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Monday, February 20, 2017

Why I taught my daughter not to spring clean

Long Tailed Tit With Wool, limited edition print, £65. Click to buy.
I was in the greenhouse preparing seed beds with my daughter Lily when she announced, in a judgmental tone that only young children can command, that the greenhouse was ‘full of cobwebs’. I explained that I left them there deliberately for the long-tailed tits to use to build their nests from. She was fascinated as I showed her how these beautiful little birds weave a soft, delicate nest out of lichen, moss or sheep’s wool and then almost stitch it together with sticky cobwebs so that the nests can expand as their chicks grow.

She spent the rest of the morning collecting bits of tangled sheep’s wool and moss from the fence that lines the garden boundary and leaving it in little piles by the greenhouse door which she bound together like little Red Cross parcels. The idea that the long–tailed tits needed her help made me smile because I have been known to do the same thing when I come across material that looks soft enough for a long-tailed tit nest.

Long-tailed tits are one of Britain’s earliest nest builders - I have seen them begin in the first week of February whilst there is still snow on the ground -but this early start can lead to problems because there is no leaf cover to hide behind at this time. It’s not unusual to find their elaborate nests ripped apart by corvids – especially magpies. So it’s natural to want to try to help them.

I showed Lily some photographs of some long-tailed tits that I had watched gathering cobwebs from the greenhouse last spring. I had first seen them from my studio window. They were checking every crevice and overhang with interest and at first I had thought they were looking for insects.

But by the time they had made their third trip to the greenhouse I suspected something else was up. I got out my binoculars and camera and opened the door to the studio so that I was ready to watch more closely when they next visited. With the door open it was a bit chilly to say the least, but I wanted to hear them coming so I pulled over another jumper and carried on painting as I waited.

Long-tailed tits have a very musical contact call and tend to fly together in family groups or pairs, keeping in touch continually, so they are easy to locate once you learn the sound. After a short while I heard this distinctive tune and looked round to see them bobbing along the hedge, taking short flights.
I picked up my binoculars and watched as they began investigating the greenhouse again. They were picking at spiders’ cobwebs in the overhangs.

By the next day they had gathered most of the cobwebs from the outside of the greenhouse and had gone inside looking for more. I heard their excited calls as they gathered up what must have felt like an unlimited supply. I was worried about them as they had gone through a very small gap where a window was only slightly ajar. But I noticed that they were able to find their way out with ease and watched them carry off their plunder towards the valley below the garden.

By lunch time, after watching these almost continuous trips back and forth, I couldn’t resist having a look for the nest they were busy building. I set off down the valley in the direction the long-tailed tits had headed and waited. It wasn’t long before I heard them. They were following the hedge line away from the greenhouse and were flying into a line of sycamores in the valley bottom. It was difficult to keep track of them in the large trees and I soon lost them.

I repositioned myself on the other side of the valley where I had last seen them and then spotted them on the way back to the garden, so I sat tight and waited for them to return. It turned out that I had positioned myself in just the right spot as they flew right over my head and into the hedge beside me. They followed the hedge down the valley and stopped in a dense bit of hawthorn hedge.

I could hear them calling excitedly as I crept closer and peered in with my binoculars. I could see them building the nest. It was cup-shaped, like most nests, but long-tailed tits don’t stop there. I watched over the next few days as they built it up into an intricate dome with an entrance hole near the top. Once the dome structure was complete they went on to line the nest with feathers.
In a good year long-tailed tits can have up to 15 chicks in a brood so the nest needs to be quite spacious with scope for expansion as they grow!

Longtail tits on Blackthorn, by Robert E Fuller.

This nest was well hidden, despite the fact that the hawthorn was not yet in leaf, and escaped predators. Long tailed-tits have strong family ties and often siblings that have lost their own nests will help feed the growing brood.

Lily and I have kept a close watch for long-tailed tits at the bird feeders. Over the winter I had nine long-tailed tits visiting the garden once or twice a day, feeding on fat bars just before dusk. I like to think it was the ones from the nest last year but I couldn’t be sure. Lily is quite certain it is and has now begun her own vigil of the greenhouse, keen to see if her little parcels are going to be taken up.
I’m glad of the opportunity to show my children that nature has its own way of spring cleaning.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Ten tips on how to put up a nest box

This week is National Nest Box Week, when people are encouraged to put nest boxes up in their gardens. A shortage of natural nest sites is one of the reasons for the decline of some garden birds and so adding a nest box to your garden is an easy way to provide a safe place to breed. 

My own garden is full of nest boxes and I also advise local landowners on the best places to put up boxes to attract barn owls and other species on their land. The advantages of persuading birds to nest in your garden are that you get to watch their young as they grow and eventually fledge - right on your doorstep.

Tawny Chick, limited edition print by Robert E Fuller.
For me, having nest boxes right outside the house means I can be there to photograph and eventually paint the birds I see. Many of the nest boxes in my garden are made from reclaimed tree stumps that have been carefully selected as backdrops for my paintings.  The painting above, of a tawny owlet peeping out of a hold in tree trunk is just such a prop. And the one below of a barn owl actually features part of an old elm stump which I salvaged and adapted as a nest box. It was heavy and had to be hoisted into a sycamore tree.

Barn Owl in Elm Stump, painting by Robert E Fuller. 17.5" x 21.25" £6,550 Click to buy
Nest boxes don’t need to be quite as elaborate. You can buy them off the shelf or you can even leave out an appropriate space for nesting birds in the garden - I have had wrens nesting in a bunch of shallots and also in an old walking boot, a robin in a kettle and little owls in a wine box.

Robin on Teapot, limited edition print, Image size 30x15cm £65 Click to buy.

Now is the time to put up your nest box. Birds rarely move in straight away, they like to check that the boxes are suitable first. In order to support National Nest Box Week this week I've put together my ten top tips on how and where to put up a nest box. 

1. Choose your site carefully.
The important thing is to site your box correctly. Don't forget it needs to be in the best place for birds and not for your own viewing opportunities! 
Your nest box needs to be at least 1.5 metres high and no higher than 5.5 metres and located near a hedge, bush or branches to help fledglings on their first flight. Make sure you avoid prevailing winds and direct sunlight. It can get very hot in the summer and cold if the chicks are directly in a breeze!

2. Choose the optimum size to attract the species you most want in the garden.
If you are not particular about which species you want then the box that appeals to the widest range
of common garden birds is around 28cm high, 15cm wide and 13cm deep with a 32mm hole.
But if you want to be really specific here is a list of what size entrance hole suits which species.
Hole size        Suitable for
25mm              Blue/coal/marsh/willow tit
32mm              House/tree sparrow, great tit, nuthatch, pied flycatcher
45mm              Starling
50mm              Great spotted woodpecker
70mm              Little owl
200mm            Stock dove, tawny owl
For robins, wrens, blackbirds, spotted flycatchers, pied/grey wagtails or song thrushes choose open
fronted boxes. Make sure the front or the top of the box opens for cleaning.

3. Choose a wood-crete box
There are plenty of nest boxes available on the market made from wood or terracotta, but I really
recommend woodcrete (a sawdust and concrete composite). These boxes are indestructible and
provide great insulation too!

4.  Don't Use Diamond Shape Boxes
I really don't recommend this shape because it doesn't give birds enough space to fill with nesting 

5. For House Sparrows use a terrace 
House sparrows are very sociable and like to nest together. A terrace, like the one pictured below, will
fit several pairs of these birds. They should be at least 30cm high, 38cm wide with
a 32mm hole.

6. Try a box with a triangular slip or hole to attract teecreepers 
Tree creepers naturally nest in narrow gaps and clefts behind loose bark. A triangular slit or hole
replicates this.

7. Attract little owls by screening off the back of your box
Little owls like to nest in dark cavities, so screen off the back part of the box to create a baffle and use
a 7cm hole. Site it high enough to deter predators and in a quiet area.

8. Choose a tall-sided box for tawnys
A tawny owl’s box needs to be tall so that chicks can’t fall out before they learn to fly.

9.  House martins 
House martins build mud nests on the eaves of buildings, often in colonies averaging five nests. They
need enclosed nests with a small opening.

10.  Swallows 
Swallows prefer open nests sited inside a building with easy access, such as a garage, porch or stable.

Swallow fledglings, limited edition print by Robert E Fuller. Image size 30x15cm £65 Click to buy. 
Good luck. And remember. If your nest box is unoccupied for two full breeding seasons - try 
relocating it.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Grebe Reed Dance: Is this the most romantic Valentine gesture ever?

It's Valentine’s Day soon. Perhaps you’ll buy a card, choose a bunch of flowers or reserve a table for two to show your loved one you care. For most courting birds, however, such gestures would not be nearly enough to woo a suitor.

Pairs of great crested grebes need to be congratulated for putting in the most effort in this department. Their courtship dance is surely the most elaborate of any bird on the British Isles. For them, courting is multi-staged and unfolds over a number of weeks. It involves carefully choreographed displays of head shaking, diving, ritualised preening, some serious feather fluffing as well as a finale of the well-known but seldom seen ‘reed dance’.
Great Crested Grebes, painted by Robert E Fuller
In Olympic terms, their display would deserve a silver medal, bettered perhaps only by that of the delightful bower birds of Australia and possibly narrowly pipping the South American manakins to the post. Yet, whilst for the other two contenders it is the male alone who leads the dance, the grebe’s courtship is performed equally by both partners. The courtship begins in January when both male and female transform their plumage from a drab off-white and muddy matte brown to his-and-hers matching breeding finery. Their heads are adorned with a double crest and orange and black ruff. Their dazzling white faces set off a glinting ruby eye. It’s difficult, but not impossible to distinguish the male from the female. The male’s crest is fractionally more magnificent and his body slightly larger. 

Large lakes can accommodate quite a number of grebes and as they start to divide into pairs, they carve out territories and draw invisible boundaries on the water’s surface. Competition for the best fishing and nesting sites is fierce. But once resolved the elaborate courtship can begin. I watched a pair of grebes for a week one February and was rewarded with a magnificent display. First, the male caught three small fish and ate them whole. Then, he caught a huge nine inch one which he gleefully presented to his mate. He was showing her that he could easily provide for her and their family together, given the chance.

She was clearly impressed with this engagement present and to my amazement swallowed the fish whole. She had found her match. Simultaneously they turned to face each other, held their heads high and, with their crests and facial ruffs erect and extended, started to wave their heads from side to side repeatedly. As one bird looked one way the other looked in the opposite direction with precision timing as if they were too timid to look each other in the eye.

This ‘face-off’ dancing went on for nearly a minute and was followed by ritualistic preening. Each bird took turns to select a long feather from their back and extend it out to the side in a perfect arch, as if casually grooming. The synchronisation was so perfect that it was almost as if they were working as one.

The courtship process was intense. Often, a fishing break was required in the midst of the proceedings or time out taken to patrol the boundaries. If the male spotted any other grebe on his patch, he swam towards it like a guided missile; head and face flush to the water. At the last moment he flew above the surface, paddling, splashing and generally making as much noise as possible in order to be seen both by the intruder and his own mate. Sometimes, he decided on a cunning surprise attack diving down and then grabbing the bewildered intruder from below.

This aggression is mainly directed at sub-adult grebes; only these younger ones would be naïve enough to enter another’s arena. However, it is not only directed at their own species. As I watched, the grebe cunningly dived below a pair of Canada geese and began viciously assaulting them. He kept pecking the geese hard with his razor sharp beak until they had no option but to swim ashore and seek refuge on dry land. It was hilarious to watch these large birds, who are often the playground bullies of the waterways, leaping up and down from the water’s surface in fright.

Smug in the knowledge that his lady had watched the entire episode, the grebe headed back to her. As he approached he dived down just below the water’s surface, creating an impressive bow wave from which he emerged, just as it broke, by her side. Talk about cool!

Duly impressed by his antics, she greeted him with wings splayed, head held back and calling, as if she were cheering. He went one better and finished his performance with an upright dance, effortlessly treading water in front of her. More head-wagging and preening continued throughout the day. But just as I was about to pack up the moment I had been waiting for; the crowning glory of the water courtship commenced – the reed dance at last.

The grebes swam away from each other and dived down simultaneously only to reappear on the surface at the same time. The male was holding a clump of weed plucked from the bottom of the lake and I had my camera poised. The female, I noticed, had been distracted while she was under and had caught a fish. The male rushed towards her, weed to the ready, his head and neck low in the water. Then he too realised that she was holding a fish in her beak and not the clump of weed he was hoping for. He dropped his weed instantly, almost embarrassed that he had misread the situation. 

It was night fall by this time and I packed up and returned the following morning at dawn, weighed down with cameras, tripod and flask. Just as I reached the edge of the lake I noticed the full reed dance being performed right in front of me. The climax of the prenuptials involved both birds treading water bolt upright breast to breast with beaks full of weed whilst also shaking their heads from side to side. It was over in a flurry and unfortunately my camera was still in my bag.

I cursed myself, if only I had walked faster or not spent so long over breakfast. You have to be patient to see the full courtship of a great crested grebe, but you need a bit of luck to photograph it too. Grebes don’t mate for life so they may well be reed dancing with someone new next year. A season of devotion brings no guarantees, in spite of all their effort.

The reed dance only lasts for a few seconds but it something that will stay in my memory forever.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Valentine lore: Are Animals Romantic?

Albatross Pair, painted by Robert E Fuller. More info and to buy
As Valentine’s Day approaches I have been thinking about whether animals experience the same emotions that we do. And, in particular, whether they feel love in the same way?
As someone who has spent my life observing animals and birds in the wild, I believe they do, although obviously they are not as intelligent. I think we share all the same emotions - grief, lust, fear and love -and all the subtle feelings in between. This complex range of emotions is a necessary part of survival.
Some species, for instance, form life-long bonds to raise their young. Their offspring depend on their parents to work together as a pair to defend and feed them. But it’s not all about finding a mate and a territory.  It is well known that elephants, for instance, experience grief and will mourn the loss of one of their herd by visiting their remains in ‘elephant graveyards’ for some years afterwards, stroking the bleached bones of the dead with their trunks in mournful vigil.
Following in Footsteps, limited edition print by Robert E Fuller. More info & to buy 
The link between humans and chimpanzees has been well documented.  Comparisons of our genetic blueprints show that we share 96% of our DNA sequence with these apes. I have been trekking with chimps in Tanzania and it really is amazing to see how similar their actions are to ours.
Closer to home, I’ve seen almost the same range of emotions as humans experience expressed by British wildlife.
Chimp of Mahale, by wildlife artist Robert E Fuller. More info and to buy.

The animal kingdom spends a great deal of energy and effort in courtship and territorial defense.  It is everywhere from bird song, to the roar of a stag or the colourful and elegant plumage of a kingfisher.
For evidence of subtler emotional bonding, you only have to watch a clan of badgers on a warm summer’s evening grooming one another whilst their cubs play about them. Their social structures are quite complex and depend on the need to form a cohesive group in order to defend their territory from rival clans. So they spend a lot of time grooming and scent marking each other as a way of reaffirming their connections. Literally, its ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’.
Badger Bond, taken from a painting by Robert E Fuller
I spent a week watching a fox raise her five cubs and witnessed envy and smugness too. The vixen quite clearly had a favourite cub, a female, which she groomed more and spent more time with than the others, and this little cub had grown proud and spoiled as a result. One day I watched this favourite cub goad and tease a larger male sibling with a pigeon feather which she held in her mouth. The larger male took chase but he couldn’t quite match her agility and, disgruntled at the fact that he was unable to take her prized feather, slunk off sulkily. The little cub gleefully took up her position next to her mother and there’s little doubt she was gloating.
Fox and cubs painted by Robert E Fuller.

And as for love, it’s hard to ignore the vast array of complex courtship rites practised by birds.
Great crested grebes have the most elaborate courtship dance of all Britain’s birds. It involves carefully choreographed displays of head shaking, diving, ritualised preening, some serious feather fluffing and a spectacular ‘reed dance’ finale.
Grebes courting, by Robert E Fuller.
You can see these mating dances right now on lakes and ponds and they are fascinating to watch because, unusually, the females take almost as active a role as the males.
 I have been feeding a pair of tawny owls from my garden bird table for some years now and I regularly watch them out of my kitchen window. One night last month I turned my security light on and saw the pair on the garden fence sitting so close to each other they were touching. The male began to lightly preen the female’s facial disc and I could hear her ‘churring’ with pleasure as she moved her face around to make sure he preened just the right spot.

These birds don’t actually start to lay eggs until March so it was early for pre-nesting courtship. Instead these two were enjoying the simple pleasure of physical contact. In the spring and summer if I go anywhere near this pair’s nest the male swoops down and attacks me. Twice he has actually knocked a chain saw helmet off my head and once his claws punctured my back in eight places!
This tawny owl clearly has fiercely strong feelings of protection towards his chicks and I’ve learned now to stay well clear. And these little ‘mini-dramas’ are not limited to courtship rituals, they also involve the more subtle twists of jealousy and betrayal.

Take for instance the day I watched an unfaithful curlew skulk away after his mate caught him playing away from home. I was in Teesdale at the time watching a black grouse lek, itself an intricate and complex mating dance, when I spotted a female curlew on her nest. There was something about her restless behaviour that caught my eye. It was as though she just couldn’t concentrate on the job of incubating her eggs.

Unfaithful male curlew is challenged by both females, photograph by Robert E Fuller. 
Then I noticed that she was watching her mate closely. She seemed so agitated that she would often leave her eggs unattended and fly over to join him where he was feeding. Then one morning, after several days of this unusual behaviour, I realised what all the fuss was about. I spotted the male near my hide feeding with another female. Curlew males supposed to stand guard whilst their mates sit on their eggs but he was clearly flirting.

As I watched him, he began to posture and show off his size to the new female. His mate clearly wasn’t going to stand for this and she left her nest and flew across to join them. At this point he began to look very uncomfortable and started to strut around picking up moss and grass with his long curved beak and flicking it up into the air in a futile attempt to distract the two females. In the end, like the two wronged heroines that they were, the girls rounded on him and he quickly scarpered leaving them to battle it out amongst themselves.
Curlew in Wildflowers, painting by Robert E Fuller
All these little observations make me think that if we have feelings why can’t animals and birds have them too? I don’t accept the argument this is ‘anthropomorphism’ - the act of people giving animals human qualities. I just think animals and birds need a lot more credit than they get.

Friday, February 3, 2017

ITV's Calendar on how I have adapted my garden to study wildlife

People often ask my about how I capture the character of an animal or bird in paint so I thought I would share this TV clip since it describes how closely I watch wildlife for my work. The piece was recorded for  ITV Calendar News to promote my exhibition last summer but it remains relevant.

You can see how I encourage wildlife into my garden using nest boxes for owls and garden birds and how I made a nesting chamber to attract a family of weasels here.

My animal nest boxes are all wired up with surveillance cameras so that I can watch what happens when the wildlife disappears from view.

I also have hides dotted about the garden, which I can move about depending on where the action is.
And best of all look for the moment where you can see my new tunnel that leads directly from my living room to a hide opposite the spot where I feed tawny owls each night.

This device means I can get from my house into the hide without disturbing the weasel family or the stoats that also visit. I've got some incredible photographs from this location and I use these to paint from.

The video promotes an exhibition I held here last summer celebrating how much fun it is to watch wildlife and includes some of my own footage of joyful moments like when the weasel kits first discovered snow. So please enjoy it and look out for some laugh out loud clips of the wildlife I have photographed here at my home and gallery in Thixendale.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Fidget the Weasel to star on TV

A camera crew from The One Show are in my studio today filming Fidget, the weasel I took in as a tiny kit after he was found abandoned in York last year.

Followers of my blog will know that I have spent the last few years studying weasels in the wild for my paintings. I've had surveillance cameras trained on a family of wild weasels living in my garden and have monitored their behaviour closely. The information I collate informs my paintings.

Weasel Wall, painting by Robert E Fuller.
When Fidget arrived he was too small to release into the wild and I grew so fond of him I ended up keeping him. He keeps me company as I paint but he is so active that I've found myself building him things to climb up to keep him busy. Watching him test his strength and agility is also important to me since I get the opportunity to see how his muscles move and to photograph him in a variety of poses - these photographs make up my background studies for future paintings.

Above you can see him slipping behind the paintings in my studio - and knocking one off! And below is his 'spider-weasel' moment when he sheers up the wall and then balances on top of my paintings!

To really put him to the test I built him this maze. He was very quick to learn when I tested him out this week. They are really very intelligent animals. I built the maze out of wood and then pushed a mixture of concrete and sawdust into the spaces with my hands.  Here he is just coming through.

The maze then leads on to more obsctacles made out of hamster tubing and over a bicycle wheel and onto a slalam.

I hope he manages to complete the whole obstacle course for the TV crew today. I will let you know when its due to be screened.