Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The art of birds

My dad handed me a book he had recently picked up from a charity shop. It was Green Guide's Birds of Britain and Europe. Not a book that will ever compete with my beloved Collins Complete but still a nice one to have a look through. I shouldn't really be surprised to find on opening the book that the artist providing the illustrations is Martin Woodcock. He's a prolific and highly respected illustrator of birds. You could say that his bird pictures got me interested in birds in the first place. In the late 1970s I used to use his illustrations to sketch from. His pictures have a wonderful clarity to them that aids the eye in picking out the details so vital in identifying different species. They aren't photo-realistic or artistically posed but are drawn with angles and colouring that show off what makes the bird best identifiable. Whenever I had some free time at school the pencils would come out and I would try to duplicate his work. I was probably about eleven or twelve at the time. One day a teacher came in who I didn't really know, asking who was the boy that was drawing all the birds. I showed him my folder, which had over twenty sketches in, including a half completed Sea Eagle. He told me he was mad keen on birds and proposed we team up to create a Young Ornithologist Club for the school. I agreed. He sent away for all the YOC bumf, most of which he snaffled along with all the issues from the very nice Bird Life quarterly. We gained quite a few members but not many were actually very enthusiastic. Most of the kids who joined only joined so they wouldn't miss out on free trips to Martin Mere. We managed to organize several trips which were big successes. Everybody had a great time. That place is a paradise for duck lovers. So that is how Martin Woodcock may have sparked a love for birds in me at such an early age. I kept up sketching birds well into my college years, buying the magazines of the time, often illustrated by that man again.
Getting back to the book my dad gave me, I noticed that the previous owner had pencilled in ticks next to pictures. Sparrow - tick. Robin - tick. Nuthatch - tick. Treecreeper - no tick - oh shame, he missed out there then (one of my favourites - and my mums). I had to laugh as the Mistle Thrush had a question mark next to it. I'd seen one in the front tree last week and spent ten minutes trying to positively identify it, rifling through the pages of my Collins Complete. All these years of watching them and drawing them and I still can't identify everything at first glance. The birds have been doing their annual hiding session recently while their new feathers moult in so I haven't had much to look at for a fortnight or so. Today a Coal Tit turned up on the fat balls and the feeders, resplendent in his newly minted colours. The dearth of bird activity must have shorted my brain out, as for about five minutes I was convinced it was a Willow Tit, until reason returned and I realized that a Willow Tit wouldn't be seen dead on a garden nut feeder. It was a Coal Tit - but a very smart Coal Tit. Hopefully all the rest of our regulars will be back soon. The dynamic duo of Nuthatches are sorely missed.


  1. A good bird artist is an inspiration indeed! I've not seen that particular birdguide but I'll look out for it now. I've been missing the birds while they've been in moult too. Willow tits are the species that are declining most drastically in the UK i think.

  2. The book itself is mainly reprinted material from a bird periodical. It's got a lot of gaps - no Willow Tit for example. You are right about the decline in Willow Tits. Love the Woodpeckers but their nest raiding skills make it hard for some types of bird to even get a start in life.