Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Scrublands by Chris Hammer and The Gripps at Dunbar Harbour

May 21, 2020

I was particularly keen to read Chris Hammer‘s debut crime novel Scrublands (review) as it is set in the Riverina in New South Wales. The area is familiar to me from my time teaching with Charles Sturt University for 8 years in the noughties, partly in Australia and partly from Dunbar. This novel has been lavishly praised by reviewers and, on the book itself, by other crime writers. It is a very well plotted novel which keeps the reader interested and intrigued, as a good crime novel should. The atmosphere Hammer creates around the fictional NSW town of Riversend is very well done, from the run down shops to the blistering heat of the rural Australian summer. The novel is not without its flaws however, and I agree with my friend John who wondered if there was some sort of “you scratch my back…” amongst some of the crime writers featured on the book’s cover (photo below) and inside pages.

The protagonist of the story is a journalist (like the author) Martin Scarsden, who is sent to the small town of Riversend to investigate how the town is coping one year after a multiple shooting by the local priest. Scarsden himself has been a victim of violence himself, kidnapped by terrorists in the Middle East and there are flashbacks to this. The story revolves around the multiple murders – why did the priest do it? – and the discovery of murdered German tourists in the Scrublands – a wide area where little grows – outside the town. The plot is unrelenting and and sometimes overwhelmingly so. There is a road crash, a bushfire and the rescue of a young boy all happening in a short space of time and you wonder why an editor did not advise the writer that this may be too much.

As the novel progresses, we do find out more about a range of characters and the reader is kept going until the end of the book, when we find out the most plausible explanation for the multiple shooting. Hammer does not fall into the trap of many crime writers and have a melodramatic ending. So this book, while not as good as some of the reviews – in my opinion of course – is one I would recommend, especially for the rural Australian background, with its unique sounds e.g. of silver crested cockatoos screeching, its Australian dialogue which is not overdone, and its portrayal of the harsh environment in which much of the action takes place.

Crime novel set in the NSW heartland (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

If you were approaching Dunbar Harbour by boat, on your left hand or port side, you would see a concreted area on the cliff face and this is called The Gripps. It has been restored recently with the addition of the railings (photo below) but was put there as an aid to boats entering the harbour. It is also known as the Sandstone Bar. My Dunbar and District History Society colleague Gordon Easingwood told me that “Dunbar is known as a sudden death harbour” and that boats are safe once they are past The Gripps, but previous to its being built, there was only natural rock and boats could get into difficulties. Gordon continued “It is bad enough counting the breakers coming in from the west side of the rocks but to have another set of waves just where the Bar is can be frightening. Especially under sail or low powered engines as the early fishing boats were”. The Gripps was therefore built to prevent waves coming through a low gap in the rock formation and putting boats in danger.

The Gripps at the entrance to Dunbar Harbour

The photo below shows the edge of The Gripps from the north side and if you look to the right hand side (Gordon’s west side above) you can see the swell hitting the base of Dunbar Castle (good photos). What you cannot see is that there is a similar, fast moving swell just below the rocks on which I was standing. It is still a tricky entrance to the harbour and you can often see sailing boats coming into the harbour looking as if they might get into trouble and some occasionally do. You can imagine the sailors perhaps gritting their teeth, closing their eyes and just going for the harbour – and breathing a sigh of relief as they pass the dangerous part.

The photo below shows The Gripps looking north from the harbour. On the right hand side, there is a semi-circular feature made of sandstone blocks which stops the tide coming in from the east side of this area. At the top of the enlarged photo, you can just see North Berwick Law (good photos) and at the top left is the promenade above the sandstone cliffs.

I took this video on my Lenovo mobile phone, so not the best camera but it will give you an idea of what it is like standing near The Gripps.

Views from The Gripps

The Hoot and SPLIT: Poems by Juana Adcock

April 28, 2020

Members of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) receive a seasonal online newsletter entitled The Hoot which is put together by Rosie Filipiak, the Communications Officer at SOC. The Hoot’s heading shows a different bird each season and this is the one for this Spring.

The Hoot edited by Rosie Filipiak (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

On of the birds featured in this issue is the bullfinch (link includes bullfinch song) which has the wonderful scientific name of Pyrrhula Pyrrhula. Rosie Filipiak’s description is “Bullfinches are such lovely birds, both sexes with their smart, clearly defined colouring and the male with his gloriously-coloured chest in a difficult to describe bright red/pink/orange hue” and that is as good as I could do. The photo below – Rosie Filipiak gave me permission to download her photos – shows a bullfinch with perhaps some nesting material in its beak – or a captured insect? This is a very graceful looking bird which looks comfortable in its own elegance and I like the contrast between the delicate pink of the chest and the dark blue of its head. The female bullfinch (video) also has different shades on its plumage but the colours are less pronounced.

Bullfinch by Rosie Filipiak

The Hoot includes brief articles and photos by a range of authors. The second one featured here is the eider duck which has the rather serious sounding scientific name of Somateria Mollissima. The name comes from the Greek for body and wool, so the eider duck is seen as having the softest wool. The photo below shows both male and female eider duck and there are no prizes for guessing which is which. We regularly get sets of eider duck in the water at the back of our house and sometimes, when you walk along to Dunbar Harbour, there will be up to 30 male and female eiders in the harbour water. From the harbour side, you can clearly hear the clucking of the females and the whoo-whooing of the males, the latter being quite a comical sound.

Eider duck by Rosie Filipiak

Male eiders have a beautiful light green colour on their necks and this is quite visible when they swim away from you. The photo below hints at this colour but when the sun is on the bird’s neck, the green becomes lighter and more prominent.

Eider duck by Ross Elliott and produced here under the Creative Commons Licence.

The Poetry Book Society’s (PBS) Winter 2019 Choice was Juana Adcock’s debut collection Split. The Guardian reviewer found this collection “unnerving, moving and engrossing” and I would agree with that statement – in parts of the book. Adcock can be a beautifully lyrical poet. In a poem about the Italian Cinque Terre, the land describes itself as “cut into terraces my earth/ hugged together by roots my water/ inking through gaps my stones/ holding together neatly my walls/ tidy in vineyards and olive groves”. The poem – no punctutation – regrets that this pristine land has become a tourist destination in modern times. One of the themes of the book is migration and Adcock adds a very modern aspect to today’s Cinque Terre – “And as the dinghies sink/ and those fleeing from war drown/ wordlessly in my picturesque sea” the Tourist Board is examining how to increase visitor numbers – of tourists that is, not refugees.

I found some of the writing self-indulgent and was not as impressed by the opening section, which is a dialogue between a woman and a snake, although other, and I am sure much more qualified, reviewers raved over this part. The book is also overtly political in parts – and none the less effective for that. In Letters to the Global South, the richer northern hemisphere tells the South “Thank you for sending us your choicest foods/ …. In exchange, please receive these trade agreements/ you never agreed to/ These weapons for small and large-scale kills”. This is of course, a generalisation of the whole northern hemisphere but it is certainly relevant to some countries.

There is also humour in the book and Adcock, who is Mexican and has lived in Glasgow since 2007, amusingly but tellingly compares different languages – Spanish, English and Scots dialect. The poet reflects “Reading Scots on the page, to me/ a non-native of these lands/ is a bit like trying to read an architect’s plans”. The poet listens to Scottish people talking with ” their ars rolling around the muirs/ their els liltin and birlin over the water/ … their ees stretching my face bones higher/ … their liquid ues in the muine-moon” – very clever. It reminded me of living in Australia and doing timing at Wagga Wagga Road Runners, with people mimicking my accent and asking “Where’s the booook James?” as they came to sign in. So I would recommend Split – just don’t believe all the hype.

Walk to Edin’s Hall Broch from Abbey St Bathans

March 28, 2020

The population are all in lock down here in the UK, but as we live in the countryside, it is easier for us to go for local walks – along the beach or up the hills. A few days ago, we drove down to Abbey St Bathans (good photos) which is 16 miles/26K from Dunbar. From this little hamlet, we walked into the deeper countryside to find Edin’s Hall Broch, a 2500 year old structure. The next blog will feature the broch itself but this post will focus on the hilly walk we did. We only met two other people on the walk and we all kept our safe distance.

You start the walk at the car park next to one of the bridges in Abbey St Bathans. There is a sign pointing you through the trees and along the side of the river. The river here is called the Whiteadder (pr Whit-adder) Water and it flows east before joining the River Tweed at the border town of Berwick Upon Tweed (blog post). The photo below shows the view along the path, just before you have to go up to the road for a while. As it’s still March, the deciduous trees are still bare but there is some colour in the evergreens and water sparkles in the light. With no-one else around, we could stop and listen to the water flowing by and the occasional bird song from the trees – very peaceful.

Whiteadder Water at Abbey St Bathans (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

After being on the road for a about 300 metres, you are directed on to a path by a wooden sign. It is hard to tell how old this sign is but it has certainly survived here for many a year. These wooden signs are still quite common in rural areas in the UK and when you follow this sign, you feel as you are taking part in something that has been here for many generations to enjoy. The sign is unusual in that the words have been carved into the wood, rather than printed on and this may be one reason for their longevity.

Weather worn sign to the broch

Once on this new path, the terrain becomes much trickier. The photo below shows the steps down to the riverside and while this is a helpful addition to the walk, you still have to be careful as the steps are uneven. On the way back, this presents a stiff climb which will test your fitness.

Wooden stairway on the way to the broch

At the bottom of the steps, you come back to the river, which is now much narrower. In the photo below, you can see that – probably a longtime ago – there appears to have been a sluice gate across the water, although its purpose is not clear. The ferns at the side of the river have now only dead foliage on view, but there will be growth underneath and if you were to come back here in September, the ferns would be at their peak.

Sluice gate over the Whiteadder Water

You then climb another hill and you come on to a wide expanse of what is essentially moorland. The path towards the broch shows no evidence of sheep having grazed here recently, although this would appear to be perfect sheep country. From the top of the hill, you look down to the valley below and you can see how a glacier once drove its way – at an infinitesimally slow speed – through the hills, pushing them to one side. You then get a view of Retreat House which was originally built by the Earl of Wemyss (pr Weems) as “a hunting lodge with separate flanking wings providing stabling, kennels and staff quarters”. As an aristocratic man’s retreat, it would have been seen as an idyllic location for the earl’s rural pastimes.

Retreat House from the moorland

The next photo shows the house’s proximity to the river and there is no doubt that fishing would have been one of the reason for the earl and his entourage to visit Retreat House. This is a wonderfully panoramic view, looking down to the river, the house and the forests and fields beyond. The bare trees take on a purplish hue when seen from this distance and the trees are reflected in the river. At this time of year, the evergreen pines and firs take on a more graceful appearance than their more ragged looking neighbours, although there is nevertheless a certain elegance about the leafless trees, in which the sap is now rising. Again, this view will be transformed in the summer months.

Retreat House near the Whiteadder Water

This is a varied and attractive walk, with some superb views. The paths can be tricky and it is advisable to have mountain goat abilities at certain points, where the paths go along steep slopes. It is certainly worthwhile once you get to another wooden sign, another tricky path and one more ascent to the broch.

More daffodils – this time with scenic views

March 20, 2020

I walked along to The Glebe in Dunbar, where the annual display of daffodils has once again appeared. On the day I went, there was a strong SW wind, so the daffodils were swaying their heads vigorously from side to side, like young people attending a rock concert. The photo below shows the mass of flowers, most of which are now fully out. Only two weeks ago, this scene was completely green, so there is a wonderful transformation for the passer-by as this wide streak of yellow brightens up the view.

Daffodils at The Glebe (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

On The Glebe, there is a large gun near the cliff edge. This is one of the guns that used to be in the Dunbar barracks and is a 25-pounder Q F Mark II Gun. It was put there to commemorate World War 2 by the local Community Council. It now provides a backdrop to the daffodils. The photo below shows the gun behind the flower mass and to the left of the gun, the Bass Rock can also be seen. According to this site, the first gannets have arrived on the rock.

Daffodils, gun and Bass Rock

The photo below shows soldiers firing canon from an area above Dunbar Harbour. This area later became the Castle Barracks and the gun near the daffodils would have been part of these barracks in the 2nd World War.

Canon artillery training next to Dunbar Harbour

From The Glebe, I walked along to Winterfield Promenade, originally built in 1894 as a gift to the town from the local Baird Family. As you walk along the prom at this time of year, you come across isolated groups of daffodils. How did these flowers get to this location is unknown – people or birds? They are a welcome sight to the walker and have a beautiful backdrop. The photo below shows these elegant and graceful flowers, some of which are just coming out, against the rocks which are on view as the tide was out. On the right, you can see the red sandstone (good photos) cliffs. For many years, sand martins used to create holes in the cliff face and nest there each year. Alas, we do not see these birds any more and I used to enjoy seeing them perform extraordinary acrobatics in the air as they caught insects on the wing.

Daffodils on Winterfield Promenade

Further along to the west, I came across a larger bed of daffodils which were gently swaying in the breeze, being protected by the wall of the golf course from the fierce gusts of the wind. The photo below shows this compact, extended family of flowers with the bare rocks, the Bass Rock and the coast of Fife in the distance. On a clear day like this, you can enjoy a panoramic vista and see for many miles.

Daffodils on the prom with the Bass Rock and Fife beyond

Before turning back, I noticed the complex sky to the southwest. It was late afternoon by this time and the photo below has come out darker than it actually was at the time. Nevertheless, it was a sky which you sensed was changing, with the dark clouds maybe threatening to blot out the exquisite range of colours – of sky and cloud – below. The building on the right is now the clubhouse of Winterfield Golf Club (good photo). It was originally built as Saint Margaret’s, which was owned by the farmer whose lands now form the golf course. The term Winterfield comes from the fact that this land was used for cattle to graze in the winter.

Sky above Winterfield Golf Clubhouse

Blown over daffodils and Country Diary in The Guardian

March 12, 2020

The month of March has come in like a lion here with gales upon gales. One of the victims has been the emerging daffodils and Tête-à-tête in the garden. These have been brought in and now decorate the kitchen window sill. I was looking at the small vase of flowers last night and noticed how the shadows of the flowers could be seen behind the flowers on the kitchen blind. So a photo opportunity presented itself. The photo below shows the daffodils – both white and yellow – with their protruding stigma, pistil and anther. For a detailed description of the parts of a daffodil, see here. What I find intriguing about the photo is the different shapes in the shadows. You don’t just see the flower outlines, as on the left hand side, but a mixture of other shapes. One looks like a bird, while at the bottom, the shadows seem to have spilled over from the blind. There is also the very dark shapes of the stem and the cluster of stems in the vase.

Daffodils and shadows

The photo below is a close up shot of one of the white daffodils in the little vase. The volcano like centre of the flower has the stigma, pistils and anthers shooting out of the dark interior, as if the lava had been instantly liquefied into columns which exploded at the top. The gossamer like petals have their own shapes, delicate shadows and rivulets and look like wings that might carry the daffodil into the air on a Spring wind.

Close up shot of a daffodil head

The final photo is also taken close up but shows the contrast between the white and yellow flowers. The serrated heads of the daffodils look like frilly bonnets which you might see in televised Victorian dramas. The sharp edged petal of the yellow one reminded me of the hood of a Ku Klux Klan member, only in yellow. The white petals have a ghostly look and could be flapping like bats in the air. The more you look at flowers like this, the more you see – or think you see. Flowers like these are a heart-warming sight at this time of year, especially in a warm kitchen, with the wind howling outside and the rain battering the conservatory roof next door.

Daffodils under the kitchen lights

One of the delights of getting The Guardian delivered every day i.e. in proper paper form, not online (although nothing wrong with that for those who prefer that mode) is reading the Country Diary. Yesterday’s entry began “The trees on the hill are shaking in the wind. From the top of one of them, somewhere, a woodlark persists with its pretty, lilting song. I look for it, but it must be hidden by branches”. The photo below shows this engaging, tiny little bird, whose song is not just pretty, but lilting and the use of this word means you can imagine the type of sound it might make. To hear the woodlark, check out here.

Woodlark by Jan Svetlik and used under the Creative Commons Licence

My favourite Country Diary columnist is Paul Evans (read columns here) and one of his recent contributions is entitled “The gatherings at a bird feeder are anything but random”. Evans is a poet in disguise and he writes that the birds at the feeder are “oblivious to being watched as they flit and thrum about their daily lives”. If you watch a bird feeder, then flit and thrum are expressive verbs to describe the action. Also, “individual birds circle around the feeder, which is the axis of their world” – another superb, concise description. The entry ends with “They are all beautiful and complex, nervous and obsessive, a society devoted to the mysterious providence of the watchers”. This is an interesting concept, that the bird display is for our benefit. The photo below shows two goldfinches at a bird feeder, showing off their splendid colours.

Goldfinches at a feeder by Jans Canon and used under the Creative Commons Licence.

The word “Spring” and Dunbar chimneys

March 2, 2020

In the top half of the world – or the bottom half if you see the southern hemisphere as the key area – today, the 1st March is the first day of Spring. This set me thinking about the word Spring or spring and its many connotations. As a season of the year, Spring is celebrated as bringing growth in plants and warmer weather, although this is not true today as it is five degrees but feels like minus one in the strong wind. The American poet Billy Collins writes “If ever there were a spring day so perfect,/ so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze/ that it made you want to throw
open/ all the windows in the house…”. In terms of nature, we think of Spring as when the sap is rising particularly in trees, promising a future of leaves and flowers. The human analogy of this can be found in Tennyson’s poem Locksley Hall – “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”. Spring also brings new colour to the garden and already we have daffodils and tête-à-tête shining yellow in the sunshine.

Last year, I included the two photos below in this blog post and passing the village yesterday, this year’s crocus extravaganza is well on its way.

Crocus display in Stenton (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Yellow and purple crocus in Stenton

I resisted the temptation to look up spring in a thesaurus and decided to exercise my mind in thinking of uses of the word. I came up with: What springs to mind is..; a spring in your step; springing to life; a settee spring; a spring as a source of water e.g. hot springs in Whakarewarewa (good video and photo below); s/he is no Spring chicken – an ageist phrase nowadays; and to spring a surprise on someone. No doubt there are many more for this very flexible word.

Visitors to Dunbar from countries like Australia, as well as today’s children, are often fascinated by the number of chimneys to be seen on the top of houses in the town. Many of these houses and High Street flats were built in the nineteenth century and, as central heating had yet to be invented, each room had to have a fireplace and each fireplace needed access to a chimney to allow the smoke to escape. Chimneys or lums as they are known in Scotland, are now mainly architectural features, maintained to preserve the look of the houses. Coal fires were, of course, a major source of pollution, particularly in cities, because of the type of coal used, but for most people, this was the only source of heating available. Older people in the UK will remember that many houses – council or private – only had a fire in the living room and that leaving that warm room e.g. for the toilet, was a chastening and often freezing experience in the winter.

You almost never see a coal lorry nowadays and even in 2012, when I posted this photo on the blog, it was a rare sight to see a coal man carrying a hundredweight of coal on his back.

Delivering coal

Walking up towards the High Street from my house, you look down on a row of large houses in East Links Road. The first photo shows the chimneys through the still leafless trees and beyond the houses, the Old Harbour walls are visible next to the sea. The second photo shows a range of different chimneys – enlarge for better effect – and also that many of the chimney stacks are situated between two houses. This allowed builders to create fireplaces in both houses, using only one chimney stack.

Roofs and chimneys on East Links Road
Chimneys in the sunshine

Further up the road, what was formerly the Dolphin Hotel is now being refurbished to be a hostel for visiting surfers, walkers and other tourist. In the photo below, you can see the newly restored chimney pots, with the silver tops to keep out birds. Meanwhile, two local seagulls sit nonchalantly enjoying the winter sunshine.

Seagulls on restored chimney pots

On to the High Street itself, where there is a multitude of chimneys, the photo below shows the number of chimneys needed to serve the flats below. Most of the chimneys on view here have been restored in the 20th century and none are used now for their original purpose. What I particularly like about this photo is that you can see the chimneys themselves, but also the shadows of the chimneys. In former times, the chimneys would have been as black as their twenty first century shadows, because of the smoke. With the demise of coal fires, the skilled trade of chimney sweep – those who came into people’s houses and pushed brushes up the chimneys to clean off the accumulated soot – has now almost gone.

Chimneys on Dunbar High Street

Going back to phrases, he smokes like a chimney is mainly redundant now but was a common saying, especially in the mod twentieth century. Also, in Scotland, at New Year, people would toast each other, saying Lang may yer lum reek – on other folks’ coal. This meant – long may your chimney smoke with other people’s coal – and was a humorous phrase but noting the alleged meanness of the Scots.

My new book and Scottish Nature Photography Awards

February 21, 2020

The delay in posting this has been caused by the very enthusiastic response I have had following the publication of my new book Dunbar in the 1950s (cover below). The book is the result of my research over the last five years into aspects of Dunbar – my home town – in the 1950s. The book’s contents are:

Chapter 1 – The whales at Thorntonloch in 1950 revisited; Chapter 2 – Rationing; Chapter 3 – Housing; and Chapter 4 – Entertainment Chapter 5 – The Store: The Co-operative shops in Dunbar; Chapter 6 – Lipton’s shop; Chapter 7 – George Low & Son: The shop, the businesses and the auctions; Chapter 8 – MJ and B Williamson’s shop; Chapter 9 – AT Smith’s shop; Chapter 10 – Louis Allen’s shop; Chapter 11 – Knox the Newsagent’s shop; Chapter 12 – Carruthers’ shop and restaurant/cafe; Chapter 13 – Conclusion.

This is an oral and social history of some aspects of life in Dunbar in the 1950s. Although the book focuses on one town, most of the book could relate to any small town in the UK in the 1950s and some chapters, such as Rationing, Housing and shops such as The Co-operative or Lipton’s would also be relevant to major cities at the this time. The chapters were chosen according to whether I had access to people to interview and, in the shops’ chapters, could provide me with contemporary photographs. Oral history allows the authentic voices of people from different social strata to be recorded. I am hoping to set up a Dunbar Oral History Archive (DOHA) later this year. Social history allows people who would not normally appear in history books to have their voices heard, particularly working class people. This book features the memories of both working class and middle class people.

My new local history book (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Many of the photos given to me by my interviewees are quite unique. In the photo below, Jimmy Combe, who has lived all his life in Dunbar, is seen here not long after he joined the Cooperative – known locally as The Store – returning from delivering messages (Scots for shopping) to houses in the West end of Dunbar. The photo was taken by street photographers Robin Hall and Jimmie McGregor who later became famous folk artists. You can see the bike – known as a message bike – in the photo, with East Lothian Co-operative and possibly Dunbar underneath. Jimmy was 14 when joined the Co-operative in 1947 and worked his way up to become a qualified grocer and later store manager.

Jimmy Combe – message boy

The latest exhibition at Waterson House in Aberlady is focused on African Wildlife but I am featuring the previous (still touring) exhibition of the Scottish Nature Photography Awards. As you might expect, there is a very high quality of photographs on display. I was sent the first and second winners by a member of SOC staff and they are presented here with permission. We all have our different opinions about what might or might not win such competitions and in this case, my own vote would have gone to the second prize winner. The magnificent photo below shows a curlew – my favourite bird – with its impressive sounding scientific name numenius arquata, in its full splendour. I have noted before on the blog that I see curlews regularly through my scope on the rocks in front of our house. Only two days ago, I was watching a curlew doing exactly what the photo shows. The bird bends its head to the side and inserts it fully underneath a rock. It only does this for a short time, as it raises its head again to check for danger. On perhaps the third probe, the curlew straightens up with a crab in its beak. At first, I thought that the crab might be too big for this long-beaked hunter, but the curlew nonchalantly tossed the crab into the air, opened its beak fully and devoured the unfortunate crab, which was in the wrong place at the wrong time on this rocky Dunbar shoreline.

This is a very graceful bird, with its flowing feathers, sharp eye and even sharper, penetrative beak. I like the way the photographer has captured the light on the bird, highlighting the patterns on its back, white breast and legs. An enviable talent took this shot.

Eurasian Curlew with Shore Crab by Toby Houlton

The winning photograph is shown below. When you enlarge the photo, you see what I imagine many people might think to be an even more graceful animal. There is no doubt that this is a beautiful shot and possibly unique, as it captures the young roe deer (good photos) with the flowers in its mouth. I like the way the photograph frames the roe kid between the grasses. Your eye is immediately drawn to the deer itself, with the blurry grasses acting as props. The roe kid looks as alert to danger as the curlew always does. So, roe kid or curlew – who would you vote for as winner? If can see this exhibition on its tour, then do take the opportunity to see it, as you will be very well rewarded.

Roe Kid Flowers by Phil Johnston

Channel Wagtail, Black-Winged Stilt and walk up to The Biel Burn

January 17, 2020

More birds this time – real birds and nature as art when photographed. The September 2018 issue of Scottish Birds has some stunning photos of birds in a range of different environments. I have been given permission to feature two of the photographs by the editors of the journal. The first bird in the photo below is a new one to me, the Channel Wagtail (good photos) which has the impressive scientific name of Motacilla flava flava x flavissima. Such birds are known as intergrades, as they are the result of inter breeding between Blue-Headed and Yellow Wagtails. I particularly like the delicacy of this photo, with the bird perched on the ear of barley, giving you an idea of how lightweight the wagtail is. The green ears of the ripening crop have an interesting structure and look like the backs of armadillos. The bird only weighs 22g at the most and so the thin legs do not have to carry much, although the bird looks robust. The combination of the delicate yellows, blues and purples make this a very attractive bird, which has a determined eyes and potentially fierce beak. If the wagtail landed on your hand, you would hardly feel a thing.

Channel Wagtail – photo by Stuart Gillies (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The second bird is the Black-Winged Stilt (good photos) – Himantopus himantopus – and the Bird Watching magazine website comments “The naming of the stilts, of course, comes from just how long these legs are, looking wildly out of proportion with the rest of the bird. This is particularly apparent when the bird is in flight and the long, red legs trail miles behind!”. This bird is much bigger and can be up to to 10 times the weight of the little wagtail above. In this photo, only half of the stilt’s legs can be seen, as it is wading in maybe four inches of water. The sharpened dagger of its beak looks much more sturdy than its legs and is used to spear small fish and pluck worms from the mud. It is a very elegant bird with its black head, white body and smooth black wings neatly folded over and if it was human, could grace any social situation with its sartorial elegance.

Black-winged Stilt – photo by Jim Dickson

Another cold but very bright winter’s day and another walk, this time 4 miles (6.5K) inland. I drove to Pitcox Farm, where the first snowdrops (blog photos) appear every year and left the car there. I opened the large iron gate leading to the fields and closed it carefully. In the photo below, you can see what lay ahead of me – green fields of winter wheat bisected by tractor tracks, made glaury (pr glorry = muddy) by the previous day’s rain. I have cycled on this route many times on my mountain bike, but rarely, if ever, walked it. You emerge from an area wooded on both sides to this open expanse of farmland and it is a glorious sight on a crisp, fresh day.

Tractor tracks at Pitcox

One of the most aesthetically pleasing aspects of the fields at this time of year, apart from the ever darkening green, is the curved lines of young corn and brown earth in between. In its way, this is as graceful as the curve of the stilt’s neck. The bare trees beyond the field become light-tipped in the sun on the left side of the photo below.

Emerging winter wheat at Pitcox

I walked over the hill and down towards the burn and Biel House (of which more in a later blog) and came across (photos below) a line of silver birch trees stretching out along the side of the field to the east. The first photo shows the trees frantically waving to the south, with a line of copper hedging at the base of their trunks. The second photo shows the backs of the trees which are more or less branchless, probably because the trees put out their wooden feelers towards the sun from the south to gain energy.

Silver birch near the Biel Burn
Silver birch and tree replanting near the Biel Burn

Just around the corner from the re-plantation, the Biel Burn was flowing briskly under the bridge on its way to the sea, four miles away. In the photo below, the manicured lawn on the right belongs to Biel House and there is a variety of deciduous and evergreen trees lining the banks of the river/burn. All along the water, the trees are reflected and cast their complex images half way across the flowing stream.

The Biel Burn on the Biel estate

When I reached the bridge – the photo above is looking west – I took this video to try to capture this very attractive rural scene. It was a peaceful walk and I saw no-one else while I was there, so I enjoyed the solace of the calm – and calming – countryside around me.

On the bridge at the Biel Burn

Darren Woodhead exhibition and Dazzling Blue on Xmas Day

January 8, 2020

The current (ends on 15 January 2020) exhibition on at Waterston House in Aberlady, home of SOC, is by the renowned wildlife artist Darren Woodhead (video). I reviewed Darren Woodhead’s previous SOC exhibition on the blog here. This new exhibition is no less stunning than the previous one and shows the artist at the height of his powers. Woodhead has a very distinct style and a key feature of this style is shown in the example below. Our eyes are attracted to the sunflowers – the complicated structure of the flower heads and the vivid yellow petals. If you hadn’t seen the title of the work, you might pass on to the next painting without seeing the tiny, almost elusive but very elegant birds. The goldfinches’ yellow, black, brown, white and red patches then catch your eye. So the artist’s skill is in making us look closely at the whole painting. As with all the examples here, the photos of the paintings do not do justice to the actual paintings, many of which are quite large.

Goldfinch on Sunflowers by Darren Woodhead (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The second example below shows that Darren Woodhead’s range is not confined to birds. This is a different painting altogether, with the strong colours of the butterflies standing out, as opposed to the lighter shades used in the picture above. So this could be seen as a heavier and darker composition, but there is a lightness about the butterflies which appear to be in motion. Anyone who had tried to photograph red admirals will know that they are creatures of almost perpetual motion, stopping only briefly on flowers to feed. As with all his paintings, the artist here captures the variety of colours on display and I like the contrast between the strong blues, oranges and blacks of the butterflies and the lighter purples and yellows of the flower heads. Look at the butterflies and you will see that each one has its own individual – and fascinating – colour scheme.

Red Admiral Butterflies by Darren Woodhead

The third example is the lightest of the three and, like the goldfinches’ painting, is a very delicate portrayal of these small birds. Tree sparrows differ from house sparrows (of which we have an intermittent population nesting in the eaves of our house) in appearance, in that they have ” a solid chestnut-brown head and nape, whilst house sparrows (males at least) have a light grey crown”. Darren Woodhead has captured the solid heads of the birds and he has also shown how well camouflaged these birds can be by showing the similarities in shape and colour of the birds’ plumage and the leaves on the branch where the birds are perched. The two tree sparrows look as if they might be enjoying a warm summer’s day, with the sun showing off the white face of the bird on the right. They look at ease with the day and with each other.

Tree Sparrow Pair by Darren Woodhead

If you can get to see this exhibition or another display by this artist, do not hesitate to go, as you will be in for a visual treat.

We awoke on Xmas Day in Dunbar to a cold, bright, sunny morning with a big Australian sky i.e. cloudless, above us. I went for a walk to the shoreline next to Dunbar Golf Club (good photos), taking my camera with me. I went along the side of the course, where quite a few golfers were out, no doubt trying out their Xmas presents. I then went down on to the little stretch of beach just beyond the 4th green. It was a very still day and the sea was flat calm, with only the gentlest of surf i.e. what Philip Larkin observed, with wonderful onomatopoeia, as “the small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse”. It was the colours that enthralled me. The photo below shows a smallish rock pool which reflected the clear blue sky and if you look carefully, you can see the small reflections of the little rocks in the pool.

Blue rock pool to the east of Dunbar

The next photo shows the larger pond, the sea beyond and the sky, which is of a lighter blue than the pond. Not long after I took this photo, a single greylag goose appeared at the far side of the pond. If I had taken my long lens, I could have had a close up shot. I could clearly see its pink beak as it glided nonchalantly across the pond, keeping its distance from me.

Large pool on the shore at Dunbar Golf Club

Looking at the pond reminded me of Paul Simon’s excellent song Dazzling Blue and this superb video shows him singing the song.

Back on the beach, there was a scattering of seaweed of various shapes, textures and colours.The photo below shows an example of the smooth, leathery seaweed which you could imagine might be made into belts. I liked the way the sun caught parts of the shiny surfaces and cast intriguing shadows across the myriad shell sand. It is a natural piece of abstract sculpture abandoned by the sea on the beach and waiting for rescue on the incoming tide.

Seaweed and shadows on the beach

The final photo looks back across the town of Dunbar. If you enlarge the photo, you will see the buildings of the Old Harbour on the right, the top of the modern swimming pool and the multi-chimneyed skyline of the High Street, with the white golf clubhouse on the left and the church behind it. In the foreground are the rocks at low tide and the dazzling blue of the pond taken from the side, half way up from the beach. So an enchanting walk on a dazzling Xmas Day.

Dunbar skyline from the east

Frosty by the river and in the garden

December 15, 2019

A week past Sunday, it was -5 degrees during the night in Dunbar – unusually cold for us. The result was a very hard frost everywhere and even the beach was partially white. We walked to Belhaven Pond which I had expected to be frozen over, but there was only ice at the edges. Further along, towards West Barns Bridge – featured previously on the blog here – the path was a streak of white. The photo below shows the path along to the bridge and – on the bike – you approach the path down a tricky slope, just behind this shot. This was not a day for a road bike on the path. You can see how white the grass is over the Biel Burn – burn is Scots for stream – and the trees are bare beyond, except for the pines.

Frosty path at West Barns Bridge (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The next photo shows more of the grass and the equally frosted field beyond. It was a cold but beautifully still day, with the sun on the river reflecting the grass on the right and the bridge at the top left. There was just a gentle ripple in the burn as it meandered its way on to Belhaven Bay.

Frosty burnside at West Barns

Looking over the wall approaching the path beside the burn, Belhaven Bay can be seen at low tide in the photo below. The beach was host to a large flock of seagulls, as well as – out of picture – oystercatchers, redshanks and curlews. On the right, you can see St Margaret’s House, the present day home of Winterfield Golf Club. Coming down on to the beach itself, you can cross Belhaven Bridge. When the tide comes in and covers the steps, it is known as The Bridge to Nowhere (good photos).

Belhaven Bay

The frost also brought a white addition to the flowers in pots on our decking. While both the compost in the pots and the flowers were frozen, there is a startling beauty about this altered state of nature. In the first photo below, the pansy’s flowers have been transformed into starched butterfly wings and the frost shows the mottled surface of the dark purple flower very clearly. The white and paler purple flower could be part of a Japanese fan or a painted scallop shell. The contrast between the normally soft and floppy flowers and these stiffened petals is quite marked. We could be looking at a different flower altogether. In the second photo, the flower has been broken – probably by the recent strong winds – and looks like a frosted dome, while the greenery on the plant has a thick white covering which emphasises the patterns on the flower.

Frosted pansy
Broken and frosted pansy

I have also planted polyanthus in the pots this year and they too are changed by the frost. In the photo below, the leaves of the plant are changed into fern-like structures, with each element of the pattern clearly delineated by the frost. The flowers looked shocked by the onset of this icy blast but the frost enhances the yellow and pink colours of the polyanthus and this is a very attractive sight.

In his poem Hard Frost, Andrew Young writes

Frost called to water “Halt!”
And crusted the moist snow with sparkling salt.
Brooks, their own bridges, stop,
And icicles in long stalactites drop,
And tench in water holes
Lurk under gluey glass like fish in bowls.

You can see that my flowers have been “crusted …. with sparkling salt” – a perceptive metaphor for the frost.