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Friday, 28 March 2014

181. Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus)

Lanner Falcons look similar to Sakers, but are slightly smaller and slimmer, with narrower wings and tail. The subspecies found in Europe (feldeggii) has grey-brown upperparts with dark barring, a rufous supercilium and nape, and is paler underneath than Saker, being much more finely spotted with some barring on the flanks. Juveniles look very similar to both juvenile and adult Sakers, but the 'trousers' in juvenile Lanners are always pale, sometimes with streaking depending on the subspecies, but never dark as in Sakers. Lanner Falcons are found only in a few parts of southeastern Europe (e.g. Italy, Greece, Turkey, Croatia, Bulgaria) and are resident, not migratory, although in winter they will travel slightly beyond their breeding range. Their preferred habitat is arid areas such as semi-desert, dry steppe and savanna, rocky foothills, cliffs and sea-coasts.

Lanner Falcon, ©D McG, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Lanner Falcon painting.
Aahh, a nice indulgent portrait :o) This is the last of the raptors! Next up are the rails and crakes, exciting times.....

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

180. Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug)

Saker Falcons are rare in Europe, being found only in parts of eastern Europe and also further east into central Asia and southern Russia. It is partially migratory for the most part but resident in some small areas. It is a large falcon, nearly as big as Gyrfalcon, and similar in shape with broad, blunt-tipped wings in flight. The pale blue-grey cere and eye ring of the individual in the photo show that it is a juvenile; adults look very similar but are less boldly streaked below and tend to have a paler head. Their preferred habitat is steppe near to forests, grassland, and sometimes agricultural land, marshes and sea coasts (during migration).

Saker Falcon, ©Sergey Pisarevskiy, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Saker Falcon painting.
This one has turned out OK I think, I'm pleased I managed to do it in about an hour, as usual I got scared of the fine detailing on the wing and bodged it a bit but I like the rest.

Monday, 24 March 2014

179. Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)

Gyrfalcons have a circumpolar distribution in the Northern Hemisphere, being found mainly in Arctic areas. In Europe they are resident in the High Arctic (except Svalbard where I guess the lack of small mammal prey prevents their establishment) and Iceland; they are also found in winter in much of Norway, northern Sweden and northern Finland. Their plumage varies in colour depending on where they're from - the northern European birds are medium grey above with bold barring below, Icelandic birds are a paler grey, and Gyrfalcons from Greenland are white with black barring on their wings. However there is overlap between the colour morphs, both geographically and in terms of the plumage colour and pattern. I've chosen a photo of a medium grey bird seeing as it's the most likey to be seen in Europe. The sexes look similar, and juveniles are dark brown above with coarse brown streaking below; they also have a pale blue-grey cere and feet compared to the adults' yellow. In flight they look a bit like larger, bulkier Peregrines with broader, blunter wings and slower, shallower wingbeats. Gyrfalcons' preferred habitat is tundra with patches of scrub and trees, mountains, sea coasts and river valleys.

Gyrfalcon, ©Dan Arndt, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Gyrfalcon painting.
I had a bit of a slow weekend during which I didn't really get as much done as I wanted on anything, including my bird paintings, due to having a snot-tastic cold. It's pretty much gone now though! I worked on this painting in bits but I'm not too keen on it, once again I think I've fudged the fine detail on the upperwings. Never really have time to do it justice and I haven't worked out any quick way to do it that looks any good.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

178. Merlin (Falco columbarius)

Merlins are tiny wee falcons, the smallest you will see in the UK. Like many of the falcons the female is larger than the male, enabling her to catch larger prey - they usually feed on small birds snatched in flight such as Meadow Pipits, although one time at Frampton Marsh we saw a female Merlin feeding on what looked from the feathers a lot like a Lapwing. Merlins are very widely distributed, having a circumpolar distribution in the Northern Hemisphere. In the UK they are not numerous; they are resident in some parts whereas in others (mostly in the north) they are only present in the breeding season, and in many southern parts they are only present in the winter.They breed in open, fairly remote areas - moorland, heathland, bogs and tundra. In winter they are often to be found at coastal marshes and farmland. The male is illustrated; rather like in Sparrowhawks, he has a blue-grey back and rufous-tinged underparts, and the female and juvenile are brown above with coarse dark streaking on a pale breast. The male has a black terminal band on his tail and the female's is boldly striped dark and pale brown. They have quite short, pointed wings and are very agile in flight when chasing their prey.

Merlin, ©rogerwshaw, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Merlin painting.
Pleased with this one! Well I'm not sure if taking a short break from painting has really helped with my thumb or not, which probably means it hasn't. So I thought I would recommence, I have fashioned some fat cardboard tubes to stick around my paintbrushes (and pens) which makes holding them much easier and more comfortable. I checked on the correct way to hold a pen too and it looks nothing like how I'd been holding my pens! So hopefully changing that will help.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Awesome times in the Forest of Dean!

Yesterday once again I was off with the West Midland Bird Club, this time on our annual spring jaunt to the Forest of Dean where we normally hope to partake of such delights as Goshawk, Mandarin Duck, Hawfinch and Peregrine among others. With fine weather forecast for the day we were feeling optimistic about our chances!

Our first stop was at Serridge Ridge near Brierley where we were on the lookout for Two-barred Crossbill. A slow walk along the ridge alas revealed none, but we did see some other nice species - lots of Coal Tits, Treecreepers, Nuthatch and a lone female Common Crossbill. It didn't help that the sun was coming directly at us through the Larches that were the Two-barreds' preferred haunt, so we were constantly being dazzled! The sun was good news for butterflies though, I saw several Small Tortoiseshells and a Peacock butterfly here.

Larches along the ridge.

Next we were off to New Fancy View in search of Goshawks, and possibly Adders too with which we'd had a memorable encounter a few years ago. On the walk up the hill, it wasn't long before we spotted some people crouched down scrutinising the grass and leaf litter by the fence. Twas not an Adder, but a beautiful little Common Lizard, sunning itself and scuttling around at the base of the fence! I stayed and watched for a good while, and a second Lizard appeared too - brilliant!

Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara).
Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara).
Then just a few metres ahead - there was an Adder too!


Adder (Vipera berus).
The viewing platform at the top of the hill was pretty rammed by the time I got there, mostly with West Midland birders - so I decided to take it easy on the other side of the hill with a couple of other bird clubbers.

One of the downsides of travelling as part of a large group!
We got smashing views of a pair of Peregrines flying right overhead! Buzzards abounded but Goshawks seemed very hard to come by....however our attention was soon diverted by a colourful spectacle nearby. A male and female Common Crossbill and a male Brambling had been spotted in the Scots' Pine right in front of the viewing platform, so after finding a good spot on the platform we enjoyed amazing views of these bright characters foraging in the sunlit pines, for a good while! As my only previous views of Common Crossbill had been the female an hour or so earlier, and a distant flying speck elsewhere on an earlier occasion, I was super chuffed to see the Crossbills at such close range and in such good light. And the Brambling was practically in his summer plumage - his black head was only very lightly frosted! I tried getting some photos of them, but they were very mobile and constantly disappearing behind the pine needles, so my attempts were rather pitiful.

After a quick lunch break at Beechenhurst Lodge (where I added Brimstone to my butterfly list for the day), the next stop was Cannop Ponds, where normally we see Mandarins and Marsh Tits aplenty, however I think that today the good weather did not work in our favour - there were loads of people there (including some idiots letting their dog swim in the lake) and it seemed that the disturbance had probably been too much for the normally shy and retiring Mandarins. A few intrepid members of our group did manage to spot a few but they didn't stick around for long. At least I found another butterfly species, a Comma sunning itself in some brambles.

Rather bird-free Cannop Ponds.
Our final destination was a last-minute decision on the part of Ray, our esteemed group leader! Normally our last stop is Symonds Yat to see the Peregrines, but seeing as we'd already had super views of the speedy falcons at New Fancy View, it was decided we would check out Crabtree Hill, where the possibilities included Two-barred Crossbill, Hawfinch and Great Grey Shrike. This was exciting news indeed for me, as I'd been secretly hoping all week that we might be able to have a look for the Great Grey Shrike which had been in the area for some time! I'd only seen one once before, also in the Forest of Dean, a few years ago now and for some reason when I get a whiff of shrike, I can get a bit, er, irrational and obsessive. Well they are super-cool! In my haste to hot-foot it up the hill, I missed a Firecrest in the car park though - dammit! However all was forgotten when we reached the clear-felled area where the shrike had been loitering:

Nothing like some heathland in the sunshine!
Regular readers may know I particularly enjoy anything vaguely resembling a heath! Several birders already up there soon got us onto the shrike and I watched him for the rest of the time we had there :o) This was about the best photo I managed, I think it's a passable record shot at least:

The Butcher Bird! Digiscoped record shot.
He was quite mobile and kept flying around to perch in different spots, giving us a chance to observe some cool behaviour. On one occasion he flew up quite high then hovered for maybe 10 seconds or so! On another he dropped to the ground then returned with something long and thin, either a big caterpillar or a small lizard, it was difficult to tell at that distance. We also saw him being mobbed by Blue Tits. I did a few drawings of varying quality:

Great Grey Shrike sketches.
Great Grey Shrike sketches. Top left is my favourite!

I love how round and soft they can look when perched, in contrast to their fearsome habits and reputation! And I like the different shapes the shrike makes and the different angles of its tail with its body when it's balancing on top of a thin twig in the wind.

Even though I'd somehow managed to miss a good number of our initial target species, our encounters with lizards, snakes, crossbills and shrikes made this probably my favourite day in the Forest of Dean so far!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Sandwell Valley - March 2014

Spring was definitely in the air yesterday at RSPB Sandwell Valley, although there were still plenty of wintery friends still around too - I love they way the birds tell you about the changing seasons, a quick look at who's doing what will tell you exactly what time of year it is. 

On our walk down to open the hide, we stopped off to have a look at the feeders by the old visitor centre, as a Brambling had recently been reported there. Sure enough, we must have timed it well as within a few minutes of raising our binoculars he was spotted, with his breeding plumage starting to emerge - his head was looking rather dark. We watched the feeders for 10 minutes or so and possibly partly due to the warm sunny weather, managed to see pretty much every species it's possible to see on them, including Willow Tit, Reed Bunting and Greenfinch (which are scarce on the reserve these days), alongside the usual tits, Robin, Dunnock, Chaffinch and tons of Bullfinches. It was particularly good to see Willow Tit, and hear several different individuals singing too - with their great decline nationally, it's a worry whether they'll persist at Sandwell Valley, but so far they seem to be doing OK.

On the way down to the hide we also heard and saw another winter resident, Redwing, which surely won't be around for much longer here before they head off back up to more northerly climes. At the hide, we saw that there was a flock of 22 Barnacle Geese on the island! They were spooked when we opened the hide and flew off down the lake, but soon came back up again and remained on and around the island for the rest of the day. They are most likely a feral flock that moves around Birmingham, often seen in Cannon Hill Park and on the Vale at Edgbaston among other places, but still very nice to see - Barnacles are my favourite geese. It was interesting to see how they responded to other birds - mostly they were quite chilled out, but they didn't seem to like Grey Herons, all yapping loudly whenever one flew over! 

I think my digiscoping attempts are slowly improving, a bit vignette-y but a higher proportion were in focus this time:


Digiscoped Barnacle Geese.
Digiscoped Barnacle Geese.
The right-hand island was busy!
 I also enjoyed trying to draw the Barnacle Geese, and I would've liked to have drawn more, but the good weather meant we had loads of visitors, so I had to pay them some attention instead! :oD

Barnacle Goose sketches. After the first one, I made sure to start from the head in all subsequent sketches...
Barnacle Goose sketches.
Out on the lake were still a few winter ducks - Goosander and Shoveler - and no signs of any returning spring migrants yet, but plenty of springtime behaviour from many of the residents. Great Crested and Little Grebes were looking splendid in their breeding plumage, Lapwings were starting to display, and outside the hide I saw a pair of Goldcrests frantically chasing each other around, and a pair of Long-tailed Tits - no others present, so they've obviously broken off from their family flocks now to pair off. I also saw a few Peacock butterflies, and other volunteers had spotted Comma and Brimstone too. The Blackthorn blossom was looking super!


Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io) in Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa).
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) blossom.
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) blossom.
Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io) in Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) - digiscoped and heavily cropped!.

Now winter is over I must get plant-spotting again, in my continuing efforts to expand my plant ID skills.

The day ended well with a Rose-ringed Parakeet sighting from the temporary visitor centre - we were just having a well-earned cup of tea after counting up the day's grand total of 125 visitors to the hide, when I heard a racket and spotted the lone squawker flying over outside. Hurrah!

177. Barbary Falcon (Falco pelegrinoides)

Barbary Falcons were formerly considered a subspecies of Peregrine Falcon, and have similar habits and behaviour - they nests on rocky cliffs and catch their prey (small birds) on the wing. Barbary Falcons look similar to Peregrines, but are smaller, with paler grey upperparts, a narrower 'moustache', rufous markings on their nape and a pale buff belly with finer barring. The juveniles look particularly similar to juvenile Peregrines, but again have the rufous markings on the nape and are also less heavily streaked below - I think the individual in the photo is a juvenile, from its streaky underparts and browner wings. Barbary Falcons have a scattered distribution across parts of north Africa and the Middle East, where it is found in semi-desert, hills and mountains.

Barbary Falcon, ©Peter W√§chtersh√§user / naturlichter.de, via Wikimedia Commons.
Barbary Falcon painting.

As usual I got scared of the finely detailed plumage on the wing and fudged it to some extent, I think other parts of the painting are OK though.

My paintings have been a bit sporadic of late, for a couple of reasons. The workload associated with my studies is getting a bit intense - the Evolution module I started recently is hard work, it's really interesting and I'm enjoying it, but there are a lot of completely new skills and techniques to learn (e.g. cladistics and allometry equations, which I'm starting to get my head around) whereas my other module (Ecosystems) feels more like it is building on concepts I'm already familiar with. Also I have hurt my hand, specifically my thumb, probably from too much writing for my studies - maybe I have developed a bit of RSI from gripping the pen and pressing too hard! I've made a few changes, including switching from biro to an ink pen, I might have to sacrifice some degree of neatness in my writing but if it helps my hand it will be worth it. I don't think painting has caused the problem, but it is possibly exacerbating it, so I am going to take a break for a week or so to see if that helps.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

176. Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcons are very widespread indeed, hence their name which I believe means wanderer. They are found on all continents except Antarctica, and are resident in some areas and migratory in others. In the UK, where they are resident, although historically they suffered greatly from persecution and pesticide bioaccumulation, they are now on the increase again and are even colonising urban areas - to them, high-rise concrete and stone buildings look a lot like their more 'natural' habitat of steep rocky cliffs and mountains, and there are plenty of Feral Pigeons to eat too. Here in Birmingham I see them pretty regularly as a pair live on 'Old Joe', the very tall red brick clock tower at the centre of the University of Birmingham campus where I work. They can also be seen in Birmingham city centre where they reside on the BT tower; some reckon though that their breeding success has been negatively affected by the radiation emitted by the tower.

Peregrine Falcons are quite chunky, they need those muscles to enable them to fly at awesome speeds to catch their prey in mid-air. In flight they can appear 'anchor-shaped', with pointed wings and quite a short, straight tail. Although plumage is similar in both sexes, females are noticeably bigger than males; there is usually no overlap in their sizes. Juveniles look like a browner version of the adults, having buff underparts which are streaked rather than barred.

Peregrine Falcon, ©Ltshears, via Wikimedia Commons.
Peregrine Falcon painting.
My Peregrine looks a bit gaunt! Quite please with the blue-grey shades though.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

175. Sooty Falcon (Falco concolor)

Sooty Falcons are a little bit bigger than Hobbies, but not as big as Eleonora's Falcons. Their breeding distribution is very patchily distributed throughout parts of the Middle East and Africa, such as Libya, Egypt, Eritrea, Israel, Jordan and parts of the Arabian Peninsula; they winter in Madagascar and coastal east Africa. Adults are uniformly dark blue-grey all over, even on the underwings (unlike Eleonora's Falcon), and juveniles look a lot like juvenile Hobbies and Eleonora's Falcons - apart from the size difference which is not always apparent, they have a broad dark trailing edge on the underwings (which Hobbies don't have), and a lack of contrasting dark underwing coverts and pale flight feather bases (unlike Eleonora's Falcon). Sooty Falcons like similar habitats to Eleonora's Falcon - rocky cliffs, although it is found further inland than Eleonora's.


Sooty Falcon, ©Frank.Vassen, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Sooty Falcon painting.
I struggled to find a good photo on Creative Commons, this one is a bit dark but I figured I tend to paint things too light anyway and indeed this has turned out to be the case here!

Monday, 3 March 2014

174. Eleonora's Falcon (Falco eleonorae)

Eleonora's Falcons breed mostly on Mediterranean islands and coastlines - they like rocky cliffs and undisturbed areas. They winter in Madagascar and parts of east Africa. Adult males and females look similar; there are 2 colour morphs, a dark and a light. The dark morph is uniformly dark brown although on the underwings the bases of the flight feathers are pale, which contrast with the dark underwing coverts. This is the same in the light morph, which is shown in the photo - this plumage is similar to a juvenile Hobby, but the breast and belly is deeper buff and the cheeks contrasting white. Juveniles look very similar to juvenile Hobbies, however again they have the contrasting pale flight feather bases and dark underwing coverts which Hobbies don't. Although Eleonora's Falcons are larger and longer-tailed than Hobbies, they can look very similar from a distance and a good look at closer range is often required to pick out the differences.

Eleonora's Falcon, ©fveronesi1, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Eleonora's Falcon painting.
Hmm kind of funny-looking this one, the wings are particularly oddly shaped and the underparts too pale.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

173. Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

Hobbies are slim, medium-sized falcons, very graceful and aerobatic in flight when sometimes their long pointed wings can make them look like giant Swifts. However actual Swifts had better beware because Hobbies are experts at catching insects and birds on the wing! They breed throughout most of Europe except northern Scandinavia and the north of the UK, spending their winters in Africa. Males and females look pretty similar, with super-smart slatey blue backs, strongly streaked breasts, a big moustache, white throat and red trousers! Juveniles look similar but are much browner and lack the red trousers. Hobbies breed in a variety of habitats, generally all with some trees for nesting, such as heathland, marshes, bogs, reedbeds, farmland and meadows.

Hobby, ©suneko, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Hobby painting.
Ran out of time/patience a bit towards the end (wings!) but I quite like it.