Sunday, 23 March 2014

Lodge Hill Nightingales

The changing distribution of the Nightingale since 1968. Photo by Edmund Fellowes.
(Image from BTO-Above from left to right: Maps from the 1968-72, 1988-91 and 2007-11 Breeding Atlases.)

A few days ago, a friend and fellow wildlife-lover sent me a link to an open development plan case being led by the RSPB, Buglife and Kent Wildlife Trust. It's quite a complicated case but I will summarise for you to give you an idea of why I'm feeling outraged:

-There is a MoD site in Kent called Lodge Hill which was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) last year, largely because of the significant and highly important nightingale population there. It neighbours a stretch of ancient woodland, also declared SSSI (in 1984) and hosts a variety of habitats including badger setts, bat roosts and a range of breeding birds. (see Kent Wildlife Trust)

-Medway Council has proposed a plan to build up to 5000 houses on the site. An initial proposal was put forward but due to the SSSI declaration, it was withdrawn. A new plan is in progress and awaiting a final decision. 

- Offsetting the population of nightingales to another suitable habitat was suggested as an option but was "proven unfeasible". 

I have hugely simplified the facts here and believe me, there are many more, but I feel these are the most disturbing. I am putting forward my opinion, that of an amateur naturalist with a limited understanding of the broad subject of nature and habitat. Having said that, why should my opinion be less valued than any others? What I am taking away from this is that a site has been officially declared scientifically valuable yet development on the land is still being pushed. Does the term SSSI have no meaning? 

According to the Natural England website, "SSSIs are the country's very best wildlife and geological sites. They include some of our most spectacular and beautiful habitats...It is essential to conserve our remaining natural heritage for both current and future generations...SSSIs are important as they support plants and animals that find it more difficult to survive in the wider countryside."

This to me sums the situation up entirely. Conservation of natural habitats is essential for preserving our native species. Especially a species such as the nightingales, a bird that is on the amber status list and has seen a significant decline in numbers over the past few decades. The majority of the national nightingale population is found in the South East and Lodge Hill supports 1.3% of this. This beautiful and iconic breed of bird needs all the help it can get and disruption of it's habitat will almost certainly have catastrophic effects. 

It's clear that the need for sensitive handling hasn't been overlooked by the parties involved, evident by the suggestions of offsetting and creation of alternative habitats. However, it isn't the nightingales alone that need to be considered, though they are the most important factor; the several species of bat; numbers of newts, lizards, toads and adders; populations of breeding birds; these are all paramount in the sustainability of this habitat and will be impacted by any form of development on this land. What simply needs to be recognised by the council, MoD and developers is that this particular site is NOT a viable option for building. 

It's situations like this that leave me concerned for the future of nature. So many wonderful organisations work tirelessly to fight on nature's behalf but there are always those on the other side who don't seem to care. Who don't seem to recognise that if we don't do everything we can to protect and preserve the species and habitats we have now, we could lose everything. Sorry to sound melodramatic but it's the truth. 

I plan to email Medway Council in regard to this case and I strongly urge you, lovely reader, to do the same. A large impact of public protest would be amazing. Here is the email address to use (thank you, Kate!) and the case is "Lodge Hill, Kent development". 

I'll be interested to see this case develop and will keep you updated.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Nesting and the new kids on the block!

It's all been happening in my garden today! You may remember I recently put up a nest box in our oak tree and have been keeping a watchful eye on it each day. There have been a few blue tits nosing about and showing a little interest and gradually they have been getting closer and closer, peering in through the hole. Today I was lucky enough to see not one but two blue tits enter the box fully. The second in was quickly chased out by the first and then the first went back in. I'm really pleased although this behaviour is no guarantee that any birds will actually nest and lay eggs in there but the signs are certainly promising.

I can't help thinking that the oak tree is beginning to resemble the bird equivalent of a high-rise apartment block, as just a few metres above the best box is a smallish hole in the trunk which the pair of nuthatches have started popping in and out of. Today in particular showed them pecking away at the edge, perhaps to shape and deepen the hole enough for a nest. I mentioned this behaviour to my colleague at Pulborough who have me an interesting fact; nuthatches are the only-or at least one of the only-birds who place mud around the entrance and walls of their nesting cavities. I assumed this is done to insulate the nest but after a little investigation, it would seem they do it to seal up cracks inside the holes, create a smooth pocket for resting their eggs on and create a snug cavity that will be too small to allow any large predators in. I will certainly keep my eyes intently peeled to catch this behaviour live-it would be wonderful to witness!
You would think that, for an amateur birder, that would be plenty of excitement for one day but it didn't end with the nuthatches. I had my regular scan of the garden with the binoculars when some movement caught my eye in one of the closest trees that hangs over from the woods. It took me a while to get a decent look at the two birds that were chasing each other through the branches because they were so fast!! They weren't still for more than a few seconds at a time which made it extremely difficult to ID them, but I knew they were definitely a species I hadn't spotted before. At first I thought they were goldcrests because of their size and speedy movements but there were no bright yellow hair-dos to be seen and they had dark stripes (supercillium) across their eyes. I briefly considered wrens although I could tell the shape just wasn't right and the absence of dark, stripey plumage was confirmation.

These birds were very pale in colour, with light grey/brown upper parts and creamy yellow lower parts, and at the lowest part of the belly, underneath the tail, there was a slightly brighter yellow patch. The trail itself was reasonably long and the beak small and thin. The only other birds that came to mind as potential positive IDs were the chiffchaff and the willow warbler and I know it's tricky to tell the difference between the two. Looking at my various books, plus a little Googling, I am now fairly certain that they were willow warblers. These are actually on the Amber species status list, so if they were warblers, it was fantastic to spot them; I'm even more certain after looking at various photos and video clips of warblers.

These are all positive signs that we will have an exciting season for wildlife in our garden, fingers crossed!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Pet Selfie Competition!

Last Wednesday, I was rather overwhelmed to see that I had reached 2000 likes on my Facebook page. I don't think as much as I used to about numbers on there as it doesn't seem to translate to much, especially since the good people of Facebook are making it more and more difficult for my posts to be noticed and I know I'm not alone in this! Having said that, everything kicked off for me on there, it's where I started out with my bird drawings and then developed into the pet portraits, so I guess I do feel grateful to an extent. Particularly where my loyal followers are concerned, those who have been there from the very beginning and are constantly offering me words of support and encouragement-you're ace!

To celebrate this small milestone, I wanted to do something a bit different from the regular "like and comment" giveaway. I've done a couple of these in the past and had great responses but there isn't much interaction involved really and I thought it would be nice to come up with something that everyone can get involved with and have some fun with. I decided to hold a "Pet Selfie" Competition which is self-explanatory and gives everyone an excuse to indulge in the "selfie" craze! Come on, taking a photo of yourself is fair enough but when you've dragged your unwilling stubborn camera-shy lovely pet into the frame, it becomes 10 times better!

I've had an incredible response so far, with SO many funny and sweet photos sent in to me. My intention is to post them in an album on my page and get my followers to vote for their favourites and I briefly considered creating a short-list of my 10 or so favourites to make things easier, but I just don't think that will be fair. I am quite happy to let you decide for yourselves!

I know from experience with my two felines that taking photos of them is HARD, really, really hard. I'm pretty convinced that Theo in particular is allergic to any form of camera or he just has the uncanny ability to recognise a piece of technology and turn his face the other way the moment my finger hits the shutter button. Cats. It's lucky we love them, eh?!

I can't wait to post the selfies up and see how people react-I couldn't possibly choose one favourite so it's going to be a close call I reckon! (Entries close Wednesday 12th March at 12pm if you'd like to enter. You can find more details on my FB page)

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Liebster Blog Award!

So I haven't been back on the blogging wagon for long at all. I've had a couple of blogs in the past but struggled to stay interested in them and now I've started again, blogging about two of my greatest passions, I'm enjoying it and always feel inspired to post. I was so pleased to see this morning that the lovely Ruth of Blue Eggs and Tea (I'm SUCH a fan of her cute illustrations!) has nominated me for the Liebster Award, aimed at blogs with small followings and designed to get us networking and discovering new blogging talent!

This is such a lovely gesture, especially since most of the time I write my posts assuming no one is actually reading them!

Here are a few questions Ruth gave me to answer:

1. What's your favourite subject to blog about and why?
I really love blogging about wildlife, especially the birds in my garden! It's so calming watching them and, on the days when we get a new visitor, very exciting so sharing that with other like-minded people is a delight.
2. What's the ONE thing that reminds you of your childhood?
Tricky, tricky, tricky! I'm just like you Ruth, I have a terrible memory, particularly when it comes to remembering my childhood! Not good for someone who is only 23... I do remember when I was maybe 6 or 7, spending Friday evenings in front of the Muppet Show and eating Heinz baked bean and hot dog pizzas! It was something of a tradition for a while and has just stuck in my mind. Probably because those pizzas were super tasty!
3. Mountains or Sea? 
Definitely sea. I'm a bit of a water baby and always love snorkeling and exploring rock pools when on holiday; I've considered learning to scuba dive and get my PADI license but I'm being a bit of a coward about it so far!
4. When I'm happy I like to...
Hug my family members :-) Whoever happens to be to hand; Mum, Dad, reluctant brother, even MORE reluctant cats...
5. What's your biggest dream?
I'm sure I'm not alone when I say my dreams change all the time. Right now, my dream is to be able to make a full-time living from pet portraits. Give me another 5 or 10 years and I'm sure there will be a new dream or two!
6. Art Gallery or Museum? 
It depends on the museum/gallery. I'm more inclined towards an art gallery; I studied Art History for a year at college and have been hooked ever since.  I've been lucky enough to visit the Louvre and Uffizi which were dreams come true!
7. What makes you get up in the morning? 
Oh dear, I'm not very good at getting up in the morning! I love my sleep and waking up naturally to sunlight streaming into my room is always a winner. Also a good cup of tea.
8. If you could go to the airport today, where would you fly to?
If it had been a couple of weeks earlier, I would have flown to Venice to see Carnivale. It would be nice to visit Venice before it sinks though...
9. What's your favourite bird? 
My favourite garden bird is the nuthatch. Definitely one of the bullies of the garden but they are so entertaining to watch and remind me of little ninjas with their black eye masks and gravity-defying moves. I really love raptors too, especially buzzards which we get a lot of in our area.
10. What's the best thing you ever bought?
This will probably sound quite trivial, but I have a gorgeous faux fur blanket that is THE softest thing in the world and perfect for cosying up on the sofa. It was a real bargain when I bought it, something like £19 down from £50 and I use it so much. I'm always saying it's the best £19 I've ever spent!

I nominate Lauren Cherice DesignsEmma Margaret Illustrationmy lovely friend Cat and Freya Lines Designs to continue passing on the blog love and answer a few questions!

1. What's your favourite thing to do in your spare time?
2. Dog or cat?
3. When it comes to food, what is your guilty pleasure?
4.Who do you admire?
5. How do you cheer yourself up?
6. If you could do any job in the world, it would be...
7. Favourite Summer activity?
8. What item, other than your phone, would you be lost without?
9. Spring or Autumn?
10. Do you have any bad habits?

It will be interesting to see the answers to these! Thanks again Ruth :-)

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Going big!

I've started work on my next portrait and it is something entirely different from the two German shepherds! I'm still working in the large (A3) size but for this piece, my subject is a very fluffy feline called Orbit, with stunning markings of brown, black and ginger.
(This pic doesn't really show the scale but you can get an idea of the colours)

I have to say that I was (and still am) a little daunted by the prospect of this piece. It is the first time I have done such a large single portrait; normally, the large size is the option most customers go for if they want two or more pets drawn. When I first sketched it out, I realised just how much of a challenge I might be facing as I am simply not used to working on such a large scale. I knew I would be working in a much broader stroke style and getting down layers of colour across wide areas, particularly on the bottom half of the portrait, which features Orbit's very white chest.

Although I feel just a teensy bit intimidated by the scale of this portrait, I'm genuinely interested to see how it progresses and how I handle things such as refining and sharpening the details. What's quite amusing is how unnerved I am by the single orange eye staring out at me! It is about the size of a 10p piece, quite possibly the largest eye I've ever drawn, and to have that fixed on me while I'm working is slightly daunting. I like to think it's keeping me motivated and focused; every time I get up to make a cup of tea (translation: procrastinate) the eye of Orbit follows me across the room, as if to say "where are you going? Get back to work this instant!"

Perhaps I should have a motivational, all-seeing eye pinned to my wall permanently in the future...

Monday, 3 March 2014

Not Just a Portrait.

Over the weekend, I completed the portrait of the two German shepherds Spike and Rocket. I really enjoyed this piece and am extremely pleased with the outcome, as is the customer who tells me she was in tears when I posted the scan!

Sadly, both of the dogs in this portrait have passed away; one a couple of years ago and the other much more recently, only a few weeks ago. This portrait was commissioned by Gemma as a surprise gift to her husband and on several of my w.i.p photos, she had remarked on how lovely it is to see 'her boys' together again.

Something I try to keep in my mind at all times when I'm working on a portrait is that I'm not just drawing an animal; I'm drawing someone's pet. As a crazy cat lady life-long cat lover, I truly understand how much our pets can mean to us, especially when you have one in particular for many years as many of us do. When it comes to having to say goodbye to that pet, it is surely as difficult as saying goodbye to a family member.

Potentially, I have done more portraits of animals that have passed away than those that are still with us. It's always very sad when a customer gets in touch and tells me that they recently lost their dog/cat but the very fact that they choose to have a portrait done in memory of said pet, and not only that but they choose ME to do it for them, is a wonderful sentiment and one that I am aware of throughout the whole process. Obviously, I always strive to capture as much of the subject's spirit and character as I can in my drawing; it just helps to remember that, whether the animal is still with us or not, the portrait is going to be a lasting reminder of that furry family member.

I would say that knowing I am creating such a personal piece of art is my biggest inspiration. When I find myself struggling, it really does help to remember that I am drawing an animal that has brought joy to someone's life and that they deserve to have their likeness captured to the highest possible quality. I like to think, or at least I hope, that I do achieve that with my work.

Every time I am commissioned, it is an honour.