Artist plays spy to take a closer look at nesting birds

Robert Fuller's photograph of a kestrel.
Robert Fuller's photograph of a kestrel.
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THIS WEEK two tawny owlets hatched just outside my garden. I was able to watch the moment their mother hopped gingerly off the first chipping egg on a TV screen in my gallery.

The scene was relayed live from a secret camera hidden in the owl nest box. Visitors to my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire, have been joining me to marvel over the way the adult female has been carefully feeding these tiny new creatures.

Robert Fuller's nestcams capturing some intimate footage.

Robert Fuller's nestcams capturing some intimate footage.

And each day I’ve been able to replay the nightly recordings to see the male owl tenderly bringing supplies of food to his new family.

Amazingly, it is possible to hear a tawny owlet calling, or ‘pipping’, through its eggshell before it hatches.

It would have been nice to also have sound sensors rigged into the nest boxes. But for now it’s been great watching the action on screen.

The nest cam is one of 12 hidden in nest boxes or trained on natural nesting sites around my garden, each relaying images of nesting birds direct to the gallery.

Currently they show a barn owl, a blackbird, two robins, a wren, a tree sparrow and even a pheasant hen - all sitting on eggs. And yet to lay are two blue tits, kestrels and a second barn owl.

Once all these eggs hatch, the cameras will offer a unique window into the secret world of baby birds as they grow, meaning visitors to my gallery will literally be able to watch spring unfold.

It was quite a feat installing all the equipment. I’ve had to dig metres of cable underground and lay them along walls and gutter lines.

Some of the nest boxes operate via wireless connection so I’ve had to learn quite a bit about the latest technology.

But it’s been well worth the effort. Sometimes walking through the gallery feels a bit like being on the set of Springwatch.

The chance to see what happens inside a nest is invaluable to me. As a wildlife artist I try to understand the unique nature and character of each of animal I paint so that I can capture the individuality of a creature in my work.

These hidden cameras offer me a window into a world that I’ve previously been unable to access.

I’ve watched the tawny owl pair from the moment they first began looking for a nesting site last September and seen how hard they had to fight off competition from other species to secure the box I put out for them.

I’ve followed the tawny owls’ story through their tender courtship to the moment the first egg was laid in March, appropriately on Mother’s Day.

Along the way I’ve been privy to affectionate moments between them. On one occasion the video camera recorded the male and female lovingly preening one another’s faces and then the female went on to dig a scrape in which to lay her first egg.

Although these owlets have now hatched, the male is still fiercely territorial and has been trying to push a neighbouring barn owl and kestrel pair out of the area.

Thankfully the kestrel seems to have attracted a female into a nest box so I’m hoping the tawny owl will leave them in peace to nest there.

He has a habit of going to their box at night and he’s also been harassing a male barn owl that’s been prospecting another box. He heads straight to this box and tries to chase it away whenever he hears its call.

This male barn owl calls from the nest box every night in an attempt to attract a female. Barn owls are close to my heart and their continuing success here on the Wolds, where populations have suffered in previous years, is important to me.

I hope this barn owl is able to withstand the tawny’s bully-boy tactics.

There’s already a pair of barn owls nesting a little way away from the gallery and I have a nest cam showing the female incubating her eggs. She laid them on Easter Monday and the first egg should hatch around the May Day bank holiday weekend.

The cameras have also meant I’ve learned quite a bit about the more common garden birds that nest every year in my garden.

I watched a blue tit fuss about trying to choose a nest box for weeks. The pernickety bird spent so long flitting in and out of different boxes, spreading out its wings as if trying each for size, that it lost two nest boxes to tree sparrows.

In the end I had to adapt a new nest box by making the entrance hole so small that tree sparrows wouldn’t fit in. This proved a success and I now have two nest boxes occupied by blue tits.

The tree sparrows though have outwitted me. These birds construct a hollow cup shaped nest out of moss and grass, then build it up into a tall domed structure. This ‘roof’ has now obscured my camera.

I can’t help but admire them for stopping me spying on their intimate moments.

Also on camera is a pair of robins nesting in a storm lamp hanging in the back porch. This is the second pair of robins to nest in my garden this year, which is very unusual for such a territorial bird.

The first pair has made the front garden their territory and my house seems to be acting as an invisible border for this uneasy truce. This pair has by far the most expensive nest box. They are nesting in the front grill of my car.

They started off trying to build a nest in the back wheel of my Landcruiser and I spent weeks trying to shake them off because I didn’t want to have to stop driving it until the young robins fledge.

But each time I moved the vehicle; the birds found it and carried on building. I finally gave in when they moved to the front grill of the other car and have now grounded it until the young fledge!

I’m taking the fact there are now two pairs of robins in my garden as a personal compliment for all the hard work I have put in to planting up what was a bare hillside when I moved here 17 years ago.

Over the years I’ve planted woodland, a wildflower meadow and a great number of shrubs and trees to attract birds. Clearly the food supply is now plentiful enough to support more than one pair of robins.

The chance to spy on the intimate lives of the creatures that abound in the garden is something I’ve really enjoyed sharing with visitors to my gallery.

As they leave they tell me that they can’t wait to go home and take a closer look at all birdlife in their own gardens.

I will keep the cameras running throughout spring and have also put out a display of nesting materials and of real nests for people to feel and hold.

There are also information boards about how different birds construct their nests and raise their young and advice on how to identify different eggs and nests.

My paintings and photographs of birds feeding their young at the nest form the backdrop to this new exhibition. If you can make time to see it, you won’t get a better opportunity to see baby birds this spring.

Robert Fuller’s Secret Spring exhibition is open every day until 4.30pm at his gallery in Thixendale, including the May bank holiday. The next eggs due to hatch are the barn owls, the chicks are due any day from the bank holiday weekend.

Keep up to date with the best of the latest nest cam footage at www.robertefuller.com