I completed this 22″ x 15″ watercolour at Sandsend this morning. Hampered by a biting south easterly wind the conditions were challenging for watercolour en plein air. But the experience is always so rewarding. Fulmars were busy on the cliffs nearby. Hardy souls walking out to or back from the headland peered down at my work from the nearby steps. I enjoy people watching me painting and sometimes wish they were less shy about coming to have a look. That said, I was too busy to talk any sense. Watercolour outside changes fast and dries slowly and demands great concentration.
The Waxwings are on their way back to Finland and Russia. This is giving me a second chance to sketch them. I had many sightings as they moved west before Christmas. But now they are on their return journey. They have been seen around Ampleforth College orchards over the last week or so. Strangely this orange rowan still has a heavy crop of berries. Waxwings are truly beautiful. Some winters there are just a few in the country, but this has been a Waxwing winter and they have filtered West across Britain in their hundreds. They gorge themselves on berries in smash and grab raids, filling a pouch beside their throats, then retiring to digest them in a nearby tree. The current Ampleforth flock will be eating any berries they can find and in warm weather catching insects on the wing which they do with grace and agility, ahead of their North Sea crossing.
This is a new large watercolour. Measuring 27″x 21″ I wanted to show the moors in their winter garb of ochre and sepia on what some would consider a drab winter day. For me, this is when the moors are at their best and they still look like this when the breeding birds return. The bubbling song of the Curlew joins the sound of Lapwing, Golden Plover, Snipe, Meadow Pipit and Red Grouse to form a very distinct moorland dawn chorus. I have avoided adding any birds to this composition. For those who know the moors, I hope you can stare at the vast sky and hear the upland birds and the sigh of wind through grass and heather.
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I will never forget the day I first saw a Great Grey Shrike. I was kept from attending school due to a virus, a bonus day to catch up on some birding from the lounge window! Suddenly the Greenfinch flock on the lawn scattered. Well, all except one unfortunate individual which was pinned down under a Great Grey Shrike. This was and still is a very uncommon garden bird, but was one of those moments which reinforced my life long passion for observing birds. Today I saw another at Acaster Malbis near York. A Great Grey Shrike is a true winter delight, cloaked in bold, crisp white, black and soft grey plumage. Ever watchful for prey, I did not have to wait long to see the shrike pounce on a vole. It carried the vole off, probably to impale it on a thorn. Shrikes do this to store food, hanging their prey on the the thorns as a butcher hangs meat on a hook, hence their other name butcher bird.
I paint in watercolour and oil and often swap from one media to the other in a single day. Here are two recent pieces, painted within 24 hours, which show two extremes of my painting range. The first is from sketches of Sansdend, near Whitby on a stormy day. It is an oil painted with palette knife on canvas and measures 30x30cm. The second painting is a fast pencil and watercolour sketch of an Eastern Black Redstart seen yesterday at Skinningrove, North Yorkshire. Measuring 30x27cm this is a quick reaction to a lively bird. This stunning looking Redstart is from the Eastern race and breeds in Central Asia. It has spent the whole winter feeding underneath and around a small area of boulders near the jetty at Skinningrove. Both paintings are now available to buy. Please email me for further details firstname.lastname@example.org
I am used to watching Pink- footed Geese under huge Norfolk skies where some of them spend the winter. I see them every autumn in high flying ‘tick’ shaped skeins as they navigate their way down the East coast, fresh from their Icelandic breeding grounds. But last evening, creatively held back by two days of constant low cloud and drizzle, I heard pinkfeet from the comfort of the lounge. I ran outside and in the drizzly, still air it sounded as if they were about to alight in the garden. They were so low I could hear individual geese shaking the moisture off their plumage. There was a roar of displaced air as flocks, unseen, passed low overhead, seemingly disorientated and flying in different directions. The noise started at about 6.30pm and continued long enough to lull me to sleep around 11pm. All the while that magical call reminded me of days sketching with numb fingers in a Norfolk winter.
As the evening went on friends contacted me to tell of similar experiences in nearby Stonegrave, Wombleton, Kirbymoorside and Helmsley. So where were the geese going? It seems that a large movement of pinkfeet, perhaps from the Humber estuary or Norfolk, were starting to make their way North towards their breeding grounds in Iceland. But why so many hundreds if not thousands of birds found themselves disorientated over such a wide area is a mystery.