Friday, November 27, 2015

Fox Family Occupy Unused Section of Badger Sett

I painted this after photographing some fox cubs that had occupied an unused part of a badger sett.

I first noticed the presence of foxes after walking over a local badger sett checking it for signs of life and spotting a half-gnawed pheasant leg poking out of one of the holes. I realised a fox must be using part of the sett for a den. My suspicions were confirmed when I then saw the remains of rabbits and the wing of a young rook because this meant that it was very likely a vixen was there with cubs. Urban foxes can be easy to photograph because they are so habituated to people. I have had great success watching them in this way, although for me it does feel slightly like ‘cheating’. 

But properly wild foxes in the countryside can be very difficult subjects to study indeed. I have been outwitted by them on several occasions. If a vixen catches the scent of a human anywhere near her den she might move the cubs, so I knew I had to be very careful and keep any disturbance to an absolute minimum.

The foxes were living at one end of the badger sett, which is large and ranges across the top of a daleside and rabbits were also living in one section. It isn't uncommon for foxes to occupy badger setts, although if you grew up reading Beatrix Potter and read The Tale of Mr Todd, in which Old Brock the badger is known for staying in Mr Todd the fox's home, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the other way around!

Just 25 yards away is a large, lone sycamore tree. I decided that this would make an ideal place for a hide. Since I knew my scent would already be around I decided to act fast and put a hide up that very afternoon. I made a platform five metres up the tree and put my hide on top of it.

The height gave me added advantage, because from there my scent was more likely to disperse.
But although the sett was clearly occupied with foxes and rabbits there was little sign of badger activity. I knew there was another sett just 80 yards lower down the daleside, so I headed off to see if anything was happening there.

There were plenty of signs of badger activity in this lower sett. Freshly dug huge spoil heaps marked out the entrance holes. Resting on top of these heaps were piles of bedding having a good airing before being dragged back down the holes at a later date. There were plenty of tracks leading up the dale marking out the badgers’ pathways. And I was delighted to see that the grass was flattened all around the holes – a good indicator that there might be several cubs in residence. What luck – two occupied setts, one containing a fox family the other a badger clan. I might even be able to see both badger and fox at the same time!

I was even more pleased when just as I was leaving the heavens opened and it rained hard for over an hour, washing away any sign that I had been there. Things were looking good.

The next evening I headed to the new hide. But I got distracted when I spotted four badger cubs emerge from the sett lower down. They were with two adults and since it was only 8pm and still very light I couldn’t resist staying there to photograph them first. I watched them as they the adults groomed the cubs and the cubs played together in the evening light and an hour passed before I remembered the fox den.

The light was fading by now and I was worried that I was a little late. I like to be in my hide before the cubs emerge for the evening. I began to feel a little annoyed with myself for leaving it so late, when I spotted something flash down the hole as I approached. I hoped I hadn’t frightened the vixen off and so I climbed the ladder as quietly as possible and settled down to wait. But within half an hour a cub tentatively poked his head up.

It was followed by another and then a third. It wasn’t long before the three cubs began to romp around but, frustratingly, it was too dark to take any pictures. Watching the fox cubs was even more interesting than watching the badger cubs. The fox cubs were so playful, chasing each other and doing practice pounces even at this young age. The fox cubs played outside the den until nearly 11pm but the vixen didn’t appear – it could be by now that she had already left the den preferring the peace and quiet of living alone again, albeit close by, and just returning from time to time to check on and feed her increasingly independent cubs. It was pitch black so I headed home.

Spurred on by having had such a good sighting I woke at 3am the next morning and climbed into my hide carrying some three stone of equipment up the ladder in the black- dark. As it started to get light I heard a blackbird chink its alarm call and I quickly checked my camera settings just in case the vixen was on its way. But there was nothing.

About half an hour later I heard a crow calling. Crows will often mob foxes, so again I got my cameras ready and waited expectantly for the vixen to appear. But yet again there was nothing and as the morning wore on this pattern of expectation followed by disappointment continued. A chaffinch called out in alarm, but again it led to nothing. Then a great-tit did the same. Then the crow flew to the ground and began to peck over the scraps of food left by the foxes.

Watching the crow I realised that he was very nervous around the holes and rightly so as the vixen and the crow are arch enemies.I finally gave up around 8am having seen nothing but this darn crow. After my late night and very early start I had only had three and a half hours sleep and I felt quite despondent.

But I was determined not to give up and that evening I went back. But again I got distracted by the badgers on my way so this time, instead of arriving late and risking disturbing the fox cubs I went back to my car and watched one of the cubs with my telescope.

The next night I got to my hide at 7.45pm. I could see the badger clan scratching and playing in the valley below and I was torn between the two, wanting to be in two places at once. But I really wanted to see the fox cubs so I stuck it out, waiting and hoping that this time I would be lucky. But they didn’t appear and I went home feeling cheated yet again. I wasn’t able to get to the hide again for a week as I had a lot to get ready for my summer exhibition which was due to open that week.

Once the exhibition was in full swing and the first wave of visitors had gone home I returned to the den. Again the badgers were out early, but this time I headed straight for the hide and was rewarded when a fox cub made an appearance at 9pm. I was surprised to see how much it had grown in just a week. I hoped that another would join it, but it walked across to the entrance of another hole and sat down in front of it and fell asleep for half an hour. Occasionally it lifted its head up and at one point it snapped at a crane fly – commonly known as a ‘daddy longlegs’ - that flew too close.

Then it got up, stretched and began hunting more crane flies, stalking them through the long grass.
It caught dozens and ate them all. Some rabbits playing nearby caught its eye and it started to stalk them. But the adult rabbits soon spotted it and began thumping their back legs as a warning. The noise unnerved the fox cub which scampered back into its hole for safety.

It soon remerged though having learnt its lesson and resumed its insect hunt further down the valley where I lost sight of it in the darkness. I tried to see this fox family on several further occasions but I didn’t get to see a fox again. They are known to move den sites when the cubs get bigger or weather permitting will choose to live above ground in cornfields or thickets. When I saw a rabbit sat outside the fox holes my suspicions were confirmed that the foxes had move on.

I switched to watching the badger cubs in the lower sett, but in spite of some success this time around I couldn’t help but feeling infuriated to have been outwitted by these cunning foxes once again.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Stalking a red stag

I’ve always wanted to experience the red stag rut in the wilds of Scotland, when male ‘stags’ compete for supremacy over the female ‘hinds.’ But I’ve never had the chance as it coincides with when I am busy painting originals for my Christmas exhibition.

I have seen red deer rutting in parks like Studley Royal, Bushey Park and Richmond Park. And while this can be quite spectacular, it doesn’t feel authentic. Then a customer in the gallery invited me to stay with him on an estate on the Glen Coe Range, owned by the family of the late James Bond author, Ian Fleming. This was a great opportunity to stalk deer with my camera. It is a very special area as much of the land in this region is completely wild, as there is no farming.

I headed north with fellow wildlife enthusiast, Jack Ashton-Booth, who helped me carry all my heavy camera gear up mountainsides and track the deer. We turned onto a single track road to Glen Etive. I could hear a stag roaring out of sight. We were surrounded by impressive Munro-s, the Scottish name for a mountain above 1,000m. That evening at the lodge the enormity of this challenge hit home! It had been such a mild autumn that most of the deer were still high up in the mountains and the rut was two weeks behind.

Early the next morning we spotted three stags high up on the hillside. We planned our approach, using the forest as cover. Between us we were carrying 34kg of camera gear which is quite some weight when you are climbing. We had to walk over cleared fell forest, stepping over spiky deep brash piles and cross a mountain stream to gain height.

We reached the edge of the trees only to be greeted by an old rickety deer fence. We couldn’t climb over it so we followed some deer tracks which led us up the hill and through a hole in the fence. Next we had to walk through dense bracken that was over six feet high. We used bracken and boulders as cover to gradually get closer to the stag. Once in range, I set up my camera and tripod and started to get some shots. But it was warm and sunny and the heat haze stopped my camera from focussing. The stag spotted my lens and started coming towards us, scenting the air to work out what we were.

The light was all wrong; I needed to be photographing the stag from the other side. So I set off again with the aim of looping around the stag unseen and hiding behind a large boulder which I had spotted. It took me two hours to do it! I headed up the mountain through bracken and into a line of silver birch. It was hard going as fallen trees and boulders were hidden beneath bracken. I fell several times, but eventually I was high up above the stag. Luckily, it hadn’t moved far.

I slid down a gully made by a mountain stream on my backside and made my final approach on my hands and knees. I peered round the boulder to see he was just 50 yards away. After all of this, I didn’t want to disturb him so was selective with the photographs I took. He sensed something wasn’t quite right and walked towards me with his head held high, scenting the air. I was getting fantastic head shots but it was quite intimidating to have him standing just 30 yards away. Finally, he settled down and I spent the next six hours photographing him.

By 7am the following day we had spotted him again. He had been wallowing in a bog overnight so he looked quite different with his fur shaggy and wet. You can identify stags by the shape of their antlers which have a varying number of points. This one had 10 points. He was so handsome, we nicknamed him George Clooney. He was lower down the mountain which was good, but there was a younger stag with him. He was much more flighty and headed up the mountain snorting in alarm as we approached, driving Clooney in front of him – and away from us.

I tried to get above the stags, using a stream gully as cover, but they were faster than me and gave us the slip. We looked for him for a further seven long hours, climbing up ever higher in the mountains but without success. We decided to call it a day by 5pm as we were worn out and hungry. But just as my vehicle came into view I spotted Clooney on the hill behind us. So we headed back to stalk him again. As we got closer he tussled with some grass, tossing a large clump into the air. Then he set back off down the mountain roaring before disappearing into the forest.

The following morning, we decided to look for a stag on lower ground, as we were ‘knackered.’ We spotted one roaming the valley bottom roaring. It was on the opposite side of a wide fast-flowing river. As I looked for somewhere to cross, I spotted another stag nearby. I couldn’t believe it: it was Clooney. I crossed the river and followed him upstream using the bank as cover.

I popped my head up over the bank: he was 150 yards away. To get closer I crawled over gravel and gorse on my belly. My camera got caught and the sound made Clooney put his head up and walk towards me snorting. I laid flat on the ground until he lost interest and then slowly crept forward again, using a small gully as cover. He spotted me just as I was getting my camera ready, but this time he looked straight at me with a look that said, ‘Oh it’s you again!’

By 9.30am I had spent two hours edging closer to him and he was just 50 yards away. He accepted my presence so I signalled Jack to join me. We spent the most amazing day following Clooney for about 11 hours like deer whisperers. We walked with him as if we were part of his herd. When he lay down for a rest, we did the same. He knew we were not a danger to him and eventually let us come within 25 yards.

It was fascinating to watch him wallow knee deep in a peaty pool. He was fired up by the other stags that were bellowing up on the hill behind. He began to tussle the bank with his antlers. He tossed his head up and sage grass, moss, mud and water went flying up into the air. Water streamed down his mane. He urinated in the pool, stirred it into the mud with his feet and flung it back over himself until he was drenched. It smelt surprisingly goat-y. He emerged from the bog proudly dripping with his new aroma and roaring. This stag eau de cologne must be attractive to hinds!

Jack recorded his roar on his phone. He played it back to check the sound, which really upset Clooney. He looked directly at Jack, holding his head high and roaring loudly in return. He started raking at the ground with his antlers. It was quite intimidating and we decided not to playback the ‘Clooney roar’ again.

The past three days were among the best that I had ever spent in Scotland. I was keen to get back to the easel and start a new painting of a stag that I had named after the actor George Clooney.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Short-Eared Owl Watch

I've just finished this painting of a short eared owl and it is now on show in my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire. 

Birds of prey have always fascinated me, especially owls. I have studied barn owls, tawny and little owls in great detail. But more elusive owls, such as short eared owls, were missing from my portfolio until this year. 

The British Isles have a resident population of short eared owls which mainly live on moorland. These birds migrate to lower lying lands when cold weather sets in. But much of the Britain’s winter population is made up of short eared owls that have migrated to the UK from Scandinavia, Iceland and even RussiaThese birds are truly nomadic in the sense that they will migrate over 1,000 miles in search of good hunting grounds and to escape bad weather.

Living near the east coast, we are perfectly placed to see the first migrant short eared owls as they arrive in autumn. They favour large areas of rough grass, estuaries and marshes where they are more likely to find voles, their preferred prey.

You can tell what time of day an owl hunts by the colour of its eyes. Short eared owls have a piercing yellow eye, as do little owls and snowy owls. This indicates that they hunt during the day. Whereas the almost black eyes of a tawny owl means it hunts mainly at night. The painting below, which I also completed this year, shows just how bright their eyes are.

The fact that short eared owls hunt during the day means that they are easy to watch, when you can find 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.

I have seen them in the valley below my gallery in Thixendale, but their hunting patterns can be erratic and unreliable so when I learned of a popular short eared owl haunt south of the Humber River a year ago I took the opportunity of a 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. Before long a charm of goldfinches surrounded me, feeding on the thistles among the tussocks of grass, as buzzards, kestrels, marsh and hen harriers flew above me.

Then just before 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 the marsh harrier. The attack looked almost synchronised as one by one they plummeted down like fighter planes mobbing a target. They mobbed the harrier, which had been sitting in a tree, 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. I waited for one of the owls to come in range of my camera, but they turned their attention to the buzzard which had been sitting on a fence post for the past two hours minding its own business. They soon moved him on and resumed skimming the long grass looking for voles.

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, which are 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. An owl that I was watching suddenly twisted in the air and then plummeted to the grass. I thought that perhaps it had caught something. And so did the kestrel I had seen earlier.
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.
It made for a spectacular end to a great afternoon.


This painting of a fox mousing in the snow is currently on show in my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire. 

I spotted this fox as I was driving home late one evening. Dusk was just settling over the snowy landscape when I saw something moving by a straw stack. I stopped my car just in time to see a fox slinking round the back of the stack out of sight. It reappeared a hundred yards away, heading towards a long straight drainage channel on the edge of a field; almost the size of a small canal. I was all fingers and thumbs getting my camera out.

Meanwhile the fox passed through a hedge and re-appeared on the bank of the channel. It turned and looked at me in a nonchalant manner before continuing down the bank. Here it cocked its leg to mark out its territory. Suddenly it froze, head pointing downwards and ears up. I guessed it was ‘mousing’ or more likely had heard a vole moving under the snow.

It repositioned its legs, ready to pounce, and pinpointed the position of its prey before it sprang high up into the air and dove into the snow, front feet first. Its nose was buried deep in the snow while its thick brush tail wagged from side to side as it hunted. Then the fox lifted its head back out of the snow, and shook it. Bits of reed fell from its mouth – it had missed.

It continued onwards and I followed it on foot as it set out on this night of mischief. I used the hedge as cover to get closer.Wild country foxes are tricky subjects to approach but there is no harm in trying. By the time I caught up with the wily creature it was watching a flock of starlings nosily bathing and drinking under a bridge where the water hadn’t frozen.

Stealthfully, the fox crossed the bridge, but the birds were far too wise and fast for him. They flew into a nearby willow tree and settled down to roost. The fox continued on the opposite side of the channel. I ducked back through the hedge to keep out of sight as I followed. After 100 yards I crept back through and found him on point, looking at the ground again.

This time he was after a mole. The dark soil of the freshly dug mole hill stood out against the whiteness of the snow. A twig snapped beneath my foot and I froze as the fox looked my way. Luckily some movement underground refocused its attention. He paused, repositioned his feet and cocked his head to one side. 

By this time it was too dark to take photographs, but I was enjoying watching. After a tense few minutes, the fox sniffed the molehill, raked over it with its front paw and then, realising that the mole must have escaped, cocked its leg peevishly on the molehill. It was as if it was saying: ‘If I can’t eat you I’ll leave you with this smell instead’.

As the fox trotted off, I decided to try to keep up. But as I stepped forward my foot cracked noisily on an ice puddle hidden under the snow. The next footstep made the same sound and I was afraid I had scared off the fox. Sure enough as I reappeared out of the hedge, it had vanished. I could see hundreds of yards in each direction but it had outwitted me.

A silhouette in the distance caught my eye and I checked it out with my binoculars. It was a roe deer browsing. I was out in the open now and the deer was quick to spot me and quickly pronked into some cover. I turned to head back and crossed the bridge retracing the fox’s movements. I soon picked up its fresh tracks and as I approached the molehill I caught its unmistakably pungent smell.

I crossed the bridge where the starlings had gone to roost. They were silhouetted against the sky, which was now lit up with stars. It was well below freezing and the snow was developing a crust. Imprinted into it with perfect precision was the shape left by the fox’s head where it had pounced for a vole. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Saving Nature: Looking after Tawny Owls

A pair of tawny owls feed in my garden each night, rewarding me with some incredible sightings. Last year they even brought their chicks to the bird table and on one occasion I got these photographs of them balancing on the branch outside my living room window! It has been fantastic watching them at such close quarters, they are such characters. The way they bob up and down when they spot something new is so funny. 

I’ve been putting food out for tawny owls to encourage them into the garden for some years now. I use them as models for my paintings and many of the pictures of tawny owls that hang in my gallery are portraits of this particular family. On one occasion my favourite male model, who features in the painting below, got caught in a scuffle and nearly lost his eye! Thankfully it healed up and I went on to paint him again.

The adult pair returns each year to nest in a line of sycamore trees just below my gallery. Some years ago I hoisted a hollowed-out stump into one of the trees and encouraged them to use that to nest in.
I wanted to use this nest box solely because it made an attractive prop for the backdrop of my paintings. Last year it came into its own. The adult pair had four chicks of their own and became surrogate parents to six more after I was given some by Ryedale Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. The tawny parents didn't appear to be able to count and took to the role of feeding what now amounted to 10 chicks without hesitation. I helped the parent birds along by offering extra food out on the bird table. It was quite dramatic the day these chicks fledged. We had had a week of torrential rain and the owlets got so wet their feathers were too sodden to be able to fly back up to the safety of the nest. I couldn’t help myself when I saw the fledglings soaked to their skins, their feathers stuck fast to their bodies. I scooped them up and brought them inside to dry them off with my wife's hair drier before popping them carefully back into nest.

Tawny owls are adventurous birds and once they’ve decided to explore the world outside the nest there’s no stopping them. They often venture out before they have learned to fly. I had to rescue the fledglings two more times that same week! Tawny owls are one of the earliest owls to nest and are often sitting on eggs by March. They nest in a hole in a tree, but will readily use specially designed nest boxes which replicate these natural sites.They usually lay three to four eggs but clutches ranging between one and seven have been recorded. From these clutches, two or three young will be successfully raised each year - so my success was really incredible.

The female does most of the incubating of the eggs as well as nurturing the chicks in the early stages. The male meanwhile hunts both for the female, himself and the chicks. After 32 to 34 days the chicks start to hatch. Their hatching is staggered as owls will begin incubating as soon as the first egg is laid. This means that the chicks can vary in size from the start. Only the strongest survive, especially if food is in short supply. The chicks grow quickly in the early days and the female will start hunting to keep up with the demand for food.

By four of five weeks, the chicks start trying to leave the safety of the nest. As I discovered, this is quite precarious because often these adventures take place well before they can actually fly. And, of course, their explorations take place several metres above ground. Accidents happen and young chicks frequently end up on the ground where they can look rather helpless and abandoned. However, this is quite natural and all part of growing up.

Passers-by often make the mistake of picking up these young owls and taking them away, thinking that they are rescuing them. Instead, it is better to find their nesting tree, which is usually nearby. It shouldn’t be difficult to spot as there is usually a hole in the tree. Put them either back into the hole or onto a sheltered branch close to the trunk so that they are off the ground and away from predators. But be careful, tawny owls are very protective parents and if the adult birds spot you near their chicks they will attack you!! It would be safer to wear a helmet and if you are at all in doubt don’t worry about leaving them on the nearest branch, they are capable of climbing up vertical trunks with their claws and beak

Come dusk, they will start to call and let their parents know where they are and that they are hungry again. Tawny owls are devoted parents and will look after their chicks until September, but come October the parents will shoo them away and my new models have to find their own territories. It can be a noisy time as you hear them sending the chicks off. It seems cruel but it’s all part of growing up and perfectly natural. These chicks will need to find their own territory with enough food to sustain them if they are to survive, and the parents know that.

The latest brood have now gone from the garden and I miss them. But the adults have been protecting the nest site so they are clearly getting ready again for next year. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Farming for Lapwings

As I continue to look at what we can do to save declining species for my exhibition Saving Nature, which opens at my Thixendale gallery on Saturday, I thought I would share the following on lapwings. 

Lapwing Study, by Robert E Fuller
Lapwings are beautiful birds. Their striking black and white plumes, delicate crest and iridescent sheen of green, blue and purple make them an attractive subject to paint. And, when courting, they put on a tumbling flight performance which is fun to watch.

But they have been in decline since the 1950s, mainly due to intensive farming practises, and there are now just 140,000 breeding pairs left in the UK.

One of the problems is that they nest in large, open areas where the vegetation is short. I watched plenty during a trip to the Dales earlier this year, but it is getting increasingly rare to see them nesting in arable areas like East YorkshireThe trend for autumn sown crops means that these crops are usually too high by the time lapwings are looking to nest and so instead they tend to choose ploughed fields where they run the risk of losing their eggs under the rollers.

My father, who in 1995 won one of conservationist’s most sought-after prizes, the silver lapwing award, for the work he did to promote wildlife at his farm in Givendale, used to mark out lapwing nests with flags to ensure the drivers didn’t mow them down. Thankfully nowadays more farmers are taking up the challenge of protecting the countryside for wildlife, with an increasing number becoming involved in government stewardship schemes.

Three years ago I visited a farmer I know in Melbourne in East Yorkshire.  Jeremy Kemp had been awarded a Higher Level Stewardship Schemes four years beforehand and had put aside two five acre strips for breeding lapwings. Jeremy had ‘disked’ his lapwing strip to create the right, ploughed, effect to encourage lapwings to nest there. 

But finding their nests in the freshly-turned earth proved to be a difficult task. As we drove up to the edge of the field, six lapwings immediately took flight. We stopped and watched. Within 10 minutes the birds came back and settled down to brood. Not wanting to bring the car any closer, we fixed our eyes on each nest and then approached cautiously on foot. The lapwings flew off again but when we got to the spot where we thought the nests were likely to be, we put a short cane in the ground to mark it and then searched around, treading carefully of course.

Just as I was beginning to give up all hope I spotted a nest. Lapwing eggs are superbly camouflaged in a simple scrape in the earth lined with dry grasses. They are a sensitive bird and to watch them on their nests you need to be in a hide and to very gradually inch the hide closer and closer a bit each day. Fearful of scaring them, I didn’t return with my hide until a few days later. Rather than build a hide at the site, which is something I would do for most nesting wild birds, I brought a ready made one of plywood which I could easily rock out of the back of a trailer at the edge of the field.

I carried it into the field and set it down 30 metres away from the nest. Then I returned to the edge of the field to make sure the female was okay about this new presence. Thankfully she flew back to the nest and promptly settled down on her eggs without any apparent concern.

During the course of the following week I moved the hide a few metres closer each day and every time waited to see if she returned to the nest.It was during this week that I also found the other two nests. I marked them with hazel twigs and kept an eye on them from my hide.

By the second week my hide was only nine metres away from the nest and I got some great shots of the lapwing brooding. She was very protective and one evening I watched her see off a family of starlings that were foraging a little too close to the nest, rushing at them furiously with her wings splayed. But what I was really after was some photographs of her with small chicks.

Timing is always difficult with lapwings since soon after they hatch the chicks will go off to forage for insects by themselves. They don’t then return to the nest as the adult will brood them anywhere in the field I realised there was a chance of this happening when one evening I looked in on one of the two nests marked with hazel twigs and discovered four chicks had recently hatched. Two were still wet.

So I decided to hedge my bets and put up second hide on the nest that was still to hatch, again moving it closer to the nest a bit at a time. By now I was checking on the eggs at both hides daily and was just beginning to wonder if they would ever hatch when one evening I put an egg from the first nest I had located to my ear and heard a faint cheeping and tapping. I arrived early the next day fully expecting to see the chicks, but there was just a small chip in each of the eggs.

To my dismay the next day there was a downpour and I watched frustrated as the rain lashed against my studio window. The sun didn’t emerge until evening but as soon as it was out I headed down to the hide. The chicks had hatched and I was lucky enough to get a few photographs of them as they foraged with their attentive mother.

It wasn’t what I had hoped for and so I headed off to inspect the other nest. The eggs here were now chipping. When I returned the following morning three chicks had hatched overnight. They were still damp. But thankfully one egg was still to hatch. At last, this was the moment I had been waiting for. As I settled into the hide the female lapwing arrived and began to shuffle about trying to make herself comfortable, all the while trying not to tread on her chicks.

It was amusing to see how she was unable to settle until everything was just right. I watched as she began tidying up. She picked up an empty eggshell, flew off and dropped it about 30 metres away before she finally settled down.

As the morning wore on she would stand up every so often to check the progress of her chicks and by late morning the three chicks had dried out and were taking their first steps on oversized, wobbly legs.

Two were quite adventurous and by lunchtime had begun foraging missions of their own, pecking at insects and scratching about. They then got tired and fell asleep in the sun but she woke them with a contact call and encouraged them back under her.
After five hours in the hide I was pleased with the photographs I had and so left the new family to their adventures.
During the course of three weeks I had made 12 trips and clocked up 500 miles in my car to study these lapwings.
I am always very careful to cause as little disturbance as possible to nesting wild birds but over the years I have noticed that my presence at a nest has one positive consequence - it unnerves predators such as crows.

And it is such a positive thing the government, under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, is helping farmers to protect these beautiful birds. Hopefully one day they will be as plentiful here as they are on the Dales.

Don't miss my exhibition, running at my gallery in Thixendale, YO17 9LS, until Nov 29th for all you need to know about how Art is Saving Nature.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Preview of new original paintings 2015

I've just finished a new collection of paintings in time for my exhibition opening on Saturday, November 7th-29th. Here's a sneak preview.

Weasel Wall, Acrylic painting by Robert E Fuller £4,350 Image size: 26x18" Framed 39 x 32" 

I had a family of weasels living in my back garden so I made nesting chambers and feeding boxes which I  surrounded by natural stones or roots and I installed ten surveillance cameras to track their movements around the garden. This is one of the male kits emerging from its nest.

Fox-a-mousing, Original acrylic painting by Robert E Fuller. £2,150.
Image Size: 10.5x6.25" Framed 20.25x6.25"
I saw this fox one winter coming out of a stack of straw
bales. I parked my car and followed it on foot down a bank of a canal.  The fox stopped and I watched it listening face down in the snow; it then pounced into the air plunging head first into the snow after a vole or a mouse. It missed and went on its way. I looked at where it had pounced and there in the deep snow was a perfect face print of a fox!

Short-eared owl in flight, original acrylic painting by Robert E Fuller. £2,595,
Image Size: 13.5x6.75" Framed: 23x18"
I spent several days in deep snow watching five short eared owls hunting for voles in a valley on the Yorkshire Wolds. I was amazed how they could dive into 18” of snow to catch their prey. I was dressed in a white ski suit to disguise my presence as they hunted.

Grey Partridge- Christmas Calling Acrylic painting by Robert E Fuller £3,500
Image Size: 10.5x14.25" Framed: 20.5x25"
I was photographing hares on a snow-covered field hoping to capture them boxing in the snow. The mist came down and I was surrounded by white. I heard a grey partridge calling, it was getting louder each call it made – then a single partridge came out of the mist towards me. A weak sun came through the mist and lit up the bird as it called; it kept running and calling, looking for the rest of the covey before it vanished into the mist.

Barn Owl in Elm Stump, Original Acrylic Painting by Robert E Fuller. £6,550
Image Size 17.25x21.25" Framed: 29x33.5"

I lifted this old elm stump into a tree near my house to make a natural nest box. Kestrels and tawny owls have used it in the past to nest in but 2015 was the first year in which a barn owl used it. The male barn owl overthrew a pair of kestrels which were going to nest there, it was an hour long battle but eventually the barn owl won. This is the female which arrived two hours after the male’s fight with the kestrel. It was very interesting watching the barn owls meeting for the first time.

Climbing Stoat, Original Acrylic Painting by Robert E Fuller £5,290
Image size: 13 x 18.25" Framed: 32.25 x 25.75"
I had a family of stoats living in the garden and this one found the branch where I feed my local kestrels. I love how mischievous they are; sometimes they would push the kestrels off the food and pinch it, they always won, even though the kestrels were reluctant to leave their food.
Galapagos Greater Flamingo Original oil painting by Robert E Fuller £2,100
Image Size: 6 x12.5" Framed: 17.25x22.75"
There are only approximately six hundred Galapagos greater flamingos left and they are never seen en masse. I was lucky enough to see two males having a power struggle for dominance, the one that gets their head highest wins!

For more of my original paintings or for more information please call 01759 368355 or click here to see my website.