Wildlife artist Robert E Fuller uncovers a huddle of red-legged partridges during a cold morning walk as featured in the Gazette and Herald February 2, 2011. Click here to see article on the Gazette and Herald website
ONE PARTICULARLY icy morning last December I woke early enough to see the thick blanket of snow lit up by moonlight. My first job each morning is to light the log burners and the cold air took my breath away as I stepped out on to the porch to fetch the wood. The thermometer on the wall read -14ºC. After a quick breakfast I headed out to the car in the dark. As I began to defrost the windscreen the thermometer inside also read -14ºC.
The drifts were three to four feet deep along the road, but thankfully a snow plough had just been through. I was on my way to photograph woodcock and I wanted to be there at dawn. I knew of a pool of spring water at the bottom of a valley where the woodcock congregate and I had already put up a hide from which to watch them.
But as I approached I saw what looked like an unusual mound in the pure white landscape. It turned out to be a group of partridges. They were huddled so closely together you couldn't pick out an individual. I hoped they would be English partridges.
At first there was no sign of movement, so I waited until the sun rose. The air was so still; there wasn't a soul around. I could hear pheasants coming down from their roosts.
As the sun started to peak above the horizon, the moon was still high in the sky and crows were calling in a nearby wood, as if announcing day break. Long blue shadows were cast over the snow, reminding me of a painting of red-legged partridges I had just finished.
As the sun rose in the sky there was a movement and the partridge's heads began to appear, one by one. They remained in tight formation, some pecking the snow for food, but the snow was over a foot deep and they didn't find any. Meanwhile others began to preen their feathers, and slowly, as the sun climbed higher, the landscape came alive.
I watched a pair of great tits flying along the hedge before beginning to turn over leaves under a line of beech trees. They had found a spot where the snow had been blown away and were joined by a pair of blue tits and a coal tit.
Soon a robin appeared in a hole in the beech tree above them, he must have roosted there overnight. The activity of the tits below didn't go unnoticed and the robin soon joined in the search for food around the base of the tree. It had warmed up slightly and was now -10. Higher up the beech tree I could hear jackdaws. They appeared out of a hole in the trunk where they had also taken shelter from the cold.
The morning light gave the beech tree branches a pinky purple tinge which was perfectly set off by the bright blue sky. At last the partridges started to disperse and one by one headed off to a nearby hedge also in search of food. It was too late for me to watch the woodcock, but I had spent a fascinating morning watching birds doing what they had to survive what has been the coldest start to the winter for more than 100 years.