Our Great Tit Family – Part 2

I am hoping that you enjoyed the first part of our Great Tit family’s saga, should you have missed it, check the previous blog post out here. Thought I would give you a little update on their progress so far. The female was a really good Mum and continued to brood her eggs almost constantly whilst the male kept her well fed with tasty caterpillars and such like. Then on the evening of day 12…….

…..great excitement for us as we spotted a tiny pink, naked chick! Mum and Dad remained as attentive as usual and carefully started to feed the chick. Given that the eggs are just 18mm (0.7″) long – you can imagine how tiny the chick is! Sometimes the food brought in was just too big – which meant Mum and Dad had to polish it off themselves, but it is amazing how big a meal the little ones can take!
We remained alert to the cameras, and over the period of 36 hours a further 3 chicks hatched out.

This was interesting behaviour, we were aware that parents will take the hatched egg shells away from their nest, this keeps the nest clean and hygienic and dropping the shell a distance from the nest confuses predators too. We were not really aware that the shells were eaten, although it makes perfect sense for the female to eat the shell to replenish her diminished calcium supplies. Female birds do indeed look for snail shells prior to laying in order to increase their calcium levels. There is an interesting article on this behaviour here.

Let’s see what next week brings for our little family, I’ll definitely edit up some more chick footage for you all – we can never get enough of cute little chicks!
Have a lovely weekend, let’s hope the weather stays dry and we can all get out and enjoy the wildlife wherever we live.
Have fun! Paul

Our Great Tit family

A couple of years ago I made a lot of bird boxes for our local woods and a few neighbours showed interest in purchasing some of them. So to advertise the boxes I placed one on our gate post… year later…… well you can obviously guess what happened next!

Clearly the pair of great tits had stumbled upon an old tennis ball as this seems to have formed part of the nest lining. 🎾 We were a bit caught out by the nest and as these birds can be very sensitive to disturbance we didn’t try and install a camera to watch their progress. We do know they successfully raised 3 chicks which was really great. But, wind forward one year and this time we have been able to install a camera. However, this story is not without it’s own saga…..

As you know, Jo and myself are nest recorders for the BTO, so we had checked the above box on the weekend and it was completely empty. On Thursday we were returning from a local birding walk when we noticed someone delivering leaflets to our neighbours. We thought nothing of it, we went out for lunch (special treat) and it wasn’t until we got home that we realised that we had not had a leaflet………now does the above box look like a letterbox to you?!! Clearly someone thought it was, it had been opened and a leaflet placed inside. 😟 We were horrified to see a part built nest underneath the leaflet and thinking it may be the great tits again we were really worried that they may have been put off the box altogether. As we were going away for a few days, I decided to screw the lid shut and put a sign on the box “This is a bird box NOT a letterbox!” – you can still see it there!

On our return home a few days later we were mighty relieved to find a fully finished and lined nest and as the pair were away from home themselves I took the opportunity of popping a camera inside so we could follow their progress and hopefully share it online too. Unlike our tennis ball lined nest from a year ago, this one is completely furnished out in white sheep wool – masses and masses of it. No idea where this has all come from as the sheep in our back field are a Zwartbles and a dark chocolate brown colour! It does look incredibly cosy though. 😆

Anyway, the blog has rambled on long enough for today, so like all good story tellers, I’ll of course carry on this one next week……do watch this space. 😉
In the meantime, do leave me a comment, I would love to hear whether you have birds nesting near your home.
Until next time keep enjoying the birds and wildlife around you and I’ll catch up with you all very soon. Paul

Mixing watercolours

Mixing colours for a watercolour painting can be tricky and for those new to the medium it can be a bit daunting. There are a few things you can do to make your life easier and at the same time it will also help you to get to know your paints that little bit better. For starters, if you are like me, you may find it tricky to know what the ‘official’ colour names are. It is always worth having a little guide to your own specific palette with the names written out beside their respective colours and their exact place in your tin. Should you change one of your pans, simply repaint the whole card or make a little swatch of your new colour and stick it over the top of the one you have replaced.

Secondly you can work on a colour mixing grid, you can lay this out in any way that you like, but the idea is that you want to try mixing all your colours with every other colour in your palette. In the example above I have drawn a grid in pencil and have put half my colours along the top and the other half down the side – this effectively gives me 81 colour mixes. However, I have not mixed the colours along the top with one another, and equally I have not mixed the colours down the side with one another. If I were to include those that would be a lot of mixes and a very big grid!! Also, this grid only takes account of mixes between two colours, and as you know sometimes I like to mix 3, sometimes 4 colours, it is no wonder that people get confused and just don’t know where to start!!

OK, so how did I get the grid on to my watercolour paper? Well I first of all designed it on some scrap paper and then simply transferred it using graphite paper. This avoids mistakes within the finished piece and all those unsightly blemishes you can get from incorrect pencil lines leaving marks behind. I deliberately included gaps between my sections so that there was no bleed between them, this allows you to work in a systematic way across and down the piece. Wet an individual grid square and then work in the colour in one half of the section, wash your brush and then apply the second colour to the other half. Allow the colours to naturally mix and whilst everything is still wet you can use your brush to gently blend the colours together in the centre.

What an array of colour combinations! Remember to keep your vertical colours to the left of the sections and the horizontal colours to the right this gives you consistency across the piece which will be easier to understand and use later.
A much simpler way of working with your colour mixes would be to focus on a single colour in your palette. So for example, here are a few of the combinations that can be made with alizarin crimson.

Hopefully this has given you a bit of an insight into understanding the way colours mix and blend. Should you want to see more detail on how I painted my colour mixing chart, I have a short video available in the Tips & Techniques section of Patreon.
Have a go with your own paints and see if it helps, or simply have some test pieces of watercolour paper to hand whenever you are working on a project and try out your colour combinations on these instead as you go along. Whatever you decide to do, the most important thing is to ‘keep those brushes wet’! 😉 Paul

Nest recording for the BTO

You may already be aware of the volunteer work that Jo and myself undertake for the BTO Nest Record Scheme. Jo is a registered nest recorder and each year we try to find and monitor nests within our local area. With some super weather over Easter coupled with some time off, we spent a lot of time slowly walking around the local lanes and woods! Things seem to have got off to an early start this year and over half of our woodland bird boxes now have nests. Most are blue tit, though there are some great tit, one marsh tit and a couple of nuthatch that we are aware of.

The process of finding and monitoring the nests requires a lot of patience; whilst those in boxes are obviously easy to find, others require a keen eye and more often than not a bit of luck! We use binoculars, small mirrors and an endoscope (which plugs into my phone) as the main ‘tools of our trade’ and follow a strict code of conduct to ensure the welfare of the birds. The blackbird eggs in the first photo were simply spotted while looking into the crevice in a tree trunk. The blue tit eggs below – by lifting the lid of the box – and hadn’t she been busy with 12 so far! Blue Tit generally average between 5 and 16 eggs so this is a good clutch size and on our next visit we may even find more!

Each bird is different, the nest, eggs, clutch size, habitat etc. vary. The adults will brood for different lengths of time and spend variable amounts of time raising their chicks. The nest of a blue tit very often starts off as a few strands of moss. Within a week this can have become a complete nest, sometimes it takes much longer. When the nest is found with lining, usually feathers, we know that it is pretty much finished and eggs will soon be laid. However, blue tits will often cover their eggs before leaving the nest, so a gently investigation underneath the feathers is needed in order for our nest record to be as accurate as possible.

Investigation of nests is very variable, the photo below shows a Long Tailed Tit nest in a gorse bush. The nest is made from moss, hair, cobwebs and lichen and whilst elastic in nature, to allow for the growing family inside, is very delicate with just a small entrance hole. For nests like these we use a small endoscope which plugs into my phone to give us an indication of what is inside and our record reflects that there could be more chicks / eggs than we can see.

Robin nests are notoriously difficult to find, they are clever little birds and if they think they are being watched they will deliberately go in the opposite direction! They will sneak their beautifully made nests into the tiniest of spots and sometimes it is the smallest of clues that suggests that a second look in an area may be productive.

This nest was tucked well back in the stump of a fallen tree. We had spotted a pair of robins looking a little ‘shifty’ and a search of likely hiding places in the area revealed a nest that was being constructed. On a subsequent visit we were pleased to see that eggs were being laid. Blackbirds on the other hand build much larger nests, they are sometimes easier to spot, although this pair had gone beyond nest building and laying and had chicks well on the way to fledging before we found their nest!!

We never really know what we are going to find, sometimes we will be successful other times less so. Whatever the outcome we find our experiences nest recording thoroughly enjoyable and we feel that in a small way we are helping towards the bigger picture the BTO are building on the breeding success of our British birds.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about our work as volunteer nest recorders, I would love to read any comments that you may have and look forward to checking in with you all again next time.

A Jenny Wren Painting

Once again we’ve started our volunteer nest recording work for the BTO this year and one bird we notice while we are out looking for and monitoring nests, is the wren. The male can often be spotted singing from a vantage point to try and encourage a female. For such a tiny bird they have a very loud voice and can be heard from some distance. The male busies himself building several nests within his territory – these are neat globe shaped nests with a little entrance hole and made from moss, leaves and grasses. Though on a local farm we found them made from straw, so I guess they just use what is to hand! The female will inspect the male’s handiwork and chooses a nest that she feels meets her exacting standards! She will then line this with feathers in which to lay her eggs. We’ve yet to find a lined nest this year so this blog will have to be about painting a wren instead, hopefully we can report on an actual wren nest later in the year. 😉 So instead I am aiming to give you an insight into the process I take to produce a realistic representation of this super little bird.

The first stage is to draw the image on to watercolour paper – I use Bockingford – it suits my style and technique well.

I almost always start on the eye or eyes of a subject, I love to see them looking back at me as I progress through the piece and they are usually the make or break area. Should they not look right the painting can sometimes end up in the bin and I start again. At least at this stage I’ve not invested too much time!

For a bird the next area I would usually work on would be the beak. Along with the eyes the beak is the other obvious stand out feature on the face and as such it is really important that it looks right to give the bird a realistic feel.

Having painted in the two main features I will start to work my way systematically down the body of the bird. Initially I will put in some under tones using some base washes of colour. These need to be allowed to dry between layers so a quick blast with a hair dryer can speed things up. They are applied with a constant reference to the photo, even at this first level it is important to start to build up the darker and lighter areas.

I may sometimes apply more than one base wash to achieve a deeper colour, for the wren I left it at one and started to work on the first layer of detail using a tiny 00 brush and minimal paint.

There is nothing to stop you leaving it at one layer of detail, however I prefer to build the layers, working in progressively darker tones until I feel I have achieved the realistic feel that I am after. The photo below shows the results of adding a second layer to the face.

To this I added a further third layer of detail – it is subtle, but you can see the darker tones which are defining the shapes and depth within the feathers and facial features.

Having achieved the look I am after on the head I work on the same principal with the body and tail feathers, starting with a base wash and then adding finer details over the top in gradually darkening shades.

Whilst the legs and branch are different colours, my method is still exactly the same, starting off with a foundation wash and then building the depth and detail over the top. My final stage is usually to add the watercolour white highlights. I use an opaque SAA white paint, mixed to varying degrees of thickness and then applied sparingly at first and building very gradually. It is all too easy to get carried away and cover all the previous detail you’ve spent hours working on.

I hope that has given you a bit of an insight into how I build my work. For more details you can check out my PDF tutorials or should you wish to actually watch me paint, do take a look at my video tutorials on YouTube or my full projects available to subscribers on Patreon, or downloadable from Vimeo. All the links are here on my website.
Until next time – keep those brushes wet and wish us luck finding an active wren nest! Paul 😉