Friday, January 13, 2017

A Brave Barn Owl Sees off a Tawny Owl Attack

Watch how this barn owl holds its own when a tawny owl twice its size flies into the tree it is roosting in!

The barn owl bows its head when it spots the tawny coming in, then goes into an impressive defense posture: head lowered, wings up and extended back. This pose is known as 'manteling': making a mantle of his wings to make himself look bigger. Like a superhero posturing or a bullfighter fanning out a cape. The two birds lock together in battle then in an instant the barn owl has won the spat. But the tawny is not deterred that easily and moments later it's back for another go. Again the plucky barn owl stands its ground in defending what is potentially a future nest site.

Interestingly not long after filming the tawny male I captured this footage of the male tawny back at a nest site it had already occupied and preening with its mate.

The tawnys have already begun their courtship process and the way they sit so close and tenderly peck at one another's feathers is so touching - who said owls don't have feelings!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Watch My TV tour of Wolds Way Way on BBC1 on January 20th

I'm going to be giving a tour of the wildlife to be found along the Yorkshire Wolds Way in a new series on TV next week.

'The Yorkshire Wolds Way' is a new two-part programme due to be aired across the Yorkshire region, spanning both the Leeds and Hull areas, on Friday 13th and 20th of January, and then screened nationally on BBC2 in March. I feature in the second episode on BBC1 on Friday the 20th.

The series follows the arctic explorer Paul Rose as he walks this beautiful national walking trail. I met Paul back in June 2016 and gave him a tour of the wildlife to be found along the section of the walk that borders my gallery in Thixendale. It was so interesting to show Paul, who has travelled the globe, what there is to be found on his doorstep.

The Wolds Way runs for 79-miles through unique dry river valleys. These steep-sided valleys consist of chalk limestone that supports rare wild flowers, including orchids, and a wealth of wildlife. It is one of the quietest national trails and so you are likely to spot hares, buzzards, red kites and roe deer as you walk along it. I took Paul to see a pair of tawny owls and their chicks that live just off the trail.

I also gave him a tour of my gallery, which is located just a few hundred yards from the Wolds Way, and showed him how I use surveillance cameras to watch the everyday lives of owls, weasels, stoats and kestrels via TV monitors inside my gallery and studio.

He was fascinated to learn how I encourage wildlife into my garden so that I can follow the lives of my painting subjects from my studio. I showed him the weasels, stoats and birds of prey that are resident in my garden and took him to the spot outside my studio where I film these creatures.

Tune in at 7.30pm on Friday 20th to watch the programme!
You can find out more about Paul Rose and his new TV series here

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Brush up on your ID skills with me for the RPSB Garden Birdwatch

Visit my gallery in Thixendale later this month  to learn how you can become a civilian scientist for the RSPB's annual bird census. Brush up on your bird knowledge with my informative display on how to identify birds and join an expert ornithologist on Sunday Jan 29th to identify species in my garden. There will also be a video on how to recognise different species.

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

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 you can choose when you would like to sit and do it. We usually have great fun ticking off the birds we see on an identification sheet downloaded from the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch website. 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.

In 2015 the friendly blackbird was the most observed bird, but other common species included house sparrows, blue tits and starlings. And last year long tail tits were among the top 10 most observed birds. There were also more sightings of goldcrests than ever before, which goes to show that the work people put in to feeding the birds in their gardens is helping British species along.

Goldcrest painting by Robert E Fuller.

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’. 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 and so I get a wide variety of birds, including dunnocks, fieldfares, bramblings and red wings.

But whilst I have a very healthy population of birds at my home and gallery in Thixendale, it wasn’t always the case. When my wife and I first moved to our former farmhouse at Fotherdale in 1998, there was just one pair of tree sparrows here and very little else.
There was no water source and the garden had just two plants: a fushia and a red hot poker. For birds to thrive they need water, both to drink and to bathe in, and they need food; insects, seeds or berries.
The first thing my wife Victoria and I did was to pour our energy into turning the garden into a wildlife haven. We dug a water course and a pond and then poured 24 tonnes of manure on to the site. The house is built on an exposed hillside and there was just 4" of top soil above hard limestone.

We set about planting a spinney, which now provides ample nesting sites and cover for birds, and perennials, herbs and shrubs; choosing species that gave the birds berries in the winter and cover in the summer. Recently we also added a wildlife meadow which attracts hosts of insects and butterflies.
The results have been incredible. There are now more than 60 different bird species here, including rarities such as corn buntings, twite and redstart.

And from that one breeding pair of tree sparrows back in 1998, there are now 35 pairs. At the end of each breeding season there can be up to 300 tree sparrows here, a species that is on the RSPB red list!
In return for giving all these birds a home, I paint their portraits. So many of my paintings now are of the birds that live in the garden. I like to think of them as my models and put out food for them every day. I photograph them from my studio window or from hides in the garden and then paint directly from the photographs.

Bullfinch on Apple Blossom, painting by Robert E Fuller

Wren on Hook, painting by Robert E Fuller
I like to put props out in the garden for these models to pose on. One of my most popular paintings is taken directly from a photograph of a wren striking a beautiful pose on an old hook in the garden. Another is of a robin that nested in an old kettle I used to keep seeds in.

Robin on Teapot, painting by Robert E Fuller
The RSPB Garden Birdwatch takes place from January 28th to 30th and I’'m hosting a free event from January 27th-29th at my gallery in Thixendale to teach visitors how to identify birds. I’ll have information boards and a video showing different species and their songs and there will be an expert ornithologist here on Sunday 30th to point out different species in my garden.

There will also be a two hour bird watching trip from the gallery on Friday January 27th at 10.30am. Tickets cost £9.50. Click here to book a place. 

I hope these events will encourage people to join the RSPB count in their own homes over the weekend of January 28th-30th. It’s easy to do. The RSPB have an identification sheet that you can download here so all you need to do is tick off the birds as you see them. 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 RSPB website.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Kestrel kicks at my 'bird table with a difference'

This month BBC’s The One Show featured the bird table in my garden in Thixendale.
My bird table is unusual because it caters both for birds of prey such as kestrels and tawny owls and seed-eating birds, which  include tree sparrows, goldfinches, blue tits, robins, wrens and even rarer birds like bramblings. It even draws in insect-eaters like pied wagtails, which feed on the blue bottle flies attracted by the meat that I leave out for the birds of prey.

At times the atmosphere can get a little edgy, but on the whole the arrangement works and I get to enjoy spectacular sightings of a great variety of birds for my paintings all in one place. Kestrels mainly eat rodents but they will occasionally take a garden bird, especially a young one, if the opportunity arises. But the kestrels that visit my garden know that I have left food for them and so they leave them alone. As for the robins and sparrows, they have learned to accommodate the birds of prey - simply flitting into a nearby shrub whenever a kestrel swoops in and then resuming their feed as soon as it leaves. Although when the TV crew visited, one bold robin actually fed alongside a kestrel and I have filmed moments when tree sparrows and great tits barely budge as it swoops in.

This year, to get an even greater insight into their behaviour, I built a seven-metre long tunnel leading from my house to the hide so that I can get to the hide without being noticed by the birds.
It leads straight from a door in my living room, and going along it can feel like a modern day re-enactment of the Great Escape. You have to lie on a trolley and pull yourself along its length with a rope. Watch me glide along here!

But when you get to the hide you are treated to a close-up view of all of the birds that visit here.
In August I wrote about a two-timing male kestrel that has been visiting my garden for over a decade. This year he decided he would raise a family of five with his long standing partner, then sneak off to another nest down the road and raise a second brood with a new and unknown ‘mistress.’

Now I had two kestrel families feeding from the same bird table! And my tunnel allowed me to get to the hide without alerting them to my presence. It was a bit like watching a soap opera. The females would clash whenever they met in an aggressive aerial duel, talons locked they would spiral to the ground as they tussled. But it wasn’t until the first brood fledged that the real fireworks started.

These newly fledged chicks quickly learnt to take the food from my bird table and the mistress was not happy about it at all. She tried to push them out of the area by repeatedly dive bombing them and knocking them, quite literally, off their perch. The long standing wife tried to defend her chicks, but things really got confusing when the mistress’ brood fledged too. There were now eight kestrel chicks and three adults coming to feed. It was an amazing spectacle – there was never a dull moment! A local rescue centre gave me three more kestrel chicks which I released these into the kestrel clan. Soon these were feeding alongside the others. Now there were 14 kestrels flying around my house and queuing up to be fed.

By Autumn, most of these had dispersed into the surrounding countryside. Although I noticed that my philandering male kestrel had taken a shine to one of the released female kestrel chicks and had been courting her. It wasn’t true love however, as he was later seen mating his long standing partner and making nest scrapes in preparation for next year’s breeding season.
I started feeding the birds of prey in my garden one bitterly cold winter’s day in 2006 when I spotted a young male kestrel hunting through my kitchen window. He wasn't having much luck and I soon got worried about his chances of surviving the cold.
So I caught a mouse in a trap and put it out on a nearby fence post. By the end of the day the mouse had gone. So the next day I put another mouse out. Again it disappeared. The kestrel soon became a regular visitor, sometimes appearing up to four times a day.  I could whistle as I put the food out and it would take the food before I got back to the house. Feeding the kestrel and his partner that came the following Spring, soon became an established part of my routine.

First thing in the morning it's time for the kestrels’ breakfast: three dead chicks tied to the branch just above the bird table. Then I fill up the bird feeders with a cocktail of seeds, which includes nyjer seeds for the goldfinches, peanuts for the blue tits, and sunflower hearts for greenfinches, tree sparrows and blue tits, and fat bars for woodpeckers and robins. I also sprinkle mealworms into a dish for dunnocks and wrens.  Then at lunchtime the kestrels get more chicks, and some more again at teatime. At the peak of the breeding season I put out 40 to 60 dead chicks a day. 

But around nine years ago I realised that I also had nocturnal visitors. The kestrels can feed very early in the morning and to save time I got into the habit of leaving the food out the night before. One morning I woke early and saw that the food had gone. I stayed up the following night with a torch to find out what was going on.
I discovered that a tawny owl had cottoned on to the evening service I was providing. The owl, and later its mate, soon became regular customers. This year the tawny owls raised a brood of three chicks in the trees next to my gallery. I surrogated a further four owlets which had been handed into a local wildlife rescue centre onto this family. It’s a great technique that I’ve honed over the years which means that these rescued owlets get a chance at being brought up by wild owl parents. The adults can only manage to bring up so many because of the food that I put out for them on my bird table.

The pair managed to rear an ambitious seven chicks to adulthood. And each evening at dusk the garden is filled with the noise of hungry chicks. They come swooping into the garden from nearby sycamore trees. First one, then another and another land and queue up. It is an impressive sight to see up to seven chicks poised along one branch! Next their parents swoop in and help them get the food from my specially modified bird table.

This summer I painted three of this year’s chicks perched on the branch, their heads cocked inquisitively as they peered out of the picture. I was particularly proud of the painting as it makes all the hard work I put in to catering for them worthwhile.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Seal Pups on the Beach

I have a painting of a grey seal pup that I am yet to finish. I was inspired to begin it after watching seals at Donna Nook, an RAF-owned beach in Lincolnshire. Every year between November and January huge numbers of these lumbering sea mammals haul themselves up on to this beach to give birth. It is the only place near here that one can really study them up close and it is bizarre that this natural spectacle takes place on a firing range.

The mass gatherings are known as rookeries and are made up of both local seals and others that have travelled from further afield. I’m not the only one that goes to see them. The new seal pups attract hundreds of visitors every day. The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust encourages visitors not to venture onto the beach and disturb the colony. They have erected a fence to keep the seals safe.

Whether as a result of this buzz of human activity or as a precaution, some female seals are too shy to come right up to the beach and instead give birth on a sand bank about a mile from the shoreline. Tragically, just before I was due to head there, I heard that there had been a freak high tide, two and a half metres higher than usual, and the pups on this sandbank had been washed away. But there were still plenty of pups on the beach when I got there.

At first glance the seals don’t seem to be doing much. They look like large beached sausages on the sand. But I stopped and waited and sure enough I was rewarded with some wonderful action.
I watched as a cub rolled playfully beside its mother. Its large dark glossy eyes and luxurious white coat were so appealing. It called out with a mournful sigh.

Of course I didn’t get to see any pups being born, because this happens under the cover of darkness.
But I did see some that had been born the night before. They are easy to spot because their umbilical cord is visible for the first few days and their skin is loose and wrinkled. Despite looking tiny against their mothers, they actually weigh about 30lbs and measure about three feet long at birth.
And they fill out quickly, trebling their weight on their mother’s rich, fatty milk with a layer of blubber which protects them from the cold. I also saw pups that were ready to wean. These pups are just three weeks old. Their downy white puppy-coat moults and is replaced with a sleek mottled grey pelage.

These ones were becoming adventurous. I watched one blowing bubbles and splashing in pools on the shoreline. I photographed another which I could have sworn was laughing. Its dog-like mouth opened wide in an engaging smile. Another rolled over and waved a shiny flipper at me. At last I was getting what I needed to make my painting come alive.

It was a good thing I went when I did because when these pups are five weeks old hunger and instinct forces them out to sea where they begin hunting for themselves. But it is still worth visiting Donna Nook since this is also the time when the adults mate. It hardly seems fair on the female, who, after three weeks of feeding her pup and not feeding at all herself, has often lost a considerable amount of weight. Nevertheless she becomes receptive to mating and the beach quickly turns from caring nursery to brutal mating platform.

I watched as aggressive males staked their claims over the females. The largest of the bulls are known as beachmasters. They herded the females up into harems of up to 10 and began posturing like heavyweight champions. One that I saw was covered in bloody battle scars from a previous battle. He growled threateningly at any rivals that dared approach.

This is a dangerous time for the pups since they can easily get crushed as fights break out.
After mating the female can at last have a break and she goes out to sea to feed up before the worst of winter. Delayed implantation, which means that the female holds fertilised eggs in her uterus in a suspended state of development, ensures that her pups are not born until the following autumn.
Watching the youngest of the seals roll playfully on the sand, I felt a pang of concern for them knowing that in just a few weeks they would have to brave the cold North Sea on their own.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Christmas Shopping in York tonight? Look up for a spectacle worthy of Planet Earth II

At this time of year York is humming with shoppers, heads bowed as they plough up and down the streets fixated on the job of getting ready for Christmas. But if you happen to find yourself amidst the throngs at St Nicholas market on Parliament Street at dusk, it’s worth taking a moment out from the hubbub to look up past the brightly-lit stalls and up into the trees.

Up there you’ll find the branches abuzz with a very different sort of get together. Hundreds of pied wagtails gather every evening in the London Plane trees outside Marks and Spencers  – right above the heads of the shoppers. Drawn by the warmth generated by the lights of the city, these small black and white birds flit about overhead, chittering noisily and wagging their long tails in a huge communal gathering before settling down to roost. At first glance they look like Christmas decorations hanging in the trees.

Like the shoppers, these tiny birds come from miles around for this annual winter get together. They flock together above the street lights where it is warmer and, again like the shoppers beneath them, tuck into extra snacks available - in their case snacking on the insects that are also drawn by the warmth of the city centre.

Pied wagtails weigh on average just 21g and during the cold winter nights can lose up to 20pc of their body weight. So huddling together at this time of year is a vital survival technique. I spotted them for the first time some years ago while I was late night shopping with my wife in York. We arrived just as dusk started to fall and looked up to see a flock of more than 20 on top of the roof of Marks and Spencers.

It wasn’t long before a second and then a third large flock joined them. These elegant birds like to roost communally so that they can keep warm and these huge congregations are quite sociable occasions for them. In a short while there were more than 200 pied wagtails noisily chittering amongst themselves as the shoppers below them walked past seemingly oblivious.

As I watched the birds, I noticed the sound of their affable song change tone. What had been an easy, social chit chat turned into higher, faster-pitched, noisy calling. The flocks began flitting uneasily from one rooftop to the next as they let out these sharp warning sounds. Then I realised why. A sparrow hawk suddenly appeared out of nowhere and immediately set to, chasing wagtails before him. There was chaos in the sky as the black and white birds flew and swerved in all directions.
Some wagtails even dared to try chase the hawk away and the tactic worked monetarily as after a while the hawk retreated. The wagtails, now all grouped together in one flock, settled uneasily back down onto the roof of Marks and Spencers.

But before long the hawk was back. It flew flat out across the facia of the Halifax bank building, banking away when it was just inches away from the wall. As it flipped up over the roof top, clouds of pied wagtails took to the air. Again the hawk failed to catch a wagtail. But then on the third fly-by it was successful and plucked one from the flock with its sharp talons.

The wagtails were very flighty after this aerial assault and flew around frantically, landing on different roof tops intermittently before finally settling on top of Barclays bank. Then when they thought the danger had passed the flocks swooped back down into the London Plane trees that line this popular shopping street and at last settled down to roost for the night.

The noise of all the birds during this aerial attack had been incredible – in my opinion the scene wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Planet Earth II episode - and yet not one of the hundreds of people in the street below even looked up!
I was surrounded by folk and felt like shouting out, ‘Wow did you see that!’ but thought better of it. The shoppers, focussed on their own world, had missed this incredible drama in the sky taking place right above their heads in the centre of York.

I will be selling mylimited-edition prints, tableware and greeting cards at a stall opposite the Disney Shop in York's St Nicholas market this year. If you are passing at dusk let a member of staff on my stall point out the pied wagtail roost to you. They begin to congregate at 3.30pm and are usually settled into the roost by about 5pm. Bring along your binoculars!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Guest Blogger: Dr Amy Jane Beer on Noticing Nature

In the first of what I hope will become a regular occurrence, I'd like to introduce a guest blogger whose work I admire. Today it's Dr Amy-Jane Beer, who lives in North Yorkshire. Dr Beer is a biologist, writer and editor. She has authored and co-authored over 30 books on natural history, is a regular contributor to BBC Wildlife magazine and edits Wildlife World magazine for the People's Trust for Endangered Species. She runs occasional courses in nature writing and is working on her first novel. Below is her contribution:

 Read more from Dr Amy-Jane Beer at  @AmyJaneBeer

Noticing Nature

Anyone that spends a significant part of their time in nature knows that it is powerfully addictive stuff, and even those who never stray from city life welcome images of nature – in the art they hang on their walls, the TV they watch, the plants they grow in garden or pot. And if they’re not admiring nature, they’re often choosing something with similar ability to captivate, like music. To me the appeals of music and nature have much in common – complexity, pattern recognition, and a requirement for emotional and observational focus. And these are things we seem to need.

Our fascination with nature stems with a natural human gift for noticing. At the age of two, well before he could read or recognise numbers my son could identify the seemingly endless multitude of tedious engine characters in Thomas and Friends and would correct me when I got them mixed up. I had particular block over Gordon and Edward – both big, blue, and both, well, engines. Not my thing, I’ll admit.  One day I asked him how he knew the difference. He gave me a pitying look and said, ‘It’s easy Mummy. Edward has round buffers, Gordon’s are a long shape.’ What he was describing perfectly was a search image – the key feature he naturally homed in on in order to sort and classify. Our brains use search images as a short cut to recognition. Now, aged five, he uses the same technique to organise his knowledge of cars, birds, dinosaurs, bugs and so on. It’s not cleverness. It’s an instinctive human ability.

I know some exceptional naturalists. People who have filed away so many search images they can identify species almost without conscious thought. In some cases their abilities seem supernatural. They might distinguish ten different speedwells without needing a book. Or name 400 moths at a glance. There are others who will pause midsentence because they’ve heard amid background woodland chatter a snatch of an early migrant song, or recognise the flickering outline of a distant bird I can barely even see. People like Robert Fuller, who makes a living out of noticing and recording the kind of details that entrance us. Believe me, he doesn’t just paint! Back track a few thousand years and finely honed powers of noticing like these would have been commonplace but a matter of life and death. In some places they still are. In truth they are no more remarkable than your ability to glean meaning from the letter characters I’m typing now. But like many such innate skills, they need practice.

It’s one thing to say we have an inborn appreciation of nature, but another to explain why. The American biologist Edward O Wilson explored the idea that humans have an innate bond with nature – a special form of love for other living things. He called it Biophilia. It’s not a new idea, in fact it’s been recycled many times – even Aristotle discussed biophilia as a specific type of human love. It’s not the romantic, passionate, or even the caring or nurturing kind of love, although it is often couched in those terms. It’s an affinity, which Wilson and his colleagues set out to explain in evolutionary terms. For example he suggested that we are attracted to flowers because they mean food, and we like cute animal faces because they stimulate the nurturing behaviour we need to exhibit in order to rear our phenomenally demanding and dependent young.

I’m oversimplifying hugely of course. But I wonder how much our love of nature is bolstered by our powers of observation and discernment, which are perhaps greater than those of any other animal on the planet. This is not to say our senses are more acute than those other species – our eyesight is pretty good, but in smell, touch and hearing we’re pretty poor, and the electrical and magnetic senses of sharks and birds senses are completely lost on us. Where we excel is our ability to identify tiny differences and remember them. There appears to be no other animal that matches us for powers of discernment. Perhaps for most other species there is no need for discrimination of other life forms beyond identifying potential food, potential mates or potential threats. So why do we bother? For me, noticing and appreciating nature’s endless diversity is an important component of biophilia.

Another thing about noticing nature is that it appears to be good for us. It’s well documented that hospital patients recover faster with a view of trees. In Japan there’s a practice known as Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing – therapeutic trips to forests are found to reduce stress and used to treat depression, anxiety, anger, insomnia, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Our need to connect with nature is so great that we suffer when we don’t do it. Noticing nature is what our brains are for, and if we stop using them for that, it’s not so surprising that we find ourselves in trouble.

The condition known as nature deficiency disorder is especially prevalent and worrying in children. Concerns about safety, and litigation as well as relentless urbanisation and the advance of technology into every aspect of life have distanced each generation of children a little further from nature and robbed them of time to just sit and notice.  There are various schemes designed to address this – the National Trust’s 50 Things to do before you’re 11¾, Project Wild Thing, Forest Schools. All doing great work, no doubt, but they also depress me. That they are needed depresses me, because we are all wild things. How can we have forgotten?