Sunday, 14 October 2012

At the Kelvingrove Museum

What a great museum! The Kelvingrove in Glasgow is an impressive victorian building which has been beautifully maintained and filled with an exciting variety of art, artefacts and natural history. I really enjoyed looking around it, once I finished hanging our FAME exhibition in the Scottish Natural History section.

Artists Tim Wootton, Howard Towll, Rhian Field, Sandy Grant, Ruth Carruthers and myself collaborated with the RSPB to publicise the work of scientists from the "Future of Atlantic Marine Environment" project. They are finding out where seabirds go to feed, so that Government can legislate to protect these areas.

Each artist contributed two pictures. This screenprint of a shag defending its nest I finished last week in the studio, using sketches from Colonsay.

This painting of kittiwakes was made at the seabird cliffs in May. The studio work is more controlled, whilst the field work has to be produced at speed. It started raining as I was finishing this picture, and I like the texture on the cliffs made by raindrops falling on the page.

All the pictures in the exhibition will be auctioned by the RSPB later in the year.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Seabird screenprints

In May I again visited the crowded seabird cliffs of Colonsay. An overwhelming number of birds were all pursuing the business of life and survival; choosing a mate, building a nest, finding enough food to raise young. We find these tasks challenging enough ourselves, but we have the help of weather forecasts, GPS and shelter from the elements (not to mention internet dating). How do these birds raise a chick perched on a cliff-face exposed to the Atlantic, and how can they find suitable food in that seemingly featureless expanse of water?

As fulmars wheeled above me, guillemots squabbled and jostled on ledges next to me, and the calls of kittiwakes shrieked up from the gullies below, I clung on to the cliff-face. As an artist I was supposed to be making some sense of this chaos on paper, but my paints were still in my bag. 

 That’s when I met Ellie and Tessa, scientists from the RSPB FAME project. They were studying individual birds to uncover some of the mysteries of seabird survival. When they showed me their results, my amazement increased. How could a bird as delicate as a kittiwake travel so far across the waves? How could a bird as small as a razorbill dive so deep below them? 

The FAME girls and I decided to work together. We invited other artists to join us in an exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, aiming to share a little of the magic of a seabird colony . By combining art and science we hope to offer a glimpse into that extraordinary world, and unravel some of its mysteries. The exhibition is called "Sea Art Differently" and runs from 13th to 21st October 2012.


On the west coast this year we had a lovely summer - which makes up for the wet mud-bath we had to endure last year.  The brambles are luscious in the hedgerows, and my painting has also been developing in the summer sun.  Thus no time for posting on the blog.  I hope to ferment the fruits of both brambles and field sketches into something that will sustain me through the winter.

Many small projects have also taken up my time this year. I've written an article on seabirds for the RSPB 'Birds' Magazine, and I ran wildlife art workshops on Colonsay for their Spring Festival.  I've been teaching paper-making and printmaking at a local school in association with Kilmartin House Museum. I also produced bird images for Buffera for them to use on an "I Spy" type identification buff.  Examples below.

Friday, 20 April 2012


We were down on the jetty yesterday and someone brought in the first mackerel of the year from the Sound of Jura. Normally we don't expect them until June. Cuckoos and swallows are all arriving on time, but it's unusual to catch mackerel before you've even heard a grasshopper warbler. In the garden lizards and baby slow worms are basking in the sun and eying up the scurrying ants. Spring is here!

Monday, 9 April 2012

Barnacle Geese

I've just spent a week on Oronsay to see the barnacle geese before 
they head north in mid-April.  2500 of these birds spend the winter on 
the island. The mild west coast weather and sympathetic farm-
management by the RSPB, mean that there is fresh grass for them to 
graze all through the winter. You can hear their distant cackling 
from wherever you are on the island, and glimpse a speckled black and 
white flock on many a distant field.
The prospect of drawing a huge group of milling stripy geese is a bit 
daunting. I can see why their markings confuse predators, as it's 
difficult to pick out individuals. They seem like a herd of zebras on 
the island plains.
In March the cattle and sheep are taken off the in-by fields around 
the house to allow corncrake habitat to grow up. The geese love the 
fresh new growth on these ungrazed fields. I sit in the landrover 
with a telescope and try to make sense of the flock. It's still a 
struggle.  As the sun gets lower I give up and retreat to warmth of 
the farmhouse.  Sitting at the kitchen table, gin and tonic to hand, 
I watch as the geese graze ever nearer, until they are just outside 
the window. This close, I can appreciate the delicate patterning of 
individual birds, and work out how the feathers lie. The black and 
white must give camouflage against the snow and rock of their nesting 
grounds. It's hard to imagine that in a few weeks these back-yard 
geese will be refuelling in Iceland en route to the wild Greenland 
When we open the back door last thing at night there's a noise like a 
breaking wave as the flock takes off in the dark.  Over the next few 
weeks the small flocks will join together and their calling get 
louder and louder as they wait for a wind from the south. Then 
suddenly one morning the island will be quiet.

Tricky Tups

To get to the shallow pools where the lapwing display on Oronsay,
I have to negotiate several gates.
Each one involves getting in and out of the landrover twice,
and many involve wrestling with an idiosyncratic and 
cranky bolt. Worse still, the entire route can be surveyed from the 
kitchen window of the farm, so all my tribulations can be noted by 
Mike. The trickiest part of this obstacle course is the gate onto the 
dunes where every morning a reception committee of tups awaits me. 
All winter they have been fed pellets to supplement the winter grass, 
and they see no reason why that should stop now. As I open the gate 
they all surge forwards, jostling around the landrover and banging it 
with their horns. I manage to get past them, but now of course the 
sheep are on the wrong side of the gate. I try to run around them to 
herd them back through, but more animals stream into the field, 
bleating expectantly at me. Eventually I grab the plastic bag that 
covers my sketch pads and shake it at them. Food!! They stream back 
through the gate as I run twice around the landrover and swing the 
gate closed, hoping that Mike has finished his breakfast and is busy 

Seal Pup

The grey seal pup seemed intrigued but not frightened by the flock of starlings that descended all around him on the high tide-line. The birds came to feed on kelp-fly larvae in the seaweed. The pup was stranded, as grey seals can't swim until they're a month old.
 I made this monoprint in the winter after visiting the seal breeding-colony on Oronsay in October. The island is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for this seal (as well as chough and corncrake), and up to 1000 pups are born here each season. Unlike the smaller common seal which feeds in shallow water around the coast, satellite tagging of grey seals from Oronsay has shown that they travel as far as Ireland and to the edge of the continental shelf for food.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Winter Choughs

The crow family are renowned for their intelligence and adaptability, but are often a bit of a disappointment when it comes to outward appearances. Ravens and rooks are swathed in black, and the most jackdaws or hoodie crows can offer is a bit of grey to compliment their gothic look. But there is one bird who can salvage the sartorial reputation of the Corvids. Put your hands together ladies and gentlemen, for the chough. Like a showgirl with bright red lipstick and scarlet boots, the chough's appearance suggests a personality to outshine its drab cousins.

But as we all know, appearances can be deceptive. The chough has learned its lesson from Aesop, and doesn't let it's glamorous looks affect its behaviour. It knows the route to its success is hard work and diligence. Like commuters on the tube, the Oronsay choughs leave their winter roost each morning and follow the same flight path to the same patch of beach to dig for maggots in rotting seaweed. A flashy lifestyle it is not.
Despite enjoying a view from here as far as the Outer Isles, these Choughs are birds of narrow horizons. They teach their chicks where the best kelp washes up for kelp fly maggots and where the best cow pats fall for beetle larvae. They mate for life, and use the same nest site each year. I live only 20 miles due west of Oronsay, and never hear of choughs being seen on the mainland. In the last 200 years, with the decline of mixed farming, choughs have retreated to the islands. But thanks to the RSPB's agricultural work on Colonsay and Oronsay, they are slowing clawing their way back, and now have 13 breeding pairs here.
I imagine one day looking out of my window and seeing that graceful, lilting flight and hearing the elegant call of a pair of choughs - a reward for the perseverance of both birds and conservationists. And those red legs would give the local hoodies something to think about.

Location:Isle of Oronsay