Monday, 2 August 2010

Arctic Skua - the Loveliest Bird

Okay, so it’s the first day of Stromness Shopping Week and it was bound to be a beautiful day. By the evening I was ready for a breath of fresh air after being stuck in the gallery all day for the sale of one sodding card! £2.50 is not going to allow retirement any time soon. . . .

The weather was still very pleasant after dinner so I loaded the scope and tackle into the car and made for Yesnaby. Lugging the Nikon and the Velbon 7000 video tripod a mile and a half with satchel of art gear and sketchbook was well worth it as I a dark phase skua rises over the ridge to investigate me. I meander across to my favourite rock (a la Shirley Valentine), place my binoculars on the ground and, as I swing the scope of my shoulders there’s a ‘crack!’ – the scope’s weight has snapped the holding screw off the tripod quick-release plate – oh super! I know it’s my own fault for being an idle sod and carrying the scope attached to the tripod, but the realisation only serves to darken my mood. The birds are too far away for binoculars – drawing through, at any rate, but I have a quick scan of the scene and locate a pale-headed skua. I’m pretty sure what it is but I have to get the scope hand-held onto the bird – a fully fledged arctic skua youngster! Now let’s no longer mince words about this bird – if arctic skuas were the commonest bird on the planet they would still grace any orni-porno site, as it is they are looking down the barrel of permanent oblivion from these isles, which makes this sight every so slightly welcome.

But the scope’s knackered. I try to bind the thing to the tripod with the strap which is fairly successful until; I realise that in doing so I’ve also fastened the barrel focus tightly too – smashing! Off it comes and I realise there’s no way to make it sit. But, by balancing the scope on the tripod head and moving it ever so carefully I can peer through the eyepiece and at my baby – gorgeous! I make a quick drawing in tone and just as I have got the hang of using this delicately balanced rig, a fecking dog-walker comes over the brow and straight through the territory. Fecking w@nker – but my birds are immediately at him and his mutt and I barely contain a laugh as this burly lad screams ‘fuck-off, fuck-off’ whilst waving his arms about at the dive-bombing skuas. Tit!

But it does give me the chance to see the chick can fly; albeit not with the sleek and graceful lines and curves s/he will (hopefully) achieve in the fullness of time. However it drops down behind the ridge and out of view. I’m just about to pack in when I notice one of the parents nearby. Again using the balancing act I train the scope and make a couple of drawings when from nowhere, the fog comes rolling over the hill obscuring just about everything. Ah - the joys of a warm day at the coast.

Then the chick is there again. And it’s doing something I’ve never seen – plucking at vegetation and eating it. Most curious and something I need to read up on. It’s hunched and shuffling gait recall its close relatives the gulls and it begs from its parent similarly; tapping on the bill in expectation. Then everything’s gone – the fog is total. I’m left with a trudge back to the car, dripping sketchbook and ruined tripod with barely a drawing in the book. But absolutely elated!

The sketches show a dark-phase arctic skua and then the same bird observed through the thickening fog, having relocated slightly. The studio piece is a composition using the fieldwork of the dark-phase/light-phase skua pair.

The following day I was determined to make amends for the debacle with the scope and, having replaced the quick-release plate, transported the scope and tripod separately. Entering the skua territory today was like being on a different planet; gone had all the gloom and mood of the previous evening (enchanting though that was), to be replaced by bright, warming sunlight and something I rarely have to contend with in Orkney (this year at least) – heat haze!

Fortunately my birds are growing accustomed to my hunched shuffling through their space and, as soon as I flop down on ‘the rock’ they seem to settle; the dark bird coming to rest not 30 metres from me. I intend to make a few investigative drawings, but my eye and pencil seem content to enjoy the one pose this bird has settled into and soon I have made a colour study describing the immediate scene.

Scanning the moor for alternative viewpoints I chance upon a youngster, then another; again one bird remains fairly motionless and allows involved study for 20 minutes or so. The light breeze occasionally rearranges the bird’s plumes and it flicks away the midges from its face.

A yowl of anger makes me turn and one of the neighbouring skuas takes off after a great black-back which has taken the wrong course. It sees the large gull off and helter-skelters back to its resting place among the sedges, calluna and cross-leaved heath. Then I see the cause of its worry; another fledgling – three in total in this small area. This is excellent news considering the skuas’ main provider, the arctic tern, has had such a terrible season and very few remain to be parasitized. I watch the adult and the youngster for the next half hour, all the while scribbling in my sketchbook.

The sketches are of the adults and youngsters:

The studio painting is derived directly from the first colour study I made:


The Drunkbirder said...

I wish I could draw. I still prefer it to a photo any day of the week.

Måns Sjöberg said...

It's fascinating how you manage to render the lighting on the birds and their surrounding - a little bit of backlight with a tinge of blueness from the sky. Great job!

Sharon Williamson said...

Great art as usual, enjoyed reading about the trials and tribulations :)

Juan Carlos Gálvez said...

Don´t get me wrong if I say I´ll be happy if you only have to sale 2.50 pounds to make such a beautiful sketches .
Just a bad joke!
My best wishes to your art gallery.
Congratulations.I think you are one of the best nature art sketchers I´ve ever seen.

Kind regards,
Juan Carlos

P.D.:Sorry for my bad english once again.

scotty said...

Great descriptive story! Your adventure adds so much to the beautiful paintings and sketches..thanks for sharing your creative journey! :)

Susan said...

Tim, the pencil sketches and the color studies are so fascinating for their immediacy - you capture the pose and attitude of your beloved birds so perfectly.And it is an absolute joy to see how you transform the sketches into finished and briliant studio works. They are both breathtaking! And on top of that you entertain and delight with engaging descriptions of your experience. Thank you, Tim. What a pleasure it is to read your blog!

Unknown said...

very entertaining tale tim,told in your own inimitable style which when added to these fantastic works of art always leaves you wanting more.Never seen a skua other than on the telly with the well known dive-bombing film,combine this with your prose about the dog-walking tw*t and it conjures up some very funny imagery!

Unknown said...

Another wonderful post, fascinating to read and blessed with your fabulous art work. Great insight into your process.

Wooden Man said...

Tim, I don't know how you do it. Just the technical thing of focussing through binoculars and then on the paper, never mind remembering what you've just looked at. And never mind giving the pictures such life! Yours is the only blog I 'follow'.

Chris Jaques said...

Tim real pleasure to meet you today and thanks for your time...inspirational insight for one Jaques junior...seriously funny blog...hope book goes a storm . Best regards, Chris & Alison