Archive for the ‘Wild life’ Category

Scottish Birds photography and the white sands of Jervis Bay

January 22, 2019

As a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, albeit as only an occasional bird watcher, I receive the journal Scottish Birds – see latest cover ( and some content) here. For serious birders – do not use the pejorative term twitchers – there are many well researched and peer-reviewed articles in the journal. My main interest is in the photography. Through the help of Harry Scott of Pica Design and with the permission of the photographers, I am able to reproduce three aesthetically pleasing examples here.

The first is of a honey-buzzard (below) which was captured in flight, showing its magnificent wingspan. This bird is a living creature but also a work of art. It is beautifully symmetrical – look at the outer wing, finger-like feathers and the Australian aboriginal-like painting patterns on the wings. The bird’s tail could be a Japanese fan, used to display status and cool down its user, as opposed to being part of this superb hunter’s killing machine. The eyes and the beak look small and insignificant in comparison, but they too are part of the hunter’s toolkit. I see many more common buzzards as I cycle around the countryside than I did a few years ago and buzzards often sit on fences next to a dual carriageway in our county. They look in control of their territory and their elegant flight is something to see.

Honey Buzzard – Copyright John Anderson (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second photo is of avocets (below)which have the superb Latin name recurvirostra avosetta, which translates as having a curved back and beak. The avocet really is a most elegant bird, with its long straight legs like pillars holding up an earthquake threatened building, an upright stance and that beak which is turned up at the end, giving the bird a haughty look. There’s an excellent video of avocets here (scroll down to the video) where you can hear the birds chitter-chattering and watch their non-stop action in preening and feeding.

Avocets Copyright Ron Penn

The third photo (below) is a new bird to me, the kildeer (good photos) – the charadrius vociferous – which has a distinctive call and is a rare visitor to the UK. This photo was taken in Shetland and was only the 5th sighting in 50 years. This is a small bird but the shapes formed by the colours of the feathers around the eye, beak and neck give it a rare elegance. The subtle brown of the feathers on its back draws your eye to the black stripes and up to the slightly darker brown around its alert eye.

Kildeer Copyright Donna Atherton

While staying with our friends on our last stop in Australia recently, they took us down the coast to the idyllic beaches at Jervis Bay (good photos). We have a beach called Whitesands not far from Dunbar and it is a beautiful beach. In terms of being white however, Jervis Bay beaches are a long way ahead. The photo below shows one of the white beaches through the trees next to the road above the beach and you can see the brightness of the beach and the delicate turquoise of the sea.

Once you were down on the shore, there were big waves rolling in. The water was not as warm as we enjoyed in Port Douglas, but it was still very pleasant for a paddle. You can see in the photo below the whiteness of the collapsed waves, the bluey green sea behind and the slope of the beach. There was a considerable drag each time a wave performed its diving act and turned back to meet the next wave.

As we walked through the bush at the edge of the beach, we came across this friendly gecko, which was completely undisturbed by my close-up photography and seemed willing to pose for the camera. In the first photo below, the gecko catches your eye first but then you see the huge spider-like split in the tree trunk, as you follow the gecko’s tail to the leaf-laden floor of the bush.

In the next photo, the gecko’s ability to camouflage itself is apparent and when it climbed further up the tree trunk, it was hard to spot against the darker wood. I loved the rough curves and lines of the gum tree trunk, which had cast off the bark it no longer needed. There is a plethora of Australian geckos which you can see here. If you have more time and patience than me, I’m sure you might be able to identify this particular type of gecko.

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Tiles on the Cafe Royal Oyster Bar and the Tauranga beekeeper

December 24, 2018

My cycling pal John gave me his copy of Pints of View (cover below) which is the magazine of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland branch of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). The magazine has news on new real ales and on pubs in the area which sell real ale.

Pints of View – the real ale magazine (Click on all PHOTOS to enlarge)

My attention was drawn to an article in PoV by Michael Slaughter and Geoff Brandwood entitled “Tiled paintings in Edinburgh pubs. Part 2: The Cafe Royal Oyster Bar”. The Cafe Royal is a very well known pub just off the eastern end of Prices Street in Edinburgh. The main bar itself is highly decorated and you can walk around the bar, with its beautiful wood, before choosing what to drink and perhaps eat. On the walls are large tiled depictions. The Oyster Bar is the restaurant next to the main bar. The photo below shows the lavishly decorated room – the exquisite ceiling tiles, the eye-catching tiled pictures on the walls, the impressively marbled bar and the inviting tables with traditional chairs and sparkling white table cloths. The article notes that behind the marble topped bar, ” The windows of this room have eight large stained glass depictions of British sportsmen, designed by Ballantine and Gardiner of Edinburgh” and the sports include fishing and rugby. When you are in the Oyster Bar, these windows are a magnificent backdrop to those dining at the tables.

The Oyster Bar in Edinburgh’s Cafe Royal
(Photo by Michael Slaughter LRPS)

One of the most striking of the tiled panels is one showing two of the leading lights in the earliest photography in Europe. This panel (see below) shows Nicephore Niepce and Louis Daguerre .  There is no agreed inventor of photography but Niepce was certainly the earliest to experiment into what was to be become photography. Daguerre’s work took the process further and the two men became partners in 1829, after which they made further experiments and were able to produce more sophisticated images.

Louis Daguerre (left) and Nicephore Niepce who pioneered photography
(Photo by Michael Slaugher LRPS)

The 3rd photo (below) sent to me by co-author Michael Slaughter shows a cherub playing the Pan Pipes and while the 4 cherub tiled panels are not examples of high art, they are nevertheless quite singular and joyful additions to the varied panels around the Oyster Bar. The Cafe Royal main bar is always busy and it is often difficult to get a seat. You need to book a table in the Oyster Bar but it is a rewarding experience – especially if you like oysters.

Cherub tile from the Oyster Bar
(Photo by Michael Slaughter LRPS)

On our visit to Tauranga in the north island of New Zealand, we stayed at my sister and brother-in-law’s house. It has a large garden and next to the well-filled woodshed, there is a beehive. The bees are looked after by another Scottish emigrant to New Zealand – Heath, who was a renowned ships’ captain before retirement. This beekeeper hails from the bonnie wee village of Echt (good photos) in the north of Scotland. The first photo shows Heath taking out one of the internal boards in the hive and inspecting it. As you can see, he is very well protected and your photographer was keeping his distance from distracted bees who had been disturbed from their hive activities. This is the equivalent of a giant lifting up a whole village or town and shaking people out of their houses, so it’s unlikely that the bees welcomed this intrusion. You can see the structure of a hive here.

Echt beekeeper in Turanga NZ

In the second photo below, you can see how the bees have filled holes in the mesh structure and formed combs. The beekeeper will inspect the combs from time to time to ensure that the bees still have room to expand their food store. It looks a very complicated life that these bees lead but hives are highly structured in terms of hierarchy and what work is done by the different bees. In terms of logistics, bees can teach much about organisation of production and management of the workforce.

Close up of bees on hive board

I took a video of Heath checking various boards in the hive and you can hear his commentary on the healthy state of this hive. For those not accustomed to Scottish accents, you will hear phrases such as “drones – useless brutes o’ things”, and “they’ll run out of space and say that ‘we’re oota (out of ) here”. So, it’s probably worth viewing twice. It was a fascinating visit from this expert on bees and a real learning experience for me, who had never seen the inside of beehive before. Click on full screen to get the best effect from the video.

Port Douglas: The marina and 4 Mile Beach

November 20, 2018

We spent 5 nights in the north Queensland town of Port Douglas, a very attractive place with stunning views across the the islands and mountains and some healthy walks around the perimeter. The marina is near the centre of the town and it’s a place where much activity takes place, in the form of boat trips, fishing trips and snorkelling and diving trips. It’s also an area where some very rich people or companies have parked their boats, such as the one below.

Private boat in Port Douglas harbour (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the next photo, you can see part of the extensive marina on the right hand side, but also some individual yachts parked on the estuary. We were told that some yachts people could avoid paying marina fees by parking their boats on the estuary, although they risked being damaged or even stolen.

Port Douglas marina and estuary

We went on a river cruise which passed vast areas of mangrove trees which can survive the incoming salt water tides by filtering out the salt and you can see the complex root system in the photo below, taken not far from the marina.

Mangrove trees near Port Douglas

On our return from this trip, we passed a catamaran going on a sunset cruise. Next to the catamaran on the left hand side of the photo below is a ship which cost 20 million Australian dollars. This can be hired privately for A$10,00 per day – by people who live in a different world from the rest of us.

Sunset cruise catamaran at Port Douglas

One of the key outdoor attractions in Port Douglas is Four Mile Beach, a beautiful stretch of beach which is soft when you enter it but quickly becomes hard sand which makes for easy walking and there were also people on mountain bikes. We walked along the beach at 7am the first morning – up early due to a bit of jet lag – and, this being Australia, there were quite a few people walking and running along the beach. This is a view of the beach from the nearby lookout point, taken c7.30am when the beach was still quiet. One of the interesting facets of this beach is that there is a cordoned off area for swimming (2nd photo below) and this is because there is a danger of what the locals called stingers i.e jelly fish. On the grass areas next to the beach, there were places with bottles of vinegar for people to treat stings. It advised that you pour the vinegar on the sting but do not rub in There were also large signs in the water  warning of crocodiles. In the photo on the website, you can see that the sign has warning in English but also Achtung, which surprised us. We were then told on the estuary cruise that 20% of crocodile fatalities in Australia were German, thus the sign.

4 Mile Beach in Port Douglas

Swimming area on 4 Mile Beach

We swam in the closed off area every day as the water was very warm and you could walk right into the incoming waves – a welcome change from the cold UK waters. As you walked along the beach to the swimming area, there were numerous patterns in the sand made of tiny sand balls as in the photo below. These patterns are apparently made by common fiddler crabs and you can see an explanation for the patterns, which often looked like aboriginal paintings, here. The holes you can see are where the crabs have burrowed, looking for food.

Sand ball patterns on 4 Mile Beach

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.

Michael Warren-Redstart

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.

Arild, Sweden and summer flowers

August 16, 2018

On our recent trip to Denmark and Sweden, we drove across the famous Oresund Bridge. When you drive on to the bridge, you are under the water for a while and this doesn’t become clear until you see it from the air. It is a magnificent piece of engineering. Our destination was the very pretty seaside village of Arild and we stayed at the excellent Hotell Rusthållargården. It is a tiny village but has a very attractive harbour and pleasant walks along the rocky shoreline. We saw many people going swimming there and the water is much warmer than you might expect for Sweden – much warmer than in the UK. One surprising local custom is for people to go swimming and walk back up the road to their house or hotel in the their dressing gown. This could be seen all day and in the evening i.e. not just in the morning. The harbour (photo below) was once the preserve of the local fishing fleet, but today it is mainly leisure craft, with only a couple of fishing boats to be seen.

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Arild harbour (Click on all photos to enlarge)

There is still evidence of fishing in the village as seen in the nets which were hung up to dry next to the harbour (photo below). A local told us that these were eel nets and he hinted that fishing for eels may not be legal.

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Eel nets in Arild

I took a video of the harbour.

We visited the local church, known as Arilds Kapell which has origins in the 15th century and the modern Lutheran church dates back to the 18th century. It has an interesting interior, with its austere seating brightened up by the decoration on the side of each pew (picture below).

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Inside Arilds Kapell

At the back of the church is a collection box which, as you can see below, was very well protected from thieves by 3 large locks. Whether this reflects on the honesty of the local population over the centuries or a “take no chances” attitude of the church authorities was not made clear.

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Arilds Kappell collection box

What was more impressive were the model ships hanging from the ceiling – a reflection of the village’s past fishing history and one of the ships is shown below. In 1827, this must have been a magnificent sight just off the coast of Arild, as a ship of this size would not have been able to enter  the harbour.

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Model ship in Arilds Kapell

The church is hardly used now but remains a striking building, which is obviously well looked after by the locals. Arild is a busy little village in the summer and there are a range of walks along the coast. Not far from Arild is the Kullen Lighthouse which we visited after walking along the  high cliffs nearby and enjoying the spectacular views. The countryside around Arild is very much like that of East Lothian with fields of barley, wheat, oats, potatoes and cabbages to be seen, so we very much felt at home.

It’s summer flowers time on the blog, as the garden is probably now at its peak. The weeks of warm and mainly dry weather this summer has meant a lot of watering of plants and my hose has never been out of the garage as much as recently. The lavender in front of our house has been particularly prolific this year (photo below). Lavender’s botanical name is Lavendula and the plant has an interesting history. The name comes from the Latin lavare to wash and lavender has been used in perfume and soaps for thousands of years. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that to make good perfume, use rose-water and then “take a lavender flower and rub it with your palms, and you will have the desired effect”.

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Lavender in our front garden

The lavender has attracted hundreds of bees each day and, in the never-ending pursuit of close-up bee photographs, I managed to capture this bee on a lavender flower.

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Bee on a lavender flower

We’ve also had a better show this year of agapanthus flowers. In the photo below, the white, bell-like flowers of the white agapanthus are interspersed with the lavender. This happened as the agapanthus grew up beside the lavender bush. Agapanthus or African Lily have delicate flower heads, which are stunningly beautiful when they appear, but they do not last long particularly if there is a strong wind. When we lived in Australia in the 2000s, agapanthus was seen as a weed – an alien species from South Africa – in some states, as it spread rapidly and often replaced local plants.

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Agapanthus with intruding lavender.

This was the first year we had white agapanthus, having only had the blue variety since we bought 2 plants, and this is evidence of how they can spread. The blue flower heads (see below) are a delight. The head appears slowly and then reveals a multitude of blue raindrops which develop into delicate trumpets in a few days.

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Blue agapanthus flower head

I will return to our summer flowers in the blog in due course, but this is definitely the best display of flowers we’ve had for many years, due to the continuing warm, dry weather we’ve had for weeks.

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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Deon Meyer’s Icarus and bike stop at Oldhamstocks

June 8, 2018

I’ve just finished Deon Meyer’s excellent novel Icarus. Now the fact that this book is about a group of policemen trying to figure out who killed a man in Cape Town means that it will be categorised as a crime novel. If it is to be so categorised, then it should be classified as a superior crime novel. In Icarus, the protagonist is the troubled Benny Griessel, whose problems with alcohol affect both his working and social life. There are many troubled detectives around e.g. Ian Rankin’s Rebus, but Meyer’s detailed characterisation is well beyond the scope of most crime novelists. The author also presents, in a subtle fashion, South African society with its many racial and economic stresses. We also get an intriguing picture of different areas of Cape Town and the surrounding wine areas. The plot revolves around the murder of Ernst Richter, an entrepreneur who has set up a business which provides alibis for errant husbands (mainly) and wives. On the face of it, the company is very successful although we slowly come to see that this is not the case. Meyer maintains an excellent pace, with careful plotting and, like many other crime novelists, he does not lose his nerve at the end of the novel and go for a melodramatic conclusion. There is an unexpected twist right at the end of the book which is hard to see coming, and the reader is led up quite a few garden paths by the author. There is also humour in the book and some interesting detail on the development of the South African wine trade, as well as the more usual strains between different police departments. I will certainly return to this author and I encourage you to try out one of his books.

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Icarus by Deon Meyer (Click to enlarge all photos)

I am gradually getting back to some kind of bike fitness, mainly through a series of rides up the hills near Dunbar. We’ve had an easterly air flow – thanks to the Jet Stream unfortunately getting stuck to the west of the UK – for about 4 weeks now. So I have been heading east – I always go against the wind at the start of my bike ride – on a 24 mile (39K) route which takes in a fair few hills. The route takes me on a countryside route to Cockburnspath (good photos) and up the hill to the turning which takes you on to the Abbey St Bathans (good photos) road. If you continue on this road, then there are some serious hills on the way to and from Abbey St Bathans, but I turn off on the undulating road leading to Oldhamstocks, where I usually stop for a drink and a liquorice or treacle toffee.

I returned there yesterday with my proper camera, as the mobile camera was not effective on my bike ride. One of the features of the countryside around Dunbar at the moment is the hawthorn blossom which is also known as May blossom. The Scots equivalent of the phrase “Ne’er cast a clout till May is out” is “Ne’er cast a cloot till May is oot”. The meaning of this saying is that you should not discard any winter clothes until the May blossom appears i.e. not until the month of May ends. Due to the cold Spring we had here, the hawthorn blossom has not emerged in full until June this year, but what a show it now provides on countryside hedgerows and trees. In the first photo below, the cascading white blossoms can be seen and they are enhanced by the sun. The blossom totally transforms the tree from what one journalist wrote “In winter it [hawthorn bush] is a dour barrier of bare thorns”, into “the creamy curds of May blossom”. There is a deliciousness about the look of the tree, as if it had been decorated with tiny balls of ice cream and dusted with icing sugar.

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Hawthorn tree is full blossom

On closer inspection – in the photo below – you can see the individual flowers that contribute to this mass display, with their delicate petals and thin stamens reaching out to capture the sun and attract the insects. It reminded me of something divers see on coral reefs and you can imagine the hawthorn flowers dancing with the flow of the water on the seabed.

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Close-up of May blossom

This stop – and it is a bus stop also – is also interesting for the signposts in the photo below. No metrication here – I had cycled two and half miles from Cockburnspath, which is known locally as Co’path and is pronounced Co-burnspath. Below this, it should read Duns (good photos), an attractive border town which is 12 very hilly miles away. To the right, one mile ahead is Stottencleugh – cleugh is pronounced clue – ch (as in German Ich). In Scots, a cleugh is a narrow gorge and there is one near the farm of Stottencleugh. Below Stottencleugh, Cocklaw is signposted as one and a half miles away and it is a farm at the bottom of a very steep hill. This is a popular walking area (good photos). The larger signpost below points to Woollands ,which is a farmhouse set in extensive grounds on a hill and has magnificent views.

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Oldhamstocks signposts

After my stop, I followed the sign pointing up the big hill towards Innerwick and its normally hidden castle ruin. There is one last steep, winding hill you need to get up – to The Brunt farmhouse and steading  and from there it’s downhill and back to Dunbar.

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

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

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