Okay so its nearly August but my mind is in March as I gather together my sketches for the March book. I love the simplicity of pencil sketches.
The distinctive shape of cormorants – wonderful birds to sketch.
Teal in flight – there will be more of these, I can’t resist a teal at full pelt!
Then there is the Wheatear a spring visitor all the way from central Africa.
It has quite an upright stance with a bandit face mask, grey back, black wings and tail, a white rump and a reddish flourish under its beak.
It perched just a stone’s throw from the redshank, not birds you would expect to see together – except on a salt marsh.
It may be midwinter but I am busy getting together the sketches for my August book and they transport me back to bold blue skies and summer grasses.
You can see redshanks throughout the summer though in less numbers than in winter . . .
I don’t expect all of these redshank sketches will make it to the book but some will.
They race past the spit and along the edges of the salt marsh. The spartina, a salt marsh grass and one of the first plants to colonise a salt marsh, is festooned with ripening seeds.
On a low tide the August sun streams down into the depths of the muddy creek. The light plays on the patterns of mud and draws shadows around the redshank.
I love watching the redshank deep in the creek.
Sketches for the March book . . .
4th March. The tide is out and the muddy edge of the salt marsh is clearly visible.
Twice a day the tide comes in and buffets against this ledge, eroding it in places . . .
. . . and laying down sediment elsewhere creating new salt marsh.
On the grassy ledge is a crow – maybe not a universally popular bird with its harsh cawing call but there is a lovely reflected light in its eyes and on its wings and back.
Out on the tidal mud is a sleeping curlew. Even though its characteristic long curved beak is hidden beneath its feathers its outline is unmistakeable.
They make balancing on one leg look so easy!
Having a rest but keeping a wary eye on surroundings.
Then time for probing around in the soft mud looking for worms.
March can be such a gloriously moody month with dramatic heavy skies blowing across the muddy waters of the channel to the Welsh hills . . .
. . . and creating a muted tapestry at Battery Point.
On a May dawn a wedge of swans flies across the sunrise their white plumage painted a delicate pale blue in the early morning light . . .
They pass the towering dockyard cranes
and the Severn Bridge.
June is the time of winsor blue skies.
A time of summer migrants
like cuckoos and sedge warblers . . .
. . . and the house martins.
At low tide they dive down to pick up beakfuls of oozingly sticky mud for nest building.
It is not just the mud they come for . . .
. . . there is the dazzlingly green algae growing on the lock walls.
They approach at speed
grab onto the vertical face
like some superhero defying gravity
and pick off algae
to bind into their mud nests.
PS these sketches are in June salt marsh sketches
In winter the lapwings arrive, they are such attractive birds now sadly under threat. Occasionally I see a flock of them drop down on to the mudbanks offshore but their favoured spot is the island in the middle of the lake in Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve (PWNR).
The reserve runs alongside the salt marsh and is battling to survive an uncertain future.
So when I was asked to produce a logo for the Friends of Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve the distinctively marked lapwing was perfect.
Based on the pen and ink sketch at the top of the page I produced these two black and white versions . . .
. . . and then simplified them further to come up with this one which the Friends of PWNR now use as the centrepiece for their logo.
In addition I painted a second version as my tribute to Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve.
To support the Friends in their bid to save the nature reserve visit their website Friends of Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve, and “Like” them on Facebook www.facebook.com/savePWNR.
28 May, 2015
I was heading home after a great morning of wildlife watching when I saw these house martins in Portishead Hole.
A sign of summer these recently arrived birds were picking up mud at low tide to build their nests in the eaves of nearby houses.
It was one of those days when everything was turning out rather better than expected. The overnight rain had stopped, the north east wind that had been blowing for days had eased . . . and as soon as I stepped foot on the marsh I heard a cuckoo.
A perfect start to a spring day and it got even better when I saw a water vole sitting on the bank of the rhyne. A rare treat in itself but to watch a water vole whilst listening to a cuckoo was a touch of May magic.
The water vole felled one of last years reeds – tough, bleached and woody and twice its length . . .
. . . before dragging it to the water’s edge.
After one final trim it plopped into the rhyne and dived below the surface with prize in tow . . . maybe heading for the underwater entrance to its burrow?
If I did not see anything further this was well worth getting up early for . . . but in the next hour I heard skylarks and curlews, came face to face with a somewhat scruffy roe buck and yes I saw the cuckoo!
A splendid morning!
There are some gorgeous autumn and winter mornings when the sun rises over the marsh and flocks of goldfinches tumble into the masses of fluffy white thistle heads of the sea aster.
Here goldfinches plunder the seed heads at the edge of the marsh in sight of the redshank on the mudflats.
The stems of the sea aster are a lovely wine red in autumn but fade to a pale raw umber with the wear and tear of the tide and winter storms.
In flight they bounce along twittering to each other and are often in company with other seed loving birds such as linnets.
Late summer is a great time to see kingfishers when the young leave the nest and head off to find their own territory.
At sunrise I met a friend on the salt marsh and we walked the length of the embankment. It was a late August morning but a chill in the air declared the arrival of an early autumn. A handsome roe buck watched our progress from the safety of the nature reserve before bounding off with characteristic zeal though the tall meadow pasture.
We headed for the creek where two days earlier I had stalked a kingfisher.. .
I had got quite close to this kingfisher as I crept through the salt marsh and negotiated the muddy gullies – narrow but deep mantraps hidden beneath the grass waiting to embrace a carelessly placed boot or two. I noticed that my pocket watch was missing, it was the same area where last year I had lost forever a much loved watch. Had my new, shiny watch sunk into the mud at the bottom of one of these gullies? The tide was rising fast and within two hours the marsh would be underwater so I hastily retraced my steps as best I could. It took 15 minutes of frantic searching before I saw the glint of silver through the grass, what a relief – needless to say the kingfisher was long gone.
Fortuitously, I was given a second chance on my way home. There was a kingfisher and a heron in Portishead Pill. No need to stalk this kingfisher, I had a grand stand seat. How lucky I was!
Would we be as lucky today? Well we were making far too much noise as we approached the creek so were not surprised to see a little egret making a hasty exit. We leant on the railings at the top of the creek chatting until we were interrupted by a series of sharp whistles and a flash of azure streaked passed us into the creek … this kingfisher was soon joined by another. We watched the pair fish the length of the creek for several minutes.
When they eventually flew out of sight I was treated to a picnic breakfast of apple, a proper English one, cheese and two lusciously ripe figs fresh from my friend’s garden.
Could it get any better? Well yes actually. Mid breakfast the two kingfishers reappeared at the top end of the creek.. . they must have double backed across the salt marsh or could it be a second pair? With fig in one hand and binoculars in the other we had a great view.
We had been lucky! What a way to start a day . . . such a privilege.
To hear a kingfisher whistle click Kingfisher on RSPB website
As I approached Battery Point in the half light just before dawn I saw the outline of a fox skulking away. He was silhouetted against the channel on the brow of the hill and an alarmed blackbird announced his presence from a nearby bench.
The fox paused when he saw me and than disappeared into the tangle of the wind swept hedgerow along the cliff edge.
I continued down to the lighthouse where I spotted a hen mallard on the rocks below. She sat motionless amongst the seaweed clad rocks for a very long while before two ducklings suddenly scrambled out from beneath her.
It made me wonder whether she had escaped the attention of the fox that morning or maybe she had started the morning with a larger brood and the fox had breakfasted on ducklings? Who knows but for now she and her two offspring were safe.
Ducklings naturally take cover under their mum’s protective wings where she can accommodate even a large brood of several without squashing them when she sits down. Must be cosy under there!
Yes I know “Duckling in samphire” sounds like something you might get in a posh restaurant, but no, it is something you might see near Battery Point.
At this time of year both mallard ducklings and samphire are in abundance here. Many of the ducklings keep to the relative safety of the man-made lake just the other side of the sea wall but some of the seemingly more adventurous downy bundles can be seen trudging across the mud and venturing out for their first taste of salt water swimming.
These three were out wave riding with Mum as the sea lapped the edge of the marsh and washed across beds of samphire. The bright green shoots of the samphire, the asparagus of the sea, poke their heads through the thick mud at the edge of the marsh and twice a day are caressed, or more often than not buffeted, by the incoming tide.
Marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea) is almost cactus like in appearance and when young is a wonderful fresh green. In centuries past it was gathered and burnt and its soda rich ashes used to make soap and glass hence its other name of Common Glasswort.
It was a treat to see a pair of gadwalls deep down in Chapel Pill at low tide.
The male boasts some exquisitely barred brown-grey plumage whilst the browner female is very similar to a female mallard.
In flight their white wing patches help to identify them . . .
. . . and the male has some glorious chestnut-russet wing feathers which positively glow in sunlight.
It may not be as striking as a teal or wigeon but I still have a soft spot for this “somewhat low-profile” duck.
What a pose this redshank struck with a strong tailwind ruffling its feathers and giving the impression of upending the bird. An altogether charming sight.
I settled down one afternoon to watch this group of redshank and pair of black-headed gulls. The redshank were backlit by the afternoon sun which outlined their shape and eliminated detail . . . sometimes it is better not to see every feather.
These sketches were done using ultramarine, cadmium red (mixed together they give a wonderfully powerful black-brown) plus yellow ochre and cobalt turquoise light.
Updated 30 April 2014
This very striking duck is often on the salt marshes and at this time of year the males are in courtship mode.
This is a low tide view of a pair of shelduck at Battery Point. The freshly exposed mud is streaked with the blue reflections from the sky.
This male was not about to let his female out of his sight and pursued her enthusiastically up and down the salt marsh.
A simple study in pencil and wash . . .
. . . and here with the background added.
Sexes are similar but during the breeding season the males are easy to distinguish by a prominent red knob above their beaks. In between seeing off other males he displays to the female by drawing his head backwards and then performing and exaggerated bow.
These are striking, boldly marked ducks that are easy to spot both on the marsh and in flight. Their chuckling like call is also distinctive which you can hear on the RSPB website.
Updated 3 April
On the face of it you would not expect to see dunlin and roe deer together but that is what greeted me this morning.
There were two deer, a doe and a young buck, by the water’s edge in front of Denny Island with hundreds of dunlin flying behind them. I was downwind of them but feeling very conspicuous standing out in the middle of the marsh and expected to be spotted at any moment.
The young buck looked past me towards the docks.
A handful of dunlin – there were hundreds here this morning.
To my surprise there were 2 more deer a few hundred yards further down the marsh. . .
. . . a more mature buck with a yearling doe. I recognised this group of four from a previous visit.
Both bucks were sporting velvet covered antlers.
It was great to watch the deer but even more enthralling when accompanied by the aerobatics of hundreds of dunlin – a very special sight in front of the Firefly navigation buoy.
The storm raged at Battery Point as the sunset lay across the bay.
Hardly able to stay upright in the full force of the gale a lone figure on the headland leaned into the wind.
Intermittent sheets of near horizontal rain blew across the salt marsh. The stinging rain lashed my face and blurred my vision but I could just make out a small flock of dunlin on the wing.
Their progress was painfully slow head on against the ferocity of the gale but when they veered in the direction of the wind they were swept out of sight at breakneck speed.
I was struggling to steer a straight path in this buffeting wind so quite a feat for these featherweights to stay on course. Nevertheless they made repeated forays fighting their way across the tops of the surging waves at the very edge of the salt marsh.
Updated 21 February 2014
Usually there are plenty of places around Battery Point for these little waders to rest and feed. As their name suggests they search for food under the pebbles and seaweed in the rocks at the far end of the salt marsh. This is a watercolour and oil pastel sketch of turnstones at low water – I have had so much fun with my 40 year old oil pastels that I have just treated myself to a set of Sennelier oil pastels and this is their first outing!
It was one of those enormous spring tides when the sea rises so high that landing places for the turnstones are in very short supply. With a 14.6 m high tide the salt marsh and most of the rocks are underwater so the turnstones fly back and forth looking for a spot to land.
At first they jostled for a place on a raft of flotsam swept against the promenade wall . . .
. . . but then repaired to the top of the wall to promenade with the rest of us.
Promenading on the sea wall is unusual for the Bristol Channel bunch as they are typically wary but today they had little choice.
On the same high tide a bird-watching friend saw a flock of turnstones cadging a lift on a large tree trunk floating up the channel (you can see the photo on his excellent local bird watching blog http://avonbirding.blogspot.co.uk) . . . and on another occasion I heard a report of a channel navigation buoy festooned with turnstones on a similarly high tide.
Sketching birds as a part of the wider landscape is quite a different challenge to a detailed study of birds where they are the main or only focal point and the background is either non-existent or secondary. I learn so much doing these preparatory sketches, which, of course, is the whole point of the process. The end sketch may not always be what I had intended, and all too often leaves me with some angst (must do better), but frequently it is those from which I learn most.
Joining these 2 sketches gave an added perspective between the foreground and middle ground birds and indeed the overall panorama (the joined sketch is near the top of this page).
An oil pastel sketch of a male wigeon out on a flooded salt marsh.
This rather engaging duck with its distinctive whistling call is a winter visitor here, usually from October through to March.
From the front they are enchantingly round and cartoonish, as if freshly dunked up to their midriff in a bucket of whitewash and with the male sporting a rather fetching yellow “mohican” forehead.
A pair of wigeon snooze in the depths of Chapel Pill at low tide – watercolour and oil pastel sketch.
These wigeon suddenly flew out of the late October shadows into the sunlit, sienna grasses above Chapel Pill. It seems their hasty departure was as much a surprise to this Canada Goose as it was to me . . .
. . . and as I watched a roe buck at the water’s edge in November a small company of wigeon startled us both.
Their white bellies are a great help in identifying them in flight, as are the male’s white wing bars (top left).
Visit the RSPB website to hear the whistling call of the wigeon www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/w/wigeon/index.aspx
. . . perhaps the collective noun for wigeon should be a “whistle” of wigeon, but a “raft”, “trip” or “company” are usual.
Teal are such handsome little ducks, especially the chaps, who are bedecked with chestnut heads, green eye patches and pale yellow tails framed in black . . . and the bright green wing bars (speculum) so translucent in the sunlight.
. . . a watercolour and oil pastel sketch. Yes, it is a somewhat weird and unorthodox combination but great fun to do and I rather like the texture.
Hundreds of these dapper little ducks congregate at Chapel Pill during the winter. These three females were sunning themselves on the mudbanks high up in the creek, while way, way below teal zigzagged out of the creek. The female does not have the colourful wardrobe of the male but still shares the green wing bars.
. . . although at times they are well hidden beneath layers of feathers.
High up on the bank were these drakes, two were soaking up the sun but the third was back in the shadows.
. . . whilst this drake was in the bottom of the creek in what little water remained on the low tide.
Teal spring up almost vertically and are fast flyers – the collective noun for teal is very aptly a “spring” of teal.
It is in flight when the green wing bars edged with white are most visible and especially lustrous in the sun. I do so enjoy watching the teal at Chapel Pill.
For more teal posts see:
Iridescent teal and the Vecht Trader
Teal jinxing and jiving . . .
Teal down and dirty
I arrived at sunrise and was greeted by such a spectacle of starlings. Large flocks were silently dropping in to the marsh to feed before taking flight in a swirling mass. As one flock flew over me I could hear the purr of their wings and a soft, whistling chirrup – it was a very muted call, as if they were being polite lest they wake the neighbourhood at this early hour.
The starlings dropped into the centre of the marsh in sight of the Severn Bridge – the colours of the marsh were still soft and cool in first light . . .
. . . but as soon as the sun touched the marsh it woke up in a burst of burnt siennas and indian reds.
On the spit by Portishead Pier the water was lapping at the edge of the salt marsh and unusually ringed plover were there. The burnt sienna of the spartina was reflected on their sunlit feathers . . . and on the redshank.
. . . whilst in the depths of Portishead Hole the lively “cobalt turquoise light” of the middle shadows contrasted boldly with the darker shadows and the bright sunlit ochre mud giving a deliciously moody feel to this redshank.
. . . and more sombre hues deeper in “the Hole”.
Back out in the sunshine some teal flew out of Chapel Pill. There was another flock deep in the upper reaches but I crept away to leave them resting undisturbed.
Further down the creek was this very handsome drake teal – though I feel this sketch does not do him justice.
The sunshine soon gave way to showers and I cursed that I had not worn my waterproofs but soon I was in the midst of rainbows and cared little about getting wet. How do you capture that incredible light? The handsome teal flew off.
Late in the afternoon I returned once more and once more was greeted by the starlings . . . just off Portishead Pier where long shadows stretched across the marsh.
It had been a lovely autumn day of changing light and weather – so good to be out on the marsh.
At low tide the walls of Portishead pier are revealed in all their textured, rusty splendour and the redshank rest on the glossy mud below . . . a study in ochres. There are some great paintings using only ochres and the pier is certainly an inspiring tonal subject but today I could not resist the sight of the redshank flying past the yacht’s blue rigging. I love the asymmetry of the mast and the delicious combination of “cerulean” and “cobalt turquoise light” amongst the ochres.
. . . and that was not the only blue in Portishead hole – lying in the mud was an old oil drum masquerading as a mooring buoy.
The reflections from the pier, yacht, buoy and redshank bounced off what little water was left . . .
. .. and when the sun shone wonderful blue “mud shadows” were cast. . . not so much ochre after all.
Updated September 2014
Last summer the greenshank was missing from my sketches of summer waders but this year I was lucky enough to spot this one in Chapel Pill . . .
Also in the pill at the same time was one adult and one juvenile Grey Wagtail – this is the adult . .
Updated 23 September 2013
Well summer is over and I can feel the cool breath of autumn so this is my last update on summer waders. Over this period I have been able to sketch redshank, ringed plover, oystercatchers, curlew, whimbrel, common sandpipers, turnstones, dunlin and black-tailed godwits. There have been reports of other waders in the area such as greenshank, though I did not see them myself so my list of sketches remains incomplete.
COMMON SANDPIPER AND TURNSTONES
I often see one or two pairs of common sandpipers bobbing rhythmically in the muddy pills at either end of the salt marsh as they look for food. Continue reading
A magical morning listening to skylarks and watching a barn owl hunt across the marsh.
These watercolour sketches recall the owl as it worked its way from one end of Portbury marsh to the other – a beautiful sight on a beautiful June morning. Continue reading
Updated 30 January 2014
I see pheasants on the salt marsh regularly . . . an interesting backdrop for a pheasant!
A cock fight in December
There was much parallel walking as these two cock pheasants strutted and postured on the salt marsh . . .
. . . and then a flurry of feathers. In the background the cargo vessel Danica Sunrise edges her way into Portbury Docks on low water.
This territorial dispute went on for ages and so engrossed were they that my presence remained unnoticed.
Colours in the cockfighting sketches : indian red, cadmium red, burnt sienna, alizarin crimson, raw umber and cobalt turquoise light plus the addition of raw sienna in the sketch above.
On a previous visit . . .
. . . a sudden flurry and that lovely staccato purr of wings of a cock pheasant bursting from the flooding marsh just ahead of me. It is such a pleasure to see and hear them on the marsh . . . and the navigation buoys, docks and Denny Island make for an unusual view.
The buoy is the middle one of three marking the right hand (starboard) edge of the shipping channel into Royal Portbury dock.
Sketched between September and January
Although the wintering teal have now left for their summer breeding grounds I thought I would add some winter time sketches that I have just been leafing through.
I find these small, fast flying ducks that jinx and jive in flight fascinating. Their teal green wing bars shimmer in the winter sunlight, though even on a grey day they don’t disappoint.
Seen 30 March 2013
The best time to see purple sandpipers here is at high tide when the only rocks still above water are those close to shore.
Battery Point is a great place to see ships passing within feet of the shore, or to get a good view of wintering purple sandpipers and this morning I was not disappointed on either count. It was actually a sunny morning but oh gosh it was cold with such a bitter, bitter easterly wind blowing a gale it felt like mid winter instead of spring.
When the whimbrels arrive on passage from Africa to their northern breeding grounds and the Scurvy Grass bursts into flower it is a sure sign that spring has arrived on the marsh. Continue reading
The skylarks sketched on this page were seen on Portbury Wharf salt marsh between January and March but they can be seen and heard often.
No other song stirs my memory like that of the skylark. Hovering high up its continuous melody drifts down and draws me back to balmy, carefree days on a rocky headland on the Dorset coast.