Thursday, 9 February 2017

Living with nature - urban gulls

lesser black backed gull, acrylic on card, 14.5x21cm

About Urban Gulls
Gull season will soon be upon us. 
For me this means the joy of watching beautiful wild creatures close-up as they live their lives alongside me. It means the fascination of seeing gulls returning, some from overseas, returning to the exact same spot that they nested in last year, being re-united with their mate after a winter apart. It means watching their eggs appear, waiting for them to hatch, watching them diligently raise their chicks. It means watching the chicks as they start their hop-explorations across the rooftops. It's a privilege and a treat to be so close to them and their lives. 
For others it means daily terror, or irritation, or absolute anger as the gulls 'invade our towns', swoop at our heads, splatter our cars, wake us in the early morning. It means shouting articles and letters in the papers. It means councils debating whether to spend money climbing onto roofs to destroy nests and eggs. It means householders and building owners putting spikes over every surface that a bird might choose to rest or nest on.
It's quite incredible that human beings can feel such hostility towards any other living creature. Humans are the only ones that might deserve our fury.
In my own town - we have snazzy signs helping to reduce understanding and empathy towards wildlife. Funded I believe by our Community Council (which does, by the way, usually do a lot of good):
"Help deter the winged menace!"

Last spring I wrote an article on gulls for our local magazine. The subsequent edition featured two anti-gull response letters, one containing the line, "Beware Mr du Feu...".

Here's my article. You're most welcome to share it:
Urban Gulls, the offending article
Living in Burntisland on the Fife coast means living with gulls. For a lot of the year they're not very noticeable but come springtime breeding season they become rather an issue. They can be extremely noisy in the early mornings, and when kids are trying to sleep at night. They might steal a bite of your lunch, or your whole sandwich. They certainly do swoop at us as we walk past - pretty scary!
It helps me to know why they do these things. The noises are about courtship, pair-bonding, keeping in touch with young, defending territory. As I learn better which calls belong to which gulls it becomes more interesting, less irritating, and I try to remember that it's only during the breeding season. We're pretty noisy too, with our cars, planes and mowers and three months of Shows on the Links!

The swooping is to protect their chicks. A swooping gull is shooing us from its nest area just as we shoo it from our garden or picnic. It isn't trying to kill us and couldn't if it tried. On the rare occasion when a gull actually hits it's worth knowing that it's their feet not their beak that impact with our head. When walking, as soon as we move beyond the gull's territory the swooping stops. They pester more if you're with a dog and they also swoop at cats. Cats have no problem getting away fast.

A good technique for passing nest areas without stress or fright is to walk calmly, waving a gloved hand or bit of stick over your head. They still swoop but can't fly close enough to hit you.

I learnt this technique on the Isle of May where I go to paint. Accessing the harbour means walking through the nesting ground of hundreds of terns - beautiful seabirds, like delicate gulls but with dagger-sharp beaks. The terns rise en masse and swirl above, dive-bombing constantly and making a terrible shrieking commotion. Unlike gulls, terns do try to hit you, and they draw blood! The waving-above-head method (plus hat to avoid droppings) works perfectly and the experience becomes rather special - how often do we get to be so close to a natural, wild, animal? The other technique is to walk beside the tallest member of your group, which unfortunately seems to be me.

After studying and learning more about gulls I find I really enjoy and admire them. They're slick, bright, characterful, and one of the easiest creatures to watch. They have such fascinating lives, returning to their breeding territory each spring from hundreds of miles away, usually mating for life, living up to 32 years! I'm interested to see which rooftops they return to and whether they use the same spots as last year.

It's amazing watching the eggs appear then a month later crack open to reveal stripy grey fluffballs which grow and grow until larger than their parents and ready to flap down to the ground for the first time. I love that funny stage when adults have had more than enough of parenthood but youngsters keep whining for more food, more food. I don't enjoy seeing the young chicks which are hit by our cars.

Worldwide there are over gull 50 species and in Britain we commonly have six: Herring gull; Common gull; Lesser black-backed gull; Great black-backed gull; Black-headed gull; Kittiwake. All of these can be seen in or from Burntisland.

Surprisingly, gulls aren't doing as well as we might think. Herring gull is on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern Red List. Lesser black-backed, amongst others, is Amber Listed. Between 2000 and 2013, breeding Herring gull numbers fell by 30% and Lesser black-backed by 48%. Scientists say that much more info must be gathered before any big decisions about "how, when and where, to control gulls are taken, while a thorough understanding of their ecology should underpin any measures taken." (British Trust for Ornithology [BTO] 'Gulls allowed?' online article.)

Read more

Great gull articles on RSPB and BTO websites. 
Try your local library or bookshop for general bird books.
A must read is Esther Woolfson's brilliant 'Field Notes From a Hidden City' which discusses our relationships with urban wildlife.
Tern (or gull) deterrence with no harm caused to either human or bird.
(A stick, waved gently above the head.)

Isle of May, June 2013
photo thanks to Maurizio De Vita Nature Photography & Storytelling

Even just a hood will usually do the job.

Isle of May, June 2013
photo thanks to Maurizio De Vita Nature Photography & Storytelling

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Scotland by Rail - Dalry, Ayrshire. Station garden, Lynn Glen Walk

In 2017 I'll be getting to know North Ayrshire a bit better as I travel there to paint four large murals at Dalry railway station. Dalry Station Garden Group is an impressively active group of volunteers who are doing a great deal of work to bring colour and life (and wildlife) to a very utilitarian station. There are wildlife-friendly borders, meadows of grasses and wildflowers, young trees, bird and bat nest boxes, a bee hotel...

The next stage of their project is funded by the very competitive ScotRail Foundation Cultural and Arts grants programme and will see my murals brightening the sides of a concrete bridge that spans the tracks and platforms. I'll post updates here and on Facebook and Twitter once things get started.

For now, photos of the station garden Open Day last August, then a lovely local walk along wooded stream valley.

Station Garden Open Day:

Opening the garden. Note the lovely BeeWorld bee hotel, and grass left long for nature.
Your station or workplace or school or home can help too - make your own BeeWorld! -

station meadow

more meadow

Borders full of flowers for pollinating insects.

Project Funders:





Lynn Glen Walk

An approx two mile circle starting and ending in Dalry town centre. Remember to add probably fifteen minutes at each end to walk from station to town centre. More if you want time to admire the station, visit a baker... cafe... Co-op... pub...

Click this link for a .pdf map plus walk descriptions. I found I needed more than just this to easily find the start point so also take an Ordnance Survey if you aren't familiar with the area.

More info here -

And a good description on Walk Highlands -

Tthe blue one, at the bottom.

Leave the town along the A737 then B714, fields on your left.

Turn right after Trinity Drive but before the old bridge crosses the Lugton Water.

Follow paths with the Lugton Water down on your left.

Rosebay Willowherb taking advantage of cleared land.
Interesting facts - 

On your right, farmland and distant hills.

Beautiful beeches, the best of trees.

River crossing.

Now walking downstream, river still on your left.

White or light spots and splatters on river rocks often mean dippers are around. Maybe we'll see one...

Flies on umbellifer. David - which species please?

A dipper!

A zombie one...?
Oh no, it's just a normal one, blinking. (Dippers have white eyelids.)

A dipper diary, with much better photos than mine -

Lots of dipper clips -
Especially click right to watch the final clip, 'Dipping & Diving', underwater footage.

Calm above a waterfall. Beyond that rim is a four or five (ish) metre drop.

Meadow riverbank - knapweed & grasses & ragwort in the distance.

Spot the Skunk-cabbage.


How to get there

Trains to Dalry take half an hour from Glasgow Central and run half-hourly Mon-Sat, hourly on Sundays.

'Ayrshire, Inverclyde & Stranraer Timetable' and 'Buy Tickets' option on ScotRail website.

Many thanks to ScotRail for enabling my Scotland by Rail work.

Lynn Glen beeches, Dalry

Monday, 24 October 2016

Exhibition - Postcards from the Line. Linlithgow, 29 Oct - 22 Nov

Loch Arklet, New Year's Eve 2013, watercolour & pencil, 15x21cm

Every year my hometown gallery - the first gallery I ever exhibited with - runs Postcards from The Line. Postcards is an exhibition of 250+ artworks, all A5 size or under, all £100 or under, all unframed, from artists across Scotland & UK & overseas.

The exhibition runs at:

The Line Gallery
238 High Street, Linlithgow, EH49 7EF

29th October - 22nd November
Tues - Fri 10 - 5
Sat 9 - 5
Sun 1 - 4

The opening event is Saturday 29th October, 2 - 4pm. Lots of the participating artists will be there.

If you're interested in buying any of my postcards shown here you can also contact Gail and Elizabet at the Line by emailing or phoning +44 (0)1506 670 268.

razorbill studies, pencil, 14.5x21cm

razorbill, watercolour, 21x15cm

Silbury Hill, watercolour, 15x21cm 

Bennachie, watercolour, 19x14cm

fieldmarks, watercolour & ink, 19x13.5cm

guillemots & razorbill, pencil, 14.5x21cm

ink study, ink, 20x14.5cm

mist on the Forth, ink & gouache, 14.5x20cm

the Binn Pond, watercolour & pencil, 14.5x21cm

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Scotland by Rail - Burntisland to Ladybank - Kirsty Lorenz's studio. Also Kirkcaldy Galleries - Kate Downie's Forth Bridges.

Ladybank station, Kirsty's studio & Off the Rails Arthouse

Burntisland to Ladybank by train to visit artist Kirsty Lorenz's studio

I'm taking on the disused platform building at Burntisland station, turning it into my studio and a now-and-again space for workshops and for welcoming visitors. To help decide how to lay out the space out I'm visiting other station studios, of which Fife has quite a lot. This post is a trip to Ladybank to visit Kirsty Lorenz's studio.

train sketches

train sketches

Meadow brown on valerian in Burntisland station wildlife-friendly flower beds. Thanks to Floral Action Burntisland

hoverflies on ivy at Burntisland station. Ivy is one of the very best of winter food sources for insects - don't cut yours down!

Burntisland station, wildlife-friendly. Thank you Floral Action Burntisland (FAB)!

Inchkeith island, Arthur's Seat, Salisbury Crags. From train Burntisland to Kinghorn


If the connection at Kirkcaldy works, Burntisland to Ladybank takes less than 40 minutes. If it doesn't you can spend the spare time visiting Kirkcaldy Galleries, which I've blogged about previously here. It didn't, I did. Kirkcaldy Galleries is only a two minute walk from the station. LINK.. At the moment Kate Downie's Forth Bridges drawings and paintings and monoprints are on display, part of a family-friendly exhibition exploring the first, second and third Forth Bridges. Kate has been artist in residence during the Forth Replacement Crossing and here shows a whole room of her works, large and small.

SPAN - A Tale of Three Bridges runs until 26th February 2017. Check opening times on Kirkcaldy Galleries website.

Kirkcaldy Galleries photographed from Kirkcaldy station


From Kirkcaldy it's a ten minute train journey to Ladybank. If you're coming from Edinburgh you won't need to change at Kirkcaldy, your train goes directly to Ladybank. Kirsty's studio is seen as soon as you get off the train on platform 2. Three bold floral paintings brighten three original sash and case windows.

We had coffee while we chatted art, funding, selling work, opening studios to visitors, trips to Orkney. Kirsty has recently returned from the far north where she was photographing and filming native Scottish wild flowers as part of her ongoing 'Votive Offerings' series. The work is intricate and intriguing. A piece from the project is included in the Scottish Society of Artists (SSA) Exquisite Corpse exhibition, at St Andrews Museum until November 19th 2016.

You can visit Kirsty's studio, and other venues along the Fife railway line, during The Artline's Open Doors weekend. My studio probably won't be ready for the 2017 Open Doors but hopefully will be in time for the 2018 one!

Kirsty Lorenz, Votive Offering No.52, oil on linen, 70x50cm


Intermission - Bollywood in Edinburgh
I had no time to properly explore Ladybank as was due in Edinburgh mid-afternoon for Bollywood dancing. Not me dancing but Jennifer and friends performing at Fettes College to entertain walkers starting out on Maggie's Centre's Culture Crawl in aid of cancer care.

spot Jennifer


Ladybank again

I did manage a twenty minute circle of the streets before leaving. House martins swirled around the railway buildings, surely any day now departing for Africa. Off the Rails Arthouse is behind and above Kirsty's studio and is a venue for regular art classes and tutoring. On the other side of the station a wide border of wildflowers was glowing all along the station car park, covered in bees, hoverflies, wasps.

Various woodland walks and country road cycles are accessible from the village so I hope to go back for a proper explore.

wild flower meadow all along Ladybank station car park. Packed with bees, butterflies, hoverflies

Ladybank station

Off the Rails Arthouse

outside the station

Ladybank, Auchtermuchty, Falkland circle cycle

field and forest, Ladybank


How to get there

Trains to Ladybank take 50 minutes from Edinburgh Waverley, and run at least hourly on weekdays, sometimes half hourly.

From Dundee it takes half an hour and weekday trains are hourly.

Timetables and Buy Tickets option on ScotRail website.

Many thanks to ScotRail for enabling my Scotland by Rail work.