Monday, December 19, 2016

Kestrel kicks at my 'bird table with a difference'

This month BBC’s The One Show featured the bird table in my garden in Thixendale.
My bird table is unusual because it caters both for birds of prey such as kestrels and tawny owls and seed-eating birds, which  include tree sparrows, goldfinches, blue tits, robins, wrens and even rarer birds like bramblings. It even draws in insect-eaters like pied wagtails, which feed on the blue bottle flies attracted by the meat that I leave out for the birds of prey.

At times the atmosphere can get a little edgy, but on the whole the arrangement works and I get to enjoy spectacular sightings of a great variety of birds for my paintings all in one place. Kestrels mainly eat rodents but they will occasionally take a garden bird, especially a young one, if the opportunity arises. But the kestrels that visit my garden know that I have left food for them and so they leave them alone. As for the robins and sparrows, they have learned to accommodate the birds of prey - simply flitting into a nearby shrub whenever a kestrel swoops in and then resuming their feed as soon as it leaves. Although when the TV crew visited, one bold robin actually fed alongside a kestrel and I have filmed moments when tree sparrows and great tits barely budge as it swoops in.

This year, to get an even greater insight into their behaviour, I built a seven-metre long tunnel leading from my house to the hide so that I can get to the hide without being noticed by the birds.
It leads straight from a door in my living room, and going along it can feel like a modern day re-enactment of the Great Escape. You have to lie on a trolley and pull yourself along its length with a rope. Watch me glide along here!

But when you get to the hide you are treated to a close-up view of all of the birds that visit here.
In August I wrote about a two-timing male kestrel that has been visiting my garden for over a decade. This year he decided he would raise a family of five with his long standing partner, then sneak off to another nest down the road and raise a second brood with a new and unknown ‘mistress.’

Now I had two kestrel families feeding from the same bird table! And my tunnel allowed me to get to the hide without alerting them to my presence. It was a bit like watching a soap opera. The females would clash whenever they met in an aggressive aerial duel, talons locked they would spiral to the ground as they tussled. But it wasn’t until the first brood fledged that the real fireworks started.

These newly fledged chicks quickly learnt to take the food from my bird table and the mistress was not happy about it at all. She tried to push them out of the area by repeatedly dive bombing them and knocking them, quite literally, off their perch. The long standing wife tried to defend her chicks, but things really got confusing when the mistress’ brood fledged too. There were now eight kestrel chicks and three adults coming to feed. It was an amazing spectacle – there was never a dull moment! A local rescue centre gave me three more kestrel chicks which I released these into the kestrel clan. Soon these were feeding alongside the others. Now there were 14 kestrels flying around my house and queuing up to be fed.

By Autumn, most of these had dispersed into the surrounding countryside. Although I noticed that my philandering male kestrel had taken a shine to one of the released female kestrel chicks and had been courting her. It wasn’t true love however, as he was later seen mating his long standing partner and making nest scrapes in preparation for next year’s breeding season.
I started feeding the birds of prey in my garden one bitterly cold winter’s day in 2006 when I spotted a young male kestrel hunting through my kitchen window. He wasn't having much luck and I soon got worried about his chances of surviving the cold.
So I caught a mouse in a trap and put it out on a nearby fence post. By the end of the day the mouse had gone. So the next day I put another mouse out. Again it disappeared. The kestrel soon became a regular visitor, sometimes appearing up to four times a day.  I could whistle as I put the food out and it would take the food before I got back to the house. Feeding the kestrel and his partner that came the following Spring, soon became an established part of my routine.

First thing in the morning it's time for the kestrels’ breakfast: three dead chicks tied to the branch just above the bird table. Then I fill up the bird feeders with a cocktail of seeds, which includes nyjer seeds for the goldfinches, peanuts for the blue tits, and sunflower hearts for greenfinches, tree sparrows and blue tits, and fat bars for woodpeckers and robins. I also sprinkle mealworms into a dish for dunnocks and wrens.  Then at lunchtime the kestrels get more chicks, and some more again at teatime. At the peak of the breeding season I put out 40 to 60 dead chicks a day. 

But around nine years ago I realised that I also had nocturnal visitors. The kestrels can feed very early in the morning and to save time I got into the habit of leaving the food out the night before. One morning I woke early and saw that the food had gone. I stayed up the following night with a torch to find out what was going on.
I discovered that a tawny owl had cottoned on to the evening service I was providing. The owl, and later its mate, soon became regular customers. This year the tawny owls raised a brood of three chicks in the trees next to my gallery. I surrogated a further four owlets which had been handed into a local wildlife rescue centre onto this family. It’s a great technique that I’ve honed over the years which means that these rescued owlets get a chance at being brought up by wild owl parents. The adults can only manage to bring up so many because of the food that I put out for them on my bird table.

The pair managed to rear an ambitious seven chicks to adulthood. And each evening at dusk the garden is filled with the noise of hungry chicks. They come swooping into the garden from nearby sycamore trees. First one, then another and another land and queue up. It is an impressive sight to see up to seven chicks poised along one branch! Next their parents swoop in and help them get the food from my specially modified bird table.

This summer I painted three of this year’s chicks perched on the branch, their heads cocked inquisitively as they peered out of the picture. I was particularly proud of the painting as it makes all the hard work I put in to catering for them worthwhile.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Seal Pups on the Beach

I have a painting of a grey seal pup that I am yet to finish. I was inspired to begin it after watching seals at Donna Nook, an RAF-owned beach in Lincolnshire. Every year between November and January huge numbers of these lumbering sea mammals haul themselves up on to this beach to give birth. It is the only place near here that one can really study them up close and it is bizarre that this natural spectacle takes place on a firing range.

The mass gatherings are known as rookeries and are made up of both local seals and others that have travelled from further afield. I’m not the only one that goes to see them. The new seal pups attract hundreds of visitors every day. The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust encourages visitors not to venture onto the beach and disturb the colony. They have erected a fence to keep the seals safe.

Whether as a result of this buzz of human activity or as a precaution, some female seals are too shy to come right up to the beach and instead give birth on a sand bank about a mile from the shoreline. Tragically, just before I was due to head there, I heard that there had been a freak high tide, two and a half metres higher than usual, and the pups on this sandbank had been washed away. But there were still plenty of pups on the beach when I got there.

At first glance the seals don’t seem to be doing much. They look like large beached sausages on the sand. But I stopped and waited and sure enough I was rewarded with some wonderful action.
I watched as a cub rolled playfully beside its mother. Its large dark glossy eyes and luxurious white coat were so appealing. It called out with a mournful sigh.

Of course I didn’t get to see any pups being born, because this happens under the cover of darkness.
But I did see some that had been born the night before. They are easy to spot because their umbilical cord is visible for the first few days and their skin is loose and wrinkled. Despite looking tiny against their mothers, they actually weigh about 30lbs and measure about three feet long at birth.
And they fill out quickly, trebling their weight on their mother’s rich, fatty milk with a layer of blubber which protects them from the cold. I also saw pups that were ready to wean. These pups are just three weeks old. Their downy white puppy-coat moults and is replaced with a sleek mottled grey pelage.

These ones were becoming adventurous. I watched one blowing bubbles and splashing in pools on the shoreline. I photographed another which I could have sworn was laughing. Its dog-like mouth opened wide in an engaging smile. Another rolled over and waved a shiny flipper at me. At last I was getting what I needed to make my painting come alive.

It was a good thing I went when I did because when these pups are five weeks old hunger and instinct forces them out to sea where they begin hunting for themselves. But it is still worth visiting Donna Nook since this is also the time when the adults mate. It hardly seems fair on the female, who, after three weeks of feeding her pup and not feeding at all herself, has often lost a considerable amount of weight. Nevertheless she becomes receptive to mating and the beach quickly turns from caring nursery to brutal mating platform.

I watched as aggressive males staked their claims over the females. The largest of the bulls are known as beachmasters. They herded the females up into harems of up to 10 and began posturing like heavyweight champions. One that I saw was covered in bloody battle scars from a previous battle. He growled threateningly at any rivals that dared approach.

This is a dangerous time for the pups since they can easily get crushed as fights break out.
After mating the female can at last have a break and she goes out to sea to feed up before the worst of winter. Delayed implantation, which means that the female holds fertilised eggs in her uterus in a suspended state of development, ensures that her pups are not born until the following autumn.
Watching the youngest of the seals roll playfully on the sand, I felt a pang of concern for them knowing that in just a few weeks they would have to brave the cold North Sea on their own.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Christmas Shopping in York tonight? Look up for a spectacle worthy of Planet Earth II

At this time of year York is humming with shoppers, heads bowed as they plough up and down the streets fixated on the job of getting ready for Christmas. But if you happen to find yourself amidst the throngs at St Nicholas market on Parliament Street at dusk, it’s worth taking a moment out from the hubbub to look up past the brightly-lit stalls and up into the trees.

Up there you’ll find the branches abuzz with a very different sort of get together. Hundreds of pied wagtails gather every evening in the London Plane trees outside Marks and Spencers  – right above the heads of the shoppers. Drawn by the warmth generated by the lights of the city, these small black and white birds flit about overhead, chittering noisily and wagging their long tails in a huge communal gathering before settling down to roost. At first glance they look like Christmas decorations hanging in the trees.

Like the shoppers, these tiny birds come from miles around for this annual winter get together. They flock together above the street lights where it is warmer and, again like the shoppers beneath them, tuck into extra snacks available - in their case snacking on the insects that are also drawn by the warmth of the city centre.

Pied wagtails weigh on average just 21g and during the cold winter nights can lose up to 20pc of their body weight. So huddling together at this time of year is a vital survival technique. I spotted them for the first time some years ago while I was late night shopping with my wife in York. We arrived just as dusk started to fall and looked up to see a flock of more than 20 on top of the roof of Marks and Spencers.

It wasn’t long before a second and then a third large flock joined them. These elegant birds like to roost communally so that they can keep warm and these huge congregations are quite sociable occasions for them. In a short while there were more than 200 pied wagtails noisily chittering amongst themselves as the shoppers below them walked past seemingly oblivious.

As I watched the birds, I noticed the sound of their affable song change tone. What had been an easy, social chit chat turned into higher, faster-pitched, noisy calling. The flocks began flitting uneasily from one rooftop to the next as they let out these sharp warning sounds. Then I realised why. A sparrow hawk suddenly appeared out of nowhere and immediately set to, chasing wagtails before him. There was chaos in the sky as the black and white birds flew and swerved in all directions.
Some wagtails even dared to try chase the hawk away and the tactic worked monetarily as after a while the hawk retreated. The wagtails, now all grouped together in one flock, settled uneasily back down onto the roof of Marks and Spencers.

But before long the hawk was back. It flew flat out across the facia of the Halifax bank building, banking away when it was just inches away from the wall. As it flipped up over the roof top, clouds of pied wagtails took to the air. Again the hawk failed to catch a wagtail. But then on the third fly-by it was successful and plucked one from the flock with its sharp talons.

The wagtails were very flighty after this aerial assault and flew around frantically, landing on different roof tops intermittently before finally settling on top of Barclays bank. Then when they thought the danger had passed the flocks swooped back down into the London Plane trees that line this popular shopping street and at last settled down to roost for the night.

The noise of all the birds during this aerial attack had been incredible – in my opinion the scene wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Planet Earth II episode - and yet not one of the hundreds of people in the street below even looked up!
I was surrounded by folk and felt like shouting out, ‘Wow did you see that!’ but thought better of it. The shoppers, focussed on their own world, had missed this incredible drama in the sky taking place right above their heads in the centre of York.

I will be selling mylimited-edition prints, tableware and greeting cards at a stall opposite the Disney Shop in York's St Nicholas market this year. If you are passing at dusk let a member of staff on my stall point out the pied wagtail roost to you. They begin to congregate at 3.30pm and are usually settled into the roost by about 5pm. Bring along your binoculars!