Squirrels in the Sycamores

Stripped bark

Against a clear blue sky, the winter sun picks out slashes of creamy white on the top branches of a tall sycamore, which I suspect are the result of grey squirrels stripping the bark. There’s no sign of damage on the adjacent oak but its bark, loaded with tannins, is probably not as nutritious as that of the sycamore.

The sycamore is probably the nearest that the squirrels can get to the tastier-sounding sugar maple, which, like the grey squirrel, is a native of North America.

In the topmost branches of another sycamore, a squirrel leans out to pick off buds from slender twigs which it eats, one after the other: a healthy snack.

Hornets’ Nest

Hornets at the nest hole, 13 August, 2017.
New shoots springing from the old ash stump: a natural equivalent of a coppice stool.

In the summer and early autumn, hornets nested in an old ash trunk in the parkland near the Pleasure Grounds. By mid-autumn the trunk had rotted through at the base and come adrift from its roots but it was prevented from falling towards the path by the surrounding stout stems, which had sprung up around it: a natural equivalent of coppice shoots.

Frass in old cavities in ash.

Now it has fallen back in the other direction and it lies on the ground. I can’t see the cavity that contained the hornets’ nest – it’s probably hidden on the underside – but all the timber is riddled with tunnels, some of them stuffed with frass, which has set hard like fine-textured chipboard.

Parkland Birds

Fieldfares and starlings

The fine cold morning has brought in fieldfares, twenty-five of them. We’ve been expecting them to turn up here on the grassy slopes of the Obelisk Park.

Also back this morning, on a small, partly iced over pool in the corner of a grassy field just beyond the park boundary, are fifty wigeon, which often graze on the short turf here.

Joining the regular great tits, blue tits, coal tits and robins in the lakeside woods is a goldcrest, which, thanks to its size – along with the firecrest, it’s our joint smallest British bird – can inspect the slenderest of twigs.

A jay flies up into a sapling and we notice that it seems to be keeping an eye on a kestrel, a falcon of open spaces which seems a bit incongruous in this woodland setting.

It settles for a while, looking out over the lake. We rarely get such a good view of a kestrel and I make a mental note of its yellow beak, tipped in black; the tear-drop shaped dark patch beneath its eye; and the russet tan plumage of its back, speckled with dark brown.

As it flies to another perch, it shows pale grey tail feathers, banded with dark brown, almost black, at the tips.

Mallards and Mute Swans

Midwinter is hardly over but already, on the ice-fringed Lower Lake, the mallards have mating in mind. A drake head-bobs as he swims around the duck prior to mating.

As we round a corner by a lakeside bench, we disturb a heron. It must be getting tired of seeing us as we disturbed it here, same time, same place, yesterday morning.

One of the two cygnets of the mute swan family on the Middle Lake has now lost the last of its grey feathers. It’s now almost an adult, except for its bill which gives it away as a juvenile: this looks as if that has been given a coat of grey undercoat prior to the final coat of orange, which looks so striking on the adults.

The other cygnet still has a some grey on its back, as do the four cygnets of the swan family on the Lower Lake. They seem to be spending more time away from the adults, this morning at the far end of the side arm of the lake.

At the lakeside, a cigar-shaped seed-head of reedmace disperses a couple of wisps of its downy seeds. It has been calculated that one stalk can produce 200,000 seeds.

Sycamore Seeds

Apart from the squirrel-nibbled cone, which is from Nostell, I picked up these seeds and the lichen and the snail shell on a mossy tree-fringed lawn in Ossett.

Some of the sycamore seeds had begun to sprout while all that was left of the lime seed was the pair of wings that propelled it through the air.

The lichenXanthoria parietina, would normally be yellow but it turns greenish when it grows in shade. The insides of the spore-producing cups – the apothecia – have kept their colour.

Sycamore Leaf

sycamore leafThe fog lifts only briefly at midday. Although the hills of the Peak District rise above it, just as forecast, we decide not to drive for 25 minutes through such poor visibility in order to enjoy a walk there.

sycamore leafLooking for something suitable to draw in a drift of autumn leaves on a lawn in foggy Ossett I realise that they are all sycamore leaves; three sycamore trees stand alongside the little track beside the garden.

Rather than stand outdoors drawing the soggy pile, I choose one dry leaf that has been caught in the branches of a Russian vine and settle down to draw it in comfort indoors.

sycamore leafWe didn’t get out to walk over a landscape of ridges and channels but I can explore a landscape in miniature by closely observing the undulating surface and the network of veins of the leaf.

sycamore leafI remember when I was at the Grammar School here in Ossett and we had a few art lessons from a student teacher who got us to draw a close-up of a leaf – just a small section, about the size of a postage stamp, not the outline. She then got us to take it a stage further and work up a design from it. I stuck pretty much to what I could see, just adding colour, which at school was powder paints, mixed in a plastic palette.

sycamore leafI remember getting totally absorbed by the repetitive but varied detail. Drawing it must have been a semi-hypnotic process, like getting lost in a landscape of rolling hills and rivers.

The Old Mill Race

ashbankCoxley Beck, Capri car park, 1.50 p.m., 39ºF, 4ºC, sun and showers: This ash and sycamore are growing on top of the steep bank that was once the mill race of a corn mill. The stone embankment has been eroded here, probably by flood damage. On the exposed mud banks fresh leaves are sprouting: dock, dandelion, cow parsley(?), hemlock(?), creeping buttercup, seedlings of himalayan balsam and a clump of snowdrops, which was no doubt washed down from one of the stream-side gardens. hart's tongeHigher up the bank, where it hasn’t been scoured so much by the December floods, there are a few clumps of hart’s tongue fern.

There’s a passing shower but I’ve brought my fishing umbrella so that isn’t a problem. I start adding the watercolour, lightest tones first, and, just when I’ve got those in, the sun comes out again and I’m able to mix in some neutral tint and paint in the shadows.


Old Leaf

sycamore leafThis sycamore leaf has a blob of tar spot fungus across its midrib.

dry stems

I picked it up at the weekend at Barbara’s brother’s garden in Ossett and on rough ground by the lane found these dry stems. Although the flower head has a flattish top like an umbel the individual stems emerge from different points on the stem, so botanically it’s a corymb.

I think that it might be tansy.

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.