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.