Tag Archives: birds

The flight of birds

Ancient Druids could read the future from the flight of birds. For the modern Druid, I think there’s a lot to be said for learning how to recognise the flight of birds. It is possible to identify a great many birds by seeing them in flight, even if they are just silhouettes. How a bird flies is a combination of its body shape, what kind of bird it is, how it relates to other birds and what’s going on in its environment.

Water birds for example tend to carry more fat to keep warm. They are heavier, more awkward in the air. Birds that fly longer distances fly higher than those who are foraging. Journeying birds form V shaped flight groups for efficiency, while foraging birds have rounder flock shapes and aren’t obviously organised. Large groups of birds fearing predation will rise up in deliberately confusing swirls in order to try and put sparrowhawks off. The black and white wings of lapwings seem to sparkle in the air and you can tell them as a flock from a great distance because of this.

Courting birds can have very different ways of flying from birds involved in other activities. Crows and ravens fly in pairs and sometimes roll, and sometimes roll so that one bird is flying upside down under the other bird. Knowing this kind of thing can stop a person from inferring strange omens when in fact what’s happening is normal courtship.

Birds who feed on insects in the air fly in curves and swoops – swifts, swallows, and housemartins particularly. Ground feeding birds like blackbirds and pheasants are more likely to explode out of the bushes in front of you. Buzzards are masters of the wind – if you can see a tiny speck circling so far above you that you can barely make out the bird shape, that’s likely a buzzard.

Some birds gather together as they come in to roost for the evening, and may set out together at first light. Big flocks can form around roosting, with large numbers of birds rising up and resettling repeatedly. Twilight behaviour is not always the same as what happens in the rest of the day. Flocks of pigeons in woods look and act differently from urban pigeons because they are affected by the context.

Birds have their own patterns for hunting and foraging. A grebe may work in one direction along a stretch of canal, a kingfisher will do the same on a body of water, or may take several dives from a preferred spot. Water birds may be affected by tides, going out to the mud flats when the tide is out and returning inland at high tide.

You may not be able to identify a bird by its flight, but you can tell a lot about what it’s doing. Is it going somewhere? Is it a high flier on a long journey or just off to the next tree, or making a short mid-height journey to the next pond? Is it hovering or circling to hunt for something on the ground or is it flitting to hunt in the air? Is it acting defensively as part of a flock, or is it the predator the flock fears? Is it showing off to a mate or hanging out with friends?

Winds aren’t the same at all heights. Sometimes, you can only see there’s a faster wind further up because there are a bunch of lunatic seagulls playing in the gusts.

If you want to work magically with the flight of birds, it helps to get to know what they normally do, first.

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Inktober

Inktober is an online October event, the rules are simple – draw something in ink every day and post it. As I’d never drawn in ink, I took the alternative of pencilling first – which isn’t cheating. I didn’t manage every day either because I was ill towards the end of the month, but I got enough inks to feel like I did something, and it has had an impact on my drawing. The groups I drew at the end of the month I would never have considered trying at the beginning.

I picked birds as my theme because I wanted to work on my nature drawing, and I wasn’t very confident about birds, and capturing feathers on paper when I started.

Here’s a little video of all the birds.

The tunes in the background are also bird related and traditional. All of them are the tunes for songs – Lark in the clear air, The Nightingale (which my grandmother used to sing) and Twa Corbies (crows). All played by me, on a descant recorder. That was my first instrument, I lied about my age to get into recorder club – for five year olds and up. Start as you mean to go on….


Staring at birds

One of the things I like about art, is how it makes you look at things. This is why my other half – artist Tom Brown – runs art sessions in a meditative context sometimes. Most of the time our looking can be fairly superficial, with much of what’s around us reduced to little more than backdrop and scenery. It’s god to change that.

Taking up colouring in the last year, I’ve had to pay much more attention to what things look like. How colour, and light and shape interact. What things look like, and what I can do with a pencil that might represent and suggest what things look like.

As I mentioned last weekend, I’m having a go at Inktober over on twitter. Every day I stick up an ink drawing. I’ve chosen birds as my theme. It’s already being a serious learning experience.

I sit down with a nature book, a pencil and a pad and I try to draw a bird from its photo. Something specific, and something striking enough to be recognisable – heron, avocet, kingfisher, curlew was where I started. They have shapes and colours that help them stand out from other birds. Of course every type of bird is unique, and there will be things that make it especially itself, but some of those are easier to represent than others. Some birds – like the kingfisher – can be expressed by their colours.

However, I’ve been pushing into the ink work more, and all my ink is black. Could I make a Canada goose look like itself without putting some brown pencil in the mix? Maybe.

Fractions of a millimetre in the length or curve of a line can turn one bird into another. I found it recently where working on a bear image that the differences between bear, dog and badger weren’t that big. A slight mistake on the face and the wrong animal would look back at me. And yet, we can look at these images and say dog, badger, bear where only a tiny fraction of difference exists.

For me it raises all kinds of questions about how we perceive and remember, how we sort shapes and use abstracts. How many lines do I need on the page to clarify which one is a duck, and which one a crane? Not many.


Urban bird watching

I gather that urban bird watching is becoming a thing, which is excellent news on many fronts. Bird watching is a lovely, de-stressing sort of activity, good for calming people. Awareness of wildlife tends to mean we take better care of it, and urban birds require urban trees. People bird watching are going to be people who support green spaces in urban environments.

If you have a garden, then adapting the garden to suit birds is the easiest way to see them. A bird feeder, a bird bath, a shrub or two to provide some shelter and they could come to you. However, in areas where gardens are tiny and sterile, birds are rarer. It may require working with your neighbours, or looking further from home.

Parks are an obvious place to seek birds, but big expanses of cut grass are not much of a habitat for anything. You’ll find birds where there are trees and hedges – often that means the edges of parks. It can also mean the edges of roads. Canals tend to be good. Derelict sites with plant matter on them can be much better places for wildlife than parks. Urban trees are always worth keeping an eye on.

In an urban environment, bird watching is a much more visual activity. When I’m watching in semi-urban and rural spaces I’ll often find birds by hearing them first, but in city spaces there’s usually too much background noise. While pigeons turn up at ground level, most urban birds will be higher than your line of sight, which means changing how you move through urban spaces.

Of course to be a bird watcher, you have to not be tuning out your environment and not mostly staring at your phone. You have to be present and paying attention. Not paying attention is, for many people, the key to making town and city life bearable. However, it’s when we start paying attention to the environments that we create that we might start doing something about them. Perhaps the new movement of urban bird watching is the first step towards changing cities.


Bird songs of abundance

The dawn chorus happens all year round, but is paid most attention to at midsummer, when the singing is at its peak. Even in winter though, there are some gestures towards an extra bit of song first thing, but it’s proportional to how much less singing happens at the colder time of year. Singing evidently takes both time and energy, and thus there’s more of it when the days are warmer and food in more plentiful supply.

My relationship with the dawn chorus is also seasonal and depends on temperature – if it’s warm enough to have the window open at night, I’ll wake then they sing. Many birds start well ahead of the light, which I find interesting – even as the day lengths are constantly changing, they know when to get started to sing up the sun. Like them I will wake ever earlier as we head towards midsummer.

I miss the singing in winter. It’s a sign of the move to spring when I start hearing the blackbirds again at twilight as well. At the moment, the woods are alive with song through the day  – it’s a busy time, with chicks in nests. I can tell from the beaks full of food flying past that a lot of eggs have hatched already.

We’re not unlike birds. Folk music is full of songs for when you’re working. I imagine that pre-industrialisation it was a lot more normal to sing as you went. Song establishes connections between people, I have found, and I think the science is with me on this. Singing affects our minds and emotions, but it’s a lot harder to get your voice working well from a place of grief or despair. We sing to celebrate, when we have the spare energy, when things were good, and sometimes, just because we survived.