Further Experiments

Another attempt - with apologies to Andrew Haslen.
Another attempt – with apologies to Andrew Haslen.

I don’t want to stray too far off topic with my artwork, but having pushed my limits and tried something a little more advanced (above), I have to say that I’m starting to like this graphics tablet. There are all kinds of mistakes and omissions in this picture, but I got quite close to the image I had planned before starting. It took about three hours from beginning to end, and I was absolutely fixated throughout the entire process.

The only question is what to do with these pictures. The style evokes a comic book, but this is not an avenue I’ve ever considered before. I can’t imagine that there is any commercial value in them, but there is some real pleasure to be had from working through a project from beginning to end. Perhaps they’re just extravagant doodles.

And by the way, the wren is my favourite part.

The Digital Corncrake

Another experiment with a graphics tablet
Another experiment with a graphics tablet

It was a foul day yesterday, so what better opportunity to stay in and play with the graphics tablet I was lent at the start of the year. Working with a stylus and having to negotiate photoshop made for a frustrating challenge, but I was encouraged by the tremendous scope for chopping and changing made possible with digital artwork. My first attempt was a wheatear standing in the clover, but feeling unsatisfied with the end product, I was able to transplant the clover into a second picture (above), using the same colours to blend the lines of the surgery so that you can’t now see them.

Sketching out the shapes and forms is surprisingly difficult, and working in a world without texture takes some getting used to. It is interesting to think that most people would disregard a picture drawn on a computer because it flies in the face of tradition and seems almost like “cheating”. In reality, this was far harder and more creatively demanding than producing the same image on paper with paintbrushes. Whether or not you like the picture, believe me when I say that it was bloody difficult.

I’ve been quite inspired by new techniques over the past few years, and encouraged by various artist friends, I’ve toyed with the idea of lino cutting and screen printing. The end result of this digital experiment has something of the effect I’ve been looking for, and it reminds me of some of the New Naturalist covers illustrated by Robert Gillmor. I’m feeling my way with this very tentatively, but I think there is scope for some good fun here.

As far as the subject matter goes, I was working with the loose idea for a front cover for an imagined “New Naturalist” guide to the Outer Hebrides. With a hotly anticipated trip to North Uist on the horizon later in the spring, I can’t help looking back to that hebridean blend of irises and corncrakes which provided the backdrop to a fantastic holiday on Tiree in 2013.

A Lay-by Blackcock

A welcome bystander
A welcome bystander

After another excellent day volunteering with the Galloway Fisheries Trust to clear sitka spruce scrub from the banks of the Little Water of Fleet on Friday, I headed home on the pretty route through black grouse country as the sun started to set. Although mildly disappointed not to see the short eared owls again, I got some close up views of a ringtail hen harrier and then a stunning blackcock right in the lay-by where I had to pull over to let another car pass. I actually said “surely not!” to myself as I pulled over and found the bird just a few feet away from the bumper, assuming that the black shape was really just a piece of rubbish or plastic. Even when he ran back up the verge with an expression of disgust, he was still close enough for a picture (see above) before he passed into some long grass and started to feed.

The black grouse lek bonanza is approaching, and things are starting to get exciting.

Wheatears 2015

A sure sign of progress
A sure sign of progress

It’s always a major date in the diary and a massive milestone of spring, so of course it’s worth marking the arrival of the first wheatear of 2015 on the Chayne yesterday – a game little cock bird bouncing around the knowes. The past few years have always brought hens first, so I wonder if there is any significance in this change-around. Their arrival is always surprisingly precise, and in 6 years of recording the first bird, the date has only varied by two or three days.

I’ve got a couple of wheatear projects I want to work on this year, so there is plenty more to come on these cheery birds. I moved on past the wheatear and headed around the back of the farm where I waited for a fox, but despite four hours lying in the moss, there was only a goshawk in the forest and a merlin flying huge loops out over the open hill. The black clouds came rushing in from Cairnsmore of Dee, bringing sprays of hail and then, having passed, warm, honeyed sunlight as the wind swung into the North and the snipe began to buzz.

And on a more lowland note, I also heard the first chiff-chaff too.

Manx Burning

A great day for a fire
A great day for a fire

Having thoroughly enjoyed my trip out to the Isle of Man last year, I was keen to get back for round two – albeit with a single and extremely important change. No matter what happened, I was determined not to take the late night ferry crossing from Heysham which usually leaves the port at 2:15am. Arriving at your destination at 05:45 is the best way to ensure a terrible start to any trip, and it was my sole regret of 2014’s visit that I decided to go for the “red-eye” and thereby write-off the first 12 hours of my stay.

So it was with a palpable degree of smugness that I pulled into the harbour to catch the 13:30 ferry on Wednesday afternoon, secure in the delightful knowledge that I could mince onto the ship and enjoy the trip at my leisure. It was not to be. Owing to some maritime whim of tide or lunar cycle, the ferry had elected to leave half an hour early and I was left high and dry like an abandoned jellyfish on the wharf as my ride coasted out into the Irish sea. The unhelpful ticket-stamper transferred my passage to the 2:15am ferry and I was resigned to pass twelve hours in Lancashire.

The time flew by, and I spent several happy hours watching big flocks of golden plover swarming around the fields below Abbeystead while smoke streamed up from the hills above me and the sky was filled with tumbling peewits. I had dinner in Yorkshire and then rushed back to spend the night sleeping face-down on the carpet in the canteen area of the ferry while truckers noisily swapped rambling and improbable sexual anecdotes nearby.

But it was all worth it the following morning as we headed out onto the Manx hills for a day’s heather burning, passing a couple of hen harriers as we ground our way onto Colden in a vintage Kawasaki Mule. The conditions were perfect, and with support from a tractor laid on by the Department for Environment, Food and Agriculture, we covered a huge amount of ground in the clear sunshine.

Lisping pipits trilled their songs and parachuted down through the smoke, and there was a stunning glimpse of a so-called “skydancer” plunging up and down as if strung to a bungee cord. The white shape vanished after a second or two, and we burnt on into the afternoon, letting the fires run with the wind and soaking up the rich, poppy crackle of burning blaeberry. Some ravens swirled around in the cinders, and our progress was closely monitored by white hares, which sat on their hunkers and eyeballed us with suspicion.

And there were harriers again on the drive home. I stopped the Mule to watch a ringtail circle round and round on the fringe of a spruce plantation as the sun started to set. As much as I had been trying to work, my visits to the Isle of Man always feel like a holiday.

Curlew’s Return

A call to arms
A call to arms

After a few days on the Isle of Man (of which more anon) and a stag night in Liverpool (which is not for public consumption), I blew away the cobwebs with a brisk walk up around the hill yesterday afternoon in the sunshine. There was a grand big fox mousing in the white grass above the old farm steading, and I marked him down with the binoculars at five hundred yards. Not having the rifle with me, I resolved to head out and make his acquaintance later in the week.

On the way back to the car, I disturbed the first curlew of 2015 on the rough grass above the sheds. It was a cock bird, and I watched as he looped right around the bog on his own in the wind, calling twice and landing on a knowe in the rushes. Cocks return to their breeding grounds a few days before the hens, and I hope that he will soon have some company in the long grass.

As I’ve written before on this blog, the odds are set against breeding curlews on the Chayne. I’m delighted at this sign of Spring, but it is a timely reminder that crows and foxes need to be gathered up or disrupted as much as possible over the coming month. I had a vixen last week carrying five cubs no more than an inch long, but a friend on some neighbouring ground has found one just a fortnight off whelping. Now is the time to get stuck in.

A Langholm Afternoon

Trapeze artist
Trapeze artist

I took the indulgent decision to spend this afternoon mooching around Langholm Moor, hoping for some more short eared owl action. As it was, I drew a blank with the owls but enjoyed a couple of hours on the hill on a rather dull and overcast day. The grouse were quietly getting on with their own business, but some very vocal hen birds offered a timely reminder that pairing up and mating is well underway. There was a quiet bubbling of curlew off in the distance, and while those cunning old whaups are not yet settled on the hill, they’re certainly starting to dip their toes tentatively into the heather.

I couldn’t resist heading round to one of the lek sites, despite it still being rather early to see any action from the blackgame. As it was, I popped my head over the brow of the hill just as eight cocks flew in over the white grass, joining at least three others for a short bout of sparring and silliness. One bird landed on the power lines (pictured above) and leered disdainfully down at us all, fanning his tail and pausing for a second to wonder what I was. Tails were up, but they were wild and wary, never calling more than the odd giggle. There is no question that numbers are up on last year in this area, and it looks like there are a few new recruits still watching and learning in the margins. It’ll be interesting to see how these youngsters fit in as April approaches and the hormones take over.

Heading back, I stopped to watch half a dozen greyhens on the roadside, almost within touching distance from the car window. Sometimes you can sweat and strain over the hill for little return, then find the best views from the comfort of your seat.