The tale of the tip of the tail

My Dad died last year.

After the shock, and the grief, came the clear out of his house.

It could have been worse, he had recently ‘downsized’ from the large old family house to a much smaller more practical house for one, which sadly he only enjoyed for 3 months.

My brother and I had already taken most of the family clutter to the tip, however there was still plenty of flotsam and jetsam that had to be sorted as we cleared his house. In one box I discovered a battered small picture frame, which contained a familiar pencil sketch of a Dartford warbler. It was a lovely little sketch that had been in the family for 50+ years. I distinctly remember Dad buying it from a craft shop in Fort William on one of our many family holidays to the north of Scotland. It is the most beautiful, and lifelike drawing of a Dartford Warbler you could possibly get, its eye looks right back at you, its small wing is perfect and its tiny feet are drawn by the hand of a skilled draftsman or woman. The only one thing that is not quite perfect is the top of its tail; for I remember as a naughty little boy dismantling the frame and took the sketch out from behind the glass. You see, I did not believe it was an original pencil drawing – and to prove that it was or wasn’t, I got my rubber out and rubbed out the tip of the poor warbler’s tail. Of course it was an original.

So shocked, when the tail smudged then disappeared, I quickly got my pencil out and re-drew the tip of the tail; reassembled the frame and quickly hung it back on the wall. I think I got away with it. No one noticed. I was only six at the time (give me a break), but I remember having many years of guilt every time I looked at the drawing. Time passed, I grew up, and Dad died.

Dartford warbler by E. Ovenstone

Dartford warbler by E. Ovenstone


I quickly stuffed the drawing into my bag, before my brother saw it.

Now the drawing has been re-framed and hangs in my lounge, and I love it. It reminds me of happy times in a happy family. I don’t think my brother knows yet, so let’s just keep this confession between you and me.

In the mid-1960’s when Dad bought the drawing the Dartford warbler was a very rare and exotic bird – one that I never thought in a million years that I would actually see in the wild. Well I didn’t have to wait that long, just 58 years.

I should say, the sketch is signed by an ‘E. Ovenstone’, and after hours of searching on Google, I have found no reference to him/her as an illustrator or artist. If anyone who reads this blog, (not that there will be many) could shed any light on whom E. Ovenstone was, I would be most grateful to know.


Yesterday I was on North Hill, above Minehead in Somerset with wildlife filmmaker Mike Richards who lives nearby. I had heard via the Somerset Ornithological Society that Dartford warblers could sometimes be seen with a bit of luck on this wonderful piece of heathland. Mike is a most experience birder and had made a film on the Dartford warbler for the RSPB probably not long after the pencil sketch first came into my family. He had seen them here before and was keen to join me for a spot of birding. We had a most enjoyable walk for a couple of hours in and out of the jaggy gorse bushes seeing lots of lovely birds – linnets, stonechat, greenfinches, a nuthatch, meadow pipits, jay, swifts and swallows overhead, and even a passing red kite – but no sign of our target bird.

Just as we were about to give up we heard, then saw a whitethroat and another stonechat; but there was something else coming from the same area, I was sure of it. Mike had said that Dartford’s can be real ‘skulkers’ and can hide in the middle of a thicket for hours. I wasn’t hopeful.

Well, cheating or not, I dug out my phone, and played the Dartford’s song from a bird-guide app that I have. Its scratchy song sang out over the baking hot heathland. Nothing. I played it one last time, and, blow me, up it popped. A pale grey/brown little bird shot up out of dense gorse and hovered for a short while on stunted wings, with a long tail behind - probably a female (?) I punched the air in delight at my first Dartford warbler.

I know Dad would have been pleased for me.


The elusive Dartford warbler

The elusive Dartford warbler

Graeme Mitchell