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!


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Guest Blogger: Dr Amy Jane Beer on Noticing Nature

In the first of what I hope will become a regular occurrence, I'd like to introduce a guest blogger whose work I admire. Today it's Dr Amy-Jane Beer, who lives in North Yorkshire. Dr Beer is a biologist, writer and editor. She has authored and co-authored over 30 books on natural history, is a regular contributor to BBC Wildlife magazine and edits Wildlife World magazine for the People's Trust for Endangered Species. She runs occasional courses in nature writing and is working on her first novel. Below is her contribution:

 Read more from Dr Amy-Jane Beer at www.wildstory.co.uk  @AmyJaneBeer

Noticing Nature

Anyone that spends a significant part of their time in nature knows that it is powerfully addictive stuff, and even those who never stray from city life welcome images of nature – in the art they hang on their walls, the TV they watch, the plants they grow in garden or pot. And if they’re not admiring nature, they’re often choosing something with similar ability to captivate, like music. To me the appeals of music and nature have much in common – complexity, pattern recognition, and a requirement for emotional and observational focus. And these are things we seem to need.

Our fascination with nature stems with a natural human gift for noticing. At the age of two, well before he could read or recognise numbers my son could identify the seemingly endless multitude of tedious engine characters in Thomas and Friends and would correct me when I got them mixed up. I had particular block over Gordon and Edward – both big, blue, and both, well, engines. Not my thing, I’ll admit.  One day I asked him how he knew the difference. He gave me a pitying look and said, ‘It’s easy Mummy. Edward has round buffers, Gordon’s are a long shape.’ What he was describing perfectly was a search image – the key feature he naturally homed in on in order to sort and classify. Our brains use search images as a short cut to recognition. Now, aged five, he uses the same technique to organise his knowledge of cars, birds, dinosaurs, bugs and so on. It’s not cleverness. It’s an instinctive human ability.


I know some exceptional naturalists. People who have filed away so many search images they can identify species almost without conscious thought. In some cases their abilities seem supernatural. They might distinguish ten different speedwells without needing a book. Or name 400 moths at a glance. There are others who will pause midsentence because they’ve heard amid background woodland chatter a snatch of an early migrant song, or recognise the flickering outline of a distant bird I can barely even see. People like Robert Fuller, who makes a living out of noticing and recording the kind of details that entrance us. Believe me, he doesn’t just paint! Back track a few thousand years and finely honed powers of noticing like these would have been commonplace but a matter of life and death. In some places they still are. In truth they are no more remarkable than your ability to glean meaning from the letter characters I’m typing now. But like many such innate skills, they need practice.



It’s one thing to say we have an inborn appreciation of nature, but another to explain why. The American biologist Edward O Wilson explored the idea that humans have an innate bond with nature – a special form of love for other living things. He called it Biophilia. It’s not a new idea, in fact it’s been recycled many times – even Aristotle discussed biophilia as a specific type of human love. It’s not the romantic, passionate, or even the caring or nurturing kind of love, although it is often couched in those terms. It’s an affinity, which Wilson and his colleagues set out to explain in evolutionary terms. For example he suggested that we are attracted to flowers because they mean food, and we like cute animal faces because they stimulate the nurturing behaviour we need to exhibit in order to rear our phenomenally demanding and dependent young.

I’m oversimplifying hugely of course. But I wonder how much our love of nature is bolstered by our powers of observation and discernment, which are perhaps greater than those of any other animal on the planet. This is not to say our senses are more acute than those other species – our eyesight is pretty good, but in smell, touch and hearing we’re pretty poor, and the electrical and magnetic senses of sharks and birds senses are completely lost on us. Where we excel is our ability to identify tiny differences and remember them. There appears to be no other animal that matches us for powers of discernment. Perhaps for most other species there is no need for discrimination of other life forms beyond identifying potential food, potential mates or potential threats. So why do we bother? For me, noticing and appreciating nature’s endless diversity is an important component of biophilia.


Another thing about noticing nature is that it appears to be good for us. It’s well documented that hospital patients recover faster with a view of trees. In Japan there’s a practice known as Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing – therapeutic trips to forests are found to reduce stress and used to treat depression, anxiety, anger, insomnia, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Our need to connect with nature is so great that we suffer when we don’t do it. Noticing nature is what our brains are for, and if we stop using them for that, it’s not so surprising that we find ourselves in trouble.

The condition known as nature deficiency disorder is especially prevalent and worrying in children. Concerns about safety, and litigation as well as relentless urbanisation and the advance of technology into every aspect of life have distanced each generation of children a little further from nature and robbed them of time to just sit and notice.  There are various schemes designed to address this – the National Trust’s 50 Things to do before you’re 11¾, Project Wild Thing, Forest Schools. All doing great work, no doubt, but they also depress me. That they are needed depresses me, because we are all wild things. How can we have forgotten?



Thursday, November 17, 2016

A trampolining stoat

This year John Lewis' Christmas advert featuring a troop of woodland creatures bouncing on a child's trampoline reminded me of a stoat that often has a cheeky flip on my garden furniture. 

The John Lewis ad, which stars CGI images of a badger, a fox and a hedgehog taking a turn on a child’s brand new trampoline on Christmas Eve, was a huge hit when it debuted on TV last week. But I filmed this stoat leaping and bounding across the trampoline in my garden last year.

And in fact there is a family of wild stoats that regularly bounce on the cabbage netting stretched over the vegetable patch - they prefer this to the trampoline!! I got these fantastic photographs of one of the stoat's leaping. 



My footage dates back to last winter when I noticed tracks in a fresh fall of snow on the children’s trampoline. I was fascinated that these animals appeared to have been playing on the garden furniture so I trained a camera trap on the scene. It caught one of the stoats bouncing on my daughters' trampoline.



After that I began watching the stoats more carefully and discovered that these animals were also bouncing on the cabbage netting I had stretched over the vegetable patch. They were clearly enjoying themselves. Jumping and even doing flips! I think they preferred the buoyancy of the cabbage netting to the trampoline.”



I’m not sure whether the makers of the John Lewis realise that this can actually happen! But of course it is very difficult to capture animals at play like this in reality.”




I like to watch wildlife for my painting subjects closely so that I can follow every muscle change accurately. These pictures gave me a really good insight into how agile and supple these creatures are. Take a look at the paintings I went on to produce.








Thursday, November 10, 2016

An Exclusive Preview of My Latest Original Paintings

My winter exhibition opens on Saturday, but in case you live too far to visit, here is a selection of the original paintings going on show.
Red Stag of Studley Royal

 Original Acrylic Painting  £3450
Framed Size: 23.5" x 18.75" Image Size: 9.25"x 13.5"
One winter after heavy snows I woke up to find it was minus eight degrees. The landscape was twinkling with a haw frost. On the spur of the moment I decided to visit Studley Royal near Ripon to see the deer. When I got there it was thick fog and very cold, but by late afternoon it began to clear and this magnificent stag appeared out of the mist. Click here to buy. 

Proud Partridge

Original Acrylic Painting  £2,950
Framed Size: 22.5" x 17.75" Image Size: 8.25"x 12.5"
I love it when it snows. I like to watch how wildlife copes with the white-out as food becomes scarce. Red-legged Partridges seem to peck at anything above the show – to see if it’s edible. Click here to buy

"
Black Grouse
Original Acrylic Painting £2,150 
Image Size: 10" x 7
I think watching black grouse performing their courtship dance is one of the most spectacular wildlife encounters that you can have in the UK. They perform this dramatic display on a designated area known as a ‘lek.’ I have been especially lucky to have been able to watch it right on the edge of the lek itself, hidden inside a small hide. Click here to buy


Tawny Owl Chicks

Original Acrylic Painting £7,950 
Framed Size: 41.5" x 34" Image Size: 28.75" x 21.25"
Every year I use my pair of local tawny owls as surrogate parents for owlets that have been handed in to rescue centres. Some years this pair has raised up to 10 chicks, which I supplement feed in my garden. They land on this particular branch on the edge of my garden at dusk every night. Click here to buy.


Barn Owl in Elm Stump

Original Acrylic Painting £6,550
Framed Size: 29" x 33.5". Image Size: 17.5" x 21.25"

I put this old elm stump into a tree near my house to make a natural nest box. Kestrels and tawny owls have used it in the past to nest in but 2015 was the first year in which a barn owl used it. The male barn owl overthrew a pair of kestrels which were planning to nest there. It was an hour-long battle but the barn owl won. This is the female which arrived two hours after the male's fight with the kestre. It was very interesting watching the barn owls meeting for the first time. Click here to buy.

Hare in Snow    NOW SOLD 

Original Acrylic Painting Image Size: 7.5" x 5.75"


I was just heading back to my car after a long day photographing hares. The sun was low in the sky, giving the surrounding snow a warm glow. I decided to leave the hare small in the picture to give it a sense of scale.



Colourful Kingfisher    NOW SOLD

Original Oil Painting 
Framed Size: 13.75" x 17" Image Size: 8" x 11"
I spent three years studying kingfishers along a stream. I positioned a hide up stream of the nest and tempted them closer by putting small fish in a tank in the stream. One year the pair raised three colourful broods! 


Black Fox    NOW SOLD
Original Oil Painting
Framed Size: 27.75" x 22" Image Size: 13"x18.5"
A customer of mine got in touch to let me know he had seen a rare black fox near his home in Halifax. There are only thought to be a handful of black foxes in the UK. Although black in colour, these foxes are technically known as ‘silver’ foxes since the fur is tipped with white. The unusual black colouring is thought to be a genetic anomaly. Historically these foxes were valued for their fur.

Curlew in Meadow   NOW SOLD  

Original Acrylic Painting 
Framed Size: 23.5" x 16" Image Size: 6.5" x 13.5"
Curlew and Chicks NOW SOLD
Original Acrylic Painting Framed Size: 23" x 20" Image Size: 11.75" x 8"
One day, I found a curlew’s nest. They scare easily, so to put a hide up nearby I had to build it very carefully, putting just one piece of the hide together at a time. The day the chicks hatched I spent a full day taking photographs as they took their first wobbly steps – what a privilege! The following day they were fully mobile and looking for insects in the grasses.

Goldfinch at a Nest       NOW SOLD
Original Acrylic Painting Framed Size: 14.75" x 18.75" Image Size: 9" x 13"
Goldfinches are one of Britain’s most beautiful birds. This pair nested in an elderberry tree next to the back door of my parent’s house. I put a hide on top of their porch roof to study this nest up close.

Little Owls      
Original Acrylic Painting 
 £2490Image Size: 10.5" x 7.5"
I photographed four little owls as they fledged from a tree close to my gallery in Thixendale. They took shelter in a rabbit hole under a large rotting log. Little owls are known to nest in rabbit burrows where nesting sites are scarce, but I have never known fledglings to leave the safety of the trees and go to ground.
 As I watched one evening, a chick rushed out of the hole under the log and pounced onto a beetle whilst the others looked on. The way their tilted their heads to locate their prey was so funny to watch. This owl quickly polished off the beetles; to the envy of his siblings, who were still dependent on the food their parents brought them. Click here to buy. 

Sparring Sparrowhawks NOW SOLD
Original Acrylic Painting
Framed Size 30.5" x 31.5" Image Size: 17" x 17"
I have a love hate relationship with sparrowhawks as they can cause such destruction to the song bird population in my garden. I decided to try and entice a female sparrowhawk who was a regular visitor to my garden to feed on dead pigeons that I put out for her, instead of preying on my garden birds. It worked and I fed her every day for around 5 months.One day a new and more aggressive young female sparrowhawk spotted her eating my daily offering and launched an attack. I was fortunate to have been in the hide with my camera when it happened.


Black Rhino                        
Original Acrylic Painting £2750
Framed Size: 25.5" x 21"  Image Size: 15" x 10.5"


There is usually a dramatic moment or two when I go to Africa and this was one of them. I spotted this black rhino in the distance walking across a plain of Etosha National Park in Namibia. I set off on a 30km detour to see if i could photograph it coming towards me. I got there just in time, but when it heard the engine of the landcruiser it broke into a fast trot, heading straight for my car. It veered off at the last moment, just before it got to me - phew! Click here to buy.
Chaffinch on Blackthorn Blossom            
Original Acrylic Painting  £2750Framed Size: 16.5" x 24" Image Size: 6.25" x 12.5"
Male chaffinches are beautiful birds. Their melodic song is very distinctive. It is a short, fast rattling sound, best remembered by imagining a cricket bowler running up to the crease with the ball and then delivering with a flourish. Usually rendered as "chip chip chip chip chip - chooipchyoo." Click here to buy.

Courting Frigate Birds       
Original Acrylic Painting £3,450
Framed Size: 26" x 26"  Image Size: 12.25" x 12.25"
I watched these magnificent frigate birds on my trip to the Galapagos Islands. During the breeding season the males puff out their throats a bit like toads to create incredible displays. The way in which the females seem to snuggle up to these inflated red chests is so tender. I wanted to capture the intimacy of this ritual in my painting. Click here to buy.

Galapagos Penguins                  
Original Acrylic Painting £3,450
Framed Size: 26" x 26" Image Size: 12.25" x 12.25"
These penguins are only found on the Galapagos Islands. They are also the only penguins to live north of the equator. There are less than 1000 breeding pairs left in the world, so they are considered to be an endangered species. Click here to buy.

Giant Tortoise: Super Diego         
Original Acrylic Painting £3,450Framed Size: 26" x 26" Image Size: 12.25" x 12.25"
Most people have heard of Lonesome George, the last giant tortoise his kind, but how many know about Super Diego is a giant tortoise who is largely responsible for bringing his own subspecies back from the brink of extinction. Super Diego is a 135 years old giant tortoise and 'mega-dad.' He is thought to be solely responsible for bringing the saddle-backed Espanola tortoise back from the brink of extinction after fathering an estimated 1,700 baby tortoises since being acquired by the Foundation in 1977. Click here to buy.

King of Savute 
Original Oil Painting £8,950
Framed size: 37" x 29" 
The title of this painting 'King of Savute' really sums up this magnificient painting of this male lion. I photographed him in Botswana in 2000, and I remember as I watched him that he really exuded power & presence.

Friday, November 4, 2016

An Animal Version of You've Been Framed


Take a look at my video of some of the funniest moments I've witnessed whilst watching animals for my paintings.

I've got endearing wildlife moments and slip-ups that play like an animal version of You've Been Framed. Look out for the tug of war between two kestrel chicks that ends in a 'Lady in the Tramp' moment - similar to when the dogs in the cartoon are sharing a spaghetti strand and end up nose to nose!

There are over excited badger cubs tumbling down a hill together, tawny owl chicks jostling for position at the entrance to the nest hole, and even a stoat bouncing on my children's trampoline!



My exhibition, Animals Do the Funniest Things, opens on Sunday November 12th at my gallery in Thixendale. I'll be exhibiting my research photographs and video gathered over a lifetime of watching animals in  the wild.

Below is a selection of some of the photographs of animals in comical positions due to go on show. Keep scrolling down, I've saved the most uncompromising for last!

Little Owl Burp

Gossiping Penguins

The Hare Hop

The Rockhopper Hop

Sad reflection
Squirrel snowball


The Toss

A tawny owl chick blinking in the sunlight
Perhaps this is why they call a male hare a buck

Gorilla