Saturday, 20 February 2016

Curlew Walk

I received an email last week from a good friend who is more than a dab hand with a camera! We had been talking about all things bird related and he forwarded on some lovely Curlew photos. I know I can say this about many birds, but this species is one for which I have really fond memories. A lady named Mary Colwell-Hector is using the images mentioned, as she is currently in the process of raising funds to highlight the plight of the curlew another iconic species that has been placed on the red list. I looked into Marys campaign and soon realised this ladies passion for the Curlew, as she is soon to embark on a 500 mile fund raising walk from the east coast of Ireland to the east coast of England. Yes, thats right, 500 miles is a long way indeed for anyone to walk, and this prompted me to put pencil to paper to try and help in someway.


The family business is currently very hectic, however I have managed to set time aside each evening to put together 3 drawings based on these fantastic Curlew images; 2 in ink and 1 graphite. By my reckoning, if someone is prepared to go to those lengths to help raise awareness about the Curlews predicament, the very least I could do is show some support.


The Curlew is just one of many birds that are in decline and its numbers have dropped by 90% in the last 20 years in Ireland alone. That is a staggering figure indeed, followed by an 80% decline in Wales and a further 50% throughout the rest of the UK. At this rate it could be lost for good if no measures are taken to help in someway. Some might say so what, its just another brown bird on a long list of animals that are in danger world wide, but sometimes we have to look closer to home, because these once common birds could be pushed to the point of extinction. What we dont understand, we wont help preserve. Its not all about Rhino, Elephant and big cats yes, they are equally deserving and require protection for future generations; however, its the call of the wild closer to home that pulls on my heartstrings. Species I have seen with my own eyes and observed in their natural habitat will understandably resonate more personally. The Curlew is a bird that takes me back to the wild expansive hills of the Derbyshire Pennines. Its call is like no other bird in the British Isles and I clearly remember the first time I heard its song many years ago in late May a haunting signature, rising and drifting over the moors on a warm wind. Its a call that is almost impossible to render in words, but it begins as a succession of low, drawn-out liquid notes, that build momentum slowly into a loud high-pitched crescendo of bubbling trills. It truly is an evocative call that once heard you will neither forget nor mistake with anything else. I know a small area of moorland where a few pairs faithfully return each year to nest, and have observed them many times on their breeding ground whilst sat amongst the heather with flask, binoculars and sandwiches at hand, listening to the Bilberry Bumblebee (another declining species) buzzing over the heather on a warm still afternoon. Around me the male Curlew calls to the female, all the while acting-out his display flight, with the pair enjoying the solitude of the wild moors far away from the disturbance of man.


The Curlew is the UKs largest wader, a tall bottle shaped bird with typical long wader legs and a very long curved bill, which is used for foraging earthworms, molluscs and crustaceans in soft coastal mudflats and moorland peat bogs. Its primary colour pattern is pale beige interspersed with chocolate brown streaks over the crown and nape, then progressing along the mantle and breast, terminating with a white rump and darker tail. What the Curlew lacks in bold colour, it more than compensates with charm, gracious contours and the most beautiful feminine facial features. With long strutting legs, they stand boldly upright and give the impression of a catwalk supermodel. They are a timid bird, shy and wary, and tend to take flight if approached; flying high with a slow wing beat that often planes for some distance before landing. They can be gregarious outside of the breeding season, grouping in flocks near shorelines and estuaries, but will move inland during periods of high water.

It would be heart breaking to lose a bird that has inspired generations of writers and poets, along with naturalists and hill walkers alike. Anyone who has had the pleasure to observe this unique bird will surely understand it deserves all our attention. So what can you do? Its not just a simple case of sticking your hand in your pocket, we have a million and one charities for all manner of subjects, which try to pull on your heart strings and encourage you to donate. Forgive my cynicism, but I do sometimes wonder how much reaches the intended target, but as you have read this far, I will ask you to take a minute to read Marys page and make up your own mind. If you think it is worth donating to help what I think is a very worthy cause, then let me put it into perspective - the price of a pint these days, along with fish and chips will cost you a tenner, so save your waistline the pain of those extra calories, and give both Mary and the Curlew a much needed boost to which only good can prevail.


The 3 drawings I have put together will be donated to Marys cause and auctioned to the highest bidders. You will effectively be donating 100% of the funds to the project. In turn, you get the chance to hopefully enjoy a piece of art that displays the charm of this charismatic bird.


I really hope this blog strikes home and highlights the Curlews current dire situation, but perhaps more than that, it makes you appreciate some of the finest flora and fauna the UK has to offer. Best of all it is right here on our doorstep, so as spring approaches, pick-up your binoculars, get out, and blow off those beats daytime TV any day of the week!


Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Keeper’s Nemesis

I have just completed a life study of a dead Jay, I know, that sounds macabre, but it’s a subject we can all relate to, life & death. As a young lad growing up exploring the countryside at every available opportunity, I was always fascinated by anything I found dead on my travels. Those creatures ranged from shrews to dead birds, or black & orange Sexton beetles feeding on carcases that the keeper had strung-up on his gibbet! Just like a criminal investigator it would provide me with the chance to analyse the scene - most of the time very quickly and instinctively for clues as to why it had died...which is all exciting stuff as a young lad. You never really get the opportunity to admire those fine details of an animal or bird until its up-close and personal. Yes, I have seen the Jay a 1000 times with its slow rowing wing beat as it passes from one tree to the next, never straying too far from cover, or that distinctive harsh raking call, but to admire its beautiful plumage in your hands is something else. Personally, I think they are by far the most beautiful corvid family member, with an array of bold colours that somehow seem to blend into their surrounding environment. The Jay has a black moustache and white throat, and a speckled crown that can be raised like a crest when excited. Its underbelly and flanks are painted with subtle salmon pink and cinnamon hues, whilst a white rump and (almost) black tail finish off with bold blue, black and white barred wing coverts that make for a really stunning looking bird.
Like all other members of the corvid family, it is very intelligent too. They are great mimics and I have heard them on many occasions perfectly copy Buzzard, Crow and even Goshawk calls. They have a habit of hiding acorns in the fall just like a squirrel, the term is ‘caching or hoarding’ which stems from the French word ‘cache’ which is ‘hidden or hide’. The key difference with the Jay is it possesses a more accurate memory, which helps when retrieving the acorns later in the winter period; unlike the squirrel, which seems only to locate a percentage of its treasure!

You do hear Jays calling to one another as they skulk from cover to cover, but rarely do they sit out in the open for long periods like the Crow or Magpie. The latter will happily walk an open field for long lengths of time looking for all manner of food items. I think because of the Jays secretive nature, its general habits go unnoticed by the public. Everyone knows what a Crow or Magpie looks like, but the habits of the Jay make it more inconspicuous. The first time I found one of the blue-barred feathers, I stuffed it into my pocked and rushed home to show ‘Dad’ this exotic parrot feather I had found! As a youngster this first encounter left me feeling perplexed as so few British Bird species have blue feathers at all. These natural little jewels have been highly prized for fly tying, and many a trout angler would have something in their fly-box that would contain the magic blue feather of the Jay. It was also common practice to see one worn in the headband of a countryman’s trilby.


During early part of the 19th century the Jay (like many of the corvid family) was culled by Game Keepers countrywide, not just for game bird egg and chick predation, but they will happily consume all manner of other birds offspring with gusto. I have watched individual birds locate the nest site by watching the adult bird give the game away very easily when to-ing and fro-ing to the nest with food for their chicks. When a victim bird is incubating her clutch, the male, depending on the species, will sometimes sit close by quickly changing over at dawn and dusk to relieve the female of her duties. This is the time I have watched Jays with my binoculars waiting very patiently to pinpoint the site, only to swoop in and raid the nest like a perfect high street robbery, all in what seems like a split second moment. If unsuccessful they will return daily until they have fulfilled their mission. I know some will say “well, that's nature” and to some degree that is the case, but with the current scarcity of many top apex raptors/carnivores, this has created a significant rise in mid-level predators/opportunists. Like other members of the corvid family, this is one of the reasons they are so abundant in the UK. They have adapted well to life in towns and gardens, living in close proximity to humans; their success has allowed numbers to steadily rise. Keepers were well aware of the Jays behaviour, but would also remove raptors at the same time, so maybe it was counterproductive to some degree.


I hope this gives you a little insight into the Jays behaviour, and if you look around any local park or large garden, or deciduous woodland or old hedgerow, you will be sure to observe one with patience. Listen out for that screeching alarm call as they communicate with each other, not too dissimilar to a pack of arboreal mobsters.


Love or hate, it’s a beautiful bird that has been part of the British landscape for millennia and last autumns acorn planting sessions will mean the Jay efforts will help germinate more oak trees than all the UK human population put together, now there’s a thought.


Drawing is life sized and in Graphite pencil.


For Sale £200


My next post will be all about a predator of real power, agility and that was traditionally regarded as the top woodland hunter and kept the Jay numbers in balance.