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 www.natureviewcam.co.uk 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!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Working a Wildflower Meadow


The wild flowers in the meadow I planted last spring have all produced seed heads which are now attracting a lot of birds. I've had a charm of goldfinches feeding here along with linnets and yellowhammers. My resident colony of tree sparrows are also really enjoying it.


I'm hoping this new 'larder' outside my living room window will feed this population over the winter and provide me with plenty of new painting models at the same time.

Some of my best compositions, like the goldfinch feeding on a thistle head, above, are of birds feeding on seed heads. 



In the summer the meadow was full of insects and butterflies, including marbled whites, which again became excellent models for sketches, like the one above.


On one occasion I counted 40 marble whites in just 20 minutes!



Most people's living rooms look out onto a nice neat lawn, but I look on to a meadow of wild flowers. I like to think it is not just a beautiful backdrop but also a working environment.


It took a bit of work to get it established and looking back it now seems a long time since the cold spring day I first sowed this mixture of seeds and even longer since I gathered the seeds from the banks in my gallery car park!


I also spent a lot of time preparing the ground. The seeds were sown in what is actually a very thin layer of soil covering 400 tons of solid chalk which had been dug out when my new studio was built.


Among the many species that have taken are wild carrot, red clover, ox-eye daisies, horse shoe vetch, self heal, yarrow and greater knapweed.



These flowers have also been useful as studies for my backdrops. I am still working on a picture of two hares in a wildflower meadow. What do you think of it so far?


Monday, September 22, 2014

New Beginnings

I came across this barn owl chick on a road side this week. Poor thing had fallen out of its nest and was desperately flapping away to no effect!


I stopped and put it back in its nest with its siblings - all members of a late brood. This long warm spell we are currently enjoying has meant that some barn owl pairs have been able to go on to have second broods  -which is very good news for local  populations.

The barn owl population near me in Thixendale, north Yorkshire, was so low last year that I supplement-fed a pair through the winter and was delighted when they went on to breed and five chicks hatched - and fledged - successfully over the summer.

The pair went on to have a second brood of three chicks and these are now two weeks old. I hope the weather doesn't turn bitter too soon but I intend to continue to supplement-feed the family if it does. It is so important to try to restore the populations here.

I had found this chick whilst driving to Burton Agnes Hall near Bridlington where an exhibition of my work is currently on show.



This Elizabethan country house is one of the finest examples of the period and it has been a great privilege to be able to hang my paintings of wildlife alongside the impressionist masters.

My exhibition was a celebration of the wealth of creatures that inhabit the 50-acre grounds of this Tudor stately home and whilst planning I got thinking about how important England's landscaped parks are for wildlife.


According to Burton Agnes owner, Simon Cunliffe-Lister, roe deer graze on the lawns in the early mornings and he often sees barn owls flit past the mullioned windows!


My exhibition is on show there until October 5th and tomorrow I plan to take my two young daughters to explore the award-winning gardens there and see what other wildlife we can find in the grounds.

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!