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Red listed birds – Overview & Greenfinch

This blog/newsletter is so overdue!

I have been working on this latest series of work for the past year or more, unfortunately not keeping up with the website side of things. The exhibition will be held at Ace Arts in Somerton, Somerset from the 17th of August – 28th September 2024. My work will be displayed alongside my good friend Kara Chambers (Instagram – devonhandmaid).

‘Hanging by a Thread’ Exhibition overview

The world continues to change leaving nature struggling to find habitats within and between human spaces. This work focuses on birds, once common in my lifetime which are now facing drastic declines and an uncertain future. All of the birds featured in this next exhibition are now on the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Red-list species are those that are Globally Threatened according to the IUCN criteria; those whose population or range has declined rapidly in recent years; and those that have declined historically and not shown a substantial recent recovery. 

The artwork is inspired by the meticulous records of local bird watcher John McGeoch beginning in the 1940’s. My aim is to be inspired by and incorporate where possible copies of these records in my work. 

Using paint, fabric, hand and machine stitch the artwork aims to illustrate the beauty of these once common birds and how their lives and future now hang by a thread. 

Above; a small sample of Mr McGeoch’s record cards from 3 shoe boxes full dating from the 1940’s.

I have been fortunate enough to have these records on loan from friends related to Mr McGeoch. They have written the following piece which will be featured at the exhibition.

John McGeoch or “Tigger” as he was affectionately known to his many friends was a highly respected member of the ornithological community in Somerset as well as being an excellent dentist who served the community of Wells for over 30 years?

He was Vice-President of the Somerset Ornithological Society 1963-88, Editorial Committee 1960-85 and County Bird Recorder during the 1980s and was granted honorary life membership in 1985.  He was also a founder member of the Somerset Trust for Nature Conservation in 1964 (now the Somerset Wildlife Trust) for whom he served on several committees with a particular interest in the reserves on the Somerset Levels.

It was the Somerset Levels and Moors that became the focus of his ornithological interests from the mid-1950s until his death.  During that time he carried out intensive and detailed recording of birds within the River Brue valley in particular and was already recognised as an authority on this subject by 1977 when he featured in a Radio 4 broadcast of the Living World about this area.  He had a particular interest in the study of Water Rail and Snipe and devoted much time to studying how the habitat on the Levels could be improved to accommodate these species all year round.  

Indeed, his interest in the management of the farmland and the habitat this creates for birds and other wildlife became one of his primary interests.  He had an incomparable knowledge of the changes in use of much of the Somerset Levels where he witnessed the intensification of agriculture and draining of the levels plus the widescale peat extraction which took place in the 1970s and 1980s.  

He was involved in the management of land which the STNC purchased which included the creation of new wetland habitats such as at the Greater Westhay Reserve which alongside other similar projects at Shapwick and Ham Wall have become collectively known as the “Avalon Marshes”.  These areas form an internationally recognised wetland which support a host of species which would have been national rarities when Mr McGeoch first came to Somerset.

However, his ornithological interests were not confined to Somerset, he loved to travel and remained very interested in the birds of the Middle East, which he had first studied while serving in the RAF during the early 1950s.  He published a number of papers including in internationally recognised Journals of the British and Netherlands Ornithologist’s Unions.  He also produced numerous reports on his survey work for the STNC and was a regular contributor the Somerset Ornithological Society’s annual report since 1955.

His legacy is the vast contribution he has made to the ornithological knowledge of the birds of Somerset.  But beyond that he was a member of a pioneering generation of conservationists who, while practicing full time professional careers, devoted much of their spare time towards their passion for birds and wildlife in general which have laid the foundation for the conservation movement we see today.

Step 1 – a small sample of sketched birds drawn onto fabric with iron removable pen ready for painting and finally stitch (Whinchat, Dotteral and Twite).

Step 2 – Greenfinch, inspired by a photograph of the bird I start to build up the image using textile paints (Maribu Textil Paint). (Photograph Gary Faulkner).

RSPB – ‘Greenfinch populations declined during the late 1970s and early 1980s but increased dramatically during the 1990s. A recent decline in numbers has been linked to an outbreak of trichomonosis, a parasite-induced disease that prevents the birds from feeding properly. To help stop the spread, make sure to keep your bird feeders clean’.

Because hand stitching is still relatively new to me I asked advice on the best needle to use from the Slow Stitch group I became a member of during lockdown. I ordered a number of sizes but have found for these small pieces painted on fabric the Tulip thin assorted sizes (# 7,8,9 & 10) embroidery needles to be the best. These are available through a number of suppliers in the UK.

The Greenfinch is the first of the red listed birds I began last year. I so enjoy how quiet and relaxing hand stitching was compared to the much noisier and frantic process of free motion machine stitching.

I have never been a good completer/finisher so you will notice as you read later posts, I do the exciting challenging areas such as the eye and head and then move on to start the next. I imagine I will end up with a collection of under carriages and tails to complete pre exhibition!

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