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.
After heavy snows back in 2010 another conservation strip along my children’s school run attracted huge flocks of yellow hammers and gold finches. Read my blog post below about how watching them inspired new paintings: