Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Great Hare Day

I’ve endured the icy winds of Antarctica in order to photograph wildlife for my paintings. But nothing in that cold climate compares to my ordeal of watching courting hares on the Yorkshire Wolds one Christmas.

As the country came to grips with one of the iciest cold snaps in decades, I spent 10 days trudging through thigh deep snow, sometimes for eight hours a day.

When it snows up here, it really snows, and when it blows, it really drifts. Getting close to the hares in these conditions was one of the harshest consignments of my career.

Hares don't just box and breed in spring, although this is the climax of the season, it can happen at any time of year and they can have three or four litters a year.

They seem to favour specific fields for their courtship, which they return to time and time again, and if you happen to discover the spot I’ve always believed it worth the effort it takes to watch them.

 Hares are solitary animals and when I saw a couple together in the snow shortly after a heavy snowfall, I knew they had to be courting and I couldn’t miss out on the chance to photograph them, despite the weather.

I had been out on a drive through the white wintery landscape looking for owls and had already taken a great picture of a tawny owl roosting in an ash tree: a dusting of snow around its hole and a few flakes on its head.

The hares, sat tight in individual dug out holes in the snow and facing away from the biting wind, were a little far from the road so I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed across a large arable field. The snow was particularly deep and it was heavy going.

As I struggled through the drifts, which were above my waist on the edge of the road, I spotted four more. They shuffled down deeper into the snow as I approached and flattened their ears to their bodies until only their eyes were visible, peeking above the snow line.

I took a few shots of the courting couple and then the snow seemed to explode behind them as they leapt up and dashed away into the distance.

The other four hares took chase - there was a female in season and the males weren't going to let her out of their sight.

It was difficult getting close enough for a good photograph, but I found that if I took heed of the wind's direction and moved slowly, sniper-like I could get surprisingly close. Whenever the hares looked alarmed I would stay still and resume my tentative approach when they settled down again.

But it took up to an hour to get really close and it was bitterly cold out on the exposed field. Whenever a large snow storm came over the hares hunkered down with their backs to the wind all in a line, but in between the storms males would go around the group testing the female’s receptivity. They were usually quickly rebuffed with a swift box from the female, who lay partially hidden in snow dugouts.

I used the blizzards whiteouts to get a little bit closer still. But as the weather cleared they spotted me and were uneasy with my proximity.

In my habitual green camouflage gear I stuck out like a sore thumb in contrast to the pure white landscape.

The hares dashed through a hedge into the next field. I used the hedge as cover as I approached them and then peered over into the next field. I spotted a larger group out in the middle of the field - there were eight in this new group and I could see still more in the distance – 20, perhaps 30 hares in total.

With so many pairs of eyes looking out, I was quickly spotted and they dashed over the horizon.

I followed them to the bottom of the field and was on the brink of giving up when I spotted a few doubling back on me.

As well as using the same field again and again, hares also like to court in the same place on a specific field and it turned out that spot was just behind me.

From my hiding place I counted 24 hares bouncing over the horizon towards me and then they joined into a group of 32. Hares seemed to be coming from all directions.

Within 20 minutes there were 51 hares in front of me - I couldn’t contain my excitement. To see so many at one time is extremely rare and this was the most I’d seen together in Yorkshire. This meant there must have been at least 20 females in season. I might have been alone on a bleak hill top in the middle of a blizzard witnessing, but I was delighted.

I pushed the biting wind to the back of my mind, but when another heavy snow storm came in and the light faded for the day I headed for home.

I needed to come up with a plan of how to get back there and photograph them again - but this time unseen.

A hide I decided wouldn't be practical; I needed to be able to move about quickly. So it came down to getting the right clothing - white clothing.
I decided to make myself and my camera a little outfit out of a white tonne dump bag held together with a few cable ties and some string.

This rig up worked well on the camera and tripod, but my attempt at making a jacket and trousers rustled noisily when I walked. I did however make myself quite a convincing 'balaclava' out of a (white) pillowcase and I cunningly swiped our (white) oven gloves from the kitchen.

Then I had a brainwave - an all-in-one spray suit (in white, of course) - is what I needed. So the following morning I headed into Yates of Malton and bought myself an XXL suit which was large enough to go over all my layers of clothes.

I drove out to the field, with my snow camouflage outfit in the back of my car. I was just putting my gear on when a tractor approached so, feeling a little self-conscious, I hesitated, until he had gone by.

But the tractor kept coming and going so I decided to venture out in the field and put the gear on once I spotted the hares.

I soon located them again, but getting changed in 18” of snow and a ripping wind was easier said than done. I had to lie on my back with my boots off trying to control the white spray suit which was trying to fly off in all directions.

I did look a bit of a sight in my white kit, but I quickly 'blended' into the general whiteout.

I counted the hares: there were 14 in the group and more on the horizon. I set off after them with the confidence of invisibility, but much to my annoyance they spotted me straightaway - I was silhouetted in white against a dark woodland background.

I let the hares settle and re-planned my approach to blend in with a white backdrop of neighbouring fields. Each time a snowstorm came over I edged closer and now had a coating of snow to add authenticity to my outfit.

Behind me my footprints had already been covered by drifting snow. My camouflage had got me within 25 yards of the hares.

They spent much of their time hunkered down with the snow whipping around them in great swirls. I spent day after day photographing them, mainly in overcast or blizzard conditions and sub-zero temperatures.

On the first sunny day of the week I headed off with a great expectation, despite the fact that it was -14C when I set off. But actually the crisp calm conditions proved more difficult as the hares could hear my every footstep crunching through the snow and the sun played havoc with the auto-focusing on my camera, due to a sort of heat haze coming off the snow.

It was fascinating to watch courting hares in such harsh conditions and such a marvellous end to my wildlife watching year. The leverets from this courtship may be among the first to be born in the New Year.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Bumper year for rare short eared owls

It's been a bumper year for short eared owls here on the east coast of Yorkshire. There have been a record numbers of sightings of this rare owl, which features on the RSPB's amber list of species in crisis.

These beautiful birds of prey (see my painting above) favour large areas of rough grass, estuaries and marshes where they are more likely to find voles, their preferred prey. The banks of the Humber is one of the prime places to spot them, especially as these migratory birds arrive from Europe.
Unfortunately the population of voles, their main source of prey, is has been low this year and I hope there will be enough to sustain the influx. The lack of voles will, however, ensure that the short eared owls will be hunting during the day when you are more likely to see 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. There is a popular short eared owl haunt south of the Humber River.
I took the opportunity of one 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. At just after 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 a marsh harrier which had been sitting in a tree nearby.

The attack looked almost synchronised as one by one they plummeted down like fighter planes mobbing a target. They mobbed the harrier, 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 and 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, 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.

One owl suddenly twisted in the air and then plummeted to the grass. I thought that perhaps it had caught something. And so did a nearby kestrel. 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.

A Weasel Year: Bringing up a formidable hunter

One of the iconic wildlife images to emerge from 2015 was a photograph of a weasel clinging ferociously to the back of a green woodpecker in flight.

I was spellbound by the image as it went viral on the Internet. The photograph conveyed in an instant a quality I had been studying closely all year - the sheer tenacity of this tiny predator.

I’ve been watching wild weasels in my garden since March and painted the above portrait of a kit after watching it grow up in my back garden. My studies of this tiny family include CCTV footage from inside their nesting chamber, which I believe is the first of its kind.

Small enough to slink through a wedding ring and furiously fast; all that most people have ever seen of a weasel is of it flashing across the road before disappearing into the undergrowth. Weasels are part of the mustelid family, which also encompasses badgers, stoats, otters, wolverines and pine martens, and are generally the subject of a very poor press. The very word ‘weasel’ is used to denote a sneaking and untrustworthy character. 

And yet I can’t help but admire this tiny creature’s ferocity. It thinks nothing of taking on a creature up to 10 times its size. And it has evolved in remarkable ways – there are species of the weasel family living on every continent except Antarctica. But until now there has been very little close observation of their behaviour. Population counts are normally conducted by the number that gamekeeper’s trap.

When I first discovered I had a female weasel in my garden I seized the opportunity to use CCTV cameras that I had trained on bird’s nests at the time to study her. But the project soon grew and before long I had 12 cameras tracking its every moment. I left food out for it in specially-designed feeding boxes fitted with cameras. I even watched the moment it mated with a male, in a vicious act of rough and tumble that you would expect from a creature with a reputation for brutality.

I followed her with even more diligence when she began to look heavy with kits and built her a chamber to nest in, again rigged with hidden cameras. She went on to have seven kits. I filmed her transporting all seven, one by one, across the garden in full view of more than 30 visitors to my gallery. Later, I photographed the tiny creatures as they took their first steps into the outside world.

One day, I noticed a stoat creeping into their nesting chamber. Thankfully it was seen off by the female weasel, despite the fact that she was six times smaller than the stoat. Then when the kits were 48 days old there was a real change in behaviour. The female weasel decided it was time to take them on their first real adventure into the great unknown.

I had rigged cameras and sensors throughout the garden to alert me to their movements.  So when a sensor from a hollow log outside my kitchen window triggered an alarm, I knew they were on the move. I opened the window, but the female noticed my movement and quickly pulled the kits into the log by the scruffs of their necks. Seconds later she appeared in the entrance to the log, looking my way. The kits seemed to think this was some sort of game and pounced on her. She made a chittering sound and two kits followed her. 

They moved as if they were one animal – nose to tail. As they bounded away I watched them dash up into a feeding box that I had placed in a pile of old roots. Meanwhile the other weasels whizzed around the garden. There seemed to be weasels everywhere! The female was taking them on a grand tour of their territory. After a full morning of exploration, they all headed back to their nest in the back shed where I filmed them from a nearby hide.

It was impossible to count them as they moved through the undergrowth, but ever since I had seen the stoat enter the nest I had been anxious to see if all seven were still alive. Back at their nest I saw five kits dashing in and out of the holes of a dry stone wall I had built in front of the nest as a backdrop for my photographs.

In spite of being just 48 days old four of the kits were already bigger than her. I suspected that these were probably the males. The fifth was a female, she was a mini-fuzzy version of her mother. I suspect the stoat had got the other two. Later that day, I heard the chittering call of the adult female. One by one the kits dashed off in the direction of her call. I heard a squealing distress call. I ran over to the meadow area of my garden and parted the tall grasses. There was a weasel kit having a battle with a young rat. They were rolling and writhing about. One moment the weasel seemed to be winning, the next moment the rat had the upper hand. The rat tried biting the weasel’s face.

The weasel wrapped its long body around the rat to deliver a killer bite to the back of its neck; they spun as they tussled. I dashed to the house to get my camera. By the time I got back the weasel was winning the war and the rat’s squeals had subdued. The weasel had the rat by the throat and was viciously biting into it. It was making sure that rat was not just playing dead. It definitely was dead but it was still flicking and twitching. The weasel had been so caught up in the fight, that it hadn’t noticed me standing right over it filming.

It dashed off into long grasses to eat its well-earned meal and I heard another young rat being caught by one of the other weasels. The female had obviously taken the young kits on their very first hunting mission.

What a tough initiation for these youngsters – especially since there was already plenty of food for this growing family in the feeding box. Female rats, like most mammals, are known to fiercely defend their young and are the most dangerous prey to attempt.
I have watched cheetah take down gazelle in Africa and this was every bit as dramatic. How incredible to see such a rare sight in my own back garden.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Waxwings at Christmas

Although they are not native birds, I often associate flocks of waxwings with the run up to Christmas. These colourful birds flock in from Scandinavia each year to escape the icy winters or poor rowan berry harvests there. They reach the East coast first before spreading west in search of food.

Waxwings are renowned for invading city parks, shopping centre car parks and gardens after plundering the sources of berries in the countryside. So watch out as you come out of the shops laden with your Christmas shopping. Meadowhall is a favourite spot.

Once found, they are surprisingly tame and readily approachable.
This year I've heard that there are quite a few about. I haven't the time to go and look for them now but I'm reminded of the year I heard on the grapevine that a certain street in Huddersfield lined with rowan trees was a hotspot for these gregarious birds.

I wanted some good photographs for a painting I was planning at the time, now pictured above, so I decided to drive over there. I am good at navigating through the countryside, but I’ll admit to being something of a fish out of water in a city and before too long I was totally lost.

It took me some time to find the right street, but when I did so I noticed that it was thankfully still lined with berry laden trees.
There was not a bird in sight but I positioned my car at the best angle for photographing. I opened up the sun roof and ventured out through the top.

I was perfectly camouflaged for wildlife-watching in the deepest countryside, wearing top to toe forest green with a 2ft long camera lens. But I felt wholly out of place in this urban backdrop so I decided to leave my camouflage netting in my car.

An old boy with his flat cap and whippet came walking along the street and looked me up and down. “What’s tha’ doing lad, are you one of those there paparazzi?”

I explained that I was a wildlife artist and that I was waiting for the waxwings to reappear and eat the berries.“What –Wings?”
“Waxwings” I repeated and went on to explain that it was a bird that migrates to England to escape the harsh winters in Scandinavia.

Having said that it was a pretty harsh day in Huddersfield, to say the least. I was explaining how beautiful they were with a black, yellow and white striped wing and black tail hemmed with a perfect yellow band, but was cut short by:

“Ney lad there’s nought like that round ‘ere, I think you’ve got the wrong spot. Round ‘ere we just got magpies, starlings and pigeons’
Just then, with impeccable timing, a seagull flew overhead. I pointed it out. “’Aye lad there’s them and all”

There was a long pause and I looked at his shivering whippet.
“I’d bist be off and t’k her for her walk” Nearly two hours passed and not a single waxwing appeared. I looked behind me to see the old boy returning. As he came alongside the car, he said “Has thee seen ‘out yit?

I shook my head. ‘just magpies, starlings, pigeons… and seagulls.’
His eyes glinted, ‘I told you so lad.’ I was beginning to think that he was right. Then I spotted a fast flock of birds approaching. They looked like a squadron of starlings in flight at first.

As they landed on top of a nearby tree, it was clear that these were the birds I had been waiting for – a museum of waxwings.
Silhouetted against the grey clouds we could both see their sweeping crests, but it was difficult to distinguish their beautiful colouring.

As they flew down into the laden rowan trees to plunder the berries, a pair of mistle thrushes appeared to guard these precious food stores. This pair of mistle thrushes tried in vain to chase the waxwings off the tree. But the waxwings were too nimble and too numerous for their clumsy rivals and they carried on feeding regardless.

The old boy said: “Well, I ‘ave never seen ‘ought like that rand ‘ere.” And he set off home with his quivering whippet. He was an endearing chap, but I was quite relieved when he had gone as he clearly thought I was totally mad.

It had been a long day and although I’d got some good shots, the greyness of the day meant that the photographs weren’t the best.
I spent the next couple of weeks touring South and West Yorkshire for a better sighting. But waxwings are truly nomadic. Once a food source is depleted they will move on to find the next. You need to act immediately on any tip off and I was always following them in vain.

Christmas day came round and I set off to spend the day with my in-laws in  Pocklington. Crackers were cracked, hats were donned, the turkey was carved and we were just tucking into a real Christmas feast in the conservatory when I heard the unmistakable trilling call of a waxwing.

I looked outside and six landed in the cherry tree at the bottom of the garden. Knives and forks were put to one side and were swiftly replaced with a pair of binoculars to confirm the sighting. This was a present too good to be true and one designed by nature.

With that they swooped into the berry laden rowan tree which was just a few metres from where we were sitting.The reason for the name ‘waxwing’ became clear. Each of the secondary flight feathers bore a tear-shaped red droplet which matched the dripping candle wax on our table.

A pair of mistle thrushes swooped in to guard their berries that they had kept safe up until now to add to the drama. It was a sight to behold. It really did make my Christmas.

Friday, December 4, 2015

How about some wildlife art for Christmas?

I've put together some ideas for Christmas gifts with direct links to my online shop to help make your shopping easier. If anyone in your family loves wildlife then look no further. There's luxury tableware, stationary and even some great stocking gift ideas all featuring my lifelike paintings of animals and birds.

Robert E Fuller

Read my wildlife column   │  Follow my blog   │  Book an event   │  Shop online
Looking for inspiration? How about these great wildlife art gift ideas. Order online by December 22nd for guaranteed Xmas delivery or visit my gallery in Thixendale to browse. The gallery is open every day until noon on Christmas Eve. Happy Shopping!  Robert E Fuller.

Original Paintings
Make Christmas really special with one-off original artwork
Pictured above: Snow Patrol £6,950
Choose from Robert's entire collection where prices start at £1,650
Or why not commission your favourite animal?
Click here to see the full range
Luxury Tableware
Make your gift last. This range of wildlife art dinner placemats will be used again and again.
Placemats £12.95 each
Coasters £5.99 each. Buy a set of 6 placemats with matching coasters and save £11.64 
Fine Bone China Mugs
These stunning mugs come in elegant gift boxes.
Only £12.95
Special offer: 2 for £25
or buy 5 get one free

A practical gift to make drying up a pleasure!
£9.75 each
Special offerBuy two for £16.99

Magnetic Shopping Pad
Shopping lists never looked more elegant
£4.99 each

Stylish Keyrings 
Choose from four keyrings each featring one of Robert's stunning paintings.
Fridge Magnet
Another great little stocking filler featuring one of six different designs from Robert's most popular paintings.
Limited Edition Prints 
Choose a limited edition print of your loved one's favourite animal or bird.
Prices from £45
Free shipping when you buy 2 or more

Glass worktop savers
The perfect gift for the wildest cook in your life.
Made in the UK with toughened glass.

Only £19.99
Calendars and Diaries
Last few remaining! 
Slim Calendar £6.99
Spiralbound desk diary £12.00
Save £4: Square calendar & diary combo for £20

Address Book
How about this gorgeous gift to help stay organised? Hard-backed A5 book with navy ribbon marker
Just £9.99

Magnetic Bookmark
For your Christmas stocking.


Compact Mirror
Silver-rimmed compact mirror featuring Britain's most popular garden bird. Fits perfectly in a handbag

Greeting Cards 
Superb value mixed packs! Never be without a card again with these card collections.

from £9.50