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July 25th- swift and house martin diary

The swift season is showing real signs of winding down here in Gilling East. This is a few days earlier than usual, but the summer has been so good for them and I think that all ages have probably achieved all they need to until next year. Any birds old enough to enter nest spaces have probably done so, younger birds have had ample good weather to build up a memory map of feeding and nest sites and have perhaps joined a colony in anticipation of next year.

Prospecting activity ceased well over a week ago now though we have been treated to some wonderful fast passes and some big high level calling packs of 30-40 swifts on occasion- exceptionally good numbers for Gilling. This number has almost halved in recent days.

We have had quite an influx of house martins though it remains to be seen how many second broods we will see. Two lots of fledglings still clamour into the nests at night with some taking over empty artificial nest cups too. I often wonder how the adults even contemplate a second brood with the young crowding into the nest.

Recently fledged house martins pile in at roost time and often end up entering swift boxes by mistake. Usually they encounter wild screaming from the rightful occupants and leave rapidly but last Thursday evening a house martin found itself cornered after entering an occupied swift box. The box has two 17 day old chicks. I think the house martin was lucky to get away with its life on initial entry as it was attacked; I fully expected it to be killed by the adult swifts, but the situation settled down after the initial hostility. The house martin roosted right in the nest cup with the two chicks and was often preened by the adult swifts. It had countless opportunities to leave unhindered. The swifts had plenty of opportunity to attack or usurp it after first light as it lingered until it heard our other house martins. At 6.53 am it casually wandered to the entrance and flew off unharmed.

What I find interesting is the wider relationship between house martins and swifts. I’ve had both species on three different houses now and the interaction between these birds is fascinating. I think this sort of behaviour probably happens more than we realised but could be nothing more than inexperience leading to misjudgement and timing. A few seconds later and the house martin would not have been cornered in the box and would have roosted elsewhere. In other similar situations young martins may have been killed by swifts? Perhaps the most interesting question here is whether another species (for example a young house sparrow) would have been tolerated to the same extent?

At times the airspace above our house is alive with house martins; adults and fledglings mingling with our swifts. After a very late start with poor numbers the population in Gilling East is looking much better, if still well below last year. As we are already seeing the departure of most swifts I look forward to enjoying the rest of the summer in the company of house martins. We will also have swifts until around 20th August as our later pair continue to feed their chicks.

 

House martin fledgling roosts in swift nest.
Many swift fast low level passes today but no nest site prospecting.
House martins prospecting today.
High flying packs of swifts now a common sight as large numbers prepare to leave.
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July 19th- swift diary

Well what a weekend! Saturday topped 30.7 Celsius here in Gilling East and the swifts responded with panache. The non breeders visited almost continuously in the afternoon going round and round, the noise at times almost hurt our ears. Fortunately in that heat we were able to stay at home and laze in the garden so a day of water fights, icy drinks and swift watching with the family was in order! Late in the morning some swifts began to dangle their feet to gain the cooling effect of airflow over their toes, something I have noticed that a proportion do above about 28C.

In another adaption for hot weather my first breeding pair roosted in the sky on Saturday evening, leaving their 31 day old chicks to roost alone in the nest box. I have seen this happen before but it is always a tense wait to see the pair return. They did so early in the morning, one arriving at 4.58am to be joined by its mate at 5.39am. After that it was business as usual. Their chicks are gazing from the nest box entrance often. You can see their white faces as they watch other swifts in flight and perhaps this is the reason those screaming parties pass so frequently at this time.

Strangely, Sunday although warm saw very little action until the evening. Swifts have their reasons but can be so unpredictable. Instead of the frantic and frequent fly pasts of Saturday the late evening saw noisy, large screaming parties of 20-35 over the village with about 15 passing very close to the eaves at about 9.30pm- one of the largest low level screaming parties we have seen here. The action has certainly escalated as we have gained more pairs as I have found with each growing colony at four different houses we have lived in.

Today I sketched outside on the lawn as the swifts repeatedly passed inches from me. The sketch sheet also shows a passing hobby; they give a mixture of awe and dread to those of us with colonies. They are beautiful and so impressive and I have seen them take swifts and house martins on several occasions.

It has been a magnificent few days, some of the best swift watching I can remember and I soaked up and will continue to soak up every moment.

Swifts at 9.30pm. Typical high screaming party towards the end of the swift season.
Sketches in the garden today- frequent fast passes, 33 day old swiftlets looking out of the nest, swifts with dangling feet and a passing hobby.
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July 14th- Swift Diary

Swift Diary
Our colony now stands at three pairs. We have gained on average a pair each year, though this is a bit misleading because the first pair bred in 2019. They bred again in 2020 but we didn’t gain any new pairs or even have any substantial interest in other boxes. This year our pair has been joined by two more pairs. They are all nesting in nest boxes alongside each other.

Pair 1- now with chicks 28 days old
Pair 2- first entered nest box on 9/6/21 now has chicks 5 days old
Pair 3- has occupied a nest box since 8/7/21

Today has been the best swift watching day of the year. Besides the three pairs up to eight carve up the air above the garden. Some very impressive low and fast screaming parties and prospecting of nest boxes. Swifts are attracting swifts and the airspace above our house is mesmerising at times with double figures of swifts and a similar number of house martins. The two species mingle well and circle together in threat when the local sparrowhawks visit gardens below them. At this time you can hear a swift’s alarm call, a loud single piping note.

I have been studying the ‘v’ display today. This happens when a bird is tailed by another, its wings are held right up in a ‘v’ shape. The displaying bird loses height quickly in this position so the ‘v’ is very quick, but it is beautiful to watch. We have no idea why they do it. I have seen it performed by one of a prospecting pair, but I have also seen it performed to another by a breeding bird while its mate was in the nest box.

The next few days look like being some of the best of the summer for watching swifts. We are probably just inside three weeks away from the bulk of swifts departing now. Imbibe every moment with these birds.

 

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July 6th- swift and house martin diaries and fledged flycatchers

Swift Diary
On Saturday evening a pair of swifts focused intensely on the rear of the house. The lead bird was seen to land regularly on a box next to pair 2, eventually going in. It tried several times to lure the mate in. She(?) banged the box several times but failed to enter. I think the first bird roosted, but when they roost alone these birds often leave the nest box in the dark to roost aloft.

Next morning the pair was soon reunited and both entered the box. They settled quickly and certainly look to be a third pair for our house as they are still in and out today. It is thrilling to see the colony expand with more swifts still passing the boxes today. The flypast activity today is superb despite rain and cloud and it really feels like I am watching the makings of a solid colony. This is the fourth house we have lived in where we have started swift colonies- Westwood, Wiltshire and Thornton in Craven, Ampleforth and Gilling East in North Yorkshire. In all cases I had nesting swifts within two years. I have stuck to the same basic box designs, roughly shoe box sized with slightly varying front entrance designs.

I experimented this year, playing calls softly on the opposite side of the house to the breeders. Swifts did look here, but both new pairs have chosen boxes next to each other to the right of the breeders- on the opposite side from the calls. I really dislike listening to recorded swift calls and I will not be playing them at all from now on- it was clear to me this year that the pull of an existing pair is far greater. They are of course really useful, essential in most cases for first attracting swifts.

The latest pair is in a Schwegler 17 box. This type has been a consistent favourite, of bought designs. All my boxes in Wiltshire and three different villages in North Yorkshire have used a front entrance design. This seems to offer an advantage of good visibility as the birds leave and when entering they fly straight in without clinging or perching. 

Meanwhile our most established pair has young about twenty days old and our second pair which first visited the box on 9th June is incubating eggs due to hatch in about three days time. It has been a very successful season here with a good increase and fantastic stable weather through June, unlike the challenging conditions of the same period in 2020.

July has started wet with 55mm of rain already, but it has been warm and non breeding birds have not had to move away as they did in late June 2020 (for two weeks). I am relishing every flypast mindful that the mass departure of swifts is now less than a month away.

House Martin Diary
Our two pairs are successfully feeding young. One nest should see young fledge within the next day or two. To my knowledge this will be the first nest to fledge young in the village this year. Numbers remain very low although for the first time in days there were signs of prospecting by a pair. Perhaps very late arrivals or birds from a failed nest?

The spotted flycatchers fledged last week. It looks like they will try for a second brood with the male singing by the nest site again. This pair wasted no time, nest building and laying in poor conditions in May and so this has left them plenty of time to raise another brood. What a privilege to be so close to these now scarce summer visitors. Their quiet presence and beautiful flight is an absolute joy.

 

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July 2nd- swifts nest building and exhibition at Nunnington Galleries

It has been a very busy swift day, distracting as I tried to prepare for tomorrow’s Meet the Artists event at Nunnington Galleries. Each time I tried to start something the swifts screamed in again, I find it impossible to ignore them!

The birds in the sky today were probably some of the youngest swifts in the air, some almost certainly fledged last summer. I noticed small groups dropping to eaves across the village at completely new sites where no swift nests exist. These younger parties seem to roam around; when they arrive at your colony they criss cross everywhere piling into the eaves and making high speed passes, but within a few minutes they can vanish completely having moved on to look at another potential colony to join.

Older non breeding birds lingered around the colony for most of the day, prospecting seriously at times. This included some examples of single birds prospecting. I think these are the birds(males?) that are really serious about finding a nest site. Having done so they will attempt to lure a mate in, perhaps this year, but quite possibly waiting until next year. Some non-breeding pairs build a nest together to use the next year but alternatively some single birds enter a nest site and lure a mate in the following year.

Meanwhile our second pair of swifts is 15 days into incubation and by swift standards collecting ridiculous amounts of nest material. They were coming in today with pieces of grass at least 30cm long, bunched at times. These pieces of grass were probably gathered when lifted by the wind from a freshly cut field or roadside verge. Swifts stop nest building as soon as the young hatch but this pair has added more material than I have seen in any other nest I have watched. There are feathers and grass strewn across the nest box.

Meet the Artists event at Nunnington Galleries

I will be showing many swift sketches along with other bird sketches and plenty of landscapes at Nunnington tomorrow and Sunday, open 11am- 4pm each day. If you are in the area do come and chat. It is always a pleasure to talk about swifts; I feel very fortunate that my art has become a useful tool in my own efforts to conserve swifts and other species.

Here is a small selection of the work on show this weekend. I will be sketching swifts on the spot as long as Nunnington’s swifts perform!

Lapwing in floodwater. Watercolour.
Barn owl near Gilling East. Watercolour.
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29th June-Swift and House Martin Diaries.

Swift Diary

29th June- easily the busiest swift day of the year here, we were bombarded by dark crescents almost continuously between 6.30- 11am. It took a while attracting a second pair of swifts to the house, but activity has really ramped up since. With both pairs of breeders in their nest boxes up to five birds hurtled around the house. Two of these birds appeared far more serious- they were probably older and alighted on nest boxes with a confidence not yet bestowed on the others, lingering to have a good look at breeders’ and empty boxes alike. This pair returned again and again.

They performed the tightest circuits and some of the most impressive aspects of swift flight. Amongst my favourite swift flight displays is the steep, tilting, wing quivering approach of a bird leading another towards a potential nest site. We saw this often. If I thought swifts were predictable, which I know they are not, I would predict another occupying pair this summer…

It was an unforgettable morning, distracting in the best possible way. Well I am so lucky to be able to call such a morning on the lawn with my sketchpad, work; so I worked (!) very hard all morning, playing with swift shapes on paper. High above a pair of RAF Typhoon pilots did well, but were easily out manoeuvred by the swifts’ insect propelled display down below.

Very predictably the action dwindled towards midday as the swifts climbed to feast on the abundance of insects. Now as I write they are passing the eaves regularly again, obliterating the sound of young finches and tits around the garden as they scream past. I think swift wise this evening could be the best of the year so far, so to sit outside with a beer and a sketchbook is my idea of a good result!

House Martin Diary
Our two pairs are feeding their young at an incredible rate now, returning with insects every minute or so. I love to watch their graceful flight curves as they swoop down to the nest, landing in the perfect position to shove food straight into the bright orange gapes of their offspring.

While we are thrilled to have two pairs of these lovely birds, if I look around the village and other villages I see terribly depleted populations of house martins. We don’t know the cause, I have a suspicion that a poor breeding season here last summer has something to do with it, but it is clear to see that house martins (and swallows) are no longer the common birds they used to be. Living near them can give you a false impression of abundance , but I have seen sharp declines and abandoned nest sites throughout this area.

Please if you know people with house martins, tell them how lucky they are, educate them, offer to clean up the droppings, ask them to put up artificial nest cups, anything to help these once common summer visitors. Truly you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Swifts and RAF Tyhpoon
Swift activity. Sketchbook page featured in Charles Foster’s The Screaming Sky.
House martins feeding young.
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June 25th- surprising swifts

Swifts continually surprise me, to the extent that I am no longer surprised by them! Today, as I write at 11am it is 13.3C with continuous drizzle and a strong northerly wind which is really blowing the trees around. To my great surprise the swift activity here has been frantic all morning. The activity is multi layered. If I look up now there are swifts hanging, faced into wind and feeding high up in a leaden sky, while at lower altitude they easily negotiate strong eddies around the house to scream past the nest boxes. There are swifts at different heights between approximately 10-200 feet. When a breeder returns to feed chicks or change over incubation duty the younger birds slam in behind them, sometimes landing on the nest box entrance.

The first photograph shows this morning’s watercolour with the backdrop of some of our nest boxes. I deliberately tried a few different designs when we moved here, but decided to avoid bottom entrance boxes with a drop of just 4.5 metres. The first box to be used, the second summer after we moved in, was the box to the left of the window. The swifts have to make a sharp 90 degree turn to enter. The window, even when wide open does not present a problem. Perhaps my main motivation for positioning this box was to sketch some dramatic manoeuvres as they approach. The views of swifts are spectacular from the window. This design has proved successful and I have watched several young fledge from it with no problems. I put the box up on 21st July 2018 and a pair was in it by 23rd July!

This morning I sketched swift silhouettes; today they really do look black, against pewter clouds it is impossible to see even a hint of brown. They look menacing as they approach, my heart rate rises as they scream a few inches over my head. This morning saw the largest number swifts I have seen above the village this year, so perhaps there has been an arrival of younger birds or perhaps conditions here for some reason are suiting more transient birds who are lingering for a while. Either way I’m going back out now to enjoy the action, wrapped up in warm a fleece!

Look closely and you can see a swift about to enter a nest box by the window!
The first nest box to be used on our house.
Swifts in strong northerly wind- 13.3C, continuous drizzle.
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Swift Diary- perfect nest building weather and an arrival of non-breeders.

A wonderful day of swift watching, thus far. The new incubating pair brought in lots of nest material today. These are perfect conditions for nest building swifts. It was warm but more significantly it was windy. Materials get blown into the air and held there in warm updrafts so at times the swifts were returning with long strands of grass up to c30cm long, giving them a long-tailed silhouette. Another favourite nest material is feathers and frequently they returned with a white feather in beak. This gives them a moustached look especially as they approach head on. 

There was an arrival of younger birds today, their behaviour different to the older non breeders. There were lots of fast screaming parties and more random visits to the eaves. I think it will be a very noisy later this evening in the garden as these young birds join with some breeders to show their aerial prowess. Exactly a year ago we had a big arrival of non breeding swifts. I had so many low level fast passes during the evening that I began counting. They were generally made up of 3-7 swifts and incredibly I recorded 104 fly pasts below eaves height in the two hours before dusk!

With more younger birds around watch for the dusk ascent of non breeding swifts going to roost and the late return of breeders as they drop down into their nests. The breeders have regularly been coming in to roost at 10.20pm or later in recent days. Those with chicks often leave for a last forage at 10.10pm or even later. Enjoy every moment of these mid summer swift evenings, in our garden we watch dozens of pipistrelles emerge from a neighbour’s roof before the swifts have retired. Song thrushes sing late as the tawny owls tune up and the scent of honeysuckle fills the warm air.

 

Swifts returning with grass and feathers- 23rd June.
Fast, low level screaming party- 23rd June 2020.
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June 21st- spotted flycatchers feeding young and Swift Diary

We feel so lucky to have a pair of spotted flycatchers nesting close to the garden. This pair arrived in May and wasted no time at all. Now they are feeding young. Their needs seem to be few in terms of territory. They collect most of their food it seems within a very small area, literally two or three gardens. They very rarely visit our garden even though we are well within 100m of their nest. Considering this it does really make you wonder why they have declined so drastically to the point of being red listed? But it is a delight to watch them, such proficient aerial insect hunters and all being well there will be some very precious flycatcher fledglings around soon…

Swift diary

We currently have two breeding pairs, one our established pair feeding six day old chicks the other now incubating two eggs having first entered a new box on 9th June. The last week has been cooler than the first half of June, but we’ve seen plenty of activity and I expect this will really ramp up when younger non breeders arrive. Last year there was an obvious arrival of younger birds on 23rd June though it was short lived and they departed for two weeks due to bad weather on 26th June, returning on 10th July.

Our new pair has learnt incubation quickly. Their change overs are rapid and the eggs are rarely left uncovered. They first entered the nest box on 9th June and now they are incubating two eggs. They have not added any nest material until today, indeed they have even expelled feathers provided by us in preference of a bare nest mould. The mould is a very effective, quite expensive Schwegler woodcrete one, but talking to friends who watch bigger colonies it seems that this behaviour is down to individuals. Swifts often add material to the structure throughout incubation stopping as soon as the eggs hatch. Sometimes it looks as if they do it to relieve the boredom while they sit on the nest for extended periods! Two weeks ago we had one pair of swifts but change can indeed be swift in the swift world and it suddenly feels like we have a small colony in the making. 

Watching the swifts over the weekend I was struck as always by how low they drop to gain flying speed. Whilst we know they could leave the nest on a much more level trajectory, as most fledglings swifts do, it seems the adults deliberately choose this low path before gaining height. Perhaps gaining speed assisted by gravity gives them the highest chance of escape if a predator were to spot them or perhaps this is the most efficient way of gaining flying speed, or perhaps both? Whatever the reason their departures low above the lawn result in some spectacular views. They are very often at leg height before climbing higher and sometimes you can literally look them in the eye as they pass.

Yesterday evening one of our pair feeding young returned to the nest at 10.23pm after a late food gathering foray. Midsummer is here, there are perhaps six or seven more weeks of the peak swift season. Beyond that time only late breeders are likely to linger. So now is the time to relish every swift sighting; store them in your memory for the largely swiftless nine months ahead. 

Spotted flycatchers- Gilling East.
Swift returning to roost on midsummer’s eve eve- 10.23pm.
Swift, very fluffed up, incubating two eggs.
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June 17th- a second pair of swifts and dabchicks at the arboretum

I had a delightful encounter with a family of little grebes at Yorkshire Arboretum lake on Tuesday. They were swimming amongst bright green weed and seemed to be eating tadpoles. The lake is looking stunning, bordered by flag iris and currently attracting large numbers of azure damselflies. Also present were four-spotted and broad-bodied chasers and several emperor dragonflies.

I will blog from the arboretum very soon but if you have the chance to go at the moment it is looking very beautiful with trees at their early summer best and so much of the grounds now areas of meadow with orchids, ragged robin, buttercups and ox eye daisies to name but a few. A newly fledged family of redstarts was near the perimeter wall. As far as I can tell there were at least two pairs of these stunning birds breeding in the grounds, probably three.

We are approaching the end of a time when I simply can’t paint or see enough! March through to early June sees summer migrants arrive and so many species breeding. Plants, insects and mammals all vying for my attention. There is simply too much to paint. I only scratch the surface. I am just at the point where I am asking myself what might I not see now before it is too late this year. I haven’t seen a cuckoo this spring. I heard one distantly, but not one sighting. There might still be time with an early morning visit to the moors…

Swift Diary

I thought I’d start by setting the scene for the swift and house martin activity here. It also shows how different nest box designs are used. When we moved here in 2017 I wanted to experiment with some different aspects and designs of swift box. Traditionally most birds in this area nest under pan tiles just above the gutter. 

The photograph below shows a section of our eaves. Red is occupied swift boxes, blue is occupied house martin cups and brown is a swift box occupied by tree sparrows. The first swift box to be used (2019) was the left hand box. The swifts make dramatic 90 degree turn to enter the box parallel to the wall and have no problems negotiating the flight path, even when the window is wide open. The latest swift box to be occupied (right of the window) is a self made variation on a typical ramp box with a side rather than bottom entrance.

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Our new pair which first visited the nest box on 7th June this year have just laid an egg! They were mating on the nest last night and a dropping appeared near the nest cup this morning- a real clue that an egg is on the way, as adult swifts rarely defecate in the nest area except before laying eggs. They have not added a single piece of nesting material to the Schwegler nest mould- the egg is laid on bare woodcrete. The pair have gone completely silent since first entering the nest box. They are about three feet away from my existing breeding pair who are feeding young chicks. This pair does not react at all to screams from the new neighbours, seemingly showing complete acceptance. I suspect that my new pair will have known the breeders for two or even three summer seasons, but as ever with swifts it’s guesswork.

I will be interested to see if the new pair start to add nest material as they incubate. All being well, assuming they have two eggs they will fledge young around 19th August, so we will have swifts for a couple of months yet. In my experience these late breeding birds mingle with house martins quite a lot so the two pairs on our house will be good company for them as extra eyes for danger and as locators of good feeding areas.

It has taken two years from having our first breeding pair to attract the next. I continued to play calls on the other side of the house but the new pair chose the box next to the existing breeders where no calls were played. Personally I cannot wait to dispense with the calling system and I won’t play it anymore now. I love to hear the natural sounds of swifts. In my experience if there is a reasonable population locally, boxes fill without playing calls once you have one and perhaps especially more than one pair.

You could be forgiven for thinking we don’t have swifts recently. Once they took possession of the box screaming fly-pasts and landing on the breeders’ nest box stopped even in perfect swift weather. I am quite sure the new pair, nest site selected, threw all their energy into breeding. I think we will have to await a further wave of younger non-breeders to see anymore action now. But, it’s a lovely feeling knowing that a colony is forming.

If you have a drink outside at the nearby Fairfax Arms you will now be able to see swifts and house martins above our house. I hope the experience is enhanced for many by the sight and sounds of increasing numbers of swifts and house martins in the airspace above the pub as they approach and depart from our house. This week the Fairfax Arms joined the club and with a little persuasion from me put up two swift boxes. When we help swifts and house martins we are adding to the soundtrack of summer for so many people even if they don’t know it.

 

Little grebes at Yorkshire Arboretum.
Swifts and house martins above the studio.
Male redstart at Yorkshire Arboretum.
Swift coming in to roost- 10.05pm.