I was going to start with a mini-rant about the mind-numbing
over-use of superlatives by some (Zoe Ball springs to mind) when describing something that was anything but amazing and was at best pretty average. Oh I have started ranting......legend! Not everything that happens has to be astounding sometimes things are simply nice.
So there you have it, we had a nice saunter around Keyhaven Marshes at the weekend, joining the other hords who were out braving a sharp northerly wind. It was bloomin' cold, I may have to rethink about getting the shorts out so early this year. However, we did come across some enjoyable bits and bobs as we went along: a splendid summer plumaged spotted redshank, our first swallow of the year and green-winged orchids, all to a background chorus of 'eeowing' Mediterranean Gulls.
Returning home, we stopped by a wooded swampy stretch of the Lymington River, home at this time of year to a splendid display of summer snowflakes. Growing in suitable habitat and being of the sub-species Leucojum aestivum ssp.aestivum, these have the best of credentials for being native plants. A few other spring flowers were noted: common dog-violet, golden saxifrage, bluebells, primroses and a confiding orange tip butterfly - awesome!
AND we dropped in to watch the hares for a while. Mostly they were in loafing mode, pottering about the big field nibbling and grooming. Perfect for leisurely painting and shape collecting. The height of the winter barley is beginning to make it a little harder to make out the 'harey lumps' in the field, but it has also accentuated areas of the crop where the hares have chosen to graze. The favoured patches are distinctly shorter in stature and are a slightly different tone of green.
I think the local humans are used to coming across this daft couple staring intently at a field and now pass us by with a cheery wave. This time, I heard a car coming and waved to the occupant as it went by, I then heard it stopping and two things crossed my mind, the first that the driver was pulling up for a chat and the second that it was a good thing for him to stop because Rosie was sat in the middle of lane sketching flowers.
It turned out that the gentleman was the estate farmer and a very interesting conversation ensued. He told us of some of the background to the area and the farming methods employed. The key factor in there being such a good number of hares present, is that they are not shot and apart from having to get out of the way of the odd tractor, they are left pretty well undisturbed. As we chatted a red kite flew low over the big field punctuating the idea that modern farming and wildlife can make good bedfellows.
At the nearby copses we pootled about looking mainly at the flora. Carpets of wood anemone and dog's mercury prevailed, with the anemones giving an impression of patches of freshly fallen snow. Peering closer we picked out the new shoots of Solomon's seal and the tiny flowers of the aptly named townhall clock or moschatel. Chiffchaffs, blackcaps and a garden warbler celebrated their successful migration from winter quarters with bursts of melodic song, well maybe not in the case of the chiffchaff, but he was happy. A 'pitchoo' call, drew our attention to a marsh tit, as we watched it was joined by two others, all three carrying soft material and taking it into a nest box. Not seen that before.
Making our way back to Beacon Hill for a coffee, we noticed two red kites circling low over the watercress beds at Warnford. With a screech of brakes, we pulled off the road and bundled out the car to enjoy these superb birds at close quarters. Sadly an unnatural gap in the primary feathers of one of the birds, suggested that not all landowners in the area have the same enlightened regard for wildlife as the gentleman we met earlier in the day.
Right that's Easter dealt with.
Recently some commercial projects have involved us working on interpretation at a more local level, giving us the opportunity to get to know the locations first hand. As opposed to relying on clients from futher-a-field supplying us with photos of the sites to get a feel for the work.
And so saturday saw us exploring the Beachlands of Hayling, with a view to producing some panels that celebtrate the series of habitats that have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Beachlands is a peculiar mix of fairground, beach huts, golf courses and dog walkers, not on the face of it ideal surroundings for wildlife to thrive in. But a mosaic of habitats, combined with nature's resilience makes this strip of coast home to one of the finest maritime plant communities in Hampshire. The key habitats are the sand dunes and shingle beach. To most it is a good place to sunbathe in the summer and a bleak area to walk the dog during the winter months.
However, to some birds migrating in the spring it is first landfall after leaving the French coast and one of the highlights of our walk was seeing seven wheatears fresh in from the continent, flashing their 'white arses' as they flitted among the dunes. Also among the dunes Green-winged Orchids were starting to flower, we counted a hundred or so, hinting at a spectacle to come, when thousands of these tiny purple orchids will be on display. Looking closely at the shingle, we saw signs of one of the specialist plants that make their living in this harsh environment. Growing up through the stones were the small purple leaves of sea kale, soon this cabbage-like plant will dominate in their hundreds, bedecking the beach in white flowers. They are not weeds! It is their home, we are the visitors.
A few hardy birds make the dunes and shingle beach their home as well. The cascading songs of skylark and meadow pipit, rang out as we wandered, but a pair of ringed plovers sat secretly on the pebbles proved too tempting for brushes to resist. Especially the handsome male, who sported the blackest of black eye-mask and bib. Soon four cryptically marked eggs will be layed, discreetly added to the number of stones on the beach and nesting will have begun for them.
Beethoven's Symphony No 7 pounds out with grand pomposity, every note played perfectly, every layer beautifully rendered, the only odd thing about this situation is that I am fast asleep in bed, spark out, dead to the world and the concert is being played in all it's glory in my head. The brain is a curious piece of gristle and we only really understand about a small fraction of it's capabilities. Sometimes I rouse myself to a semi-concious state (some may not be able to spot the difference in me) to discover that my brain has been functioning on shuffle, 'playing' the intricacies of 'Tales from Topographic Oceans' or the driving drums of 'Red Rain' or the delicious 'Asleep at the Back' or if I'm really lucky Baby Kylie's 'Can't Get You Out of My Head' (maybe that's a completely different sort of dream altogether). Of course whatever the music, good or awful, it will be stuck there bouncing around my vacuous head for the rest of the day. La La La LaLaLaLaLa.......
So where's all this leading to? Well when painting in the studio or more likely while working in-the-field, I settle into the painting process of, see-birdy-to eye-to brain-to hand-to page, if all is well and I start to work quickly the brain part of this seems to be cut out altogether. Leaving it free to go into shuffle play and soon I find myself singing away involuntarily - in my head that is. The result of this is, where I give imaginative public names to pieces like 'Lapwing in green field', it will always be known to me as 'Here I stand no taller than the grass sees'. Which is quite nice. However, on some ocassions a piece that I'm quietly pleased with like 'Resting Avocets' will always and forever be known as 'That bloody music by the bingo company that sponsors Emmerdale'! The brain is a tricksy prankster.
We have also done some stuff. The weekend before last we had a really nice wander around Dockens Water in The New Forest, highlighted by a series of lovely wildlife cameos. Some related to winter stragglers like great grey shrike, redwings and chaffinches. Others were clues to the arrival of spring like wheatear, singing chiffchaff and 'luluing' woodlarks. A few fleeting glimpses of crossbills, reminded us that for some birds the breeding season is well under way now and it won't be long before the woods will resound to their 'chupping' youngsters.
This weekend saw us indoors at the HOS agm in Winchester on saturday, but we popped out for a bit of sun at the Haven on sunday and we caught up with a handsome summer plumaged slavonian grebe, that raced along The Solent with the tide up it's posterior.
The hares beckon.
With deadlines conveniently juggled we managed to contrive some time to be out and about this week - destination harebears. Arriving earlier than normal at their field our first task was to pour ourselves a mug of medicinal coffee. At first it all appeared very peaceful, the hares relaxing in their usual locations, but within a whisker's twitch all things can change and a calm scene can quickly transform to 'carnalage'! I'm not sure what the hare equivalent is of 'come on over big boy', but first one doe gave it to her beau, followed swiftly by another doe to hers and after a few rounds of boxing, the towel was well and truely thrown in. For a while the scene was similar to that of recent activities in our pond, but not so wet. Pleasantries were short in duration but frequent. Once unnecessariness' were complete peace broke out in the form of some indifferent grazing interspersed with periods of grooming, which continued until the next twinkle shone in her eye! This cycle of events continued throughout our time with them. We were both able to make useful sketches, but only between the moments when our eyes were not blushfully adverted. Exhausting stuff and we were only watching (is there such a thing as 'hare dogging'?)!!
To recover we popped over to a nearby wood, only to discover that there were Wildlife Trust volunteers tidying it up. So much for it being quieter during the week. Onto woods number two then, all was quiet here and a very pleasant couple of hours were passed looking for signs of spring. Rosie painted sweet violets, accompanied by a bee-fly. I mooched around watching a chiffchaff, a lot of brimstones, commas, peacock, red admiral and queen bumble bees.
And onto Beacon Hill. Here mooching activities were resumed. Nuthatches greeted us with a fanfare of calls, a red kite drifted over at treetop height and a pair of bullfinches slipped silently through the hazel coppice. Brimstone butterflies were in abundance, with males patrolling manically along the pathways and females basking in the glorious sunshine. Making our way back to the carpark I caught up with a couple of bee-flies, sporting their fine long noses. All signs that spring is starting to sprung with force.
Finally as we pulled into our close I noticed a deal of gull activity just over the houses, looking closer we picked out a red kite flying among their ranks being comprehensively escorted out of the area.
The hares were charming this weekend. Things had changed since our last visit, the two boys that were usually seated nearest to us now have girlfriends. Things appeared normal with the other pairs in the field, so we spent our time watching one of the new couples.
We snuck 'laneside' along the hedgerow to gain a better vantage point and tucked ourselves against an oak to keep ourselves hidden. Fat chance! They were onto us instantly with ears alert and eyes starring straight at us, but they didn't bolt. Although only about thirty metres from us, they assessed us to be no immediate threat and held their ground. Not once did the male take his gaze away from us and gave us the impression that he would like to move, but the famale - 'Blue-eyes' appeared to have made a scrape and she was reluctant to leave it. The male - 'Grey-back' fussed around her, being attentive, sometimes too attentive, resulting in the occasional box on the nose. All this suggesting that the bond is new and the male is making sure that the female dosn't lose interest in him.
Every now then a party of cyclists would pass by, their bright jersies startling the hares. This gave the male his chance to lead the female away from us, but not for long, moments later she would bundle back to her scrape with himself not far behind as if pulled on an invisible lead. Maybe this is where she will have her leverets.
During this time the farmer had been spraying his crops nearby. We noticed him moving his tractor to a field adjacent to the 'Hare' field, within seconds hares were appearing all shapes. It would have been mad trying to shake a stick at them, there were just too many. The dynamics were now in turmoil, with hares, haring all over the place. No boxing involved, but we discovered just how fast these magnificent creatures can motor when they want to, demonstrating what those unlikely lengthy backlegs were evolved for. Suitably warmed and entertained by the sojourn, we left them to settle down and restore order to an oversubscribed 'Hare fest'; we were off to suss out some woodlands.
Activities have quietened down a little in the pond, for now.... left are a few bachelor boys musing at the fantastic night skies we've had of late, plus two tonnes of spawn. Jupiter knows where the newts are going to put their eggs once they get going.
Went to Sandy Point, Hayling on Saturday. Ok walk, saw a Stonechat!!
Meanwhile back at the hares.
All our previous visits to the hare field were early in the morning. For a change we wanted to see what the hares get up to later in the day and so with weather set fair on Mad March 1st Hare day, we were once again tucked into the hedge watching these fascinating beasts. The light was low, warm and casting great shadows. The colours on both hares and winter wheat glowing, making a change from the more acid greens of previous trips.
We counted fifteen hares in the main field, with another five or six in the satelitte fields. They seemed very relaxed, preparing themselves for the rigours that the ensuing night will bring. Some casually grazing, others spending time carefully grooming, paying special attention to their long legs and toes, in the process forming comical poses, which were both fun and challenging to record.
Although we can't pick out individuals yet, we now know pretty well where the pairs will be stationed and where the unattached boys will sit and watch activities from. Hopefully we will be able to sort out some telltale features on a few hares and work out whether these areas are important territorial citadels, with a turnover of individuals holding sway on them or the same hares sat there each time we visit.
The reliability of their presence is one of the joys of coming back to this group. As the light slipped away from day, we left them in still grooming and chomping in the knowledge that the next time we drop in on them, there they will be. In any case it was time for fish n'chips.
Apart from the vastly improved roads that take us up't north to Coventry'nil, over the last twenty-odd years, the other joy when making the journey has been the increase in the numbers of Red Kites seen along the way. On the stretch of road from the north Hampshire to the M40 it's not unusual to watch many Kites gliding low over the verges in search of carrion. In the past, I've tried to keep mental notes of these majestic birds fresh in my mind and then quickly put them to paper when we arrive. But I have struggled to relive the moment and the end results never really satisfied.
So. On this visit to the old-duck-in-law's, I had pencil and pad at the ready and made sketches as we saw them and good fun it was too. We counted about twelve on this occassion, some encounters were fleeting, others stunning, with one or two flying very close to the dual-carriageway. With eyes on the birds, not the paper I was surprised to see that four pages had soon filled with their shapes, some pleasing others indecipherable. It was impossible to add colour at the time (ok so the roads are not that good), this was added later. Some feel that the whole sketching/painting process is only real if completed in the field. This is ok if practical, but colours always remain fresh in my mind and I like to let them develop a language of their own.
By the way, I did say that Rosie was driving didn't I?
Meanwhile, the frogs continue to amuse. I'll have an update on the frog porn soon (thanks to Paul for the pun).
BRRAAARP! BRAARP! BRARP! AYEEEIIIAYE! BRAAARP! BRAARP! BRARP! AYEEEIIIAYE! Paul McCartney's Froggy bloody Chorus bouncing round my head all night!
TWENTY SIX frogs at it all night - net result more spawn than water!
'Billions of blue blistering barnacles!'
Three Blue Tit (still!), two Great Tit, Wren and Dunnock. Desk-bound, so still only able to make ten minute sketches of birds in the garden. Luckily the weather is rubbish. Good fun though.
BREAKING NEWS ---- Blimey! I've never seen anything like it.
'I think you'd better come and see this' - Rosie had just popped downstairs to make a brew. We only have a glorified bucket for a pond, but it is hosting what I can only describe as a froggy orgy! Watch this space for the latest sketches, if can spare my blushes.
If you're expecting words of wisdom from Dan and Rosemary you may be sadly disappointed. However, if you want to keep up to date with our current projects then pick up the feed at the top of this column.