Picking up a Paintbrush

Painting always takes a backseat for me. Writing and photography take up all of my creative time and energy, and as a result I barely ever get round to painting even though I love it. The second I actually set out my equipment and get started, I spend hours doing it!

The other obstacle is the fact I’m a raging perfectionist. I aspire for photorealism on every piece and it just doesn’t happen. What I should be more concerned with is that my worrying is stopping me from doing what I love.

So, determined not to get bogged down by perfection, I painted a few sketches with my usual combination of watercolour and fineliner pens recently. Sure they’re a little rough round the edges but isn’t creative expression what art is all about? If we could all paint a bird to look like a photo, every piece of artwork would look identical. Naturally this is just me making an excuse for my lack of technical skill, but joking aside I think art should be about having fun no matter what the end result looks like. And everyone knows practice makes perfect.

April Whirlwind

I’ve been a busy, quite tired bee recently! April has gone by in a flash and no matter how long I spend at my desk, the length of my to-do list never seems to change. This month I’ve been hard at work on a few different projects which I can’t wait to share. Fortunately I still managed to squeeze in some much-needed nature time, so here are some of my recent highlights.

I was thrilled to have a second article accepted by Oceanographic magazine. In July last year I visited Troup Head near Aberdeen, which is home to a vast colony of gannets. Soon afterwards I met Tim Marshall, who first visited the site in 1988. Back then there were just four gannet nests – by 2013 numbers had reached 2885 occupied nests! I was so excited about seeing these gorgeous seabirds up close that I wrote a story about them, which is now published on Oceanographic’s website alongside my photos.

There’s been a running joke for a while that I have awful luck when it comes to seeing roe deer. For many people, in Scotland at least, roe deer seem to be ten a penny. They’re one of my favourite animals but for some reason my sightings are very rare – I’ve actually seen more crested tits than roe deer! As for photos they’ve been disastrous, either dark and noisy or almost indistinguishable behind a thousand branches.

So managing to photograph not just one buck but two simultaneously was an exceptional bit of luck for me. I’d been strolling along the river when the first buck appeared on the far side. Moments later a second buck joined him. It was intriguing how one still had all his antler velvet and the other had none. With the river between us they seemed comfortable grazing out in the open, giving me the clearest daytime views I’ve ever had of this gorgeous animal.

I shared my frankly miraculous encounter with a hare in my last post. That same morning, I also had a run-in with a very handsome male pheasant. I’ve heard pheasants call hundreds of times – that screeching grate echoes through open fields everywhere. But it was only the other day that I discovered what a pheasant does while it calls.

This male was foraging right next to my car window. Every so often he’d stand up straight and lift his head to release that banshee scream, scaring me half to death each time. After calling he would flap his wings, almost like he’d startled himself too. As I hadn’t taken the time to notice pheasants calling before, I hadn’t realised what an excellent opportunity to train my reflexes it was. I had great fun photographing these glamorous poses. Say what you like about pheasants but they’re suave looking birds!

I’ve saved the best wild encounter until last. In fact, I’d say it’s one of my most exciting bird encounters ever, and it happened only 200 metres from my front door. As I was having dinner I got an alert from a fellow photographer telling me there was a Slavonian grebe in the harbour!

Pasta forgotten, I raced down and lo and behold there it was. A harbour was the last place I thought I’d tick off my first Slavonian grebe. About the size of a moorhen, these birds are extremely rare in the UK. They can be seen on a few Scottish lochs but spend most of the year at sea. I felt incredibly lucky to have seen one at all, let alone a stone’s throw from home.

Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll be sharing photos from my first trip out of Moray this year. The day featured a trio of herons, a serenading grey wagtail and a mallard making a splash!

Help For Red Squirrels

According to Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE), there are approximately 138,000 red squirrels in the UK. For some people this may sound like a lot, but the grey squirrel population currently stands at 2.5 million. Due to the difficulty of monitoring these animals accurately, this number could be even greater.

Undoubtedly a much-loved aspect of British wildlife, red squirrels have faced many challenges in recent years, predominantly the impact of invasive grey squirrels and the subsequent squirrel pox that has decimated populations. While grey squirrels are immune to the disease, reds have a mortality rate of 100%. The virus causes skin ulcers, swelling and scabbing, and after contracting it, most animals die within two weeks.

However, our native reds still have strongholds in northern England, including Northumberland, North Yorkshire and several sites in Cumbria. For a chance of seeing this elusive mammal, it is important to know where exactly to look. Two particularly good spots for Cumbrian red squirrels are Aira Force on the Glencoyne Farm trail and Grasmere. There was an outbreak of squirrel pox at Grasmere in 2016, with more than ten confirmed cases in the valley. However, as a result of the hard work of the Grasmere Red Squirrel Group, the population of reds pulled through.

Feeding red squirrel (photographed in Lockerbie)

With the squirrel pox virus having such drastic consequences, it can be difficult to know what the best solution is. In 2012, RSNE established a monitoring programme that samples 300 forests and gardens in northern England each spring, using trail cameras to record where red squirrels can be found. The Wildlife Trusts are working to improve the red squirrel’s favoured habitat of coniferous woodland, initiating reintroduction schemes and combating the presence of grey squirrels in a few carefully selected areas where red squirrels face the greatest risk.

If you are interested in the red squirrels of northern England and want to learn more about their status in Cumbria, Red Squirrels Northern England Project Officer Simon O’Hare is doing a talk on Monday 5th February and will be sharing updates on how red squirrels are faring and explaining why it is so important to protect them. The event is taking place at Kirkby Stephen Friends Meeting House. For more information take a look at the Cumbria Wildlife Trust.

Like this?

Have a read of my post about filming red squirrels in Lockerbie here.