Saturday, 23 April 2011

Sun, Seals and Porpoise

Up early at 6am and drove to the north Norfolk coast to walk south along the shoreline from Horsey Gap to Winterton. The huge sandy dune-lined beach here is as remote and wonderful as any I know, and others I can only imagine along the coasts of Africa or Australia, and I am reminded of happy hours spent hunting along the tidelines in the outer Hebrides. Beautiful still morning, sun already warm and a haze out to sea with the skylarks singing as they flew up from the sand dunes as I walked by. Saw a number of seals in the water and was under the distinct impression that they were watching and following me as I walked, the only other mammal up and about at this early hour. Within a mile or so I had found the remains of 3 seal pups, scattered and desiccated scenes of crime, witness to those that didn't survive the winter months between birth and the first warm days of spring. As I approached a small group of people sitting on some rocks at the shore line I saw what I thought were a long line of boulders by the water's edge. I didn't realise what I was looking at, or indeed what these other people had come to look at, until I was almost on top of the colony of basking adult seals. Suddenly aware of their low wailing noises and grunts, I crouched down by the rocks and watched as the adults rolled about, hauled themselves into and out-of the sea and squabbled about little areas of territory on the sand. Walking further up the beach I found what I initially thought was another seal cadaver but which turned out to be the remaining parts of a small porpoise skeleton picked clean by sea birds. The bones of the front fins were missing and the ribs and vertebra cracked by predators or people, but the perfectly evolved fish catching jaws were still armed with neat rows of peg-like teeth.

Initially walking back in the surf, and enjoying bare feet in the sand and the now hot sun overhead, I watched a huge bull grey seal swimming alongside snorting and again observing me from the safety of the water. I walked back along the dunes and picked up a number of large seagull feathers and dried starfish before stopping to have a talk with the man now setting up the coffee stall in the small sandy car-park. When I told him that I hadn't been expecting to see so many seals, and how delighted I was to have seen the adults hauled out on the sand, he said that at night the haunting wailing calls of the seals can be carried miles inland by the wind and the dogs in the village respond by howling back in reply.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

One doesn't. Does two?

The Aristotelian maxim that one swallow does not make a summer is a famous one, but yesterday's sight of two swallows perched atop a telegraph wire had me leaping with excitement and reaching for the camera-phone. They were quite untroubled by my presence, presuambly exhausted after their epic migration flying 200 miles per day. Others have reported house martins returning locally, but these are a sure sign that we have thrown off winter.

Saturday, 16 April 2011


Fascinated by my newly acquired 'Sputnik' sea urchin. Did some drawings of it for a friend's 40th birthday present, marvelling at it's splendid decoration. Sea-mine meets Jules Verne/HG Wells. My sketchbook is filling up with ideas, as I now intend to make a series of moulds and cast multiples of the urchin and then use metal powders to give them an aged oxidised copper coating. These will then be stacked in a dark wooden crate on glass shelves. I'm supposed to be busy casting mole's paws and octopus tentacles for a new work to go to a show in Bath in July but I'm now enthusiastically distracted by my urchin ideas. The plates of the urchin seem unlike shells and other related forms with the five sections interlocking and the patterning not as perfectly organised as you might expect. Reminded of the countless occasions that I have carefully grappled with an urchin shell, or 'test', whilst diving only to get it back into the boat in broken pieces. Also my delight as a child when finding rare fossilised urchins in the builder's gravel in the yard and then arranging them in pride of place within my 'museum in my bedroom cupboard'.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011


Went to Lyme Regis, on the Dorset Jurassic coast, with the family today on a glorious Easter holiday day out. Tried catching crabs off the cob and learn a valuable lesson about the need to tie the mackerel heads into the net to stop them falling out and giving the crabs a free lunch. Sadly the resident conger is no longer in the little harbour aquarium but they have tame grey mullet and I bought a beautiful urchin 'test' that I hadn't seen before. I think the handwritten label said 'sputnic urchin' because of its round form and marine-mine like probes, very apt on the week of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first space flight. Spent the last of the afternoon sun exploring the beach beneath the undercliff for fossils with the children. Found a lot of small bits of ammonite, or in Dorset vernacular 'snakestones' - ( I think a piece of pyrite ammonite Echioceras and a piece of Arietites bucklandi) and a small Devil's toenail (Gryphaea arcuata). I bought an excellent laminated identification sheet and we looked at the ammonite pavement slabs carpeted with the remains of Jurassic sea life. All of us traipsed back enthusiastically with pockets full of fossils and stones that could possibly be fossils and looked at the amazing giant ammonites on the immovable beach bolders.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

An old friend

A recent book-purge by my mother turned up a well-loved old Collins guide to Buterflies and Moths, with a small label in the front proclaiming it (in childish script) to be 'from the library of Adam Clark'. I think it was my first field guide to anything. With its aid, I was competent as a boy at identifying most common British butterflies.

That knowledge has faded somewhat, but I was pleased to be able to consult it to confirm that the butterfly sunning itself in our greenhouse yesterday was indeed the pleasing-if-obviously-titled 'Orange Tip' (Anthocharis cardamines). Along with the brimstones, these early season butterflies have been enjoying the sunny days of late, and add a little charm to the hedges and gardens.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Small is beautiful

Writing this gives me reason to observe. At the moment, each day reveals some new wave of buds, leaves, flowers and blossom. The garden succession is obvious; each species blooms, the snowdrops then daffodils, hyacinths then tulips that man has bred for engorged flowers. But the unkempt verges and field edges have their own quiet pattern. At the moment the delicate purple and white flowers of dead nettles are ubiquitous (did I dream that as children we would suck these for their nectar?) and I see now that they resemble tiny wings, raised to welcome still winter-drowsy bees.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Evening sparrow hawk

Whilst driving along the back roads from Wells to Glastonbury I disturbed a sparrow hawk sitting in the hedge by the roadside. The road was bordered by two high hedges and as the bird dropped into the road in-front of the car it set off away from me at the same speed. I was able to watch it flying just ahead of me at about 20 miles an hour for about half a mile. It turned the corners in the road effortlessly and although astonishingly fast seemed very unflustered by my presence as it skimmed along the side of the hedge. It finally bounced up over the hedge, much as a surfer might pop out of the top of a wave at the end of a ride, and gained high as it headed out across the field. I stopped the car and watched it disappearing in the autumn light with a very clear sense of just how deadly, silent and well tuned a sparrow hawk is for the hunting of the ever wary and vulnerable small hedgerow birds.

I remember reading an article about how inventive Victorian problem solvers used sparrow hawks to rid the then new Crystal Palace of pesky pigeons. I myself have seen a pigeon dispatched by a sparrow hawk in my own garden, hit from above in an explosion of feathers. I understand that pigeons have evolved to be able to loose feathers automatically in such a situation, perhaps in the hope that, much like squids and ink, the predator will be confused briefly and allow for an escape ?