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In the 1930’s Max Nicholson - pioneering environmentalist, ornithologist and internationalist - recognized the potential of co-operative birdwatching to inform conservation, and in 1933 he and others founded the British Trust for Ornithology, originally in Oxford.

Early surveys of rooks and herons paved the way for the huge variety of projects now underway, but it was the first Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain & Ireland in 1968-72 that set the standard for what was to come.

The BTO carries out research into the lives of birds, chiefly by conducting population and breeding surveys and by bird ringing, largely carried out by a large number of volunteers. Its Garden Birdwatch survey, for example, allows large numbers of non-expert birdwatchers to participate, by making a weekly count of the birds they see in their gardens

BTO / SWLA Project
Senegal, 17- 31st January 2014

Senegal Shoreline.  Relief printSenegal Shoreline. Relief printThere wasn’t a huge amount of time in advance of being notified of my selection to fill one of the four places on the field trip to Senegal, so a lengthy briefing wasn’t possible. Instead, myself and the other three artists (Greg Poole, Esther Tyson and Bob Greenhalf) were in fairly regular email contact with Dr Phil Atkinson, head of the BTO's International Team.  He was to lead the expedition and brief us in advance about what to expect and what the BTO wanted from the project.  

We were told that the working partnership between the BTO and SWLA was to be about creating opportunities and enable the artists to develop portfolios of work that would convey a sense of the landscapes, challenges, issues and opportunities faced by many millions of migrant birds as they ebb and flow with the seasons moving on a vast scale between European breeding grounds and wintering areas in Africa.

For our two weeks in West Africa the focus was to be the key landscapes that fill up with ‘our’ birds in the autumn - coastal lagoons and marshes, the agricultural land, sahel and savannah woodland - as well as looking at the local communities that are equally dependant on those landscapes.   There would also be inspirational juxtapositions of light, colour, native species, vegetation and much else.

By combining the portfolios in the future the BTO would want communities at both ends of the migratory journey, and in between, to discover how ‘their’ birds are connected with other landscapes, places and cultures.   The aim would be to raise the profile of the conservation work on migrants being undertaken in the UK and in Africa so that a wider audience would be made aware of the annual connections birds make between landscapes, places and cultures.  Migration provides a powerful story for wider public engagement, highlighting a shared responsibility for our bird populations and drawing to our attention the conservation issues that surround them.

Sahel.  Drypoint and carborundum printSahel. Drypoint and carborundum printThat was the powerful formal briefing, but each of us was also sent a copy of Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo by Michael McCarthy, his 2009 book on the marvels of bird migration and his personal experiences of migrant birds and birders.  A great read - and a very spirited and emotional response to one of the enduring wonders of the natural world.

And finally, over 25 years ago I had travelled to Senegal and then through West and North Africa on my own journey following migrant birds – so, by mid-January I felt fully briefed and ready to go.

For the detail of the days in the field and journeying between key habitats, I will let the drawing speak for themselves.  Hopefully, some of them will be included in the ’out of the frame’ space at the exhibition this year.  The highlights?  Dozens of European storm petrels streaming over the water a few metres offshore from a seething mass of boats and people gathered as the day’s catch was traded in the evening light  - everything shrouded in columns of familiar terns from Europe and local species all stirred together by marauding pomarine skuas.   Every thorn bush in the sahel sheltering a phylloscopus warbler and local prinia or weaver, while scattered on the ground in the harsh sunlight beneath them cream-coloured and Temminck’s coursers, chestnut-bellied sandgrouse and northern wheatears.  A very dark grey Montagu’s harrier chased by the brilliant flashes of turquoise, chestnut and ultramarine of an Abyssinian roller.  

 

Of course, there was so much else as well; and I tried to fix as much as possible in the sketches and larger field paintings.  Now the second, but equally exciting phase - developing paintings and prints in the studio trying to tease out some of the more significant ideas.  Eventually, I hope my portfolio will convey something of the colour, species and vegetation juxtapositions, intensity of light, harshness of the rural and agricultural environment, the beauty and abundance of life in the marshes and flood – simply, a spirited and emotional response to one of the enduring wonders of the natural world.