Monday, November 17, 2014

City Wildlife

I am currently exhibiting a new collection of paintings of wildlife in Yorkshire and after claiming that this county is teaming with incredible species I was challenged by Radio York to see what could be found in York city centre.

Before I took the radio interviewer on a wildlife tour of the city, I decided to go out on a 'reccy' and was delighted when one of the first things I spotted was a peregrine perched on  a gargoyle on York Minster.

There turned out to be a pair there and I got this shot of the male and female perched on either side of the north window of the main tower .

I spotted a pigeon skeleton draped over a gargoyle (pictured on the right hand gargoyle, above) and realised that the pinnacles of this impressive medieval cathedral are the urban equivalent to a precipitous cliff and represent a great vantage point from which to hunt pigeons.

I watched the male as he eyed a flock of pigeons that had just landed underneath him. Then he started to flap his wings deliberately to frighten the pigeons. As they set off the peregrine lurched off the gargoyle into a spectacular stoop.

As the pigeons plummeted to the ground, tumbling and twisting through the air and swapping positions to confuse the peregrine, it dropped behind them with its wings pointed like a fighter pilot.

I could hear the wind rushing through the pigeons' wings as they pulled up over a small tree above my head and then I caught the sound of wind shooting through the peregrine's wings as it pulled out of its stoop .

He had missed but no doubt he would be back again.

The experience was so exciting I decided to return later to see if I could get more shots to paint from. I have painted a peregrine before, see above, but I am now considering a new painting with the Minster ramparts as a backdrop!

And if the peregrine sighting wasn't good enough I then toured the rest of the city and watched a sparrowhawk hunting a pied wagtail right above the heads of shoppers along Parliament Street!

I also saw a pair of goldcrests and a flock of long-tailed tits in Museum Gardens. It's incredible how much wildlife there was to be found in the centre of the city and how few people seemed aware of the lives of the species all around them.

Friday, November 7, 2014


My exhibition on Yorkshire wildlife opens tomorrow and I've got lots to share about the wonderful variety of wildlife to be enjoyed here in Yorkshire.

I'm planning to make a real 'Yorkshire fest' of the occasion and have today been captioning all my new paintings in Yorkshire dialect. The picture below of my new painting of puffins - which you can see at Bempton Cliffs on the Yorkshire coast - for instance has been annotated: 'Don't yer get shirty with me"!

Alongside lots of new paintings, I've organised some fantastic events to encourage people to go out and see wild birds and animals themselves.

In keeping with the Yorkshire theme I've got a culinary food trail of the Yorkshire countryside and a popular York author coming in to the gallery to talk all about what a great county this is.
For details of all that's going on take a look at my website

It's been a busy day hanging the new pictures, but I think they look good don't you?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Fotherdale's Fantastic Breeding Season

I'm just getting ready for my new exhibition all about the wealth of wildlife to be found in Yorkshire and I've been looking back at the remarkable breeding season we've had here in Thixendale -particularly in my garden at Fotherdale. 

I've watched tawny owls, kestrels and swallows, from the moment they first searched for a nesting site to the first flights of their fledglings.

And I've been able to photograph them throughout, so that many of the birds now appear in my latest paintings.

Among my favourite was this pair of swallows raising their chicks in a storm lantern hanging on my back porch! My painting of the event will highlight my new exhibition which opens on Saturday. 

This kestrel painting is also a new one and is the result of hours of watching and photographing the kestrel from the moment he won the annual tussle for the best nest box in Fotherdale. 

My new nest box cameras have revealed new secrets, including the fact that battles for next year's nesting sites have already begun.

Two weeks ago I reported how jackdaws, kestrels and tawny owls were all vying for one particular box and the battle is still not over. This week I captured the tawny owl digging a nest scrape in it.

It seems that at the moment the kestrel has possession of it during the day and at night the tawny owl has it!

But of all the season's great breeding stories, I'm proudest of the barn owls.

This pair live about a mile from my gallery and I have a particular interest in them after helping them through the previous winter with a daily supply of food.

They had become so accustomed to my daily offerings that if I stood very still the male would take food off the top of my hat!

Barn owls had a disastrous breeding season in 2013 and the restoration of barn owl populations in Thixendale depended on their performance this year.

And they didn’t disappoint. By Valentine’s Day this pair was loved up and already roosting in a nest box that I had put up for them. I had positioned the box opposite a tree-top hide so that I could watch the action at eye level.

It was so exciting to be able to watch, via my new CCTV, what happened once they disappeared into the entrance hole to the nest box.

I became privy to their entire courtship process! It was endearing to hear the soft, chittering calls of the male as it appeared in the box to offer the female gifts of food and see the quiver of her wings as she replied. Whenever he entered the box she would physically tremble with submission.

The first egg was laid on April 1st and six eggs followed at three day intervals, with the last laid on Good Friday. For me these were precious Easter eggs because they represented real hope.

Only six of the seven fledged, but this was still a healthy proportion and I was delighted when not long after they had left the nest I saw the male mating the female again and she went on to lay five more eggs!

Again it's been great having new painting models about, but I'm so very pleased for the future of barn owls here on the Wolds.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Wild About Yorkshire

I'm busy finishing a new collection of paintings of Yorkshire wildlife for my latest exhibition, which opens on November 8th. 

The event, which I've titled 'My Yorkshire', will be a celebration of all the wonderful wildlife that can be found here.

I'm hoping the new paintings will inspire people to go out and enjoy the wildlife for themselves and
I've organised bird watching walks and photography courses to accompany the exhibition.

I've also compiled a list of my top five places to spot wildlife during the winter to share with you.

Here they are:

1. Barn Owls at Sunk Island
Sunk Island by the river Humber is a birder's paradise with a high population of barn owls that hunt along the ditches. They are particularly visible from mid-afternoon onwards and are usually most active after bad weather.

2. Red Kites at Nunburnholme
This village on the Yorkshire Wolds is host to an established red kite roost. You can see up to 60 red kites from the roadside as you drive towards Warter. Red kites are unusually sociable and like to group together on winter nights, but just before they settle down they swoop and swirl through the air showing off some incredibly acrobatic movements.

3. Otters at Tophill Low Reserve, Driffield
The Sourthern Marsh hides at this reserve are good spots from which to spot otters. Look out for their wake in open water or a row of bubbles which often gives the game away. Listen too for their high-picthed birdlike calls.

4. Kingfishers at Howsham, nr Malton
Lookout for them along the footpath between Howsham Bridge and Kirkham Abbey. Listen for their high-pitched calls. Now is a good time to see them as there are less leaves on the trees and you get better views of the river.

5. Red Stag Rut, Studley Royal
This is the time when the stags tussle over hinds. My painting above is taken from studies I made of the rut here. The rut is exciting, dramatic and set in beautiful parkland graced with ancient sweet chestnut, beech and oak trees.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Trail Cam Photography

I'm often asked how I get to know the subjects in my paintings so well and the answer is that I spend a lot of time watching them. To help me with this, a few years ago I began using a Bushnell trail camera and I've found it a really useful research tool.

At the moment I have one trained on a buzzard feeding station that I set up here in Thixendale. I find it particularly useful for recording the times that the buzzards fly in to feed so that I can learn their routines when I am not there and then I can be ready to photograph them at the times I know it is likely that they are going to come. Most wild creatures are habitual and tend to feed at the same times every day, so knowing this information can save me hours I would have otherwise spent in a hide waiting for a creature to arrive. The above picture was taken with a  Canon 1D Mark 4 using a 500 F4 lens from my hide.

I've also captured some hilarious moments on my Bushnell trail cam that I might have otherwise missed, like this group of partridges rubbernecking the buzzard as it tore open its prey.

And I once discovered a wonderful 'wildlife bridge' over a stream after leaving my Bushnell trail cam on for a few days.

I had trained the Bushnell onto the log because I had been watching a badger sett nearby and wondered if the badgers used the log to cross the stream. But it turned out that the bridge was a busy thoroughfare for all the local wildlife and I also captured a fox, pheasant and even a woodmouse using it too!

With the information from my Bushnell I could be fairly certain what time a badger was likely to cross. Having said that, I didn't take the above picture from my hide, but instead used an SLR camera that I adapted to take pictures remotely by attaching a domestic security sensor to it.

I fixed a Puma wire-free movement sensor, designed to trigger security lights outside people's homes, to a Canon 7D 17-14mm lens and then taped insulation across part of the sensor to limit the field of view to capture the above shot of a badger crossing remotely.

There are infrared remote triggers on the market that let your subject fire the shutter in this way, but I have found that most of these involve lining up a transmitter and a receiver with perfect precision - something that is very difficult out in the field where you are dealing with uneven ground.
Often too, even when I do get the infrared beam to work, it appears in the final shot alongside my wildlife subject.

So I find that my personal rig up using a combination of a Bushnell and a Puma sensor works better!

Now that I am using these remote capture devices more and more for my research work, I was excited when this week Bushnell got in touch with me to let me know that they are holding a competition for the best UK captures on a trail cam.

Up for grabs are prizes totalling £2,400 so it's well worth entering!!

Entries need to go to before December 31st.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Nest Box Wars Begin Again

I was surprised to see that battles over nest boxes in my garden have started again. It seems very soon as the breeding season is now over and they are not set to lay eggs until April. It's my nest box cameras that have revealed all this action so I'm quite pleased that I haven't turned them off!

This week I spotted the pair of kestrels that I've following for eight years inspecting the box, but the next day two jackdaws were making themselves at home in the same spot and then that very night a tawny owl was also in examining its potential as a nesting site too.

And then, just as I sat down to write this, I spotted the kestrel was back.

Tussles over nesting sites usually begin long before the breeding season kicks off but I've never seen them start this early. I usually notice the fights when the warring birds get very noisy at around Christmas time.

This year I have had a nest cam trained on the activity, so perhaps they always do start early and I just never knew!

I originally put the box up to attract the kestrel pair that feed in my garden every day and this spring I rigged the nest cam into the box so that I could watch them at the nest.
The tawny owls were determined to nest there. But the kestrels dived bombed the owls incessantly and screeched aggressively all the time. The tawny owls eventually gave up the site and moved to a nest box further down the valley. Both nestboxes were rigged with CCTV cameras and I watched as they raised their chicks there.

Since the kestrels chicks fledged, the box was taken up immediately by stock doves who raised two chicks there. These stock doves went on to lay a further two eggs, but later abandoned them. I've been seeing the kestrel flying in and out of the box since September, so I started keeping a closer eye on the cameras. It was interesting to see the kestrel looking interested in the eggs, thinking that he needed to brood them. He even dug a  nest scrape for them.

But, the nest day jack daws were in the box prospecting the site for themselves. The jackdaws began tidying up in the box then came across the eggs. They picked up an egg each and flew off with them!

These kestrels will have to stay on guard if they want to keep the box to nest in next spring. That very night a tawny owl was giving it the once over. I heard it hooting outside my studio window and looked across at the live footage to see it peering into the nest box. If you look you can see its throat bulge as it hoots!

It will be interesting to see which pair of birds eventually wins the battle. I'm hoping it will be the kestrel and I'm glad to see him back again today - after all I did put this box up so that I can watch this kestrel pair closely!

I've just finished this painting of the male from studies I made of the kestrel last year, but a kestrel chick would make a good model for next year's paintings!

Have a look at how I produced this painting.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Sparrowhawk in the Studio!

I was sitting at my easel putting the final touches to this kestrel painting when a greenfinch flew through the open studio door with a sparrowhawk hot on its heels!

The two birds literally flew right over my head and then the sparrowhawk snatched the greenfinch just as it passed the back of my head. I didn't move.

The sparrowhawk, its prey clutched tightly in its claws, then swung round to fly out of the window. But it smashed straight into the pane, falling stunned, at my feet!

I picked them both up. The greenfinch was already dead but the sparrowhawk soon recovered and I took it outside to let it go.

Talk about getting your painting subjects to come to you! I have put a lot of effort and time into turning my garden into a wildlife haven so that I can watch my painting models from my window, but I've never actually had one come into the studio!