Tuesday, 12 February 2013

I wondered why it had gone quiet

We have two small garden areas running along the length of the house, which is quite long and thin, resulting in two long thin gardens too.  One of these is under the shade of large trees, so not much grows there, so we keep a number of bird feeders out there that we can see from the windows on that side of the house to enjoy our feathery visitors.

Because we live near some decent tracts of woodland and open farmland too, we get a pretty decent selection of birds visiting, from the standard garden friends of blue tits, great tits, coal tits, robins, chaffinches, sparrows, dunnocks, blackbirds, thrushes, collared doves, goldfinches, green finches and siskin, to slightly less well seen wild birds, like wrens, bull finches, nuthatches, tree creepers, wood pigeons and long tailed tits.

We also get occasional treats like this bemused looking female greater spotted woodpecker that sat on the railings in the rain for quite some time last week - looking upwards around herself, pointedly blinking as though it were waiting for someone.  They're usually very timid and the slightest movement inside the window causes them to take flight, but I was able to go about my work near the window and watch her for some time.  Maybe she was a youngster and not yet learnt to be scared of human movement.  We certainly know that our local pair had a brood last summer as Mum put a lot of effort into getting food from the feeders for them and then brought the youngsters to show them one of her favourite eateries.

But having put fresh food on the table at breakfast time yesterday and filled all the hanging feeders, I'd got used to the sound of the goldfinches and blackbirds especially squabbling over the food - I don't know why they put so much effort into fighting over it when there is plenty for all of them.  Two robins had a significant airborne battle the day before over ownership of the ground table, when there are enough sources and locations of food for them to both fill to busting without bloodshed.

But as I started clearing the breakfast table and washing up, I was aware of it becoming very quiet, so I looked out of the kitchen window expecting there to be a local cat staked out in the garden.  But quite often with cats, the birds just stay a bit higher and swear and hurl abuse at the cat, but this silence was quite eery. 

Then I spotted the culprit - much more exciting than my neighbours black and white moggy.  But possibly much more dangerous too.  Certainly faster.  No wonder the birds had vanished and those that stayed around weren't drawing attention to themselves.  

I think this is a male sparrowhawk.  We've had them visit the garden before - the very fact that we get a good selection of birds presents them with a running buffet and even the tree cover doesn't thwart them, they're designed for and adept at negotiating through woodland, although it's true to say that my best sightings have always been when there is less leaf cover at this sort of time of year.

Normally all you see is flash of movement, the sense of a shadow passing, occasionally a cry of alarm from the prey or birds adjacent and then the same eery silence.  Sometimes they'll settle nearby to pluck and eat their catch.   That's the only time I've been able to photograph them before.  

I just spotted this male as he stretched and his head and shoulders came in to view above the low garden wall - he was settled on a branch beneath the level of the bird tables - as our garden is higher than the adjacent land - which is where he had settled himself for a stake out.   I actually typed 'take out' there - maybe I was right the first time. 

I might have missed him had he not stretched upwards and his familiar stripey jumper had come in to view.  As he was low, I was going to have to get high to take any photos.  He stayed there for quite some time and as you can see above, he was clearly aware of me and checked me out periodically, but seemingly wasn't troubled by me at all.  By the end, I was stood on steps at the window with my camera at arms length atop my walking pole which has a tripod mount in the handle, using it as a monopod.    The light was incredibly low and murky and he was down beneath deep railway bankings in shadow, so the images are rather poor quality.

He'd occasionally stretch and flap his wings and swapped the leg he was standing on - the other being tucked up under his tummy feathers and periodically, an unwary bird would venture onto one of the feeders above which would cause him to watch it intently, as above.  I didn't see him leave in the end, he'd been there for almost an hour.  So I don't know if he managed to snag a snack, or just got bored with waiting for it to land in front of him.

Either way, it was an hour that totally stopped me getting any work done at all.  But I don't regret it for a moment, sometimes it's worth just enjoying whatever treat the day presents you with.  Because you never know how long it might be, if ever, before it happens again.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Egg slicers and lessons learned

Whilst sitting here contemplating the embarrassment of yet again feeling it necessary to apologise for my blogging tardiness, something caught the corner of my eye - it moved as I did, forming the impression that whatever it was, was stuck in my hair.

Hoping that it wasn't a spider or something else with more legs than me, I grabbed a mirror to check it out.  Thankfully it didn't have any legs; it was a tomato pip. 

I think I showed this pendant in my last blog as raw clay awaiting firing.

Now I just know that the first thought you had was that I must be an awfully messy eater to get one in my hair, especially at eye level - and that's an accusation that the state of the front of my shirt would undermine any efforts to deny - but there is a story as to how it found its way to end its days in my hair - and I'm glad I got my hair cut this morning and not after my lunch. 

I've no doubt posted here before about how I value washing up time.  Whilst washing up is rather a chore, I do think it's an important part of my day - especially washing the breakfast pots.  It gives me a buffer of good thinking time.  I often plan what I have to do that day and often do my best thinking whilst elbow deep in soap suds.  I can think through the stages of how I'm going to make something, work out the order for processes etc.

Another finished flowery clay pendant

I think that I must have quite a visual brain as I can actually virtually make something without picking up a tool - I mentally work through the stages and often overcome snags and can see in advance how I might have stumbled somewhere along the line had I not done a mental dummy run. 

But today my breakfast-pot-thinking wasn't quite so constructive.  As I washed the egg slicer my husband had used in preparation of his lunch, I contemplated if it could be used for other items you wanted slicing - or if the texture of a hard boiled egg was unique in its suitability for slicing with wire in that manner.  I could see that the wires were too flimsy for something hard like a raw carrot, but it struck me that it might have additional uses that I'd not considered before.

A rosebud knot bracelet I made as a Christmas commission, to match one of my rosebud knot necklaces.

Skip forwards to the next meal of the day and as I started shredding lettuce and rocket for a cheesy salad wrap for my lunch, I felt the texture of the cherry tomatoes in my hand and my eye drifted to the egg slicer still on the draining board. The tomato didn't feel dissimilar to a hard boiled egg.  It was worth a try.

Just at the very point where my brain was forming the thoughts that it didn't appear to be working and that maybe I should stop before something gave way - I was worried about the slender wires at that point - it was already too late.  A great spurt of cold juice and pips hit me straight in the side of the face.  It had spread from my forehead, into my eye, down my cheek and neck and all over the front of my clothes.  I reckon that sub-1" diameter tomato - most of which still appeared to be trapped in the egg slicer - had shot its pips over at least an 18" diameter cone of fridge-cold messiness.

A flower variant of my previous twiddle and bud earrings.  I've modded the methods a little and think it works rather better.

I am so glad I was alone, it must have looked hilarious, it sure as heck made me laugh very hard - after the initial squeal of exclamation.  You wouldn't believe the velocity those pips gained, or the area they covered.  So I can't say I was that surprised to find one last one lodged in my hair - and there's bound to be one down my bra - it's always a little disgraceful that food falls out of my undergarments when I get undressed for bed.   And don't tell my husband that I then had to spend several minutes with pliers re-tensioning, straightening and re-aligning the wires in the bloody egg slicer too - I wasn't the only one that tomato did harm to.

So, in short, it looks like egg slicers should be reserved for the slicing of hard boiled eggs and nothing more.  Another life lesson learned the hard way.

My batch of bronze clay pieces ready for firing.  I kept to simple pieces initially as I was testing some new techniques (hand drawing my own textures and photopolymer plates etc.) as well as kiln firing it.

Another lesson learned of late was that kiln firing of metal clay is a whole minefield of new discovery too - torch firing isn't ideal for a multitude of reasons, but it's certainly more predictable. 

I ventured into some work with bronze as well as copper.  It transpires that bronze has a whole different set of issues that copper doesn't - its alloy with tin for the most part. 

I made a batch of relatively simple bronze pieces to do as my first batch.  Because kiln firing takes a decent amount of time and uses quite a chunk of electricity, I rather arrogantly fired a whole batch as my first 'bronze' firing.  I knew that I should have done a 'test' first - but I'm not keen on testing, I prefer to do what I call 'working tests' in that I use real-world pieces as my test pieces.  If they fail, a test piece would have failed too, but if it's a success, you do at least have something to show for it.  I should however have left the better pieces out of that first batch and only fired the most simple whilst I ascertained what worked.

Thankfully I took some photos of them before firing (see above), otherwise you'd never believe me.  It's actually a habit I'm going to get into with my kiln work - taking a before and after photo of each batch I fire, to tie in with my kiln diary - so that I can check retrospectively which brand of clay I used and the firing schedule for any particular piece.

Ouch!  A big chunk of me is embarrassed to even show this.

The first piece I removed and quenched hissed and the firescale popped off, as it does, but then the piece largely disintigrated in the water - and that it certainly shouldn't do.  I knew I couldn't do anything to change the outcome of the remaining pieces, so hoping that as I'd removed the front-most item in the kiln which was in the coolest spot, those further back might be in better shape.  They weren't.  They crumbled like a Jaffa Cake does when you dunk it in hot coffee - not that I'd do such a crass thing, but my husband does have a penchent for both Jaffa Cakes and dunking and I've seen the messy results many times.    The bottom of my quench bowl looked much the same.

So having taken advice, I'm certainly going to have to carbon fire in future and possibly adjust my temperature up a smidge and lengthen hold times too - I suspect that my kiln runs a little cool, as I'd followed the manufacturers directions for that batch and they clearly weren't even close to being sintered. 

So maybe now is the time to embrace the concept of proper testing.  I've invested too much time into my current waiting-to-be-fired batches of work to want them to end up like the contents of Mr Boo's empty coffee cup.  Thankfully, since writing this initially, a second [test] batch of bronze, fired in carbon, were rather better.  Not perfectly sintered, but at least they came out looking like bronze.  I know what I need to do to correct the remaining issues.

Half of me felt like giving up on base metal clay work and the other half remained more determined than ever.  Boy in this process frustrating.  I love working with the clay itself - and I've already learned gob-loads in 2013 - but the firing process just plain gives me the willies.  Thankfully, I'm doing rather better with copper:


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