Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Lucy Newton exhibition and back to Wagga Wagga

January 8, 2019

We recently visited Lucy Newton‘s superb exhibition of wildlife paintings at Waterston House, Aberlady. The exhibition runs until 16 January and it really is worth a visit. I last reviewed Lucy Newton’s work on the blog in 2017 and I did wonder if this new exhibition could be a as good as the previous one. The new exhibition is not just as good but better than the previous one, with the artist’s intelligence, skills and brilliant technique on show to even greater effect. Lucy Newton kindly sent me examples of her work.

The first portrait below is an exquisite depiction of a curlew – my favourite bird – which I regularly watch through my scope on the rocks near our house. The actual painting is much more effective in terms of the quality of the bird’s features and background, but I do like the way the artist has portrayed the elegance of the curlew with its long beak, strong upright stance and delicate colours in its plumage. There is a slight haughtiness but not arrogance in the curlew – it knows that it is bigger than other birds and can delve further under the rocks than the others also. I recently watched a curlew twist its head and push its beak under a rock. The beak emerged with a good sized crab wriggling in it. The curlew nonchalantly tossed the crab in the air, opened its beak and swallowed the crab whole.

Curlew by Lucy Newton (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second painting below is of a grey wagtail and again, this reproduction of the work does not do it full justice. The colours of the wagtail immediately catch your eye, the delicate greys and the striking yellow contrasting very well with the more Impressionist depiction of the rocks behind. The detail in the bird’s feathers is very impressive and Lucy Newton captures the tense awareness of the bird – ever alert to what might be happening in its environment. The artist catches the softer elements of the wagtail’s plumage, but also the sharp lines of its beak, legs and tail to very good effect. I looked at this painting for quite a while, forever noticing some new detail.

Grey wagtail by Lucy Newton

The third example from the exhibition is of a red squirrel and here Lucy Newton’s artistry shines out. Look at the bristling tail of the squirrel, its soft ears and nose and very keen eye. Again the sharp portrait of the animal contrasts with the softer background of the tree trunk, with its gnarled features and lichens, which are so softly painted that you feel that if you reached out, they would be delicate to your touch. Few artists have the ability to draw and paint the squirrel’s fur in such beautiful detail, but Lucy Newton has the imagination, skill and remarkable technique to produce such an outstanding piece of art. Get to see this exhibition if you possibly can. Unsurprisingly, many of the paintings had been sold.

Red squirrel by Lucy Newton

In the 2000s, we lived in the New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga for 3 years, when I worked at Charles Sturt University. I then taught from my home in Dunbar for another 6 years, going back to Wagga (as the locals call it) for 6 weeks every year. We returned to see many friends at Wagga Wagga Road Runners on our recent visit to Australia and stayed with our very good friends Paul and Sonya – superb hosts. The Murrumbidgee River (good photos) flows through Wagga Wagga – designated as an inland city – and there are some lovely walks along the river close to the centre of town. The photo below shows some of the beautiful gum trees along the riverside. The gum trees of course shed their bark, not their leaves and then they reveal smooth trunks. I like the reflections in this photo – of the trees, the riverbank and the cow on the far side.

Gum trees on the Murrumbidgee in Wagga Wagga

One of the remarkable features of the river at dusk is the arrival of very excited and very loud sulphur crested cockatoos – photo below. If you check the link and scroll down to Calls, you will hear the screeching noise these birds make. Imagine the racket you will hear if you go down to the river at dusk and maybe 200 birds arrive to roost, but not before they produce a deafening cacophony. They are attractive looking birds with their distinctive yellow crest and white plumage and will land quite close to you.

Sulphur crested cockatoo

We also made a nostalgic visit to the Pomingalarna Reserve (good photos) to walk around one of the many tracks. When we arrived in Australia we quickly discovered that you cannot run (my wife) nor cycle (me) in most country areas as you can in Scotland, so you need to go to designated areas. The reserve is well known as the home of two mobs of kangaroos and it is unusual for a visitor to the park – runner, cyclist or walker – not to see a kangaroo. We only saw some of these amazing animals from a distance, as the photo below shows, but we did see a large group bounding across the grass and into the forest – a fascinating sight. The second photo is from 2011 and shows the kangaroos on the golf course at the entrance to Pomingalarna. When conditions are very dry, the kangaroos will venture on to the course to find water. Note the flag on the green in the background.

Pomingalarna is a very interesting and attractive part of Wagga Wagga as it features a wide variety of trees, animals and birds, so it is well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.

 

Kangaroos at Pomingalarna
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Daintree Rainforest and snorkelling on the Low Isles (Version 2)

December 4, 2018

On our trip to Australia, we had two things that we wanted to do that we hadn’t done before. The first was to visit the Daintree rainforest (good photos) in Northern Queensland. The rainforest is the oldest in the world – 180 million years – much older than the Amazon equivalent. It is a vast forest covering 12,000 square kilometres and our Daintree river trip host told us that it has 1034 native trees. To put this in perspective, he told us that the UK has 37 and the USA 300+. On the river trip, you look up to the huge swathes of trees but you cannot really distinguish different species of tree and fern until you walk into the forest itself. A short way up the river, we came upon a female crocodile (photo below) on the river bank. Crocodiles are perhaps fascinating to some and while it was good to see one in its natural habitat, they are not the word’s most attractive creatures, although the patterns on their hide are elegant.  

Crocodile on the Daintree river (Click on all photos or caption to open in a new tab)

It is when you go into the rainforest itself that you appreciate the variety of trees and ferns on display. The boat host advised us ” in the forest itself, don’t look AT the trees, look THROUGH THEM” and this was very good advice. In the photo below (from Creative Commons) you can see some of the variety of the trees and the ubiquitous ferns which are very attractive. It is fascinating to look at even this relatively small space and note how many different trees there are and how they are differently shaped. 

Inside the Daintree rainforest

In the next photo (my own) you can see the vibrant colours of this large leafed fern. We had just missed a rainshower and the leaves were sparkling in the afternoon light. Behind this fern , you can see a variety of smaller ferns and you can read much more about the Daintree ferns, which first appeared 325 million years ago on this helpful site. It would have been wonderful to go on an extended walk with a guide in the rainforest but time was limited. One for a future visit. 

Beautiful ferns in the Daintree Rainforest

The other reason for choosing Port Douglas as the first destination on our trip was to visit the Great Barrier Reef (great video). The reef is under threat from climate change and there have been dire warnings that, with further warming of the seas, it could disappear in 10-20 years. We went on a boat trip to the Low Isles, a half hour of huge waves and some extreme ups and downs. When you get to the island, it looks idyllic – see photo below – with its pristine sandy beach, lighthouse and trees. 

Low Isles sea, beach and lighthouse

Once on the island, we were given thin suits to protect us from jellyfish, which are called stingers in this part of the world. Confusingly for British people living in Australia, jellyfish are also called bluebottles. We were then taught how to use the snorkelling masks and flippers. It was our first experience of snorkelling and what we saw under the water made it a worthwhile trip. Once we were directed to a buoy not far off shore, we saw the range of coral on the ocean floor and a huge variety of fish, including parrot fish (good photo) and angel fish (good video). We also saw some fairly large turtles in the water nearby.

After the snorkelling, we were taken on a short tour of the island and we saw numerous terns which were nesting. Unlike the local arctic terns which nest near Dunbar in a protected area and which will dive approaching humans, these common terns (photo below) went about their business quietly. Close up, this is a most attractive bird and the background of spiky tree trunks and leaves show off its sharp colours and distinctive black/blue line across its eyes.  

Tern on the Low Isles near Port Douglas

On the island, there is an impressive lighthouse which was built in 1878. Our guide asked us to look up towards the light and we did, we could see two osprey chicks (photo below) sitting at the edge of the nest. I was hoping that the birds might look down to improve the photo but they remained still, while haughtily ignoring our presence far below. The birds looked smaller than they are, especially sitting next to the huge ramshackle nest. 

Osprey chicks on the Low Isles lighthouse

This was a very satisfying day for us – a new adventure on an idyllic island surrounded by the warm ocean, on which the sun glinted and the water sparkled. 

Michael Warren paintings and flowers after the rain

August 30, 2018

The exhibition by the excellent wildlife artist Michael Warren at Waterston House in Aberlady is about to end but his work will be available elsewhere during the year. I featured the artist’s work on the blog in 2012, with a picture of his amazing book on American birds. Over a long career, Michael Warren’s many achievements include designing stamps for the famous Audubon Society in the USA. The current exhibition shows why this artist is so highly regarded, as it demonstrates his high level of technique, his observation of birds in a variety of environments and his mastery of colour. Michael has generously made available some of the paintings for this blog. The first is a painting of a redstart (includes video) which has the fabulous scientific name of Phoenicurus Phoenicurus. What I really appreciated in this painting is the way the artist draws your eye from the impressionist-like leaves on the tree branches at the bottom of the painting up to the bird itself. Once you see the bird, it takes centre stage in your viewing but it is not centre stage in the painting. The larger leaves at the top of the work are clearly delineated and contrast well with the less well-defined leaves at the bottom. You can almost hear the bird’s song ringing out across the forest when you see the painting. It is an exquisite work of art.

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Redstart by Michael Warren (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second painting is of Slavonian grebes (scroll down to audio and video). This is a large painting and the startling colours of the adult grebe immediately catch your eye. I like the lines in this painting – the straight and crooked lines of the reeds and the rivers of white curved lines in the young grebe. This bird has an awkward scientific name podicepa auritus but it is very elegant when seen in the water. In Michael Warren’s portrait of the adult grebe, there is added elegance, shape and colour. The yellow cropped feathers above the grebe’s focused eyes reminded me of Elizabethan ruffs and there is a delicate smoothness in the rest of the bird’s body, which reflects the gentle swell in the surrounding water. This is a painting which rewards close inspection and you cannot fail to appreciate the artist’s talent and skill on display here. Overall, a wonderful exhibition which we visited twice, to very good effect.

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Slavonian grebes by Michael Warren

More summer flowers – this time taken after a day of rain, of which we have not had much this long and mainly warm summer. The photo below is a close-up of some sweet William flowers in a hanging basket outside our front door. The rain had barely stopped when I went outside to capture the tiny bubbles of fallen rain on the leaves and flowers. The leaf to the bottom right looks like a frog with hyperthyroid bulging eyes. The raindrops appear to be rolling down or dancing on the leaves and the photographs reveals more detail than you can see with the naked eye.

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Sweet William flowers after the rain

The next photo shows a begonia flower which is still holding on to its raindrops and showing off its many contours in the multitude of petals on show. Begonias strike me as very demonstrative, look-at-me flowers and while they are strikingly pretty at times, they can appear gaudy. This is a more delicate specimen, wearing its raindrops like a form of make up.

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Begonia flower head after the rain

This photo of geranium leaves has a surreal quality and might be something that Geoff Koons would produce and add to his tulips outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Some of the raindrops appear to be magnified and hollowed out, and they look like craters scattered across a petal shaped planet. The bottom petal/planet appears to have a landmass similar to Australia.

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Geranium petals after the rain

Finally, I took this photo of an emerging rosebud and although you can barely see the remnants of the rain on the flower, it struck me as almost a form of perfection in terms of delicate colour and shape.

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Rosebud after the rain

For people of a certain age, of course, flowers in the rain can only ever mean this.

As we are off to Dublin next week for a few days, the gap between blog posts will be longer.

Fredensborg Slot – the lake, the palace and the gardens

August 22, 2018

Our final destination on the trip to Denmark and Sweden was back in Denmark. We crossed on the ferry from Helsingborg (good photos) in Sweden to Helsingor in Denmark. Helsingor is famous for its Kronborg Castle (good photos) which is best known as the setting for Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The photo below shows the castle as seen from the ferry.

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Approaching Kronborg Castle on the ferry to Helsingor (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Our destination was the pretty town of Fredensborg (good photos) which is mainly known for the Fredensborg Slot or Castle, of which more below. You can walk down – through an avenue of lime trees – to the shore of the huge Lake Esrum, the 2nd largest in Denmark, from the town and we enjoyed the views across the lake. We also drove to Nødebo on the other side of the lake. When we arrived, this family of mallard ducks was next to the walkway. They were undisturbed by our presence and posed for this photo.

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Mallard family at Lake Esrum

We went on a tour of Fredensborg Slot – slot being the Danish for castle or palace. As this is the Queen of Denmark’s residence for part of the year, it was referred to as a palace by  the guide. You are not allowed to photograph inside the palace. The guide gave us  a history of the palace and told us much about the present queen and her family. In doing so, he tended to ignore the many beautiful objects and furnishings inside the palace. The tour of the gardens was much more interesting, with an enthusiastic guide – a tall, sturdy, bearded young Dane who was passionate about horticulture. Previous to the tour, we walked around the lawns and trees of the palace grounds – you can do this for free. There is a very peaceful walk down an avenue of lime trees (picture below) and there was resonant birdsong all the way down towards the edge of the lake.

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A walk through the lime/linden trees at Fredensborg Slot

The paid tour took us into the private gardens and they were a delight to the eye. The first part of the gardens is the formal rose garden and looking down from the steep bank above the gardens, you can see (photo below) the immaculately manicured hedges in the small maze-like structure, as well as the numerous statues around this section.

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Formal gardens at Fredensborg Slot

The next section was the rose garden, with its impressive water lilies at the side of the roses. I took a wee video of this.

From there it was on to some small gardens – one for each season, so some were in full flower and others more subdued – and then to the huge vegetable and herb garden. At the entrance to the garden was this peach tree. I like the photo below as the exposed trunk takes your eye up the centre of the tree and then on to the dangling leaves, behind which the maturing peaches seem to lurk.

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Peach tree at Fredensborg Slot

The vegetable garden has a huge range of vegetables – potatoes, carrots, leeks, cabbages, lettuce and beetroot – and each section was separated by a small hedge as in the photo below.

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Fredensborg Slot vegetable garden

When you walk through the middle of the vegetable garden, you are under a trellis of roses (photo below) and it really was a pleasure to walk under the roses, with neat boxed hedge on the border. Inside the hedge were wild strawberries which were heavily fruited. You can see more photos of the vegetable garden here.

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Rose trellis at Fredensborg Slot

This was an afternoon well spent and I would recommend Fredensborg as a place to visit when in Denmark.

Woolf and Cox exhibition and the other side of St Abbs Head harbour

July 18, 2018

We were late in going to see the exhibition by Colin Woolf and John Cox at Waterston House in Aberlady, but I was so impressed by both artists’ work that I wanted to include it here. The exhibition closed last week but the work of these two fine painters will be on show elsewhere. Both wildlife artists generously responded to my requests for photos of their paintings.

Colin Woolf is an experienced artist with a wide range of paintings and he is a superb stylist. In the first painting below, which is a large and very impressive work of art when you see it in the exhibition, Woolf shows that his skills are not limited to birds. The depiction of the mountains over which the eagle is soaring is excellent and you get a real sense of height. What impressed me most was the way the artist painted the swirling clouds above the mountains. I was reminded of the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church I saw at an exhibition in the Scottish National Gallery a few years ago. The exhibition noted how difficult it was to paint clouds. The eagle may look small up in the thermals above the mountain but there is an elegance in its flight which Woolf captures.

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Eagle Sky by Colin Woolf (click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second painting, the birds take centre stage, although there is huge competition from the beautiful silver birch. At the bottom of the painting, the artist has included 2 pin feathers and writes that the scene is “Painted entirely with this pair of pin feathers from the same bird”. If you want to read more about this unusual technique, check out Colin Woolf’s beautifully illustrated and very educational article, as a guest blogger. In the blog post, Woolf explains the joys and the difficulties of painting with pin feathers. The birds featured here are woodcocks which have the magnificent Latin name of Scolopax Rusticola, and Woolf depicts them in motion, perhaps in a ritual display. The detail and symmetry of the birds’ wings and tail feathers is intricately painted and you can almost feel the whoosh in the air. The silver birch (Betula pendula) is one of my favourite trees and Woolf shows the elegance of this tree and its magical bark. Woolf is a cosnummate painter of wildlife and these paintings were a joy to behold.

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Pin feather painting of woodcocks by Colin Woolf

John Cox is also a highly respected wildlife artist. At the exhibition, he displayed many fine bird paintings showing an array of species and settings. John Cox sent me four photos of his work and the two I have chosen show the breadth of his skills and two different environments in which the birds are displayed.

The first photo shows a pair of oystercatchers and they have the rather unattractive sounding Latin name of Haematopus Ostralegus, which sounds like serious disease or an operation you might get. I love the way the light blue colours on the birds’ undersides match those on the rocks and in the water, as if there could be a reflection on the bird from the water. The oystercatchers are very well captured, with the strong colour of their beaks matching the strength of the actual birds’ beaks. The birds look reflective in the painting, as they often do in the evening on the rocks near our house. The more you look at this painting, the more patterns, shapes and colours you see and this reflects the artist’s skill.

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Oystercatchers in rocky pools by John Cox

Oystercatchers – which do not catch or eat oysters – are one of my favourite birds and we regularly get them on the rocks near the back of our house. Through my scope, I have seen a determined oystercatcher poke away around the sides of a large limpet and finally move it off the rock. The bird then used its beak to ease the flesh of the limpet from the shell, picked up the flesh and washed it in a nearby pool before swallowing it.

In the 2nd of John Cox’s paintings below, a completely different environment is depicted. Here a short eared owl (Asio Flammeus) hovers hungrily (for itself) and menacingly (for its prey) above some bushes. I really admire the artist’s use of light in this picture e.g. how the setting sun’s rays eke through the owl’s outstretched wings and the evening sky can be seen above the trees and the town in the distance. The trees, bushes and wildflowers are delicately and expertly captured by the painter, as are the green fields behind. The urban setting to the upper left, with the church (I assume) dominating the skyline, reminded me of some of Constable’s paintings such as The Vale of Deadham shown below and downloaded with permission of the National Galleries. John Cox’s contribution to this wonderful exhibition, showing his exquisite skills, matched that of Colin Woolf. If you can get to see either (or preferably both) of these artists, do not miss the chance.

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Short eared owl in a countryside setting by John Cox

 

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Vale of Dedham by John Constable

Another trip to St Abbs Head (good photos), one of our favourite places and a site that makes a regular contribution to this blog, on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. The harbour was busy with visitors and, looking out to sea, we could spot four  boats taking divers around the coast to special areas. For a change, we walked across to the other and quieter side of the harbour. Looking back at my many and varied photos of St Abbs Head, I noticed that there were none taken from this part of the harbour. What I discovered were some beautiful reflections in the clear blue water in the harbour. The first photo shows the lifeboat station and some small creel boats, and their shimmering reflections in the water. The solid stone walls built around the harbour to protect the boats are impressive.

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St Abbs Head Lifeboat station from the east side of the harbour

The 2nd photo is one taken from a new angle for me. Again, there is an eye-catching reflection of the wall and the boats. Above left, you can see part of the village and above right, you can see the coastal walk and the cliffs where thousands of guillemots nest. On the harbourside, the lobster creels are stacked in readiness for another trip.

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Inner harbour at St Abbs Head

The final photo looks across to the entrance to the main harbour on the left. A diving boat had just returned from a trip and the divers were unloading their gear from the boat, using the mechanical hoist you can see above the boat. Two seagulls kindly posed for a photograph in front of me. The village, the harbour and the surrounding countryside looked resplendent on the day we visited.

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Bernard MacLaverty’s “Midwinter Break” and Scottish Birds’ photos

July 10, 2018

The literary output of the author Bernard MacLaverty stretches over many years and has always been of the highest quality. For MacLaverty fans, a 16 year wait for a new novel is a long time to wait but his new book Midwinter Break is certainly worth waiting for. It should be noted that MacLaverty has produced superb books of short stories in between the novels. This is a book that can be read and appreciated by readers of any age, but it will be particularly poignant to older – but definitely not old – readers in their 60s. The protagonists of the book are Stella and Gerry, who have been married for many years and are spending a weekend in Amsterdam in the winter. The couple live in Edinburgh but originate from Northern Ireland, where they lived during the Troubles. In a number of flashbacks, MacLaverty brilliantly presents key moments in their lives, such as  their early romance and Stella’s trauma and Gerry’s visits to the hospital. In Amsterdam, Stella is seeking solace in her life as she feels unaccomplished. She considers joining a group of women who share her religious faith, but this would mean leaving Gerry.

A key feature of the book is Gerry’s love of – and struggle with – alcohol. MacLaverty cleverly – and often humorously – shows how Gerry tries to hide his whisky drinking from Stella, but he also writes about how much pleasure Gerry gains from his first dram, then his second and then – what the hell? – his third. Of course, the hungover Gerry regrets his drinking, but not for long. There is a superbly written confrontation between Stella and Gerry about his drinking near the end of the novel. MacLaverty writes in detail about the couple’s daily habits and makes this intriguing to the reader. The novelist’s ear for conversation is sharp and the dialogue between the couple is utterly convincing.

MacLaverty also has his two protagonists referring to literature and Stella recalls Thomas Hardy’s poem on snow, following a storm in Amsterdam. The poem begins

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:

The last line above is particularly observant – how snow takes away some of the noise we normally hear. It is one of the best novels I’ve read recently – buy it and you will not be disappointed.

Bernard MacLaverty’s new novel. (Click on all photos to enlarge)

 

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds, which I receive as a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, the front cover (below) shows a high-flying and imperious-looking glaucous gull, taken by Iain Leach. It has the equally imperious Latin name of Larus Hyperboreus. I had to look up glaucous which means having a “dull, greyish-green or blue colour” according to the Oxford Dictionary. It is by no means a pretty bird but its magnificent wing span has a multi-patterned elegance.

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Glaucous gull on the front cover of Scottish Birds

On the back cover, an extraordinary photo of a raven (Corvus Corax), taken by Jim Smith. In the notes above the photo (see below), Smith writes that the raven flew down to pick up a piece of bread on the ground, but “It would then rise up higher in the thermals, before flipping on to his back and floating back down”. This appears to me like a raven having fun and laughing at the world, in a look-at-me pose. Note the sharpness of the beak and the feet, appropriate for this often aggressive carnivore. Who would have thought that you might see a raven doing the Fosbury Flop?

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Raven flying on its back by Jim Smith

A more gentle and much more colourful bird can be seen in the photo (see below) by Harry Scott, which featured in an article by R Craig and T Dougall on siskins in a small garden. The siskin (Carduelis Spinus) is a resident bird across the UK but particularly in Scotland. You can see a small flock feeding here. This is a very colourful little bird, with its range of blues and yellows across its body. As it clings to the feeder, its body is compact, with the wing and tail feathers neatly tucked in, but ready for flight at any second. The successive layers of feathers have an abstract look to them and resemble layers of stone that you see on beaches. You can hear more about the siskin and its call in this Tweet of the Day from Radio 4.

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Siskin by Harry Scott

Seagull feast and Sydney Opera House Vivid

June 17, 2018

Another grey day last week. The jet stream was still stuck out in the Atlantic and while most of the UK was in warm sunshine, the east coast of Scotland and England suffered from a strongish NE wind which brought haar in the morning and heavy cloud all day. The wind also whipped up the tide and the gun metal water was only enlivened by the fleeting white of the waves being dragged in by the wind. When the sun is out and the sea reflects the sky’s blue, the tide seems joyous as the waves cavort towards the shore. When it is cold and a dull grey permeates the sky and the sea, the waves still come in but it looks like hard work. For the gulls, however, this was a time of plenty. In the first photo, you can see the herring gulls (adult and juvenile)  and some female eider duck in the water. The gulls are constantly nodding as they feed on a variety of worms, small molluscs and larvae. There is constant action, with the gulls flying up to avoid the incoming waves. The eider duck – the larger dark birds in the water – are unperturbed by the waves and float serenely on the water and then dive at regular intervals to feed. At the bottom of the photo, two gulls take a rest from the action on the stone wall that separates the road from the promenade.

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Gulls feeding on the incoming tide (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second photo, the waves cause more action amongst the gulls.

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Seagulls feast on the incoming tide

I did a short video of this scene.

In the centre pages of The Guardian this week, a photo from Guardian Witness section showed the Sydney Opera House during the Vivid Lighting Festival (Photos and video). You can see the vibrant colours that the Opera House takes on during the festival and light show on the Opera House and in the harbour at Circular Quay looks amazing.

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Sydney Opera House during the Vivid festival – submitted to Guardian Witness

I have never been in Sydney during the festival, which has been running for 9 years, but we had many good experiences at the Opera House when visiting Sydney. You can look at the Opera House from many angles when you are there, taking in the whole of the building or just parts of it. The photo below is taken at the back of the building and you would not know, from this angle, that the other “sails” existed. The glass structure is very impressive and contrasts with the opacity of the concrete roof. At the right side, you can see some of Sydney’s skyscrapers which overlook the Opera House.

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A section of Sydney Opera House taken from the rear

Opposite the Opera House is the world famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and when you first see both the Opera House and the bridge, it is hard to say which is the more impressive structure. With its striking towers and solid steel structure, the bridge imposes itself on the harbour and dominates the scene. Sitting at the Opera House when the sun is setting – with a nice glass (or two) of Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc – and looking over to the bridge is a wonderful experience.

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Sydney Harbour Bridge

In the final photo, you can see part of the bridge from the Opera House. From this angle, the bridge looks much smaller, but when you climb the steps and walk to the front of the Opera House, it looms impressively in front of you. No matter how many times you turn the corner from the botanic gardens area and see the Opera House and the bridge, it is still a thrilling sight.

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The Ice and the Guardian Country Diary at Barns Ness

May 16, 2018

I’ve just finished reading The Ice (Guardian review) by Laline Paull. The book comes with high praise on its cover – “An important and powerful novel … strikingly prescient” according to The Independent. The novel is set in the (not too distant?) future as the Arctic ice has melted and opened up new shipping lanes, and it focuses on the friendship between relatively poor boy made rich Sean Cawson and the more wealthy radical environmentalist Tom Harding. After Tom’s death in an Arctic cave, his body disappears but is resurrected – still frozen – by a glacier calving. Much of the book is set during the inquest into Tom’s death and this is intersected with flashbacks to the scene where Tom died. Throughout the book, the reader is given more and more insight into what happened, so there is a tension as more details are released. Who is telling the whole truth? In the background, a luxury lodge has been developed in the Arctic circle and again, Paull gives details about possible uses – legal and illegal/immoral – of this lodge. For four fifths of the book, I thought that this was a well written novel which highlighted key aspects of climate change and its effects on our planet. Unlike the Guardian reviewer, I thought that the final part was overly dramatic, with the author desperate to have a multi-faceted conclusion. The descriptions of the Arctic environment provide an interesting and at times beautiful background to the story. A range of key issues relating to climate change are highlighted in the book but the author does not preach. The book also raises issues relating to capitalism, international trade and possible arms trading. I would not praise this book as highly as several reviewers have, so you will have to judge for yourself. I would urge people to buy it and read it, as it is well plotted, with some good characterisation.

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The Ice by Laline Paull (Click on all photos to enlarge)

I featured the Guardian’s Country Diary recently on this blog here but I am returning to it now as the subject of the diary on 5th May was Barns Ness, which is about 2 miles from my house. The lighthouse (photo below) is the outstanding man-made structure at Barns Ness but the coastal environment is what firstly interests the writer.

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Barns Ness Lighthouse

As with all the Diary entries, this one is very well written e.g. “The pools themselves seem empty on first approach, but after a minute’s silent watch they come to life: periwinkles inching almost imperceptibly along, shore crabs sidling from under rocks with a suspicious air, and – best of all – tiny hermit crabs in their pilfered shells, peeking shyly out, antennae waving”. There’s poetry in here, with crabs having “a suspicious air” and the hermit crabs’ “pilfered shells”. This entry is by Cal Flyn and you can see all her Diary contributions here. Not far from the lighthouse is the Whitesands beach (good photo) and on clear sunny days, the beach almost looks white, so pale is the sand. The author comments on the limestone pavements (my photo below) which lie at the east end of the beach. These are a rich source of fossils and when you walk across their pockmarked surfaces, it is like looking down on a huge archipelago from a plane.

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Limestone pavement at Whitesands Beach

Flyn notes that she stayed at the cottages next to the lighthouse and ironically, the haar – known to us as a sea mist but originally (see link) an easterly wind – came in while they were exploring. It was only when the lighthouse loomed out of the mist that they knew they were home. Flyn comments “Who knew we’d need a lighthouse to navigate the land?”. The cottages can be seen in my photo below. If you are ever in the area, Barns Ness is a great place for walking, with an ever changing shoreline. At this time of year, you can hear the skylarks singing joyously above you, although they may be hard to spot.

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Barns Ness cottages and lighthouse

John Threlfall exhibition and more spring flowers

May 9, 2018

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady features the work of John Threlfall who is a very well-respected wildlife artist. I included John’s work in a joint exhibition on the blog in 2016. This is another display of the work of a high quality artist and the variety of colours are quite stunning. I contacted John and he kindly sent me some photos of his work in the exhibition. The first example is Summer Finery (shown below) which has a dazzling array of colours on the glittering water, the serene duck and the vegetation. My ceramics teacher sister-in-law thought that John Threlfall’s style could be described as Impressionist or Fauvist. I put this to John and he replied “As to a description of my painting style I have to confess it is not something I ever think about. Others have described it is as Impressionist and as my use of brighter colours develops perhaps Fauvist maybe used increasingly”. I was unfamiliar with the term Fauvist but on looking it up, I discovered that the Tate Gallery defined it as “… the name applied to the work produced by a group of artists (which included Henri Matisse and André Derain) from around 1905 to 1910, which is characterised by strong colours and fierce brushwork”. My eye was attracted to the purples in this painting – in the water and on the duck’s back; and also to the white Sydney Opera House style white water lilies.

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Summer Finery by John Threlfall (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second painting below is Swanlight and I think that this is a very clever title of this classic Impressionist painting. When you look at it, you can indeed see a light emanating from the swan’s plumage, as they huddle together, perhaps for safety or maybe just for a neighbourly get together. There are a number of flows to this painting – in the vertical background and patches of green, but it is the elegant flow across the plumage of the huddled swans that is particularly eye-catching.

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Swanlight by John Threlfall

In the exhibition, John Threlfall also includes many paintings of animals such as seals, hares and elephants. The exhibition is open until 23rd May, so get to see it if you can, as it is a superb collection of this most impressive (as well as Impressionist) painter.

In my last post, I noted that this year has produced a very healthy crop of spring flowers, with polyanthus and pansies much bigger and more colourful than in previous years. The daffodils and in particular, the tulips have also been magnificent. Daffodils were originally brought to Britain by the Romans according to this source but were not recognised as a garden flower until the 1600s. This year I have had, like other people I’ve talked to locally, more white daffodils than normal but I do not know why. I do like the great varieties of colours in the daffodils  I have, and depending on whether the sun is out or not, the daffodils appear to take on different shades. The photo below is one from a bowl of daffodils given to us by my sister. This flower has elegant shapes, a range of colours and shades of colour and the centre appeared to me like a piece of origami you might see in an exhibition. It gave us continuous pleasure for more than a week.

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Yellow and orange hybrid daffodil

While the early stars of the show in the garden were the daffodils, polyanthus and pansies, the tulips are now out in all their magnificent pomp. It’s as if the tulips know that – unlike the pansies and polyanthus that last much longer – their time as the centre of attention is limited. In some parts of the garden, there are only tulips and it is like a fashion show and I liked the elegant, almost aloof look of the three shown below.

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Elegant tulips on show in the garden

I took the 3 close-up photos after a heavy rain shower this afternoon. In the first photo, the flowing lines (a la Threlfall) on the petals, with their delicate shades of purple, draw your eye down the flower, which looked to me like hands being held out, perhaps in celebration.

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Close-up of a shapely tulip just after the rain

In the 2nd photo, I make the same comment as I did when I last posted on tulips. Can you see the tarantula? There is also as dazzling light coming from the centre – like Threlfall’s swans – and the raindrops are captured on their way down to this hydra-like centre.

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Spider-like centre of a tulip after the rain

The 3rd photo is the undoubted individual star of the show this year and this beautiful, multi-petalled tulip has been widely admired by neighbours and visitors. There is a lushness and an abundance in this flower, with its plethora of petals, whose colours are enhanced by the raindrops, which seem to be protecting the centre. When looking at the photo of this tulip, I wonder what an Impressionist/Fauvist painter would produce in making a representation of the flower?

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Multi-petalled tulip after the rain

 

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