Monday, June 27, 2016

Peregrine Action

York Minster Peregrine, painted by Robert E Fuller
The group that attended yesterday's gallery event to see peregrines at York Minster were treated to a spectacular show when three peregrines appeared in the skies above the medieval cathedral. My new gallery guide Jack Ashton-Booth, of the bird-watching group, York Peregrines, reported a fantastic display when an unknown female bird also appeared on the scene. "The peregrine pair that live on the ramparts of the minster didn't like this intruder one bit and so they flew straight at it, forcing it west out of their territory. It's very rare to see three together like this, in the four years I've been monitoring the peregrine pair that live here I've only seen three together a handful of times," he said.

Female Peregrine posing on the Minster during the tour
"We watched from the city walls where we had a fantastic view of the pair sitting either side of the North Tower. It was a fascinating event and was further enriched by two elderly members of the group who at one time worked on the minster, cleaning and repairing the stone. They brought an extra dimension to the experience when they described exactly how high each bird was perched - having actually worked at those dizzying heights themselves."
Male was perched on the opposite side of the North Gate

Jack is the latest member to join the team at my gallery in Thixendale. An experienced ornithologist, he has brought a wealth of expertise to our events. This weekend he led a total of four bird-watching tours, including a very successful kids walk to find young owls.
"This went down very well. We saw family of tawny owls, including the chicks, and then the children all came inside the gallery to dissect owl pellets. There was a birthday party group who were a particular pleasure to show the owls to as they were so enthusiastic."

Jack also led an event to learn how to recognise birdsong, in keeping with the theme of my latest exhibition of paintings of the songbirds of the Yorkshire Wolds. Attendees of 'Birds of Thixendale' reported hearing and seeing up to 40 different species on their walk on Saturday. If you haven't yet been to my exhibition it runs until July 3rd. The video below gives you a flavour of the paintings on show as well as a helpful introduction to learning birdsong.

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Cocky Kestrel

I have been offering food to wild kestrels in my garden for many years now. It all started when I saw a young male kestrel in my garden, looking wet and bedraggled and hungry. Rain was forecast for a week and in sympathy I put a mouse on a fence post over an area of rough grass where I had often seen him perch. The mouse disappeared and the next day so did another. On the third day I watched him as he swooped down and took the mouse. I could not have imagined then this would become 10 year relationship and that I would come to know this wild falcon so well.

Over the years I have become very fond him – if feels to me like he is a wild pet – and I’ve even noticed that the feathers on his shoulders have gone a little grey lately. I call him Kes, after the captive kestrel in Ken Loach’s 1969 film. 
Kes flies into the garden for food every day and I can now whistle to let him know when I have put something out for him. He comes straight away and I am able to stay close to watch and photograph him. He and his long term partner, who I’ve of course named Mrs Kes, have become so used to me they frequently nest in the garden. Last year I started watching the pair even more closely. I placed cameras both inside and outside their nest box so that I could watch them 24:7. I then rigged monitors up in my studio, gallery, office and home so that I didn’t miss a single moment. The surveillance meant I was able to capture some magical moments, including when each of their eggs was laid and when their chicks hatched.

This spring started the same as other years. The male and female began by touring the garden and surrounding area, inspecting different nest sites. Thankfully all of these prospective sites were rigged with cameras so I even got an insight into this process too.The male would call his mate into a nest box and entice her in by offering her a tasty morsel; usually a dead vole or dead day old chicken’s chick provided by me – or, if he was really out to impress her, a lizard he had caught himself. As she entered the box he would repeatedly bow his whole body up and down, in a very comical fashion.
After a few weeks of watching her fuss over her different options, I was delighted when they chose one of the nest boxes I had put up in the garden. At the end of April, old Mrs Kes started to lay her eggs. She laid one every other day and started brooding when she had her third egg, before laying two more.

Then one day I saw a female kestrel sitting on the post where I put out food for Mr and Mrs Kes. I looked across at my TV monitors and there was Mrs Kes, as usual, sitting patiently on her eggs, so I knew this must be a new female. At first I didn’t think too much about it, since chicks from previous years sometimes come back. I had noticed that Mr Kes could be quite reluctant about chasing new females away from his territory, but he usually gave males short shrift.
Then I started to see a little more of this new young kestrel flying around the garden and sometimes even coming onto the post to feed. At the end of April, whilst Mrs Kes was still laying her clutch, this much younger female kestrel appeared in another nest box that I had cameras in. This one was made from an old ash stump and was just 100 yards away from old Mrs Kes’s nest box. In fact Mr and Mrs Kes had visited this nest box just two weeks earlier while they were prospecting for a suitable site. Mrs Kes had rejected it – possibly because both a barn owl and a pair of tawny owls were also considering it at the time. As I watched the monitor, a male kestrel joined the young female in the ash stump. Curious, I looked a little closer. Then I realised with surprise that this was, in fact, Mr Kes himself. Each kestrel is individual and I knew Mr Kes’s markings very well: the tell-tale grey tinge to the blue of the feathers on his shoulders was unmistakable.
The two females pictured side by side for comparison

Old Mr Kes had a ‘bit on the side’! He was clearly out to impress this young girlfriend because I then saw him offer her a lizard, which would have been amongst the choicest morsels he could have given.
Unfortunately, this relationship only lasted two weeks and then this younger kestrel disappeared. But then I noticed there was yet another female on the scene. I noticed this new one digging a nest scrape in the ash stump box. I could tell she was a new girlfriend by the markings on her tail feathers, which are quite distinct from those of the other young female. I suspect that this third female will have pushed the other young one out of the territory.
Before long I watched Mr Kes courting this new floozy. Again, he was out to impress and was feeding her choice morsels. But I noticed that despite his new relationship, old Mr Kes had not neglected his duties to long term partner Mrs Kes as she sat during the long dull days of incubation patiently keeping the eggs warm in the first nest box. I watched in amazement as he alternated between the two females, taking turns to help Mrs Kes incubate her five eggs and then flying 100 yards down the hill to keep up his courtship with the other female.

After 30 days of incubation Mrs Kes’ eggs began to hatch. And, the very next day the new girlfriend laid her first egg. Now, Mr Kes’ schedule was hotting up! Not only did he have to spend the day hunting for his new chicks, but he was also finding time take turns brooding his other bird’s eggs.
Visitors to my gallery have been enjoying seeing the two female kestrels with their growing chicks in their respective nests via the webcams when the visit Robert’s gallery in Thixendale. They may even spot a particularly harried looking male dropping by with a morsel of food before quickly flying off to hunt for more.
Pictures of all three kestrel girlfriends put together: notice the different markings on their tale feathers
I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the situation he had got himself into. So I began to put more food out for him to take to his respective partners. Mrs Kes’ chicks are growing at an astonishing pace and the girlfriend’s chicks are due to hatch this week. I’m not sure how old Mr Kes will cope with all these mouths to feed but I admire him for the way he has coped so far. He has looked after both females admirably and gives equal time and effort to both. Kestrels in the UK feature on the RSPB’s amber warning list of species in decline. At least here on the Yorkshire Wolds, Kes is making his own particular contribution to restoring populations!

How could you not love a weasel?

This tiny weasel kit is just four weeks old and already it's a TV Star. The minute creature, which measures just 10cm and fits snugly in the palm of your hand, melted hearts when it appeared on BBC's Look North last week.
Traditionally despised as vermin, weasels are formidable predators. But this particular critter is turning the tide of opinion after appearing with me on the TV newsroom sofa.

I've been looking after him here at my home in Thixendale ever since a member of the public found him on a path on Walmgate Stray in York. He was only four weeks old and was barely moving - in contrast he barely keeps still now and I've named him Fidget, appropriately.
I'm glad I spent so long monitoring the wild weasels in my garden because it's given me a real insight into their early years. I knew, for instance, that Fidget would have already been eating meat when he arrived and so I didn't need to find a milk formula for him.

Weasels are usually seen as vermin and have been despised in our culture for centuries. I think most people who have the chance to see one up close and to observe it acting playfully will agree with me that the species are incredible survivors and when they realise just how tiny weasels are they might have more respect for their fearlessness. Perhaps Fidget might change the tide of opinion!
I've grown quite attached to him and in the first few days I woke up in the night to check up on him.
Weasels only live for a year in the wild and I'm undecided whether to release Fidget or whether it would be kinder to keep him since he's unlikely to be able to hunt with the ferocity he will need to survive in the wild.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Weasels in the Garden: Part II

I hope you enjoyed last night's film on BBC Springwatch. If you missed it click here to read my full story.

If you saw it you'll know it ended with a cliff hanger, with viewers unsure if the kits would manage to fend for themselves without their mother. She disappeared following a fight with a stoat in my garden. The story continues tonight on Springwatch so don't forget to tune in!

You'll be pleased to hear that at least five of last year’s kits survived to independence and two remained in the garden well in to the autumn. One of these was a male 'Mr Two Spots', who I named after the markings under his chin. These could only be seen when he stretched out his neck.

The following Spring, as the breeding season approached, I began to get anxious. I wanted a female to pair up with Mr Two Spots.

Not much is known about the courting behaviour of weasels and there was no knowing whether he would stay in the territory and lure a female in, or go off elsewhere to find a mate.
Then a female appeared on the scene. And it was literally love at first sight! The two weasels curled up in the nesting boxes in loved-up bliss, chittering affectionately together quite endearingly. Watch them here: 

Previous research suggests that weasels show intra-sexual territoriality – in other words that adult females exclude other females, and males exclude other males – but that the larger ranges of males include those of one or more females.

Two Spots and Teasel seemed inseparable – there was no chance at all that Two Spots could have had another female elsewhere. Indeed, in comparison with the brutal courtship I observed last year, between Mr Two Spots mother and his aggressive father, the tender relationship between Mr Two Spots and Teasel was remarkable. And it was Teasel who made all the advances, mounting and mock-mating Two Spots as he dozed and attempting to stir him to action.

Then, Two Spots seemed to experience a surge of testosterone. His testicles were huge! Purple and so swollen he could barely hold his tail down. His behaviour changed and the two lovers fought. Teasel was evicted and Two Spots’ newfound aggression kept her away from the feeding boxes. 

However, I was hopeful that having seen all the mating inside the nesting box that Teasel was pregnant and I held my breath for late May when I hoped she would be giving birth to kits inside one of the nesting chambers rigged with cameras.
And then both weasels disappeared. I thought I had lost them. Teasel eventually returned but there was no sign that she was pregnant. She was slim and lithe and very different from the weasel pregnancy I had observed the previous year with Mr Two Spot's mother, who couldn't make it in and out of the entrance holes to my boxes. Then on the very day Teasel was supposed to give birth a new male appeared on the scene. He was much bigger, with pale fur that was beginning to moult around the shoulders. I called him Caramac.
The first time he appeared on camera in the nest box, he met Teasel in the entrance tunnel and forced her back inside. He cornered her in the box, sunk his teeth into the scruff of her neck and proceeded to mate her for more than two hours in a protracted and violent coupling. This was much more aggressive that the tender approach of Mr Two Spots!

Scientific research has shown that weasels are induced ovulators – the act of mating stimulates the release of eggs from the ovary. Within weeks Teasel’s belly had swollen. She looked like a string with a very knot in it. You can almost see the kits moving inside her.

And now I am awaiting her due date of around 19th June with baited breath. I’m hoping she gives birth in one of my nesting boxes so that I can see the kits as they arrive. But even if she doesn’t she’s likely to move them at some point and I will get a chance to look in on the incredible process again.

If you are ever up in North Yorkshire - do call into my gallery at Thixendale (see where you can follow the action for yourselves in the live screens playing in my gallery! The next few months should be incredible.

Hope you enjoyed watching the episode.

About: The Weasel World that is my back garden!

Someone recently described my back garden as Weasel Big Brother. I call it Weasel Town myself, but the description is quite apt. Looking back, the tricks I used to photograph and film the weasels when I saw Mr Two Spot's mother for the very first time were quite archaic compared to the rig up I have now. Then, I relied on a mirror in the garden and a string attached to a piece of wood wired to the food I left the weasel - this set off a bell in my studio.

Of course I also used, and still do, the warnings let out by the song birds in my garden. Blackbirds are the best at sounding the alarm when a weasel is on the prowl.
But as the weasel sightings became more reliable I began to make some major alterations. I built weasel walkways along logs piles and hedges and even through scaffold pipes and hollow logs. I also built two drystone walls and in front of one I dug a reflection pool as an attractive foreground for my a new painting I’m planning.

And recently I’ve added a new hide connected to my living room via a tunnel so that I can move from one to the other without being spotted. The entire back garden is wired with cameras. In the corridor leading to the hide, I’ve mounted a large wooden box to the wall. It contains a cosy nest chamber, accessed from the outside at ground level. The chamber is lined with hay and lit with LEDs so I can film in full colour and HD, so illumination is essential.

And inside is a heat pad. Nothing but luxury for my weasels. After all I want to make sure the weasels stay here.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Weasels in my Garden: The Story Behind the Film

I hope you enjoyed watching my weasels on BBC Springwatch this evening. The camera crew spent a few days here at my art gallery at Thixendale filming here in April. Read on for the background to tonight's piece.

Although weasels are common enough mammals it is rare to get more than a fleeting glimpse of one before it disappears into the undergrowth.I have followed the secret behaviour of these tiny predators through a number of cameras hidden in my garden for over a year. I have watched a female bringing up a litter of 7 kits, her battle for survival with a local stoat which sees her as a competitor and appears to actively hunt weasels.

I even saw their aggressive mating ritual - right outside my kitchen window. This was incredible. The male literally grabbed the female and when, after a short scuffle, she curled up into a submissive ball, he picked her and up carried her off by the scruff of her neck to mate.

I began watching the female in March, after Lara, who works in my gallery, came rushing to find me claiming she had spotted a baby stoat in the garden. Weasels are often mistaken for stoats. But as they are much smaller and, as it was too early for stoat kits, I knew by her description that she must have actually seen a weasel. A few days later I saw the weasel for myself from my studio window, which overlooks the same patch of garden.

I dashed downstairs, grabbed my camera and took my first ever photographs of a weasel from the kitchen window. Looking back through these photographs, I could tell the weasel was a female since she had very delicate features. I was surprised how small she was: just over twice the size of a wood mouse. I decided I needed to get her to feed regularly in the garden so that I could study her closely for a new painting.

I set about designing four ‘weasel feeders’, special wooden boxes fitted with fine mesh floors and Perspex sliding roofs. I drilled 32mm entrance holes into the sides, big enough for a weasel to get in and out but, importantly, too small for a stoat or rat. I positioned each box in different locations in my back garden, where I had seen the weasel hunting, and baited them with dead mice or voles every day. Sometimes I dragged the bait over the ground in front of the box to leave a scent trail.

After 10 days of repeating this process I’d had no joy and was starting to get disheartened. Then one morning I heard the birds in the garden calling out in alarm. Interestingly their calls were much more subtle then when a sparrowhawk is on the scene. As I looked out of the window I could see a weasel going from feeder to feeder diligently taking each rodent.  Success! I reached for my camera and quickly snapped it as it made off down the path. I was off to a good start.

Over the next few weeks, the weasel started to come most days. But its raids were so quick I often missed its visits. I decided to reduce the number of feeding boxes down to one. With just one box to keep an eye on I would have a much better chance of getting clear sightings.

I fitted the box with a tiny camera so that I could see inside via a TV screen in my studio and a motion sensor with an alarm, which would alert me when it arrived.Then I artfully placed tree roots in front of this entrance so that any photographs I took would make it look as though the weasel was emerging from a natural setting. It took a few days to get the weasel to return to this adapted feeder, but one morning she dashed up through the roots and into the box. I watched on my TV monitor as she grabbed the mouse inside. I had tied down the bait with mini cable ties, so that it would slow the weasel down and give me chance to grab my camera.

I had a fascinating month watching the female weasel. Then one day a male arrived and went into the feeding box. He was much bigger and stockier than the female. He became a regular visitor too, although the relationship between them was very tense. But, spurred on by the possibility that this could be a mate for her, I headed off to the workshop to finish off a nesting chamber I had already started to build.

I made this out of a hollow hawthorn log and again hid a camera in it. It had a six inch hollow middle, which was the perfect size for such a small mammal. I put the whole thing into a small plastic bin and fixed three 32mm pipes leading in to it. I hoped the pipe would be too small for the larger male to get down. Inside I put two voles’ nests made from dead grass and leaves to add extra scent. The pipes smelt of new plastic so I poured soil and sand through it before pulling a dead vole on a bit of string through too for good measure.

 From the outside it looked a bit like a blue Dalek. I buried it in its entirety in the back garden. Then each day I tied a dead mouse with a cable tie onto a dead grass stem and threaded it about six inches down the pipes to attract the female weasel into the nest. Then one day in late April the female came to the feeding box as usual. She was followed by the male, which ran in to the tree roots and flushed her out.

She fled, but she wasn’t quick enough. The male caught her and rolled her over into a conifer. She was squeaking, hissing and spitting in aggression.  As she rolled on to her back the bush was shaking and I got fleeting glimpses of weasels bobbing up and then disappearing behind the foliage.
I ran upstairs to get a better view. The female scrambled on top of a small shrub and leapt onto the path. But she wasn’t quick enough. The male grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and carried her off out of sight.

I didn’t see either weasel for the next three days which was unusual. I was worried that the male had chased her away, but I hoped that they were just mating. I was pleased to see her back one evening and even more pleased to see her investigating her new, bespoke, nesting chamber.

She checked every nook and cranny. It was like watching Location, Location, Location. Within minutes, she had decided she liked it and fetched one of the dead mice I had pushed down the pipe. She pulled this inside with her.

Then, incredibly, she set about neatly building a nest out of the old vole nest that I had put in earlier. She soon built a dome structure out of dry grasses and leaves and pulled her mouse into it. She ate some of her mouse and then the nest fell quiet as she fell asleep.

As the weeks passed I noticed that she was getting plump. Typically the gestation period for a weasel is 35 days. But she now couldn’t fit down the pipe into the nesting chamber and instead she began sleeping and making a nest in the feeding box.

But the male could fit into this too. And for two nights just before she was due to give birth, he slept in it himself. It was clear she wouldn’t give birth there now and shortly afterwards she gave birth to kits in a hole in the wall of my back shed.

As the female weasel ran back and forth from her nest in my back shed to the feeding box in my back garden, I wondered if I could channel her movements in some way. I watched her going backwards and forwards from my kitchen window and then decided I would build a mini dry stone wall with a weasel sized hole in, so I could capture her running through from either side. I built it during the day, and decided to put up cameras when the female had got used to using this new route. She started using it straight away. I think she enjoyed the security of having a safe place to hide in, so that she wasn’t so exposed.

The following day, I was giving a talk to a large group in my gallery and opened the door in my studio where I have a deck overlooking my back garden. The nesting chambers and feed boxes are all here and I’ve nicknamed the back garden ‘weasel town’.

Some of my customers walked out on to the deck to look at the garden and the spectacular view of the Yorkshire Wolds. They were pointing at the path and I went outside to see the weasel running along the path looking a bit distressed. I asked the customers about what they had seen and they told me that they had seen the weasel running back and forth with baby mice in its mouth. They went on to tell me that it had gone towards the nesting chamber, next to the back wall of my living room. I knew straightway that it wasn’t baby mice that she was carrying but 6 day old kits! I got everyone inside quickly so that the weasel could move her kits in peace. We watched from a live camera inside my studio instead.

She had brought seven kits into the nesting chamber one at a time. She was now slim enough to fit into it again. The kits were just over one inch long. They were blind and hairless. They couldn’t walk but could squirm and wriggle about. Once the last of the kits was brought into this safe haven, the female scurried out to the feeding box to retrieve a dead mouse. She dragged it into the nesting chamber with the kits. And I was amazed to see how the seemingly helpless kits quickly wriggled towards this new food source and started to suck on it. Who would have thought that such young creatures would already have the taste for meat at such an early stage?

I was slightly disappointed that I hadn’t captured any footage of her moving the kits, I hadn’t yet put the cameras either side of the mini dry stone wall, although I was beyond excited that they had chosen to nest in my ‘home-made’ nesting chamber with pre-installed camera.

This young family seemed very happy in their new location, but I suspected she may move them again, so I set about making her a new nest. I placed it outside my kitchen window near the feeding box. It made out from an old elderberry trunk. I laid it on its side and fitted it with a camera and a motion sensor. I put some dead mice in the entrance hole to attract the female to it. I had positioned it between her existing nesting chamber and the feeding box so she soon found it. On 17th June she moved two of the kits into this nest. The alarm connected to the motion sensor in the elderberry trunk was ringing loudly in my kitchen, so I looked at the TV screen to see the weasel carrying a tiny kit into the new nest right in front of the camera. I opened the kitchen window to get my camera in place. She came out of the entrance and spotted me. She ran back into the old nest with the other kits. On the TV screen I watched her curl round the kits to let them suckle. She seemed to settle down with them, forgetting about the other two that she had already moved. After half an hour I went out to check on the two kits and opened a door on the elderberry log nest. The kits were inside but they were still warm, so I went back inside to wait. A few minutes later she decided to abandon this move, came out and took the two kits back with her.

But after this ‘failed’ move, I knew another was imminent. I was glued to the TV screen, which relayed live images of the nest. I even set up another TV screen outside to show me what was going on inside the nest while I was filming. The weasel moves so fast, I could miss all the action if I wasn’t careful.

I based myself at home, as I knew the move was imminent and I didn’t want to miss it. I looked closely for any unusual behaviour patterns. Over the next two days she continued her normal routine, collecting food from the feeding box and taking it down to feed her kits in the nesting chamber. On Saturday 20th June in the morning she took a mouse into the hollow log, which acts as a ‘front porch’. Then a few minutes later she took the mouse away and stashed it elsewhere. She then disappeared for nearly two hours. This was quite a long time to leave such young kits, certainly the longest she had left them to date, and I was getting concerned. I was relieved when she came back and let the kits suckle straightaway.

A customer wanted to speak to me in the gallery and I went through to chat to him. He asked me how my weasels were getting on and I pointed to the screen to show him the nesting chamber. At that very moment I saw the weasel pick up one of the kits by the scruff of the neck. It had started. She was moving them.

I rushed into the kitchen and activated my go pro video camera, which I had positioned outside the nest. Visitors to the gallery crowed around the screen to watch this rare event unfold. I was all fingers and thumbs and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t decide whether I should outside or not and risk disturbing her.

I expected her to move the kits one by one to the new nest in an orderly fashion. But this was not the case. She pulled them all out at once into the front porch and then set off with one in the direction of the hedge. I took the opportunity to go into the back garden and get into position to film. My camera and tripod were already set up. I sat down and waited. She was soon back and she grabbed the kits one by one and took them the short distance to the hedge. She must have dumped them there! She was in such a rush she dropped one, but she soon picked it up again. I retreated to the back shed, where she had given birth to the kits. I waited motionlessly. I knew the weasel well and I had a hunch she was heading that way. Sure enough she appeared through the little dry stone wall that I had built for her holding a kit by the scruff of its neck and ran along the back wall of my studio. She dashed into a pile of scaffold poles still holding her 17 day old kit! She appeared out of the end of the three metre long pipe before making a final dash into the the nest in the back shed, where she had given birth.

She was moving so fast I had no chance of focusing my camera on her. I knew I would really have to concentrate if I was going to get a photograph of this amazing behaviour.

At this stage I wasn’t sure how many of the kits she had moved already. But she came back out to get another. While she was away I shuffled into a better position. I crouched down on the step leading into the back shed and trained my camera on the hole in the dry stone wall. There was a glimmer of light coming through from the other side of the hole. When it went completely dark I knew she was on her way. Split seconds later she was in the entrance hole, where she stopped for a mili-second – just enough time to rattle off a few shots. She repeated this process twice more. So I counted up that would make four kits so far. But she was moving so fast that it was virtually impossible to get a sharp photograph -video would be the only way that I could capture this behaviour. So the next time she was in the nest I ran to get my go pro camera. When I returned, I stood back and I watched as she came out to get another kit. I seized the moment and quickly put the go pro camera into position right outside the hole in the dry stone wall. I pressed record, then sat back down to wait. This time, when she returned with the fifth kit, the camera was in her path and she paused to glance at it for a few seconds - just long enough to give me a chance to get some photographs properly in focus. She went into the nest for a few minutes and I was beginning to think that this episode was over, but she soon came out. I suspect she was checking to see if she had left any kits behind. Next she went to the feeding box to collect a mouse to feed her family in their new home. It had been an action packed hour!

It was a long wait before I saw the kits again – although I still saw the female regularly. She came to feed at the specially designed feeding box which I had now put up in a branch 1 metre off the ground. I did this so I could get some good action shots of her running up and down the 1.5 metre long branch. The problem was she was just so quick – it was like trying to capture a shot of a flying bird, not a mammal.

She was getting quite used to be by now and she didn’t mind my presence in the back garden. I had some great encounters with her as she travelled from the feeding box back to her nesting site. I could just sit 1 metre away from the route I knew she would take and she would storm past me with a mouse for her kits in her mouth. I didn’t even need to set up a hide or wear camouflage clothing!

My elaborate set up with the mini dry stone wall was working well, but the problem was she was impossibly quick and it was difficult to get a photograph of her. It really was split second stuff. So I positioned another TV monitor outside that I could watch as I sat waiting for her to appear. This could relay live images of her in the feeding box. This would show me when she was leaving the feeding box and give me chance to get ready for her coming through the dry stone wall. I even positioned a large mirror on the other side of the dry stone wall so I could see her reflection as she approached along the garden path and then going into the far side of the dry stone wall. Often she would dash straight past me and it was very difficult to get a good shot, but on other occasions she would pause for  a fraction of a second – just long enough to rattle off a few shots.
When she appeared out of the dry stone wall she would head straight for a pile of scaffold poles that were lying by the side of the wall of my studio. She would run inside the poles and I could hear her claws scratching against the metal. As she emerged she would look up at me – and I would need to sit very still – and then she would scuttle round the corner and into her nest in the back shed to feed her kits. I had positioned a trail cam directly outside the entrance hole to the dry stone wall. But even though it was just 50cm away it struggled to cope with the sheer speed of the weasel and it rarely activated the motion sensor.
It was 6th July and now been four and a half weeks since the kits were born and I was expecting to see the kits any day now. Late one evening I decided to check the trail cam. It had captured a few shots of a weasel, but I was then surprised to see a video of a stoat coming out of the nest. The trail cam had recorded the footage at 6.50am. I wondered if this could be the end of my weasel kits. Ten seconds later the trail cam had recorded the female appearing out of the entrance to the nest, checking to see if the stoat had gone. I didn’t know if the much smaller weasel had seen this large predator off and managed to save her kits or not. The next video was at lunch time of a kit peering out of the hole.

It was hard to tell at first that it was a kit – it was fully formed and as large as the female. But it’s movements were slow and clumsy in comparison to the swift dexterity of the adult which gave it away.

I was so relieved when I saw her busily taking food in to the nesting chamber the following day. It signified that the kits were alive and well and hungry! Then the trail camera captured footage of a large rat sniffing going into the entrance of the nest chamber. Rats are not really thought to be ‘hunters’ but they could easily kill a whole litter. Again, I was worried.
A week later the female didn’t take as much food as normal from the feeding box. She was only taking two mice a day – which was only sufficient to feed herself. I was worried that the stoat or the rat had been back again, as in addition to her not taking any food down to the kits I hadn’t captured any new footage of the kits appearing out of the entrance to their nest. But thankfully the following day her feeding pattern returned to normal, taking seven mice in quick succession and even a bit of rabbit too.

She had obviously got lucky and managed to hunt something herself. I decided to take a look at the entrance to the nesting chamber. The back shed wall had a large pyracantha bush growing up it. I peered in to see two weasel kits playing in the thick cover.

But the nesting chamber was very vulnerable to attack by the rat and the stoat so I decided to reduce the size of the entrance hole so that these larger predators would be unable to get in.
The female rarely came to feed by night so I knew this would be the least intrusive time to do a bit of handiwork. So over three nights I cut back the pyracantha and put in three clay pipes over the holes with a 32mm reduce plate inside so nothing larger than this size could get in. Around these clay pipes, I built a drystone wall with a small waterhole to give myself a natural-looking backdrop. Two pipes lead into the nesting chamber and the third led into my back garden.

Weasels have a very strong sense of smell, and I didn’t want to alarm them with my scent. So I put chopped up rabbit and mice all over the drystone wall. I thought it would serve as the perfect distraction from the work I had done. It worked a treat. The next day I saw the kits investigating their new front door complete with waterhole. They scurried around from one hole to the next, collecting the morsels of food that I had stashed in crack and crevices in the wall. They definetly liked the improvements I had made, but the most important thing was to wait and see if the female accepted the changes.

I kept replenishing the food on the wall and was delighted to see her taking the morsels in to the new holes. I had seen her nearly every day since March – more than four months – and I would often come across her while I was out in the garden. She had built up some trust in me, and accepted the changes that I had made to her nesting chamber.

I built a hide 5 metres away from the chamber and the door next to my studio so that I could watch the comings and goings of the young family of weasels. The kits were still very tentative when they were outside the nest and rarely strayed far from cover.

Then on 20th July 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 adventure into the great unknown. I was just walking through the kitchen when I heard the alarm of one of my sensors going off. I realised it was the sensor that I had positioned inside what I hoped would be a nest for this family of weasels in an old hollow log. The log was just outside the kitchen window. I looked at the monitor and saw that several weasel kits were already in the nest. I grabbed a camera and opened the window. The female weasel and her kits were in the entrance to this new nest. She saw the movement and quickly pulled the kits back inside the hollow log by the scruffs of their necks. Seconds later she appeared in the entrance again, looking my way. The kits seemed to think it was some sort of game and pounced on her. She made a chitting sound and two kits followed her. It was as if they were moving as one animal – nose to tail. As they bounded away I watched them dash up into the feeding box and then watched two more weasels whizzing around the garden. There seemed to be weasels everywhere! The female was taking them on a tour of their territory. After a full morning of exploration, they all headed back to their back shed nest. After lunch I sat in my hide filming the kits. It may sound unlikely but it is impossible to count them as they dash around. I saw four at once, which started to gave me a good idea of numbers. The female took five mice away from the top feeding box, but she didn’t take them back to the back shed nest so I wondered where she was taking them to. I went back to the hide to find four kits dashing in and out of the holes. The female came to the wall. I couldn’t see her but I could hear her chittering call. One by one the four kits dashed after her in the direction of the back garden. I checked through my video footage and found that in spite of being just 48 days old these four kits were already bigger than her. It seemed to me that these four were probably male weasels. I had seen some smaller kits as well – so was hoping that all seven were still alive. I didn’t see anymore weasels for the rest of the afternoon, so was starting to wonder where she had moved them to. Later that day I was out in the garden putting some food out for some wild kestrels that I have trained to come to feed on a post in my garden. 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 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 appeared to have the upper hand. The rat tried biting the weasel’s face. The weasel was spinning around the rat almost like a snake. I dashed back to the house to get my camera. By the time I got back the weasel was winning the war and the rat’s squeals became 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 stood right over it filming. But it soon dashed of into the grasses and I retreated to let it eat it’s well earned meal. As I did so I could hear another young rat being caught by one of the other weasels. The female had obviously taken the young kits on a hunting mission. What a tough first outing for these youngsters – as female rats, like most mammals, are known to fiercely defend their young. I have watched cheetah take down gazelle in Africa, but this was every bit as dramatic and a very rare sight to witness.

As the summer passed I watched with interest as the kits became more and more adventurous. I watched them playing, pouncing and fighting. There seemed to be only one female. The other 4 were male kits. I suspect the other 2 had died at some point. The males gave the female a hard time – dragging her around by the scruff of her neck. But she was feisty and gave as good she got. The female had a special bond with one of the males and they often went around together.

I attracted a new stoat to the garden, that has become a regular visitor. One day I heard an ear piercing screech from the weasel and I knew that she had been attacked by the stoat. She appeared a few days later sporting a serious gash on her chin. By mid-august she disappeared completely. I will never know what happened to her, but I strongly suspect that it was the stoat who got her in the end.

Four of the males disappeared by late summer. I think they will have gone off to find their own new territories and I am currently left with the female and male kit.  

Tomorrow's episode on BBC Springwatch will explain what happens next... so tune in tomorrow night and read my next blog here about what happens next....

Friday, June 10, 2016

Watch me and my weasels on Springwatch Monday June 12th!

The female weasel living in my garden is expecting kits. Her swollen belly bulges out so incongruously against her otherwise long, slim body it makes her look an elongated tear drop.
I’ve been monitoring this tiny mustelid’s every move since April and I’m now counting the days until she gives birth. I have cameras trained inside and outside her nest. I don’t want to miss a moment of the action.

Small enough to slink through a wedding ring and furiously fast; weasels are notoriously difficult to study in the wild. In fact, all that most people have ever seen of a weasel is of it flashing across the road before it disappears into the undergrowth. But I have adapted a part of my garden in North Yorkshire to attract wild weasels. I’ve built feeding chambers and nest boxes for them and then rigged up cameras so that I can study them in their natural habitat for my paintings.

Weasel Wall, painted by Robert E Fuller

As a result I’ve discovered some very interesting behaviour. In fact the video footage I’ve collated is so unique it is due to feature on Springwatch on Monday June 13th and Tuesday June 14th. Here's a sneak preview of the story: 

I had at first thought the female was pregnant when she paired up with a male that already lived here.  I had footage of the two weasels mating and then curling up together all loved-up and had even nicknamed the female Teasel after watching the way she teased and pestered her mate.  They used to chitter lovingly together and groom one another in the nest.

But the love affair was all emotion and little action and the pregnancy a false alarm. Now that her belly is so unmistakably swollen I can see how wrong I was. Looking back their courtship was too tame and their mating too gentle.
I know this because on the very day that I had expected Teasel to give birth, another male arrived on the scene. A much bigger, rougher character who tumbled Teasel to the ground in a brutal tryst that reminded me why these tiny creatures have a reputation for being so vicious.
It was as though this male had come along and said: “Now this is how you do it” and sure enough after that episode there was no doubt that Teasel was pregnant. She even seemed grateful and curled up with him lovingly despite her two and a half hour ordeal.
Her original boyfriend, whom I had nicknamed Two Spots after the markings under his chin, was all that was left of a litter of seven kits that were born here last summer. 

I had spent much of last year watching and photographing this wild family and adapting my garden for them. By the end of the summer they became so accustomed to my presence they would scamper right past me as I sat on my studio steps with my camera.
I am an artist and the purpose behind all my surveillance is to study wild creatures in their natural habitats for my paintings. I couldn’t help adapting the backdrop a little so that my painting subjects appeared as if on set as they would in their final frame. I built a dry stone wall in front of the nesting chamber so that I could photograph the weasels peering out from it and added a reflection pool.  And in another part of the garden I assembled a pile of hedge root balls to mimic a more natural setting in the wild.

The weasel area of my garden, which I teasingly described as ‘Weasel Town’, grew from the first moment I spotted Two Spot’s mother in the garden last spring.
As soon as I noticed the female in my garden, I set about making sure she stayed here. I left food out for her, built specially designed feeding boxes – big enough for a weasel to get into but too small for a stoat – and eventually made her a nesting chamber.
The project, which involved 12 CCTV cameras hidden in the garden sending live images to my studio, led to my filming the first ever video of wild weasel kits being nursed in their nest.
I followed this female weasel from the moment she first mated, in an equally brutal tryst, to the time her kits took their first ginger steps into the outside world. It was incredible to discover that female weasels move their kits to new sites every few days and I photographed her as she carried them gently in her mouth, one by one.

I was even privileged enough to look in on the day that the adult female took the kits out on their first hunting expedition. By this time there were only five kits left from the original seven, four males and one female -a mini-fuzzy version of her mother. I suspect a stoat, which also lived in the garden, had got the other two.
They were just 48 days old and they behaved impeccably, following their mother nose to tail through the undergrowth as if they were all one animal. They shadowed her in this way, responding in unison to each of her chittering calls to attention, until they all reached an area of long meadow grass where I could no longer see them.
Very shortly afterwards, I heard a squealing distress call. I ran over and parted the tall grasses. There was a weasel kit wrestling 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 the 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 shortly afterwards I heard another young rat being caught by one of the other weasels.
It was a harsh initiation. If the rat’s mother had muscled in these weasels could easily have been killed. Female rats are among the most dangerous prey to attempt.  And these weasels didn’t even need the food since I had left plenty for this growing family in the feeding box.
Clearly you have to be tough to survive as a weasel. The adult female disappeared later in the year, shortly after I watched her fighting with the stoat to protect her kits, and over the winter only Two Spots remained here. I imagine the other males naturally dispersed to find new territories.
I kept up my feeding regime in the hope that he would attract a female and sure enough Teasel turned up. Then the new male and now here I am waiting to greet a new generation of weasels models to paint this year.

Can you recognise birds in the wild? Watch my short video to learn

 Do you know a robin trill from a chaffinch cheep? Watch my short video to learn the basics of birdsong.

I've combined my latest paintings of UK's beautiful song birds species with a film and sound archive so that you can pick up the tunes and see more when you are next out in the countryside.

My exhibition on Birdsong: Sounds of the Wolds opens tomorrow. Below is a brief summary and a list of events you can take part in to learn the basics of birdsong.

Songbirds: Sounds of the Yorkshire Wolds
Saturday June 11th to Sunday July 3rd at The Robert Fuller Gallery, Fotherdale Farm, Thixendale. Please see to book on an event.

Ever found yourself strolling through the countryside wondering what bird you just heard? Wildlife artist Robert Fuller has the answer.
The Yorkshire-based painter plans to dispel the mystery of birdsong with an exhibition tailored to helping you learn to identify the tweets and chirrups made by Britain’s avian species.
Sound and information boards will complement this artist’s detailed songbird compositions and there will be master classes on how to listen to bird calls – including a walk to decipher the dawn chorus.
The exhibition takes place at the artist’s gallery on the Yorkshire Wolds, which lies under the flight path of numerous migrating birds and is noted for its healthy populations of rare avian visitors.
Enjoy a glass of homemade elderflower cordial as you browse and let the children take part in falconry or mini owl safaris. 

Sounds of the Wolds Accompanying Events:
Birdsong Safaris:
Woodland birdsong, Sat 11th June, 10am-12 noon. Tickets £9.50. Learn the song of woodland birds and look for rare species on this guided walk led by an expert naturalist.
Dawn Chorus on the Wolds, Sat June 25th, 4.30am-6.30am Tickets £9.50. A masterclass in birdsong held at a magical time.
Birds of Thixendale:, Sat June 25th, 10am-12 noon Tickets: £9.50. A guided walk through the Yorkshire Wolds landscape to look and listen for its songbirds. 
Twilight Bird Walk, Sat June 25th, 7.30pm - 10-30pm. Tickets £9.50. Look and listen for woodcock, wood lark and other rare birds that come out at dusk.
Peregrines of York Minster: Sun 26th June, 10am-12 noon. Tickets £9.50. See the fastest birds in the world swoop over the medieval ramparts of York Minster and learn the meanings of their different calls.
 Artist Wildlife Safaris:
Badger and Owl Safaris, Saturdays July 2nd, 9th, 16th & 23rd, 6.30-10.30pm Tickets £35. See wildlife through the eyes of an artist as the exceptionally knowledgeable Robert E Fuller guides you through the Wolds countryside to find badgers and owls.
Kid Events:
Family Falconry Classes, Sun June 12th, 19th, 26th & Sun July 3rd, 10.30-11.30am. Tickets: Adults £6 Kids £4 . Handle birds of prey and learn how to fly one for yourself.
Tots Falconry, Sun June 19th, Tickets Adults £6 Kids £4. Falconry for the very young, these classes are aimed at children aged between two and five years.
Mini Owl Safari, Sat June 25th, 2-4pm Tickets: Adults £6 Kids £4. A guided walk through the Yorkshire Wolds landscape to spot kestrel and barn owl chicks. Use a telescope to see tawny owls perched in the trees and see inside nests via hidden cameras.
Mini Zoo, Sundays June 19th & 26th, 10.30-11.30am. Tickets Adults £6 Kids £4. Let kids touch and hold rare and exotic reptiles, mammals and amphibians and learn how they have adapted to their environment.

Friday, June 3, 2016

A beginners guide to birdsong: Six tips on how to recognise tweets in the wild

Have you ever strolled through the countryside wondering what bird you just heard? Or what the different tweets and chirrups of UK songbirds actually mean?

For many, birdsong is simply the white noise that accompanies being out of doors. But for me these avian calls are like the daily broadcast; they tell me what’s happening and where. I’m constantly tuned into bird chatter and if I hear a noise out of place, I stand stock still and wait until a predator emerges, slinking from the shadows.

Over the years I have become so attuned to birds that I can tell the separate voices of different birds - even during the clamour of the dawn chorus, when all the birds sing out at once to herald the arrival of spring. In fact I like to sleep with the window open so that every morning when all the birds are in full throat I can test myself by working out which bird is out there tweeting and what they are saying to one another.

Birds have surprisingly complex vocabularies. Blackbirds, for example, are very precise. They make differently-pitched alarm calls to warn one another of imminent danger. Their low-toned note means a ground predator, like a fox, their high pitched shrill says the hunter is airborne, perhaps a sparrowhawk. When I’m out in a hide, it’s the birds that tell me to get my camera ready.
The ability to understand the meaning of birdsong is becoming a lost art. But it’s a skill that is well-worth learning.

This week I've been busy putting the final touches to my latest collection of paintings of UK songbirds, which opens on June 10. As part of the exhibit I'll be hosting guided walks into the countryside to listen to birdsong. See below for a choice of walks in different habitat, including woodland, wetland and even my through my garden in Thixendale, and to book.

Below I’ve summarised six top tips for picking up the basics of the forgotten language of birds. Click on the images of my paintings to listen to the sound the bird makes, courtesy of

Start with signature tunes.
Among the UK’s native species there are definite ‘songsters’. These are birds with beautiful voices, like blackbirds, robins, skylarks, song thrushes and chaffinches, and each has its own, distinct signature tune. Once you’ve learned a bird’s jingle, you can always pick it out, even if it only sings a few phrases of the melody.
Although these songs sound joyful, they are actually expressions of aggression used to warn off competitors or noisy serenades to attract a mate.
Robin, by Robert E Fuller

Build on what you already know
Most of us already have a basic knowledge of birdsong. Without even realising it, even the most unversed in nature know the hoot of a tawny owl or a cuckoo’s call.
It’s not difficult to add to this the ‘Repeat, repeat’, ‘repeat’ of a song thrush or the incessant, noisy chitter of a wren. For such a tiny bird, a wren’s ditty is particularly loud. I’ve painted this characterful bird many times and I like to depict it with its beak open in noisy song.
Wren on Cherry Blossom, by Robert E Fuller

Fit the sound to your surroundings.
If you are by a river or a stream, for instance, and you hear a loud, piping call then look out for the electric-blue of a kingfisher as it flashes past. Similarly grey wagtails make a sort of ‘chiswick’ call that is so loud you can hear it above the sound of crashing water. These beautiful birds have lemon-yellow bellies, despite their name.
A Splash of Colour, painted by Robert E Fuller

Listen to birds that say their own names.
Cuckoos, curlews, kittiwakes and chiffchaffs are named after the calls they make.  Listen out for the ‘chiff’ ‘chaff’ of a chiffchaff next time you are walking through scrubland or woodland.
If you are by the sea, a kittiwake will say its name to you ‘kitty-waake’ ‘kitty-waake’ as it soars over precipitous coastal cliffs.
Curlew, by Robert E Fuller

Add lyrics to the melody
Some bird songs sound like nursery rhymes. A yellow hammer is said to be saying: “A little bit of butter and nooo cheeese”. Once you’ve got lyrics in your head it’s easier to remember the tune.

Yellow Hammer, by Robert E Fuller

Watch out for mimics
Things get tricky when you get one bird mimicking another. Only the very best songsters can do this and the trick is part of a male’s noisy strategies to impress a mate. I recently heard a starling impersonating a curlew. Only the chatter of ‘starling’ that it emitted shortly before and afterwards gave the game away.

My exhibition Birdsong: Sounds of the Wolds, runs from June 11-July 3rd at mygallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire. Below is a list of walks to listen to birdsong. Click on the title to book a place.

Join our expert bird watcher Michael Flowers on this informative walk through an ancient wood to listen out for and identify birdsong. 
The best way to spot a bird in the wild is to learn its individual call and then look out for the bird itself. Michael Flowers is a professional birdwatcher and naturalist. He will share his expertise with you as he helps you listen out for birdsong and then learn which bird is hitting which notes. Don’t miss this truly incredible experience with our learned and informative guide.

Join our expert bird watcher Michael Flowers on this informative walk around the shallows and reed beds of this bountiful bird sanctuary. A former quarry, the lakes of North Cave Wetlands now team with wildlife whilst the grassy banks are a flutter with butterflies, drangflies and damselflies. 
Michael Flowers is a professional birdwatcher and naturalist. He will share his expertise with you as he shows you how to listen out for warblers, wildfowl and waders and learn how to identify their individual calls. Don’t miss this truly incredible experience with our learned and informative guide.

Join our expert bird watcher Jack Ashton Booth as he helps you unscramble the season's morning serenades. Let him teach you how to identify which bird is singing which song at this magical time.  Learning birdsong is the best way to identify birds in the wild. What better start than learning how to decipher the dawn chorus?

A walk through the stunning Yorkshire Wolds landscape to look and listen for its songbirds. Expert bird watcher and naturalist Jack Ashton-Booth will share his wealth of expertise with you and teach you how to listen and then look for finches, goldcrest-even buzzards and red kites. Enjoy browsing wildlife artist Robert E Fuller’s stunning paintings of these birds at his gallery in Thixendale before setting off to see the birds for real.

Join expert bird watcher Michael Flowers on this atmospheric walk to look for bird species that are at their most active during twilight hours. 
Michael Flowers is a professional birdwatcher and naturalist. He will share his expertise with you as he guides you through this beautiful woodland. Listen out for woodlark, green woodpecker and woodcock and see them as they flit through the trees at dusk. Don’t miss this truly incredible experience with our learned and informative guide.

See the fastest birds in the world as they swoop over the medieval ramparts of York Minster and learn the meanings of their different calls  This walk is led by acclaimed birdwatcher Jack Ashton-Booth, a leading member of York Peregrines - the organisation that keeps a daily log of the peregrines living on the minster. Let him show you these magnificent birds as they hunt and help you look out for signs that the pair may be nesting high up in the gothic towers