Monday, September 15, 2014

Swallows second brood in an unusual nest

As the swallows began gathering along telephone wires in preparation for their long journey back to Africa this month, I got worried that two late broods here at my house in Thixendale would not fledge in time for the off.

Every year a pair of swallows breeds in an artificial nest that I put up for them in my front porch. I had heard the male singing to a female from my studio on a spring day warm enough to prop the door open and had even seen him perching on the TV aerial of our house chirruping cheerfully. But for some reason, they chose not to nest here. I was so disappointed.

But I was delighted when I got back from holiday at the beginning of August to see a swallow flying out of my front porch. A pair had come here in my absence. They had probably had a first brood elsewhere and were now going for a second brood in the artificial nest.

A few days later I noticed a swallow whizzing in and out of our log store at the back of the house. I went out to investigate and discovered a second pair of swallows was nesting there.

This was a stroke of luck because this nest was extra special. It was nestled in an old storm lamp I had hung up earlier in the hope that a pair of swallows would use it.

I often place nesting props in my garden at Fotherdale Farm because if birds do use them they make for perfect backdrops for my paintings. In the past I managed to persuade a robin to nest in an old kettle and I have had wagtails nest in an old boot I left for them.
This pair had inadvertently signed up for a new modelling contract with me. I set about putting up a hide so that I could watch and photograph them up close.

A week later four tiny chicks hatched and they started to grow fast. They needed to, the weather had turned and there was now a distinct autumnal feel in the air. Meanwhile I noticed more and more swallows gathering on the electric lines outside the gallery, getting ready to migrate.
 I couldn’t help but worry whether these chicks would make it and almost willed them to grow. It was fascinating to see the parents whoosh in to feed them and at the same time see all the chicks spring up out of the nest, opening their beaks wide with their bright orange gapes exposed as each called frantically to be the first to be fed.

The parents would be in with food every few minutes, despite the fact that the weather had become very windy with heavy showers. I watched as they grew their feathers and shedding their down and beginning to look more like swallows as they did so.

I watched the weather forecast carefully too. Fortunately a ridge of high pressure was on its way at the beginning of September just when the chicks began stretching and flapping their wings as they got ready for their first flight.
 The parents were on high alert now, knowing that their still-vulnerable chicks could fledge at any time.

One day a sparrowhawk zoomed into the garden on the looked for a meal. As it chased the sparrows around the bushes, I heard the parent swallows calling out sharp warnings to their chicks.
I saw the chicks respond, all hunkering down into their nest and remaining motionless. The adult pair mobbed the sparrowhawk and through the sheer force of their fury chased out of the garden and down the adjacent field.

As they rounded the corner to the front of the house they were joined by the second pair of swallows whose nest was on the back porch and all four birds saw this lethal bird of prey off together. It was quite extraordinary.
The chicks have now fledged, although they still come back to the nest at night, but as more and more swallows gather on the TV aerial and the wires around the house, I think they will be ready to join them when they all take flight and begin their long journey back to the southern hemisphere.

As they undertake this remarkable journey, I will be sitting down to capture their earliest days in paint.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Standing on top of an otter's holt!

I had one of the most incredible sightings of otters during a trip to the Ardurmurchan Peninsula on west coast of Scotland this summer.

I was staying on the shores of Loch Sunart, a sea inlet renowned for its wildlife, and had just walked the short distance from my holiday cottage to explore the loch when I spotted one. I literally arrived at the loch, which was perfectly still, the water reflecting the surrounding landscape like glass, and looked left along the shoreline where some herons and hooded crows were. Then I looked right and immediately noticed a ribbon of silver. It was a female otter.

When hunting, otters will only come to shore if they catch something too big to handle out at sea so I try to keep parallel to them until they land. I have to keep an eye on the wind direction to make sure they don’t spot me and only move when they dive.

I followed this otter up the loch as it hunted. It kept diving down and then popping up with a small fish. I tried to keep up, following it in a series of quick dashes while the otter was underwater. This was not easy on rough terrain as I was carrying a lot of heavy camera equipment. 

Suddenly she turned and looked my way. I froze. I was crouching awkwardly so when she looked away I sat down. As I did so a boulder beneath me rocked. I heard a loud chittering sound coming from underground. It was so close it made me jump.

I looked through tiny gaps between the boulders. It was a young otter walking along an underground tunnel right beneath my feet. I was sitting on the otter’s holt!

The young cub stood and sniffed at me between the boulders. It was less than one metre away. I never intended to get so close.

I could hear the cub walking underground, heading towards the sea as the adult approached. Then as she got to the shore the adult called.

I heard the cub chittering and whistling loudly as it greeted its mother. I presumed it was at the entrance of the holt. I wanted to back off but I didn’t want to move either. I just froze.

The adult dived under a blanket of seaweed and popped up right next to the shore, emerging from the water near me. Her head filled the frame as I tracked her with my camera.

I didn’t dare take a photo. Sometimes not disturbing a wild animal is more important than getting the shot. Underground, I heard the cub greet the female and then I could hear stones clinking as they walked through the tunnel beneath me. Next I heard the sound of them sniffing my scent through the boulders. I was frozen to the spot. I had been close to wild otters before but nothing like this.

I  retreated slowly but after such an incredible sighting I was keen to know more. I spent the next day exploring their territory, looking out for their spraints and other spots that they frequented.

Fresh water streams are often good places to lay in wait for photo opportunities since otters love fresh water to wash off the salt from the sea.

I found one where the otters had made a path into the pool. I could see where they entered and exited by the way in which the grasses were bent and even spotted tufts of flattened grass where they had wiped themselves dry. The grasses were twisted in the middle where an otter had gone round in a circle, rubbing itself.

Other clues I spotted included the place where the female liked to lie in the roots of a sycamore tree, its bark had been rubbed smooth with use.

I spent some time patrolling the area in this way, finding the best routes to traverse the rugged coast, cutting brambles that might trip me up and discovering which rocks wobbled and made a noise when I stepped on them.

I even moved dry seaweed from my path so that it wouldn’t crackle underfoot when I returned to watch the otters.

That evening I followed this route as I watched the female take one of the cubs hunting with her under blankets of seaweed close to the shore. I was surprised by how big the cub was. It was a male and almost fully grown.

The female swam out into the channel whilst the cub hugged the shoreline. At one point I had to go inland because of the cliffs but I saw the cub as I got back to the shore, its tail aloft sprainting.

It was silhouetted against the pink sea and as I caught up with it caught and ate a crab noisily.

I watched them every day for about a week. 

It wasn’t until the very last day when I discovered that there was another cub, a female. This cub was already living independently, which was why I had not seen her before, but the family all met up and I watched as they greeted each other on a rock.

That was one of the highlights of the experience, although nothing had been as exhilarating as that very first morning, when I found myself standing on top of the otter holt!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Earlier this summer I went to the west coast of Scotland to try to photograph pine martens. The cottage I stayed in, Dunlachlan Cottage in Strontian, is well-known for the pine martens that visitors feed in its garden.

But this year sightings had been scarce.  I tried not to let the lack of entries in the visitors log book get me down when I arrived. I had brought boxes and boxes of equipment, including surveillance cameras, screens, flashes, tripods, netting, camera traps, security lights and motion sensors, with me and spent the first evening setting all this up in a sitting room which I planned to use as my pine marten surveillance headquarters.

I also set about transforming the garden with old logs that I thought would make a good backdrop for the pine martens to pose on when and if they showed up. I smeared traces of jam and peanut butter up the branch to attract the pine marten on to it. I worked until gone 10pm that night and was delighted when a pine marten appeared that very evening and even climbed my prop. Unfortunately it was raining hard so I wasn't able to take any photographs.

However this turned out to be a touch of false hope. I spent the next week waking up at dawn each morning and waiting until gone midnight most nights for the pine marten to reappear. On one night the only creatures I saw were a wood mouse and a cat.

But at last on my last night I heard a black bird call out in alarm and at the same time heard an animal move through the forest. It was another two hours before the pine marten appeared, its cream bib catching the glow from my night lights. It looked my way for a split second and in that moment I took the photograph I had been after all this time!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Swallows in my porch

Each Spring I look forward to the arrival of the swallows to my garden. They usually nest in the front porch of my house.

This year they arrived on cue and started to build, but for some reason lost interest in nest building and decided to go elsewhere.

But fortunes changed in the first week of August when 2 pairs of swallows took up residence. One pair in the front porch and another in a passageway around the back of the house.

The chicks are half grown now, but I'm still having to keep my distance from the nests. I'm hoping to get photographs of them in the next two weeks just before they fledge.

The young chicks usually hang about on the gutters of the roof close to the nest or on fence lines. Here, they continue to be fed by the parents.

I have already seen swallows starting to gather together along telegraph wires. So fingers crossed the weather will hold out long enough for these two late broods to make it back to Africa.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Weekend Wildlife Watching

This weekend I travelled down to the Bird Fair at Rutland Water to meet the BBC Wildlife editorial team. I have been producing local patch reports of the wildlife around my gallery for them since the beginning of the year and it was great to put a face to a name.

The fair was very busy and packed with interesting stands, which has given me lots of new ideas of where to travel to next. I was particularly taken with a trip to see polar bears on snow mobiles in Svalbard so I'll be getting itineraries and prices together for this so I will be able to take a group there in 2017. (Let me know if you want to join me!)

While I was there I bumped into Miranda Krestovnikoff, president of the RSPB and her husband Nick and children and chatted to Bill Oddie too! And I got lots of information on different hides and lens covers for my cameras.

When I got back to my home in Yorkshire late on Sunday afternoon the kestrels were waiting for me. So I put some food out for them on a post and watched them eating their food while I ate my own at the kitchen table!

I had put out a whole dead rabbit for the stoats before I left for the weekend which they had devoured in two days. The young stoats are starting to get territorial now and chasing each other. It wasn't long before one appeared to feed.

Next, the sparrowhawk swooped into the garden and chased the garden birds. It has taken to running under the bushes to flush out the flocks of tree sparrows that congregate underneath the bird feeders.  A young sparrow took flight and the sparrowhawk followed it. It arched round in a circle to try to get to a dense holly bush, but the sparrowhawk was too quick and while flying upside down grabbed it before it could reach cover. I dashed for my camera to photograph and video it out of the bedroom window. It gobbled it down as if it was just a snack.

Tree sparrows are in decline nationally and I have quite a stronghold of them around my gallery - about 30 pairs. So I have got a dead pigeon out of my freezer and will try and start feeding it to this sparrowhawk to distract it from my precious flock!

Later that evening, I went down to the local badger sett that I visit each night to put down some dog biscuits. I have a barn owl nest box there too and the adult pair has raised 5 chicks already this season and are now sitting on their second brood of eggs. I put out food for them too. A barn owl screeched angrily at me as I arrived, clearly annoyed that I hadn't feed them the previous day as I was down at the Bird Fair. It flew over my head nearly mobbing me. As I ducked I saw that it was one of the fledged chicks. I didn't see the adult female I suspect she was keeping her warm and sheltering from the strong arctic winds.There is definitely an autumn feel in the air now.

As I crouched near one of the badger holes a badger popped out to see what the fuss was about. I threw it a handful of dog biscuits and then I backed off and climbed back over the fence.

I saw two more young barn owls quartering the valley, practising hunting, hovering and then stalling in the wind if they thought they heard a movement. I made a vole-like squeak and they both made a bee-line in my direction. They circled overhead confused at this 6 foot 2 inch 'vole' making the noise.

As I approached my car a roe buck sprang from the hedge barking its alarm call before pronking away.

As I arrived home 3 tawny owls were feeding just 6 metres from my living room window. They are coming earlier and earlier each night as it is getting darker sooner. Last night they were here at 8.50pm.

It is fascinating planning exotic trips abroad, but there's nothing quite like your local wildlife that I know so well and has become so accustomed to my presence and I was delighted to have seen so much in such a short space of time.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Tawny Owls: Tough Love

One of this year's young
I've been watching the tawny owl chicks mature over the season. They are reaching maturing now and virtually indistinguishable from the adults.

The feathers on the backs of their heads are the last to come through so I can still just tell who is who.

The other thing that does make them look different is how unkempt the adults are looking. They are devoted parents and really do a great job of bringing up the brood. And it has been hard work for them as this year they have had 10 chicks to care for. Look how they now.

The male at the beginning of the season
At the end of the breeding season

But in spite of all this devotion the attitude of the adults has started to change. We’re entering a transition period when they are no longer caring and nurturing the chicks, they are starting to push them out of their territory and into pastures new.

Every night I can hear the pleading calls of the chicks to the parents but the call from the adults is aggressive and frightening in response.

It's a rite of passage that seems to visible upset and confuse the chicks, who really don't seem to know what to do. It's certainly a steep learning curve for them as they start off on their own. Talk about tough love.

So I'm expecting to see the young for a couple more weeks, but then I expect them to gradually disperse, leaving just the two adults here for Autumn and Winter until the breeding season starts again next year. I’ll be missing their nightly antics!

And while the breeding season is drawing to a close for the tawny owls a new one is dawning for the barn owls who are going for a second brood this year.

The 5 young born in May have now fledged and the adults have wasted no time in getting started with a second clutch of eggs.

I'm expecting these to be born in early September with the chicks being ready to fledge in November - let's hope for an Indian Summer and a mild winter!

Monday, August 4, 2014

(S)totes Amazeballs

I've been watching a family of stoats in my garden and I've managed to get some great photographs which I plan to use as studies for a painting.

I first spotted the stoats playing in the garden and when I saw one climb the wire mesh fence at the end of our boundary with incredible ease it gave me an idea.

I decided that if I could get the stoats to feed in the garden I could set up an assault course for them and watch them as they chased one another about. Stoats are very nimble and agile and I wanted to capture this skill.

I began putting out rabbits for them every day and once they were visiting the garden regularly, I set a trail of food along some old branches.

At the top of the assault course I put a down a hollow log and left a rabbit inside it everyday.

It was fun to watch the stoats work for their food!

I kept changing and developing the assault course, to capture the stoats in different poses.

I love watching them. They are real characters.

They are also very cheeky. It didn't take them long to work out that I was also putting food out for a family of kestrels and this one ventured up the branch to try to pinch it.

It got sharp shrift from the adult female kestrel. She swooped down and plucked the stoat off with her talons and flung him onto the ground!