This summer I received one of those challenging commissions that you just cannot turn down. To express myself in a rather lofty – but totally sincere – fashion, it was a true honour that the Catalan Ornithological Institute (ICO) should ask me to produce a work as a homage to Lars Svensson. This Swede, perhaps the most eminent of all European ornithologists, is the author of a number of exceptional field guides used by both ringers and general birdwatchers. The ICO had decided to name Svensson an honorary member during this year’s Delta Birding Festival and wanted to mark the official presentation with an appropriate gift for the occasion: hence the commission, which you can see here:
The ICO had told me that one of Svensson’s favourite birds is the Woodlark and suggested that this species be the object of my work. This small lark that frequents fields and stubble is not particularly spectacular. Its habitat is somewhat run-of-the-mill, it breeds on the ground in the grass, it behaves fairly discreetly — a challenge indeed to produce a work fit for the occasion.
But, I was in luck. In recent years I have spent a lot of time with the local Woodlarks. In the field where we keep our donkeys, full of stones and bang slap in the middle of the village, there are Woodlarks all year around. In winter groups of a half a dozen birds feed, while in spring, if the tall lush grass has not yet been chewed away by the donkeys, there is always a breeding pair (whose nest, by the way, is always very hard to locate). To avoid detection by predators, the adults always land a few metres away from their nests and then casually walk there almost invisibly through the grass. After a few preliminary sessions spying on the Woodlarks as they try to conceal the site of their nest, every breeding season I manage to locate the nest and enclose it with an electric fence to keep it and its young safe from the hoofs of our donkeys. A small but welcome satisfaction. One year I even managed to hide a camera inside a paper-maché stone: every day I moved it a little nearer the nest and was able in the end to film these images when the chicks were already quite well grown.:
All these hours of fieldwork represent many hours of observing Woodlarks, which I depict here as part of an image of our donkeys grazing, with the first rays of a June sun just touching the old bales of straw, the skyline of our village in the background and the larks on the ground in the foreground — all this as a synthesis of my personal links to these larks. My aim was that, despite the detail, the larks – one with a spider in its bill waiting to enter the nest and the other actually feeding its chicks – would not play too great a role in the final composition. I felt that this particular piece of Catalan landscape, with the rounded bales, the church bell tower and the even the donkeys, should play a very important and, in some way, predominant part of the work, as if the contemplation of my work and the finding of the birds was in fact a kind of birdwatching ‘test’.
My work was presented to the great Lars Svensson during a simple but emotive-for-many ceremony held in the main tent of the Delta Birding Festival, packed to the proverbial rafters with an enthusiastic audience drawn by the presence of the great man himself (rather than my work!). The act, attended by important ornithologists of Catalan and international repute, including José Luis Copete, a personal friend of Lars Svensson, Gabriel Gargallo the ICO coordinator, and Jordi Baucells its president (and not forgetting Svensson, of course), was for me a humbling experience and a very special moment.
I’ve been told that my work depicting a corner of our ornithological landscape has already found a home on the walls of Svensson’s study in Sweden. These little details are still very important for me. I must thus give thanks to all those who made it possible: the members of the ICO and, once again and above all, to the organizers of the Delta Birding Festival –Ricard Losarcos, Miquel Rafa, Abel Julien and Francesc Kirchner – who dreamed up this marvellous annual event for bird lovers from Catalonia. And, naturally, an even bigger ‘thank-you’ to Lars Svensson, from whom so many European ornithologists who use and trust his identification guides above all others have learnt so much.