Friday, March 27, 2015

Easter Eggs and Nests

As spring approaches it’s tempting to tackle the cobwebs that have knotted up the corners of the greenhouse, but I like to leave them for the long-tailed tits.

These beautiful little birds weave a soft, delicate nest out of lichen, moss or sheep’s wool and then almost stitch it together with sticky cobwebs so that the nests can expand as their chicks grow.

Long-tailed tits are one of Britain’s earliest nest builders - I have seen them begin in the first week of February whilst there is still snow on the ground -but this early start can lead to problems because there is no leaf cover to hide behind at this time and it’s not unusual to find their elaborate nests ripped apart by corvids – especially magpies.

After watching a pair of adult birds build a nest using cobwebs collected from my greenhouse I painted the picture below. 

The ways in which different species build their nests is so fascinating I have made it the subject of a new exhibition which opens tomorrow here at my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire.

I have secreted 12 nest cams into nesting sites hidden all over my garden so that visitors can watch live as birds build their nests. 

Already a tawny owl has laid two eggs for Easter and is now busy incubating them. It was incredible to watch as the female dug a nest scrape shortly before hand and the camera captured the male and female preening one another's faces affectionately.

The cameras also show the action in a barn owl nest box and a tree sparrow, which is busily creating a hollow cup shape out of lichen and moss using just its beak. The tree sparrow will go on to build it up into a tall domed structure, which could become a problem if the dome obscures the camera.

There are no shortage of tree sparrows here at Thixendale. When I moved here 17 years ago there was just one nesting in the roof of the house, now there are over 30 pairs. They have even taken over house martin boxes and once nested in a pair of old walking boots I put out for robins. 

One camera shows a pernickity blue tit which cannot decide which nest box to choose and I've been watching it dive in and out of several, spreading out its wings as if trying it for size.

And this week a new pair of robins have begun nesting in a storm lamp I hung over the back porch, so I hope to link a new camera to this site so that visitors can watch the robin as it constructs a cup shape out of the dried leaves it has been collecting. 

I like to put out attractive objects for the birds to nest in as they make wonderful props and backdrops for my paintings. Last year I also persuaded some swallows to nest in this storm lamp. 

This is now the second pair of robins I have in the garden, which is very unusual for such a territorial bird. The other pair seem to have made the front garden their territory where they continue to persist in trying to build a nest in the back of my Landcruiser. 

I'm taking the fact there are now two pairs here as a personal compliment for all the hard work I have put in to planting up what was once a bare hillside. Over the years I've planted a small woodland, a wildflower meadow and a great number of shrubs and bushes to attract the birds. Clearly the food supply is now plentiful enough to support more than one pair of robins. 

If you are in North Yorkshire this month don't miss the chance to visit the exhibition. There will be paintings and photographs of different species on the nest and plenty of real nests for families to see and learn how to identify. 

The exhibition runs until April 26th and is open daily.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Nesting Season

The birds at Fotherdale have been very busy looking for nest sites. 

I was a little alarmed when this robin decided it fancied the tyre on the back of the Landcruiser. 


Whilst I would love to let it nest there, I need my car everyday and so I moved it before the robin got too far on with its structure.

But despite the fact that I drove it 40m away to the car park outside my gallery, the robin found it and carried on building!!! I will need to set off on a longer drive later today to discourage the robin before it gets any further - otherwise this could become a very expensive nest box!

Robins will nest on or near the ground in hollows, nooks and crannies, climbing plants, hedgebanks, tree roots, log piles - anywhere that provides a concealed cavity.

But they are famous for choosing all kinds of unlikely locations. A friend of mine found a nest in the tool pockets of his shed. 

One year a robin perched on the spout of an old kettle in my garden.  Seeing it there gave me the idea for the painting below. 

I used to use the kettle to keep plant labels in, but seeing the robin so familiar with it I decided to nail it to the fence and turn it into a nest box. 

The robin took to it easily. I watched as the female built the nest, creating a cup out of dead leaves and moss and lining it with hair.

The different ways in which birds build their nests is the subject of an exhibition opening at my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire, next weekend.

I'll be showing a collection of pictures of birds I painted after watching them nest in unusual sites. 

I have collected samples of different nesting materials for families to touch and have a range of nest boxes for them to put their hands into, including a nest box I made from an old tree stump for a woodpecker.

I also have nest cams bringing live feeds to a bank of TV screens in the gallery from 10 different nest boxes hidden in the garden and surrounding countryside. 

So far the boxes are occupied by a tawny owl - which has already laid two eggs - and a barn owl. A blue tit has been fussing over which nest box to choose and keeps flitting in and out of several.  And a tree sparrow has brought a few bits of moss into one, making a start on what will become a tall domed structure.

My exhibition runs from Saturday March 28th to April 26th so if you are in Yorkshire or are planning to visit come and take a look at what will surely be the most precious eggs this Easter.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Mother Nature

As Mother's Day approaches I've been focussing on tender moments between adults and their young.

I used acrylic and pencil to depict this roe deer and fawn because I really wanted to focus the viewer on the interaction between them.

The same applies to this badger with her cubs. She is a badger I watched for many years and when her cubs first emerged from their underground chambers it was a delight to see them jumping and running around in circles. I wanted to get across this sense of fun between mother and cubs.

This regal-looking cheetah called for a more formal approach, so I chose oils and concentrated on her watchful, protective poise. It was a pleasure painting the soft lustre of their coats.

This zebra foal was trying to shelter its head from the punishing midday sun in Etosha Park in Namibia. As it lowered its head the adult zebra mirrored the pose. I used broad brush strokes to create an impression of the rest of the herd fading into the background so that the viewer focussed in on the moment.

No blog about motherhood in the wild could go without a mention of birds and the incredible efforts they go to for their young; from building nests, to incubating the eggs and then feeding the tiny brood morsel by tiny morsel.

Did you know that mallard ducks will feign injury to lead predators away from their nests, limping away flapping their wings despite the considerable risk to themselves?

I painted this reed warbler feeding a cuckoo chick after watching it exhaust itself trying to keep up with the seemingly unending demands of this oversized chick!

The analogy at Mother's Day is funny, especially when I think of parents taking care of their overgrown teenagers!

My gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire, is open on Mothering Sunday if you fancy a trip out.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Learning to listen to nature

As spring gets underway, the birdsong in my garden has ratcheted up a notch or two and the noise got me thinking about how I watch wildlife and the techniques that help me spot species when I'm out and about.

People often say I'm lucky when I see something. But it's not just down to luck. It's mostly patience. And listening. In fact listening is the key. 

Identifying the sounds isn't as difficult as you think. If you are by a river or stream, try and identify the sounds around you.

A loud piping call is the sound you hear before a kingfisher flies past, whilst an unusual birdlike whistle alerts you to a female otter keeping in constant contact with her cubs.

Often, if an otter is nearby, you may also hear the call of a crow, seagull or magpie as they scavenge from the otter’s fishy catch.

Grey wagtails are also very vocal. Listen out for their ‘chiswick’ call above the sound of crashing water.

Knowing the specific calls of different species, gives you a much greater chance of encountering the creature in question. There are many ways to learn bird calls. Some swear by identification CDs, but I prefer the old-fashioned way of learning in the field and gradually building up my knowledge.

If I hear a bird call or song that I don’t know I hang about keeping my eyes peeled, looking for where the new sound is coming from.

Even after years of practise, I still get caught out once or twice a year with a species I don’t know so well. And sometimes I get a surprise when one bird mimics another.

Each bird and animal has a repertoire of different calls and songs: a bird will use one call to announce its territory, another to raise the alarm, and yet another as a contact call between adults and their young. This means it can all get quite complicated. But these different sounds also give you a greater opportunity of seeing other wildlife.

A bird’s alarm call is particularly useful because they can alert you to the presence of both predators and their prey.

A rabbit that thumps its back leg to let other rabbits know that there is a fox or stoat on its way, also gives you the heads up on this opportunity to see the predator.

A bird’s alarm call is a clear signal for other birds to take cover. You can generally make out what sort of predator is lurking by the position of the calling bird. 

If the bird is visible at the top of a tree or bush, a ground predator such as a stoat, rat or fox is nearby. 

But if it’s well hidden in dense undergrowth, then an aerial attack is most likely - possibly from a sparrowhawk or other bird of prey.

In summer, swallows are always the first to spot a sparrowhawk on the prowl, and they usually raise the alarm. A swallows urgent call sets off a chain reaction from all the other birds in the area.

It is well worth learning as many calls as you can. Knowing the sounds can tell you so much about what is happening around you.

If you’re a beginner, don’t be put off by the immensity of the task. We all know the hoot of a tawny owl, the coo of a wood pigeon and a cuckoo’s call.

From these bigger birds it’s not so big a step to then being able to identify finches and other smaller birds.

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!