Edinburgh-based artist Kittie Jones describes a recent creative week on the Isle of May with a group of fellow artists, all with a focus on the natural world.
Drawing trips can provide a wonderful opportunity for total immersion in a place, however it is always difficult to plan ahead. Factors such as weather dictate significantly where and what you end up drawing. This is particularly true if your destination is the Isle of May in early April!
I was fortunate to be there with five fellow artists: Leo du Feu, Nye Hughes, Liz Myhill, Lara Scouller and Susan Smith, for six-days staying at the Isle of May Bird Observatory. The island was at times occupied by a range of migrants, with one day providing the following numbers: 80 robins, 60 dunnocks, 150 fieldfares, 50 redwings and 50 blackbirds amongst others.
There were a couple of short-eared owls, the last to leave of around 20 that had spent the winter on the island, feeding on the abundant mice before heading north to breed.
We were lucky to see many of the sea birds for which the Isle of May is best known, not least puffins which landed on a mist-shrouded day, filling every spare patch of land and criss-crossing over our heads; silent except for the whirring of their wings.
The species I was struck by most during the trip were the shags. In their full breeding plumage they are such different birds to cormorants, with which they are often confused. Their feathers have an amazing iridescence which shimmers green and bronze, and their crests provide a dramatic adornment.
We arrived on Saturday the 2nd April, by which point the shags had been settled on nests for a week or so. Their nests are beautiful multi-coloured constructions made from seaweed, twigs and foliage and found all along the rocky coastline. I spent a lot of time watching the males bringing nest material to the sitting females. They would fly in and land on the water in sight of the nest, then swim about with an offering of seaweed clasped in their beaks, before eventually clambering onto the rocks and hopping up to their nest, running the gauntlet as rival croaking males lunged at them aggressively.
Some nesting females got regular visits from their mates, while others were left alone for long periods, occasionally shifting their positions, revealing pale eggs in amongst the rich reds and yellows of the nest.
When it got too wet to draw I would retreat into the cosy surroundings of the living room at the Low Light, the converted lighthouse where we were staying, and look through the many bird books. I was reading Sea Room by Adam Nicholson at the time and his descriptions of shags are informative and poetic, summing up the compelling appeal of these birds:
‘Nothing can really prepare you for the reality of the shag experience. It is an all-power meeting with an extraordinary, ancient, corrupt, imperial, angry, dirty, green-eyed, yellow-gaped, oil-skinned, iridescent, rancid, rock-hole glory that is Phalacrocrorax aristotelis. They are scandal and poetry, chaos and individual rage, archaic, ancient beyond any sense of ancientness that other birds convey…The earliest puffin fossil to have been discovered is no more than five million years old. The oldest shag, identical to its modern descendants has been found in rocks laid down sixty million years ago, a couple of million years after the cataclysm that killed of the dinosaurs.’
Quote taken from Sea Room, Adam Nicholson, published by Harper Collins 2002, p 184
It was a great week with much work made and lots of ideas to develop now that I’m back on the mainland. I would like to thank my fellow artists for their good company and the inspiring work they made.
Thanks also to the Reserve Managers, Dave Steele and Bex Outram, for their hospitality and the knowledge they shared about the wildlife on the island. You can read more about island life on their very informative blog.
And finally, many thanks to the Isle of May Bird Observatory for the comfortable accommodation and opportunity to stay on the island, plus the Osprey Rib based in Anstruther for ensuring we got on and off the island in style!
Photos by Kittie Jones unless stated otherwise.