Friday, 11 November 2011


In the summer I spent two days at the seabird cliffs of Colonsay. I met Ellie Owen and Tessa Cole, who were doing amazing research for the RSPB "FAME" project (Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment). I hope to return to this inspiring place next year to do some work for them, and also to do a residency for the Colonsay Spring Festival. I'll be running a couple of workshops for field drawing and print-making in May, based around the seabirds.


This is an modified excerpt and some pictures from an article I had published in Birdwatch Magazine in October this year.

"I live in a west-coast Scottish village, surrounded by ancient hill-top forts. When the Vikings harried these shores, locals must have lived in fear of raiders from the North. Last autumn we were visited again, and word spread quickly from house to house. My neighbour rang at first light and insisted that I come to her house. In the upstairs bedroom her guests, bleary-eyed, had been evicted from their beds. The room was lit by an orange glow as the flame-coloured autumnal leaves of the rowan tree outside almost touched the window. And in the tree, a flock of Waxwings - masked raiders, alert and wary, ready to pillage and plunder. The local Blackbird had realised too late the severity of the situation. In vain he tried to keep the intruders from his winter food-supply, but he was outnumbered. On the road below, mothers and children passed by on their way to school, unaware of the drama taking place above their heads. The Waxwings flew up, but returned again, fluttering, stretching, plucking, grabbing - tossing berries into the air before gulping them down. Soon, not a single berry remained. With a whirr of wings the flock was gone, leaving us all happy at the interruption of our domestic routines. All of us except, maybe, the Blackbird."

Summer meadows

I made a second visit to Oronsay in June. The RSPB have the agricutural tenancy of the island, and farm in such a way as to allow the native wildlife to thrive alongside the farmed animals. The natural grassland that is found around the outside of the island is Machair, made up of shell-sand thrown up from the shore. The cattle graze here in winter, but are shut out in spring to allow a rich variety of wildflowers to grow. The plants are as beautiful as their names - Ragged Robin, Lesser Butterfly Orchid, Yellow Rattle and Adder's Tongue Fern. The fields are mown every September to provide winter bedding for the cattle, and by removing the nutrients in this way, the land is kept from becoming too lush and overgrown.
It was lovely to lie on the dry ground and listen to the Bumble Bees humming between the Red Clover flowers. Because the meadow was so open I could get a great view of a male Skylark (below) which was displaying to a female on the ground. Normally derided as LBJ's, or Little Brown Jobs, I was close enough to see the bold patterning of his plumage.

In complete contrast to the Machair, the "in by" land around the farmhouse is allowed to grow up into an annual multistory grassland jungle. Plants layer one above another as they reach for the sky, fueled by a rich soil. Nettles, cow-parsley and hogweed jostle for space, and provide perfect cover for the shy Corncrake (below). These rare birds arrive from Africa in the Spring, and dive straight into the safety of the thick vegetation that has been grown for them. I sat for ages at the corner of the field, listening to a cacophony of rasping calls, as 7 male corncrakes each staked their claim to a patch of meadow. I often find that when I'm sitting still and drawing, wildlife eventually forgets I'm there. Eventually I was rewarded with a brief, tantalizing glimpse of this noisy bird.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Farming and wildlife

I spent a few days in Spring staying on an island farm managed by my friends Mike and Val. It's wonderful to see how much wildlife gathers around livestock, to feed on spilled grain and to nest in the farm out-buildings.

The rich grazing land also supports lots of insect food for the birds. And because there are always people working around the livestock, the wildlife becomes very tame. I sat watching and listening to the starlings displaying, as they ran through their repertoire of impersonations. There was the mew of buzzards, honk of greylag, piping of curlew, and the alarm call of a blackbird, all pouring from the beak of one bird.

The livestock affects the landscape directly too. The cattle poach up the marshy ground, increasing the variety of dry and wet areas. Lapwings nest among these hummocks, beautifully camouflaged, the incubating bird like one more mossy mound.

I tried to travel all around the island on my visit, but was constantly drawn back to the farm-buildings by the inspiring mixture of wildlife, domestic animals and human activity.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Black-tailed Godwits

This spring I've been working out of doors on a small island near to home. I was sitting in a borrowed Landrover, out of the wind, painting a nesting Lapwing. The birds are used to the vehicle, which made a perfect, movable hide. Despite my luxuriously appointed accommodation, my back was starting to ache and my feet to grow cold, so I decided to pack up and head for breakfast. As I put away my paints, I checked the shallow pool behind me and saw that a flock of Black-tailed Godwits had arrived. It's a cure I'd recommend to anyone - my aches and pains vanished. I can't remember seeing these waders before - and I'm sure I wouldn't have forgotten, as they are so spectacular. They seem both muscular and graceful, both comical and elegant with their long legs and up-turned bills.
Even more surprising, was that one of the birds was wearing colour-rings. This in itself is not unusual as these birds are the subject of a long-term project studying their migration between Africa, Ireland and Iceland (see The strangest bit was that my Mum had just been to Portugal to help monitor and put rings on birds that were passing through the wetlands there. I wonder if this bird was one of those that they saw, now refueling in Scotland before pushing north again. I've sent off details of the colour-rings, and hope to find out soon.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Porpoising penguins

I have tried quite a few versions of the Gentoo Penguins porpoising, as I find it such a compelling image. Unless you're a Sealion, you only see tantalizing, brief flashes of colour as the birds "fly" out of the water and disappear in a neat splash. I'm doing some monoprints of this too, and will post them later on.

I'm putting up my last few pictures from the Falkland Islands, so I can then move on to Scottish subject-matter.

On New Island, Southern Fur Seals haul out at the bottom of steep cliffs. The females appear out of the sea-swirled kelp, and harumph over the rocks to find the crevice where they've left their pup. The small black babies are hiding under the boulders, out of the way of the territorial males. When there's a testosterone face-off, the thick-set males dash across the rocks with little regard for anything in their way. Mostly though, they seem content to lounge in the sun, opening one lazy eye to glare, if an insubordinate adolescent gets too close.

The courtship display of the Black-browed Albatross is such a romantic affair. The birds croon to each other as they delicately preen those hard-to-reach feathers around their mate's eyes. I've been nipped by those hooked beaks, and can tell you what fearsome weapons they are. This mutual grooming must reinforce their trust for each other.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Falkland Gentoos

One swelteringly hot day on New Island we walked the five miles to the North End beach to see the Gentoo Penguin colony. The chicks were already large and could be left in a milling woolly creche while the parents went fishing. The adults sauntered down to the beach, others joining them en route. At the water's edge the group huddled together and gazed at the sea.

They wanted to go fishing, but they knew that a big male sea-lion was patrolling the shore. They summoned up their courage, and when one bird took the plunge, they all rushed in, anxious not to be the straggler that got caught.
Gentoos fish for squid a few miles off-shore, and return in the evening with bellies full of food for their chicks. In deep water they seem able to out-manoeuvre the sea-lion. They are stream-lined swimmers, streaking through the water, as fast as if they were flying in air. As they return to the beach they porpoise nervously along the shore, spy-hopping to catch a glimpse of the dark shadowy bulk of the waiting predator. If he can trap them in the shallows, their only escape is up the beach, and their short legs transform them from sleek speeders to tripping, tumbling waddlers.
Hoping to see this drama, I waited on the beach after our picnic . Kim and the children went off to see a Weddell Seal at the other end of the beach, and Georgina arrived to go swimming with the Commerson's Dolphins. Luckily for the Gentoos, the sea-lion didn't show up, but the penguins still raced for the shore, exploding out of the waves, anxious to put a safe distance between themselves and the sea.

The sand under the water made the beach look tropical in the bright sunlight, although Georgina assured me the water was very cold. I made more pictures of the penguins porpoising, and I'll put those up on the next posting.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

More Magellanic Oiks

Later I made another picture of the oystercatchers as they landed on the Protector Beach. This sandy bay is dominated by the wreck of an old wooden minesweeper, after which the beach is named. A tiny fresh-water stream trickles down the beach, and groups of birds congregate there to bathe and drink.

The flock became larger each day as it was joined by birds whose nests had failed. The resident pair would display at the intruders, and then all of them would get excited and join in.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Magellanic Oystercatchers

I made this painting of Magellanic Oystercatchers when I was in the Falklands. It was a birthday present for my friend Kim Chater. The black is all painted using a bird feather that I found on the ground there.

The birds display along territorial boundaries by walking in parallel, dropping their wings, lifting their tails, and piping. The call is much more squeaky than the Oystercatchers which display outside my studio in Scotland.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Field sketches from the Falklands

In January we returned to New Island in the Falkland Islands. Mark and I worked there 11 years ago, making a film for National Geographic. I'd made a few sketches then, in between filming, but this time it was wonderful to see the place afresh through a painter's eyes. It was also great to catch up with old friends who live and work there.

I'll put up some of my fieldwork here. Soon I'll follow it up with studio work, made back in Scotland.

In January, adult Black-browed albatrosses already have chicks, but immature birds also hang around the colony. If they find an empty nest they'll practice being grown-up and try out some courtship moves.

King cormorants collect nesting material throughout the breeding season. They come crash-landing into the colony with a whirring of wings, and a beak so full of tussock grass that they can hardly see where they are going.

Across the bay from our hut was a colony of Dolphin Gulls, and we could hear the cacophony by day and night.

Gentoo penguins look great both in and out of the water. Their bodies are so expressive, stretching when on the move, but tubby when at rest.

When the Black-browed Albatross chicks are small, one parent stays to protect it while the other goes fishing.

I seem to have run out of space for pictures. I'll do another post tomorrow.