Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Rocks at St Abbs and Wildlife Photography exhibition

April 4, 2018

Another trip to St Abbs Head (good photos) on one of the few sunny days we’ve had recently. It was still very cold on the day we went and the wind from the southwest was distinctly chilly. We left the car near the information centre, café and gallery and walked up to the top of the cliffs. There is a circular walk (good photos) of 4 miles (6.25k) which we’ve done many times over the years. You can start the walk on the east or west side and you choose the direction according to the wind. As we were only doing a short walk, we went on the path at the east side and you pass the farm buildings and the horse field, with its practice arena, before you come to the edge of the cliffs.

As you walk up the path, you are quickly above quite vertiginous cliffs but you get a superb view of the rock formations below you, as in the photo below. You can find out much more about these formations here. This source notes that the rocks have been “locally weathered to a characteristic yellow colour” which you can see below. On the rocks on the right hand side, you can see the newly arrived kittiwake nests.

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Cliffs and rock formations at St Abbs Head (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the next photo, taken from the path just above the harbour, you are looking across the harbour to the clifftop walk and the steep cliffs. You can see extensive white patches on the Cliffside, but there is no bird life there at the moment. Soon this will be packed with guillemots, hundreds of which pack the narrow ledges to make their nests. When these charming birds arrive, there will be a cacophony of noise as they jostle for position on the rocks and appear to have endless disputes with their neighbours. You can listen to an example of the guillemots’ disputatious calls here. The boats on the harbour side will be in the water during the late spring and summer months, taking people out on trips around the coast and taking divers out to explore the clear waters near St Abbs Head. Over the wall from the boats, you can see the tide marks on the rocks, with the lighter shades on view indicating that the photo was taken when the tide was fairly well out.

I took some wee videos while on the walk and I’ve added a narration and uploaded the combined videos to Youtube. I’m still at the early stages of video and I have to buy a tripod, as bits of the video are still too shaky.adding narration is a step forward. You can see the video – click on full screen for best effect – here. The post has been delayed as I worked out how upload effectively.

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Looking over to the clifftop walk from St Abbs Head harbour

I recently went to a fabulous exhibition of wildlife photography in the National Museum of Scotland. You do have to buy a ticket for this exhibition, which is on loan from the Natural History Museum in London, but it is well worth it. If you go to the exhibition website and scroll down to Inside the Exhibition, you will see that you enter a darkened room with the photographs lit up on the walls. This is slightly disconcerting at first but you soon appreciate the effect it has in making the photographs stand out more. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is a global competition, with over 50,000 exhibits in 2018, so what you are seeing is some of the best wildlife photography around. You need to go slowly around the exhibition as you are confronted with a succession of absolutely stunning photos, each quite different, but the precision and the clarity of the works on display is breathtaking. I contacted the Museum – by email and phone – to get permission to show the 2 examples below, with no reply. I am assuming that as I am advertising the exhibition and only showing 2 examples – both available on the exhibition website – that I am not contravening the spirit of copyright law here.

The first photo I selected is an intimate portrayal of a bear family by Marco Urso (includes many examples of his work) from Italy. You really can see the anticipation of the title in the young bears’ eyes and the delicate colours of the salmon enhance the photograph. The quality of the photo so high that you can see the drips of water coming off the bears’ skins and off the salmon.

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Anticipation by Marco Urso

The second photo was a winner in its category and shows an arctic fox which has stolen a snow goose egg on Wrangel Island (more superb photos) in Russia. The photographer Sergey Gorshkov spent many days trying to capture this exquisite portrait of the fox with its loot in its mouth. The eyes of the fox are captivating and you find yourself staring into its eyes, seeing the determination of the animal to deliver food to its family. The detail of the fox’s fur is amazingly clear and the white fur almost melting into the white snow gives an impression of how cold it might be. If you get a chance to see this exhibition anywhere in the world, do not pass it up. The exhibition also highlights the dangers faced by the environment across the world and the animals who live there. Some of the photos e.g. of hunted rhinos, are quite upsetting. Overall, the memory of this exhibition is of looking in wonder at the photos and appreciating the technical quality and artistry of the photographers.

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Arctic treasure by Sergey Gorshkov

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SWLA exhibition in Aberlady and Sasha Dugdale’s “Joy”.

March 1, 2018

The latest exhibition at Waterston House, home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, is a stunner. The quality bar has been raised for this exhibition as it is organised by the Society of Wildlife Artists and contains an outstanding selection of paintings by the cream of British wildlife artists. I chose to contact two of the artists which I have not featured here on the blog and they both responded immediately, sending me samples of their work at the exhibition. Firstly, Brin Edwards is a painter, illustrator and teacher who is based in Suffolk. In the first painting below, your eye firstly goes to the brilliant range of colours – of the different parts of the ducks, of the water and of the vegetation. Then you see the various patterns on the ducks’ feathers and in the water. This is a group of individual wigeon, which have the delightful scientific name of Anas Penelope. Each bird has its own slightly different colour and feather pattern but, as you can see by the open beaks and staring eyes, they are definitely interacting. This painting really does stand out in the exhibition and shows the artist’s superb technique in capturing the colour and the movement of the ducks.

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Wigeon Interactions by Brin Edwards (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second painting by Brin Edwards below, we see the artist taking a different approach. When you first see this painting, it is the blossom and branches that catch your eye, as they are depicted in a bright but slightly hazy manner. Then you see the bird, with its sharp features and looking happy to be camouflaged by the foliage behind it. The Pied Flycatcher, which has the less romantic  scientific name Ficedula hypleuca, and comes to the UK in the summer, is shown here in what is an almost abstract setting, as if the viewer is looking through gauze. It is a startling effect and makes you look closer. The two selected paintings from the exhibition show what a high quality artist Brin Edwards undoubtedly is.

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Spring Pied Flycatcher by Brin Edwards

The second artist I chose was Richard Johnson, originally from the north east of England and now based in Cambridge. He is a bird painter and book illustrator. The first Johnson painting below shows that he is a more naturalistic painter of birds than Brin Edwards, so has a different approach. You cannot compare the two artists’ style i.e. one is not better than the other. What you can say is that Richard Johnson’s paintings show the same high level artistry as that of his fellow SWLA member. This watercolour is of a male cuckoo, with the amusing sounding scientific name of cuculus canorus. It is an intriguing painting, as there appears to be some motion on the bird’s part. Has it just landed or is it about to take off? Johnson has a great ability to show the detail of the cuckoo’s feathers, with their contrasting patterns and I liked the way that the tail feathers were shown as sharp-pointed to the right and fan-like to the left. You also have to admire the colours, shapes and patterns in the branches and tree trunk next to the bird. There’s a mesmerising entanglement here and it is to the artist’s credit that he draws our eye to the detail of the woodland setting.

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Richard Johnson Male Cuckoo

The second painting is of a broad-billed sandpiper aka Limicola falcinellus. At first, this looks a simple painting but this view is to underestimate Richard Johnson’s ability to draw our eye to the lines – dotted and straight – in the painting. Everything is sharp about this sandpiper – the beak, what looks like a shaved line on its forehead which some modern footballers have, the flowing marks on its breast and the neatly constructed feathers. The back of the bird reminded me of a shell e.g. on a tortoise or armadillo. The thin but sturdy looking legs again suggest movement and there is concentration in that keen eye. Richard Johnson’s birds show his amazing skills and will always delight the viewer.

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Richard Johnson Broad-billed Sandpiper

This really is a must-see exhibition, so please spread the word and if you are anywhere near East Lothian, make your way to Waterston House and be amazed and delighted.

Sasha Dugdale’s book of poems Joy is the latest PBS Choice. The title poem Joy features Catherine, the widow of the poem William Blake. She is distressed by his death and feels isolated. Her memories are more positive and she remembers “The walls are wordless. There is a clock ticking./ I have woken up from a dream of abundant colour and joy/ I see his face and he is a shepherd and a piper and a god”. This long poem is presented as if Catherine is sitting on a stage, giving a monologue. She is angry at her husband for dying – “What right did you have? …. And here I am. Your helpmate… your Kate … Bonded to nothing./ How I ache, how I ache”. The poem is a powerful reflection on her marriage and how she feels abandoned by those who once feted her husband. Despite the book’s title, many of the poems involve people looking on the dark side of life. In Canoe, the people who set out on the canoe are never seen again and there houses are vandalised. Dugdale has some striking images  e.g. “.. there was nothing to see except white fog/ and the white sun which reflected itself in every droplet”. In Kittiwake, the poet begins “Your jizz, little gull is the traveller’s / jizz, the wanderer, who sees the black, flecked ocean/ barren like the steppe”. In this context, jizz is a birding term for the characteristic of a bird. This is an intriguing books of poetry and highly recommended by the PBS and by me.

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Joy by Sasha Dugdale, PBS Choice

The kittiwake poem neatly gives me an excuse to repost a couple of photos of kittiwakes nesting on the walls of Dunbar Castle (good photos).

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Kittiwakes at Dunbar Castle

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Kittiwake family at Dunbar Castle

Doon the herber and snowdrops at Pitcox

February 3, 2018

In local parlance, going to or down to the harbour in Dunbar is known as going “doon the herber”. I was looking out to sea last week and saw 2 fishing boats approaching the harbour, so I went along the road with my camera. I saw only one boat, which was unloading prawns. The boat itself was covered in at the sides, presumably for protection, but for a photographer, this is disappointing as you can’t get a shot inside the boat. The prawns were on the quay in boxes. As the photo below shows, these prawns are heaped together in what some might think is an unseemly fashion. They are orange on the top and pink on the underside, with tails which fan out and they have spindly legs. If you did not know what a prawn was, you might look at this and imagine them to be an invasion of maggots or an underground nest of newly merged orange caterpillars.

 

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Newly landed prawns at Dunbar harbour (Click to enlarge all photos)

As ever, when a boat comes in to Dunbar Harbour (good photos) and to harbours the world over, the seagulls are out in force, looking for an easily accessible meal. In our harbour, the majority of gulls in winter are herring gulls. In the first photo below, you can see both adult and junior gulls. The juniors are rather drab looking, with dull necks and spotted grey outer wings. In comparison, the adult gull (2nd photo)  is sparkling white and has the distinctive orange spot on its yellow beak. It also has rather spindly, arthritic looking legs and feet. Herring gulls can be nuisances in inland towns when they tear open food bags. They also occasionally steal ice cream cones from unsuspecting tourists who have come to see the sights in Dunbar. When they are at the harbour, they are more in their proper context, as in the 3rd photo, coming in to land on the fishing boat, hoping to find food trapped in the nets or trawls. These big, bold birds are opportunists at work.

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Herring gulls on the Dunbar Harbour quayside

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Adult Herring gull on Dunbar harbour Quayside

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Incoming seagulls in Dunbar Harbour

I’ve featured the early snowdrops at Pitcox Farm, which is about 4 miles (6.5k) from Dunbar, on the blog before but it is two years since I did so. On a cold winter’s day, the spread of snowdrops under the trees is a welcoming sight, when you see their white and green patches on the grass, part of which is streaked yellow by the afternoon sun in this photo.

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Snowdrops and trees in the afternoon sun at Pitcox Farm

Alice Oswald’s now famous poem Snowdrop was chosen by the Council for the Protection of Rural England in 2016 to celebrate National Poetry Day and you can hear Sir Andrew Motion reading the poem here (video). The poem (words here) views snowdrops as “pale pining” girls with their heads bowed, and “with no strength at all”. Looking at the snowdrops close-up below, you might agree with Oswald and see the flowers as similar to the downtrodden women in The Handmaid’s Tale (see picture). On the other hand, these flowers emerge in the depth of winter and withstand snow, ice and frost, so maybe we should view them as the Terracotta Warriors of the winter flower world, as they stand strong together in ranks.

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Snowdrops at Pitcox

The final photo shows the snowdrops, along with the elegant birch trees beside the newly roofed cottages which are being renovated. Pink clouds in the afternoon sky can be seen through the trees – a beautiful setting.

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Snowdrops and red roofs at Pitcox Farm

PS The blog is likely to be less than weekly this year as I’m starting a new writing project, of which more later.

Scottish Birds cover and last post for 2017

December 25, 2017

Through the post recently came the latest copy of Scottish Birds which I receive as a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC). I was struck by the front and back covers which I think are possibly the most attractive of the year. The journal contains articles on in-depth research on birds in Scotland – their numbers, their habitat and trends in population. There are also shorter articles on rare sightings of visiting birds. I have to admit that I don’t read the research articles in full, but I particularly enjoy the photographs of birds which accompany the articles. I don’t count myself as a birder as I don’t do any serious bird watching. Please don’t use the term twitcher for bird watchers as this is regarded as pejorative, a bit like referring to serious runners as joggers or The Inuit as Eskimos. I’ve been given permission to scan and use the covers by the good people who run SOC. The front cover below shows a water pipit which was photographed at Skateraw, which is along the coast from Dunbar and on one of my mountain bike cycling routes in the winter. The article on this bird stated that is has a “prominent pale supercilium”  – unfamiliar terminology to me. Looking it up, supercilium (good illustrations) is “also commonly referred to as “eyebrow” — is a stripe which starts above the bird’s loral area (area between beak and eyes), continuing above the eye, and finishing somewhere towards the rear of the bird’s head”. Loral area is more new terminology. The scanned photo is not as clear as the journal cover photo, but you can see that this is a strikingly attractive bird, with its sharp beak which has a lightning streak of yellow, its pale plumage neatly folded to keep out the rain, its blacksmith crafted legs and feet, and black snooker ball eye.

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Scottish Birds front cover (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The back cover has this photo of a Spotted Crake, captured at Doonfoot, near Ayr. This bird has the wonderful scientific name of Porzana, Porzana and there is a short video of the bird at this location here. While the spotted crake does not (I think) have the elegance of the water pipit, as it has a patchwork-looking foliage, it does have a fascinating beak, with what looks like a small boat on the upper part. As with the pipit, the spotted crake’s eye is prominent and alert to food in the water. Of course, the bird’s reflection and the reflection of the reeds by the water add much to this well composed photo.

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Scottish Birds back cover

This is the last post of 2017 as your blogger is taking a rest over the New Year, to return reinvigorated in early 2018. So where did 2017 go? Or 2007 or 1997 or ….? In a flash is the answer. Looking back on my extensive range of photos for 2017 and earlier blog posts, I recall the colours and reflections in a rockpool at Seacliff Beach on New year’s Day.

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Vibrant colours and reflections at Seacliff Beach

In May, it was the smooth lines of the tattie dreels that drew my attention. Soon after, the first sign of green shaws appeared and before we knew it, September was well under way and the tattie machine was lifting the crop. This field is now a vibrant green, with the spring wheat coming through.

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Smooth tattie dreels near Dunbar

Smooth tattie dreels near Dunbar

In September, the Tour of Britain came our way again and I was up Redstone Rig with my cycling pals – and many other cyclists – to see the peloton approach the big hill, with the rolling country side of East Lothian in the background.

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Peloton at the top of Redstone Rig

Then I blinked and it was December and Seafield Pond was frozen over on a very bright, sunny and freezing cold day.

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Seafield Pond frozen over

 

If my letter to Santa has been received and the white bearded reindeer driver is in a good mood, I may return with a brand new DLSR camera, with a video function. I’m off to leave out carrots for the reindeer and a large dram of Bunnahabhain for the man. I wish you all the very best for the festive season and a Guid New Year when it comes.

Re-reading Thomas Hardy and walk to Seafield Pond and West Barns Bridge

December 17, 2017

Recently, I’d come to the end of the new books I’d bought and, looking along my bookshelves, I picked up a copy of Thomas Hardy short stories (cover below). I bought this book in the mid 1970s and opening the book and starting to read the first story The Three Strangers, I was immediately taken back to Hardy’s eloquent and flowing style. The story begins “Among the few features of agricultural England which retain an appearance little modified by the centuries, may be reckoned the long, grassy and furzy downs, coombes or ewe-leases, as they are called, according to their kind, that fill a large area of certain counties in the south and south west”. What struck me was the length of the sentence – typical of nineteenth century writers like Hardy – and the local words used by the writer. “Furzy downs” are stretches of rural land covered in what we might call gorse and a “coomb” is a deep valley. More explanations here. In his excellent introduction to the short stories, the novelist John Wain wrote that Hardy once said that a short story “must be unusual and the people interesting”. Wain also notes that Hardy’s short stories are unlike more modern versions, which tend have a single theme around which a tale is told. In Hardy’s stories, such as “The Withered Arm” or “The Distracted Preacher” the reader is presented with different characters, some of whom have their own intriguing tales to tell. It is the context of the stories – rural Dorset in the early to mid-nineteenth century – that distinguishes them from even contemporary short fiction. The isolated cottage in “The Three Strangers” or the village in “The Grave by the Handpost” where ” a lane crosses the lone straight highway dividing this from the next parish” and where “the whispers of this spot may claim to be preserved”. There are also echoes of Hardy’s novels in the stories such as the character William Dewy of Mellstock and the town of Casterbridge. Hardy is a superb story teller and in each story, the reader is given an early indication of what might be to follow. In “The Withered Arm”, the setting is “an eighty cow dairy” in the early evening and, with most of the cattle milked “there was opportunity for a little conversation. “He do bring home his bride tomorrow, I hear. They’ve come as far as Anglebury today”. Hardy continues “The voice seemed to come from the belly of the cow called Cherry, but the speaker was a milking-woman, whose face was buried in the flank of that motionless beast”. The reader knows the setting and is intrigued by the conversation. I have enjoyed reading these stories again after many years and I encourage you to try them.

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Short stories by Thomas Hardy (Click on all photos to enlarge)

There’s a good 2 mile (3.2k) walk from our house to Seafield Pond (good photo)  and West Barns bridge. The most picturesque route is firstly to  Dunbar Harbour (historical photos), then along Winterfield Promenade and on round part of the picturesque Winterfield Golf Club. I was headed for Seafield Pond first, to try to get some more photos of the pond and its birds. A previous attempt can be seen here. When I got to the pond, it was frozen over and not a bird to be seen, just some bits of wood from the nearby trees stuck to the ice. There was however, a nice reflection (see below) from the adjacent caravan/mobile home park, where you can now hire a “Deluxe running water wigwam with WC” – what next?

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Seafield Pond at Belhaven, near Dunbar

The birds were all on the beach over the wall but firstly I walked along to West Barns bridge, which spans the Biel Burn (small river). It was a very sunny day and the previous night’s sharp frost can be seen on the entrance to the bridge here.

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West Barns bridge and the Biel Burn

Because of the position of the sun in the early afternoon, there was a superb reflection in the water below the bridge, with the brilliant blue water becoming paler and paler as the sun caught it fully on the bend of the river. This part of the Biel Burn is where the fresh water meets the incoming tide.

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West Barns bridge

I know a few people – of a certain age – who spent quite a bit of their youth on the Biel Burn guddling for trout, and they each have their own secret method. This is a form of fishing in which the potential fish catcher does not use a rod or a net, but his/her fingers to catch the trout. I’m assured by two former poachers that it is an art and not a science, and that an expert guddler is born with a gift. There’s a PhD in there somewhere for a dedicated scholar e.g.  “Guddling: A phenomenological analysis”. Guddling was – and probably still is – carried out in shaded areas, such as at the tree line end of this photo.

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Guddling spot near the trees on the Biel Burn

It was on my way back along what is known as the Dump Road as there used to be a council tip nearby, I tried to capture some of the birds on the beach and on the water on Belhaven Bay. I was using my zoom lens and it’s difficult to get very clear photos without a camera stand. The two best were firstly, a redshank on the move, with some nice reflections of the rocks and the vegetation.

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Redshank amongst the rocks and grass at Belhaven Bay

I’m more pleased with the second photo, which is of a curlew flying off across the water. While the beak is not all that clear, I do like the light on one wing and the shadow on the other, plus the reflection in the water. I used my Sports setting for this one.

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Curlew flying over Belhaven Bay with the tide in

So a very rewarding walk on a cold but bright day and on the way back I reflected how lucky I am to live in such an entrancing environment.

Darren Woodhead exhibition and Pascal Petit’s Mama Amazonica

December 10, 2017

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady is by Darren Woodhead, a very well known and respected wildlife artist. This is a stunning exhibition, with the visitor impressed and intrigued from the first painting of Long-tailed Tits in Hawthorn (reviewed below) , to butterflies, geese landing over Aberlady Bay (good photos) and bee-eaters in Nottinghamshire (includes video). There is so much to see that a second visit will be necessary. I contacted the artist and he kindly allowed me to download two of his paintings. The first painting is a riot of colour, with the pink and red hawthorn berries immediately catching your eye – and the berries are depicted as lush, juicy and a feast for the birds. Then you see the bird themselves, nestling in the branches, well-camouflaged in their more subtle colours, but no less attractive for that. I really do like and appreciate the rather hazy parts of the painting – this is not photo-realism, but Darren Woodhead’s exquisite interpretation of what he sees when painting this busy scene.

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Long-tailed tits in the hawthorn by Darren Woodhead

The second painting features birds seen in this part of the country in winter – the fieldfare and the waxwing with the latter often seen in flocks (good photos). This is another very active scene with the birds, in particular the resplendent fieldfare, busy feeding on the buckthorn, which is called “the baked bean tree” around here. The painting also captures the very spiky nature of the buckthorn bush and it is this spikiness that can protect birds from predators. So, another rush of colour which takes your eye across the painting, with the spots on the birds not unlike berries. The artist also captures the elegance of these birds very well. The exhibition is on until mid January, so if you can get to see it, you will be wonderfully rewarded by a show by one of our finest wildlife artists.

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Fieldfare and waxwing among buckthorn by Darren Woodhead

From nature at its most colourful and joyful to a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful but also savage. Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica is a PSB Choice and it is one of the most intriguing and disturbing books of poetry I have ever read. The setting of the poems is a psychiatric ward where the poet’s mother is a patient. This is accompanied by a second setting – the Amazonian rainforest – and the poet’s interpretation of her mother as being transformed into a range of animals that inhabit the rainforest. We also learn of the mother’s trauma at the way her husband viciously treated her before and after the marriage. So, it is often a painful read but at the same time, it is often astonishingly beautiful in its depiction of the  rainforest’s animals. For example, in the title poem which begins “Picture my mother as a baby, afloat/on a waterlily leaf”. The mother is transformed into the flower in the jungle and, as a representation of her mother’s illness, “She hears the first roar/ of the howler monkey,/ then the harpy eagle’s swoop,/ crashing through the galleries of leaves,/ the sudden snatch/ then the silence in the troop”. Further poems outline how the mother was initially raped by the father and further mistreated, and when I read the poems – only a few at a time – I wondered if I should continue, but there is relief in many of the poems, which celebrate the wild. In My Mother’s Dressing Gown, the poet writes “Her face was an axed mahogany./ Her hands emerged from emerald sleeves/ to meet on the table, talons tensed,/ like a puma challenging a tayra”. We are presented with a superb metaphor but also – and this happens often – sent to the dictionary to identify an animal. A tayra is a large weasel. In a subsequent poem, in trying to describe  her mother’s illness, mania is seen as a side effect – “Imagine a mother with a mind/ hyper as a rainforest,/ the ward echoing with/ whoops of titi monkeys”. A new species of this monkey was recently discovered. In short, this amazing book of poems can delight, disgust and educate and while it is a challenging read, it often rewards the reader with spectacular images. Try it – even the cover is intriguing.

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Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit

 

 

All that Man Is and Cliveden House, near Windsor

November 10, 2017

In most cases, when I buy a book in a bookshop – I try to do this mainly, although I do order online as well – and read the blurb and the recommendations from reviewers, I enjoy the book, and mostly agree with the positive reviews on the cover of the book. I have just finished David Szalay’s novel All that Man Is but I found myself not agreeing with most of the review quotes. In the book, there are 9 stories of men of different ages and nationalities telling the reader their woes – often related to romance or the lack of it. There are some quite humorous scenes and there is no doubt that Szalay writes very well for the most part. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that 9 stories do not a novel make, despite the fact that there is a common theme of men in some sort of trouble and doing a lot of soul searching. I imagine that many female readers – as well as male readers – might find that some of the men in the stories are pathetic and need a good shake, although some female reviewers praised the novel. There are some very good passages in the stories and in the last one, the man reflects on how, to him, the present often seems to be impossible to define, that indeed impermanence is the only permanent factor in  our lives. Szalay writes “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window”. On the other hand, this guy thinks he is old  and not long for this world as he is 73. My cycling pal  John is 74 and he floats up hills on his bike. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and you can read a very positive review of the book here,  so don’t let me put you off trying it. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it – post a comment.

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In mid-October, we went down to by train to Thames Ditton for my sister-in-law Hilary’s significant birthday celebrations. We had a charming walk along the Thames, going through part of the impressive Hampton Court. On the Thames, we passed numerous house boats which were reflected in the river, and enhanced by the  backdrop of autumnal trees, as shown here.

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House boats on the River Thames

On Hilary’s birthday, we all went to Cliveden House (pronounced Cliv-den) with its magnificent grounds and luxury hotel. The property was built by the famous American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who passed it on to his son Waldorf. The grounds are extensive and on a sunny day, you can enjoy a peaceful, rural walk past the modern sculptures, seen here in the context of the grounds and then, closer up, looking back to Cliveden House.

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Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House

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Sculptures with the back of Cliveden House

Cliveden House is historically best known for the infamous Profumo Affair, the repercussions of which brought down the Conservative government in the early 1960s. When you walk down to the river, you pass the cottage where the affair took place. It was a lovely autumn day when we visited and we saw some startlingly beautiful trees by the river, such as the one below. You can also walk by the pond which has a pagoda, a range of trees and on this day, a very calm heron, seen below. Cliveden House and its gardens are well worth a visit if you are in the area.

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Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens

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Heron at the pond near Cliveden House

 

Robert MacFarlane’s “Lost Words” and the Thyssen-Bornemisra Museum

October 21, 2017

In a recent Guardian Review article, Robert Macfarlane – the well known writer on the British landscape – argues that children need to be reacquainted with the natural world. In the article, Macfarlane cites a Cambridge University study that showed how children aged 4 to 11 were much more likely to identify Pokémon characters (80% accuracy) than common plants and animals in the UK (50% accuracy). One of the conclusions of the report stated “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”. Other studies cited show that adults’ knowledge of wildlife is not much better but 9 out of 10 adults wanted children to have much more knowledge of plants and animals. Macfarlane’s reaction to the reports was that he wanted to write a book for children which might increase their appreciation of the living world, as opposed to the digital world of Pokémon. The reasons for children’s lack of experience and knowledge of nature is well known – more children live in cities and more children spend more time online than out of doors.

The result is what looks like a beautiful book, written by Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.

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New book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Click to enlarge all photos)

The article concluded with “The bird which became the guiding, gilding spirit of The Lost Words is the goldfinch. Goldfinches flit across its cover and gleam from its pages”. Macfarlane notes that the collective word for goldfinch is a charm which can also mean the singing of a group of children. Below is a close up of a goldfinch, taken by Harry Scott. This book would make a wonderful present for anyone – adult or child – and if you can combine this with a trip to the countryside or the seaside for the children, Dr Macfarlane would be most pleased. I have just come back from the beach near our house where my nearly 6 year old twin grand daughters saw oystercatchers, plovers and redshanks on the shore, feeding on what was coming in on the tide. So, I’m doing my bit.

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Goldfinch by Harry Scott

One of the highlights of our trip to Madrid was the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which can be found opposite the more famous Prado Museum. The Thyssen-Bornemisza has much more modern painting and is less focused on religious painting. It is a very extensive art gallery, with numerous rooms and would take more than one visit to do it justice. I have always been impressed by the American  painter Edward Hopper and there are four of his works here. The first of my selection is Hotel Room (below) and what strikes you is the rather lonely looking woman, sitting on the bed, in her underwear, reading a book. Then there are the colours – the green chair, the black hat, and the white bed which contrasts with the woman’s undergarment. The museum has a short video on this painting which is well worth viewing.

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Hotel Room by Edward Hopper

The 2nd Hopper painting is The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet  which is intriguingly named after someone who took Hopper and his wife sailing i.e. there is no yacht with this name. Although the sandbank looks rather fanciful, this is a painting with delicate shades of blue, white and cream, with the movement of the boat emphasised by the undulating waves. I see a spirit of freedom and enjoyment in this painting, on the part of the humans. The seagulls look away, unimpressed and the small, bubbly clouds on the horizon are dominated by a clearer sky above, suggesting a warm summer’s day.

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The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet by Edward Hopper

I’ve seen Hopper’s lighthouse paintings before, but Martin Johnson Heade is a new artist for me. His painting Orchid and a Hummingbird Near a Mountain Waterfall was one of the highlights of our visit. It is a stunningly original painting, with its combination of dark and light and the colours of the orchid are reflected in the hummingbird. There is so much to see in this work – shapes, patterns, the real and what I see as the surreal combined – that you can find yourself standing in front of the painting for quite a while. The detail on the plant and the bird are superb.

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Orchid and Hummingbird near a Waterfall by Martin Johnson Heade

So an exhilarating visit to this museum in Madrid which is not to be missed if you are in the city. No blog next week as I’m off to Pisa and Florence with my pal to take in the sights and a football (aka soccer) game.

Keith Brockie exhibition and El Retiro Park in Madrid

October 6, 2017

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady is by the renowned Scottish wildlife artist Keith Brockie. I featured Keith’s work on the blog  two years ago, having visited his last exhibition. The new show of paintings is equally stunning and there is a superb display of artistry here, particularly in the detailed portrayal of lapwings and hares. Keith kindly sent me 2 samples from this exhibition. The first painting features a lapwing  which is also called a Peewit, due to its call which you can listen to here (scroll down to audio). The painting perfectly captures the lapwing’s delicate colours and instantly recognisable tuft on its head. There are many superb paintings of lapwings in the exhibition and I particularly liked the ones with the lapwing sitting on its nest. The portrait of the ram is equally eye-catching and you have to admire the sheer tenacity of the painter to capture the detail of the hairs on the sheep’s face and what look like carvings on its magnificent horns. When the rutting season comes, I’m sure that this individual would emerge victorious.

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Lapwing and ram by Keith Brockie (Click to enlarge all photos)

The second painting is what I have entitled “Determined hare” as there is a steely look in the hare’s eyes. A close up of view of this and other hare portraits in the exhibition demonstrates Keith Brockie’s ability to capture the finest features of this beautiful animal. Look at the white whiskers, the oval nose and the small, puckered mouth and the brilliant contrast between the light and dark patches on the hare’s skin. The use of light and dark has challenged painters down the centuries and Keith Brockie makes superb use of this feature here. The exhibition is on until 15th November, so go and see it if you possibly can. We’ll be revisiting Waterston House before then.

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Determined hare by Keith Brockie

We recently spent a week in the Spanish capital Madrid (good photos) and what an impressive city it is. Madrid is a busy metropolis and the city centre is heavy with traffic for most of the day. However, just around the corner from the busy roundabout at the Palacio de Cibeles (video) is El Retiro Park (good photos), a vast green space which is easily accessible. The park has a 4k perimeter and is a favourite place for runners at all times of the day. It’s also a very peaceful place during the week when it is quieter. Most of the park consists of avenues of trees, bushes and hedges with walkways in between. Here we met a man playing a large harp.

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Harp player in El Retiro Park, Madrid

And we passed a puppet show where a group of children sat enthralled by the singing, storytelling and puppetry of a white haired, smiling puppet master.

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Puppet show in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Inside El Retiro Park are more formal gardens e.g. the Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez (good photos). I made a short video on my mobile phone which you can download here. This is a very relaxing area, with its neatly trimmed hedges, little fountains, covered walkways and beautiful flowers, as in the photo below, taken on a lovely sunny day in Madrid with the temperature at a very pleasant 26 degrees. The topiary in the gardens is very impressive, with avenues of neatly shaped columns.

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Inside Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez, Madrid

There are peacocks and peahens strolling around the gardens, ignoring the photographers and looking haughtily away from what I’m sure they regard as uncouth human onlookers. The peahen below is a good example. It could well have come straight out of a Keith Brockie exhibition, with its keen eye, exquisitely shaped feathers and a tuft that a lapwing would die for.

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Peahen in Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez, Madrid

 

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