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How a flock of rare birds spotted on the school run inspired plans for a painting
UPDATE: This post was written after heavy snows in 2011. Since then the farmer next door to my gallery has also planted a very successful conservation strip. Read the following post on how it drew in huge flocks of rare birds right outside my window!
David Hockney said in an interview about his paintings of the Yorkshire Wolds that there was “no such thing as bad weather”. After a heavy dumping of snow one February, I had to agree. When it snows I love to see how the landscape has transformed and how the wildlife copes with the white out. The icy roads meant it was my responsibility to do the school run, a nine mile drive across single track roads. The route takes me along some of the best scenery and wildlife that the Yorkshire Wolds has to offer – hardly a chore.
I passed some of the places that put this region on the map after Hockney captured it on canvas But each day as I passed one field that Hockney has painted and admired the breathtaking landscape clothed in white, something else caught my eye. It was the sight of hundreds and hundreds of small birds swirling over a particular stretch of hawthorn hedge. At first glance they looked just like ‘little brown jobs’, but then one bright, crisp day, I stopped to take a closer look through my binoculars. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope as hundreds of brightly coloured birds burst into definition.
In the flock were goldfinches, corn buntings, linnets, bramblings, yellow hammers and even a few dozen reed buntings. Corn bunting are so rare these days that they feature on the RSPB’s red list of endangered species – and there were at least two or three hundred of them there! They were all feeding on a conservation strip at the edge of a field that had been planted with triticale wheat, linseed, sunflower and both red and white millet. The snow had fallen off the seed heads leaving them for the wild birds to feast on.
I knew this farm near Thixendale had been awarded Higher Level Stewardship conservation status and that these strips were planted especially to sustain these birds through the winter. It certainly was doing its job. I went home to fetch my camera and despite a biting wind and temperatures of -4°C I got ready for a day in the snow photographing this spectacle.
I had recently purchased a white ski suit especially for days like this, so I donned the rather cumbersome outfit and then wrapped my camera and tripod in white rubble bags and wound an old white dust sheet around my chair to complete the camouflage. I sat down on the edge of the cover strip to wait. Within minutes I was surrounded by swirling clouds of finches and buntings. The noise was incredible as all the birds called to one another.
The sheer numbers of them was exhilarating and put me in mind of watching red-billed quelia finches in Africa, whose numbers can reach biblical proportions. I hadn’t seen anything like this in the UK before. The birds would settle down to feed for a few minutes, but were easily spooked and would then all become airborne again. There must have been well over 1,000 birds in the air at one time. They were all hungry and were clearly feeding up for the long, cold night ahead of them.
I stayed all afternoon photographing them as they fed, and took flight again and again. But this strip of food didn’t just attract small birds. Rooks and crows also arrived, completely unfazed by my presence, as did pheasants and partridges. At one time I had over a dozen red-legged partridges strutting around me, some within five feet.
I was beginning to think I was invisible to the wildlife in my white suit until I sat back in my chair and the air exploded with whirling wings as the partridges took flight, setting off a chain reaction of birds flying across the field. The low sun made it perfect for some great shots before they landed again. As the sun set, I was so cold I could hardly move and was all fingers and thumbs as I tried to pack my cameras away.
I had just taken my camera off the tripod when a female sparrowhawk came cruising by, sending the remaining flocks scattering. With all these birds congregated in one place it had become a magnet for avian predators. I got into my car and headed home but before long dozens of fieldfares caught my eye on top of the hedge. I slowed down to take a look but they took flight in a flurry and then in a flash a sparrowhawk came up from behind the hedge. It flew in front of the car taking one fieldfare on the wing and by the time I had stopped it was on the verge alongside the car with its wings mantling its prey.
The hawk was spooked by the car and released its grip just enough for the fieldfare to escape in a flurry of feathers. It made for a dramatic end to a great day and I headed home to get warm and show off my photographs, which I hope one day will make a cracking painting.
Author: Robert E Fuller