Holiday sketches: two kinds of egrets

Snowy white herons called egrets are a little exotic in Britain but are common in Mallorca.  I cycled past fields in which cattle egrets co-existed with sheep and past a stone cistern hosting lines of egrets round the rim.  These sketches were done of birds roosting and hunting in the waters of the nature reserve, spotted by telescope. The larger birds with yellow feet are little egrets, the smaller ones with yellow crests and bills are cattle egrets. 

2014-08-26 12.12.30 By the time I got round to drawing these birds, I felt I had loosened up a bit.  I scribbled only a few lines on the paper, just enough to hold the image so I could go back and throw on a minimum of watercolour washes a few minutes later. The pen and washes work well on the fairly smooth Stillman and Birns watercolour paper.  My aim was to work quickly without overworking the picture.

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I also spotted a line of about 25 elegant waders, black-winged stilts with long red legs and delicate probing bills.

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In loading these drawings, I came across pictures of cattle egrets accompanying horses against a background of tall reeds, drawn while on another cycle ride in Mallorca two years ago with quite different technique.



Seen out to sea, drawn in the rain.


These feeding gannets were viewed  out to sea and drawn with me standing, steadying the telescope against  the wind.

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17/07/2014 St Abbs

Just out to sea – many gannets suddenly congregate.  They turn, wings outstretched then slip into a dive, wings held behind tail, neck outstretched. They can be seen as a trace of bubbles below water before they surface.  Wings beating they stretch up their body and necks to swallow.  Then  they take off into the wind to repeat this or fly off, sated.

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Kestrel art

It is a remarkable thing, simply to stand on a ledge 40 feet down the cliff face, with another 60 foot drop beneath, and almost share the volume with the birds.  White kittiwakes wheel and soar, playing on the air currents, beneath and above and at eye level.  Far below, tiny black purposeful guillemots fly fast-winged, insect-like, direct from the sea to the rocks.  Something breaks this pattern about 20 feel below me.  I see first something smaller than a gull, brown, launching from an inland ledge, flying seaward across the inlet to a high stack.  I lose it, until again it flies across the chasm to the opposing face.  After a few minutes it completes the triangle back to its starting place.

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I watched through binoculars.  My notes say, 16/7/14 St Abbs Head kestrel seen last night and today.  Flies from cliff to cliff.  This time carrying a small mammal.  Calls, then eats, standing on prey, ripping.  Then carefully places prey on shelf of rock and cleans beak on foliage before flying off.  Defaecates while eating.

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I had not expected to see this common falcon here, on a sea cliff.  When I first looked, I thought I might instead see a peregrine.  I am not sure where it was hunting – despite searching, I never saw them hanging on the breeze over the pastures just inland of the cliffs.  Over the next two days I regularly saw a pair flying their triangle across this inlet.  The male has grey plumage.  This was the female.

Some birds I drew

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The title of the post is credited to a comment made by artist Nancy Farmer on a recent post.

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These drawings were made in ink, with water to create the tones, in an A5 sketchpad.

I stood on a narrow spit of grass-covered rock with steep drops on either side.  Kittiwakes wheeled above me, at eye level and far below.  Much of the time the birds flew so close that I could draw directly without binoculars.

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Many birds were returning to their nests and partners, with ululating greetings by both parties.

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Others seemed to be riding the rollercoaster of the air, mostly gliding, with only a few downbeats of the outer parts of the wings.

They circled fast, away from the cliff.  Then turning in, they descended, dropping their legs and splaying their toes to use as airbrakes as, perilously, they neared the rock face. There, rising air gave them lift. Gaining height but slowing, they turned and accelerated, soaring out to repeat the manoeuvre.

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I had to watch and watch again, trying to fix their shapes in my mind.  It seemed that the white body and head was suspended beneath the rigid plane of the wing, reminiscent of a hang glider or a Cessna light aircraft.

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I found I was drawing rhomboids, one for the inner wing, made up of the arm and secondary flight feathers, and another for the outer surface made of the fingers and primary feathers.  These moved and changed shapes in relation to each other through the cycle of soaring, wheeling and braking.

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And always there was the noise of the onomatopoeic kittiwakes.

Marsh harrier, hunting

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A couple of weekends ago, I went early in the morning to the Bird Sanctuary at Blacktoft Sands on the Humber.  Sweeping across the reed beds with my binoculars, I chanced upon a female marsh harrier sitting just above the foliage, preening and stretching her wings.

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Periodically, she flew across the marsh, hovering and then dropping, wings above her, to snatch prey.

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The Mule is a Black Swan

Isaac Azimov guided my transition from children’s books to adult literature.

In Azimov’s Foundation novellas, mathematician Hari Seldon uses the probabilistic science of psychohistory to chart the decline of Galactic civilisation into ten thousand years of ignorance and disorder.  Seldon makes a well-placed intervention, founding a colony of archivists on the planet Terminus at the unregarded edge of the galaxy.  This becomes the Foundation, the seed from which a new civilisation is to grow, shortening the dark ages to a single millennium.

After only a few hundred years, however, enemy ships invade the home planet Terminus.  A mutant calling himself the Mule, with overwhelming psychic powers, has rapidly forged a power strong enough to overcome the Foundation.  This cataclysmic event was outside the scope of Seldon’s probability-based science to predict.

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However, Seldon had also founded, in secret, another colony.  The Second Foundation is populated by psychohistorians, trained in his science, able to predict galactic events based on a new balance of probabilities and then act to bring his planned future back on track.

Isaac Azimov has been feted for his predictions made in 1964 of our life today.  He could see forward to something like mobile phones and tablets but never predicted the internet.  In the Foundation stories, however, he captured the essence of what people later recognised in the 9/11 attack or the 2008 financial crash and called Black Swan phenomena.  Black Swan Events are outliers to any sensible informed educated probabilitstic understanding of our world.  They, by definition, have major impact but are unpredictable in any useful way.   Importantly, though, Black Swan Events will inevitably occur at some point if we wait long enough.  For the Foundation, the Mule is a Black Swan.  Seldon knows cataclysms will occur unpredictably so he builds flexible systems able to recognise and respond to such events when they occur.  By imagining Seldon, Azimov also encapsulates the concept of anti-fragility, planning resilience in the face of unpredictable events.

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There are no black swans in these illustrations, drawn at Blacktoft Sands as the rain drifted in through the ports in the sides of the bird hide.

Farming Black Swans

This weekend I drove for ten hours.  Unusually I did not listen to the radio.  Instead I wrote a book in my head.  It is called “Farming Black Swans”.

If I write it down, it will be non-fiction, possibly a technical manual if my research bears out the concepts in my head.   However, in essence it is a narrative so might just as well be a novel.  A central character would be a mathematician by trade and spirituality.

20140629 Blacktoft (1)On the way home, I broke my journey.  I spent the morning drawing at Blacktoft Sands, marshland and reed beds where the River Trent empties into the Humber Estuary.

There was one distant swan. It was white.  It is not featured in this watercolour sketch.  Those blobs at the front are indeterminate ducks.

All swans are white.  Discuss.

Complex systems

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This weekend, I have been thinking about complex adaptive systems.

Wikipedia tells me that complex adaptive systems contain multiple diverse interacting components and that the system is structured such that it adapts and learns from experience.  At least, it appear to learn.  The system is not conscious or reflective on its experience.  An ecosystem can be seen as a complex adaptive system.

In a cancer, the malignant cells are themselves diverse: some dividing, others resting; some forming a tumour, others infiltrating adjacent tissues, others again invading blood vessels and migrating.  Then there are the array of non-malignant cells: those forming blood vessels; inflammatory cells responding as if this were a healing wound; immune cells perhaps recognising and killing cancer cells, perhaps exciting such killer cells, perhaps damping the immune response.  All these various cells are in communication with each other, sending short range messages by direct contact or chemical signals.  This complex adaptive system is called the immune microenvironment of the cancer.

I am not prone to hyperbole.  Still, I think we* sit on the threshold of a major shift in how cancer can be treated, using new drugs to manipulate the immune microenvironment of cancers.  The drugs are becoming available.  The challenge is to understand the immune microenvironment sufficiently so we use the drugs effectively.

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This piece started with a layer of charcoal, the images driven by recent reading and current music.  I tore into the dampened paper creating highlights and texture.  This was then obscured by layers of gouache and acrylic paint, allowing charcoal and sea salt to disperse slowly, suspended in the very wet washes.   After a week or so looking at it, turning it one way and another, eventually I saw in it a narrative suggesting a complex system.


*”we sit on the threshold of a major shift in how cancer can be treated” – by “we” I mean the worldwide cancer community – patients, carers, researchers, clinicians, health care providers, research institutions, industry and those who commission and fund cancer care

sepia glow

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To photograph my drawings for this blog, I have switched to using the ipad camera in reflected daylight.  I crop pictures using a scaled down version of photoshop and adjust the exposure and contrast to get as close as possible to the original.  The photoshop app has various filters, including “glow” which gives a rich sepia tone to the work, and I think, boosts the highlights.  This manipulation enlivens the charcoal sketches above.

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This is the explanation of the sepia images in my previous post, which drew comments.

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I have added a dip pen to my field kit, and, as an experiment, put sepia ink in a small bottle containing a large lump of dried up gold ink, which seems to be slowly dissolving.  I will also take a sanguine conte stick.  I want to see if I can get these effects directly onto the paper.




watchful peace

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Two lapwing chicks blithely wandered and foraged on a small spit of land in the middle of the pool.  The parent was often as much as ten feet away, though always watchful.  Behind, on the water, were juvenile and adult herring gulls.

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This is like watching baby gazelle gambolling near a pride of lions.  Any moment, I expected a herring gull to take a short hop over to swallow a chick whole.

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Also nesting in the grass, incubating eggs I think, as yet with no chicks, were black headed gulls.

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I gradually realised that the larger herring gulls were in fact prisoners, on parole.  As long as they stayed still, they were tolerated, but make a move or take to the air and they were immediately mobbed by crowds of black headed gulls driving them away.

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This watchful peace is what lent safety to the lapwing chicks.