Monday, September 1, 2014

Earlier this summer I went to the west coast of Scotland to try to photograph pine martens. The cottage I stayed in, Dunlachlan Cottage in Strontian, is well-known for the pine martens that visitors feed in its garden.



But this year sightings had been scarce.  I tried not to let the lack of entries in the visitors log book get me down when I arrived. I had brought boxes and boxes of equipment, including surveillance cameras, screens, flashes, tripods, netting, camera traps, security lights and motion sensors, with me and spent the first evening setting all this up in a sitting room which I planned to use as my pine marten surveillance headquarters.


I also set about transforming the garden with old logs that I thought would make a good backdrop for the pine martens to pose on when and if they showed up. I smeared traces of jam and peanut butter up the branch to attract the pine marten on to it. I worked until gone 10pm that night and was delighted when a pine marten appeared that very evening and even climbed my prop. Unfortunately it was raining hard so I wasn't able to take any photographs.


However this turned out to be a touch of false hope. I spent the next week waking up at dawn each morning and waiting until gone midnight most nights for the pine marten to reappear. On one night the only creatures I saw were a wood mouse and a cat.


But at last on my last night I heard a black bird call out in alarm and at the same time heard an animal move through the forest. It was another two hours before the pine marten appeared, its cream bib catching the glow from my night lights. It looked my way for a split second and in that moment I took the photograph I had been after all this time!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Swallows in my porch

 
Each Spring I look forward to the arrival of the swallows to my garden. They usually nest in the front porch of my house.
 

This year they arrived on cue and started to build, but for some reason lost interest in nest building and decided to go elsewhere.


But fortunes changed in the first week of August when 2 pairs of swallows took up residence. One pair in the front porch and another in a passageway around the back of the house.

The chicks are half grown now, but I'm still having to keep my distance from the nests. I'm hoping to get photographs of them in the next two weeks just before they fledge.
 

The young chicks usually hang about on the gutters of the roof close to the nest or on fence lines. Here, they continue to be fed by the parents.

I have already seen swallows starting to gather together along telegraph wires. So fingers crossed the weather will hold out long enough for these two late broods to make it back to Africa.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Weekend Wildlife Watching

This weekend I travelled down to the Bird Fair at Rutland Water to meet the BBC Wildlife editorial team. I have been producing local patch reports of the wildlife around my gallery for them since the beginning of the year and it was great to put a face to a name.

The fair was very busy and packed with interesting stands, which has given me lots of new ideas of where to travel to next. I was particularly taken with a trip to see polar bears on snow mobiles in Svalbard so I'll be getting itineraries and prices together for this so I will be able to take a group there in 2017. (Let me know if you want to join me!)

While I was there I bumped into Miranda Krestovnikoff, president of the RSPB and her husband Nick and children and chatted to Bill Oddie too! And I got lots of information on different hides and lens covers for my cameras.



When I got back to my home in Yorkshire late on Sunday afternoon the kestrels were waiting for me. So I put some food out for them on a post and watched them eating their food while I ate my own at the kitchen table!

I had put out a whole dead rabbit for the stoats before I left for the weekend which they had devoured in two days. The young stoats are starting to get territorial now and chasing each other. It wasn't long before one appeared to feed.




Next, the sparrowhawk swooped into the garden and chased the garden birds. It has taken to running under the bushes to flush out the flocks of tree sparrows that congregate underneath the bird feeders.  A young sparrow took flight and the sparrowhawk followed it. It arched round in a circle to try to get to a dense holly bush, but the sparrowhawk was too quick and while flying upside down grabbed it before it could reach cover. I dashed for my camera to photograph and video it out of the bedroom window. It gobbled it down as if it was just a snack.


Tree sparrows are in decline nationally and I have quite a stronghold of them around my gallery - about 30 pairs. So I have got a dead pigeon out of my freezer and will try and start feeding it to this sparrowhawk to distract it from my precious flock!


Later that evening, I went down to the local badger sett that I visit each night to put down some dog biscuits. I have a barn owl nest box there too and the adult pair has raised 5 chicks already this season and are now sitting on their second brood of eggs. I put out food for them too. A barn owl screeched angrily at me as I arrived, clearly annoyed that I hadn't feed them the previous day as I was down at the Bird Fair. It flew over my head nearly mobbing me. As I ducked I saw that it was one of the fledged chicks. I didn't see the adult female I suspect she was keeping her warm and sheltering from the strong arctic winds.There is definitely an autumn feel in the air now.


As I crouched near one of the badger holes a badger popped out to see what the fuss was about. I threw it a handful of dog biscuits and then I backed off and climbed back over the fence.

I saw two more young barn owls quartering the valley, practising hunting, hovering and then stalling in the wind if they thought they heard a movement. I made a vole-like squeak and they both made a bee-line in my direction. They circled overhead confused at this 6 foot 2 inch 'vole' making the noise.

As I approached my car a roe buck sprang from the hedge barking its alarm call before pronking away.



As I arrived home 3 tawny owls were feeding just 6 metres from my living room window. They are coming earlier and earlier each night as it is getting darker sooner. Last night they were here at 8.50pm.

It is fascinating planning exotic trips abroad, but there's nothing quite like your local wildlife that I know so well and has become so accustomed to my presence and I was delighted to have seen so much in such a short space of time.




Monday, August 11, 2014

Tawny Owls: Tough Love

One of this year's young
I've been watching the tawny owl chicks mature over the season. They are reaching maturing now and virtually indistinguishable from the adults.

The feathers on the backs of their heads are the last to come through so I can still just tell who is who.

The other thing that does make them look different is how unkempt the adults are looking. They are devoted parents and really do a great job of bringing up the brood. And it has been hard work for them as this year they have had 10 chicks to care for. Look how they now.

The male at the beginning of the season
At the end of the breeding season

But in spite of all this devotion the attitude of the adults has started to change. We’re entering a transition period when they are no longer caring and nurturing the chicks, they are starting to push them out of their territory and into pastures new.

Every night I can hear the pleading calls of the chicks to the parents but the call from the adults is aggressive and frightening in response.

It's a rite of passage that seems to visible upset and confuse the chicks, who really don't seem to know what to do. It's certainly a steep learning curve for them as they start off on their own. Talk about tough love.


So I'm expecting to see the young for a couple more weeks, but then I expect them to gradually disperse, leaving just the two adults here for Autumn and Winter until the breeding season starts again next year. I’ll be missing their nightly antics!


And while the breeding season is drawing to a close for the tawny owls a new one is dawning for the barn owls who are going for a second brood this year.

The 5 young born in May have now fledged and the adults have wasted no time in getting started with a second clutch of eggs.

I'm expecting these to be born in early September with the chicks being ready to fledge in November - let's hope for an Indian Summer and a mild winter!

Monday, August 4, 2014

(S)totes Amazeballs

I've been watching a family of stoats in my garden and I've managed to get some great photographs which I plan to use as studies for a painting.


I first spotted the stoats playing in the garden and when I saw one climb the wire mesh fence at the end of our boundary with incredible ease it gave me an idea.


I decided that if I could get the stoats to feed in the garden I could set up an assault course for them and watch them as they chased one another about. Stoats are very nimble and agile and I wanted to capture this skill.


I began putting out rabbits for them every day and once they were visiting the garden regularly, I set a trail of food along some old branches.


At the top of the assault course I put a down a hollow log and left a rabbit inside it everyday.


It was fun to watch the stoats work for their food!




I kept changing and developing the assault course, to capture the stoats in different poses.



I love watching them. They are real characters.





They are also very cheeky. It didn't take them long to work out that I was also putting food out for a family of kestrels and this one ventured up the branch to try to pinch it.



It got sharp shrift from the adult female kestrel. She swooped down and plucked the stoat off with her talons and flung him onto the ground!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Painting a kestrel in flight

Remember the kestrel chicks I was watching via nest cam? Well they have now all fledged successfully and are coming into the garden daily to feed.


I tie mice or day-old chicks (a by-product of the egg industry) to this branch in the garden and then sit back and watch as the adult kestrels bring their chicks in for dinner.


The chicks are great fun to watch - and lately there has been some extra drama as they have been trying to pinch food from a family of stoats that I also feed in the garden.



So far the stoats have had the upper hand.


The habit of feeding kestrels from this specially adapted bird table all began with this male kestrel (pictured above). I've been feeding him here since 2006  and this year  he and his mate nested near the garden where I was able to train a webcam on the nest.


He has made a great painting model.


I've been particularly keen this year to get a painting of a kestrel in flight. In the picture above the chick is trying to balance,but I think my sketch below captures the action.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Barn Owl Chicks Fledge

The five barn owl chicks I have been studying have now all fledged.


I have watched these chicks via nest cams from the moment the first egg was laid and it is great to see them now fending for themselves.


All five chicks have survived, mainly due to the fact that throughout the breeding season I put extra food out for the parent birds. Barn owls here on the Yorkshire Wolds didn't breed very well, if at all, last year so I'm hoping these five will go on to repopulate this area.


The fledglings are now feeding from a landing post I put out for them just 12 metres from my hide. Sometimes they all arrive at the feeding post together and jostle for position!


Their regular appearances here gives me the opportunity to photograph them often. Above is a shot of the adult female posing for my GoPro video camera.

You can watch the footage here:



I use the photographs that I take throughout the year as studies for my paintings. Below is a painting of the female hunting earlier this year.



Last week I cleaned out the nest box, which was very smelly, and relined it with wood chips. The male and female (pictured below) both went in shortly afterwards.



I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a second brood!