Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Corncrake Chess

Screenprint made in the studio - edition of 4.

Black and white players are moving across the flat chequerboard of fields on Oronsay. They are pawns in a large-as-life game of biodiversity, played out on the land. The Barnacle Geese look out of place on these fields. The black and white markings which camouflage them against the rocky screes of their nesting cliffs in Greenland look incongruous here.  They are seeking refuge from the frozen weather of the North and, alongside the black Hebridean Sheep, they are grazing the winter grass short.
It may be the RSPB who are controlling the game by offering rich, undisturbed grazing on the in-by fields, but on this island at least, it is the wildlife who are the winners. Once the geese have been cleared from the board by the southerly winds of spring, the star players will move in. The clues are to be seen around the winter field margins. The woody remains of knapweed, cow parsely, dock and nettle show how the game will develop. The vegetation will grow in the Spring sunshine to provide cover for Corncrakes as they return from sub-Saharan Africa to breed. These are the kings and queens of the island. With the field cleared by the winter workers, new growth will be open, allowing these shy  rails to pass easily through it.
Corncrakes have disappeared from most of mainland Britain, and so management here concentrates on sustaining these birds, the vulnerable key pieces of the chess board. They may have reached check-mate elsewhere, but with 24 calling males in these few fields, the game is still on.

Sketch made in the field.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Winter Starlings

Screenprint made in the studio, edition of 6.

The first job of a winter's morning on Oronsay is to put out silage as extra food for the cows. There's not a lot a nutrient left in the gale-battered fields, as there's been no strength in the sun for months. Normally a bale-shredder chops and spreads the silage, but when the machine breaks down, the RSPB volunteers have to set to and fork out two massive bales by hand. Nathalie, the assistant warden, looks skinny, but she's much stronger than I am. Her golden hair flies in the wind, the same colour as the silage. I point out this artistic detail to her, but strangely I don't think she's flattered by the comparison.
The spread line of silage avoids jostling, so that even the younger beasts can get to the food. Their feet poach up the ground, knocking out bracken shoots, and allowing any wildflower seeds from the silage to germinate. That's if there are any seeds left over. A flock of starlings descend, squawking and squabbling over the food. Its not just the cows who are being sustained through the winter months.

Sketch made in the field.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Border skirmish

I've been screenprinting using drawings of Ringed Plovers from last year. I made my sketches last Spring as I was waiting for eider ducks to come ashore on Oronsay. As I watched the beach I was aware of an urgent, insistent calling. I picked out three Ringed Plovers, camouflaged amongst the seaweed, but none of them were moving their bills. They were spread out strategically across the beach like mini masked marauders, but if this was a border skirmish, there should have been a fourth bird. After twenty minutes of scanning I was beginning to think the plovers were ventriloquists. Every time I started to draw, the noise would start up again, but the tiny bandits continued their border patrol with beaks closed.

Sketch made in the field

Eventually, almost under my nose, I spotted it. The fourth bird was digging a nest scrape, chest on the ground and legs whirring away, flinging out sand and pebbles behind it. And every time it did so it called frantically. As its mate approached, it fanned its tail and postured. The female looked unimpressed. With a flurry of piping the male goose-stepped alongside her, more militia than marauder. As his calling reached a crescendo he seemed to convince himself, or maybe her, and fluttered onto her back to mate.

Screenprint made in the studio, edition of 5.