Swift boxes

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For a couple of years now Jo and myself have been thinking about putting up swift boxes on our house.  We have breeding swifts in our village and felt that boxes may be successful.  Unfortunately our house isn’t suited to swallows and it has smooth render, so despite our best efforts with false boxes we can’t seem to encourage house martins either.  So maybe it will be third time lucky with swifts!

“The swift is a medium-sized aerial bird, which is a superb flier. It evens sleeps on the wing! It is plain sooty brown, but in flight against the sky it appears black. It has long, scythe-like wings and a short, forked tail. It is a summer visitor, breeding across the UK, but most numerously in the south and east. It winters in Africa.” RSPB 

“But….swifts are in trouble. The UK has seen numbers plummeting, with a 53% decline between 1995 and 2016.” RSPB

So spurred on by the RSPB Love Nature campaign to have 1000 extra swift boxes up before the birds arrive back from Africa this month I took to researching how to make them.  If you know me you will already know that I didn’t want to buy the boxes, I wanted to make my own instead. I enjoy a bit of woodwork, I’ve made 100+ bird boxes, so a few swift boxes shouldn’t be difficult…….or so I thought!! I immediately came upon the Bristol Swift Project and their fantastically informative website full of information on box designs, things which have worked and things which haven’t. 
I had to choose from a standard style that you fit underneath your eaves, or a side of the house design or even a swift row of boxes so three boxes in one, a terrace!
I decided on the standard, under the eaves type, so armed with their plans I was off!

Plans – from Bristol Swift Project

I ordered a couple of sheets of 18mm plywood from a local builders merchant. The wood arrived a few days later, unfortunately there were some really bad knocks where the skin layer of plywood had been damaged, so they came and took it back! Good job really, the wood I ordered was too thick as it should have been 12mm …….that part was my fault!
Fortunately we have a friend within the village who offered to fetch a couple of 8′ x 4′ sheets of plywood from a local store, this time 12mm!
When I finally studied the design and marked out one of the sheets of plywood, I thought ‘well that’s weird, on the diagram I should be using half a sheet of ply for each box, why do two boxes take up just a third of one sheet?’ It turned out I had misread the main sheet size and now had far too much plywood!

Oh well never mind, I got cutting the sections I needed and decided to make four boxes, just so we have a couple spare.
All pieces cut for four boxes (ample plywood left over, hence the barn owl box last week….!! ) I assembled each one by pre-drilling, countersinking and sanding.

The hole was made as a ‘D’ shape to a rough size of 30mm. The ‘D’ shape is an idea that the Bristol Swift Project came up with, again through their many years of extensive research.

I cut a small square block of 18mm wood, routered out the inside to create a little bowl all ready for any eggs and to help prevent them rolling away. Swifts don’t make a nest as such.
I decided to add a partition inside, the Bristol Swift research suggests that swifts prefer to go around something to get to their nest.

The next stage was to alter one of the sides to create a drop down door where I can fix a camera, ready for spotting any birds (we can but hope). All I need to do is attach a cable to the camera when and if we see swift activity.

Finally I just had to paint them all, the outside a cream colour the same as our exterior walls and the inside a matt black (thank you to Danny for the paint and collecting the wood). Again the experience of the Bristol Swifters suggests darkened boxes are preferred.

The last thing was to get the double extension ladder out and fix two of the boxes either side of a bedroom window.

I know…. we will get the noise but we are more than happy with that if it helps the population of swifts.

Finally I bunged some sponge in the doorways, we don’t want our mass of house sparrows making a home in these boxes…..they will you know!! Now we sit back and wait…..I’ll be sure to let you know if we get swifts in our boxes – keep your fingers crossed for us. 🤓

A Barn Owl Box

I have always loved painting barn owls, they are stunning birds with such beautiful colouration in their feathers – particularly on their wings. They are perhaps one of our most easily recognised birds of prey in the UK. Fortunately they are now on the green conservation list which means they are in the least critical category. However, there are still only around 4000 breeding pairs, so anything that can be done to boost their numbers is always a very welcome addition to the British countryside. Many of their former nests sites have disappeared as barns are redeveloped. However, they don’t just live in old barns, all they want is somewhere safe and sheltered and they will be quite happy.

We are fortunate where we live to have barn owls quite close by, if we are lucky we will see one fly up over the back fields and off on a hunting mission. At other times we may seem them around a nearby barn in which we check for nests as part of our volunteering work for the British Trust for Ornithology.
We thought it was time to make a barn owl box ourselves and perhaps increase the population around our village even more. Having obtained permission from the owner of a local barn I set to work in the garage with some excellent plans from The Barn Owl Trust.

A few hours later, I had managed to construct my own box, complete with a handy hinged door for clearing the box out……should we be lucky enough to get anything in it!

By the time I had finished it was a pretty heavy bit of kit! The barn is fortunately not far away and we could get right into it with the car. We wouldn’t have fancied carrying it too far!! Now for the next fun bit, deciding where best to site it. We were faced with a massive barn with various entrances and therefore many options for locating the box.

The box needed to be at least 3 meters off the ground, that bit was easy. The barn is in regular use, but owls will easily adapt to this as long as their box keeps them well hidden. I had read that when an owl flies into a building looking for a nesting site, he or she will be trying to find a suitable hole not a box. So we wanted to make sure that the hole was also visible for an owl from the outside of the building too.

This was the chosen location and so the work of getting the box up near the roof began! Contrary to what it looks like, I was not stood on some handy placed tower scaffold, I’m actually up a narrow, rather wobbly ladder! I had previously constructed some sturdy stilts to sit the box on, rather than try and hold the box at height and somehow attach it to the wall. Now, it would have been quite amusing to have photos of how we got the box up here, but all hands had to be on deck instead!! Jo wasn’t spare to take photos as she had to hold the ladder whilst the barn owner, Darren, stood on the nearby trailer and lifted the box to me up the ladder. Good job there were no health and safety boffins around. 😉

The clearing out hatch (open above) was also handy for emptying in a bit of a base layer. Barn owls do not build nests, however they lay rather round eggs, so the base layer will hopefully prevent the eggs from rolling around too much.

We will have to wait and see whether we successfully encourage an owl to use our box, it will be interesting to see. Barn owls are a Schedule 1 bird, which means that we will need to apply for a special licence if we wish to actively monitor a barn owl nest….but we suspect we won’t be applying for that any day soon – the best we will probably get is a stock dove! We will of course keep you posted.
In the meantime, our grateful thanks to Darren for his help in siting the box and in allowing us to place it in his barn.

Until the next time, I’ll settle to painting a barn owl while I wait for one to take out a rental on our deluxe residence! Paul 🤓🖌🎨

How do I get started with watercolours?

🎨 Are you new to painting and don’t know where to start?
🎨 Are you wanting to try a new medium?
🎨 Are you interested in learning a new style?
Have you answered yes to any of these questions? Then this may be the post for you….read on and see if it helps. 🤓

First of all you will obviously need some equipment, and until you know whether you are going to like painting detailed watercolour, you may not want to splash out lots and lots of your hard earned cash! Above I’ve put together an overview of a basic kit which should get you started.
1. Winsor and Newton Student Cotman Pans
2. Masking Fluid
3. Pipette
4. Lamp black tube paint
5. Old brushes and a ruling pen for applying masking fluid
6. Mechanical pencil
7. Cotman Winsor & Newton Brush Series 111 (Size 00)
8. Rosemary & Co Series 93, size 1
9. Winsor and Newton Size 5 or 6 Acrylic brush for mixing
10. Opaque white tube paint
11. Putty rubber
12. Ceramic palette
This page on my website may help you too: Materials I use

So, you’ve got your basic kit and now you would like to start painting. I would suggest you start by watching some of my tips and tricks videos on YouTube or Patreon. You need to become familiar with the watercolour medium; get used to mixing your paints, build your confidence with how much water to add and work out which brushes work for you. Explore the different ways in which you can use your brushes. Have fun, play with your paints and really get to know them. Find out how your different colours behave – are they opaque, transparent or semi-transparent. What depth of colour can you achieve by layering your paint/glazing? Practice painting thin lines and detailed shapes.

Working on applying washes and painting just an outline and then filling it in, is a really good starter project. These projects give you colour mixing practice, they help build your confidence on applying washes but then you are challenged to paint a detailed outline with a very small brush. This really builds your brush control and will be very good preparation for painting future more detailed projects. I have a couple available on Patreon based on silhouettes, but you can easily make up your own versions of these – have fun and enjoy the process. Make your little projects into cards, bookmarks or little framed pictures, I am sure your friends and family would be pleased to receive them.

When you feel ready to move on to something a little more challenging – I would suggest starting with the robin tutorial. This is a completely free tutorial on Patreon – the video takes you step by step through every stage of painting this little chirpy chappy! I talk as I paint so you see every stage, I try not to use jargon and I explain everything I am doing. You will learn how to work wet in wet, to apply washes, how to layer your paint and achieve fine detail. I even take you through painting the wood and using watercolour white.
Alternatively this lesson is available as a DVD or a download. Or, should you prefer reading how to do something, check out the PDF version of the tutorial instead.

The most important thing is to make sure you have a good block of time to sit, relax and enjoy the painting process, preferably undisturbed for a good hour or two. Before I went professional a few years ago I used to try and paint for two or three hours a week, it helped me switch off from the normal humdrum of life. I worked on maintenance for many years so a means of relaxing after a physical week was important.
Always take your time and never rush a painting, you know I always say put the kettle on or take a few minutes away every hour. This way you will come back with fresh eyes and spot things which may need adjusting. Sitting close to a painting and working on detail does sometimes prevent you from seeing the full picture. Other than that have fun and ‘smile’, I even sing to myself………….preferably not on camera!
Your next challenge will of course be choosing what to work on next…..well that is another story altogether.
Paul 🤓   

Taking my own photos

I’ve always really wanted to take my own photographs of wildlife to use for reference photos for my paintings. Unfortunately I’m rather constrained by time and, as I would have limited opportunities to use it, I cannot presently justify the cost of a good camera with a decent zoom lens! I need extra hours in the day then I could choose to be a photographer and a painter. 😉 Occasionally however, I do get the time and this is what I do and how I built up to this way of taking photos…..

Whilst there are of course some fantastic photographers who allow me to use their amazing photographs for my paintings, being able to take your own photo and create a painting from it is just a really nice thing to do.
So for a sum of £250 (a few years ago) I decided to buy myself a bridge camera. I went for a Fuji FinePix HS20 EXR with a cracking little zoom. OK, on an overcast and dull day it simply won’t compare to a professional camera, but it does take some cracking close ups and I just choose a nice day for taking my wildlife photos! 📸

So what else do I need to be able to do this? A tripod and a portable bird hide! Well a tripod wasn’t a problem and not too expensive but the bird hide! Well, let’s just say a purpose made popup bird hide was sooo expensive, so what else can I use? Well…… goes…..

Now we have the ideal kit and I have my first bird hide set up in the garden! I know you are thinking ‘that’s a clothes drying rack and an old bedspread!’ Well, yes it is, but beggars can’t be choosers! I simply set up the clothes rack in the garden, opened it up, draped the old cover over the top and cut a few camera holes into it. I even had cushions 🤣 I sat behind with my camera and tripod and got some really nice photos of our garden birds!

The Mark II featured seating, more head room, some waterproof trousers, some pegs and even a bit of ‘carpet’!!

But then came the Mark III. Made with a garden cane framework and a bespoke cover made by Jo on the sewing machine, it featured various window slots, which were covered, when not in use, with net curtaining!! The whole thing was easier to set up, taller and very nice to sit inside, I even made a little table for my cup of coffee and biscuit!

Now the final bird hide is actually bought, are you ready for this, are you sure………’s a portaloo tent! Yes, it really is! This is tall and ideal to fit a chair and tripod inside and it’s even in a camouflage material! Unlike purpose made bird hides, this retails at a lot less and folds up into a small, lightweight bag.

You had better not be giggling to yourself, but remember it works and it goes to show you don’t need much to be able to take some nice photos of your garden birds. Just using you mobile phone through a tent hole (moving your hand very slowly) will get some nice photos too.

So if you take photos of birds or wildlife, do you have a homemade hide you can tuck yourself inside?

Until my next blog, bye for now,
Paul 🤓

Tubes v Pans?

As many of you will know I use mostly half pan blocks of paint. These are almost always Winsor & Newton and both student and professional quality. The latter have particularly good pigmentation, light fastness, transparency and colour! As the old saying goes, “you get what you pay for” – and in this case it is true.

Watercolour pan paints are made up from concentrated pigment and do last quite some time. Bearing in mind that I paint virtually every day, some of my pans are still the same blocks of paint from over a year ago! They become like old friends, you become really familiar with how the pigment works and its hard to tear yourself away from that familiar place and go with a different colour altogether!

What I particularly like about half pans is that you can really control your small washes of colour. You are able to fine tune the mix; each takes up very little room in your palette, so there is always space to try again with more or less water or a different combination of colours. Limiting the amount of paint in your mix will also ensure that when you come to painting you are not going to overload your brush with a well half full of colour.
Half pans are great for my detailed art, I have complete control of the colour and the loading of my brush before I even head to the paper!

Alongside my pan paints I also have plenty of tube paints, these are from a wider range of manufacturers; Winsor & Newton, SAA, Sennelier  and Daler Rowney.
You do have to be careful with tube paints when you first open them, they can sometimes have a mind of their own! The tubes are obviously full and opening a new one can result in a long fountain of colour! Once you have used your tube a couple of times there should no longer be a fountain but you may still get that slow run of paint coming out of the top. Lightly squeezing the sides of the tube will sometimes encourage the paint to sink back inside where it belongs. 🤓

Tube paints are certainly ideal for large areas where you need to be able to work quickly and have a good amount of paint mixed ready to go – a background or a large area of fur. For my backgrounds I tend to use no more than four colours, sometime three for a mottled background. I find using lots of colours can start to look a little muddy – but try yourself and see how you get on. Be careful though, using tubes can also be a way to easily waste a lot of paint. Try not to overdo your mixes and end up with way too much paint in your wells.

You will find that some manufacturers will give their popular colours their own name. Watch out for names like Intense Blue and Phthalo Blue, you may think you are buying two different shades of blue but they are actually the same colour! Like me, you will find your favourites and even if you can’t remember their name you will know how they work on your paper and how they mix with your other colours. But, it is really important to try out new colours and new brands – you never know when you will come across one that becomes your ‘new favourite’! 🤓

Do remember that all watercolour paints can be re-wet once the palette has dried up, even a few months later! Just add a drop of water and carry on using your paint; so if you have over squeezed a tube, don’t worry you can save it for another day!
It is worth noting here, that when your paints have tried in your palette it is a really good time to look at them and see the different tones that can be created with the one colour. The pooled area at the bottom of the well, shows the depth of colour you would be able to achieve with lots and lots of layers, where as the thinner layer of paint at the top replicates less layers on your paper. (This doesn’t work so well in plastic palettes and your palette also needs to be white! 😉)

Do you have half pans or tubes, or do you have both and if so what make do you prefer to use?

Until next time, keep those brushes wet (especially if you have dried up paint to use 😉.

Paul 🤓