Friday, January 30, 2015

Stoat Assault Course

Exactly three days before the snow fall last week, I spotted this white stoat hunting in the valley opposite.

I watched it hunting and then put out food and set up a camera trap. The shot I got is a bit fuzzy.

But it has been interesting to see how well camouflaged it's ermine coat was when the snow then fell.

Meanwhile the stoats in my garden are continuing to enthral me. Stoats are known for their agility and I decided to test this out to the full by building this 'stoat assault course' in front of my living room window.

I began by putting titbits out along the course but I discovered that the kestrels and the tawny owls were pinching the food, so now I've made some boxes with lids on, similar to squirrel feeders, which only the stoats can open.

I got very excited earlier this week when this female climbed onto the trail and did the first leg! She is new this year and this is first time I've managed to capture her fleeting visits.

Hopefully if she gets kits this year she will become even more adventurous because she will have more mouths to feed.

And things will get even more interesting if the kits grow up accustomed to running the course with their mother.

I may then start to make it more challenging!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Watch the Birdie

This weekend is the RSPB annual Garden Birdwatch where everybody can get involved in a nationwide count of Britain's garden bird species. It's great fun and something I always make a point of taking part in and like to encourage others to join in with too.

This year I invited BBC Radio York to see what species I have in my garden. The bird-feeder outside my studio window was particularly busy since there is quite a covering of snow here at the moment and my feeders are one of the only sources of food available.

We saw a great many different species. It made me think about how few birds there were when I first moved to Fotherdale in 1998. There was no water source here and the garden had just two plants: a fushia and a red hot poker. There was just one pair of tree sparrows and very little else.

My wife and I poured our energy into turning the garden into a wildlife haven. The house is built on an exposed hillside and there was just 4" of top soil above hard limestone. We dug a water course and pond, planted a spinney and poured 24 tonnes of manure on to the site on to which we have planted perennials, herbs, shrubbery and even a wildlife meadow.The results are incredible. There are now 62 different species here, including rarities such as corn buntings, twite and redstart. 

And from that one breeding pair of tree sparrows there are now 35 pairs. At the end of the breeding season there can be up to 300 tree sparrows here, a species that is on the RSPB redlist!

So many of my paintings now are of birds that live in the garden. I photograph them in the shrubbery or in nesting boxes like this old kettle and then paint from the photographs.

I like to put props out in the garden that I want my models to pose on. This wren struck a beautiful pose on this old hook for me.

And here is the painting I developed from the photograph above.

And this one of a long-tailed tit gathering cobwebs to nest in also made a wonderful painting.

The story of the birds in my garden and my paintings will be told on BBC Radio York every afternoon throughout next week. Don't forget to get counting the birds in your garden this weekend.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Coaxing Wild Buzzards to Pose for their Portraits

I'm often asked how long it takes me to paint a picture and the answer is complicated because I can spend a very long time in the field studying a subject in its natural habitat.

I use photographic studies to paint from rather than sketches and often I will 'stage' my photographs with an eye on the eventual composition of the painting.

This month I have been in Wales photographing a family of buzzards. These shots are actually the result of a two year project to get the buzzards to feed from the same spot above my parents' house in Snowdonia.

The idea was seeded even earlier than that when I began feeding some buzzards close to my gallery here in Thixendale, some years ago now.

I've never been able to rely on these local birds turning up to feed consistently and have spent many hours in my hide waiting for them to show.

Food is scarcer in Wales and the buzzards seem less wary of humans, which might account for my success there instead.

My parents live on a mountainside and there is a large granite slab on a steep hill about 200m above their house from which you get an impressive view of Mount Snowdon. My long term plan is for a painting of a buzzard in the foreground, with the mountain peak behind.

To achieve this I hauled a twisted branch of hawthorn up there for the birds to perch on, and built a hide among some trees overlooking the granite slab. It took me six days to build the hide, carrying my tools and equipment up the steep incline. My first attempt blew over in 80mph winds a year ago - so I've had to do this twice!

But now my father climbs up to the rock twice a week to take food to the buzzards and these wild birds of prey are so accustomed to feeding there they come down to the garden and begin mewing when it's time for dinner.

I can recognise them at a glance now. This is the male, he is very smart with heavy markings and is the most cautious of the family group. He is always aware of my presence and often won't come in to feed when I'm in the hide.

The adult female, larger and paler than her mate, is less wary, although she too has spotted me and has even glared down my camera lens, startling at the sight of the movement of the shutter.

My favourite is their female chick, below. She has a pale eye and white fringing on her feathers. I've photographed her the most, as she has such attractive markings and is the least wary. But I'm conscious that soon the adult birds will chase her away to fend for herself.

The three birds recognise my father and appear almost on cue when he is out in the garden. But I'm yet to get the shot of them with the backdrop I'm after in the frame.

Earlier this month I tried using the wide angle of a go-pro camera to capture this composition.

But despite trying to camouflage the go-pro in netting, the male buzzard spotted it immediately and even the two females flew off in alarm at the sight of it.

It could be a while before I get the exact image I'm after, but I'm still pleased with the success of my feeding station and the photographic studies I've got so far.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Hoping for stoat kits in the garden this spring

Do you remember the female stoat that moved in to the garden in the autumn? She seems to have attracted a male now and I've seen them together in the log that I put out for them.... I'm really hoping this means there could be kits in the spring!
Watching these creatures last year was incredible. I got some fantastic shots of them when they were young and am planning to make use of the compositions I captured, but if I get some kits that really would make for a good painting.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Why Barn Owls are better parents than Tawny Owls

Happy New Year everyone. I’ve been mainly watching this pair of barn owls and their chicks between Christmas and New Year. It has made me think about how they treat their young in comparison to how tawny owls treat theirs.

 The chicks are virtually indistinguishable from the adults now - but they are much cheekier - always playing games and tussling with each other and their feathers look a bit 'fresher' than the adults who have been rearing young since May!

The adult barn owl pair had a second brood of 3 chicks in September and I was expecting these chicks to be long gone by now. But the adults are more than happy to share the food that I put out for them with their youngsters and I hear them making regular contact calls with their young too.

This is completely different to the pair of tawny owls that I follow. Tawny owls only ever have one brood a year in early summer. And youngsters are always chased out of the territory by their parents from early Autumn onwards. Tawny owls are fiercely territorial and once the nights start drawing in their attitude to their own kin turns to aggression as they see them as intruders on their patch.

Only 30% of juvenile barn owls survive. The survival rate of juvenile tawny owls is unknown but 76.8% of adult tawny owls survive annually. Perhaps tawny owls chicks are just more robust and need less care. Perhaps barn owls need to care for their young longer in order for them to survive. Or could it be that barn owls are just a more placid, caring and less aggressively territorial bird of prey?

I’ll be interested to see how the relationship changes between the barn owls and their now full grown chicks. I have seen these adult barn owls courting in February and last year this pair were laying eggs in March. So it's all about to change, so watch this space!