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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.

 

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January 31st- RSPB Garden Birdwatch 2021

The annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is always a pleasure and never more so than this year, knowing it was carried out in the company of tens of thousands of others. The annual frustration of not seeing the usual species I’m sure many will identify with! But this year was actually very representative of our daily garden birdlife.

Conditions were ideal with a low of -5C around dawn with the temperature reading -3.5C when I began recording. Through the hour I noticed several waves of feeding- it was actually rather quiet for about quarter of an hour after the initial feeding frenzy. Bramblings were perhaps stars of the show with 4 appearing in this rather lean year for the species. Our goldcrest duly turned up to feed on the fat spread on the branches of the Christmas tree. The marsh tits just made it on time, five minutes from the end! I decided to carry on recording unofficially to see how many species we could attract and we managed 26 species actually in the garden through the day with 23 recorded in the survey time.

Each time I take part in the Garden Birdwatch I think why don’t I do this every week? You learn so much about feeding habits and always see something new- for instance the nuthatch is a regular garden visitor here but this morning we saw one on the window feeder for the first time. The slight competitive edge to it can be thrilling, particularly if something different shows up in the last few minutes or seconds. Here are the scores in order of appearance for our garden in Gilling East, 8.30-9.30am.

Coal tit   2

Blue tit 5

Great tit 4

Chaffinch17

Brambling 4

Blackbird 8

Great- spotted woodpecker 1

Long-tailed tit   12

Nuthatch   2

Woodpigeon   5

Magpie   2

Carrion crow   1

Pheasant   5

Robin  2

Tree sparrow   6

Collared dove   1

Dunnock   3

Greenfinch   2

Wren   1

Jackdaw   1

House sparrow   1

Goldcrest   1

Marsh tit   1

Other species seen outside survey time, goldfinch, fieldfare and starling.

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January 25th- goldcrest on the Christmas tree and blackbirds going to roost

A goldcrest started to visit our bird table a week or so ago. It feeds on tiny fragments of fat balls. It is often disturbed by larger birds so yesterday I decided to use our Christmas tree which is still in surprisingly good condition. I stood it up on the patio, close to the window, and sprinkled its outer branches with finely crumbled fat ball. It was an instant success. The goldcrest immediately used the dense cover of the tree and of course looked at home in coniferous habitat giving us exceptionally close and prolonged views of this tiny bird.

Goldcrests are remarkable. It was wonderful to observe at close quarters the agility with which it explores the densely needled branches of the Christmas tree. I couldn’t help wondering if this bird is a local or a migrant. It is well known that goldcrests cross the North Sea from Scandinavia in the autumn and of course return there to breed in the spring. When you see a goldcrest well this feat seems truly astonishing. It has been interesting to compare it with other birds; long-tailed tits minus the tail are a very small bodied bird, but next to a goldcrest they look big and it is dwarfed by a blue tit.

We’ve had some very hard frosts over the last few nights and little thaw by day. Our pond has ice at least 5cm thick now. The sunsets have been cold and beautiful. Standing outside with the temperature already below freezing as the sun goes down I feel the conditions that animals have to survive. They face a 15 hour night of sub zero temperatures. If they haven’t had sufficient food they might not see the next morning. Blackbirds gather loosely, “chink-chinking” away to each other as the light fades. Blue tits roost alone in holes; they love our house martin nest boxes to roost in. As small birds go to roost the tawny and little owls begin to call and if I am lucky I see a woodcock fly to the fields behind the house.

I treasure the experience of cold winter dusks. As the light in the south western sky fades I retreat to light the fire and ponder the raw struggle for survival faced by animals outside.

 

Goldcrest in our Christmas tree.
Blackbirds just before roost.
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January 23rd- sketching the spectacular nuthatch!

We find ourselves isolating still; fortunately nobody is ill but it is now 5 days of waiting for test results, so there has plenty of time to study garden birds. We are very fortunate to be close to Gilling woods and have a good selection of birds visiting. Daily maximums include 4-5 marsh tits, 2 nuthatch and a regular flock of 16 long- tailed tits stable at this number for weeks now. A pair of bramblings still visit, probably birds from a flock that feeds in a nearby maize field. Recently a goldcrest has started to visit the bird table to feed on crumbled fat balls- exquisite.

I spent some time making detailed studies of nuthatches this week. These are worked up studies, very much from life observation but made from the comfort of the studio. Each time one lands on the bird table I find myself struck by its beauty. Not just the colouration but its shape, so unique amongst garden birds. Their fast and bold arrival at the feeders often sees other small birds scatter. Earlier today the male nuthatch came out of nowhere and planted himself right in the middle of a flock of long-tailed tits on the peanut feeder; there was a ‘bomb burst’ of pink, white and black! What a contrast of two species just a few feet from where I stood. Nuthatches, long-tailed tits and our marsh tits are all very tame and allow very close approach when we are in the garden.

Nuthatches are becoming increasingly vocal now as they begin to establish territories. The male is looking pristine with rich terracotta flanks contrasting blue grey upperparts, the female is basically a toned down version of the male. At a time when so many species are in decline it is nice to report that the nuthatch is a species doing extremely well; expanding in range and population in the UK.

The variety of plumage colours on our bird table at the moment rival any selection in other habitats at anytime of year and I’m sure many of us have never been so grateful for the beauty of our garden birds.

 

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January 20th- bramblings come to the garden and robins sing their spring song again

We are isolating again, awaiting test results, so find ourselves restricted to watching garden birds. In the last few days a male and female brambling have started visiting the feeders. Judging by their flight line they are commuting back and forth between the small flock that is feeding in a maize field on the edge of Gilling woods.

The male is gorgeous, really deep, rusty orange. The upperparts are wearing down to black. This type of moult is called abrasive moult. Gradually the outer tips of the feathers wear down to reveal more of the colour of the inner feathers. In bramblings this means the upperparts of the male will eventually turn jet black in time for the breeding season. Its bill will also turn black. Male bramblings are striking in winter but become even more so by the time they arrive back on their Scandinavian breeding grounds in May. The female by contrast is very pale with a soft peachy orange breast and fawn and grey upperparts.

Bramblings love black sunflower seeds. I prefer to feed these in their husks which keeps the kernel cleaner and perhaps more likely free from contamination with disease.

Robins have been very conspicuous in the last few days with chases and territorial disputes commonly seen around the garden. They are seen in pairs more often. The rather melancholy winter song has been replaced by a louder spring song as males guard their new territories and attempt to secure a mate. At first light this morning two males were singing with great gusto either side of the garden.

 

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January 18th- snow in watercolour

I have spent the last few days enjoying, observing and sketching snow. We feel so lucky to have experienced a good fall of 4-5 inches last Thursday. My local sketching project which started at the beginning of April 2020 is now over eight months in. I have been fortunate to record the seasons within a couple of miles of home; it has been amongst my most rewarding painting projects. I have filled fifteen sketchbooks and accumulated scores of unframed watercolours including several large sub projects, all local.

Since April when I decided to make the project a year in duration I wondered whether we would be lucky enough to have a good covering of snow and the last couple of weeks have fulfilled my hopes. If forced to choose I would pick snow as my favourite weather; if it is forecast during darkness I find it hard to sleep as I gaze at nearby lights to watch for the first falling flakes and I am out in the snow at the earliest opportunity. This time more than ever before I have observed the new compositions created by snowfall, a consequence of walking the same route again and again. Familiar features are accentuated in an entirely new and beautiful way.

 

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January 14th- more snow

We awoke to about two inches of snow which became around four inches by mid morning. A slow thaw set in late morning, but now it is all freezing up again. A long exercise/work walk this morning from home, first around the woods and then along the Holbeck. Familiar scenes are entirely new compositions in the snow. After the walk Tolly and I  did some 3D figurative sculpture work in the garden! I am so inspired in the snow I hardly know where to start, so many sketches made today including this simple watercolour started in the field and finished back in the studio. More soon.

Holbeck in snow- January 14th
Some 3D sculpture work