Monday, September 29, 2014

Working a Wildflower Meadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

New Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

Swallows second brood in an unusual nest

As the swallows began gathering along telephone wires in preparation for their long journey back to Africa this month, I got worried that two late broods here at my house in Thixendale would not fledge in time for the off.

Every year a pair of swallows breeds in an artificial nest that I put up for them in my front porch. I had heard the male singing to a female from my studio on a spring day warm enough to prop the door open and had even seen him perching on the TV aerial of our house chirruping cheerfully. But for some reason, they chose not to nest here. I was so disappointed.

But I was delighted when I got back from holiday at the beginning of August to see a swallow flying out of my front porch. A pair had come here in my absence. They had probably had a first brood elsewhere and were now going for a second brood in the artificial nest.

A few days later I noticed a swallow whizzing in and out of our log store at the back of the house. I went out to investigate and discovered a second pair of swallows was nesting there.

This was a stroke of luck because this nest was extra special. It was nestled in an old storm lamp I had hung up earlier in the hope that a pair of swallows would use it.

I often place nesting props in my garden at Fotherdale Farm because if birds do use them they make for perfect backdrops for my paintings. In the past I managed to persuade a robin to nest in an old kettle and I have had wagtails nest in an old boot I left for them.
This pair had inadvertently signed up for a new modelling contract with me. I set about putting up a hide so that I could watch and photograph them up close.

A week later four tiny chicks hatched and they started to grow fast. They needed to, the weather had turned and there was now a distinct autumnal feel in the air. Meanwhile I noticed more and more swallows gathering on the electric lines outside the gallery, getting ready to migrate.
 I couldn’t help but worry whether these chicks would make it and almost willed them to grow. It was fascinating to see the parents whoosh in to feed them and at the same time see all the chicks spring up out of the nest, opening their beaks wide with their bright orange gapes exposed as each called frantically to be the first to be fed.

The parents would be in with food every few minutes, despite the fact that the weather had become very windy with heavy showers. I watched as they grew their feathers and shedding their down and beginning to look more like swallows as they did so.

I watched the weather forecast carefully too. Fortunately a ridge of high pressure was on its way at the beginning of September just when the chicks began stretching and flapping their wings as they got ready for their first flight.
 The parents were on high alert now, knowing that their still-vulnerable chicks could fledge at any time.

One day a sparrowhawk zoomed into the garden on the looked for a meal. As it chased the sparrows around the bushes, I heard the parent swallows calling out sharp warnings to their chicks.
I saw the chicks respond, all hunkering down into their nest and remaining motionless. The adult pair mobbed the sparrowhawk and through the sheer force of their fury chased out of the garden and down the adjacent field.

As they rounded the corner to the front of the house they were joined by the second pair of swallows whose nest was on the back porch and all four birds saw this lethal bird of prey off together. It was quite extraordinary.
The chicks have now fledged, although they still come back to the nest at night, but as more and more swallows gather on the TV aerial and the wires around the house, I think they will be ready to join them when they all take flight and begin their long journey back to the southern hemisphere.

As they undertake this remarkable journey, I will be sitting down to capture their earliest days in paint.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Standing on top of an otter's holt!

I had one of the most incredible sightings of otters during a trip to the Ardurmurchan Peninsula on west coast of Scotland this summer.

I was staying on the shores of Loch Sunart, a sea inlet renowned for its wildlife, and had just walked the short distance from my holiday cottage to explore the loch when I spotted one. I literally arrived at the loch, which was perfectly still, the water reflecting the surrounding landscape like glass, and looked left along the shoreline where some herons and hooded crows were. Then I looked right and immediately noticed a ribbon of silver. It was a female otter.

When hunting, otters will only come to shore if they catch something too big to handle out at sea so I try to keep parallel to them until they land. I have to keep an eye on the wind direction to make sure they don’t spot me and only move when they dive.

I followed this otter up the loch as it hunted. It kept diving down and then popping up with a small fish. I tried to keep up, following it in a series of quick dashes while the otter was underwater. This was not easy on rough terrain as I was carrying a lot of heavy camera equipment. 

Suddenly she turned and looked my way. I froze. I was crouching awkwardly so when she looked away I sat down. As I did so a boulder beneath me rocked. I heard a loud chittering sound coming from underground. It was so close it made me jump.

I looked through tiny gaps between the boulders. It was a young otter walking along an underground tunnel right beneath my feet. I was sitting on the otter’s holt!

The young cub stood and sniffed at me between the boulders. It was less than one metre away. I never intended to get so close.

I could hear the cub walking underground, heading towards the sea as the adult approached. Then as she got to the shore the adult called.

I heard the cub chittering and whistling loudly as it greeted its mother. I presumed it was at the entrance of the holt. I wanted to back off but I didn’t want to move either. I just froze.

The adult dived under a blanket of seaweed and popped up right next to the shore, emerging from the water near me. Her head filled the frame as I tracked her with my camera.

I didn’t dare take a photo. Sometimes not disturbing a wild animal is more important than getting the shot. Underground, I heard the cub greet the female and then I could hear stones clinking as they walked through the tunnel beneath me. Next I heard the sound of them sniffing my scent through the boulders. I was frozen to the spot. I had been close to wild otters before but nothing like this.

I  retreated slowly but after such an incredible sighting I was keen to know more. I spent the next day exploring their territory, looking out for their spraints and other spots that they frequented.

Fresh water streams are often good places to lay in wait for photo opportunities since otters love fresh water to wash off the salt from the sea.

I found one where the otters had made a path into the pool. I could see where they entered and exited by the way in which the grasses were bent and even spotted tufts of flattened grass where they had wiped themselves dry. The grasses were twisted in the middle where an otter had gone round in a circle, rubbing itself.

Other clues I spotted included the place where the female liked to lie in the roots of a sycamore tree, its bark had been rubbed smooth with use.

I spent some time patrolling the area in this way, finding the best routes to traverse the rugged coast, cutting brambles that might trip me up and discovering which rocks wobbled and made a noise when I stepped on them.

I even moved dry seaweed from my path so that it wouldn’t crackle underfoot when I returned to watch the otters.

That evening I followed this route as I watched the female take one of the cubs hunting with her under blankets of seaweed close to the shore. I was surprised by how big the cub was. It was a male and almost fully grown.

The female swam out into the channel whilst the cub hugged the shoreline. At one point I had to go inland because of the cliffs but I saw the cub as I got back to the shore, its tail aloft sprainting.

It was silhouetted against the pink sea and as I caught up with it caught and ate a crab noisily.

I watched them every day for about a week. 

It wasn’t until the very last day when I discovered that there was another cub, a female. This cub was already living independently, which was why I had not seen her before, but the family all met up and I watched as they greeted each other on a rock.

That was one of the highlights of the experience, although nothing had been as exhilarating as that very first morning, when I found myself standing on top of the otter holt!

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!