Monday, October 31, 2016

Nature's Funniest Moments. Artist Exhibits His Funniest Animal Research

Watching and painting animals for a living has got to rank amongst the best jobs in the world since animals can do such funny things. Over the years I’ve had some hilarious encounters. Next week I will be sharing my favourite anecdotes at an art exhibition of my work at my gallery in Thixendale.

They include the winter I watched red squirrels in the Yorkshire Dales. These beautiful creatures are an increasingly rare sight, which is a shame because they are such a joy to watch. I had been following a scurry of squirrels and come to know their individual characters. Among them one particularly cheeky squirrel stood out. It had a slightly kinked tail and prominent ear tufts and I got some really great photographs of it contorting its body in the snow to scratch its behind. This squirrel had a cache of nuts that it protected fiercely and one day a pheasant wandered a little too close to the stash. It was so funny watching how the squirrel saw off this intruder; it looked like it was arguing with it.

Many of my paintings have been inspired by endearing animal behaviour I have witnessed and this is especially true of my paintings of puffins. With bright orange legs, colourful bills and a waddling walk, puffins are the clowns of the UK wildlife scene. It’s hard not to smile when you see one – especially if you spot it in flight; wings whirring away as it propels its squat little body through the air. Puffins spend eight months out at sea before flying in to our shores each spring to breed. These noisy cliff top reunions, which involve scenes of courting and fighting, are so interesting to watch.
One of my paintings features a herring gull glaring condescendingly down at a puffin. 

I had been photographing a group of puffins socialising on a rock when this gull had landed amongst them. All the puffins, bar this brave one, immediately scattered – after all some species of gull will swallow a puffin whole. I watched for an anxious moment as this plucky penguin held its ground.
The herring gull was quite still for a moment as it looked down its beak at the puffin, which stood at a fraction of its size. At that, the puffin rocked back on its heels momentarily before fleeing. I named my painting Size Matters.

Amongst the most rewarding animal interactions to watch are young mammals playing together. Of course whilst it is endearing to see creatures such as fox cubs tumbling about in the grass, there is actually a very important reason for their rough play since these youngsters are learning to hunt.
Throughout the last two years I have been watching a family of weasels via cameras hidden in my garden and I have some really endearing video clips of the weasel kits splashing about in a small pond I built for them. They dive and splash about in the water, chasing one another around like children in a paddling pool.

But whilst this looks like pure fun and frolic, their behaviour is a very important part of their development. Weasels are such small animals they need make up in tenacity what they lack in size and during this play they get to test out one another’s strength in preparation for when they will have to survive on their own and form their own territories. 

They say you should never work with animals or children, and whilst I understand why the adage exists, of course as a wildlife artist and a father, I’ve done both. Like when I encountered a particularly aggressive pheasant whilst on a family holiday in the Dales. Pheasants can be fiercely territorial and this bird went for me, pecking at my arm and really trying to see me off. But its feisty nature meant that I could get really close to it and I decided it would be a good subject from which to get some photographic studies of this species’ beautiful iridescent feathers.

So, after retreating from its initial assault on me, I ventured back into its territory to watch it the following day. The problem was I was meant to be in charge of my eldest daughter, who was just two at the time. I decided to let her join me. But despite being a very helpful assistant, at one point she decided to climb on my shoulders as I tried to photograph the pheasant, rendering the job almost impossible, but great fun nevertheless.

And that is the point of working with animals, or children. They can behave in such an endearing manner and at times do such utterly unpredictable things. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My exhibition, ‘Animals do the Funniest Things’, opens on Nov 12th and runs until Dec 4th . For details see

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Animal Anecdotes

I spend many hours watching animals interact in the wild for my paintings and I can honestly say it’s the most rewarding job in the world. When I’m watching an animal or bird up close I’m more or less guaranteed at least one heart-warming or laugh-out-loud moment.

Puffin Pair, painting by Robert E Fuller.

This November I’m holding an art exhibition at my gallery at Thixendale to showcase the instants that have evoked the greatest belly laughs. Among them was the time I traveled to Antarctica to watch penguins. Seeing them as they marched smartly in procession, with their wobbly, upright gait, and black and white tuxedo-looking feathers, was comical in itself. But the scene became even more amusing when I witnessed an instance of beach rage between a young king penguin and an elephant seal. The beach was crowded with elephant seals and this plucky penguin had tried to barge its way through the crowd to the water’s edge.

Pushing its way through this wall of blubber, the penguin walked into the path of a very large and grumpy elephant seal. The seal roared a warning at the penguin, but instead of retreating to safety like an older and wiser penguin might have done, the penguin retaliated; slapping the huge seal right across the face with its flipper. You should have seen the elephant seal’s face!

Closer to home, puffins are the clowns of the UK wildlife scene. With bright orange legs, colourful bills and a waddling walk, it’s hard not to smile when you see one – especially if you spot it in flight; wings whirring away as it propels its squat little body through the air. Puffins spend eight months out at sea before flying in to our shores each spring to breed. These noisy cliff top reunions have been the inspiration for many of my paintings.

Size Matters, painting by Robert E Fuller.
One of these features a puffin looking up at a herring gull. I had been photographing a group of puffins socialising on a rock when the gull landed amongst them. All the puffins, bar this brave soul, immediately scattered – and wisely so since some species of gull will swallow a puffin whole.
I watched for an anxious moment as this one held its ground. The herring gull looked down its beak at the puffin, which was a fraction of its size. At that, the puffin rocked back on its heels momentarily before fleeing. I named my painting Size Matters.

At times I find myself adding a story line to interactions I see. Like the time I had been watching two hares courting. The male had been trying to impress the female for three days but was yet to gain her favour and mate. He had just put on an impressive show of boxing and was resting by her side, waiting for an opportunity to mate, when a male pheasant and his harem walked onto the scene.
The male pheasant glanced condescendingly at the hare buck and then suddenly began to mate with a female – right there next to the two hares. The pheasant then dismounted and, all cocksure, walked right up to the hare buck, looked him in the eye and puffed out his feathers as if to say: ‘That’s how it’s done’. The buck was duly miffed by this cocky display and rose onto his back legs as if to box the cheeky pheasant.

The mating rituals of birds can be amusing when you see them for the first time. Black grouse, for instance, perform a mating dance known as a ‘lek’ which involves the males, tails feathers fanned, strutting about making bubbling noises and leaping high into the air calling. The whole procedure is especially ludicrous when you notice that the females standing on the edge of the lek look so nonchalant, as if they are utterly unimpressed by the whole performance. But whilst highly amusing to us, this behaviour is quite normal for black grouse and in fact the females are carefully selecting the best male mover.

Often there is a scientific reason behind behaviour we find funny. For instance it’s hard not to smile when you see an owlet bobbing its head up and down as it watches you. But this head-bobbing helps make up for an anatomical limitation: an owl’s eyes are fixed in position, so to look up, down, or to the side, it has to move its head. They also have flexible necks and can do 270 degrees of a full head turn, looking over one shoulder, around the back, and almost over the opposite shoulder, to help them judge the position and distance of things.

In recent years I’ve been watching the birds of prey that live near my garden in Thixendale via cameras hidden in their nests and have been privy to some truly priceless moments. Sometimes their behaviour is so like our own. Like the fussy female kestrel I filmed who niggled over the details of each potential nest site her mate found for her. They were like newly-weds touring real estate!
She was so persnickety she even rejected a nest box the male had won for her in a bitter battle with a barn owl. Despite his heroic efforts, she nit-picked and fussed over the box, sitting down in a nest scrape he had dug for her and puffing out her feathers in such a show of dissatisfaction that it was difficult not to laugh out loud.

In the end she decided to go back to a nest site that she had rejected a week earlier, which had since been filled with twigs by jackdaws. It made me smile when she then left her browbeaten mate to sort out the problem of how to remove the criss-cross of sticks.

Another time I watched with empathy as a first time barn owl mum struggled to work out how to brood her newly born owlets. She tried to snuggle them under her, but didn’t know where to put her long talons. She kept lifting one foot and then the other, clenching her claws into a tight fist, but still managed to stand on the young chicks in the process.

Even funnier was how, after a lot of fidgeting, she finally managed to sit on her new brood only to be disturbed by the arrival of her mate. Barn owls usually mate when the male arrives with food for the growing brood. But when he approached her she was shocked by the very idea of it. She looked him straight in the eye and pecked at him in disbelief.He took a step back in confusion, as if to say ‘What’s wrong with you tonight?’ But she was having none of it and stood up with her wings out and pecked at him again, forcing him into the far corner of the next box where she made him stay while she sat back carefully onto her cherished owlets.  

At times the table has been turned and it has been the animals that have turned me into a laughing stock. I’ll never forget the moment a warthog pushed me into a flower bed in Zimbabwe. I had been trying to photograph a family of these wild hogs grazing together in the grounds of a hotel. But they looked ridiculous. They were kneeling on a manicured lawn on their front legs with their backsides pointing up in the air. It was hardly the shot I wanted!

I walked up to the nearest one to try to get it to stand up straight, but, without warning, it charged at me. It head-butted my foot and sent me, hopping backwards, across the lawn. It carried on pushing me back until we got to the edge of the lawn where it tossed its head and sent me and my camera flying. I landed less then gracefully in a flower bed that was being irrigated by an automatic watering system and got soaked! It was quite a fall from grace, but what I hadn’t realised was that I had an audience! I rose from the flowers to rapturous applause and laughter coming from the hotel bar and pool area.

Despite these dramas animals and birds make such good company; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Animals do the Funniest Things’ includes photographs and video footage of my comic encounters as well as guided walks and falconry events.For details see my website: 
Don’t miss my slideshow and talk on all my most amusing animal anecdotes at my gallery in Thixendale on Nov 19th

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Winter Art Exhibition: Animals Do the Funniest Things

My Christmas art exhibition runs from November 12th - December 4th at my gallery in Thixendale.

Join me for a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie whilst you browse my latest art work at this seasonal show.
Don't miss a special exhibit of my photographs and video clips of some of my funniest animal observations.
I spend most of my working life watching wild creatures in their natural habitat before picking up a paintbrush. I'll be sharing some of the most comical moments I've captured during this intensive process. 
Among them a penguin in Antarctica so overcome by beach rage it slaps a fur seal across the face.
It takes a lot of patience to get the shots I need for my paintings, but when the birds and animals I’m watching occasionally do something funny it always helps lighten my day.
They say you should never work with animals, but I wouldn't swap my job for the world. 
The exhibition includes walks into the countryside, a talk and slideshow on my amusing anecdotes and falconry events for children
The gallery is open weekdays, 9.30am-4.30pm, and weekends, 10.30am-4.30pm throughout the exhibition. 

Below is a list of accompanying events. Please click on the relevant dates to book.

Red Kite Roost with Michael Flowers, Sun 13th Nov & Sat 26th Nov, 2pm-4pm, Meet at Warter car park Tickets Adults £9.50 A guided walk to see these protected birds swoop and dive over the Yorkshire Wolds.
Winter Wildlife Walk with Jack Ashton Booth Sun 27th Nov,10am-12 noon Tickets Adults £9.50 A guided walk through Thixendale to spot winter wildife.
Family Falconry, Sun 13th, 20th & 27th Nov, 10-11am Adults £6 Kids£4
Handle birds of prey and learn how to fly one for yourself.
Tiny Tots Falconry  Sun 4th Dec, 10-11am Tickets Adults £6 Kids £4 Falconry for the very young, these classes are aimed at children aged between two and five years.
Kids Red Kite Roost with Jack Ashton Booth. Sun 27th Nov, 2pm-4pmTickets Adults £6 Kids £4 Children can build their own red kite nest and then go and see these magnificent birds on the Wolds.
Animals do the funniest things, Sat19th Nov 7.30pm Tickets Adults £9.50 Robert spends his days watching wild creatures in their natural Join artist Robert E Fuller for an evening of animal anecdotes and see his rare footage of some truly priceless animal behaviour.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Pine Martens Close Up

Pine martens were once Britain’s second most common carnivore. But following years of persecution you now have to go to some effort to see one. This summer, I headed to the remote Ardnamurchan peninsular in Western Scotland, one of the few remaining strongholds, to try my luck. I had visited this area before but the trip had been thwarted by relentless rain and poor sightings. This time I was hoping for better success. As I drove north the temperature on the car thermometer dropped dramatically. Then it started to rain and I began to have serious misgivings. But at the cottage that I had booked, I was told that that if I put food on the table on the front deck the pine martens would come that evening.

I had brought an entire Landrover full of cameras, lighting, camera traps, surveillance cameras, TV monitors, hides, tripods, flash guns, tools and torches. I had even strapped some small tree trunks to the roof which I hoped the pine martens would pose on. As I began unloading the car I couldn’t help but pause to admire the stunning view of Loch Sunart and the Isle of Canna that stretched before the cottage. All I needed was a pine marten! I put a small dollop of peanut butter on the table and positioned my tree trunk props around the garden. I nipped into the cottage to fetch my cameras and was just about to go back out when I spotted a female pine marten already polishing off the peanut butter.

Large female. Note the non-retractable claws
She was just five feet away from me. I froze, watching her through the French windows. This was the best view I had ever had of a pine marten. A chocolate brown body, yellow bib and long bushy tail are the first things you notice about a pine marten. But I was transfixed by this female’s huge feet as she bounded around the deck. These were pristine, white, with sharp catlike claws that were built for climbing. These claws are non-retractable so when pine martens are not climbing, they have to walk on their pads making them look unusually prominent.

It was a promising start. I rushed about setting up my cameras and props so that I would be ready for her next visit. Instead of leaving food out on the deck, I smeared peanut butter and jam on rocks in the garden and the tree trunks I had brought, so that my photographs would have a more natural looking backdrop. But as dusk fell I became quite anxious that the pine martens might not find the food, as it was now 20 metres away from the decking.

The female kit: her yellow bib is distinctive.
Suddenly two pine martens came running across the grass and climbed straight on to a rock. These two were smaller than the female I had seen earlier and had fuzzier coats. I realised these were kits, a male and a female, as one kit was much bigger than the other. The female joined them and as the three bounded round the garden it was hard to know which one to photograph first. As it got dark I lit up the garden with a spotlight and powerful torches. The pine martens didn’t mind this artificial light and the kits even jumped up at the flashguns inquisitively. I watched them until gone midnight.

The next morning I was up at 5am to put more food out. It was a beautiful day, the water in the loch was like glass and I wondered if I would get some pictures of the pine martens in daylight. I spotted an otter fishing in the bay, but I resisted an urge to follow it and devoted my day instead to re-arranging my tree trunk props to greater effect. By evening it was all ready: the branches smeared with peanut butter, raisins and jam.The plan was nearly dashed when I spotted a red deer licking these offerings from the branches. I tried to shoo it away, but it just looked at me and went back to scoffing the peanut butter. It wasn’t until I walked right up to it that it wandered down to the banks of the loch.

Red deer enjoying the treats left for the pine martens

A hedgehog had also found the food. Just as I was beginning to worry that there wouldn’t be any left the pine martens turned up - first the female, then the two kits. I watched them for over 4 hours.
I spent over 10 hours a day watching and waiting for the pine martens and reviewing my camera trap footage. I noticed that they were mainly active on dull, overcast days or at dawn and dusk when the light was poor. Most days I had wall to wall sunshine, but I did get three sightings of the pine martens in good light. I was so pleased, but there was one thing missing – I had yet to see the male. He was the missing piece of the jigsaw.

On my third day an adult male pine marten in his prime visited my tree trunks at 6am. He was much larger than the female, as big as a large cat, and remarkably agile for his size. I was delighted.
And, on the fourth day I was rewarded with some fascinating behaviour between the male and female too. The male arrived and climbed up a dead oak tree, followed soon after by the female who headed straight up to join him. I could hear them chittering to one another. She climbed over him and then under his legs, brushing her body against his.

Male and female together: their social interaction was closer in character to that of badgers.

They then fed peacefully alongside one another. Once they had finished they both came down onto a large rock and he started to feed. As he did so she climbed on top of him and lay down on his back, top to tail, her back legs dangling over his sides and her mouth open as if she was panting. She slid over him, rubbing her lower body along the length of his back and along his tail to leave a trail of scent. It was clear she was marking him as if to say ‘you’re mine’.  After this she rubbed her cheeks in a patch of soft moss and I wondered if she was marking the area with her scent.

The male was significantly bigger than she was and they appeared to have a strong bond.
Pine martens are mustelids, a group of mammals that also includes badgers, otters, stoats and weasels, and it was interesting to notice that although they look similar to stoats or weasels their behaviour and social structure seemed closer to that of badgers. Their diet was also similar to a badger’s in that they are omnivorous and eat a selection of berries, fruit, fungi and small birds and mammals  – whereas other mustelids are strictly carnivorous.

The adult male was as big as a large cat.

I watched as the pair ate jam and raisins for a starter and then noticed the male tug at the dead chicken chicks I had tied to my tree trunks. He tore one off and ran around the cottage to eat it under my car, this time a little less willing to feed alongside his mate. Meanwhile the female chased him back and forth trying to steal the chick from him. 

As I was packing up on my last day the male kit arrived. I got some of the best photographs of the trip as he climbed up the trunk of a tall silver birch tree and then, effortlessly, down again - wrapping his back legs around the vertical trunk. Like squirrels, a pine marten’s legs are prehensile, meaning they can wrap around an object, and their feet actually rotate at the ankle so that they can dig their claws in on the way down.  

The male kit in the rain.
Clambering up tree trunks I brought from Yorkshire to use as props.
As I sat on the doorstep photographing the kit, the female came onto the deck and jumped onto the bench next to me. She put her front paws up on the arm rest, looked me in the eye and sniffed me. She was just three feet away.  It was an amazing end to a wonderful trip.