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

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