Thursday, February 11, 2016

Galapagos Allure

To mark Valentine’s Day, this year I’m exhibiting a painting of a giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands named Super Diego. Super Diego is more than 100 years old and is said to be so virile that he alone is responsible for bringing his sub-species back from the brink of extinction. There were just 14 saddle back Espanola tortoises left in the world when Super Diego was introduced to a scientific breeding programme in the Galapagos in 1977. At the time, two males were struggling to breed with the 12 females that together made up the entire Espanola population.

But Super Diego had no such difficulties. As a last ditch effort to save the species, he was shipped to the Pacific archipelago from a zoo in San Diego, California, where he had been living since the 1930s. So potent is the genetic strain he contributed to the breeding programme, he is said to have sired an estimated 1,700 baby tortoises ever since. Now that is some work!  His portrait, shown below, is on display in my gallery in Thixendale this week.

I painted it after watching Super Diego in 2014 slowly swagger about his accommodation at the Darwin Foundation Centre on Santa Cruz Island, where he continues to perform for his species to this day. It was fascinating to see him. The Espanola tortoise has a shell shaped like a saddle and beneath the sweeping pommel is a gap which allows this particular subspecies of giant tortoise to stretch its neck up to browse on low lying branches. Whilst I was watching Super Diego, a keeper walked into his enclosure and the tortoise raised himself to his full height in surprise. Standing high on his legs with his neck stretched up his reach was easily six feet.

My trip to the Galapagos Islands, which lie 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, involved observing some of the world’s most unique animals embark on their courtship rituals. I had timed the visit to coincide with the breeding season and the islands were teeming with birds in the throes of these remarkable displays. On my very first day I was blown away by the otherworldliness of the place. 

There were blue-footed boobies stepping across dark volcanic rock whilst in the trees magnificent frigate birds puffed out blood red throats like toads. These jet-black birds are normally just that; black with the tiniest red sack at their throats like pirates wearing thin crevettes. During the breeding season the males puff these out until they become enormous bright red balloons. This may not seem particularly romantic to you or I, but the females clearly find it so and it was touching to see them snuggle up in to these inflated chests and I painted this, as below.

But among the most fascinating courtship displays I witnessed was that of waved albatrosses, which I saw during a day trip to the island of Espanola. Espanola is host to the only nesting colony of waved albatross in the world. We walked ashore just as dawn was breaking. Some marine iguanas were lined up on the beach trying to warm up in the early morning sunshine. Sally Lightfoot crabs - bright orange crustaceans thought to be named after a nimble Caribbean dancer - were tip-toeing across the sand. We left the shore and walked through dense bushes. Very soon I could hear a very strange, eerie sound. The noise turned out to be the sound emitted by a pair of courting albatross. It grew louder and louder, a haunting ‘whoo hoo’.

We rounded a corner into a clearing and suddenly there were several pairs of albatross performing this elaborate courting ritual right there in front of us. Waved albatross stand at nearly one metre high and have delicate waved markings that ripple across their breast. They are normally solitary birds and spend the entire year out at sea, coming to this specific island only once to breed. These birds mate for life so this annual reunion is very emotional. Pairs seem so genuinely pleased to see each other and greet one other by rubbing their bills together tenderly.

This gentle beak rub is followed by one or both birds standing suddenly bolt upright. These huge birds either stand with their beaks pointed towards the sky, emitting the strange wailing sound that I’d heard earlier, or pose alert with their beaks wide open, before continuing to rub bills again. Every so often the pair clack their beaks rapidly like a pair of castanets. Then, abruptly, they stop and begin preening over their shoulders, or moving their heads fluidly from side to side as though dancing. Sometimes, the couple will suddenly, and, seemingly, randomly, take a break to attend to their nests, before, without any apparent prompting, resuming their unusual courting ritual once more. This comes across as quite comical, after the intensity of the beak-clacking.

I was keen to record the moment when two albatross are reunited and on my return I painted the way in which these huge birds looked so graceful when they looked lovingly at one another, see above.
Albatross are quite cumbersome on land but up in the air they are majestic. I watched as a male with a 7.4ft wingspan circled overhead looking for somewhere to land. Finding a space big enough for that vast shape took some planning! Taking off was also incredible to watch. The wind was blowing onshore so the albatross would walk towards the cliff edge and then start running hard into the wind. They looked like men taking off in hang gliders.

Galapagos is host to so many utterly unique species that one trip is barely enough to take it all in and so I have booked a return visit this spring, again just as the breeding season kicks in. I’ll be there in a professional capacity as wildlife guide to a group of just 14 people. The visit has been organised in conjunction with Spanish-speaking guide Santiago Bejarano of Think Galapagos, in Bishop Burton, East Yorkshire, who has considerable knowledge of the region.

We will be touring the island on a luxury yacht and will get the opportunity to snorkel alongside sea lions, turtles, rays and even the indigenous Galapagos penguin. But, aside from a return visit to see Super Diego, the highlight of the trip will be seeing the beautiful birds that return to breed each year on these remote islands. I can’t wait to see them again and to show my guests the incredible wildlife that the Galapagos has to offer.

There are still places left on my guided trip to The Galapagos Islands this spring. The trip is limited to just 14 guests who will tour the archipelago on a specially-chartered luxury yacht. If you are interested in joining this exciting adventure or in any future trips please contact me on 01759 368355.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Mr Lover Man

Meet Super Diego, nature's most virile lover. 

Super Diego, who is more than 100 years old, is almost solely responsible for bringing his own subspecies, the saddle-backed Espanola tortoise, back from the brink of extinction. With 12 females to mate with, this rampant tortoise is believed to have fathered an estimated 1,700  baby tortoises since being introduced to a crucial breeding programme on the remote Galapagos Islands.

Super Diego had been living in a zoo in San DiegoCalifornia, when he was picked to join the breeding programme.  At the time there were just 14 Espanola tortoises left in the world, 12 of them females. It is believed that he brought a healthy genetic strain to the threatened population and his contribution is hailed as helping restore the threatened species.

I painted this portrait of the rampant giant tortoise after visiting The Galapagos Islands in 2014. This spring I am due to return to the Pacific archipelago and will be leading a guided tour of the unique wildlife there. If you are interested in joining this chartered luxury cruise around the islands please follow this link to my website for details. 

You can see this painting at my gallery alongside a collection of other paintings that celebrate animal courtship on Valentine's Day. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Identifying Birds for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

This weekend is the RSPB annual ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’, an opportunity for us all to help the conservation charity count up Britain's bird species. 

Long tailed tit on catkins. Painting by Robert E Fuller. 
This national counting exercise is, in fact, the largest citizen-nature observation in the world, and last year around 500,000 people got involved. I think it is a great thing to do and usually take time out to count the birds in my own garden with my two young daughters. 
It only takes an hour and the great thing about it is that you can choose when you would like to sit and do it during the course of the weekend. 

I usually make myself a brew and then sit down with my two girls. It's great fun getting the kids to tick off the birds we see on an identification sheet downloaded from the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch website.

Wren. Painting by Robert E Fuller.
I have found its also a great way to teach them how to identify different species. Usually I find that I identify a bird by its sound, and can usually tell which bird is about to appear on the scene before I've actually seen it. The girls think it is amazing that I know when a particular bird is going to show up. Learning bird song isn't as hard as it seems. There are quite a few identification CDs on the market, although I admit that I am a bit of a technophobe and prefer the old-fashioned way of learning in the field and gradually building up my knowledge.

Goldcrests on Larch, Painting by Robert E Fuller.
It has taken me years to develop this skill and, although it does not happen that often, I still get caught out once or twice with a species I don’t know so well and sometimes I get a surprise when one bird mimics another. Still my daughters find it impressive since I do know the repertoire of different calls and songs that each bird has and can tell if a bird is simply announcing its territory, raising the alarm or calling another adult or young - which means I can usually point to young chicks or a predator with some accuracy.

The bird-feeder outside my studio window is usually teaming with birds and when we sit down at home to count them it isn’t long before the girls start shouting out ‘sparrow’ or ‘blue tit’.

Painting by Robert E Fuller

But trying to get an accurate figure of how many of each can be amusing since they flit about so fast.  My house is very rural, so I get a wide variety of birds, including dunnocks, fieldfares, bramblings and red wings.
Bullfinch on apple blossom. Painting by Robert E Fuller
The RSPB has run this event for 30 years and relies on the results to create a snapshot of bird numbers in each region, gaining a good indication of where there are serious dips in bird populations. Last year the friendly blackbird was the most observed bird, but other common species included robins, wrens and song thrushes. But the count also revealed continuing serious declines among species like house sparrows, greenfinches, starlings and song thrushes. 

Robin. Painting by Robert E Fuller.
Don't forget to get counting the birds in your garden this weekend! Getting involved is easy, and the RSPB offer a free bird watching pack to help you get started. The idea is to identify and count as many different birds as possible in an hour. You can then submit your observations online via the RSPBwebsite

Goldfinch. Painting by Robert E Fuller.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Welsh Mountain Goats

As a wildlife artist, goats are not normally a species I would consider as a subject for a painting. However, there is a wild herd that roam the mountains near my parent’s home in North Wales that often catch my eye. These creatures descend from domesticated herds and look eerily prehistoric.

I decided to make the time to watch them a little more closely. It was mid-winter and my father told me of a herd living in a disused slate quarry close to a sessile oak woodland.

These sure-footed animals are believed to originate from the Middle East and were brought over to this country by Neolithic man, who prized them for their skins, meat and milk. Iron Age farmers went on to use them, possibly because they were the only livestock that could graze Snowdonia’s precipitous crags. But the number of goats declined in the 19th century when they were replaced by sheep after the price of wool soared. The goats that were left became feral and were confined to the mountains in small isolated herds.

This herd was surprisingly difficult to locate. After an afternoon’s ‘recce’ which involved climbing up the steep sides of the slate quarry, I spotted the herd in a different, smaller, quarry. The next morning I set off long before dawn, in spite of heavy rain. I took my torch and shone the beam down to the ledge into the quarry. I could just make out their shapes in the mist. I made my way carefully down towards them, stopping 30 yards away and sheltering by the quarry face until first light. I wanted the goats to know I was there so that they could get used to my presence before I started to photograph them. But I was unsure how they would react to me.

As I took off my heavy rucksack they turned and looked my way. They kept a careful eye on me but did not move away. As the morning light began to penetrate through the mist the males, or billy goats, stood up and stretched before picking a route over the scree up to the top of the quarry. There was no way I could follow them along this dizzying route so I took the long way around the edge of the quarry.

By the time I had caught up they were grazing in the dense oak woodland that surrounds the quarry.
The goats nibbled at holly and bilberry bushes. They pruned back heather, swallowed bark, twigs, grass and even ate moss.  The saying that ‘there is nothing a goat doesn’t eat’ was evidently true and it occurred to me that this herd were actually shaping the forest floor.

All over the world I have seen how goats can destroy habitats by overgrazing them. But it was clear that here in this wet, unforgiving climate a small population is sustainable. Their population is managed and culls have taken place officially and unofficially over the years, but they have become quite iconic in the area and I doubt that they will ever be totally eradicated.

I followed them through this ancient woodland, where the tree branches were twisted and coated with moss and lichen dripping with water. It felt almost primeval, as if I was some kind of ancient herder. Back in Neolithic times wolves, bears and lynx would also have stalked these herds.
There was evidently some tension between the billy goats as they approached the females. Occasionally I got photographs of tussles between them.

By early afternoon it stopped raining. The herd wandered out of the forest gloom and into the old slate quarry. They passed the remains of tiny cottages where the slate workers once lived. I photographed them here standing dramatically against the stark mountainous landscape that is typical of Snowdonia.

They continued on heading down towards some of the lower levels of the quarry. One billy goat accidentally bumped into another, causing it to turn and fight. They both reared up on their hind legs before crashing down on one another. As their horns clashed the noise echoed off the slate walls. Argument resolved, they turned and headed on with the rest of the herd. These were the photographs I had hoped for. I crawled to within three metres of one billy goat, but stopped short when he lowered his horns and eyed me silently. I hope to capture that wild, prehistoric look in a future painting. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Great Hare Day

I’ve endured the icy winds of Antarctica in order to photograph wildlife for my paintings. But nothing in that cold climate compares to my ordeal of watching courting hares on the Yorkshire Wolds one Christmas.

As the country came to grips with one of the iciest cold snaps in decades, I spent 10 days trudging through thigh deep snow, sometimes for eight hours a day.

When it snows up here, it really snows, and when it blows, it really drifts. Getting close to the hares in these conditions was one of the harshest consignments of my career.

Hares don't just box and breed in spring, although this is the climax of the season, it can happen at any time of year and they can have three or four litters a year.

They seem to favour specific fields for their courtship, which they return to time and time again, and if you happen to discover the spot I’ve always believed it worth the effort it takes to watch them.

 Hares are solitary animals and when I saw a couple together in the snow shortly after a heavy snowfall, I knew they had to be courting and I couldn’t miss out on the chance to photograph them, despite the weather.

I had been out on a drive through the white wintery landscape looking for owls and had already taken a great picture of a tawny owl roosting in an ash tree: a dusting of snow around its hole and a few flakes on its head.

The hares, sat tight in individual dug out holes in the snow and facing away from the biting wind, were a little far from the road so I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed across a large arable field. The snow was particularly deep and it was heavy going.

As I struggled through the drifts, which were above my waist on the edge of the road, I spotted four more. They shuffled down deeper into the snow as I approached and flattened their ears to their bodies until only their eyes were visible, peeking above the snow line.

I took a few shots of the courting couple and then the snow seemed to explode behind them as they leapt up and dashed away into the distance.

The other four hares took chase - there was a female in season and the males weren't going to let her out of their sight.

It was difficult getting close enough for a good photograph, but I found that if I took heed of the wind's direction and moved slowly, sniper-like I could get surprisingly close. Whenever the hares looked alarmed I would stay still and resume my tentative approach when they settled down again.

But it took up to an hour to get really close and it was bitterly cold out on the exposed field. Whenever a large snow storm came over the hares hunkered down with their backs to the wind all in a line, but in between the storms males would go around the group testing the female’s receptivity. They were usually quickly rebuffed with a swift box from the female, who lay partially hidden in snow dugouts.

I used the blizzards whiteouts to get a little bit closer still. But as the weather cleared they spotted me and were uneasy with my proximity.

In my habitual green camouflage gear I stuck out like a sore thumb in contrast to the pure white landscape.

The hares dashed through a hedge into the next field. I used the hedge as cover as I approached them and then peered over into the next field. I spotted a larger group out in the middle of the field - there were eight in this new group and I could see still more in the distance – 20, perhaps 30 hares in total.

With so many pairs of eyes looking out, I was quickly spotted and they dashed over the horizon.

I followed them to the bottom of the field and was on the brink of giving up when I spotted a few doubling back on me.

As well as using the same field again and again, hares also like to court in the same place on a specific field and it turned out that spot was just behind me.

From my hiding place I counted 24 hares bouncing over the horizon towards me and then they joined into a group of 32. Hares seemed to be coming from all directions.

Within 20 minutes there were 51 hares in front of me - I couldn’t contain my excitement. To see so many at one time is extremely rare and this was the most I’d seen together in Yorkshire. This meant there must have been at least 20 females in season. I might have been alone on a bleak hill top in the middle of a blizzard witnessing, but I was delighted.

I pushed the biting wind to the back of my mind, but when another heavy snow storm came in and the light faded for the day I headed for home.

I needed to come up with a plan of how to get back there and photograph them again - but this time unseen.

A hide I decided wouldn't be practical; I needed to be able to move about quickly. So it came down to getting the right clothing - white clothing.
I decided to make myself and my camera a little outfit out of a white tonne dump bag held together with a few cable ties and some string.

This rig up worked well on the camera and tripod, but my attempt at making a jacket and trousers rustled noisily when I walked. I did however make myself quite a convincing 'balaclava' out of a (white) pillowcase and I cunningly swiped our (white) oven gloves from the kitchen.

Then I had a brainwave - an all-in-one spray suit (in white, of course) - is what I needed. So the following morning I headed into Yates of Malton and bought myself an XXL suit which was large enough to go over all my layers of clothes.

I drove out to the field, with my snow camouflage outfit in the back of my car. I was just putting my gear on when a tractor approached so, feeling a little self-conscious, I hesitated, until he had gone by.

But the tractor kept coming and going so I decided to venture out in the field and put the gear on once I spotted the hares.

I soon located them again, but getting changed in 18” of snow and a ripping wind was easier said than done. I had to lie on my back with my boots off trying to control the white spray suit which was trying to fly off in all directions.

I did look a bit of a sight in my white kit, but I quickly 'blended' into the general whiteout.

I counted the hares: there were 14 in the group and more on the horizon. I set off after them with the confidence of invisibility, but much to my annoyance they spotted me straightaway - I was silhouetted in white against a dark woodland background.

I let the hares settle and re-planned my approach to blend in with a white backdrop of neighbouring fields. Each time a snowstorm came over I edged closer and now had a coating of snow to add authenticity to my outfit.

Behind me my footprints had already been covered by drifting snow. My camouflage had got me within 25 yards of the hares.

They spent much of their time hunkered down with the snow whipping around them in great swirls. I spent day after day photographing them, mainly in overcast or blizzard conditions and sub-zero temperatures.

On the first sunny day of the week I headed off with a great expectation, despite the fact that it was -14C when I set off. But actually the crisp calm conditions proved more difficult as the hares could hear my every footstep crunching through the snow and the sun played havoc with the auto-focusing on my camera, due to a sort of heat haze coming off the snow.

It was fascinating to watch courting hares in such harsh conditions and such a marvellous end to my wildlife watching year. The leverets from this courtship may be among the first to be born in the New Year.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Bumper year for rare short eared owls

It's been a bumper year for short eared owls here on the east coast of Yorkshire. There have been a record numbers of sightings of this rare owl, which features on the RSPB's amber list of species in crisis.

These beautiful birds of prey (see my painting above) favour large areas of rough grass, estuaries and marshes where they are more likely to find voles, their preferred prey. The banks of the Humber is one of the prime places to spot them, especially as these migratory birds arrive from Europe.
Unfortunately the population of voles, their main source of prey, is has been low this year and I hope there will be enough to sustain the influx. The lack of voles will, however, ensure that the short eared owls will be hunting during the day when you are more likely to see them. The best time to see them in winter is during the late afternoon and large numbers of owls can occur in areas of good hunting. There is a popular short eared owl haunt south of the Humber River.
I took the opportunity of one clear winter’s day and went to see them for myself. I set out my chair and tripod on the edge of a large patch of rough grass land shortly before lunch and waited. At just after 2pm, as if out of nowhere, the air seemed to come alive with owls. I watched five short eared owls in the distance as they took it in turns to attack a marsh harrier which had been sitting in a tree nearby.

The attack looked almost synchronised as one by one they plummeted down like fighter planes mobbing a target. They mobbed the harrier, until it gave up and flew away. Then three more short eared owls joined them and all eight began quartering the grassland to hunt on their long wings.
It was quite a spectacle and it wasn’t long before one of the short eared owls spotted a perch close to me. It landed on it for a few minutes, shook its feathers – it was so close I could see the water droplets as they spun off its streaked plumage – looked me in the eye, and then it was off, chasing another owl away.

It was a really special moment. Its eyes, set off by dark markings that look like heavily applied mascara, are so piercing they seemed to see right through me. There were so many owls that it wasn’t long before another drama unfolded before me.

One owl suddenly twisted in the air and then plummeted to the grass. I thought that perhaps it had caught something. And so did a nearby kestrel. Within seconds it also dived into exactly the same spot. I couldn’t see exactly what happened next but there was clearly a tussle on the ground and the first to take flight was the owl, clutching a vole in its talons. It was closely followed by the kestrel. Despite the fact that the kestrel was dwarfed by the owl’s metre-long wingspan, the kestrel seemed determined to try and pinch the owl’s prey.

The owl climbed higher and higher into the sky with the kestrel in dogged pursuit. But as the owl extended its lead, calling out angrily at the kestrel, the kestrel changed its tactics. It moved away and then climbed higher than the owl. Then it turned and stooped back down towards the owl. Swooping underneath it, the kestrel grabbed the vole as it passed, leaving the owl in a bit of a spin.

The kestrel then hovered down to the ground, transferring the vole from his talons to his beak just before it landed, the sun just setting behind it. I have seen kestrels pinch meals off barn owls many times and the stealing has an official name, klepto-parasitism, but I was surprised to see one try it with a larger owl.

A Weasel Year: Bringing up a formidable hunter

One of the iconic wildlife images to emerge from 2015 was a photograph of a weasel clinging ferociously to the back of a green woodpecker in flight.

I was spellbound by the image as it went viral on the Internet. The photograph conveyed in an instant a quality I had been studying closely all year - the sheer tenacity of this tiny predator.

I’ve been watching wild weasels in my garden since March and painted the above portrait of a kit after watching it grow up in my back garden. My studies of this tiny family include CCTV footage from inside their nesting chamber, which I believe is the first of its kind.

Small enough to slink through a wedding ring and furiously fast; all that most people have ever seen of a weasel is of it flashing across the road before disappearing into the undergrowth. Weasels are part of the mustelid family, which also encompasses badgers, stoats, otters, wolverines and pine martens, and are generally the subject of a very poor press. The very word ‘weasel’ is used to denote a sneaking and untrustworthy character. 

And yet I can’t help but admire this tiny creature’s ferocity. It thinks nothing of taking on a creature up to 10 times its size. And it has evolved in remarkable ways – there are species of the weasel family living on every continent except Antarctica. But until now there has been very little close observation of their behaviour. Population counts are normally conducted by the number that gamekeeper’s trap.

When I first discovered I had a female weasel in my garden I seized the opportunity to use CCTV cameras that I had trained on bird’s nests at the time to study her. But the project soon grew and before long I had 12 cameras tracking its every moment. I left food out for it in specially-designed feeding boxes fitted with cameras. I even watched the moment it mated with a male, in a vicious act of rough and tumble that you would expect from a creature with a reputation for brutality.

I followed her with even more diligence when she began to look heavy with kits and built her a chamber to nest in, again rigged with hidden cameras. She went on to have seven kits. I filmed her transporting all seven, one by one, across the garden in full view of more than 30 visitors to my gallery. Later, I photographed the tiny creatures as they took their first steps into the outside world.

One day, I noticed a stoat creeping into their nesting chamber. Thankfully it was seen off by the female weasel, despite the fact that she was six times smaller than the stoat. Then when the kits were 48 days old there was a real change in behaviour. The female weasel decided it was time to take them on their first real adventure into the great unknown.

I had rigged cameras and sensors throughout the garden to alert me to their movements.  So when a sensor from a hollow log outside my kitchen window triggered an alarm, I knew they were on the move. I opened the window, but the female noticed my movement and quickly pulled the kits into the log by the scruffs of their necks. Seconds later she appeared in the entrance to the log, looking my way. The kits seemed to think this was some sort of game and pounced on her. She made a chittering sound and two kits followed her. 

They moved as if they were one animal – nose to tail. As they bounded away I watched them dash up into a feeding box that I had placed in a pile of old roots. Meanwhile the other weasels whizzed around the garden. There seemed to be weasels everywhere! The female was taking them on a grand tour of their territory. After a full morning of exploration, they all headed back to their nest in the back shed where I filmed them from a nearby hide.

It was impossible to count them as they moved through the undergrowth, but ever since I had seen the stoat enter the nest I had been anxious to see if all seven were still alive. Back at their nest I saw five kits dashing in and out of the holes of a dry stone wall I had built in front of the nest as a backdrop for my photographs.

In spite of being just 48 days old four of the kits were already bigger than her. I suspected that these were probably the males. The fifth was a female, she was a mini-fuzzy version of her mother. I suspect the stoat had got the other two. Later that day, I heard the chittering call of the adult female. One by one the kits dashed off in the direction of her call. I heard a squealing distress call. I ran over to the meadow area of my garden and parted the tall grasses. There was a weasel kit having a battle with a young rat. They were rolling and writhing about. One moment the weasel seemed to be winning, the next moment the rat had the upper hand. The rat tried biting the weasel’s face.

The weasel wrapped its long body around the rat to deliver a killer bite to the back of its neck; they spun as they tussled. I dashed to the house to get my camera. By the time I got back the weasel was winning the war and the rat’s squeals had subdued. The weasel had the rat by the throat and was viciously biting into it. It was making sure that rat was not just playing dead. It definitely was dead but it was still flicking and twitching. The weasel had been so caught up in the fight, that it hadn’t noticed me standing right over it filming.

It dashed off into long grasses to eat its well-earned meal and I heard another young rat being caught by one of the other weasels. The female had obviously taken the young kits on their very first hunting mission.

What a tough initiation for these youngsters – especially since there was already plenty of food for this growing family in the feeding box. Female rats, like most mammals, are known to fiercely defend their young and are the most dangerous prey to attempt.
I have watched cheetah take down gazelle in Africa and this was every bit as dramatic. How incredible to see such a rare sight in my own back garden.