Monday, March 31, 2014

Clan Take Over: New boar on the block

I've just seen a new boar at the badger sett I visit. He seems to have taken over the clan. I saw him for the first time last week as I was sitting quietly watching another badger that I call Humbug. I have habituated Humbug to my presence and she'll even take biscuits from my hand.

As Humbug calmly dug for worms at my feet, I heard a sound behind me. I looked up from where I was sitting to see this new boar standing tall at the top of a steep bank behind me in a threatening manner.

And I’m sure it was delibrate! As he stood tall on the bank, he sniffed at the air and then abruptly cocked his leg. He then snorted loudly before sauntering slowly and meaningfully back to the sett. I think I was being put in my place!

This new boar appears to have brought three or four females with him and a number of the previous sows, and the previous boar, have gone. Last time I was lucky enough to stroke Humbug I noticed she had a lot of scars on her front, and I suspected that she might have been fighting. Now I’m sure of it.

This boar is not nearly as impressive looking as last year's boar. I've dug out my photographs of the boars from previous years to show you.

This boar reigned from 2012-2014
Last year’s boar was very handsome. He was a huge, powerful badger and I had hoped his reign would last a bit longer. He took over during the summer of 2012 in a very aggressive campaign during which I am fairly sure he killed the clan cubs.

He made up for this initial reign of terror the following year by being very playful with his own cubs. It was a great to watch him in this paternal role.

This boar (above) reigned from 2011-2012. This boar (below) reigned in 2009-2011.

This (below) was one of the male cubs from 2009, who I nicknamed 'Dyson'. This was one of the last times I saw him when he was a nine month old boar looking fit and well ready for winter.
This type of unrest amongst the clan seems to happen nearly every year here and in fact none of the 14 original badgers I watched back in 2009, when I first began to keep a nightly watch on this sett, remain. Whenever a new boar appears the old one is either ousted, taking some of the sows with him, or killed.

This turmoil is very unsettling for all concerned. The tension at the sett is tangible and the badgers become frightened of their own shadows. It means that many of the badgers I have spent so long habituating to my presence have gone and these new badgers are more nervous of me.

Of course it also affects the studies I make for my paintings! Last year I knew each individual and had sketches and photographs of them all and now of course I will have to start the lengthy process all over again.
This week I've been watching the new boar scent-marking and strutting about. He kept rubbing his feet in his own urine and parading up and down paths that lead to and from the sett and then I spotted him mating a sow and realised he had been warning off any competitors.

Badgers can mate all year round and implantation is delayed so that cubs are usually born in February and don’t come out until spring. Although with this new takeover I wonder if the mating has occured now because the new boar has killed the cubs underground. I will be keeping an anxious watch over the next few weeks to see if any cubs appear. I really hope they are okay.

Thankfully Humbug is still at the sett, although even she is cautious. I’ve become so fond of her I would be very sad if she gets ousted too.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cobweb Collectors

I have nine long-tailed tits visiting the garden at the moment. They come once or twice a day to feed on the fat bars, but the busiest time is just before dusk.

They are such delicate little birds it’s a pleasure to watch them flitting about in the fading light and to listen to the musical notes they make as they call out to one another companionably as they feed.

Long-tailed tits have strong family bonds - extended family members all help to bring up a brood - and they fly about in family groups or pairs, calling to one another continuously. I've been wondering whether these visitors are the grown chicks from a nest I watched in the valley below the house last year.

I had first spotted the adult pair whilst painting at my easel. They had been investigating the greenhouse, checking every crevice and overhang in a fussy, pernickety fashion. 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. It was a bit chilly with the window open, but I wanted to hear them coming so I pulled over another jumper and carried on painting as I waited.

After a short while I heard their distinctive calls and looked round to see them bobbing along the hedge, taking short flights. I picked up my binoculars and watched as they began exploring around the greenhouse again. They were picking at spiders’ cobwebs in the overhangs.

Long-tailed tits weave soft, delicate nests 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. They can have up to 15 in a brood – so they need the space!

Seeing such a delicate, beautiful bird tug at soft nesting material is a touching sight and one which captured my imagination and inspired me to paint this bird as it pulled at some sheep’s wool.

By the next day this pair had gathered most of the cobwebs from the outside of the greenhouse and had gone inside looking for more. I could hear them calling excitedly to one another as they gathered up what must have felt like an unlimited supply.

I was worried they would get trapped in there, but I noticed that they were able to find their way out of a small gap where the window had been left ajar 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. 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 bottom of the valley. It was difficult to keep track of them in the large trees and sure enough I soon lost them.

I repositioned myself on the other side of the valley where I had last seen them and 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. They flew over my head and into the hedge beside me and then followed the hedge down the valley. They stopped in a dense bit of hawthorn hedge. I could hear them calling excitedly as I crept closer and peered in with my binoculars.
It was incredible seeing them building the nest. To start with it was cup-shaped, like most nests, but they built it up over the course of a few days into a dome with an entrance hole near the top. Once the structure was complete they went on to line the nest with feathers.

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 is to their disadvantage because there is little leaf cover to hide in at this time and it’s not unusual to find their nests ripped apart by corvids – especially magpies.

This nest was well hidden, however, and the chicks were successful. I’m keeping an eye out to see if the visitors to my feeders are nesting near the garden again, but no sign so far.


Monday, March 17, 2014

An evening with the badgers

Most evenings I visit a badger sett close to my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire. Over the years they have accepted me as one of the clan.

As I walked towards the sett last week, I heard foxes calling from the field above. Through the red filter on my head torch I saw two barn owls fly into the darkness.  A kestrel was roosting on my tree-top hide and tightened its feathers as I shone the torch at him.

I climbed over a stile at the approach to the sett and three pairs of badger eyes shone back at me. One of the badgers came to greet me. It was ‘Humbug’: my favourite badger, the friendliest of the clan.

I threw a few dog biscuits down to her. Then I set about putting some mice on a fence post. I had brought them for a pair of barn owls that I have been supplement feeding over the winter.

I walked to my usual spot at the edge of the sett and sat down. I have a hide in the tree overlooking the sett, but I actually prefer being on the ground with the badgers - it seems more real.

Humbug finished off the last of her biscuits and trotted over to me. I held my hand out with more dog biscuits on my palm. A barn owl screeched eerily overhead and I looked towards the sound. As I did I felt a wet nose on my hand. It was Humbug delicately hoovering up the biscuits, taking just one at a time. She has better manners than most pet dogs.
I drew my hand gently away and she placed her front paws on my legs, searching for more biscuits with her nose. I stroked her back and she turned her head at my touch, but I gave her another handful of biscuits and whilst she was distracted I scratched her.

There were small bits of matted fur in her undercoat and scabs on her side and front – a clear sign that she had been fighting. This was surprising because Humbug is only a year old. Already she has had to fight for a position in the clan.

It explained why she had been a little wary over the last month. Any unrest in the clan can make badgers afraid of their own shadow.

 Another badger then appeared, its nose poking tentatively out of the a hole. It was Humbug’s sister and the two greeted each other warmly and then began to groom one another.

 They stood side by side nibbling each others backs and necks. I was relieved to notice that there was no reaction from this sibling to my scent on Humbug.

 Humbug began foraging for worms. She pushed her nose into the ground, pushing it in so far her eyes were below ground, before digging deeper with her powerful claws. 

Then a barn owl flitted across the starlit sky. I watched as it hovered over the post with the mice on - just three metres away from where I was sitting. As it picked up the mouse, I felt a real privilege that I have been accepted into the secret nocturnal world of these wild animals. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Good Hare Day

It’s Mad March Hare month again - my favourite time to spot boxing hares in the fields.

Although there are no shortages of them here on the Yorkshire Wolds, to get photographs good enough to paint from, like these, is always a challenge.

The large arable fields leave little cover for a 6ft2” artist like me with a cumbersome camera and tripod.

But last week I stumbled upon a group of six hares and, knowing that hares are usually solitary unless they are courting, I set out to watch them. 

I could see the female squatting inside a ring of males As I crept into position behind a hedge, a buck stood on its hind legs and started shadow boxing, like professional boxer limbering up.

The female rose and stretched. The dominant male took this as a sign that it was time to try his luck and tentatively, sniffed at her. But his cautious approach, intended to test the female’s receptivity, was rebuffed with lunging paws.

I watched as the other males ran in. A flurry of boxing broke out. Chaos ensued as hares leaped up into the air and crashed down onto each other. I lost track of who was who until things calmed down.

The females urinated and the males rushed over to test the scent and jostled to see who could roll in it first.

This added to the confusion. The males that had rolled in the female’s ‘perfume’ now smelt of females themselves and they were running round confused, sniffing one another.

The doe took advantage of the commotion and ran off. Then the chase was on. The doe likes to test her suitors in this way. If they can’t keep up then they are out of the picture. She only wants the fittest and smartest to father her young.

She zig-zagged as she ran, using a hedge for cover. But then, to her own surprise, she outsmarted all her suitors. Like a real flirt, she returned across the field and back to where it had all started, as if to she was encouraging them to catch up.

The chase was on again and a flurry of boxing broke out between the doe and one suitor.

After such a great morning I felt inspired to get my sketchbook out. I hope some of these will develop into a new painting.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Nest Box Wars Commence!

Spring is in the air and nest box 'wars' have begun. I've been following the antics of a pair of kestrels and a pair of tawny owls from my studio window for many years.

This week I saw the kestrels mating. They are starting to look for somewhere to nest, but to their horror, they found the tawny owls sitting in the nest box that they had used last year and they were not happy.

The kestrels dive bombed the nest box all week in an attempt to get the tawny owls out. But the tawny owls weren't for moving so the kestrels upped the anti and sat in the nest box that the tawnys usually use. I'm not convinced it's all over - last year all this went on well into April.

Still, with a bit of luck I should be watching tawny chicks (above) and kestrel chicks (below) in the summer.


And as if this wasn't enough, jackdaws are also looking - up to six have been taunting the kestrels - and stock doves have been hanging around the nest sites too.

There is always a tussle for the best sites and usually the tawny owls get the first pick. I've been building some new nest boxes today and hope to get them up by next weekend to relieve the pressure - I wonder who will be the first taker?

And further from home, owls were also on the agenda as I drove across to Cumbria to The World Owl Trust to meet the its president, Tony Warburton.
I had gone to visit after I was asked to become a patron of the trust, a position I was very proud to accept.
We talked about owl conservation all over the world and it was interesting to learn about the plight of burrowing owls in America and of their conservation projects in the Philippines.
As for the UK, we discussed the importance of preserving natural grasslands. The diet of the barn owl is the short tailed field vole which needs tussocky grass to thrive. 97% of this type of habitat has been lost due to modern farming methods. Even the verges alongside country lanes are now often kept closely mown 'neat and tidy' and voles have nowhere to live. It's no wonder barn owls are on the brink of survival. 

On top of this the cold spring we had last year meant we had a drop in vole populations and this led to a dramatic decline in breeding barn owl pairs – Tony reckoned it was the worst breeding season since 1958! I was so worried that the winter might finish off the few remaining pairs near me that I decided to start supplement feeding several pairs in the autumn.
It has been a rewarding project as one particular pair has become so accustomed to my visits that the male actually took food from the top of my hat the other day! Above is one of the first attempts at photographing them. It's tricky to get the exposure right, so its work in progress and I'm looking forward to lighter nights too.
Initially I fed these owls on mice that I trap in my garden, but once I got them taking the mice readily from the landing platform outside the nest box, I switched them to day old chicks which were easier for them to spot on a nearby fence post.

These chicks are a by-product of the egg industry. I’m hoping that this pair at least, out of a number that I have supported through the winter, will be strong enough to breed this year and restore the fragile population here on the Wolds.
Of course I might also get some good paintings of them completed before the year is out too! This is a painting of what I'm hoping for later on in the year....