Monday, 16 October 2017

Discovering birdsong

by Warren

For the last few weeks I have been finding recordings of the songs of the ten birds online, and doing a lot of listening and sketching. These sketches have informed the final visual birdsong studies that I have put together. I have created three for each bird; some reflect repeating phrases, and some vary, just like the songs of the birds.

A phrase of the Goldcrest's song.

For example, in the studies for the Goldcrest's song, "reading" left to right, you can clearly see the repetitive melody and the increase in volume in the marks I have made. A flourish at the end of the painting describes the end of the phrase.

As an artist with a strong interest in the connections between sound and visuals, I have really enjoyed putting these together. I'm looking forward to seeing other people's interpretations of the songs in our workshop on 22nd October!

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Corby & Migration Exhibition is nearly here!

by Amanda

If you've walked through Corby town centre this month, you may have noticed the giant Greenfinches staring down at you from the advertising boards... This means the Corby & Migration exhibition is getting closer!

From next Wednesday the 18th of October, at the Rooftop Arts Centre in Corby, you will be able to see all ten of the paintings I have completed for this project. It has been a challenge - the last brushstroke went down onto canvas earlier this month - but I have really enjoyed putting these paintings together and getting involved in something a little different.

As well as the ten paintings, the exhibition will feature work by interdisciplinary sonic and visual artist Warren Shaw. Warren has been listening closely to the songs of the ten birds I have painted, and is creating a visual response to these. One of the statements that has arisen several times throughout our group discussions of the project has been "what if the woods were silent?" A powerful and sobering thought... We are so used to the songs of birds, we take them for granted; but we would soon become aware of the absence of their chatter if their habitats were to continue disappearing from our urban spaces.

The exhibition will run from 18th-28th Oct, and the Rooftop opening times are Wednesdays to Saturdays, 11am-4pm.

On the Sunday 22nd 11am-4pm, the exhibition will be having an Open Day at the Rooftop, and you are invited to come along and participate in our Workshop! You can help us create a large collaborative art piece in response to the birdsongs. There will also be the opportunity to add to the exhibition by creating your own visual response, which can be added to the walls. In addition to this, there will be a "Treasure Hunt" in Thoroughsale Woods (by the Boating Lake). Pick up a question sheet either from the Rooftop or the Boating Lake, and find the bird artworks in the woods to answer ten questions. Filled in sheets with all ten correct answers can be brought back to the Rooftop before 4pm for the chance to win from a selection of lovely little prizes. Refreshments will be available at the Rooftop from 2pm. We hope you can join us!

I will leave you with a sneak peek of one of those last two paintings - see if you can guess the bird?
(Hint - this is the female!)

Monday, 18 September 2017

Focus on the Fieldfare Painting

by Amanda 

A closer look at one of my paintings for the project; "Fieldfare on Alder".
Fieldfare from the window.
(See the completed painting at the bottom of the post.)

First a little bit of backstory... Myself and Warren moved into our current home in Corby in the autumn of last year. There is a patch of green outside the front of the house, and our upstairs living room is a perfect vantage point for watching many birds flit in and out of the trees, and over the tops of the hedges.
Towards the very end of that year, I was somewhat optimistically keeping an eye out of the window for Waxwings. No such luck with those, but I was very happy to see small groups of another of our winter visitors, the Fieldfare, hopping about on the green and taking brief rests in the young alder trees.

When Matt chose the ten bird species to feature in this project, I was delighted that Fieldfare was on the list. I had some snaps of a Fieldfare that had taken a moment to perch on one of the alder trees outside the living room. These became the basis for the Fieldfare painting.

Perched on an Alder tree on the green.

Throughout the project I have tried to paint not just the birds, but show something of their
environment too. There were a couple of reasons for this. One was to tie in with the spirit of both the project and the Tree Charter - the trees are not just trees; they are homes, food sources, resting spots. Trees and birds are intrinsically linked. Another reason is that I don't often paint foliage, and so I wanted to challenge myself by including these elements in the paintings.

I decided quite early on that I wanted to include a good portion of the alder tree in the painting - I found interest in the slender curved shapes of the leafless twigs and branches, with the colourful catkins dangling pendulously from the ends. The painting would require careful composition. After some thought I chose a strong square crop, with emphasis on the form of the tree. The Fieldfare in the top right became almost a sidenote, echoing the brief blink-and-you'll-miss-it encounters we so often have with birds, and that I had experienced with this one.

In progress: "Dotting" the catkins.

I wanted to make sure I captured the atmosphere of the damp winter's day when I had photographed this bird. The cold wet air had a density that desaturated the colours like a sort of mist. The sky was a featureless curtain of yellow-grey. To add interest, I increased the warmth of the sky just a little, and gave it some very subtle variation in hue and tone that can only really be seen close up. Stood back, the sky still has the overall effect of a pale block colour, which lets the beautiful sweeping shapes of the foliage take centre stage.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Amanda's Exhibition Report & the next stages...

by Amanda

 A quick report from my exhibition, which opened on 2nd Sept - one week in and it's off to a fantastic start!

Eight of the artworks for the Corby and Migration project are on the wall in the exhibition. They have had a fantastic reception so far, and a great response to the project and the Charter as well. (There is a Charter log book on the table that will stay throughout the exhibition; thanks to all who have signed it so far!)

The eight completed paintings...

A shot from the preview evening, which was a great success with lots of people to meet and chat to!

The last two paintings for the project are currently in progress. More to be revealed very soon.
All ten paintings will be displayed at an end-of-project exhibition at the Rooftop Arts Centre in Corby, Weds 18th - Sat 28th October.

Myself and Warren Shaw are also bringing together plans for the accompanying workshops, to be held at the end of October. Lots more news to come very shortly!

Monday, 28 August 2017

Where to see the Corby and Migration Paintings

by Amanda

So far I have completed eight paintings of birds that can be seen in our local woods. These eight paintings will be displayed in my upcoming exhibition, "Animals, Colour & Light", to be held at the Alfred East Gallery in Kettering, Northamptonshire.

The exhibition dates are:
2nd - 30th September

Alfred East Art Gallery
Sheep Street
NN16 0AN
(, tel 01536 534274)

Entry is free and the gallery opening hours are
Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10am-4.45pm.

There will be a Preview evening at the Gallery on Friday 1st September 6pm-8pm. All are welcome.

I hope you can make it to see the show!

Over the next few weeks I will be completing two more bird paintings to make a total of 10, all of which will be displayed in an end-of-project show in November, in support of the launch of the Tree Charter and funded by Arts Council England. Myself and artist Warren Shaw ( will be collaborating to develop the project, including holding a workshop in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on the blog for further updates!

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Completed paintings: Nightingale and Greenfinches

by Amanda

 I've been very busy getting ready for my exhibition but I now have a little bit of time to update!

The Nightingales are leaving our woods now, and are on their way south for the winter. Going back a few months, I began my Nightingale painting with some quite sweeping strokes. My painting style is usually fairly tight, and I can't say what exactly prompted me to take a different approach with the swirl-like brushstrokes in the foliage. Maybe I had in mind the energy of the song I had heard on that drizzly May evening.

As you walk by the painting, the light catches the swirled strokes in quite a dimensional way. (Tough to capture in a photo!)

I quite recently finished both this painting, and the Greenfinches that I began back in March:

Here they are in their frames. The gold coloured one was purchased without a picture in mind, but once I had begun the Nightingale painting I knew it would be a perfect match!

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Nightingales at Glapthorn

 by Amanda

Following on from Ros's evening listening to Nightingales, last week I found myself standing in the middle of a dark wood in drizzling rain, with boots soaked through to the socks, and with no idea which direction I'd entered the woods from and how I might be able to get out again. But that didn't matter - I was there to listen for Nightingales. Having never had the opportunity to hear their famed nightsong before, I wasn't about to let a little bit of rain stop me from getting the chance to listen to them at one of their yearly nesting sites. Nightingales sing around May to early June, so the window is short. Clad in hastily borrowed waterproof jacket and aforementioned unsuitable footwear, I joined Ros and a couple of other hopefuls for a dusk walk into the woodland at Glapthorn Cow Pastures near Oundle.

We arrived as the daylight was just beginning to fade. As we entered the woods, we were greeted with a symphony of birdsong. The trees rang with the bright songs of goodness knows how many species of bird, and it was very difficult to pick out one bird's song from another, especially for a novice like myself. After stopping to appreciate the sound for a while we moved on, reasoning that we might have a better chance of hearing the nightingales deeper in the woods.

Taking careful, quiet footsteps, we picked out a zigzagged pathway through the trees as the sky darkened, and the birdsong became sparser. We were collectively straining our ears for something that sounded that bit different - the rich, varied song that is so revered. The trouble was I had no real idea what I was listening for, other than knowing it ought to be something a bit special! My companions were a little more knowledgeable and so I trusted that they would recognise the tune of a Nightingale, once he made himself heard.

As we continued we heard snippets of what we thought might be Nightingales, but we could not be sure. The sound would come down from up the tallest trees as we stopped to listen, and we would only catch a few phrases, followed by a long silence that told us the bird had moved on. We stopped and started in this way for a good while, with me craning my head up towards the treetops in the hope I might see something. (As it turns out, all I saw were some crows and clumsy woodpigeons - Nightingales are secretive birds, and do not often allow themselves to be spotted.)

The fine rain had become a slightly heavier, persistent drizzle. My instinct was to put up my hood, but as soon as I did that I realised I couldn't hear much else other than my own boots in the grass. After a short while I took it down, deciding I'd rather get raindrops in my eyes and ears than risk muffling the sound of Nightingale song. As time went on we realised suddenly that all the birdsong had ceased. The woods had become completely silent.

Stepping gingerly, communicating only in occasional whispers, we carried on further into the eerily quiet woodland. And then we heard what we had been waiting for. Just as we were losing the last of the light, a single, clearly projected song came down from above; bursts of rapid and varied trills, with a rest between each phrase. We stopped to listen for a good five minutes before the bird moved on. From that point on we were treated several more times as we made our way through the darkness. The rain lent a lovely atmosphere to the evening; the gentle sound of light drops on the leaves above and the ground cover below a wonderful percussive accompaniment to the Nightingale's performance.

I have been working on a painting of a Nightingale which I have timed quite well - it is due to be completed very soon.
I'll share some pictures when it's done!

Saturday, 13 May 2017

An Evening with Nightingales

by Ros

A wonderful evening yesterday.

David, our friend Clare, me and another 20 people spent 7 hours at Grafham Water with Sam Lee (folk singer and Barbara Dickson (singer and actress learning about, talking, singing and listening to Nightingales. What a special time.

We met round a campfire, then went on an informative walk led by Sam, followed by a good meal back round the campfire, followed by dusk song from birds ending with the nightingales as the light faded. Then songs sung by Sam and Barbara and a few others which was followed by a walk into the woods to lie down on the dewy grass till 12.30am. We listening to a solo nightingale’s night song occasional accompanied by Sam through voice and the playing of his shruti box. Magical.

There are future opportunities to experience this, or similar – go to Sam’s website.

These special birds are in decline, but apparently not at Grafham Water.

Also can be heard nearer to Corby at the Cow Pastures near Glapthorne, Oundle.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Serenading the night

It's a bird that we've all heard of, and think we know, but the Nightingale is much harder to find than you might think. When you do, its looks are unprepossessing, as you'll see from the photo above, but its voice is like nothing else in British nature, a mixture of slow piping, high warbles, and full-throated, deep, throbbing phrases. Importantly, what it leaves out is just as important as what it puts in – the pauses in a Nightingale's song are as powerful as the sounds its makes, especially when heard in the middle of the night.

That habit of singing during the hours of darkness are what has made the Nightingale a victim of a case of mistaken identity. The much commoner Robin also does so, and it has a sweet enough song itself, so many people hearing one are convinced they've heard a Nightingale. But the real thing is louder, purer, and usually much more persistent – from when they arrive in mid-April, through until June, male Nightingales sing all night, and during large parts of the day as well, in an attempt to attract nearby females, or those passing overhead on their own migrations.

The UK is pretty much at the northern limit of its range, so it has rarely been found much further north than the Trent. It also requires very specific habitat – dense bushes down to ground level, best provided by coppiced shrubs like Sweet Chestnut and Hazel, or thickets of Bramble, Blackthorn and Wild Rose. Such habitat is often transitory, appearing for a year or two where a woodland or other site has been allowed to grow wild, then disappearing as a result of tidying up work, or simply the natural progression of habitat.

Around Corby, your only chance to find one is to come across a bird on migration, although there are several nearby sites where they breed – Thrapston Gravel Pits is by far the best and most regular, while King's Cliffe has also had breeding birds in the past. Listen out for this virtuoso of bird song, and you'll never forget your first encounter with one.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

The complications of migration

Walking around Corby in the last 10 days or so, the sweet song of the Blackcap has been much in evidence from gardens, parks and woodlands, along with the very similar song of the closely-related Garden Warbler.

The latter's song is just that bit more mellow and gentle, but even many experienced birdwatchers can struggle to tell them apart.

But there's one very major difference between the two species. Garden Warblers spend the winter in Africa, and arrive back in the UK in April. Blackcaps, on the other hand, often only migrate as far as Spain and Portugal during the winter months (birds ringed near Corby have been recovered in both countries), then return in March and April.

But more and more people are seeing Blackcaps during the winter, often visiting garden feeders. So, are these birds that have given up on migration?

Well, no. In fact, the evidence is that our breeding Blackcaps still head south for the winter, but are replaced in some areas by birds from Central Europe, especially Germany, who find our mild winters preferable to the much colder climate there. When spring arrives, they return to the Continent.

It's another example of how complicated migration is. Birds are always on the move, even around us is the woods and parks of Corby, without us necessarily noticing.

And if you want to see a Blackcap, look for a small, slightly plump, grey-brown bird with a black cap (male) or rufous brown cap (female). The song starts with a lot of chattering, before opening out into a pleasant, fluting warble.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Sign the Tree Charter

On November 6th, 2017, the 800th anniversary of the 1217 Charter of the Forest, the Charter for Trees, Woods and People will be launched. It will recognise, celebrate and protect the right of the people of the UK to the benefits brought by trees and woods.

Signatures for the Charter have been and will be collected at a variety of events until November, but you can also collect signatures yourself, or sign a petition online here.

If you do want to collect signatures, print off the images below and get people to sign at any events you're holding.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Paintings in Progress - Greenfinch details

by Amanda

The Greenfinches painting is progressing nicely! I'm now getting towards the final stages of the painting. Here are a couple of shots of progress from the last few sessions.

Here on the left everything is blocked in and I've started to add more layers to the birds. On the right, the detail and colour on the birds has been built up. What a difference it has made to them! The stump is also taking shape, with darks and lights established.

Further detailing is needed on the stump, and some more glazes of colour will enhance and correct both the stump and the birds. The basis for the birds' colouring is there but just needs a little bump to show off the greenish-yellow hue of the plumage.

I'm hoping to have this one complete very soon.

Friday, 7 April 2017

On the move

Bird migration is a strange phenomenon. This year, Sand Martins appeared before the end of February, and the first Swallows started popping up just after mid-March, but here we are, a week into April, and there's still relatively few Wheatears around the country, despite them being a species that usually spearheads the arrival of summer visitors.

There can be all sorts of reasons, with weather being the most obvious. Birds arriving from the Continent need southerly winds to make the crossing of the English Channel. Before that, those that winter in Africa also need friendly winds to make the crossing of the Mediterranean and the Sahara before that.

There's every chance that the winds this weekend will turn around favourably, and that we'll see a consequent influx of migrant birds. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are already singing their hearts out around Corby, but expect them to be joined by other warblers – Garden, Sedge and even Reed warblers, and perhaps Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat too.

Throughout this week, though, Northamptonshire generally has seen plenty of bird movements. Small, straggly flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares have been making their way east and north, heading back to their homes in Scandinavia and beyond.

And in Northampton itself, Waxwings are still feeding on berry-laden bushes and trees, fattening themselves up one last time before they make the journey back to northern Russia.

It's a reminder that migration is a constant, year-round process, in which the seasons blur into each other. Only at the end of this month will we be able to say that spring has truly arrived, but by then, incredibly, the start of autumn migration will only be weeks away, as Arctic-breeding waders start to head south again.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Paintings in Progress: Greenfinches

by Amanda

The beginning of my Greenfinch painting!
Although a widely recognised bird, the Greenfinch is unfortunately in decline and is not as commonly seen as it once was. For this reason it was chosen as the subject for this painting.

Starting with a purplish wash of acrylic paint, I then moved on to oils to put in the background and the first layer of the birds. This is how most of my paintings begin - the colour wash tones the canvas (or board in this case) and sets up a harmonious or complimentary ground for the rest of the painting. The birds themselves have only had one base coat or "block-in" so far. Once this first layer has dried the darks and lights will be added, and colours adjusted and enhanced to get more of that lovely greenish yellow coming through. Once that is done the stump they are sitting on will be added in stages, after which I can make final adjustments to the birds to ensure they "pop" from the surface (and to make sure the male Greenfinch doesn't become lost against the bark of the stump!)

This one along with a couple of others will be finished for the Deep Roots Tall Trees exhibition, to be held at the Rooftop Arts Centre in Corby during June.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Heralds of spring

Spring arrives at different times for different birds. Ravens and Grey Herons start to breed as early as mid-February, while Swifts and Spotted Flycatchers don't arrive in the UK until early May. And that traditional herald of spring – the Cuckoo – doesn't generally make its appearance and start singing until the middle of April.

But a handful of birds, and one insect, are reliable indicators that the winter is behind us. Brimstone butterflies start to appear as soon as we have a couple of bright, war, days in March, and by that time the first Little Ringed Plovers have arrived on gravel pits, the first Wheatears are strutting around sheep pastures, and the first Sand Martins have appeared at your local reservoir. The latter are small, brown, seemingly frail birds that look like they would struggle to fly in the merest breeze, and yet they will have flown here from sub-Saharan Africa.

And then there's the Chiffchaff. Take a walk through Corby's woods today, and you'll hear, if not see, this unobtrusive warbler, endlessly repeating the song that gives it its name. "Chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff", with a lilting, sing-song intonation. Some of these, too, may just have arrived from southern Europe or Africa, but more and more are starting to eke out a winter existence in the UK, often by hanging around insect-rich sites such as sewage farms and chicken sheds. If you're not looking for them, they can go unnoticed, until they emerge to serenade the new season.

They're a reminder not only that spring is here, but that migration is a very complicated business indeed. Go out and hear one, and you'll know that nature's calendar has turned another page.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Meet the Team 3: Matt Merritt

I have been a birdwatcher since the age of seven, and I'm fortunate enough to be able to combine it with the world of work – my day job is as editor of Bird Watching Magazine. Born and brought up in Leicestershire, I know the Corby area well, having spent many hours birding around Rockingham Forest and sites such as Blatherwycke Lake and Wakerley Woods.

Birds, and the natural world more generally, also feed into my spare-time writing. My birdwatching memoir, A Sky Full Of Birds, was published last year by Rider Books, and I have also had four collections of poetry published, the most recent being The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches Press, 2013), with birds playing a central role in all of these.

I'm particularly interested in the way nature adapts to urban habitats. and our relationship to it where the natural and manmade worlds collide, but I find migration probably the single most fascinating aspect of ornithology, and I hope that this project will help demonstrate that it is a much larger phenomenon than most of us realise. I'll be posting on the bird life of Corby and Northamptonshire, ad also the occasional poem.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Meet the team 2: Rosalind Stoddart

After graduating from Camberwell School of Arts and crafts with a BA (Hons) in Painting, I gained a PGCE:AD. Then I spent a few years teaching.

Next I worked full-time as an artist gaining certain recognition including been selected for one of the 1000 residencies across the country awarded by The Arts Council England in 2000.

Also since late 1998 I began to exhibit other artists work in my home. The organisation Fermynwoods Contemporary Art became a formal not-for-profit limited company in 2004, and a Charity in 2008 with myself as Artistic Director.

I have a broad interest in the arts focused on the visual arts. At Fermynwoods we were particularly interested in engaging with the environment (both rural and urban) especially with our Forestry Commission partnership, as well as current agendas in our locality. This was achieved through exhibitions, education programmes, residencies and outreach community projects.

I resigned from my position at Fermynwoods at the end of 2009 and I am now working independently. The main project I am presently involved with is Deep Roots Tall Trees, which I initiated in 2011. DRTT current project is OUR WOODS, a festival of over 40 events celebrating Corby’s wonderful urban woodlands through music, dance, light, the arts, history, woodland management and much more. I am also an observer of the Groundworks Northants board.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Meet the team 1: Amanda Drage

Based in Corby, Amanda Drage has been drawing and painting for most of her life, and is now a full time artist. Although she loves to paint all wildlife, birds are one of her favourite subjects, the huge variety in their colours and appearance providing a constant source of inspiration. For the last few years Amanda has mostly been working to commission creating portraits of pets. This year will see a return to wildlife and bird art, as she works towards her first solo exhibition in September.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Welcome to Corby and Migration

Continuing on from Deep Roots Tall Trees OUR WOODS festival, the Woodland Trust is supporting another of our project in Corby’s woods until November 2017. Through the Woodland Trust’s Charter Project, we have commissioned and brought together visual artist, Amanda Drage, and wildlife journalist and poet, Matt Merritt, to collaborate, research and create paintings of the birds in Corby’s woodlands, an important ornithological habitat, to further engage the public in an approachable and wonderful aspect of the urban woodlands in the heart of our town.

Corby and Migration will look at the birds species that migrate to Corby’s woodlands (and native birds) and how they are affected by the increased size of the town as it continues to change. Matt will research the bird migration to Corby’s woodlands and gather information about them and Amanda will create paintings of the most significant birds. The first painting will be in an exhibition in the Rooftop Gallery in Corby for the month of June and further paintings will be in her exhibition September 2017 at The Alfred East Gallery, Kettering.

At all events we will collect as many as possible signatures to support and spread the word about the Charter – to connect people and trees.

Rosalind Stoddart
Creative Producer of Deep Roots Tall Trees

Discovering birdsong

by Warren For the last few weeks I have been finding recordings of the songs of the ten birds online, and doing a lot of listening a...