Thursday, February 26, 2015

RSPB Leighton Moss under ice

Recently I visited one of the country’s most important wetland reserves run by the RSPB at Leighton Moss.
I arrived shortly after dawn and watched the sun come up. Most of water was partly-frozen, but it still reflected the dawn light perfectly.
The first two birds I saw were two hen harriers, silhouetted against the dawn sky as they hunted low over the marshes.
As I opened the shutters of the nearest hide I could hear the calls of teal, wigeon, mallard and grey Canada geese. I couldn’t see them, but sound travels far in the still cold air.
I realised there must be a channel of unfrozen water behind the reed bed. Looking at the map I found a way across the causeway and began to head off in the direction of the noise.
I soon found the channel teaming with ducks. There were shoveler, gargeney, teal, mallard, grebes and swans – all sharing the same small space.
I headed to the nearest hide, but frustratingly, the ducks were still too far away.
Then I heard a fellow birdwatcher beside me say ‘I’ve got the otter’. I looked across to the other side of the lake with my binoculars and could just make out an otter in the distance. It was on the edge of the reed bed and was running out on to the ice.

I decided to walk to a hide closer. I set off along the causeway, where a sign informed me I had 460 metres to go.
I set off along the path with just the reed bed in view. There was plenty to hold my attention as I walked: wrens, robins, reed buntings; I knew there would be bearded tits too, although these remained elusive. I spotted this too and couldn't decide what it was. Marsh or willow tit?

I spotted fresh red deer slots on the path in front. I looked through the reeds and spotted their body shapes through the criss-cross of reeds. They raised their heads and looked in my direction but there was no time to stop.
At last I entered the hide. It was still early and I was the only one in. I opened the hatch, but I couldn't see the otter.
In fact I couldn't see much at all. But the longer I sat there, the more emerged. I spotted a snipe, on the edge of the frozen lake and then another one crouched in the grass, perfectly camouflaged.

And then the marsh harrier was back, hunting over the reed beds.
Then a quivering reed caught my eye. I looked through my binoculars down at its roots and there was nose of a vole tugging at it. Suddenly the vole felled the reed and began tugging it away.  I watched amused as the tiny vole felled reed after tall reed.
A couple of hours passed in this way and I was wondering whether I would see the otter again. By this time the hide was filling up with other birdwatchers – there were now more eyes to look. Then someone from the far end said ‘Otter on the ice!’
By the time I got to the other end of the hide the otter was heading back into the reeds. I waited at that end of the hide, which had a different view over the frozen water.
There were some small patches that weren't frozen and here there were more snipe. I could pick out five. They were probing their long beaks in to the mud to feed on invertebrates.

Then the otter was back on the ice. It hesitated for a short while. There was great excitement in the hide.
It ran 60 metres across open ice to another reed bed. It was great to see its lolloping gait as it ran.
Focussing my binoculars I noticed there were in fact two otters, a mother and cub. They were hunting under the ice.
As they came out of the water, their bodies lifted pieces of ice. The cub started to play with a bit of ice that had broken.
It was using it like an ice hockey puck; flopping onto its belly and pushing the shard of ice along with its nose and front paws. It was great to see them acting so playfully in such cold weather.

The otters looked so clear against the icy backdrop that I couldn't wait to get home and begin sorting through some suitable compositions for a painting. Below is an otter I painted some time ago and right at the top an acrylic and pencil drawing of one running.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

White Stoat Capture

I've managed to get a better picture of the white stoat I've been watching.

It is still very elusive though and recently sightings have been particularly unreliable because buzzards, crows and even a rat have begun eating the rabbits I put out for it.

I captured it on video tool See below.

These sightings have inspired me to keep trying to photograph it and I have now built an underground feeding chamber for it which the buzzards and crows, at least, will not be able to get to.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Stoat Agility Course in Action!

Here it is! My stoat agility course in action.

If you remember from my last blog I've only just finished making it and the stoats have made barely stopped in their tracks. I'm going to have to make it harder!

I've got some really great pictures of them now and am already so inspired I've begun a new painting.

The agility course, and the fact that I have stoats in the garden, has caused quite a lot of interest and this week Mike Dilger from BBC's The One Show came to film them! It was great to meet all the crew.

It was great too to share these charismatic little predators with so many people who are as enthusiastic as I am about them!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Red Squirrel Watch

I've been watching an endearing colony of red squirrels in the Dales.

Wildlife photographer Simon Phillpott has been feeding these indigenous squirrels near Hawes for some years now and they have become so used to him that it is possible to get up really close.

In fact they even follow him when he calls and, even more impressively, will go to a spot on the ground if he points to it. Simon, of Wild Dales Photography, was my guide for my three-day visit and he took me to watch them from his hide - although the squirrels were so friendly I didn't need to use it.

It was snowing when I got there and the branches and wall tops were white. It was great fun watching the different characters as they ran along dry stone walls, jumped fallen trees and perched on stumps. I captured this one as it took umbrage at a passing pheasant's attempt to take one of the nuts Simon had left for it!

Simon puts out hazelnuts for them. Hazelnuts are their favourite food. It's amazing to see what short work a squirrel makes of their hard shells to get at the tasty kernel inside. The hazelnuts seem to fit their mouths perfectly.

One character was particularly fun to watch. This squirrel had a slightly kinked tail and its winter coat and prominent ear tufts stood out. He was far bolder and more mischievous than the others, investigating everything he saw and even taking a look through our camera equipment.

I'm pleased with the photographs I got. I painted the red squirrel below many years ago now and whilst it's been popular, I'd like to start a new one.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Stoat Assault Course

Exactly three days before the snow fall last week, I spotted this white stoat hunting in the valley opposite.

I watched it hunting and then put out food and set up a camera trap. The shot I got is a bit fuzzy.

But it has been interesting to see how well camouflaged it's ermine coat was when the snow then fell.

Meanwhile the stoats in my garden are continuing to enthral me. Stoats are known for their agility and I decided to test this out to the full by building this 'stoat assault course' in front of my living room window.

I began by putting titbits out along the course but I discovered that the kestrels and the tawny owls were pinching the food, so now I've made some boxes with lids on, similar to squirrel feeders, which only the stoats can open.

I got very excited earlier this week when this female climbed onto the trail and did the first leg! She is new this year and this is first time I've managed to capture her fleeting visits.

Hopefully if she gets kits this year she will become even more adventurous because she will have more mouths to feed.

And things will get even more interesting if the kits grow up accustomed to running the course with their mother.

I may then start to make it more challenging!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Watch the Birdie

This weekend is the RSPB annual Garden Birdwatch where everybody can get involved in a nationwide count of Britain's garden bird species. It's great fun and something I always make a point of taking part in and like to encourage others to join in with too.

This year I invited BBC Radio York to see what species I have in my garden. The bird-feeder outside my studio window was particularly busy since there is quite a covering of snow here at the moment and my feeders are one of the only sources of food available.

We saw a great many different species. It made me think about how few birds there were when I first moved to Fotherdale in 1998. There was no water source here and the garden had just two plants: a fushia and a red hot poker. There was just one pair of tree sparrows and very little else.

My wife and I poured our energy into turning the garden into a wildlife haven. The house is built on an exposed hillside and there was just 4" of top soil above hard limestone. We dug a water course and pond, planted a spinney and poured 24 tonnes of manure on to the site on to which we have planted perennials, herbs, shrubbery and even a wildlife meadow.The results are incredible. There are now 62 different species here, including rarities such as corn buntings, twite and redstart. 

And from that one breeding pair of tree sparrows there are now 35 pairs. At the end of the breeding season there can be up to 300 tree sparrows here, a species that is on the RSPB redlist!

So many of my paintings now are of birds that live in the garden. I photograph them in the shrubbery or in nesting boxes like this old kettle and then paint from the photographs.

I like to put props out in the garden that I want my models to pose on. This wren struck a beautiful pose on this old hook for me.

And here is the painting I developed from the photograph above.

And this one of a long-tailed tit gathering cobwebs to nest in also made a wonderful painting.

The story of the birds in my garden and my paintings will be told on BBC Radio York every afternoon throughout next week. Don't forget to get counting the birds in your garden this weekend.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Coaxing Wild Buzzards to Pose for their Portraits

I'm often asked how long it takes me to paint a picture and the answer is complicated because I can spend a very long time in the field studying a subject in its natural habitat.

I use photographic studies to paint from rather than sketches and often I will 'stage' my photographs with an eye on the eventual composition of the painting.

This month I have been in Wales photographing a family of buzzards. These shots are actually the result of a two year project to get the buzzards to feed from the same spot above my parents' house in Snowdonia.

The idea was seeded even earlier than that when I began feeding some buzzards close to my gallery here in Thixendale, some years ago now.

I've never been able to rely on these local birds turning up to feed consistently and have spent many hours in my hide waiting for them to show.

Food is scarcer in Wales and the buzzards seem less wary of humans, which might account for my success there instead.

My parents live on a mountainside and there is a large granite slab on a steep hill about 200m above their house from which you get an impressive view of Mount Snowdon. My long term plan is for a painting of a buzzard in the foreground, with the mountain peak behind.

To achieve this I hauled a twisted branch of hawthorn up there for the birds to perch on, and built a hide among some trees overlooking the granite slab. It took me six days to build the hide, carrying my tools and equipment up the steep incline. My first attempt blew over in 80mph winds a year ago - so I've had to do this twice!

But now my father climbs up to the rock twice a week to take food to the buzzards and these wild birds of prey are so accustomed to feeding there they come down to the garden and begin mewing when it's time for dinner.

I can recognise them at a glance now. This is the male, he is very smart with heavy markings and is the most cautious of the family group. He is always aware of my presence and often won't come in to feed when I'm in the hide.

The adult female, larger and paler than her mate, is less wary, although she too has spotted me and has even glared down my camera lens, startling at the sight of the movement of the shutter.

My favourite is their female chick, below. She has a pale eye and white fringing on her feathers. I've photographed her the most, as she has such attractive markings and is the least wary. But I'm conscious that soon the adult birds will chase her away to fend for herself.

The three birds recognise my father and appear almost on cue when he is out in the garden. But I'm yet to get the shot of them with the backdrop I'm after in the frame.

Earlier this month I tried using the wide angle of a go-pro camera to capture this composition.

But despite trying to camouflage the go-pro in netting, the male buzzard spotted it immediately and even the two females flew off in alarm at the sight of it.

It could be a while before I get the exact image I'm after, but I'm still pleased with the success of my feeding station and the photographic studies I've got so far.