Last week I was in the Peak District. I woke up early to explore a local nature reserve, RSPB Coombes and Churnet Valley. I took the longest circular path, and as I approached a stream, I heard an unfamiliar song and searched for the bird. It was a male Pied Flycatcher. It sung persistently and have a quick visit to a nest box nearby. I have known this species for a long time, as it was a regular migrant in my local park in Spain when I was a teenager, and I have seen it in migration as well in Spurn. The song reminded me of a Great Tit, although more thrilling and diverse. Pied Flycatchers breed in mature beech and oak forests, habitats that are pretty scarce in East Yorkshire. It is red-listed in the UK, due to severe recent population and range declines. Watercolour and pencil in Wacom Tablet.
After a mild winter, spring is well on its way. Some resident species are feeding chicks, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are in song, I’ve seen my first Swallow and in the wetlands of local nature reserves, the first Little Ringed Plovers are back too. They are often in very contrasting light, which helps with their camouflage on bare pebbly ground. In typical plover fashion, they stand still bobbing lightly every now and then, watching the ground intently, and then quickly darting forward to pick some tiny morsel from the ground.
I watched my first one last week at Tophill Low Nature Reserve, and decided to sketch it, trying to grab the contrasts the harsh light of the middle of the day on their plumage. Wacom tablet using pencil and watercolour features.
You will be very lucky to see a Raven at Flamborough these days, as they are rare visitors. But Ravens bred in at least a couple of places at Flamborough, up until the mid 1830s. One of the last locations was near Breil Newk, when two stacks called the King and Queen rocks, graced the bay next to this headland. The King was toppled by a storm 50 years ago and is now just a rock visible on the low tides where Shags like to rest, but the Queen still stands proud. I can imagine ravens sitting at the top of the stacks, watching the nesting sea birds, waiting for a kittiwake to leave her eggs unprotected, or to spot a dead chick fallen onto the beach. The cliffs would have offered rich pickings during the nesting season, and during the winter, the Ravens would quarter over the grassy tops of the cliffs or the village pastures to feed. Their nest would not have been as impregnable as you would think, as in those times, ‘climmers’ from Flamborough village would descend the cliffs regularly to pick eggs to sell, not to mention tourists coming to the cliffs to shoot sea birds for fun. Raven nestling would be collected and sold to pubs and hostelries to be kept as pets, a common occurrence those times. Unfortunately, the Ravens of Flamborough did not survive to see the Sea Bird Preservation Act passed 1869, the first legislation to protect wild birds in the UK.
During one of my visits almost exactly a couple of years ago, I was unlucky to miss a passing Raven, which was seen in the company of a Red Kite, flying over the headland. I based this pencil sketch on an old postcard of the rocks, with a raven flying by.
Ravens fascinate me, I have met them at Scotland, Wales, the Canaries, Mallorca, the Pyrenees. I am reading a lot about Ravens lately. The two fascinating books by Bernd Heinrich (Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven), Derek Ratcliffe’s monograph reporting on the decline and resurgence of Ravens, a Shadow Above, by Joe Shute…
Last year I witnessed indications of this recolonisation first hand when I found a pair of ravens on a valley in Staffordshire where I’ve been birdwatching for the last 20 years, my first sighting of this species there. While Red Kites and Buzzards have become regular breeders in East Yorkshire, the Raven remains a rare occasional bird. But last year too I saw my first raven in East Yorkshire, a couple of deep croaks made me look up while at Tophill Low and a wonderful Raven flew above. A photo of a Raven at Spurn by Bethan Clyne, only the 9th record there, inspired me to draw a sketch. Ink and pencil on Wacom tablet.
An unexpected encounter with a Goldcrest on a local park, I watched as it came down to a pool covered on duckweed and rubbish in a local park, looked around and had a long bath, with I partly captured on video. I love the head on look of a Goldcrest, with their eyes looking like stick on jet buttons surrounded by a pale ring giving it a quizzical look.
On my drive to the airport on the way back from Spain a couple of days ago I spotted the shrike on a bush by the side of the road. One of the fondest memories of my early years was to spot the shrike on its post on the way to or from the beach during our summer holidays. Shrikes will sit on it’s favoured almond tree, bush or telegraph post wire for hours watching for prey. Shrikes are a family of predatory perching birds, with hooked bills similar to those of raptors. It’s mask and white eyebrow give the Iberian Grey shrike a fierce look. Grey shrikes mostly feed on large insects but they also hunt lizards, mice and birds. They often cache surplus prey on spines and thorns of bushes. I remember coming across my first mole cricked as an impaled prey of a grey shrike.
When reviewing photos of past holidays I found some distant shots of a male stonechat near Morston, at the North Norfolk coast. I was amazed at the vivid colours of the breeding male, quite used now to the more subdued autumn and winter tones of the bird. Just after moulting, male stonechat feather fringes are tan, and hide the bright black and orange tones that will be revealed when the feathers are abraded by use by spring. If was a sunny, late April morning and the saltmarsh was dotted with the bright yellow gorse bushes in bloom. The male stonechat appeared atop one of the bushes and I only had time for a couple of shots before it flew off. Pencil and watercolour on my Wacom tablet.