Thursday 2 August 2012

You Gotta Roll With It

In this summer of Olympic achievement and dreams being realised, one of my own came true!  Birds and bird-art are deeply engraved into my psyche, mainly through exposure to ‘Thorburn’s Birds’ as a four year old child – several decades ago.  Of the birds beautifully depicted in watercolour on those complex yet superbly designed colour plates, many stuck in my mind, but the one with woodpeckers on it also contained a very special bird indeed; the European Roller.  I’ve wanted to see one of these kaleidoscopic wonders ever since.

We are very lucky to live in Orkney – it’s a place of wonderful landscapes and fabulous birds and, from time to time, some unusual ones find themselves off course and on the islands.  We are also lucky in that many folk are tuned in to the wonders of the avian world and news gets circulated via our own birding grapevine ‘Orkbird’ ( and a very special Orkney Rare Bird Alert texting service.

When the local quarry-owner’s wife reported that she had just nearly run-over a parrot in Finstown, it didn’t take long for the bird to be relocated and (correctly) identified as a European Roller.  The news spread like wildfire and on Friday 27th July, I first connected with this long-awaited beauty.  I managed a brief but very satisfying view on my way to label the exhibition at the Loft Gallery ( and returned later that day to begin fieldwork. 

Over the next few days I spent as much time as family and work would permit (the gallery in Stromness may just have been closed a little earlier than usual) and by the time the bird finally left the site, I had a few useful colour sketches of the bird and habitat and I finally managed to bring the whole experience round full circle with a fully-fledged watercolour painting depicting this most memorable and long-awaited event. 
'The Orkney Roller'
watercolour, 27"x22"

So – a childhood dream has come true for me.  And now I can only hope this magical bird, having finally found me, can now find its way back to southern Europe and re-join its kin in warmer climes.  And a footnote to this 45-year story;  on the very same plate which Archibald Thorburn painted almost exactly 100 years ago, tucked away in the top-left corner is a wee bird which I still remain to see – lesser-spotted woodpecker.  Hmmmm – any chance one of THOSE can make it to Orkney . . . . . ?