Archive for the ‘Winter’ Category

Walk on the Biel estate and Keith Brockie paintings at Waterston House

January 31, 2023

I last posted a reference, with photos, to Biel House, almost exactly two years ago on this blog. In order to get to Biel (pronounced Beel) Estate, which c3miles/5K from Dunbar, you leave the A199 and go up a long drive to the house, firstly passing a cottage which would have formerly been the gatehouse to the estate. Once you are over the bridge spanning the A1 dual carriageway, you come to a newish set of gates (photo below) which lead to an impressive avenue of cedar trees. This is a stunning entrance and it is a very pleasant walk with the tall, thick trees to your left and right and the Lammermuir Hills in the distance. There is farmland on both sides of the trees, with the winter/spring wheat growing slowly but becoming a sparkling lightish green in the sunshine.

Entrance to the Biel Estate (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the end of the cedar walk, you come to a lane (photo below) with a small forest on each side. The side of this narrow road is still decorated with fallen leaves from the autumn and this scene refreshes your memory of when the leaves were yellowing and browning, but still on the trees. The adjoining wood is a mixture of rhododendron bushes, evergreen and deciduous trees. So there is a contrast all the way up the hill, with the bare tree on the right and the branches of the fir tree extending across the avenue. At some points, where there are mainly deciduous trees, you can see through to the fields beyond. This view will disappear in the late spring.

Lane leading up to Biel House

At the top of what is quite a steep hill for walkers and cyclists, you come to a crossroads, with the left taking you down to the Biel Burn and the right to attractively named Beeseknowe Farm (good photo). The entrance to Biel House itself (photo below) has impressive, elegant and graceful twin columns, with decorated, thistle-like rounded tops. The sign says Private and this is meant for cars, as walkers and cyclists appear to be welcome as passers-by. The photo shows the still flowerless rhododendrons to the right and left but if you look closely at them, you can see the small buds appearing, a sign of beauty to come. As you can see, there are some impressively tall trees here and the carpet of rust-coloured leaves adds to the attractiveness of the entrance.

Entrance to Biel House

We visited an excellent exhibition recently at Waterston House in Aberlady, the home of SOC (Scottish Ornithologists’ Club) to see the work of well known wildlife artist Keith Brockie, whom I have featured here on the blog on more than one occasion, the last time being in 2017. The exhibition finished not long after our visit and we are looking forward to the present exhibition, featuring examples from Scottish Nature Photography Awards. I am grateful to again to Laura Gressiani at SOC for sending me, with Keith Brockie’s permission, the three examples of his outstanding work below. The first example (photo below) is entitled Brooding Tawny Owl and shows Brockie’s truly amazing grasp of detail and his ability to portray the details of the tree and owls. It is hard for me as a non-artistic layman to imagine just how long this must have taken him to paint, but the result is a wonderful piece of art. Seeing Brockie’s quite large paintings at the exhibition is quite a different experience from looking at the photo, but the enlarged photos here will give you a chance to admire his work at close hand. On first seeing the painting, you notice the adult owl and its tired but still alert looking face, as well as its colouring and the very realistic looking feathers. Then you see the baby owl, fast asleep it seems to me and its green beak accompanied cleverly by the green, exquisitely veined leaves. Then there is the patterns on the smooth bark of the silver birch. In all, a painting to be admired again and again.

Brooding Tawny Owl by Keith Brockie

The second example (photo below) from the exhibition is entitled Mistle Thrush and is another example of Brockie’s supreme artistry in portraying birds and their environment. Once again, you are struck by the sheer amount of detail here. This bird, with the unfortunate (for us) scientific name of turdus viscivorus, has an enchanting song, which you can listen to here (scroll down to song audio). Brockie’s bird is not singing, but is perhaps waiting for an opportunity to sing to attract a mate, perhaps. The patterns on the bird’s breast give an aspect of surrealism, whereas the keen eye and the sharp beak, ready for the berries below, are painted realistically. The colour contrast been the berries and the bird draws our attention to both. The branch upon which the bird sits has a claw-like feature, seen just above the artist’ signature. A study in ornithological concentration is presented here and is as eye-catching as the owls above.

Mistle Thrush by Keith Brockie

The final example shows Keith Brockie’s art (and artistry) at its finest. This is a stunning portrait of a wild animal and you can see the muscularity in the hare which will give it its lightning speed. Out cycling around Dunbar, I have often seen hares, whether on the road in front of me or in a field, and when they start running, they go so fast that you think they might be flying low above the ground. The hairs on the animal’s ears, face and body are drawn so convincingly that you think this must be what it is like to be really close to a hare. There is alertness in the ears, the eyes and the nose and this is a hare which is very aware of its surroundings and possible dangers. This site (good video) tell us that “The hare grazes on vegetation and the bark of young trees and bushes”. You have to admire Brockie’s skill in painting the grass upon which the hare will feed and the way in which the grass mimics the shape of the hairs on this powerful but stunningly beautiful animal. The contrast in colours – white, brown, black, orange and green – in the painting should take your eye up, down and across the painting to appreciate its visual beauty. This was a most remarkable exhibition and if you ever get to see a Keith Brockie art show, grab the opportunity with both hands. A huge round of applause to Waterston House for acquiring this enchanting display of wildlife art.

Brown Hare by Keith Brockie

Spott Burn, the ford and nearby Brock Wood on a soggy New Year’s Day 2023

January 20, 2023

I have featured the walk up to Spott House a few times on the blog e.g. here. On New Year’s Day, we went to do the same walk but the gates were (unusually) locked, so we walked through the village of Spott (good photos) and on past the older houses. We then came to what is known as the Witches’ Stone Photo below). Some local historians repeated the story that the stone was erected in memory of Marion Lillie, a witch who had been burned at the stake in the early 1700s. However, this was refuted by a researcher studying the local Spott Kirk (good photos) records, who noted that Lillie had been interred in Spott Kirk (Scots for church) in 1705 and buried in the kirk graveyard. Although Lillie was accused of being a witch, she could not have been buried in the graveyard, as women found guilty of being a witch could not be buried. The early 1700s was a time of fear for many women and you can read about the witch trials, with women often found guilty on flimsy evidence, here. A new sign at the stone was placed there a few years ago and the stone is now seen as a memorial to the women who died unjustly.

Witches Stone at Spott. Photo by Hlz Wlz (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the bottom of the hill, past the stone, you turn right and down another hill until you come to a ford, through which flows the Spott Burn (Scots for stream or small river). This is normally a gentle flow of water and you can drive your car safely thorough it with impunity. On the day of our walk, there had been recent heavy rain and the normally calm water appeared to be either in a boiling rage or in throes of an ecstatic experience, as it hurtled under the footbridge, carrying on its journey eastwards to the sea. The photo below shows the view looking eastwards, up the road to the village. You can see from the marker denominating the height of the water that it is 6 inches, which is high, as normally the water from the burn does not go beyond the edge of the burn on the left. The photo also shows the sturdy trunks of the many-limbed tree and the branches reaching down to the water. In the field beyond, the green shoots of what will later be a wheat or barley field are now emerging. When the sun catches the sun catches such a field at this time of year, it enhances the greenness of the crop. To the left of the photo you can see the buildings of Spott Farm.

The ford at the Spott Burn

The map below shows the exact location of the ford, down the narrow road from the Witches’ Stone. The F B opposite Ford stands for footbridge. The road going up from the ford is locally known as Daniel’s Brae (brae is Scots for hill) but on the map is Daniel’s Side Brae. I could not find the origin of the word Daniel in this name. The map also shows Brock Wood of which more below. Opposite Brock Wood is Spott Dod and the Dictionary of the Scots Language defines one meaning of dod as “A bare hill with a rounded top” and this word is also used in the English language. Spott Dod is the site of an old hillfort according to this Canmore site indicates that this was originally “the remains of an Iron Age enclosure, in which the defences were predominantly of timber” and was a functioning fort about 2,900 years ago. If you followed the high road from Spott village, you come to another dod Deuchrie Dod (good photo).

Spott and district map from

I took this video standing on the west side of the ford.

Near the end of the video, you get a view of Brock Wood and we walked through part of the wood, which is separated by Daniel’s Brae. Brock Wood (good photos) is a nature reserve and also popular with walkers with an ornithological inclination. This site states that on the last visit to the site (10 photos) , wildlife included “Dippers, nuthatches, lots of woodpigeons, tits, screeching birds of prey, possibly a jay. Ripe raspberries, blackberries, elderberries”. The Scottish Wildlife Trust site describes the wood thus “Brock Wood, located 3 miles south of Dunbar, is a mixed woodland. Non-native trees, which were originally planted for timber, are gradually being removed to encourage the regrowth of the native alder, ash and oak”. The photo below is near the entrance on Daniel’s Brae and is taken when the greenery has returned to the trees and the winter leaves on the ground have been replaced by summer growth. In the Spring, I will walk through both sides of the wood and continue this story.

Photo by Tony O’Connor

Wintry swans at Seafield Pond and a frosty West Barns Bridge

January 10, 2023

One of my last walks of 2022 was to nearby Belhaven. I parked the car opposite the Surf School (good photos) and walked up what is known as the Dump Road to Seafield Pond, which was originally a clay pit for the Seafield Brick and Tile Works in the 19th century. It later became Dunbar’s refuse site, thus the name Dump Road. The wall separating the sea from the path to the pond is known as the Divvy Dyke and was built by David France, who established the brickworks. France was referred to by Dunbar historian James Miller as “the man who beat Canute” after building the dyke (wall). At high tide, the sea comes right up to the wall. On the day of my walk, instead of sea water, there was thick ice to be seen over the wall. The first photo below shows the frozen grass – submerged at high tide – and the ice beyond. Further out is the wide stretch of sand forming Belhaven Bay (good photos) with the Bass Rock in the distance. The second photo shows the very thick ice further along the sand and you can just see an array of birds further out. These birds – oystercatchers and redshanks – normally feed closer to the wall.

Frost and ice at Belhaven Bay (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Ice on the shore at Belhaven Bay

My walk was in the afternoon and I managed to capture the partly frozen pond while the sun was setting in the west at about 3.30pm. I was lucky enough to have two elegant, graceful and very calm swans feeding in the pond. The photo below shows the swans, with the sun making a golden streak across the pond, the frozen and whitened reeds to the left, and more frozen solid in the ice in the foreground. It was a freezing cold, but fairly still day and the only movement at the pond was the two swans lowering their heads to feed where they had broken the ice. There is a serenity about this photo which I like, although it was not a day to stand still for long. There are numerous lines in the photo, with the grasses above the ice, the reeds standing to attention and the bare branches of the trees shown clearly by the white glow of the sun.

Ice, grasses, reeds and swans at Seafield Pond

You need have patience when taking photos of swans as, just when you think you have the perfect shot, one of them dips its head into the water. The swans were aware of my presence but treated me with insouciance, as if to say “Take your photos but don’t expect us to pose for you”. In the next photo below, you can see the ice in the foreground and, waiting a short time, I managed to capture the sun coming over the pond and the narrow strip of gold on the pond, ending beneath the feet of the swans. The ice/water below the swans has turned to pink and the sun has made reflections of the swans in the water. Just at the point of taking the photo, the further away swan lowered its head but this does not detract from the photo. Swans have a beautiful shape and look perfectly formed with their graceful necks, orange beaks and feathers neatly tucked in to produce warmth on this winter’s day. The legs and feet are perhaps less elegant but there is a fascination about swans which attracts the viewer. You can see more photos and a video of swans at Belhaven on a sunny autumnal day in a previous blog post.

Ice, swans and reflections at Seafield Pond

If you keep walking west past the pond, you come to a path which borders the Biel Burn, over which stands West Barns bridge. West Barns is a village about 2 miles/3.2k from Dunbar. The photo below shows the path and the bridge looking west, with the sun nearly set but leaving a white glow above the trees. There was a dog walker on the bridge and his reflection can be seen, as well as the bridge’s in the water. Across the bridge, the fields to the right were thick with frost and the path was very slippery, so I had to walk next to the wall on the left. So, a very picturesque scene but there was only enough time to take the photo and move on, my breath showing white in the cold air.

Frosty path and reflections at West Barns bridge

Looking east, back to the bridge (photo below), you can see that the wooden railings going on to the metal bridge are white with frost and the grass next to the path is temporarily petrified by the frost. The reflection in the water looks like an impressionist artist’s depiction of the bridge, which loses its colour in the water. I have taken my mountain bike over this bridge many times as you join a path to the right which takes you along a bumpy route to John Muir Park (good photos).

Heavy frost at West Barns bridge

In a previous blog (good photos), I referred to what a relative and a friend of mine would call the art of guddling. The Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL) – a treasure trove for Scots words – defines to guddle as “To catch (fish) by groping with the hands under stones or the banks of a stream”. Another definition given is to catch trout “by tickling the underbelly with one hand, grabbing them with the other”. One reference from 1921 states “An’ oot aneth a mossy stane some muckle troot he’d guddelt” which is translated as “And out beneath a mossy stone, some huge trout he had guddled”. See here for more examples of guddling from the DSL. The photo below shows the view upstream in the burn and a favourite guddling site was just around the corner to the right, where the burn forms small pools, into which the trout would swim and rest. There are more reflections here – of the wintry trees and although there was little wind that day, some of the trees appear to waving their “arms” about in an aerobic fashion. There are more lines of sight here, from the left you see the wall, the path, the grassy verge, the burn, another verge and another wall, so the photo is well worth more than a cursory look. The walk ended with me going back along the Dump Road, into car and driving home for a warm and welcoming cup of tea.

Upstream view from West Barns bridge

That Was the Year That Was – 2022

December 31, 2022

As this is the last blogpost of 2022, I am looking back over this year’s posts and making a fairly random search to pick out some highlights.

In February, I wrote “Every year I try to go somewhere different to take photos of the snowdrops which now adorn our woods and gardens. In 2021, I posted this description of the snowdrops at Smeaton Lake. I also remind you each year of Alice Oswald’s uniquely beautiful poem The Snowdrop – read here by Andrew Motion, accompanied by some elegant and graceful photos, including a close-up one of raindrops on the flower. I have just found another site in which you can look at and listen to – “The Snowdrop: An immersive exploration of the science, folklore, and horticulture of this first sign of spring”. Produced by Cambridge University Botanic Garden (good photos), this site is well worth exploration for its information, stunning photography and The Snowdrop – with lyrics – read by Sandie Cain, the garden’s Horticultural Learning Coordinator. I make no apologies for once again quoting from Oswald’s poem “Yes, she’s no more than a drop of snow/ on a green stem…. But what a beauty, what a mighty power/ of patience kept intact is now in flower”.  The photo below gives a close-up view of a peaceful and sedate looking snowdrop community. As ever, the heads – gorgeous white bells – are bowed as the flowers maintain their private thoughts. The photo also shows the forest floor environment in which the snowdrops grow during their relatively short lives. Not only are there brown leaves from last autumn but the green, spiky, storm-blown mini-branches of the neighbouring fir trees. The sunlight adds to the aesthetics of the photo, emphasising the brilliant whiteness of the snowdrop heads.

Snowdrops in Lochend Woods (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

In May, my wife and I went to Perthshire (now Perth and Kinross) for a short break. The blog post began “We recently had a two day break in Perthshire, staying at the excellent Grandtully Hotel, of which more below. The bonnie town of Aberfeldy (good photos) is 5 miles/ 8.1k from the hotel and is certainly worth a visit if you are in the area. It has an excellent bookshop – The Watermill (good photos) – and I would heartily recommend that you also visit its café (good photos, especially the food) downstairs. The town is best known for its glorious walk, known as The Birks of Aberfeldy (good photos). Birks in Scots means birch trees although part of the walk has mostly beech. The photo below was taken on the early part of the walk and you can see the Moness Burn flowing through the stones, as well as the newly-leafed trees, with their delicate greens. The stones take on various hues as the water passes over them and, at the bottom right, the stones which sit out of the water are moss-covered, adding yet another shade of green.

Flowing water in Aberfeldy

I also included this video of the rushing water further up the hill.

In August, we paid a visit to Berwick Upon Tweed and I wrote: “We have not been back to Berwick Upon Tweed (good photos) since 2019 – see this blog post. We walked along the promenade at Spittal Beach which is a long stretch of sand close to the town, which is usually just referred to as Berwick. The photo below shows the southern end of Spittal promenade and the end of the beach. There is a Lowry connection here as his painting Beach Scene can be viewed on the highlighted link. The beach can be seen from the top of the cliffs in the photo below in the second photo, which shows the extent of the beach and the railway viaduct to the left. In the second photo, the tide is further out. On the day of our visit this year, there were many families on the beach and quite a number of adults and children swimming in the water. On occasion, you heard the scream of a child as s/he first entered the cold water with feet warmed by the summer sun.

Spittal Beach
View across Spittal Beach to Berwick

In October, my wife and I went on a short holiday to Porto and one of the main highlights was the visit to the  Palacio da Bolsa (good photos). I wrote “The last room you visit is the one worth waiting for. This site (good photos) tells us that “The pièce de résistance of the Palácio da Bolsa is the Salão Árabe (Arab Hall) by architect Gustavo Adolfo Gonçalves de Sousa, who was inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain”. The hall was restored again in 2009-2010. The style is faux Arabian and you can see in the photo below how the designer completely embraced the Moorish forms on the walls, the pillars and the ceiling. Note also the highly decorated pillars, with a different design at each stage going from the floor upwards. The floor is also very impressive and the site above adds “As in the rest of the building, here too, the floor is made from the finest woods such as mahogany, rosewood, satinwood, rosewood and maple”.

The Arab Hall in the Palacio da Bolsa

I took this video when in this magnificent and unique room.

So that was 2022. We had a bleak start to the year as Covid restrictions were still place and mask wearing was compulsory inside buildings, but there was a gradual improvement, especially during the longish, hot (for us) summer. As I write, we are 9 days beyond the shortest day of the year and already, there is more daylight. It only remains for me to wish you all A Guid New Year and thank you for reading this blog. May 2023 bring you good health, prosperity, love, luck and laughter.

Warkworth in winter re-visit and frost hits the churchyard and the sprouts

December 20, 2022

Checking the blog, I realised that we stayed in Warkworth in 2013 and that was in July. This visit – overnight only – with relatives was in the depth of the very cold spell we have been having for the past two weeks. The temperature was below freezing on the day we arrived and never went above until we arrived back in Dunbar the next day. On the positive side, we have very warm winter clothes and it was a gloriously sunny day, with a big Australian sky above us. We went for a walk around the historic Warkworth Castle (many photos) but had to be careful of icy patches on the pathway. The castle dates back to the 12th century and was the stronghold of the powerful Percy family from the 14th to the 17th centuries. The Percys owned most of the land in the north of England at this time. To the right of the photo, you can see the Great Tower, described as being “in the shape of a Greek cross, with four polygonal wings radiating from a central block, above which rises a viewing tower”. In the photo, you can also see the motte and bailey, along with the drawbridge and the portcullis. This castle was built to impress and to withstand attack or siege. It is still a formidable looking building which dominates the landscape around the village and beyond – exactly as the Percys would have wished.

Warkworth Castle in Northumberland (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Beside the castle, the River Coquet provides a quiet and peaceful environment and a good walk. As it was a beautiful day, the reflections on the river were very photogenic. Perhaps the -3 degrees temperature enhanced the quality. In the photo below, you can see the multiple reflections of the stones, the tree trunks, the greenery of the evergreens, the pampas grasses on the right and the patches of blue sky. The river appears so still that it could be a mirror. I also like the shadows on the right which are also reflected.

Reflections on the River Coquet, Warkworth

Further along the river’s edge, on which stood very tame ducks as we passed, you come to the medieval bridge (good photos) and the site above notes that “John Cook of Newcastle, who died in 1379, left the sum of 20 marks towards the building of a new bridge at Warkworth, on the condition it was built within two years”. Approaching the bridge, we got another excellent display of reflections (photo below) of the trees but also the bridge itself. We were hoping to cross the bridge but it was so icy past the defensive tower (good photo) that we had to turn back.

The 14th century bridge in Warkworth

On the following day, it was still below zero at home and there had been a hard frost and a light covering of snow overnight. The roads were clear, so I drove up to the nearby Spott Kirk (good photos) to capture it on a freezing but still crystal clear day. The first photo below is taken from the entrance to the church and shows the gravestones – some dating back 200 years – amongst the ice. There are shadows in this photo as in the previous ones and you can just see the shadow of a nearby tree on the roof and the bell-tower. The trees on the right are mostly bare, with some greenery on the top of the more distant trees. The other green on show is the ivy climbing up the trees and the bushes just above the old stone wall. The second photo is taken down the steps from the left of the entrance and shows more shadows on the bell tower, more gravestones and looks towards the more modern section of the graveyard behind the church. Beyond the kirk on the left, you can see the fields stretching over towards Wester Broomhouse (good photo) farm in the distance.

Spott Kirk with snow and ice
Spott Kirk and beyond

On my way home, I stopped at a field of sprouts near the former Easter Broomhouse (good photo) farm. This is a huge field, stretching into the distance, with the sprouts standing to attention in rows like the soldiers of the famous Terracotta Army (good photos and video). Going in closer, I could see the well developed sprouts, clinging to their stalks like mussels on a rope. The first photo below shows the sprout plant, now with drooping, yellowing and purpling leaves, with its family of young sprouts gathered on the stalk, ready for the harvest. Some of the leaves have fallen off and lie frozen on the ground, covered with ice. The sun is shining directly on the plant and this gives us a variety of greens and yellows as well as the white veins, like river tributaries, on the big leaves. The second photo shows the serried ranks of the sprout army stretching into distance, with the Lammermuir hills beyond. You can see the redeveloped farm buildings – now houses and cottages – of Easter Broomhouse on the right. Unlike many people, I am not a fan of sprouts, whether steamed or roasted as I find the taste too strong, unlike cabbage, which I love.

Sprouts and frost at Easter Broomhouse

Audubon’s Birds of America exhibition in Edinburgh

April 18, 2022

I recently visited the National Museum of Scotland to see the stunning Audubon’s Birds of America exhibition (good photos). I remember this book being mentioned as being significant in the history of printing (good photos) in my first postgraduate course. The National Library of Scotland describes the book as “one of the world’s most famous and valuable books. Its huge pages contain the life’s work of John James Audubon, a Haitian-born Frenchman who became an American citizen. The book took nearly 12 years to complete. In four volumes, it contains 435 plates showing 1,065 life-size illustrations of 489 bird species of 19th-century America”.

When you enter the exhibition, you are immediately entranced by the moving images of birds on the walls and it pays dividends to stand still and watch as each bird metamorphoses into another. I took this video just after going inside the exhibition.

On the walls of the exhibition are examples of Audubon’s work and it is here that you see the outstanding quality he has in carefully depicting the birds. This is art as well as ornithology and the paintings can be appreciated as much for their artistic style as their content. The photo below is a good example of this. Audubon, in his notes in the book, writes that the song of the water thrush – Turdus Aquatucus – is equal to that of the nightingale and “The notes of the bird are as powerful and mellow, and at times varied”. He named it the Louisiana water thrush although this bird (good photos) can be seen in many eastern states in America. In this painting, you see the detail of the bird’s plumage, beak and its claws, which are wrapped tightly around the branch and appear to be made of wire. There are also delicate shades of colour in the flower itself, with the brighter red of the fruit providing a contrast.

Louisiana Water Thrush by John James Audubon (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Audubon liked to portray himself as a frontiersman and commissioned a portrait of himself – see photo below. He is a controversial figure today, given that he was the son of a slave trader and owned slaves at one time, but he accepted patronage from abolitionists in England. Also, he killed some of the birds he wanted to paint and this would be unacceptable today, but he also was an early critic of the deleterious effect humans could have on the environment of the birds and is seen as a conservationist today. Audubon came to Edinburgh in 1826 and the book would not have been printed without the help of William Home Lizars, described by the National Library of Scotland as “A talented artist and a superb engraver. He played a key role in the production of ‘Birds of America’. He was the first man to consider seriously engraving and publishing the bird paintings”. The exhibition has a quote from Audubon which reads ” I saw Edinburgh and was struck with the natural pictorial elegance of the site. The principal scientific characters of the metropolis received me as a brother”. The four volume work was completed in the 1830s. Complete sets of the huge book are rarely seen and one sold for $8.8 million in 2000.

John James Audubon

The books themselves are much bigger than most art books, measuring almost one metre by 650mm. The photo below shows the volume – in a glass case – which was on display at the exhibition. This page shows the Snowy Heron or White Egret and is described by Audubon as “This beautiful species is a constant resident in Florida and Louisiana, where thousands are seen during winter, and where many remain during the breeding season”. You can see a larger print of this magnificent bird here.

Audubon’s book – Snowy Heron

I was mesmerised by the moving paintings of various birds on the walls before I left the exhibition and I took another video. The exhibition ends on 8th May, so if you are in the vicinity, go and see it. You will not be disappointed.

The Hoot and John Banville’s Snow

April 7, 2022

A new of edition of The Hoot online magazine (Photo below) from SOC’s Librarian and Communication Officer Rosie Filipiak is always something to look forward to. This latest edition promises “some springtime topics – migration, pairing up, and eggs”. I have selected some interesting parts of the magazine, sent out to SOC members and have included information and photos on moorhens, guillemots and shovelers.

Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended.

We see moorhens on local ponds in Dunbar and they tend to be small, shy birds which will swim away as soon as you approach the water’s edge. The Hoot notes that “Moorhens are often overlooked as being rather ordinary, everyday birds, but aspects of their life history are fascinating.  Over winter, Moorhens often form small flocks within which they pair up before monogamous pairs disperse in spring to establish a territory”. Research quoted states that female moorhens are fussy about who they mate with – as they should be, of course – and prefer fatter males, choosing a mate only after inspecting the approaches of several males. The males do 70% of the incubation and often have to build several nests before attracting a female. The photo below is similar to the one in The Hoot which is copyright. Moorhens have red bill shields and yellow bill tips and the stronger the colours, the healthier the bird. This moorhen is in a beautiful setting, with the water lilies as a background and its ribbed reflection in the water. From a distance, moorhens tend to look black and it is only when you get close that you see the stunning colours on its face and bill.

Dusky moorhen in Sydney’s Victoria Park. Photo by Toby Hudson and included under Creative Commons

My own experience of guillemotsUria aalge – are members of the auk family and gather in their thousands in places like St Abbs Head (good video). Unfortunately, The Hoot reported that many guillemots had been found dead along shores in Scotland and the likely cause is a shortage of sand eels, which have moved to colder waters due to climate change. When you get near enough to a guillemot colony, you can hear the constant cries of the birds as they leave and return to the closely packed cliff edge nesting sites. As you can see in the photo below, guillemots are elegant and graceful birds, with their white fronts and blue/black heads and backs. They always look to me like inquisitive birds, with their keen eyes and sharp beaks always on the lookout.

Guillemots – Photo with the permission of Rosie Filipiak

The third bird to be covered in this edition of The Hoot is the shovelerAnas clypeata – and the RSPB site notes that “Shovelers are surface feeing ducks with huge spatulate bills”. I had to look up spatulate and it means “shaped like a spatula” and “having a narrow base and broad rounded apex”. You can see the shoveler’s not particularly attractive bill in the photo below. The bill is however, very efficient and effective as it allows the bird to sieve more water than other ducks. It uses, according to The Hoot “the lamellae, those fine comb-like structures that line the inside of the bill, also allow Shovelers to filter out smaller prey items than other dabbling ducks because they have both more and much finer lamellae”. The shoveler is still an attractive bird with its variegated plumage and keen, yellow eye and Rosie Filipiak’s superb photo also captures the bird’s surreal-looking reflection in the water.

Shoveler by Rosie Filipiak

A new book by the Irish author John Banville is always something to look forward to with anticipation. Banville’s new crime novel – this time using his own name and not his pseudonym Benjamin Back – is Snow (review) and it is a superb novel, which begins in a jocular fashion but becomes darker as the tale progresses. The crime involved is the murder of a priest in a rural Ireland mansion. The body is found in the library and has been disfigured (no spoilers). The eccentric detective St John Strafford is sent to investigate, and the local police and some of the house’s occupants refer jokingly to Inspector Poirot in relation to a “body in the library” mystery. The novel explores the characters in the house – and visitors – as to who might have carried out the murder and why. Banville carefully takes us on a journey of possible killers and their potential motives. The novel is set in 1957 in Ireland, which is still dominated by the catholic church and Strafford’s superiors warn him that he should not investigate too closely, as a scandal might be revealed. There is a quite disturbing chapter near the end of the book where we hear the voice of the dead priest admitting to his own crimes (no spoilers) and this is superbly written. Banville avoids a melodramatic ending – he is too good a writer for that – but he keeps us guessing until the end of the book as to who was involved in the murder.

Banville is a stylistic writer and we are treated to some memorable descriptions throughout the novel. Enjoying a better than expected traditional pub meal, Strafford reflects “It was like leaning one’s back against the sun-warmed side of a haystack”. We come across unusual use of words e.g. swag in “The sky was loaded with a swag of mauve-tinted clouds”. There is humour also, as a barman describes a customer “He’d drink whiskey off a sore leg, that fellow would”. Banville also sent me to the dictionary – “A brumous glow lay on the fields” – with brumous meaning foggy and wintry. Or “The wine gave off an evil, rubious glitter”, with rubious meaning dark red or the colour of a ruby. So we read Banville not just for his in-depth characterisation and sublime plotting, but also for his often telling use of the English language to poetically describe scenes or what people wear. This brilliant book is a must-read.

Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist and walk to the Whitesands and Barns Ness

February 6, 2022

It is unlikely that I would have bought a book which focuses on elevator inspectors in the USA in the 1950s had the author not been Colson Whitehead, best known as the writer of The Underground Railroad (Review). The Intuitionist (Review) is Whitehead’s debut novel and there are inevitably some passages that are overwritten and could have been edited out. Despite this, the tale of Lila Mae West, the first black elevator inspector and her struggles to be accepted not only in a predominantly male – but also white male – profession, is very well told. Whitehead has invented two theories of elevator design, succinctly put in the above review ” the Empiricists, who plod through their inspections one material criterion at a time, and the Intuitionists, who take a more mystical, gestalt approach to the detection of safety flaws”. Lila Mae is in the Intuitionist camp and there is an election for the president of the Guild of inspectors which involves dirty tricks by both camps. The main thrust of the story relates to aspects of class and race but Whitehead, in undramatic prose, shows us how limited life could be – and maybe still is – for black people seeking to improve their education and economic status. There are some plot twists before the end of the novel involving Lila Mae, who is underestimated by her colleagues, as she is both female and black, and these keep the reader intrigued. Lila Mae’s search for the hidden manuscripts of James Fulton, possible inventor of the perfect elevator which could transform city buildings, means she has to pit her wits against violent opponents and Whitehead keeps the story alive with incidents relating to this. The Intuitionist may not be to everyone’s taste and there is an overload of information on elevator design in some parts, but this is a novel worth seeking out and reading.

Colson Whitehead’s debut novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We took a walk on a clear and sunny, if chilly, afternoon recently to The Whitesands (good photo) which is two miles from Dunbar, going east. We went there at high tide so did not see the wide stretch of beach shown in the photo on the above link. What we did see was the curve of the bay and the fairly calm tide easing its way to the shore, in a succession of white waves. The clear sky above was reflected in the water, with its multiple shades of subtle blue. There is a bench near where this photo was taken and you could sit and watch the waves making their way to the shore in a very orderly fashion on the day we visited. if we had come to the same spot two days later, the waves would have been angrily hurtling themselves – 1.5 metres high – in a desperate looking attempt to get to the sand. In the foreground, you can see the sunlit grasses, in their winter guise, which were gently swaying in the wind.

Whitesands beach near Dunbar

We followed the path along towards the lighthouse, keeping near the shore and going through a copse of bushes – some thorny – with the Barns Ness Lighthouse (history) growing ever larger as we approached. I have featured the lighthouse on the blog before and the photo below is taken from this post. The Canmore site above describes the lighthouse as ” A tall, slightly tapering; circular-section tower with circular lantern with triangular panes and domed top”. A friend of mine recalled his uncle telling him that during WW2, his uncle was part-time lighthouse keeper and part time soldier, with one his duties being to man a machine-gun from the top of the lighthouse, in case of a German invasion.

Barns Ness Lighthouse

On the day of our visit, we walked past the lighthouse and I took the photo below looking back towards the lighthouse and the keepers’ cottages. The Canmore site describes the cottages – “The keepers’ houses are, as usual, single-storey, flat-roofed structures, harled, with the quoins exposed”. Quoin is a new word to me and means “an external angle of a wall or building”. You can now rent one of the extensively renovated cottages. Just below the cottages, you can see the ruins of a building and this may have been some kind of storage area or possibly a house predating the lighthouse. You can also see the well worn path and the very rocky shore to the right of the photo. The lighthouse is kept in very good condition and its shining white and yellow paints stand out against the blue sky.

Barns Ness Lighthouse and keepers’ cottages

Not much further along the shore from the photo above, you will find a wrecked barge – photo below. The barge was used by the navy during WW2 for target practice and it was much larger than what remains now. You can see a large metal ring attached to the right of the barge and this was used to tow the barge into position for the navy to shell it. Much of the wood has rotted away but the solid iron rivets remain in place. Above the barge and to the right of the photo, you can see Torness Power Station. There is a stretch of beach to the right of the photo and this is often visited by oystercatchers, dunlin, turnstones and the occasional curlew. This is a popular walking area and part of this blog post (good photos) shows the walk from Barns Ness to the power station and beyond. On a cold sunny day like this, you can enjoy the benefits of the outdoors at Barns Ness.

Barge used by the navy

Winter trees near Preston Mill and the Wolf Moon

January 27, 2022

On a cold but sunny day, with a big Australian sky above, we walked from Preston Mill in East Linton (good photos) on a path taking us along part of the River Tyne. I featured Preston Mill (good photos) on the blog in 2020 and included this photo of the mill’s water wheel below. The wheel stands proudly at the side of the mill and you can see the rushing water at the bottom right of the photo. What you cannot hear is the ecstatic sound that the water makes as it dives headlong into the channel. The wheel may be seen as an industrial relic from the 18th century but it is still an admirable sight today when you visit or walk past the mill.

The big wheel at Preston Mill (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We walked across the bridge over the river and up to the 16th century Phantassie Doocot once the home of 500 pigeons. We turned left and walked towards the river and this is where we saw the entrancing sight of the yellowish trees bordering the river – see photo below. The yellowish tint on the trees is partly caused by the direct sunlight, as the trees do not appear so yellow out of the sun. It is also partly caused by what the Royal Horticultural Society calls “Algae, lichens and moss” which grow on the trees in winter but do not do them any harm. The trees on the far bank look sprawled out, with branches seemingly stretching out randomly from their graceful trunks, the elegant shadows of which you can see in the background. On the near side of the bank, in contrast to the robust trees, are delicate seed heads with long, elegant stems. These are what is left of the prolific cow parsley, a ubiquitous plant in the countryside here.

Trees in the sun on the river Tyne

The view of the river also provided some excellent reflections in the water. The photo below shows the base of some trees and others that appear to have fallen into the water. What is remarkable about some of these trees is that, although parts of the trees look dead, the branches at the top of the trees still provide a profusion of leaves in the summertime. I like the contrast in the photo of the light coloured trunks on the bank of the river and the dark reflections in the water, in which the trees appear to stretch out towards the opposite bank. The shimmer on the water, in particular on the bluish sections, gives the photo an impressionist look and the longer I stood at the side of the river, the more shimmering I saw.

Reflection in the river near Preston Mill

January 17th saw the first full moon of the year and this is known as the Wolf Moon. This site states that it is called The Wolf Moon as “according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which may date back to Native American tribes and early colonial times when wolves would howl outside villages”. Research has shown that the wolves’ howling was coincidental with the full moon and there were other reasons why the wolves howled. I took photos of the moon on my Google Pixel 4 at different intervals as the sky gradually darkened. The photo below shows the moon above sea against a pink and blue sky. The sky appeared to be layered, from whiteish pink at the top to a more pinkish pink below and then to a layer of blue. the gentle tide was meandering in to cover the rocks beyond the East promenade.

Wolf moon in late afternoon

As the sky darkened, the moon became brighter and it cast a faint line of silver across the sea (photo below). The pink sky had disappeared as dusk approached and the crepuscular light preceded the onset of the imminent darkness. As above, the white waves were gently encompassing the rocks. There was very little wind that evening, so a calmness descended over Dunbar.

Wolf moon in crepuscular light

As the moon became even brighter, my phone camera’s ability to capture it properly lessened, as you can see in the photo below. The silvery path across the sea is much wider and more established in this photo than in the one above. When it was fully dark, the moon glowed fully and as the path became whiter and more substantial, you could imagine walking along it.

Wolf moon and path across the sea

You can see some stunning photos of the wolf moon around the world here. This BBC site states that “January’s Wolf Moon is thought to refer to the time of year when wolves are more vocal, ahead of the February breeding season”, although this is disputed elsewhere. Scroll down the photos and you will see some wonderful images. I particularly liked the starlings in Rome and Edinburgh’s Balmoral clock.

Carrie Ackroyd’s Bird of the Month and Mick Herron’s Slough House

January 16, 2022

We are not quite finished with 2021 as yet as I want to feature the calendar on my wall for last year. The artist Carrie Ackroyd did the illustrations for The Oldie Magazine‘s Bird of the Month calendar. The January bird was the Ptarmigan which has the scientific name of Lagopus Millaisi. The calendar notes that the Gaelic word tarmachan means croaker and that Sir Robert Sibbald added the p “to look posh Greek like ‘psychology’ etc.”. Ackroyd’s painting for January 2021 below shows the birds in their winter clothes, with perfect camouflage for the snowy terrain. The birds look alert, as if on the lookout for danger. I also like the large white dots to represent the falling snow. Ackroyd has a knack of making you look at the shapes in the painting e.g. with what teasingly looks like two black headed birds in the landscape near the top right. Also, the flow of the snowy and non-snowy terrain is suggestive of undulating hills where the birds might live.

Ptarmigan by Carrie Ackroyd (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

March saw the appearance of goldeneye ducks, with the muscular sounding scientific name of Bucephala clangula. The calendar tells us that goldeneye are one of the “three main fresh-water diving ducks in Britain” and they can number up to 30,000 with flocks of wintering birds arriving in late autumn. This blog post tells us that bucelpha means bull-headed and “The male’s head is a stunning emerald green, while the female’s is brown”. The male ducks also have extravagant courtship displays, leaning their heads fully back and splashing water behind them. Carrie Ackroyd has chosen to give all the birds black heads, but retaining the golden eye. These birds look fairly glum – maybe rejected males? – and going about their business with bored looks on their faces. The reflections of the elegant and graceful trees in what looks like a fast moving stream are a perceptive addition to this painting/print (Ackroyd does both), with the trees stretching upwards and downwards at the same time. The yellow in the water links effectively with the background yellow behind the trees. The ducks look on indifferently.

Goldeneye by Carrie Ackroyd

The month of May brought to our attention the song thrush, with the perhaps unfortunate (to some) scientific name of Turdus philomelos. The turdus means from the thrush family and philomelos means friend of ease and when you hear a song thrush singing in your garden, you can understand why. The calendar quotes from Robert Browning’s Home thoughts from Abroad (full poem) “That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,/ Lest you should think he never could recapture/ The first fine careless rapture!”. The careless rapture fits very well with the friend of ease. The calendar also notes the song thrush’s amazing range, stating that it has its own repertoire, but that it also copies other birds songs and can have “100 different phrases [with] repetition meaning it sings a total of 1 million phrases in a year”. This illustration below is the brightest of all the months’ pictures. The song thrush is in full voice here and Ackroyd has captured its features – “Tawny brown backs, creamy white and buff speckled front” (RSPB) – very well. The white flowers – maybe hawthorn? – surrounding the bird also reflect its brightness of look and song. As with all of Ackroyd’s paintings/prints, there are a multitude of interesting shapes on view here.

Song thrush by Carrie Ackroyd

You can listen this wonderful bird in full song below and if you look back to the picture above, you can almost hear Ackroyd’s song thrush going through its won unique repertoire.

I am not usually attracted to spy novels, which I find are often unnecessarily complicated and focus more on plot than on characterisation, but I picked up Mick Herron‘s Slough House (review). The title refers to the offices – in central London – where failed spies have been sent and are under the supervision and derision of the larger than life Jackson Lamb. The political background of the novel is two fold – the Novichok poisoning in the UK and Brexit. Lamb has an ongoing battle with Diana Taverner, the head of the secret service and she organises the assassination of a Russian agent in revenge for the poisonings. Taverner is then manipulated by Peter Judd – a former government minister thinly disguised as Boris Johnson. The situation for the “slow horses” – the failed spies – gets worse as two of them get murdered. It’s an entertaining, fairly light read and Herron has written other novels featuring the same characters and these have been very popular apparently. I doubt very much if I will be buying another Mick Herron but if you like your spy stories and amusing characters – some of them anyway – then the novels might be for you. As you will see blow, Ian Rankin is a fan, so that might influence you.