Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Lucy Newton exhibition and walking up to Arthur’s seat

July 5, 2017

At Waterston House in Aberlady, the current exhibition (until 26 July) is by well known wildlife artist Lucy Newton. I reviewed Lucy’s last exhibition at SOC here almost exactly 2 years ago. If you had asked me in 2015 whether the then exhibition could be surpassed in quality, I would have doubted it, but along comes Lucy Newton in 2017 and produces an even more stunning exhibition than the last one. I again requested two images for the blog and Lucy kindly sent me four. The first one on view below is Brown Hare and I found the detail of the animal’s fur amazingly delicate, especially the whiskers around the mouth. You have a feeling from the hare’s eye that it is sensing something – danger perhaps and getting ready to run. The alert hare looks comfortable in her/his environment – sprigs of heather  and maybe snow? You can see how the hare might blend in nicely and use the heather as camouflage. I occasionally see hares while out cycling and the hare will often stop on the road, look at you from a distance, as if daring you to catch it. As soon as you get anywhere near it, the hare speeds down the road and disappears through a hedge. Even Chris Froome would not catch a hare.

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Brown Hare by Lucy Newton (Click to enlarge)

Choosing the 2nd photo of Lucy Newton’s work was difficult. There is a superb painting of a woodpecker on a moss laden tree, in which the moss and the bark flow down the trunk, and contrast with the vibrant colours of the bird. I chose the painting below of a barn owl in flight. You can see in the photo below that there is an energetic sense of movement about this piece of art. It is more stunning at the exhibition itself, as when you first see it, there is a fleeting feeling that the owl might really be in flight. In the background to the bird here, the series of abstract shapes also suggest movement to me and they reflect the swish of the bird’s wings, which are drawn with such detail that you see and feel action in the depiction of flight. This is an exhibition not to be missed if you are in the area.

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Barn Owl in Flight by Lucy Newton

My good friend an ex-colleague from Charles Sturt University Bob Pymm visited us recently from Australia. Unlike the rest of June in Dunbar, it was a gloriously sunny and warm weekend, with a flat calm sea. On the Monday, we got the train up to Edinburgh and walked up Arthur’s Seat (good photos). We walked from the Scottish Parliament along part of Holyrood Park (good photos in Gallery) and then up the direct route. It’s quite a climb up the rough steps and there are some parts where the scree is slippery. However, you get great views of the city as you climb higher. The first photo looks over to Fife, with eastern part of the city in view.

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View from half way up to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

In the 2nd photo, Edinburgh Castle (good photos) is prominent on the right of the photo, with the spire of St Giles’ Cathedral half obscured by the Salisbury Crags. At the very top of Arthur’s Seat, there were crowds of visiting tourists, many of them young people, and we heard many languages going up and down the track. Edinburgh is now a very cosmopolitan city all the year round an there is great pleasure to be had in seeing so many people from different nations enjoying this outdoor environment.

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View across Edinburgh city centre from near the top of Arthur’s Seat

Going back to town, for lunch in the famous World’s End pub with its range of Belhaven beer, brewed here in Dunbar, we walked around the back of the Scottish Parliament, with its exquisite use of wood outside the offices of the MSPs. The photos below show firstly the wide view of the so-called “think pods” in the offices. In theory, these were designed to help the members as they contemplated developing policies to help the Scottish people. More cynical views see the pods as places where plots are hatched against the opposition.

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“Think pods” at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

The second photos shows a closer view of the pods and their external wooden facades. The pods are elegantly designed and the wooden poles, set at angles to become an abstract feature, add to the aesthetic quality of the building’s exterior.

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“Think pods” and wooden facades at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

 

 

Mantel on history and Constable and McTaggart exhibition

June 14, 2017

A very interesting article in The Guardian Review section by well known author Hilary Mantel. In the article, Mantel discusses “Why I became a historical novelist” and writes “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims”. The author cites her great grandmother as an example of a historical figure and there is evidence of where her relative grew up, who she married and of her 10 children. However, Mantel, argues “I have no access to her thoughts” and it is in expressing the thoughts and words of historical characters – real or imagined – that the work of the historical novelist is involved. Mantel also discusses what we call history and states that “history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record”. My first degree was in history and I’m now doing an oral history project on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s, so definitions of history intrigue me. I remember having lectures in 1st year at university where the lecturer posed the question “What is history” and referred to E H Carr’s book with that title. Much of Carr’s arguments about what constitutes history has been revised since the 1960s when it was published. In my own educational research and in my current local history research, I take a constructivist view i.e. that historians construct their versions of history from evidence that is also constructed. For example, in my oral history project, when I was interviewing people about visiting the whales stranded at Thorntonloch in 1950, I was not expecting the people (aged between 70 and 95) to report what they saw, but to construct the scene from their memory. My job was then to interpret what I heard in the interviews and newspaper reports and construct a version of events in my book. So history for me is an interpretation of events in the past, not a reporting of them.

An exhibition currently on at the National Gallery in Edinburgh features the work of John Constable and William McTaggart. This is a small but powerful exhibition with 2 outstanding paintings at its core. The first is Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows shown below.

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Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable (Click to enlarge)

This is a very large painting and in the booklet helpfully provided by the National Gallery at the exhibition, Constable is quoted as stating “I do not consider myself at work without I am before a six-foot canvas”. At the time of this painting, landscape was not seen as a proper subject for artists and Constable was also criticised for his use of both brush and knife when paintings were supposed to be smooth. It is also very detailed and worth close study at the exhibition or online. At first, you notice the rainbow, the church, the large tree and the cart being hauled across the river by horses. Then you see the dog in the foreground, the birds on the water and another church to the left. What is striking of course are the clouds and their various colours and the threat of rain. Constable was criticised for his depiction of the clouds as it was a departure from the painting norms at the time. The booklet states “Constable created a varied surface where dense, craggy areas alternate with passages of subtle translucence and movement is created by the dynamic application and flecking of paint”. The more you look at this picture, the more you do see movement in the horses, the swaying trees and the clouds.

The exhibition seeks to show how McTaggart was influenced by Constable, particularly in his painting The Storm shown below.

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The Storm by William McTaggart (Click to enlarge)

This painting is not as clear as Constable’s and deliberately so. The first impression you get is of the flow of the water and light and landscape, like a lava stream. Then you see the figures at the bottom left who look desperate and frightened. Look again and in the mid to top right a small boat looks in peril on the sea. The notes at the exhibition comment on McTaggart’s “remarkably dynamic brushwork” which was influenced by Impressionism. There are other paintings in this exhibition by Constable and McTaggart which makes a visit to the National Gallery well worth while. As a footnote, my lifelong friend Tam, on a recent visit to Dunbar, recalled that my current interest in form and shape in art did not match my inability to create art at school. Despite the advice of our excellent art teacher Carnegie Brown, my attempts were hopeless. I still can’t draw for toffee but I have learned to appreciate some aspects of art, including how it is constructed.

 

Paul Bartlett paintings, St Emilion and Paul’s Place

June 6, 2017

A recent exhibition (now closed) at Waterston House in Aberlady featured the intriguing work of wildlife artist Paul Bartlett. I was rather late in contacting Paul Bartlett, but he kindly sent me two examples of his work to use in this blog. He uses a mixture of media, in particular collage and papier mache with acrylic paints. From a distance, the works look like paintings but as you approach, you see the often stunning effects of the use of different media together. For example, in the first work below, it’s not clear that this is not a “normal” painting i.e. using only paint. Oystercatchers are a very familiar sight on the rocks near our house and I often watch them through my scope, as they poke with intent at limpets on the rocks. Once the limpet has been eased off the rock, the oystercatcher will scoop out of the flesh and dip this tasty ( I assume) snack in a rockpool before eating it. They are also very disputatious birds and you can hear them often before you see them. The ones in the picture below look at ease with the world and Bartlett captures their orange beaks and legs very well, although his aim is not to reproduce a copy of an oystercatcher. This is a representation of the bird and its seaside environment, which is cleverly depicted by the blues and greens in the background and the various colours of seaweed, sand and rocks beneath their feet. When you see the actual picture, the effects of the mixed media enhance the quality of the colours and the flowing shapes in the birds’ feathers.

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The Roost by Paul Bartlett

The second work shown here depicts a shoal of rainbow trout swimming determinedly upstream to spawn. You can see the determination in the eyes of the fish, intent on one purpose only. It looks a glum business but maybe in real life, this is an exhilarating process for the fish, in their communal venture. Rainbow trout have the intriguing official name Oncorhynchus mykiss  which comes for the Greek for hooked snout, with mykiss being a name the fish are given in Russia. A romantic fish? As with the oystercatchers above, the colours in this work are very impressive and you find yourself going from fish to fish to see the multitude of colours on display. This work is so detailed that it must have taken the artist a long time to create and paint. There is also great motion in the work and when you look away and look back, you think that another group of trout have swum into the picture. Bartlett’s work will shortly be seen at the annual Pittenweem Arts Festival, so if you can get  to see his work there or in the future, don’t miss it, as you will be very impressed.

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Rainbow by Paul Bartlett

On our trip to Bordeaux, we took the train to the lovely village of St Emilion, famous for its surrounding vineyards and world famous chateaux, which produce superb wines. There’s a distinct classification of the wines, with Premier Grand Cru Classe A deemed to be the best and of course this is the most expensive. For example, a bottle of Chateau Ausone from 2011 can set you back £835. I did buy a bottle of wine in one of the many wine shops in St Emilion but it was a Grand Cru and not a Classe A. Would I know that the Chateau Ausone 2011 was worth over £800 if I tasted it? I doubt it but give me a few free lessons and tastings and I will learn quickly.

The village itself is charming – once you get there. When we got off the train, we and the other passengers looked around to see vineyards all around us, which was a bit perplexing. We then saw a sign saying that the village of St Emilion was a 20 min walk – we did it in 15 min in 28 degrees and sunshine. You walk up cobbled streets past the old houses and the never ending succession of wine shops. It’s a steep climb but at the top you get great views across the village. We climbed the church tower to see the two views in the photos below.

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St Emilion from the church tower

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View of St Emilion vineyards from the church tower

The village is over looked by the huge Monolithic Church (includes short video) originally built in the 12th century. The church is so-called because the hillside was excavated and the church built upon the catacombs to form one building. It’s a very impressive sight as the photos below show. In the first photo, you can see the magnificent carvings on the entrances as well as on the bell-tower and your eye is taken from the older, rounded parts of the church up to the bell-tower. The 2nd photo shows how the church was built to dominate the village and to remind the population of the power of the church, as well as being a tribute to Saint Emilion, an 8th century hermit.

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The Monolithic Church in St Emilion

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St Emilion and the Monolithic Church

A final note on Bordeaux. There are some excellent restaurants in the city and the three most memorable are shown in the business cards below. From the right, Chez Dupont (good photos)was a real find on our first night in Bordeaux. The hotel suggested the Rue Notre Dame, where you’ll find a number of good restaurants away from the city centre and Chez Dupont provided us with an excellent meal, the sea bream being delicious. Near the river, but not on the quayside, the Restaurant Au Bouchons de Chartrons was another great find. We had swordfish with vegetables served in neatly tied plastic, see through bag. This method is known as sous vide and is popular in France. The third restaurant Paul’s Place proved to be more than just a restaurant. On leaving the Chez Dupont, we passed Paul’s Place and saw that on the Saturday evening, there was a singer performing Bob Dylan songs, so we booked a table. This turned out to be a great evening, with Andy Jefferies playing a range of early Bob Dylan songs – and singing them very well – accompanied by a slide show of Dylan photos and video. The food in Paul’s Place is rustic, very tasty and extremely good value for money. The co-owner Paul is a friendly and welcoming host, formerly of Cambridge. The restaurant has bohemian (but fascinating) décor e.g. the ceiling is papered with the front pages of the Times Literary Supplement. This restaurant is certainly worth a visit.

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Bordeaux restaurants

Tigh Na Leigh and their orchids

April 18, 2017

We went for an overnight stay last week to the village of Alyth (good photos) in Perthshire. As we drove towards Alyth, we passed many fields of raspberry canes and others with polytunnels for strawberries. We were now in the area of the Berry Fields O’Blair –  a famous Scots song about the people who used take a holiday in July and spend it picking berries. Another song is When the Yellow’s on the Broom (contains old photos) which is about the travelling people in Scotland who spent the winter in scaldy (i.e. non-travellers) houses, often in very poor conditions, but went berry picking in the summer. The song describes the travelling people as the gan(g)aboot folk, who tak tae the road when the broom flowers. We were booked in to the Tigh Na Leigh (pr Tie Na Lee) Guest House. You have to take the Guest House part with a pinch of salt. This is no ordinary guest house, it’s more of a boutique hotel, with luxurious accommodation. The website has several photos of the interior of the house and there were some exquisite touches such as the egg tree shown below in one of the very comfortable guest lounges.

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Egg tree at Tigh Na Leigh (Click to enlarge)

Also in this lounge, is a log fire built into the wall, with a glass front. Many years ago, we used to live in a house with 2 wood stoves, and there is no better heat than that which comes from burning logs. Also, there is the fascination with the action taking place in the fire itself. The logs attract the flames and are consumed by them, after changing shapes and colours many times. It’s hard to look away from the wildly exotic aerobics of the flames. Sitting by the fire with a glass of wine before dinner was a real treat.

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Log fire at Tigh Na Leigh

The owners, Bettina and Chris, made us very welcome and if you like aeroplane business class service, then Tigh Na Leigh is the place for you, as that’s what you get. We opted to eat in and were sent a menu the day before. For starters, I had a delicious twice-baked smoked haddock (smokie) soufflé, pictured below. This was delicious, with a creamy cheese sauce to enhance the light and delicate soufflé. Our main courses of duck comfit and salmon fillet were also very tasty and the food and wine is very reasonably priced

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Double baked “smokie” soufflé at Tigh Na Leigh

The large dining room, which also has a lounge area, looks out on an extensive garden with a large pond (photo below) and while we had dinner, there were a succession of birds appearing on the lawn or the pond. Behind the pond is large stone fronted mound which was built by the present owners but looks as if it’s been there for centuries, and it has a very natural looking waterfall emerging from it. You also have breakfast in this room and there were numerous bowls of fruit – raspberries, strawberries and blueberries – and fruit compote, as well as yoghurt and a range of cereals. This is in addition to the varied breakfast menu, which includes some of Chris’s excellent omelettes. When you stay here, you start the day very well. Bettina did tell us of one very unwelcome (and non-paying!) guest – an otter which ate all the fish in the pond and threatens to return if the pond is re-stocked. We cannot recommend this superlative accommodation too highly, so if you are travelling in Perthshire, don’t miss it.

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The pond at Tigh Na Leigh

Tigh Na Leigh has flowers in every room and on the stair, there are two beautiful orchids which were instantly attracted to my camera. According to the RHS “Indoor orchids are mainly epiphytic (growing on trees) or lithophytic (growing on rocks)”. So, two new words for my vocabulary, although don’t test me anytime soon. The orchids I saw were beautifully balanced and delicately coloured. In the first photo below, the petals appear to be made of whipped egg whites and stroked with purple food dye, while the centre looks like a small stage with an ornate backdrop.

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Orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

In the 2nd photo, we move into the surreal. The more you look, the more different images you are likely to see. A tiger’s head? A Daliesque set of tonsils? The colours are numerous shades of purple and yellow. The 3rd photo is perhaps more dreamlike and the top half could be an imaginary creature in a SciFi film. What of the bottom half? Purple moons from a planet hundreds of light years away? As ever, you are bound to see something else or different.

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Centre of an orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

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Centre of an orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

 

Carol Barrett exhibition and Wagga Beach

April 3, 2017

It was on 22 March 2014 that I last featured an exhibition by the superb wildlife artist Carol Barrett on this blog. The artist has another exhibition of her paintings at Waterston House in Aberlady, home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, of which I am a member  although I’m not a practising birder. Just as the Inuit People don’t like to be called Eskimos, so birders don’t like to be called twitchers. This new exhibition – only on until 5th April – a few days hence – is one we’ve been meaning to visit for ages but it was certainly worth the effort. While the last exhibition concentrated fully on Carol Barrett’s stunning paintings of African wildlife, especially the magnificent elephants, the current exhibition has an Australian section. The African part of the exhibition contains intensely detailed portraits of elephants, lions, hyenas and cheetahs. It is the detail e.g. of the lion or cheetah’s whiskers that is so impressive and Carol Barrett’s paintings do present these graceful but powerful animals very well. In the Australian part of the exhibition, there are beautiful portrayals of birds – rosellas, cockatoos and kookaburras – as well as animals such as koalas. This section brought back memories of our 3 year stay in Australia in the 2000s. Before going to work for Charles Sturt University, I was told that I would see what were referred to as budgies and parrots flying around. I thought I was being teased but in fact, you do see budgies/parakeets and many different kinds of parrots in towns and in the countryside. As an aside, the term budgies is also Australian slang for men’s tight fitting swimming trunks or speedos.

I emailed Carol Barrett and she kindly sent me two samples from the exhibition. The first is of a sulphur crested cockatoo. This is a fine image and captures the bird’s rather haughty look, its punk hairstyle, its vicious beak and alert brown eye. This is a cockatoo at peace with the world. These birds often sound as if they are at war with the world. The first time I heard these birds was when, not long after arriving in Wagga Wagga to live, I was out cycling in the countryside. I passed a large tree but did not see the birds in it. The next thing I knew was that there was a hellish screeching just behind me and then in front of me as a group of cockatoos screamed past me. I really did get a fright. If you went down to the Murrumbidgee River (good photos) in Wagga Wagga at dusk, hundreds of cockatoos came to roost and there was a great cacophony of noise at the water’s edge.

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Sulphur Crested Cockatoo by Carol Barrett (Click to enlarge)

The second painting is of a blue winged kookaburra. This bird is a bit smaller than the better known laughing kookaburra which we saw quite often in the woods around Wagga Wagga. The colours in this painting are delicately presented and I like the way the different shades of blue flow down the beak, body and tail of the bird. This looks like a well manicured bird, with its head feathers blow dried and swept back. When we saw the laughing kookaburras, there was sometimes a family sitting on a tree branch. This bird of course is known for its “laughing” call and we’d sometimes hear them calling out their merry cry at the edge of the Murrumbidgee. You can see the bird and hear its call here.

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Blue Winged Kookaburra by Carol Barrett

To complement Carol Barrett’s depiction of a kookaburra, I’m adding 2 photos of my own. the first was taken in  large park during a visit to friends in the outer Western suburbs of Sydney. These two kookaburras were quite nonchalant about my approach and my camera clicking. They have superb, symmetrically patterned tails and large, protruding beaks. Considering the raucousness of their laughing call, kookaburras appear the calmest of birds.

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Laughing Kookaburras in the Western Sydney suburbs

 

The second was taken at Wagga Beach (good photos). Now, many of you will know that Wagga Wagga is 283 miles (455K) from Sydney but there is a sign on the way to the Murrumbidgee River in Wagga Wagga saying Wagga Beach – a little local joke. There is some sand at this point on the river’s edge and many people go swimming in the river in the summer time, so maybe it can be classified as beach – just an inland one.

 

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Laughing Kookaburra at Wagga Beach

 

Contrasting seas and a bulb that might “see me oot”

March 10, 2017

I’m very lucky not only to  be living by the sea but having an uninterrupted view of the sea from my back door. Each morning when I open the blinds in our conservatory, I see something different and, of course, unique. The tide will be fully in or fully out, but more usually at some stage in between. The uniqueness of the sea – that individual wave will never been seen again, although its almost identical siblings will – and the sky – those clouds will never be seen again and if it’s a clear blue sky, that shade of blue will never be exactly reproduced. It always looks similar but it’s never the same. There are rocks that emerge on the outgoing tide and they attract a variety of birds, which I view through my scope. This morning, there was a small group of dunlin (includes video). These are energetic little birds (see video) and pitter-patter amongst the rock pools, constantly feeding. I also see groups of maybe 20 dunlin take off and fly around. As you watch them they turn and flash their white bellies. It’s like a magic trick as first you see birds flying, then you see an aeronautic display of little white shapes. I hadn’t realised – until I did a search on a well known search engine – that you can see murmurations of dunlin, as in this spectacular video.

What I see out of my window depends, of course on the weather and last week, on consecutive days, I had contrasting views of the sea. On one day, as in the photos below, the sea was universally grey, apart from the white waves, and the rain battered the balustrade. I took the photos in a slight lull, when the rain had eased off a touch. For most of the morning, the rain spat angrily at the sea, the land and our house. It was driven on by its pal the wind, which blew off the tops of the waves. So going for walk was not an option. However, there’s a certain pleasure to be had from watching the wind and rain from the calm interior of your house. I found it interesting when I lived for a while in Australia, that people there would still have corrugated roofs on very expensive houses, as they liked the sound of the rain on the roof.

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Grey seas in Dunbar

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Grey seas and sky in Dunbar

The next day, the outlook was completely transformed. The storm had worn itself out, the rain had gone elsewhere and the wind – an angry old man yesterday – was now a twenty-something breeze, bringing warmth and calm. In the photos below, the white waves really are white against the blue sea and there’s a lightness about the sky, so different from yesterday’s heavy and almost indistinguishable clouds. I find it interesting that we would mostly see the 2nd photos as containing more beauty than the first two. Is that because we are conditioned to see light as more beautiful than dark?

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Spring pots on the decking, blue sea and sky at my back door

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Blue skies and blue sea in Dunbar

Last week, we had to replace the bulb in our bathroom and my wife returned with a new bulb. We have a solatube light fitting, which brings in natural light during the day from the roof and is fitted with an electric light for night time. The light – photo below taken in daylight – looks as if it has 4 bulbs but it has only 1.

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Solatube light source

When I got the new bulb, I looked at the packaging (below) and I noticed 2 things. Firstly, not only does it use 85% less energy and you save lots of money BUT it claims that it will last 23 years! There’s a Scottish expression which people use, usually in a jocular fashion, addressed to someone of a certain age – “Aye, it’ll see ye oot” (will see you out). This means that a person who has bought e.g. new furniture may die before the furniture is replaced. Now, I’m hoping that I will still be here in 23 years time, although as a Scottish male, certain statistics may be against me i.e. it might “see me oot”. The second thing I noticed was the wording at the bottom right of the photo below i.e. that the bulb will “deliver a colour matching the warm and comforting feel of an older incandescent lamp”. It was the word incandescent that intrigued me, as I’d never heard of an “incandescent lamp”. Looking it up, I discovered the history of such lights which  were a real breakthrough in their time. The original incandescent lamps were, according to this website ” Not energy efficient (90% of energy goes to heat, 10% makes visible light”. So now I know. I knew what incandescent meant, in terms of someone being, for example, in an incandescent rage, meaning that they were furious. By coincidence, reading this morning’s Guardian Sport, one article begins “Jose Mourinho was left incandescent after a UEFA official appeared to laugh off his concern…” This of course made me think about what an incandescent lamp might be like. A lamp so mistreated by its owners that it refuses to light up except when they leave the room and go to bed? A jealous lamp, following the arrival of a new lamp in the room, switching itself off and on constantly? Okay, I know that a lamp is an inanimate object but, can you prove that your lamps don’t light up when you’re not there?

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Light bulb packaging

 

Falling Awake and birds at Belhaven Pond

March 3, 2017

The Poetry Book Society Choice for Autumn 2016 was Alice Oswald’s  new book – Falling Awake. This is an astonishing book of poems and has won some literary prizes. In the book, Oswald is not just close to nature, but inside it, and she demonstrates how elements of nature are interlinked, and how nature affects our lives , but also has a life of its own. The first poem A Short Story of Falling begins “It is the story of the falling rain/ to turn into a leaf and fall again/ it is the secret of a summer shower/ to steal the light and hide it in a flower”. These dramatic images – a shower stealing the light – continue in all the poems. In Fox, the narrator hears ” a cough” in her sleep and it is ” a fox in her fox-fur/ stepping across/ the grass in her black gloves/ [which] barked at my house”. In other poems, we hear of a badger “still with the simple heavy box of his body needing to be lifted” being “hard at work/ with the living shovel of himself”. In “A Rushed Account of the Dew”, there’s an amazing image of water on a plant, as the poet imagines the dew “descend/ out of the dawn’s mind”, and affix “a liquid cufflink” on to a leaf. In Shadow, the poet describes the shadow as having ” a flesh parachute of a human opening above it” – as you see, there’s a vivid imagination at work here. There are many more images of falling in the subsequent poems. I’m only half way through the book and will return to it in the blog. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that “I cannot think of any poet who is more watchful or with a greater sense of gravity”.

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“Falling Awake” by Alice Oswald

This week, we’ve had cold, but very bright days, especially in the morning. Having cycled past Seafield Pond (good photos) on Monday and seen a gathering of ducks on the grass verge, I ventured back there on foot on Tuesday – in the morning sunlight. The ducks were gone, but over the wall on Belhaven Beach, there was a scattering of seagulls, some oystercatchers and curlews, but also 2 little egrets (photos, video and bird call). As I got my camera ready, there was a sudden squawking, a brief flurry of wings by both birds, and one took off for the pond. I managed to get two photos of the constantly moving little egret. They are not the clearest of photos and maybe, I should have used a sports setting on my camera. However, they do show the elegance of this bird, with its long beak, tiny eye and large yellow feet, which help them to steady themselves on the slippery sand below the water.

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Little Egret on Belhaven Beach (Click to enlarge)

In second photo, I like the shimmering reflection of the bird’s body in the water, its shadow (with flesh parachute of a bird opening above it, as Oswald might have put it) and the corrugated sand.

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Little Egret and reflection on Belhaven Beach

While the egrets and oystercatchers are nervous birds and will fly off if you get anywhere near them, the swans on Seafield Pond simply float towards you. OK – they are looking for food, but I also think that swans are narcissistic birds. They glide toward you, inviting you to photograph their haughty serenity. They move slowly, like elegant models on a catwalk, then dip their heads in the water. The first photo shows 2 swans coming towards the bank, where I’m standing at the water’s edge. There are other birds, such as coots, but these have swum away in panic and have hidden behind the tall reeds (2nd photo). See the causal elegance here, with the swans more interested in their own reflections than the presence of a would-be photographer.

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Elegant swans at Seafield Pond

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Coots behind the reeds at Seafield Pond

The first swan pushed its head under water a few times and after several attempts, I managed to get a shot with water dripping from its beak. Look at the perfect outline of its body, the giraffe like neck and its body like a small iceberg. You can watch swans all day.

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Swan with dripping beak at SeafieldPond

The Fishermen and the Sandpiper

February 3, 2017

The title of this week’s blog looks as if it might be a story for children but it is two different topics. I’ve just finished reading The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. It’s a novel which is set in Nigeria and features four brothers who decide to go fishing in the local river, despite warnings from their parents not to do so. On returning from the fishing one day, they meet Abulu who is described as “a madman” and often goes around naked and dirty and is described as smelling of “.. rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus and of bodily fluids and wastes”. It is believed that Abulu has the gift of prophecy despite being mad and he predicts that the eldest son will be killed by “a fisherman” i.e. by one of his brothers. This is a tragic story of love, hate and revenge and there is an ambiguous ending which may give some hope. Despite the tragedy, the book is enthralling to the reader, as the tale is told from an account by Ben, the youngest of the four brothers, who looks back from an adult perspective on what happened to his brothers. The long suffering, but supportive mother and the eccentric (and sometimes arrogant) father have high hopes for their children. The father works for a national bank and the family is reasonably prosperous compared to their neighbours. Nigerian politics appears in a startling incident when the boys, who have skipped school, meet with one of the presidential candidates in the town and have their photographs taken with him. Obioma is an accomplished writer, although this is his debut novel, and the story is very well constructed, with excellent dialogue. Obioma can sometimes overdo the metaphors he uses but he does produce some startling phrases throughout the book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. I found my copy in a charity shop, so look out for your copy and you will not be disappointed. You can read the first chapter here.

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The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds, there is an interesting article on the Western Sandpiper at Aird an Runair by Brian Rabbitts, who describes the bird as having “.. startling white underparts and rich rufous upper scapulars”. This immediately took me to the dictionary as “rufous” and “scapulars” were new words to me. The word rufous comes from the Latin rufus meaning red and is used to mean reddish-brown. Scapulars are shoulder feathers on birds, although a scapular, in a religious context,  can be “a sacramental object made of two small panels of woven wool (the required material)” or a short cloak worn by a monk. When you look at the superb photos below – generously sent to me by Brian Rabbitts – the feathers could be seen as a kind of cloak. I had a feeling that The Sandpiper was a piece of music, so I looked it up. There maybe music with that title, but what I was recalling from the dim past, was the film The Sandpiper (video) with the famous tune The Shadow of Your Smile.

In the first photo below, the bird’s scapular is shown clearly but I think that in this picture, the colours in the kelp outshine the bird.

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Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts (Click to enlarge)

In the 2nd photo, you can see the bird’s dagger-like beak and legs that might be of steel welded on to its body, plus the scapular which reminds me of tiles on a roof.

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Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts

In the third photo (cropped by me), I like the stoical look on the bird’s face, waiting patiently for food to swim by. Also, the swirl of the incoming wavelet compliments the flow of the bird’s feathers. You almost want to stroke this bird’s back.

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Western Sandpiper – photo by Brian Rabbitts

 

Chris Rose exhibition and a scene he might have painted

December 21, 2016

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady, home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club is by Chris Rose, whose previous exhibition was featured on this blog in 2014. With no disrespect to  the other excellent wildlife artists who have exhibited at Waterston House, Chris Rose is – by a country mile – the most accomplished. This is another stunning exhibition, featuring new work as well as prints of his previous work. Chris very kindly sent me photos of 3 of the works which are available for purchase at the exhibition. The first is entitled Little Egret and if you think that the clarity in the photo below is very impressive, when you see the painting itself, it is one of these moments in an art exhibition when you find yourself staring at the picture and admiring the beauty of it. There is much to take in when looking at this painting. Firstly, there is the photographic realism – this is a perfect depiction of a little egret, a statuesque bird about to strike an unassuming fish. The shimmering reflection suggests that the water is not quite still. I love the angles in this picture – look at the beak and the legs – and the bird’s patient poise. Like herons, the egret has an admirable ability to wait, then angle its head toward the water, then wait again, then strike lethally. It was interesting to watch other people’s reactions when they entered the main room of the exhibition and saw this painting. They had the same raised eyebrows and staring eyes as I had, the same smile of appreciation and the same slight shake of the head- how does he do this?

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Little Egret by Chris Rose (Click for a larger, and better, image)

The second painting (below) is entitled Shrimping and features a black-headed gull (which in fact has a brown head) but when I first saw this painting at the exhibition, it was the delicate colours and contours of the sand which caught my attention. Then you look at the gull again and its reflection and the eddies in the pool made by the bird paddling furiously to get the shrimps to surface – all so expertly done. Then you see the bird’s shadow and the shadows cast by the seaweed. So what at first looks like a simple depiction of a black headed gull paddling for its meal, becomes a multi-faceted picture whose elements draw your eyes up and down and across the frame.

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Shrimping by Chris Rose

I usually only feature 2 paintings by exhibiting artists but the chance to show three examples of Chris Rose’s work is too good to miss. The 3rd painting (below) is Silver Light which is a magnificent display of light on water and seaweed. Again, there is birdlife which is superbly portrayed, but the painting’s title is very apposite i.e. you see the shimmering light on the water first. I’m not sure how long it takes Chris to perfect these images – I would think it’s a very long time – but this veritable display of talent and skill could not be achieved quickly, this layman assumes. We will certainly go back to see this exhibition before it closes in January as it’s impossible to appreciate the variety of images and the mastery on show in one visit. If you can get to the exhibition, you will be richly rewarded.

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Silver Light by Chris Rose

A few days ago, in mid afternoon, just before the onset of the crepuscular light which I so much enjoy, I went for a walk from our house along to the nearby Dunbar Golf  Course  which stretches next to the seashore all the way out to the White Sands. I walked along the side of the 4th fairway to the little beach just around the corner and when I got there, a pair of elegantly coloured shelduck flew off across the water. On the way back, I could see (and hear) redshanks and oystercatchers taking refuge in rocks further away from this transgressing human. Then the Chris Rose moment – about 8 curlews appeared out of nowhere and landed on rocks in front of me. The birds’ long beaks could be seen as they stood on the rocks and below them, the light was shining on the still wet rocks – an image seen in some of Chris Rose’s paintings (e.g. here). I didn’t have my camera and I would have needed the long lens to capture the scene – another great photo that might have been. It was a startling image, having been to Chris’ exhibition recently. I’m lucky to live near the sea and come across vivid examples of wildlife just along the road.

 

Harbour reflections and making Minestrone

December 14, 2016

I took my camera for a walk along to Dunbar Harbour (good photos) last week. The day was so wind free that the water in the harbour hardly moved and the wee boats, which are usually swaying gently to an unheard waltz tune on the accordion, were statuesque. It’s very unusual not to have any kind of wind in Dunbar and at one point, it looked as if the sea had given up coming into the harbour, as the water appeared – very briefly – to be motionless. Then a gentle ripple spread from the entrance to the harbour across to the boats.

The two photos below are taken at the east end of the harbour and the perfect reflection in the 1st photo shows how calm the water became. There’s a hint of movement in the water in the 2nd photo and the wee boat looks isolated. This is because all the small yachts that lie in the harbour in the summer have been removed for safety. I like the way the harbour walls are reflected in the water in the 2nd photo.

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Calm day at Dunbar Harbour

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Calm day at Dunbar Harbour

The next 2 photos are taken at the castle end of the harbour. In the first photo, the reflections look as if they might come from an impressionist painting e.g. the squiggly lines in the castle walls’ reflection. It was a cold day but the colours in the boats and in the fish boxes on the quayside inserted a warm feature into this walker’s experience. In the both photos, the castle ruins still show the white patches left by the nesting kittiwakes, who visited in the summer. The kittiwakes have featured on this blog more than once e.g. here. In the 2nd photo, the wider angle shows the castle ruins and the narrow entrance to the harbour. Another unusual feature of this visit to the harbour was the absence of birds on the water, as you often get small groups of eider duck. On this RSPB site, you can listen to the gurgling, whoo-hooing of the eider duck, and you can usually hear this from the harbourside.

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Fishing boats near Dunbar Castle

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Reflections of the ruins of Dunbar Castle

Having made lentil and vegetable, tomato and lentil, and parsnip and pear soup recently, I thought that it must be the turn of minestrone. The term minestrone comes from the Latin minestra meaning soup with pasta (and/or other ingredients) and one as a suffix meaning large, thus giving us a soup with big vegetables. The soup is mentioned in a cookbook by Apicus (the whole book from Project Gutenberg here) published in 30CE, so it has ancient traditions. You could spend the rest of your life looking at the myriad of minestrone recipes on the web i.e. almost anything goes as long as you have vegetables and pasta in it. Almost all recipes include tomatoes. Today, my minestrone has a large leek, 3 stalks of celery, diced turnip (aka swede) and carrot, dried basil and oregano, a tin of tomatoes, 2 tbs tomatoes puree and a litre of chicken stock. I put a little oil in the bottom of my large soup pan and added the basil and oregano. I then sweated the leeks and celery, and added the turnip and carrot until it looks like this:

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Sweating the vegetables in the making of minestrone

I then added the tomatoes, tomato puree and broken spaghetti, brought it  to the boil and simmered it for c20 minutes. I always find that you should never eat minestrone soup right away – let the flavours develop for at least 8 hours or preferably overnight. You can then have a colourful, tasty and winter warming soup which served up will look something like this photo from last year. Have it for lunch with crusty bread and if you are lucky like me, go for a walk along to the harbour with your camera afterwards.

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A plate of minestrone soup with basil leaves