I’VE GOT a mental image of the Wigeon but I realise, when I start drawing the real life bird from the Main Hide here at Anglers Lake, that it doesn’t quite fit. For one thing, when I see this drake from in front I can see that its head is more rounded than I imagined. And I’ve over estimated its size; when this drake swims close to on the shore I’m surprised to see that the he is the same size as a Tufted Duck that is loafing by the water’s edge. The size ranges of the two species overlap but in general the Tufted is the smaller species.
It’s only after I’ve been drawing for a while that I realise that this drake has a companion; the female. As I’ve written in my note she ‘easily blends into the background of grey, rippled water and stony banks’. But she does make her presence known when a rival female swims by. It’s the duck rather than the drake who challenges the rival.
The Latin name for the Wigeon is Anas penelope. In Greek mythology penelops was a sacred bird, a purple-striped duck. Penelope is better known as the wife of Odysseus who stayed faithful to him during his 20 years away, fighting in the Trojan War and on his protracted voyage home. Her determination in dealing with rapacious suitors in her husband’s absence seems to fit with this female Wigeon’s behaviour. One legend has it that Penelope, daughter of Icarius of Sparta, was exposed at birth – the traditional Spartan way of weeding out any weaker offspring – but she was rescued and nurtured by penelops the duck.
But I wonder if the connection between the Wigeon and Penelope actually refers to the web-like pattern of the female. Penelope promised that she would choose one of the suitors as her husband when she had finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. Secretly, she unravelled her weaving every night so ‘Penelope’s web’ has become a phrase for any project that is indefinitely delayed. A possible derivation of the name Penelope comes from the Greek for ‘web-face’ or ‘weft-face’.
IT PROBABLY doesn’t show in these low res scans of my sketches but I’ve decided to try pencil as a change from pen. The lighter tone of pencil should make my watercolour sketches less like a coloured drawing as the line should blend in more but, I’ve made the lines darker than they should be here. This branch of Field Maple, Acer campestre, (above) currently in flower (those little greenish yellow bobbles) seemed like the ideal subject until, after I’d drawn the first leaf, the branch kept bouncing in the breeze.
At the foot of the hedgerow, Greater Stitchwort, Stellaria holostea, (left) was in flower. The flower appears to have ten petals but it’s actually made up of five deeply knotched petals.
The catkins on the female Sallows, Salix caprea, are now sprouting fluffy seeds.
Problems with Pencil
Pencil is going to take some getting used to. My B pencil soon lost its sharpness as I drew the mape and I continued using a Staedtler 0.3 mm lead Mars Micro clutch pencil. I kept breaking the lead in that as I pressed too hard as I drew, then, when I replaced it with a fresh lead that disappeared without a trace into the innards of pencil. I fell back on my ArtPen for drawing after lunch.
SPARROWS are chirping monotonously in the Hawthorn hedge. A Smooth Newt swims up for a breath of air at the edge of the pond. A couple of wolf spiders scamper around in the pop-up shelter that I’m using as a sunshade. It’s warm in here; climbing to a sticky 34°C in the sun, according to the keyfob thermometer on my artbag.
After several months mainly taken up with business, I’m finding it difficult to get back to drawing from nature. I can’t yet slow down enough to see things in anything but a blur. Drawing these Kingcups – also known as Marsh Marigolds – by the pond is an easy step towards focusing on the everyday and getting into the drawing habit again.
Talking of seeing things as a blur, yesterday afternoon I did this drawing (left) of limes and a holly from a shady bench by the war memorial in Horbury Memorial Park, locally known as ‘Sparra’ Park’. It’s the first drawing I’ve done with my new varifocal glasses – I’ve only ever used reading glasses until my latest eye-test. With a band of long-distance vision across the top of the lense and a smaller patch for close-focus across the bottom, they work well for drawing.
Putting them on as I walked back from the opticians was a revelation. The light was perfect anyway; a sunny spring morning with fresh green leaves and blossom in the gardens, all of which now appeared to me in crisp high definition. I felt that I could see each stamen as I passed a branch of blossom.
It reminded me of Frederick Franck’s memories, recalled in his book The Awakened Eye, of looking at Victorian 3D photographs – of cows in a meadow, for example – in his grandfather’s elaborate stereopticon. As a child wandering in the meadows around his home town, Franck came to realise that he could recapture that sense of heightened reality by ‘turning on’ his own stereopticon. He credits his grandfather’s steropticon with setting him out on his lifetime journey exploring seeing and drawing.
From Monet to Millais
When I compare a view of trees with and without my new glasses I realise how much my long-sight has deteriorated, something which I hasn’t really troubled me as my brain has been compensating for it, filling in the gaps as it were. Wearing these new glasses is rather like suddenly switching from the broad brushstrokes of a late Monet to the luminous glazes of colour and sharp detail of the early Pre-Raphaelites. Artistically, you might not consider this to be progress but for me as a naturalist the wealth of extra detail and information about the natural world that is now available to me is very welcome.
IT’S SO GOOD to be drawing in my sketchbook again even if, for the time being, that has to be in the dentist’s, the doctor’s, the pharmacy and the optician’s, drawing goldfish, a pile of magazines, a semi-detached house and the beacon by the zebra crossing respectively.
I can at last see the round of appointments and the seasonal activities of accounts and stocktaking, satisfying as they are to do, gradually ebbing away giving me time for even more satisfying activity of going out and drawing from nature.
The spring weather makes that seem a tempting possibility after the long winter. There’s so much to see and draw at this time of year. The countryside looks so fresh. Spring migrants are arriving, butterflies are emerging. This morning a Great Spotted Woodpecker, a female, flew into the Rowan, which is now coming into blossom, in our front garden, then it flew up to the top of the telegraph pole, as if it was considering excavating a nest hole there.
I saw three Grey Herons – or more likely one Grey Heron going around in circles – gliding above the gardens, perhaps looking for ponds full of frogs, newts . . . or goldfish.
These particular goldfish don’t need to worry about passing Herons; they’re the ones that I drew in the dentist’s last week.
We’re making progress in the garden too with our basic crops of onions, broad beans and potatoes already in the ground. As the soil continues to warm up, we’ll sow courgettes and start our tomatoes off in the greenhouse.
IT’S SO WINDY here at North Landing, Flamborough, East Yorkshire, that even the gulls are having difficulty making any progress inland; a gull version of Marcel Marceau’s ‘walking against the wind’ mime. A flock of pigeons is no more successful; they wheel around over the bay and veer off on a less wind-buffeted course.
Flamborough Head marks the border between sea areas Tyne and Humber, pointing out towards Dogger in the centre of the North Sea and German Bight on the far side.
Strong winds tend to bring seabirds in towards this six mile promotory of chalk cliffs, making it a favourite location for ‘seawatching’ but unfortunately today it’s blowing in the wrong direction. If it’s blowing from any direction between north-west and east it can bring gulls and auks, skuas and shearwaters closer to the shore but today it’s blowing from the south-west, tending to keep them out at sea.
You might expect to a lot of white-topped waves in such a strong wind but it seems to have the opposite effect, flattening the crests before they become top heavy. At the foot of the cliffs there’s an effect like beaten brass where gusts bring turbulence down to create temporary patches of smoother sea.
As a change in my watercolour of the cliffs, I started directly with my brush, with no preliminary drawing, painting the shapes of sky, cliff-top and sea separately, as if they were individual pieces of a jigsaw. A contrast to my habitual pen plus wash, which I used in my quick sketch of Howden Minster on our coffee break on the way here this morning.
I’VE DRAWN these Desirée red maincrop potatoes with a size no. 111 Tower Pen nib that I used when I drew my new art-bag the other day in non-waterproof ink; a sepia calligraphy writing ink from the Manuscript Pen company of Highley, Shrophshire. This flows more smoothly than Indian ink but the disadvantage is that I don’t now have the option of adding a watercolour wash to my drawing – not unless I’m prepared to see my line-work run unpredictably into the watercolour, which in this case is not the effect that I’m after.
I’m in a mood where I yearn for a bit of inky precision in my life after what has often seemed like a long nebulous period.
I’m chitting these Desirées; this involves leaving the tubers in a light, airy but not too warm place to encourage the growth of sturdy new sprouts from the eyes of the potato. While this isn’t essential for a maincrop variety it is a way of celebrating the stirring of new life and the welcome return of spring.
THE REAR WINDOW of our apartment on Glassford Street, Glasgow, where we stayed last weekend, looked out over a yard. The wall of the adjoining building was constructed of rough-hewn stone and I noticed these fossil ripple-marks in two of the blocks.
The nearest that I’ve seen to this type of rock is the light grey Carboniferous limestone of the Yorkshire Dales, although you can see that one of the blocks (lower right) has a warmer, sandy colour.
Quarries in Bishopriggs, 3 or 4 miles to the north, supplied a pale golden brown sandstone from the Carboniferous limestone formation (locally classified as the Clackmannan Group) which was used in the construction of Victorian Glasgow, so perhaps these ripples formed in a tropical lagoon 320 million years ago, when Glasgow lay close to the equator.
WHEN CHECKING out my Middleton Park route for Walks in the Rhubarb Triangle, I was intrigued by the sign for a cycle-path route to the centre of Leeds.
‘How long will it take?’ Barbara asked, sceptically.
‘Oh, by the time we’ve walked down through the woods, it will only be about another ten minutes.’
It turned out to be more like another hour, but it’s still a walk that I’d do again as I like the way it follows ribbons of green to heart of the city. Once you’ve walked down from the park lake through Middleton Woods, you follow the line of the Middleton Railway then pass under the motorway to its depot, passing a line of rusting tank engines. You then go alongside a playing field before following a busy dual-carriageway for half a mile. Thankfully it’s not too long before you dip down to a quiet path alongside the River Aire to reach the city via Clarence Dock and the Royal Armouries.
It’s the first day of spring but it seems more like summer this afternoon. Woodland flowers are showing; the odd clump of delicate Wood Sorrel holds its clover-like leaves folded back. The the banking beside the path is dotted with Lesser Celandine and green swathes of Dogs Mercury. The leaves of Bluebells are already showing. As we approach Leeds the rough ground beside the path is dotted with Coltsfoot.
THE TROUBLE with having a big cut-back in the garden is that you end up with a big pile of trimmings, but it isn’t quite as bad as it looks; two thirds of that pile is material from the old compost bins (right) which I now need to put back in the new, much-improved version which we’ve constructed behind the greenhouse.
Now would be a good time to start a crop of mixed salad leaves in the greenhouse, which we’d take out in about two months time when the tomato plants will go in.
I should also be able to whittle down the quantity of black plastic water-tanks that are lying around at the end of the garden; the existing water-butts connected to downpipes from the roofs of the house, the greenhouse and the shed should provide enough rainwater for all but the driest summers.
IT SEEMED rather drastic when, a few years ago, spiked fences went up around the old colliery railway embankment that crosses the valley floor between the canal and the river at Addingford. It blocked off an unofficial walk that I had enjoyed since the tracks were taken up in the late 1960s and, alarmingly, a number of Silver Birches were chainsawed and left lying where they fell, but from the official public footpath, which runs along the foot of the embankent, I can now see this from the birds’ point of view.
The fence, I realise, isn’t designed to keep humans out; well it does keep them out but whoever put up the fence has gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure that the four-legged friends of humans can’t get in there to enjoy snuffling around in the undergrowth. Bad news for dogs but good news for ground-nesting birds.
Even the felling of a dozen birch trees isn’t necessarily a disaster for wildlife; it has opened up sunny spaces on the banking which should encourage the growth of wild flowers, which in turn should attract butterflies. Ants should also be active on this sunny slope which provide food for a bird that I’ve seen for years near the old railway; the Green Woodpecker.
Leaving the birch trunks where they fell also makes good sense; dead wood is so often cleared away from public spaces and forestery plantations, removing a potential habitat for all sorts of wildlife.
I noticed that several of of the birch trunks, sawn off at chest-height, which is not the approved way to coppice them, have been adopted as bird feeding stations by having planks nailed to them. The resident Robins seemed happy with this arrangement.
The fenced-off embankement wouldn’t walk away with the gold medal for a wildlife garden at Chelsea but as far as habitat goes it’s shaping up to be an improvement for birds, butterflies, wild flowers and fungi.