Sunday, 28 November 2021

Encounters with nature: Capturing memories of your natural world

Thought I'd share here a piece I wrote for the International Nature Journaling Week blog back in April 2020.

Encounters with nature: Capturing memories of your natural world

Why keep a nature journal? This is a question I am asked surprisingly often. One somewhat light-hearted answer I give is that someday I’ll be stuck inside, ill or frail, and I want to be able to look back through my nature journalling memories. I’m only half joking, and it seems the stuck inside part has indeed already come to pass. As I write, in the UK, as in other countries, we are being told to stay home because of the covid-19 pandemic.

I’ve always loved nature, and I’ve always enjoyed drawing – nature journalling puts these two things together perfectly, and adds all the benefits of being mindful, slowing down and cultivating an approach of curiosity, and developing an appreciation of, and empathy for, the natural world. Building a relationship with the nature of the everyday, the things that happen right in front of us, if only we take the time to look – that’s what it’s about for me.

I use a few different approaches in my journal. Some pages I draw on site, others I draw after the event, and yet others are a combination, where I start on site and finish up at home. I draw from life and from reference photos. Some entries have added measurements, counts, and data, making them a field journal-type entry; other spreads are more reflective, and might even include quotes or bits of poetry. All are a combination of pictures and words. That’s the joy of keeping a nature journal – there’s no right or wrong way of doing it!

But my favourite pages, the ones that give me the most pleasure when I flip back through old journals, are the ones that record an event, something special or unexpected, even if it’s actually also mundane, everyday, and easily overlooked.

Up there at the top of my list of favourite nature journal entries is a spread I did after an encounter with a LOT of swifts. I was out running, so didn’t have my journal (or even a phone camera) to record the event; I stopped and stared up into a sky filled with screaming swifts, taking in the experience of it all: the sights, the sounds, the sun on my face. I put the spread together later that same day, and it will always bring that sunny, bird-filled blue-sky moment back to life for me.

 Another favourite page came about when I glanced out of the window one wintry morning, and saw a female blackbird very energetically tossing leaves about on the driveway, looking for tasty morsels to eat. She was so busy that I watched for a couple of minutes (this is what you tend to do when you keep a nature journal!). Then suddenly she pounced and pulled a huge hibernating queen wasp out of the leaf litter – I was amazed! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bird catching and eating a wasp before. But through the habit of keeping a journal I have also acquired the habit of paying a bit more attention to the everyday natural world around me, and I am rewarded with these small events that make me smile.

And one last favourite from me – and this page is definitely more words than images – an encounter with a badger, again when I was out running. Definitely worth recording!

 It feels like the world has been turned upside down, and I think it’s true to say that things will never be quite the same again. But the natural world – your natural world, in your garden, outside your window, in the skies above your house – carries on, and always will. So, take the time to notice the rhythms, the passing of the days, the new arrivals (I can’t wait for the swallows!), and the tiny, overlooked dramas in your flowerbed, veg patch, around your house or on your back doorstep. Reflect on what you find, and perhaps find some peace and distraction there.

And one day, you will look back on these unsettling times in your journal and be reminded of the power of nature, and you’ll treasure your record of it.


Friday, 12 November 2021

Natural History Illustration in Pen and Ink

 I thought I'd give a bit of a shout-out to a recently published book that readers of this blog might find interesting - Natural History Illustration in Pen and Ink by Sarah Morrish (, published by The Crowood Press. Sarah is an artist, illustrator and tutor, and has a working background in ecology and conservation.

 After an introduction there is information about subject matter, including using museum collections and collecting, storing and preserving your own reference materials, and about working in the field. Materials and equipment is another section, and covers pens, inks, and paper, plus other useful bits and pieces along with advice on setting up a comfortable working area and even a recipe for making your own oak gall ink.

Next comes a chapter about sketchbooks and study pages, including things to consider when choosing a sketchbook and tips for recording information. Mark-making techniques and creating form are then discussed, along with a look at some of the problems you might encounter, and solutions, and composition has its own chapter.

Following on, there are several subject-specific chapters, focussing on botanical subjects, strandline and marine discoveries, fossils, insects and other invertebrates, birds, feathers and nests, and mammals. There are loads of examples, including step-by-step exercises and case studies so that you can see an illustration evolving. The final two chapters cover combining pen and ink with other media, and protection and presentation of the artwork.

The book has the strapline 'Combine science with art, and journey through nature', which I think is a great call to action, and Natural History Illustration in Pen and Ink inspires you to do just this. The content is very well supported by text and images, and there are contributions from a number of other artists (including me!). There is practical advice, and lots of excellent examples and demonstrations of processes and materials. It's a book I'll go back to again and again. It's a great resource, and if I didn't already have a copy, this book would definitely be on my wish list for Christmas!

Monday, 6 September 2021

The end of summer

 August has been a bit of a disappointment here, in terms of sunny, warm days anyway, with the last couple of weeks of the month being under thick grey cloud. But there have been a few nice days, and now, at the start of September, we are enjoying some late summer sunshine and a bit of heat. The swifts have long departed, but there are still a few Swallows and House Martins in the skies here. It's definitely summer's end!

I was treated to one special surprise when I went for a walk round my local patch one afternoon: on the cricket field I found a large flock of Yellow Wagtails, including lots of youngsters - I counted 34, and there were more for sure that I didn't count. For me this was absolutely amazing - I've only ever seen a Yellow Wagtail a couple of times before this, and only ever one or two at a time. I was actually doubting my own eyes, so nipped back home to grab my camera to get some record shots, just so I could check!

As well as the wagtails, there were Swallows swooping low over the field, feeding a family of four youngsters who were perched up on a bare branch, and there was a big flock of juvenile Goldfinches as well - they have done very well this year!

I spent a pleasant half an hour or so watching the goings-on, until the groundsman arrived to prepare the pitch for the cricket match the next day.

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Blackbird fledgling

 Always a sad event, we had a blackbird youngster hit a window yesterday. It was stunned, so I picked it up and put it in a box, quiet and warm. It did seem to perk up briefly, but kept falling over and couldn't stand properly, and died shortly afterwards. It's the first window casualty we've had here for a good while. I took the chance to do some quick ink studies.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

30 Days Wild in a grid

 30 Days Wild is an annual celebration of the natural world led in June by the UK Wildlife Trusts, and is full of wonderful ideas for getting in touch with nature for all the family. This year I thought I'd do a 30-day grid of mini-paintings, one for each day, inspired by something in the natural world that caught my eye that day. It was great fun!

Monday, 10 May 2021

Spring is arriving... slowly

 In my corner of Cambridgeshire, as in much of the rest of the UK, spring has finally arrived, though it did so very slowly. 'April is the cruellest month', wrote TS Eliot, and it certainly felt that way, with almost constant northerly winds, chilly days and nights, frosty starts and no rainfall for what seemed like weeks on end. This has culminated in a stormy couple of days at the start of May, but now at last it looks like we are heading into some calmer, and slightly warmer, weather.

Everything in the garden seems to be about two weeks behind where it was last year. I've only just started to pick my asparagus - last year I was happily eating it mid/late April. The crab apple blossom  started to open a good fortnight or so later than last year. And although I've seen the occasional swallow when I've been out running or walking, or at the local gravel pits, I've yet to see one from the house.

Nevertheless, the wildlife perseveres, and there has been plenty of courting and nest-building going on.


Out for a run on the first day of spring (March 20th), I heard my first chiffchaff of the year.

And while out running, again, I found my first swallow of 2021 (April 13th)...

We had a visitor to the garden a couple of weeks ago - I sometimes see these out in the fields, and I've caught them very occasionally on my trail cam at night, but this one was happily grazing mid-afternoon.

 And to start the month of May off, I had a chilly walk around the fields, which are now eye-wateringly yellow with oilseed rape. A very nice birding tick was a fly-by from a Little egret!

Roll on some warmer weather!

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Your local patch

 Lockdown#3 drags on here in the UK, and I for one am keen for some fresh air and nature, even though it is the middle of winter. As an incentive to get out of the house (once per day!) I am doing a virtual Land's End to John O'Groats challenge. I'm alternating running and walking days, and the walking days are all done on the farm tracks, footpaths and bridleways around and about the village - my local patch.

I do feel really fortunate to be living in the countryside, with lots of green space and walking opportunities everywhere, and the nature and wildlife that goes along with that. But your local patch can be just as intriguing no matter where you are - the chance to watch the changes over the seasons, to find the rhythms of nature, and to notice the life all around is not to be missed.

One great activity for a local patch is to keep a local patch bird list. My regular walking routes include various paths and loops, but all cover much the same area, and I have this set up as one of my 'places' on the BTO BirdTrack site. I've had this set up for years, but fell out of the habit of regularly logging anything - until now! On my walks I'm now looking and listening for bird life, and I'm looking forward to the arrival of spring and summer visitors. It's given me a focus, and I'm noticing things like how the weather affects the birds I see or don't see, and I'm getting familiar with some of the birds too - I know where the kestrel hangs out, the territories of the two pairs of crows, the buzzard's favourite perch.

 And this is all adding to the BirdTrack data, contributing to ongoing research into trends in bird populations and movements. What's not to like!


Getting to know your local patch, wherever you are, is a great way to connect with nature!