This month I’ve been training my camera lens on buzzards and I’ve got some great images to paint from.
These latest photographs are the result of a two-year project to persuade these large birds to feed from a feeding station close to my parent’s cottage in North Wales.
Originally I had tried to train a pair to feed here on the Yorkshire Wolds, near my gallery at Thixendale, but I discovered that the buzzards in Wales were less wary.
This is possibly due to the fact that food is scarcer there.
My parents live on the edge of a mountain in Snowdonia where winters are tough and on wet and windy days all the buzzards have to live off are occasional rabbits or grey squirrels, which can deliver a nasty bite.
The ground rises sharply behind their house and 200 yards up there’s a large granite slab from which you get an impressive view of Mount Snowdon. Next to the rock is a twisted trunk of hawthorn I put there as a landing post for the buzzards, with an eye on the composition of a final painting, featuring a buzzard perched on the twisted branch with Snowdon in the background.
I began by building a hide in some trees overlooking the slab. Its construction turned into a bit of an endurance test. It took me six days to build it and position it on three metre-high poles. I had to carry all the materials up the hill by hand and my first attempt blew down during in 80mph winds.
But it’s been worth the effort. My father climbs the hill a couple of times a week to put food onto the rock.
The buzzards have got to know him so well they call out at him when he is out in his garden and I’ve noticed that when he goes up to feed them they are often waiting for him. By the time he gets back to the cottage they have already begun feeding.
This means that when I visit, the buzzards are always about. I can now recognise them at a glance. The male is very smart and heavily marked and the female is larger and paler.
Their single female chick has a paler eye and white fringing on her feathers. She is very striking and has become my favourite to photograph.
I’ve managed to get some good shots of her too, which is a good thing as this may be the last year that I see her since it is likely that the parent birds will push her away once they begin breeding again this season.
At the beginning of this project I had jokingly told my dad that I expected him to get the buzzards so well trained that they would fly down to the feeding station on demand.
During my visit this month I had to admit that he had more or less accomplished this. On our first morning we were woken by cat-like mew of a buzzard outside the bedroom window.
When I looked out I saw the bird sitting in a pine tree on the edge of the garden, it’d clearly been calling for its breakfast.
I set off soon afterwards, laden with a heavy camera, a ladder and food to put on the feeding station. As I moved about in the hide, setting up a remote camera to capture any action whilst I was away, I noticed the female buzzard had already arrived to feed.
I could hear the other two mewing in the trees above me. I would have liked to have stayed all day watching them but I had already made plans to spend time with my family so I left the remote camera trap to record any buzzard action.
The next day I checked the camera. It had taken a shot of all three birds feeding together on the rock. This is the only shot I have of them all together so it was worth setting up the camera trap.
From my hide I could see two buzzards feeding together, but in the two years that I have been going to photograph them the male is still wary.
Although the buzzards are used to being fed, they are still wild birds and I need to be careful not to disturb them once I am in the hide.
My hide is a wooden box less than 4ft square and 5ft high. There is an opening in the front to poke my camera through, which I have covered with three layers of camouflage netting so that the buzzards can’t see in.
This also means that I can’t see out, apart from directly down my camera lens. But I have rigged up a security camera connected to a seven inch monitor as an alternative link to the outside world.
I also rely on the sound of the other birds about me. Jays, magpies and other small birds will sound out an alarm on the approach of a buzzard.
If I hear these urgent calls, I get my camera ready so that I can capture the moment a buzzard lands.
It’s always such a spectacle watching the other birds scatter as these big birds of prey come in, posturing with their wings wide like the big bullies in the playground.
I’ve noticed that the adult birds seem to know when I’m in the hide. The male - the most cautious of the group - keeps his distance and the female has even glared down the camera lens once or twice, so this month I took to go to the hide with my father so that when he left, the buzzards, seeing him walking away, were tricked into thinking the hide was empty. It worked to a point, but again the male wasn’t keen on leaving the safety of the nearby tree branches.
One morning I took a Go-Pro camera, a waterproof video camera capable of getting wide-angled stills, and set it up close to the feeding station. I planned to capture a shot of the buzzard with the snow-capped peak of Mount Snowdon in the background.
I’d camouflaged the camera with netting and moss, but my efforts didn’t work. The female took one look at the object on the ground and flew off, letting out a loud call of alarm which unsettled the chick.
Later the male flew in and landed on the feeding stump. I took two photographs of him as he glared down at the rock, but he too was disturbed at the sight of my camera and decided to fly off.
After spooking the buzzards, I decided to give up on my Go-Pro ambitions and I’m still working on alternative plans to capture buzzard, twisted hawthorn and Mount Snowdon in one image!