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 exactly 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.   

Still searching for Finbar


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

Eastern Greenland Filming Trip


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.