Bramble Sawfly

THIS SAWFLY was crawling up the side of our car when we called at my mum’s this morning. Her garden is well stocked with shrubs, herbs and mature trees and there’s a lot of blossom about at the moment, which must attract plenty of insects.

At first glance I thought that it was some kind of beetle, then when I took a closer look at the head and antennae I guessed at some kind of hunting wasp but Michael Chinery’s Collins Guide to the Insects of Britain and Western Europe includes a clear illustration of this species; Arge cyanocrocea, a sawfly whose larvae feed on bramble. It’s about 1 centimetre in length.

In Greek mythology Arge was a huntress. Cyanocrocea‘ means ‘greenish blue/yellow’ which I guess refers to the blue sheen on the thorax and the yellow abdomen. I’d assumed that the blue was just a reflection so I’ve greyed it in my drawing but I have included a red spot on the front right leg which I now realise is the red of the car seen through a raindrop. Which demonstrates the perils of drawing from a photograph!

It was raining and we were in a hurry so I took a few photographs which I decided to draw from. That’s my way of really looking at new species before I reach for the book to try to identify it. Our bright red car didn’t make the best background and I couldn’t make out the shape of the abdomen because of the dark smudge that is part of the this sawfly’s wing pattern, so I’ve added a small sketch from the illustration in the field guide to show the hidden shape. Sawflies lack a ‘wasp-waist’.

You can see from the photograph that I’ve started my drawing with the head then gone out of proportion, going a little too large, when I came to the wings. Those round blobs on its thorax are droplets of rain.

Most female sawflies have saw-like ovipositors which they use to lay their eggs in plants and most sawfly larvae resemble the caterpillars of moths and butterflies. The field guide says that Arge cyoncrocea is often seen on umbellifers and the adults are about from May to July. In 1986 it was described by Chinery as ‘fairly common but confined to the southern half of Britain’.

Horntail at Braemar

The most spectacular sawfly I ever encountered was a ‘Wood Wasp’, also known as the Horntail, Urocerus gigas, which landed on our Standard Vanguard Estate windscreen as we stopped in a layby in the pine forest near Braemar in August 1960, when I was nine years old. I was so impressed by this insect that I sketched it in my Eagle diary. Later my dad got one of the secretaries in the typing pool at the Coal Board to type a letter I’d written for me send to the magazine Young Naturalist which I’d started reading that summer.

My dad suggested that we head the letter ‘HORNET?’ but the editor of the magazine was able to identify it from our description as a ‘Wood Wasp’ (which unlike the Hornet, has no wasp-waist).

The First Wildlife Talkie?

By coincidence, it was in 1960 that Gerald Thompson of the University of Oxford Forestry Department was working out how he could set about making a film of the Alder wood wasp and its parasites. This lead to him setting up the influential Oxford Scientific Films unit.

He was inspired by the work of F. Percy Smith who in 1931 made a film in the Secrets of Nature for British Gaumont Instructional Films called War in Woods, about the life of the Horntail or Conifer Wood Wasp. According to Thompson, in interviews filmed in 1998/99, this wood wasp film, narrated by Dr R. Neil Chrystal, ‘was the first science film with a soundtrack shown in the cinema’. Dr Neil was Thompson’s predecessor at what was then the Imperial Forestry Institute at the University of Oxford,

Thompson specifically refers to a special showing at the Super Cinema in Oxford so it’s not 100% clear that he considered this the first wildlife talkie ever, but that appears to be what he believed.

Royal Deeside

Also that year, near Balmoral, we saw a family riding horses across a heathy slope beside the road. Our immediate reaction was that this was the royal family, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, but my parents decided that it probably wasn’t them on the grounds that it’s so unlikely that you’d ever get to see the royal family out riding. But of course in the summer of 1960 if you were driving past the Balmoral Estate at the right time, you would have seen them.

Links: Gerald Thompson interview at includes link to a PDF transcription of the interview.
Secrets of Nature; War in the Woods, 1931, at British Pathé

Catching up

Burton Agnes Hall, near Bridlington, drawn when my friend Helen Thomas spent a week as an artist in residence there.

I’VE BEEN catching up with my holiday diary for Corfu today. I wanted to write about the experience while it was still fresh in my mind but I don’t think that I’ve done anything like justice to impressions that the island made on me.

After catching up with book orders, accounts, the garden, jobs around the house and doing a refresher course on Dreamweaver since I got back, not to mention attending a wedding and a funeral within four days of each other, I’m looking forward to getting back to work on my next book.

To draw a line under a rather disrupted month, here are the meagre contents of my recent sketchbooks, the drawings that didn’t make it into my online journal.

Langsett Moor, drawn from a photograph taken on a recent walk.

On the radio today there was an article on the increase in sales of fountain pens. Some specialist shops report a doubling of sales. I can see the attraction, they often give you a more fluid feel as you write or draw, so it’s very suitable for quick sketches like this Blackbird preening, which I drew when we took my mum for lunch at the Bella Italia at Birstall. I like restaurants where you can bird watch as you eat.

The bar at the Bella Italia, Birstall, drawn with my new Safari fountain pen.

I went back to ArtPen, the one filled with Noodlers waterproof black ink, for these last two drawings, again drawn while we were out and about with my mum. These were drawn in my new 8 inch square format sketchbook but I’d forgotten to put a spare set of watercolours in the bag that fits it, so they’ll have to stay in black and white.

Meadow Update

Chicory in flower later in the year.

A QUICK update on the patch of wildflower meadow that I replanted on the 6 April; it looks even smaller now that the hedge is in full leaf and the surrounding Cow Parsley, nettle and Chicory have grown but you can see how effective our weeding out of Chicory and docks in the central area has been. At this time of year this would normally be wall to wall Chicory and dock.

The strip of turf at the back has established itself successfully and the grass seed in the meadow mix has greened the bare soil but I can see that there are also a lot of seedlings of Opium Poppy coming up, a species that wasn’t in the meadow mix but whose seeds are scattered all over our garden. It’s a plant that I like to see and to draw but I’ll have to weed them out to prevent their lush foliage shading out the wild flower seeds that I’ve sown.

Buttercups and Red Clover are already in flower on the strip of turf so I’ve got some idea of the final effect.

Next job; to mow down the Chicory to create a path around the edges. I don’t want it to spread into the central area again so it’s going to mean some more weeding and then I’ll sow the edges with suitable grass seed.

Bella Coffee

I’M STILL getting used to my new pen, the Lamy Safari fountain pen. It’s great for writing because it flows so smoothly and the slightly italic nib gives a consistent broad downstroke and fine sidestroke but this presents a bit of a problem when drawing because it keeps wanting to go with its natural flow. For drawing I’m used to a pen which will happily go off in any direction, like the ArtPen with its sketch nib or a fibre tipped drawing pen. But I think that the Safari has possibilities either for a simpler and bolder approach, aiming at the sort of ‘clear line’ Hergé used in the Tintin comic strips (yes, wouldn’t it be great if a pen could help me draw like that! I guess you have to apply a certain amount of intellectual rigour as well as change your pen) or alternatively go the other way and try for a lighter, more diffident line.
For the moment I’ll have to make do with plain awkward.

Whitley Reservoir

Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, Whitley, 11.30 a.m. THE PENNINES are fading into the mist and the mist grades into the low cloud above. A Skylark rises high over a pasture in which donkeys and cattle are grazing.

Besides the small stocky  black cattle, which I think are Dexters, there are two young Jersey cows. One takes a break from grazing to rub her chin on the fence.


I GIVE the lawn a rake with the springbok rake at this time of year to get some of the moss out of it but my new Scarifier, one of this week’s bargains at Lidl supermarket, does a much better job. The lawn is no more than 25 square metres, but I raked up this pile which is almost entirely moss. It amounted to 7 or 8 trug-loads to take to the compost bins.

I’ve got nothing against moss but it has obliterated the grass in places so I’ll need to put some seed down. It should soon germinate and grow at this time of year. Meanwhile the Blackbird is making the most of the newly exposed bare ground, picking up worms or insects.

This scarifier is basically a long-handled rake on wheels with 11 stainless steel blades. The eccentrically attached wheels give an up and down motion to the blades which makes the action a lot easier than it was with springbok. The instructions recommend that you scarify your lawn at this time of year, after you’ve cut it short and in dry weather.

I don’t think that I’ll bother adding any fertiliser but I might sieve some garden compost over the lawn when I scatter the grass seed.

Spring Greens

I DREW this with my 08 nib Pilot Drawing Pen and made a start adding the colour as I waited in the queue for advice from a government helpline. After all the waiting, it turned out it was a problem of my own making but at least the hands free phone gave me an interval to sketch. I keep thinking that all the work that I put into mundane tasks like accounts and tax returns will eventually give me some freedom but at this rate by the time I get all the loose ends tied up it will be time to start all over again.

In this view of the woods there’s a Sycamore in full leaf on the far right with an oak just coming into leaf behind it. There’s dark green ivy on the boughs of the big Ash tree on the left, the branches of which are dotted with the Ash flowers, now going to seed, and its fresh green leaves. At the bottom left by the little store house there’s a Blackthorn bush, which was in blossom a few weeks ago.

In my efforts to catch the subtlety of the greens which are actually made up of a stipple of different colours I’ve ended up with an autumnal cast to my watercolour. When I compare the finished result with the actual view from my studio window the real foliage is a fresh light green. I’ve added too much ochre and the odd touch of crimson. There might be traces of both those colours in the barely perceptible flowers, twigs and buds but the foliage is the predominant colour.

You’d have to go for a pointillist technique of lots of tiny dots of pure colour to reproduce the experience of all the colour that you can see but in washes of watercolour you’ve got to average it out and any attempt to introduce those flecks of red and brown will simply dull down the dominant pure greens of the spring foliage.


I WANTED to draw something in the garden but nothing too fussy so at this time of year an obvious subject is the newly unfurled leaves of Rhubarb. Some are still looking crinkly from recently unpacking themselves from the folded-up form that emerged from the bud.

The glossy elephant’s ears leaves bring a touch of the luxuriantly exotic to the vegetable garden, flouncing around by the hedge with the kind of grand, swaggering gestures that you’d find in Baroque theatre or Elizabethan costume.

The pattern of veins with sections of puckered leaf surface between reminded me of the river valleys and hills of Europe that I’d been sketching from the plane a couple of weeks ago.

I was intending to stick purely to line and I didn’t want to add watercolour but by the time I’d finished a few leaves my drawing was looking like a map so I added cross hatching in the gaps between the leaf margins and indicated some of the shadows from the afternoon sun to give some clues to the way the leaves are arranged relative to each other in space.

Being right-handed I started in the top left corner and worked my way across. Theoretically I could have continued in this fashion, piecing my subject together from interlocking shapes like a jigsaw but my attention soon wavered and by the time I got to the large leaf in the centre of the top row I went drastically wrong in scale. I’ve left my mistake in the drawing so that you can see that at my first attempt I drew the main leaf vein about two thirds of the size it should be and 2 centimetres to the left of where it should have been on the page.

I realised that however relaxing this drawing was supposed to be I needed a strategy to tackle such a convoluted subject so I started by indicating the main veins before getting involved in the subsidiary details.

It sounds like a controlled process but the outlines and veins make what might appear to be a still life feel as if it’s animated. I felt as I imagine a novice skier must feel if they attempt to go straight from the nursery slopes onto the red routes. A feeling of controlled chaos.

The lighting was consistent and there was little breeze and little to distract me other than a sparrow chirping in the hedge above the rhubarb.

Imitate the Action of a Tiger

Thinking about the need for a degree of determination even when you’re doing something that is supposedly relaxing, after I drew this I was listening to a short talk on Radio 3 by choral music conductor Gareth Malone who said that when he had a big performance to conduct on the way to the concert hall he would read the ‘Once more unto the breach dear friends!’ speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V on his mobile phone. Not that singing is like fighting but he feels that he needs to instill in his choir some spirit and determination.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon . . .
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

I know what he means because you need something of that sense of attack when tackling a drawing. You’ve somehow got to keep that ‘stillness and humility’ but also harness the controlled energy suggested in the line about ‘greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start’. Relaxed concentration is what I usually call it, but that’s what the ‘action of the tiger’ appears to be when you see one hunting in a wildlife documentary; fluid movement and observant determination.

Drawing Pen

I used a Pilot Drawing Pen with an 08 nib for the rhubarb drawing which contains waterproof, light resistant brown DR pigment ink. When drawing botanical details I’d normally go for the finer 01 size nib but I wanted a more expressive and relaxed line here.

For me this 08 nib might be the nearest that I’ll get to the feel of a fountain pen when using a fibre tip. I tend to wear down the fibre tips before the ink in the pen runs out, perhaps because I’m using too much pressure or because I’m drawing on slightly toothed acid free cartridge paper. I soon find that I have to hold the pen vertically to get a consistent line out of it. I’m hoping that the larger tip size will enable me to draw at an angle for longer. Perhaps a proportionally larger tip in relation to the size of the ink reservoir helps give a smoother flow.

Links Gareth Malone, Pilot Drawing Pen

The Chocolate Brown Sketchbook

AFTER THE appropriately aubergine-coloured sketchbook that I used for our week in Greece, I’m starting a new pocket-sized sketchbook for urban excursions. At A6, about 4 x 6 inches, it’s no bigger than a chunky bar of chocolate and it has a chocolate-coloured banana paper cover.

A6 Pink Pig sketchbook

It’s literally a pocket-sized sketchbook and I’m trying to decide what would be the most portable form of colour to go with it.

This morning I took an ArtPen tin loaded with a selection of a dozen watercolour crayons but, for a subject like this anyway, they don’t work as well as watercolours. I try to mix an approximation for the grey of the sky by shading it with the lightest blue and ochre that my small selection of crayons allow.

I don’t find crayons anywhere near as versatile as watercolours. With watercolours you can add the smallest speck of ochre, crimson or blue to a grey mix to get the colour you’re after. You can then add water to get the tone or gradation of tones that you need.



It’s happened again; a Goldfinch hits the patio windows and lies senseless on the patio. Luckily by the time we’ve had breakfast it has gradually recovered, looked around and, though we didn’t see it go, flown off.

In the afternoon it’s a Wood Pigeon that hits the window, leaving a dusty outline of its wingspan and a powder puff impression of it’s breast. The Wood Pigeons do this fairly regularly but never seem to come to any harm.

The photograph is the impression of a bird that hit the patio windows 6 weeks ago. You can even see an eye-ring in this picture. It might have been another pigeon but the eye-ring reminds me of a Sparrowhawk.

On the morning that this appeared a smaller impression, perhaps a Goldfinch appeared on the other window.

When you see the two impressions together it looks to me as if both birds hit the window together, the hawk chasing the finch.

In this over-enhanced version you can speculate that the Goldfinch had been on the feeder and the Sparrowhawk had swooped over the hedge. A moment of drama captured in feather impressions.

May Blossom

THE FIRST Hawthorn in blossom is a bush overhanging the railway cutting at the foot of Addingford Steps. It gets the warmth from the south-facing brick embankment below.

The hawthorn blossom has a sweet smell, I wouldn’t call it a ‘heady’ smell; it’s not an over-the-top sweetness nor is it sugary sweet like sherbet it’s just, um, sweetish.

Each flower has five petals, which is not surprising because Hawthorn is a member of the rose family, Rosaceae. There’s one female pistil in the middle surrounded by a number of male stamens, each with a reddish tip. When you see the haws, the hawthorn berries, later in the year, the petals and stamens have withered away but you can still see the remnant of the pistil at the end of the berry.

Botanically the haw is a true berry, even though it might seem too pulpy and woody to qualify as what we’d expect if we bought a ‘mixed berries’ yogurt. From a botanical perspective raspberries and blackberries aren’t berries, they’re collections of drupes; fleshy, thin-skinned fruits containing the seed in a stone. Smaller versions of single drupe fruits such as the cherry, plum and olive.


What bird sings from a bush by the canal, opposite a flooded marshy field known as the Strands, in what I’ve described in my field notes as an ‘agitated chattering, rasping, stoccato, occasional morse code phrases’?

Like smells, bird song is difficult to describe in words!

Sunday was International Dawn Chorus day. At this time of year you get the full variety of the dawn chorus as the summer migrants have joined our resident birds. I’m no expert on bird song but at least having got out a bit this spring I’m familiar enough with our residents to spot a new and noticeably different song.

 Crab Apple blossom at the Strands last week

This song is one that I’ve heard down by this marshy field before and I know that it’s either Reed or Sedge Warbler. I always forget which one by the time it appears next year. I didn’t manage to focus my binoculars on it but thought that I glimpsed it singing inconspicuously from halfway up in the bush.

The RSPB website (see link below) describes the song of the Sedge Warbler as ‘a noisy, rambling warble compared to the more rhythmic song of the reed warbler’. Reed Warblers are, anyway, as the name suggests, more typical of areas with large reedbeds. You’ll find Sedge Warblers in reedbeds too but also at damp wetlands like the Strands, where you’re less likely to find the Reed Warbler.

Link; The Sedge Warbler page on the RSPB website helpfully includes a recording of the song.