Monday, 31 December 2012

Seals and people

It has become somewhat of a winter tradition for us to visit the grey seal breeding colony at Horsey between Christmas and New Year with various members of the family. This year, we set out on the morning of 30th December to do just that only to discover that the increased awareness of this amazing opportunity to get face to face with some of the most charismatic of British mammals means that visitor numbers have rocketed. So much so that several of our party were unable to park near enough to the site to make it viable. Those of us that did, still faced a long-ish walk and hundreds of other visitors. But we were rewarded with a beach full of pups - nearly 300 on the day that we visited - as well as adults on land and in the sea.

It is easy to get disgruntled when a favourite thing (book, film, music, wildlife site...) becomes well-known but I managed to quell this feeling as so many of the visitors were young families with children. It is so unusual to see so many children simply enjoying getting close to wildlife and being outdoors in a way that we took for granted growing up and their palpable excitement hopefully means that they will be inspired to continue engaging with the natural world as they grow up.

Of course, the pressures that all these visitors bring has to be balanced with the needs of the very seals that they have come to visit. So it was pleasing to see that there is now an excellent infrastructure of volunteers, roped paths and signs to help people enjoy the sight without inadvertently upsetting the seals. If you haven't ever been, then it is well worth a visit, but I would suggest avoiding a sunny morning in the christmas holidays, or at least make a prompt start!

Sunday, 16 December 2012


Wildlife observation is difficult currently as I rush from one family Christmas commitment to another to work to bed. I resort to things I remember, on a nature theme.

When I was a child, I used to stay with my grandparent's on their Essex farm every summer during harvest. One of the many books I used to lie awake reading, with the hum of the grain dryers in the background, was this one by Norman Thelwell ( Died in 2004 ). I used to pour over the pages taking in all of the little details and his illustrations will forever remind me of wonderful summers exploring the English farmland countryside, blue-bell woods and streams around their Epping farm. 

Famous for his horse riders and sailing illustrations,Thelwell was also a wonderful observer of wildlife, as in these studies of foxes and birds. The drawings in this book were an early inspiration and one of a number of influences that made me want to draw. When my grandparents died in the 1980's the book was one of the few items I asked if I could have, along with a battered armchair and a collection of Giles annuals.

• On a completely different note, but still bird related - I am putting together a presentation about book illustration and I am including this classic book page from the 'Diary of an Amateur Photographer' 1998 - by the wonderful Graham Rawle. (

The Summer Day

I have recently come across the work of American poet Mary Oliver. Like poets throughout history she deploys imagery from nature to illuminate the human condition, but I particularly enjoy the close observation of nature that she brings to bear. This poem, The Summer Day, exemplifies this, additionally bringing a little summer into our midwinter.

Being somewhat morbid, my first thought on reading this was that I would like this read at my funeral (not that I anticipate that being imminent but always good to be prepared...)

Monday, 3 December 2012

Pupae Identification 2 - Magpie moth?

I suspect it was a Magpie Moth given the distinctive gold banding.
And that the caterpillar apparently feeds on blackthorn and hawthorn (abundant around us) makes it even more likely.

Looking for images of pupae reminds me of the incredible richness of names of British moths, names that as a child I loved poring over in my well-thumbed Collins guide to Butterflies and Moths. Here are a few choice ones:
  • Currant Short Borer
  • The Forester
  • The Festoon
  • Apple Leaf Skeletoniser
  • Cotoneaster Webworm
  • Plum Tortrix
  • Satin Lutestring
  • Argent & Sable
  • Toadflax Pug
  • Hoary Footman
I could go on. They are such beautiful, gothic names, like grand guignol characters from the pages of Mervyn Peake, reinforcing the sense that Duncan recently referenced that they inhabit some Dickensian, oil-lit world, all deep rich woods, leather bindings and shadows. I must write a song including some of these names...the Ballad of Glaucous Shears...or maybe a cycle of fiddle tunes...they are too good not to.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Pupae Identification - 'Puss Moth' ?

With the wonders of the internet I can now suggest that the pupae you have found could be that of a puss moth perhaps, what do you think?  It does indeed look very like a pellet with the stringy elements.

'The puss moth caterpillar has a green body with a black or brown 'saddle' on its back, which is bordered in white.  There can be variations in the colour of the 'saddle'although the white lines are always present.  The head has a bright orange ring around it with two false black eyes.  Just prior to pupation most of the body turns orange and then purple but the white lines remain.
The rear legs have developed into long whip-like appendages which it flails around when in danger.  As an extra defense it can spray formic acid from its head.
The puss moth caterpillar overwinters on tree trunks, or wooden posts, inside a tough cocoonwhich resembles a limpet shell.'


Out walking on a crisp, wintry day, I found this case in a cleft in the bark of a local oak (a loakal?). I
can't claim to be too certain on what it is other than an empty pupae case - possibly from a moth? It is beautifully articulated, with striped segments not dissimilar to a wasp. It was attached to the tree with some silk, but the way it was wedged in to its deep crevice meant that it would have stayed without it. Its placement provided fantastic protection, which  once it was empty was exploited by a little spider that scuttled out after I inadvertently dislodged it.

Dorcas Casey's finches.

My friend Dorcas Casey makes the most wonderful sculptures and as I assemble a sheet of inspiring sculptural images, to hand out to my level 2 art students this week, I thought I'd post a couple of Dorcas's finch sculpture images, assembled from wire, found objects and vintage ink dip pen nibs.

I have also attached the 'Animal Sculpture' sheet that I am giving my students, as it collects together a wide range of interesting ( *at east I hope the students will find it interesting) animal inspired 3D work.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Anatomical Garden Tiger

I'm thinking about making a sculptural piece which combines an intricate wax anatomical model with some pinned insects. With this in my mind currently I also decided to donate a postcard to an art student fundraising auction at Newcastle University and so bought a moth and anatomical study together in a drawing. There is in my mind something Victorian about moths, and also anatomical drawings, and I feel the combination has potential. Moths also appeal as they have, for me, wholly different connotations than butterflies, not dark but certainly perhaps predictably something of the night. In retrospect it's perhaps an unusual choice then that I chose to draw the garden tiger, one of the day flying moths, but having seen them and the Oak Eggar in France this summer they are clearly still with me creatively.