Friday, 26 July 2013

Life, Love and Death of a Wren

Yesterday I witnessed at very close quarters the death of a wild creature that I had come to know well. He was a fiery little cock Wren whose territory included our garden. Although he only weighed the same as a 20p piece but he possessed a huge personality.  Anne and I came to know him well and witness many of the dramas of his life through the winter spring and summer until yesterday when he was killed by a male Sparrow Hawk in our garden.
Last autumn I put two bat boxes up in a big Ash tree on the edge of the garden. As the winter days began to close in I noticed that a male Wren was roosting in them. At last light he would sneak quietly up to the tree and then squeeze up into the box through the slit in the bottom. During winter storms I would sometimes lie in bed listening to the wind and rain battering against the window and picture that little Wren nestled dry and protected in the bat box.     
We watched him build his first nest of the year in the Ivy clad cliff just outside our kitchen window flying tirelessly back and forth countless times carrying moss and grassy stalks. Then we watched him trying to attract a female, filling the garden and our kitchen with his song. When a beautiful little female turned up he went into overdrive increasing the volume of his song and opening his wings wide to impress her. It worked and she began to carry fine fluffy seed heads and feathers into his nest to make the final lining before laying her clutch of eggs there.
We never saw the chicks from that nest although the eggs definitely hatched because both parents carried food to it for over a week. Maybe that nest failed or maybe we were away on the couple of days when the chicks actually left the nest, we will never know.
The pair built another nest someway south on the same cliff. We never found exectly where it was because it was not in our garden. We had begun feeding the birds small mealworms from a pot. Our courtyard filled up with Blackbirds, Dunnock, Great Tit, Blue Tit, House Sparrows, Robin and of course our pair of Wrens. They all had hungry chicks in the nest so the courtyard was a flutter from dawn to dusk. Although the smallest visitors our Wrens had by far the strongest presence. The cock Wren was a very noisy bird, filling the garden with his beautiful song. I am always amazed at the sheer volume of song that is generated and broadcast from a Wrens tiny body. He might only weigh the same as a 20p piece but in terms of decibels he was the biggest bird around. Some research has found that ounce for ounce a Wren’s song is 10 times louder than a cockerel’s crow.
He built another nest and the pair went for a second breeding attempt. He was everywhere singing at the top of his voice. He seemed to be repaying us for keeping him supplied with mealworms by converting their energy into song. If the mealworm pot emptied the cock Wren would sit on the open kitchen door peering in, singing and scolding at us, it was deafening inside a room. If we didn’t take the hint he would fly into the kitchen to get more for himself. He was so inquisitive and would search around through the pile of boots on the floor or go into our cupboards looking for goodies like spiders. We both felt the privilege of sharing our house with him. He wasn’t alone in this and one morning we had 3 species (Blue Tit, Blackbird and Wren) in at the same time raiding the mealworm container just inside the door.
Then one morning I heard the high contact calls of juvenile Wrens coming from the cliff top bushes. The second brood had fledged and were out and about. Now the normally noisy cock went into overdrive. He escorted the two chicks everywhere, always in sight of them but not to close, unless of course he was taking an item of food to feed them. What puzzled me is that he kept up a constant rattling chatter of calls which couldn’t fail to draw attention to him. He also seemed to me to be perching in more open and visible places than he had before. Wrens are usually rather skulking and stick to cover so this new behaviour was puzzling as it made him very visible and must have increased his vulnerability to predators. The female wren was an attentive parent but remained her usual quiet unassuming self.
I could tell who was who because the two chicks are a little darker and smoother looking than their parents. Both chicks stayed deep in cover for the first couple of days but became more confidant and visible as they got older. The family were our constant companions because they loved the mealworms we put just outside the kitchen window.
Yesterday afternoon I went up into the garden and as usual could hear our cock Wren churring and chattering. He was sitting in the top of a buddleia bush in his usual confidant way. My path took me past where he sat perched jauntily on a vertical twig. I was only about 4 meters away from him when he left his perch and flew down towards a blackberry thicket.
What happened next is etched on my memory in slow motion. From out of nowhere a larger much faster shape appeared and crashed into the thicket in pursuit of the Wren. A moments thrashing around in the brambles and a male Sparrowhawk emerged with our cock Wren held tightly in its feet. He flew past me no more than 3 meters away and as he passed I could clearly see our little Wren hanging below him. He was still alive, his head hung down and his beak was wide open. That is the image which sticks so vividly with me. I shouted “You Bastard” as he passed, which was a pretty pathetic thing for a lifelong naturalist to do.
The garden seems very empty and quiet now he’s gone. It probably sounds ridiculous thing to say but that tiny bird filled the garden with his restless energy, beautiful song and huge personality. We had come to know him as an individual and shared many of the dramas of that little guy’s life through the cold wet winter, this year’s successful breeding season and his sudden death. I am not ashamed to say that I miss.
His mate and their two young chicks are still coming to feed from the mealworm pot just outside our back door. It feels good to be able to help them.   

Sunday, 26 May 2013


                                   KUNG FU WREN

I have been spending way too much time recently watching the pair of Wrens which are nesting in the ivy growing in the rock face just behind our kitchen. They are both working feverishly to find enough food for their recently hatched young chicks.
   I have being trying to photograph them which takes patience but that's not hard as I find that they hold my attention. I guess its because they are such active feisty little birds they give me such a lot of pleasure. This morning I was watching a Bank Vole sitting quietly in the sun on the same rock face just minding its own business when the male Wren came firing in from somewhere out to the left and with a kung fu like lunge flew straight up to the voles face with a shrill song. The vole was as surprised as I was and shot away into a crevice in the rocks to hide. I realised that the Wren must have been defending its nest full of chicks which was some 10 meters away. I don't think the Vole was any real danger but the Wren was taking no chances. 
     It was just an incident which lasted less than 5 seconds between two tiny creatures in my back garden but it made my day to witness it. It had been a privilege to be allowed into the private life of these two common creatures for a moment this morning.
   On the same morning the rain forests in Sumatra and Borneo are being ruthlessly destroyed with predictions that they will be gone within 20 years along with some of the most magnificent creatures on the planet. Sumatran Tigers, Orangutan, Elephant, Sumatran Rhino and countless other beautiful birds, mammals, amphibians. But its not just wildlife, countless people who depend on the forest are being dispossessed and many killed in conflicts as they try to protect their homes.Their lives ruined and the world is being robbed of its great richness and beauty. It is like watching a group of thugs stroll into one of the worlds great art galleries or museums and methodically tear down the painting and burn them or cut them to ribbons with knives. But nobody does anything to stop them. The bloody vandalism has been sanctioned by the gallery staff who just stand around and watch the slow thorough destruction of beauty and wonder. But I believe that the incredible complex vivid beauty of the natural world holds far more wonder and meaning than any work of art made by human hand ever can. 
     Pretty much everywhere the natural world is under severe and increasing pressure just like in Indonesia where more than half the existing rain forest has been felled in just a few years. It was the third largest swathe of rain forest in the world but already permission has been given to convert 70% of what remains into palm oil plantations. Our cousins the Orangutan are in steep decline, only 250-400 tiger remain and less than 100 rhino. Predictions are that they could easily all be extinct in 20-30 years. 
    As well as being our vital life support system the natural world has the ability to make human life so much richer and fill it with wonder and meaning. This morning a little cock wrens kung fu defence of its nest against a viscous killer vole made my day and made me happy despite the intensely depressing war of attrition the human race is waging on the natural world.      

Thursday, 23 May 2013


I had decided to have a go at filming FINBAR underwater and to that purpose had got my hands on a GoPro Hero3, a great little camera with a built in underwater housing. It took me a couple of days to get the little camera operational and all the time I was doing his I could see Finbar from the gallery window. The great day came and I was out in my little green boat with Bella in the bow and the GoPro ready next to me at first light. I headed out of the river and looked around for Finbar east and west along the coast with no luck. A couple of hours later I was coming back into the river mouth when I spotted Finbar escorting a big motor yacht out. The crew were all leaning over the side watching the Dolphin as he rode on the pressure wave at the bow.
    I waited for over an hour for him to come back but he didn't. And I haven't seen him for over two weeks. The GoPro is back in its box unused. He left Fowey last year at about this time of year so I don't expect to see him again this year. I have heard that he is in Plymouth at the moment and has been spotted by some of the crew of out tug "Cormillan" when she was working in Plymouth. It is good to hear that he is OK but I miss seeing his notched fin and back as he cruises up and down the river looking for something interesting to do.

I photographed this little Wren in my garden a few days ago. He is the male of the pair which are nesting by the kitchen door, a really feisty character. He seems in a frenzy and his song fills the whole garden  
   I am seeing him and his mate together now which means that their eggs must have hatched. They are beginning to carry food into the nest deep in the ivy to feed the chicks. If all goes well the chicks should be emerging in a bit over two weeks. But before that happens I want to try for some flight pictures of them as they come in and out of their nest. 
    I am away today for a flying visit to London to try and get a US visa for my upcoming filming trip to New York to film sparrows.   

Monday, 20 May 2013



This time last year I was in eastern Greenland filming for the BBC series "SURVIVORS". It was a fantastic trip to a really remote valley, just the kind of trip I love. We flew to Iceland where we overnighted. Next morning a twin prop plane took us to Constable Point on the eastern coast of Greenland. We had just enough time to get our equipment unpacked and ready for use and then we loaded up a Greenland Air helicopter to the brim with us and our stuff.  A one hour took us north to the valley of Orsted Dhal. We quickly unloaded and the chopper was away home leaving us standing on the tundra surrounded by all our equipment. That us the bit I like best.
It took us the rest of the day to get camp set up and explore the area. The first think I saw were herds of Muskox grazing in the valley bottom. Muskox are real left overs from the Ice Age, they grazed along side Mammoth and Woolly Rhino over 60,000 years ago when much of Europe was covered with ice. They were all important prey species for out hunter gatherer ancestors. They are big powerful creatures which have to be treated with some caution. Several years ago I was chased by a bull Muskox in the far north of Greenland  and it had been a frightening experience. I had had to run a good mile to finally shake him off. As they shamble across the tundra with there long fur blowing in the wind they have a very ancient feel, almost as though you were watching something from far in the past. I managed to creep very close to one herd with a long slow stalk which took a couple of hours.
 I was filming Barnacle Geese which come to this remote valley to breed each summer. They are preyed on by Arctic Fox and I was lucky after a lot of searching to find a den with 4 cubs. Because the valley was so remote I don't think any of the wildlife had ever seen humans before. That meant they did not know how dangerous we are and would often let us get very close or even approach us themselves. Arctic Foxes are hunted hard by Inuit and are usually very wary but this female very quickly got used to seeing me out on the tundra and would come over to see me.
It was such a privilege to be trusted by such a wild creature. When she came to see me I would often stop and sit down. She would do the same and we would just look at each other and I would talk to her and tell her how beautiful she was. After a while she would get bored and continue on her way to find food for her cubs. I filmed the cubs being fed and playing with each other like young puppies and I didn't even use a hide.
Arctic Hares were rare in the valley but I managed to get very close to one and get some photographs. The hares are big, weighing more than Arctic Foxes. They look so out of place as the snow melts and leaves them white.
The filming went well and the sequence will be in the "SURVIVORS" series when it goes out next year on the BBC.

Friday, 17 May 2013


Two days ago a friend of ours who works as a builder in Fowey came into the gallery. He told me had been working on the roof of a nearby house demolishing an old chimney when they made an surprising discovery. As he had taken the old chimney apart he had discovered a Jackdaw nest inside with very young chicks in it. Leaving it where it was was not possible as they had already reached the point of no return. The chimney was unsafe and simply had to come down and he had come to us for help. "Please can you take them and see if you can rescue them" he said.
    Anne and I have rescued and reared many creatures in the past including two other Jackdaws but never such young chicks. We had no choice but to try and help the poor little things so ten minutes later he came back with four tiny chicks still laying in there nest which he had put in a old black bucket. They were only a few days old and already cold, heaven knows how long ago they got there last feed. Anne and I got a hot water bottle to warm them up and began to try and get some food down them. The youngest of the chicks was a lot lot smaller than the other three and sadly he died a few hours later despite our best efforts.
     So now we are left with three which are getting bigger by the hour. I make a wet mush of sunflower crumbs, dog food and a little milk which I mash into a paste and then we feed them with a small syringe. It is a case of little and often (we try to feed them every half hour through the day beginning at 6 am with the last feed around 10.30 pm). Anne has a real knack with small weak creatures which is just as well as feeding them is definitely a two person job.
    As wonderful as Jackdaws are you would have to say this is a face that only a mother could love. They are bald except for a few tint tufts of fluff on their backs with sealed eyes. At the moment they can shakily lift there heads up when they sense us near but we have to open there beaks and squirt small parcels of gunge into their beaks. I am using a heat pad designed for reptile vivariums to keep them warm as in nature there parents would be brooding them almost all of the time. I think they must have been a late brood as the I can hear the chicks in next doors chimney squawking loudly when they are fed so they must be at least two weeks older than our three. From previous experience we know that it is going to be a pretty full time job for the next month if we are going to get them to the point where they can fly away and look after themselves. It is unlikely that they will all survive and maybe non will but Anne and I will do our best to give them a chance. I'm sure there will be many more blogs about our three young Jackdaws.
When you see such a young chick they look so reptilian it is possible to really appreciate that birds evolved from small dinosaurs.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Has anyone seen Finbar the Fowey Dolphin?  He hasn't been around Fowey for 3 days now and I am beginning to think he may have moved on. Last year he did the same thing, turning up in the middle of March and after about six weeks moving on. That time rumours began to spread that he had been found dead. They worried me but I didn't really believe them because despite making great efforts to find out some facts about who had found him and where it always seemed tone second or third hand information. It was always someone who had told them that someone else they knew had heard a dead Dolphin had been found.
     Sadly I had just decided to try and get some underwater film of Finbar and had got hold of a Gopro Hero3. On the very day I had got the Gopro set up and ready to go Finbar disappeared. He may yet turn up, I spend more time than I should gazing out the window at the river and looking at all his favourite spots for that familiar triangular fin and dark curved back. Bella has been helping me search in the boat. She is pretty good at spotting him from her place in the bow.
Finbar is about the only thing which scares her because when we see him she knows she is in with a good chance of getting splashed again.
      Here is a shot of Finbar from a few weeks ago near the big black and yellow buoys
 outside our gallery that he loves to hang around. I can see those two buoys as I write this so I will keep on watching the river for him. If he appears it will be a case of dropping everything and getting out in the boat to see and try to film him.
    Today is classic Cornish, damp and grey but pretty warm. Maybe if the rain lifts I will try sticking my nose out of the river entrance and look what the sea condition is.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

This is an images from one beautiful morning last week. I was up well before sunrise and when I looked out of the window it was the perfect day for getting out in my boat. There was no wind and the the river was like a mirror so 15 minutes later I was sliding down river towards the sea. The sea was beautiful with a gentle oily swell so I turned the bow west and headed to Gribbin Head. Twenty minutes later I was approaching Cannis Rock which stood high and dry in the low tide. A big bunch of Shags were resting on Cannis so I came in closer and then killed the motor and drifted down on the tide towards them. Cannis in most weathers is a place that I would steer clear of in my little boat as it is usually wild and dangerous. My camera was cradle on my lap with the 500 mm lens on, as I passed very close to the rock the Shags looked a little concerned but let me drift past without flying away. I like this shot because the Shags are shining in the early morning sun and Gribbin Head forms a beautiful background. I thought of calling this image "Eight Shags In The Morning" but finally settled on "Cannis Rock At Low Tide". It will soon be up in the gallery wall.

My local Peregrine Falcons have now got chicks. I am not sure how many yet but two days ago I was watching the falcon sitting tight on the nest when I noticed a small white ball of fluff appear from under her left wing, take a look around and then disappear again. The tiercel was hunting from the pairs favourite hunting perch, an Ivy covered rock on the shoulder of the headland. That is why I call then The Ivy Rock pair. They love to sit on this commanding perch which gives them a view east and west along the coast watching for potential prey. I was watching him when he suddenly took of and headed out over the sea with a real sense of purpose. His wings were pumping as he climbed but then he tipped over and put in a stoop at a Swallow which was coming in from the sea. The migrant swallow had probably been flying for hours over open water, and now when so close to land he was under attack from a hungry Peregrine with chicks to feed. The Swallow dodged once but the falcon threw up, turned and stooped again. This time the tired Swallow twisted down out of this way but ditched into the sea in its desperation bid to escape. The teircel simply turned and then dropping his legs plucked the poor Swallow from the waters surface and carried it up to the Ivy rock. He bent forward and killed his prey with a nip to the neck, within seconds dark Swallow feathers were drifting down the face of the cliff. It was probably his breakfast as he quickly ate the Swallow himself not bothering to take it into the nest for the newly hatched chicks.

The speed and agility of Peregrines is truly amazing and although I have seen many hunts over the years it never fails to take my breath away. I look forward to watching The Ivy Rock Pair through this season as they attempt to raise there chicks.

Finbar the Fowey Dolphin has been around in the river a lot over the last few weeks. He was seen with another Dolphin last week which was encouraging as he often seems to be lonely. I caught up with him in the boat a few days ago and took this picture.


Along the right side of his back are some pretty impressive tooth rakes inflicted on him by another Dolphin. Sometimes these can be during play and sexual activity but sometimes they can be from aggressive behavior. I don't know which it was this time all I know is that they are new and they look pretty deep. We had a great game a couple weeks ago when he ambushed me as I was coming back into the river on morning. Suddenly he appeared next to me and began to jump out of the water. I took that as an invitation to play and speed up. He was right next to me as I did a couple of high speed turns and then cut under the boat and came up on my bow. Then he pushed my bow sharply to the right by making a big bow wave himself. I slowed down thinking me might want to stop but he began a series of jumps well out in front of me which couldn't say any plainer "come on, don't stop now". So I picked up gunned the motor again and he joined came alongside again. After a couple on minutes of play he suddenly jumped high right next to me and then soaked me and Bella as he landed. I'm sure it was intentional as Dolphins seem too have a great sense of humour. Bella got very scared by this and shot out of the bow and back to me. That unbalanced the boat so much that I had to stop the game and head slowly home. Finbar left me and headed over to another boat to see if he could have some fun there. What a privilege to play with a wild Dolphin.