spring advances. A visit on March 22nd came after an intense early frost (-5.7C). By mid morning the sun felt really warm in a light breeze- one of those early spring days when for the first time in a long time you realise that you are overdressed. The goat willows were in full bloom and heaving with insects, especially queen buff-tailed bumble bees. Amongst them up to four small tortoiseshells nectaring on the flowers. I stood mesmerised by the sight, sound and smell. suddenly after a long cold winter the warmth hit me. The sight of the yellow flowers and orange tortoiseshells against a cerulean blue sky was a true tonic.

A single chiffchaff freshly arrived belted out its name from a nearby ash, those two rather plaintive notes repeated over and over again pure joy to my ears. I had good views and managed a few sketches of this restless bird. The lake has a pair of little grebes. I spent some time sketching these incredibly fluffy grebes with their gorgeous burnt sienna cheeks. Patient observation enabled me to find the nest site which will soon be hidden by emerging leaves.

We have had an intense run of hard frosts at night, in fact every night in April thus far has seen a frost to some degree. Although some days have turned reasonably warm the night time temperatures (and lack of rainfall) are wilting some plants and probably holding back a certain amount of bird migration. Swallows remain very scarce. I find myself gazing into the blue sky willing Hirundines and swifts to be here when I know that most are still days or weeks away. But there is no doubt, the season of sky gazing in a craned neck posture has begun!

 

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April 7th- rooks and snow showers. The anniversary of the start of sketches and notes from from Gilling East.

It is now just over a year since I began blogging regularly from Gilling East, North Yorkshire. All the blogs are available on this website if you want to read them again and compare 2020 to 2021. April 7th this year is a lot colder than the same date last year. No chance today of the first orange tip, recorded on this day in 2020. Blue tits were busy building their nest, no sign of that yet this year. Recent days have seen the most beautiful skies, cold, crystal clear Arctic air bringing snow showers over the valley, another stark contrast to this time last year when we were experiencing settled warm conditions.

I have not yet started to sort out a year’s worth of writing and sketching. I have painted hundreds of watercolours with 19 sketchbooks filled, including some very specific projects on skies, swifts, house martins and other subjects, but seen together this body of work represents a natural year around the village of Gilling East. I have always been something of a local patch naturalist but never more so than now. My art college dissertation was about my hero the Reverend Gilbert White who was perhaps the ultimate patch naturalist. His natural history of Selborne remains one of the greatest works of its kind; as I wandered I found myself thinking of him often. He would perfectly understand what so many have come to understand this last year about the advantages of being a local naturalist.

I can expand my horizons now as lockdown eases, but I find myself torn. Yes, I crave new horizons; sea, moors, estuaries and marshes, ancient woodland and wider skies, but the thought of driving to go for a walk now seems ridiculous! Through exceptional circumstances I have been forced to change the way I work. More than ever I simply go out and paint exactly what I want to paint with no thought as to whether it will be framed or sold in a gallery. This is how I will to continue to work, blogging on a regular basis as a major incentive to create and share new work. I have been both surprised and delighted by the response to the blog. Thank you so much for all the comments, shared sightings and enthusiasm over the past year. I may not match the continuous 125 day stretch achieved last year but I will be aiming to blog two or three times a week. 

I have been sketching rooks again. They are busy commuting back and forth from the rookery to the fields. This displaying bird was largely ignored by all other rooks around it. What a stunning bird to look at in bright early morning sunshine. The iridescence of its feathers constantly changing.

The cold weather has rather checked the rush of spring that was happening in last week’s warmth. Blackthorn blossom is just starting to make an impact locally, it is easy to see the colder spots where much remains firmly in bud. I love the flower bud stage of blackthorn, like thousands of tiny stars shining against the dark inner branches. With frequent snow showers and such sharp frosts I cannot remember such a perfect example of a blackthorn winter.

 

Heavy showers decaying at dusk- 5th April 7.45pm.
April 7th 2020- a much warmer day than April 7th 2021!
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April 2nd- hawfinches!

The Holbeck banks are gradually greening up with fresh growth. I sketched this scene at dawn on Wednesday. Skylarks, a chiffchaff, reed buntings and yellowhammers provided the soundtrack to the scene. As dawn broke there was a light, cool breeze ahead of a very warm March day.

I found some hawfinches on the patch this week. I heard them make their loud ticking call before locating them at the top of a poplar tree where they were eating the fattening buds. I had great views of them bathed in early morning sunshine.

The hawfinch is one of my favourite species to draw and paint; their proportions are extraordinary, cartoon like almost! I have to keep checking my drawing to make sure I have not exaggerated the size of the huge head and bill. The head is packed with powerful muscles which make light work of splitting tough seed cases to extract the kernels; I have watched them casually cracking sloe stones in autumn. Their plumage is very beautiful, the male has a blue grey bill in the breeding season which contrasts with the rich bronze head plumage. It is easily the biggest species of finch found in the UK and they were dwarfing the siskins and goldfinches that were feeding nearby. When I returned home the bullfinches were stripping buds on our neighbour’s apple tree. 

It has been a week of contrasts. Chiffchaffs are well established now having arrived in mid March. No suitable piece of habitat seems to be without a singing male chiffchaff at the moment. Meanwhile the sand martins are back on the Holbeck. We have a small colony in the village. We saw our first swallow on Tuesday, sleek, fast and so utterly different to anything else in the sky, a joy to see; but what weather awaits this early bird? The forecast for very cold weather on Monday and for much of next week will present this bird with a challenge if it is to survive to breed in late April or May.

Meanwhile as the first summer migrants arrive winter visitors are ready to depart. We have seen a few redwings this week and a flock of about 75 fieldfares. The fieldfares were gorging themselves on ivy berries ahead of their impending North Sea crossing, en route to their Scandinavian breeding grounds. Hearing their harsh “chack-chack” calls reminded me of their arrival back in October. These lovely birds have been with us for six months and have been such a welcome sight through the winter. I will miss them until I start to anticipate their return again in October.

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March 23rd- curlews back and blackbirds singing

This morning I awoke to the sound of a curlew making its ‘bubbling’ song as it flew over the village. In the time I listened to it I went from semi consciousness believing it to be a dream, to being wide awake and relishing the sound of each note. I have always been woken by bird song. Even back in my school days when I spent a lot of time studying spotted flycatchers in our garden, their thin high pitched calls would awake me from deep sleep before 5am as effectively as an alarm clock, continuing even through my teenage years! The sound of swifts screaming literally makes me to jump out of bed; when the first non-breeding swifts descend from their aerial roost and perform their first dawn fly-past I am dressed and outside within a couple of minutes!

We are very lucky to have some scarce species within earshot of the house; I have been fortunate to awake to the sound of turtle dove, curlew and cuckoo. Somehow in a sub conscious state my brain continues to react to bird song. As the days lengthen I wake earlier and earlier, the clocks going forward provide some relief for a while but I have come to accept that there is nothing I can do about it. But those early mornings have led to many of my most memorable and beautiful encounters of the natural world.

Blackbirds have really ramped up their song in the last couple of weeks. On warmer days they sing frequently in the afternoon but their peak singing times are early morning, around 5.30am and towards dusk at about 6.30pm. Recent twilights have been beautiful and it is mesmerising to stand outside at this time to watch the sky and listen to the blackbirds.

 

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March 16th- garganey and displaying lapwings

As I write spring is truly on the march. After a period of cold temperatures and strong wind we have a few settled days under high pressure. The frogs have spawned in the garden pond (9/10/11th March), the rookery is busy with nesting in full swing and one can almost expect to see a swallow fly over when standing in the warmth of the sun. It is of course rather too early for that but our first summer visiting migrants are arriving.

Tolly and I went for a walk around a familiar lockdown route on Sunday afternoon. The weather looked rather unpromising, cold, with blustery showers almost putting us off leaving the house. However, no matter what the weather we never regret a walk. We stopped to look at the last hazel catkins which are the plant’s male flowers hanging off the same twigs that hold the tiny crimson female flowers. These are so often overlooked, but once seen are easy to spot, like miniscule starfish tight against the twigs. Many catkins were strewn over the ground, dislodged by the recent gales.

Some lapwings were displaying in the Ampleforth valley. The males perform an impressive acrobatic flight with dramatic swoops low over likely nesting areas. In this display you could be forgiven for thinking they are black and white, but close views reveal dark alizarin crimson, iridescent blues and greens and a spectacular crest; surely one of our most beautiful birds? Up to eight were present and I consider it a real privilege to be able to see them so close to home. People who have lived around here for half a century will tell you that a few decades ago every suitable field had nesting lapwings. Unimaginable now, we have lost so much.

We walked on to view a flooded area near Ampleforth. I scanned the water with binoculars first and straight away saw a drake garganey, a pair in fact! It was one of those unexpected moments of true elation that sometimes comes when birding, perhaps especially during this long lockdown when we have been restricted to watching within a short distance of home. The garganey is a unique and unusual duck for like a swallow it winters in Africa and visits the UK for the summer. This was quite an early record particularly this far north. I went back yesterday morning to make more extensive sketches in watercolour. There is a pair of garganey on our patch, unexpected, beautiful and unforgettable.

Garganey studies- watercolour
Garganey pair resting in morning sunshine
Male lapwing in breeding plumage
Heavy spring showers over the Holbeck
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March 11th- frog blog and yaffle waffle

The frogs have been very active in the garden pond since Sunday evening. This has resulted in 7 clumps of new spawn. It shows how effective a garden pond is at bringing in wildlife; no spawn in the garden in 2019 and now the annual sight of frogs arriving to breed. In the nearby flooded meadow frog spawn is well developed after being laid a couple of weeks ago. For some reason the spawn in our garden is a good deal later. A grey heron has been taking spawning frogs from the meadow. These frogs are extremely vulnerable with virtually no cover.

Tolly and I inspect the garden pond with a torch each evening. We are recording palmate newts on most evenings as well as many frogs. The great diving beetles have also been active at night. Once you have a pond in the garden it is hard to imagine being without one. It brings so much pleasure and interest throughout the year.

The ragged robin and cuckoo flower plugs I planted around the edge are growing well and should hopefully flower this spring. I hope the cuckoo flower will attract orange tip and green-veined white butterflies to breed. It is a food plant plant for the caterpillars of both species so we hope to see the females lay eggs on the plants.

It is worth remembering when planning a wildlife garden that although nectar rich flowers are important you should try to provide food plants for the caterpillars of butterflies and moths. For example whilst it is lovely to see small tortoiseshells on a buddleia, to survive as a species they must have nettles on which they can lay their eggs, so try not to be too tidy and look at a list of caterpillar food plants as well as nectar rich flowers for the butterflies and other insects.

The ‘yaffle’ call of green woodpeckers is a very frequent sound around the valley again. It is a rather mournful sound to my ears but very beautiful. The call is particularly frequent in the first half of the morning. I managed to find a ‘yaffling’ bird in the dead sticks at the top of a diseased ash tree. I have not often had a really good view of a green woodpecker in a tree, so to view this male at length through the scope was a wonderful start to the day. They are very striking birds, a bird I remember admiring in my first bird books when they seemed almost mythical, so colourful but with that intense stare.

 

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4th March- rooks and owls

The local rookeries are extremely busy now. Being near or below a rookery in spring is a joyous experience. Their collective rather raucous calls merge and create to my mind a rather soothing if loud noise, certainly a real marker of the season. The road that runs directly underneath some nests is littered with broken twigs dropped by the nest building birds. These nest builders can be impressive to watch as they haul sticks two or three times their own length back to the nest site.

Rookeries are very much part of the English landscape. When the trees are bare in the middle of winter the nests, some battered by winter gales, are for me a reminder of spring. Take the time to look at the rookery through your binoculars or scope. There is so much going on, paired birds are obvious as they feud with neighbours, birds bowing and posturing in aggression, calling as they do so. In sunlight they show glorious glossy purple and blue plumage contrasting with that brutal looking bill. They just ooze character, now is a great time to enjoy your local rookery.

The last week has seen signs of spring mount up each day. Chaffinches are really giving it some welly now, a male singing his rich and cheerful flourish outside my studio as I write. Greenfinches are belting out their mixture of rather exotic fluty notes and contrasting wheezing sounds from tree tops, although not yet performing their display/song flights. Song thrushes and robins are perhaps the most notable songsters at the moment especially early and late. Blackbirds are keeping us waiting for now. The recent milder spell saw a few tentative bursts of song, but they are not really there yet.

Owls have been very vocal this week, particularly in the few minutes before dark. With a dim glow lingering on the western horizon the tawny owls tune up. Recently we have been hearing the rich, low, trembling song of tawnies in the nearby woods. Many people will be unfamiliar with this but it is very beautiful and well worth listening out for. Little owls often have a short burst of calling early in the afternoon, abrupt and incongruous on a bright day and we have been treated to daily afternoon hunting flights by one of the local barn owls.

Rook studies- sunbathing bird (left) with loose feathers covering branch and feet.
Barn owl study, watercolour- available in my shop.
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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