Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A skating stoat!

Playful stoat cubs, acrylic painting by Robert E Fuller

I have a fantastic video clip of a stoat examining the ice on the pond in my garden. It's incredible to watch the stoat as it encounters the thin film of ice on the water. This young male is just a year old so it could possibly be the first time it has come across ice. Watch the video link below to see how it pauses as it lowers its head to drink in the pond and then, incredibly, slips its whole head under the ice to take a look at it from underneath!

It doesn't take long before the stoat has figured out that it can actually walk across the pond.Watch how the animal slips over the thin ice. What balance! It's not long before it can skate with confidence.

As a wildlife artist I have positioned surveillance cameras throughout my garden so that I look into the secret world of wildlife. Moments like this make up the whole story of the animals that I pose and I use this research to inform my final paintings. Take a look at my latest stoat studies.

Stoat, acrylic painting by Robert E Fuller
Stoat painting in acrylic, by Robert E Fuller.

Playful stoat cubs by Robert E Fuller.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A brambling bonanza thanks to the farmer next door.

This year my farming neighbours, John Midgley and his son Richard, provided me with the most priceless bird watching season that I have ever experienced. From my studio window, I have a commanding view over four miles of one of the most beautiful parts of the Yorkshire Wolds. This landscape is where I get a lot of my inspiration from for my paintings. It is also where most of my wildlife encounters take place.

Last May, my neighbours drilled a 40-metre wide strip of wild bird cover mix in the land adjacent to my garden. They left the rest of the field as stubble as part of their commitment to the government's Higher Level Stewardship Scheme. This strip has attracted literally thousands of birds and animals in the last eight months – and they’re still coming. By day the sky is filled with mixed swarms of birds, which explode back and forth from the crop like fireworks.

Such strips are designed to help birds through the long winter months by providing seed for small species like finches and bunting. But this particular strip was bringing in wildlife from the moment it was first drilled.

I was brought up on a farm in the Yorkshire Wolds hamlet of Great Givendale, where my father, Richard Fuller, was farm manager for 32 years. Although commercially minded, my dad also has a great interest in conservation. Forty years ago, he was digging ponds, whilst others drained them, and planting hedgerows, whilst others ripped them out. Thankfully, thinking has really changed with farming and conservation now coming together.

Even though I have not done any farm work since I was a teenager, I still have a deep and long lasting interest in farming and I watch the landscape around me undergo changes through the seasons with more than just passing sentiment. So I was particularly interested in watching how things developed on this strip. Straight after sowing stock doves, partridges, even tree sparrows flocked en masse to the bare soil trying to peck any seed which was not drilled deep enough.

Then, as the crop started to emerge from the stony soil, hares and wood pigeons appeared and nibbled on the first green shoots. In spite of all this plundering, the crop shot up and was soon three foot high and flowering. I made a point of walking along the field edge to see what was happening. I could clearly recognise some species, like sunflowers, which weren’t faring so well, but I didn’t recognise some of the other species, one of which turned out to be fodder radish.  As I walked along I was struck by the sound of buzzing – the crop was alive with a multitude of different insects.

By autumn, the white flowering heads of fodder radish had turned into seed pods. I popped one of the pods, which even though it was still green, was full of seeds. I walked down the hedge alongside the crop and admired the millions of pods, all brimming with seeds. I rubbed my hands together with glee; I was expecting a bird bonanza later in the year. And, it was going to happen right on my doorstep.

I heard a sharp ‘cheep’ bird call ahead of me -  the sound of a yellow hammer - and I looked up to see a handful of these bright yellow birds flying out of the crop and into the hedge.
 I walked up to where they had just flown from and found seed cases that had been carefully picked open. The seeds were gone. I opened a seed pod out of interest and couldn’t resist trying one of the seeds for myself – they were delicious – no wonder these birds were coming.

As these seed pods dried over autumn, the variety of bird species increased. Linnets, goldfinches and tree sparrows all flocked in huge numbers to the strip. Next came winter visitors from Scandinavia: bramblings. Bramblings are beautiful birds, but because they are not resident to this country most people don’t get a chance to see one up close.

They have intricate feather markings which give them a striking look. They have an orange buff breast with white under parts and white rump which can be seen when they fly, a delicately flecked grey and black head and exquisite grey-brown markings along their flanks which look like they could have been painted on. The flocks were always a mixture of different species in flight. They were fast moving and difficult to distinguish from a distance. 

By November there were more than 2,000 small birds feeding on the bounty, swirling overhead in the sky before zooming down in formation onto the seeds. I saw half a dozen reed buntings visiting the crop. I don’t normally expect to see them around here. They favour areas with water in summer, but this bounty had brought them in. They are a shy bird and so didn’t flock together with the others. They preferred to perch on my hedge, fly into the crop to forage for seeds and then return to the hedge for safety again.

All this was good news for visitors to my annual Christmas exhibition who were treated to this spectacle from my studio window where I had set up a telescope.
One old boy eyed up my scope set up next to my easel and said: “What have you got out there lad?”
As he spoke a cloud of finches took off. I pointed out linnets, goldfinches and bramblings that were flying among them. “Cor, I’ve never seen a brambling before,” he admitted.
“You have now!” I replied. The flock divided in flight. The linnets landed on nearby trees while the bramblings landed in my garden. There were more than 60 of these winter visitors.  I trained my telescope onto them and invited him to look through the lens.
“By, they’re beautiful - aren’t they little crackers?” he said of the bramblings. 

Not long afterwards I captured this flock of bramblings on my pond. It was such a treat to see so many at once:

While the birds were resting in between feeds the sound of their calls was incredible to hear. The linnets were the most numerous. They are noisy little birds; that historically were kept as pets in bird cages in Victorian homes on account of their musical song.  They sat in the trees and hedges chatting to one another at the tops of their voices.
Then, all of a sudden there would be a rush of wings and the linnets would explode into the sky in a dense swarm. They performed an acrobatic flight over the crop first before landing in amongst the seed heads. These aerial stunt flights were not for show, but to check for predators since there is safety in numbers. But with such large numbers these birds had more chance of attracting predators!

I was hoping an over-wintering merlin might find the flock, but instead my local sparrowhawks were kept busy, especially one male. I found his plucking post in a quiet corner of our garden and was able to see what he was catching each day. I collected the feathers of linnets, bramblings, goldfinches and tree sparrows. I put up a hide on stilts on the edge of my garden where I could get a vantage point over the feeding frenzy. I enjoyed photographing the spectacle of 2,000 noisy birds swirling around me before landing in to feed. I was hoping a sparrowhawk would fly in but instead a kestrel hovered above. The kestrel wasn’t in fact a threat to these birds. But the birds were nervous nonetheless and I heard a rush of wings as they all flew up at once and formed a tightly-packed flock to confuse this bird of prey. They landed in some sycamore trees nearby, all twittering to one another until they had decided the coast was clear. 
I felt so privileged to have so many birds here on my home turf. What a treat it has been.

Don't forget to come to my Big Birdwatching event at my gallery in Thixendale between January 27th – 29th . I've got videos and information boards on different bird species, a bird watching safari into the Yorkshire Wolds at 10.30am on Friday, January 27th, and, on Sunday 29th, an ornithologist will be on hand to point out the different species in the artist’s garden through a telescope.
I want to encourage as many local people as possible to take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch because I think it is an important way to help keep count of bird populations nationally and see how they compare with numbers in Yorkshire.
My event is free to visitors. The bird watching safari takes place on Friday, January 27th, at 10.30am and costs £9.50. To book a place click here.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Brave Barn Owl Sees off a Tawny Owl Attack

Watch how this barn owl holds its own when a tawny owl twice its size flies into the tree it is roosting in!

The barn owl bows its head when it spots the tawny coming in, then goes into an impressive defense posture: head lowered, wings up and extended back. This pose is known as 'manteling': making a mantle of his wings to make himself look bigger. Like a superhero posturing or a bullfighter fanning out a cape. The two birds lock together in battle then in an instant the barn owl has won the spat. But the tawny is not deterred that easily and moments later it's back for another go. Again the plucky barn owl stands its ground in defending what is potentially a future nest site.

Interestingly not long after filming the tawny male I captured this footage of the male tawny back at a nest site it had already occupied and preening with its mate.

The tawnys have already begun their courtship process and the way they sit so close and tenderly plucking at one another's feathers is so touching - who said owls don't have feelings!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Watch My TV tour of Wolds Way Way on BBC1 on January 20th

I'm going to be giving a tour of the wildlife to be found along the Yorkshire Wolds Way in a new series on TV next week.

'The Yorkshire Wolds Way' is a new two-part programme due to be aired across the Yorkshire region, spanning both the Leeds and Hull areas, on Friday 13th and 20th of January, and then screened nationally on BBC2 in March. I feature in the second episode on BBC1 on Friday the 20th.

The series follows the arctic explorer Paul Rose as he walks this beautiful national walking trail. I met Paul back in June 2016 and gave him a tour of the wildlife to be found along the section of the walk that borders my gallery in Thixendale. It was so interesting to show Paul, who has travelled the globe, what there is to be found on his doorstep.

The Wolds Way runs for 79-miles through unique dry river valleys. These steep-sided valleys consist of chalk limestone that supports rare wild flowers, including orchids, and a wealth of wildlife. It is one of the quietest national trails and so you are likely to spot hares, buzzards, red kites and roe deer as you walk along it. I took Paul to see a pair of tawny owls and their chicks that live just off the trail.

I also gave him a tour of my gallery, which is located just a few hundred yards from the Wolds Way, and showed him how I use surveillance cameras to watch the everyday lives of owls, weasels, stoats and kestrels via TV monitors inside my gallery and studio.

He was fascinated to learn how I encourage wildlife into my garden so that I can follow the lives of my painting subjects from my studio. I showed him the weasels, stoats and birds of prey that are resident in my garden and took him to the spot outside my studio where I film these creatures.

Tune in at 7.30pm on Friday 20th to watch the programme!
You can find out more about Paul Rose and his new TV series here

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Brush up on your ID skills with me for the RPSB Garden Birdwatch

Visit my gallery in Thixendale later this month  to learn how you can become a civilian scientist for the RSPB's annual bird census. Brush up on your bird knowledge with my informative display on how to identify birds and join an expert ornithologist on Sunday Jan 29th to identify species in my garden. There will also be a video on how to recognise different species.

The RSPB annual ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ is an opportunity for us all to help the conservation charity count up Britain's bird numbers.

This national counting exercise is, in fact, the largest citizen-nature observation in the world, and last year around 500,000 people got involved. I think it is a great thing to do and usually take time out to count the birds in my own garden with my two young daughters.

It only takes an hour and you can choose when you would like to sit and do it. We usually have great fun ticking off the birds we see on an identification sheet downloaded from the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch website. The RSPB has run this event for 30 years and relies on the results to create a snapshot of bird numbers in each region, gaining a good indication of where there are serious dips in bird populations.

In 2015 the friendly blackbird was the most observed bird, but other common species included house sparrows, blue tits and starlings. And last year long tail tits were among the top 10 most observed birds. There were also more sightings of goldcrests than ever before, which goes to show that the work people put in to feeding the birds in their gardens is helping British species along.

Goldcrest painting by Robert E Fuller.

The bird-feeder outside my studio window is usually teaming with birds and when we sit down at home to count them it isn’t long before the girls start shouting out ‘sparrow’ or ‘blue tit’. But trying to get an accurate figure of how many of each can be amusing since they flit about so fast.  My house is very rural and so I get a wide variety of birds, including dunnocks, fieldfares, bramblings and red wings.

But whilst I have a very healthy population of birds at my home and gallery in Thixendale, it wasn’t always the case. When my wife and I first moved to our former farmhouse at Fotherdale in 1998, there was just one pair of tree sparrows here and very little else.
There was no water source and the garden had just two plants: a fushia and a red hot poker. For birds to thrive they need water, both to drink and to bathe in, and they need food; insects, seeds or berries.
The first thing my wife Victoria and I did was to pour our energy into turning the garden into a wildlife haven. We dug a water course and a pond and then poured 24 tonnes of manure on to the site. The house is built on an exposed hillside and there was just 4" of top soil above hard limestone.

We set about planting a spinney, which now provides ample nesting sites and cover for birds, and perennials, herbs and shrubs; choosing species that gave the birds berries in the winter and cover in the summer. Recently we also added a wildlife meadow which attracts hosts of insects and butterflies.
The results have been incredible. There are now more than 60 different bird species here, including rarities such as corn buntings, twite and redstart.

And from that one breeding pair of tree sparrows back in 1998, there are now 35 pairs. At the end of each breeding season there can be up to 300 tree sparrows here, a species that is on the RSPB red list!
In return for giving all these birds a home, I paint their portraits. So many of my paintings now are of the birds that live in the garden. I like to think of them as my models and put out food for them every day. I photograph them from my studio window or from hides in the garden and then paint directly from the photographs.

Bullfinch on Apple Blossom, painting by Robert E Fuller

Wren on Hook, painting by Robert E Fuller
I like to put props out in the garden for these models to pose on. One of my most popular paintings is taken directly from a photograph of a wren striking a beautiful pose on an old hook in the garden. Another is of a robin that nested in an old kettle I used to keep seeds in.

Robin on Teapot, painting by Robert E Fuller
The RSPB Garden Birdwatch takes place from January 28th to 30th and I’'m hosting a free event from January 27th-29th at my gallery in Thixendale to teach visitors how to identify birds. I’ll have information boards and a video showing different species and their songs and there will be an expert ornithologist here on Sunday 30th to point out different species in my garden.

There will also be a two hour bird watching trip from the gallery on Friday January 27th at 10.30am. Tickets cost £9.50. Click here to book a place. 

I hope these events will encourage people to join the RSPB count in their own homes over the weekend of January 28th-30th. It’s easy to do. The RSPB have an identification sheet that you can download here so all you need to do is tick off the birds as you see them. The idea is to identify and count as many different birds as possible in an hour. You can then submit your observations online via the RSPB website.