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July 4th- swifts battling gusty winds and house martin update

This morning the weather has been very gusty with variable cloud. Initially I thought I had some older non-breeding swifts ‘banging’ on the boxes, but I soon saw that these birds were breeding adults with stuffed throat pouches trying to access their nests. The strong crosswinds did not suit their final approach and I watched many touch and go’s.

My heart almost stopped at times as I watched last second swerves away from the nest boxes, but all aborted attempts were well judged and the swifts eventually entered safely to feed their chicks. Sometimes adults arriving with food bolus for young circled deliberately to wait until the gusts subsided then dived in their boxes during the lull. Swifts although incredibly proficient fliers do not cope well with strong wind when in confined airspace. In this respect the house martins who share our eaves are much more manoeuvrable and able to come and go more freely.

Prospecting swift activity remains very sporadic at best in this area, tempered often by windy or rather cool conditions. Looking at reports across the country I think colonies further south have seen more prospecting days. This would not be surprising as the North being closer to the centre of low pressure systems has generally seen stronger winds and slightly cooler air. The clock is ticking now on the main swift season with less than four weeks to go now for most prospecting activity. I have found that we tend to have some later activity in the north of the UK, often well into August, but we are around two thirds of the way through the swifts’ time with us. Make the most of their presence.

We should see our first lot of house martins fledge this week. They look healthy and strong and ready to fly soon. We still have five pairs breeding(four with nestlings, one incubating) and it is a great joy to see them coming and going, but our house holds I think over half of the village house martin population. Numbers are a shadow of what they were just two years ago.

Young house martins and swifts have a very strange habit. They often call incessantly through the night. I can see no logical explanation for this and it is concerning that they are continually giving their presence away to predators. I have received credible reports of tawny owls predating house martin nests in this area and quite frankly I’m not surprised.

Another key predator of house martins in the nest is the great-spotted woodpecker which hammers open the mud nests to take egg or nestlings.  Predators are natural of course but great-spotted woodpeckers have vastly increased in number over the last couple of decades(partly fuelled by garden feeding) and this is yet another blow to precarious house martin colonies.

In the gusty conditions both species have been hunting for insects in the lee of the woods opposite our house. The nestlings are fed very frequently so this seems to be a very successful technique and shows how they continually adapt to changeable weather conditions.

All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

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June 29th- a fine swift evening!

When the weather is calm and warm, house martins and swifts form a collective swirl above our house. This can include the 15-20 birds that breed on our house, not to mention the swell in numbers when the non-breeding swifts visit. I like to think that it enhances other people’s lives as they wander along our road or see swifts screaming overhead from the Fairfax Arms beer garden!

I have provided some basic information on a sign by our gate so people can read about these birds. It includes a a basic identification chart- hand painted in watercolour of course! I am delighted to say many people stop to read it and take leaflets on swifts and house martins from a holder on our gate. It is perhaps particularly effective because they see the results in front of them as house martins and swifts come and go.

Yesterday evening it was a bit warm, the sort of evening you put on a jumper on at a BBQ! But my older son and I were sat out enjoying a beer and just taking in the scene. Honeysuckle and apple became silhouetted against a glorious twilight sky with breaking, dark Payne’s Grey cloud. We stood on our very solid picnic table and experienced full velocity flypasts within a few centimetres of our faces. Feeling and hearing the air being sliced by those sharp, stiff primary feathers.

As the light faded we suddenly became aware of another face just below the eaves. Tolly whose bedtime was long gone was enjoying the swift action(as well as eaves dropping our conversation!) from the landing window. We must be doing something right!

All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

Frequent flypasts by three swifts around 9.45pm. Very fast and low. Breeders duetting from boxes.
Three swifts in very tight formation. Painting swifts gives me a chance to indulge another passion- painting skies in watercolour.
The sign by our gate.
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Swifts in a typical English summer

We’ve seen some classic English summer this week with a variety of weather ranging from very warm days to cool breezy days and some periods of much needed rain. The youngest non- breeders put on a lovely show for a couple of days in the heat last week but have not returned since, so the colony is largely quiet again. Adults are brooding their week old young quite late into the morning in the cooler conditions to keep them warm, but there seems to be plenty of food coming in from mid morning on. All eight chicks on camera look strong and healthy. There are chicks in a fourth box but I don’t know how many.

The young non-breeders vanished last Friday after ripping up our airspace for a couple of days with their crazy fast passes and mad flings at the wall! The east coast of Yorkshire saw some southerly swift movement on that day. This is almost guaranteed when our yearlings go, but I cannot of course be sure why so many end up on the coast or where exactly they are from. I do know that they will be back when the weather improves from all but the very late July/ early August departures.

Some swifts appear to be bonded in flight before they have a nest site. They follow each other very closely and constantly and make the bonding ‘peep’ call to each other- this call or very similar is heard when birds first enter a nest site together. These pairs sometimes perform a display flight in which they quiver their wing tips while making the bonding call as they approach the eaves. It’s a beautiful flight to watch- often both birds wing quiver and call in unison. These pairs are likely to find a nest site this year and settle without breeding, perhaps building a nest. Such non-breeding pairs being older are now committed to the colony and do not disappear with the yearlings unless the weather is exceptionally bad. I can now watch this potential new pair fitting in to our colony and they have a ‘tagger’ who might be one of our 6th pair. He(?) follows them everywhere as he learns the colony feeding areas in all weathers. This could explain why observers often see flypasts of three swifts?

I have been delighted and moved really by the way this colony has settled down in the last three years- three pairs right next to each other and a fourth on a different side of the house. All were in spectacular screaming flypasts until incubation began, when the skies suddenly turned much quieter as they all started diligently tending to eggs then nestlings. This seems to show the importance of those joint flypasts in cementing the colony as a unit- but as ever this is speculation. 

I was privileged to sketch on stage and talk about my passion for swifts at a Welcome Back Swifts event at the Friends Meeting House, Pickering on Saturday afternoon. There is great work for swift conservation happening in Pickering, with boxes now installed on the North York Moors Railway engine sheds as well as many houses. Swifts were celebrated through painting, poetry, writing, harp music and song. It was a relaxed afternoon celebrating the inspiration and joy that comes from knowing swifts. Depressing statistics of decline were generally avoided and a like minded crowd were immersed in swift adoration. Thank you for inviting me. It was wonderful to see the arts used effectively for conservation.

All images and text copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

One of our fifth pair prospecting this morning? I hope.
Sketching on swifts on stage at Friends Meeting House, Pickering at the Welcome Back Swifts afternoon.
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An arrival of younger non-breeding swifts, 23rd June, three years in a row.

The morning started with a very early(4.23am) ‘screaming’ pass from swifts. I was already awake at 4am for a bird survey in Gilling Woods so it was a pleasure to witness this pass of birds that had roosted in the sky. It certainly awoke our breeding pairs who responded with duetting screams.

I knew immediately that new swifts had arrived, the start of the ‘third wave’ of the youngest non- breeding swifts. Remarkably here in Gilling East these new birds have arrived on 23rd June in 2020, 2021 and now 2022! I hadn’t dared to expect their arrival on the same day in June again, particularly after several days of good weather, but here they are, bang on time probably governed in a large part by light levels and hence day length- they know their time. It does seem beyond coincidence.

This was the beginning of a morning of frantic bursts of swift activity, most notably 7.45, 11 and 11.45 am. Even at established colonies this activity may only last 10-20 minutes- such high energy flight needs refuelling. The heat kept the action going and swifts piled in to the eaves. At such times I hardly know where to look let alone sketch. Swifts criss-cross each other sometimes a few centimetres from my head. House martins flit in between them and return to their nests to fend them off; one established breeding pair currently feeding nestlings immediately started bolstering the nest entrance with more mud, a reaction I have seen before. Swifts with their extra weight and forceful landing often knock chunks off natural house martin nests. It is a temporary hindrance and the martins soon sure up the structure, often making it thicker.

So how do we tell these are younger swifts, when essentially they look the same? By their behaviour. Suddenly there are more fast screaming passes, more random approaches and cling-ons anywhere and everywhere around the eaves! If one bird clings another often immediately joins it, sometimes landing on its back- they fall away calling wildly. Approaches to the eaves are much more random, from all directions, Suddenly you notice swifts on flightpaths you haven’t seen them on before. Dawn low passes are common causing the swift watcher to lack sleep! Ascending roosting parties grow in number overnight. From now these ascending parties are a beautiful fading sight and sound as the tight flock disappears into the twilight above.

I watch the new birds and try to fathom out what they are doing, noticing their practise approaches and first attempts to cling to walls or nest boxes, but accept that they are very unlikely to enter any nest sites this year. With each landing the young swifts learn a little more until they are mature enough perhaps next year or even the year after, to seriously prospect for nest sites and find a mate. I sit and sketch them raising the binoculars quickly to gain an impression of their brief cling ons.

For those of you playing calls and hoping to attract swifts, make sure they are playing between 7-9am at the very least. The swift sessions between 7-9am always seem particularly intense here, but on a day as warm as this with the swifts fuelled by abundant insects they may appear at anytime from dawn to dusk- but much more likely in the morning. Evenings here are more likely to see low level fast passes.

Around the summer solstice I record late returns of breeding swifts to their boxes. The record here is 10.23pm. I have recorded returns in this very minute several times and it has not yet been exceeded. In Wiltshire any returns after 10pm were late whereas the further north and west swift colonies are the later the returns, proving that their roosting returns are governed by light levels. The last few nights have been ideal for late roosters with cloudless skies. As non breeders ascend to roost aloft our breeders often join them up to a certain height then break off to descend at breakneck speed to their boxes.

It’s worth pointing out that all these observations are very much about this colony. Much will vary between different colonies, but much will be the same too, so I hope readers will recognise many times and behaviours recorded. Savour every moment of swift watching, for most of the UK the bulk of these birds will be departing in about five weeks.

All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2002

A late return at 10.23pm last summer. Equalled yesterday evening.

Swift prospecting a Schwegler 17 box.
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Swift, nightjar, woodcock and noctule.

A late night for Ptolemy, we arrived on site at about 9.35pm. On leaving the car we were immediately seized upon by midges but a short walk away we found ourselves in a light but cool breeze and the midges vanished, quite unusual for a midsummer nightjar session. A nightjar was already ‘churring’ sporadically from dense cover near the dusty forest track. In the dying light the colours of yellow rattle, red campion and hogweed were just about discernible in the clear fell. I was careful not to wish the precious light away as we waited for the first nightjar sighting. 

We positioned ourselves with a great view of the north west sky, our horizon the smooth hills above Ampleforth contrasting with the jagged skyline of pines to our left and to our right. The sky was beautiful, a sky indicative of a very cool summer night ahead- the temperature dropped to 3C in the early hours of Sunday.

A lone swift flew west, silhouetted against the remnants of sunset, labouring into the breeze. I pondered where it was going at low level as the light rapidly faded and came to the conclusion it was a bird from a local village returning to its nest to incubate and roost.

In the wake of the swift a woodcock appeared on its first roding flight of the evening, dumpy and calling its high pitched ‘squeak’, interspersed with frog like croaks. Such characterful birds to see, the wings almost look too blunt and short to carry its rather fat form. We had multiple passes from woodcock roding, on one of the earlier passes we saw it in the same quarter of sky as a noctule bat, also on evening patrol.

Then the ‘churring’ started. It doesn’t matter how many times you have heard a nightjar; its remarkable ‘song’ always feels like a new sound to the ears, both strange and beautiful. I raced to try and find the nightjar perched before we ran out of light. It was against very dark pine trees so scanning the dimming foliage was not easy. Although looking through binoculars you realise your scanning is very much guided by your hearing. I found it on a bare branch, the sort that is made for nightjars! We were in time to discern some of its beautiful cryptic markings and its big eyes before the light faded too much for our optics. So Tolly had his first really good view of a perched nightjar, he even watched it quivering its head at times with the intensity of the churring.

It flew from the branch, lost against the foliage for a while, everything now increasingly silhouetted. We could hear its wing ‘clapping’ display flight but only had glimpses as it stayed below the horizon. Some quick claps with two fingers on back of hand seemed to draw its attention and it flew nearer, on unmistakable slow mechanical wing beats, making calls too complicated for me to describe; just otherworldly.

The light faded and time had evaporated. Tolly’s bedtime was two hours gone as we finally had a view of it flying against the beautiful peachy glow lingering in the north western sky. After a couple more perched views and Tolly’s voice crackling with tiredness, it was time to go. An unforgettable evening topped off with good views of roe deer and badger on the drive home.

Swift diary
There is often a quieter spell around midsummer before the youngest non breeders arrive. These are probably in the main birds born last summer and they really shake things up! They are easily discernible from older birds by their behaviour as they tour round different buildings and practice approach and landing anywhere on the walls- for many probably the first time they have touched a solid surface since fledging. They are not here yet in numbers if at all; in 2020/21 both years they turned up on 23rd June, so I am in anticipation of their arrival this week.

They are very entertaining to watch, just don’t expect them to go in your nest boxes until next year! Sit quietly in the garden with binoculars and you can enjoy fine views of them clinging onto walls if you are quick. Often one follows another and will cling onto its back as it hits the wall before they fall away making violent ‘screams’. They are fickle in poor weather and may disappear for days or even weeks until conditions suit them again. This can happen several times while they are here and often coincides with big swift movements down the East Coast.

These birds reinvigorate ‘screaming’ parties which are occasional for now. On the first evening they arrived in 2020 I recorded 104 low level passes between 8.19- 10.14pm- an exceptional evening’s swift watching! They also wake me up as they descend to perform dawn flypasts having roosted aloft- the 4.15am swift alarm call, but what a sound to wake up to! Indeed these birds swell the number of sky roosting swifts. So for the next month or so we will, in fine weather see the maximum numbers of swifts in the skies above colonies.

All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

 

18th June, 10.38pm- a watercolour painted on return from an evening watching nightjars, woodcock, swift and noctule.
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June 18th- approaching halfway through the swift season.

Warm weather over the last few days certainly brought the swift flying action. After an early June with virtually no activity other than breeders coming and going, it was a joy to see some prospecting and screaming parties again.

I watched some classic mid June behaviour as younger birds (2-3 year olds?) hung on the entrances of breeders’ nest sites- these birds hardly ever attempt to enter. This behaviour may be as much about searching for a colony to join as nest site selection- they are clearly capable of landing on vacant nest boxes, but don’t. You can drive through local villages and towns and see the same behaviour everywhere, particularly in the first half of the morning. Thursday was one of those rare days when prospecting behaviour lasted throughout the day on and off, for example there was a very notable prospecting session starting at 3.20pm.

I’ve also been watching a quiet single prospector- this bird seems fixed on a box already occupied by tree sparrows. These birds are very distinct in their behaviour because they select very quiet times with no other prospectors around. They are often the only swift in the air around the colony and remain totally silent. You can see them working out best flightpaths- clearly a learning process. They have experience at landing on a selected entrance first time. We rarely have the chance to sex such birds but I observed this behaviour in an aberrant male at my colony in Ampleforth. I think it is a reasonable guess that most of these single prospectors are males selecting a nest site before they guide a female to it. In other words, potentially one half of your next pair.

The swift season has seasons within it. Currently we see breeders, some still incubating but most feeding chicks. We also see older non breeders some of which are searching seriously for nest sites to breed late this year (laying eggs as late as early July), but others are searching to occupy sites prior to breeding in 2023. I have spent time scanning high for swifts and house martins this week. A good reclining sun lounger is useful to be comfortable with the binoculars. Focus set almost to infinity, I scan the sky for feeding birds sometimes too high to see with the naked eye and tiny specs even through the bins. You can see them spiral down to your colony, a sign that the weather is good and all the swifts need to do to gather food is to fly straight up.

The best screaming parties are yet to come. Things always get shaken up when the youngest non breeders arrive. In the last two years this has been on the same date- 23rd June. After then colony airspace can be frantic with the new birds criss-crossing each other to fling themselves at the walls!

As I write a prospecting pair are checking out the house. They are clearly a formed pair, remaining close to each other continuously. One bird(male ?) leads the other towards potential sites. I hope this will be our fifth pair but they may select another site in the village. I have countless observations of swifts written and sketched, but no matter how much I record I always come up against the same two basic questions- how old are they and what sex are they? Swifts are a difficult species to study in the air for these reasons,  but one thing I never tire of is just watching them fly.

We are approaching half way through the swift season. There are always some late birds right through August and into September but for main colony activity this is pretty much half way. With six or seven weeks to go, make sure you imbibe every precious moment with swifts.

Event as part of Swift Awareness Week 2022

Helmsley Swifts 

 

July 9th 10am- 5pm, a free event
 
At N Galleries, Barker’s Yard, Helmsley YO62 5DR Tel: 07900 998242
 
Join artist and author of On Crescent Wings Jonathan Pomroy at this fine swift viewpoint as he sketches swifts from life. See recent paintings of swifts. Watch swifts in flight. Activities for children. Have a go at sketching swifts guided by Jonathan. Helmsley Swifts will be showing their work in the town and offering advice on attracting swifts.
 
 

ALL TEXT AND IMAGES COPYRIGHT JONATHAN POMROY 2022

Swift flight studies in watercolour- an hour sat on the lawn with A3 watercolour sketchpad observing swifts in flight, especially a prospecting pair that kept returning. This sheet incorporates some commonly seen aspects of swift flight including approach, feeding flight, maximum speed pass and the V wing display.
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Swifts, swallows and house martins- a summary of the season so far

Social media is awash again with concern about swift numbers. I can only report on my own area and similar observations from friends in various locations. What I can say is that during windy, wet or cool weather I am very familiar with swifts ‘vanishing’. Our own colony has four breeding pairs this year up from two last year.

Breeding swifts seem to be doing well. They are incubating without fuss, changing over incubation shifts within the normal time range. This means that they are finding enough food to sustain themselves and they are not having to leave their eggs uncovered. The question I would love to answer is where do they feed? They fly off low, quickly leaving the colony airspace. Then they have something like an hour to feed before they take over incubation duty again. I imagine that they have well ‘trodden’ circuits which maximise feeding potential. In the strong winds recently I have seen swifts and house martins feeding on the sheltered side of woodland, a well recognised feeding technique. Sometimes they nearly skim the tree canopy in search of insects which are kept close to the foliage.

Some older non breeders/first time breeders are here but they are reluctant to prospect in the windy, cool conditions. Many are probably feeding over water and roosting above it while the weather remains cool so won’t even be visiting colonies. Some of these birds would ‘bang’ breeders nest sites in warm weather, but I have only seen this behaviour very briefly(2/6/22) on a morning before windy weather really set in. Swifts, though amazing fliers, don’t cope particularly well in confined airspace when crosswinds and unpredictable air currents caused by gusts surround buildings; even experienced breeders can take several attempts to enter a nest site in these conditions.

First time breeders do not necessarily have to occupy nest sites the year before. These birds sometimes prospect(probably males) then attract a mate in. They have usually already found a mate and paired in the air at this point, so their prospecting tends to be efficient and often quick to result in possession of a nest site.

I have felt the lack of aerial displays keenly because for two weekends I’ve had visitors for open studios and I love to show them swifts performing low level over the garden- there has not been one flypast in two weekends. Fortunately we have had cameras on nest sites so they can see incubating birds but no birds have lingered in the airspace above the colony. In perfect swift weather a swift can leave its nest and ascend high to feed, it probably doesn’t have to go far simply catching insects high above the nest before descending for its incubation shift or to feed young.

I am very confident that when the wind drops and the forecast warmer air drifts up from the south swift aerial displays and prospecting will resume quickly. Every swift season is different but the amount of activity we see is very much controlled by weather conditions. Strong winds are one of the biggest factors influencing how many swifts we see- strong winds keep insects low. The last few days have not been particularly cold and with light winds we would have seen far more swifts over colonies. The arrival of the youngest non breeding swifts looking to join colonies occurred on 23rd June in 2020/21; it is only after then that we see the peak annual numbers and the most impressive displays people tend to remember. 

It still amazes me that breeding swifts can be so discrete and I can easily understand how people think there are none around or that populations are depleted, but as I write our swifts are all incubating, yet not one swift has lingered in the air above our colony or two nearby colonies this morning. For now the sky remains swiftless save birds occasionally arriving and departing to look after the eggs

Swallows and house martins
I would never be complacent about swifts, but as far as I can see they are doing well in this area. In our village we have seen a substantial increase in the last two years and Helmsley and Ampleforth seem very well populated. But swallows and house martins are a different story. Swallows have abandoned many former nest sites, which remain unchanged- they are simply not returning. The days of driving around countryside and seeing swallows around nearly every farmstead are gone for now. Similarly house martins have abandoned former nest sites which remain unchanged in many villages and towns. I wish I knew why? It could be a perfect storm of events or one single factor- we can only speculate.

We are very fortunate to have five pairs of house martins (up from none in 2019) but this doesn’t represent the wider picture. I have a feeling that isolated birds are gathering in ‘hub’ sites because they are colonial species. These sites can give a false impression that there is nothing wrong, but further afield a large proportion of former nesting sites are deserted due to the population crash. Recently when swifts have been absent the house martins have provided us with their summer soundtrack. In all but the worst conditions they tend to stay close to the colony and give us continued pleasure when the swifts are elsewhere.

It can be hard to find hope at times. It really does feel as if we are watching an extinction of favourite summer migrant species, at least on a local level. If we could identify the exact cause it might be possible to help their recovery, but if for example this is a result of our changing climate global and individual responses are needed. What you can do is provide some artificial nest cups for house martins and swallows and set aside areas for insects to thrive, not just flowers but cover where they can breed and rest. A pond encourages an array of insect life. Talk to others about these birds, enthuse about them, help people who already have them to know how important every nest is and tell them how privileged they are to be supporting an endangered species.

All text and images copyright ©️Jonathan Pomroy 2022

Watercolour studies of our house martins- 12th June
Swifts and house martins
Swallow studies
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Swift diary- some new swifts arrive and a brutal tree sparrow attack

At last, on a cloudy but warm morning more swifts arrived. Most activity was between 7- 9am with new birds landing on the breeders’ nest boxes provoking screams from the occupants. These birds are typical of the older non breeders who arrive now;  this behaviour could well be social rather than prospecting, if they were prospecting they could clearly land on empty boxes too, but they don’t. Perhaps they are swifts joining the colony and seeing who is nesting where- we just don’t know. Later in the morning a lone prospecting bird was seen exploring the eaves. These are often very significant prospectors, probably the older non breeding males who deliberately search at quiet times when few other swifts are around. They can sometimes breed in the same year if the weather is good and they can find a mate. For more on this see

https://jonathanpomroy.wordpress.com/world-swift-day-june-7th-2020/

Many people around the UK are reporting new swifts this morning. I was struck again today by how often they follow house martins in towards the eaves. They clearly feel more secure prospecting when house martins are around. We now have five pairs of house martins, a pair up on last year, which very much bucks the general trend in the UK. Our first pair nested in 2020- we put nest cups up in 2017.

A tree sparrow entered the nest box of our oldest breeding pair of swifts at 7.12am. It didn’t hesitate in attacking the swifts on their nest. It was an unpaired male tree sparrow- they often interfere more with breeding swifts and house martins, perhaps partly fuelled by frustration? The fight lasted well over a minute and was it brutal. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I could see that the three eggs had remained intact and all birds had survived. Below is a link to footage of the fight.

I block up the boxes until mid April at least but this has no effect on sparrows that move nest sites for their second and third broods or indeed the unpaired males that chirp incessantly from the eaves until mid summer at least. They are very feisty animals and often attack prospecting swifts, sometimes landing on their backs when they cling on to a nest box. It was a fascinating bit of behaviour to watch and a reminder that swifts have competed for nest sites for millions of years, before man made buildings there would have been competition for cavities in trees and rock faces. Such ancient behaviour played out in front of the camera.

North Yorkshire Open Studios

I’ve been working up some oil skies for North Yorkshire Open Studios this coming weekend. I’ve been using water mixable oils from the Winsor and Newton Artisan range and find them very rewarding to work with. They avoid the need for using turpentine and certainly make cleaning up much easier. I’m often asked whether I only paint in watercolour. It is my preferred medium but the oils make an interesting change. Some say it is an advantage to use oils and rework if necessary- being a watercolourist I see this as a disadvantage. I enjoy the fact that I do a painting in one sitting and try to treat oil painting in the same way. Hopefully this keeps the work more lively and fresh. Some of these skies will have added swifts when they are dry enough to work.

https://www.nyos.org.uk/jonathan-pomroy/

All images and text copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

 

Some swift sketches! All available to view at North Yorkshire Open Studios this weekend.
Four new oil paintings and various watercolours for North Yorkshire Open Studios this weekend 11/12th June 10am- 5pm
Lapwing in winter
9th June- new swifts here on a cloudy, mild morning.
Unpaired male tree sparrow continuously chirping from gutter. Attacked breeding swifts at 7.12am.
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Swifts quietly incubating and nest building

The first weekend of North Yorkshire Open Studios is over and a lot of people know more about swifts and house martins! I am guilty of talking far more about my subjects than my art, but I make no apology about that because the natural world inspires every piece of work I produce. For me the message is far more important than the medium.

The weekend was generally grey and cold. If I hadn’t pointed out occasional swifts coming and going to relieve their incubating partners visitors could easily think there were not at least ten pairs of swifts in the vicinity. Sadly there were no aerial displays though swifts were continuously visible on camera in my studio (thanks to my son Rupert for making this possible!).

But the eggs were continuously incubated which means that the birds off egg duty were finding enough food to sustain themselves. I would love to know where they roam on these forays which generally last about an hour. Almost invariably incubating birds return with nest material at the start of their shift- in this respect the weather has been kind. Wind is stripping fresh leaves and seed bracts from trees and the swifts are making the most of this airborne material. Many people were relieved to see these swifts having commented they are seeing hardly any. It is remarkable how breeding swifts can pull off this deception to even the most experienced observers and surveyors. Many people who monitor colonies are reporting numbers of breeding swifts more or less where they should be at this point in June. The good news at our colony is that we still have four pairs nesting- a 100% increase on last summer. 

Hopefully we will start to see more aerial swift activity when the wind switches from easterly to westerly this week. We are are near enough to the cold North Sea to really feel the effect when the wind comes from that direction.  Also we may see some non breeding swifts arrive if the temperature recovers. Their prospecting opportunities can be severely limited in some summers. 2021 was an unremarkable but good average summer and prospecting birds stayed by the colony for most days throughout June/ July and early August, however two periods of low pressure systems producing cold, windy weather in summer 2020 saw prospecting birds away from colonies for at least a month of their potential prospecting time. 

All images and text copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

North Yorkshire Open Studio demonstration. Fast watercolour studies of swift in flight.
Incubating swifts at the moment almost invariably bring back nest material when they start their shift.
Swifts nest building during incubation. incubating birds almost invariably arrive back for their shifts with nest material.
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An impressive flypast -) -) -)

As one impressive, but highly polluting flypast takes place over our capital city today there is no flypast I would rather watch than a group of swifts propelling themselves on a fast approach towards our eaves; they pass a few centimetres over my head, rock steady, making the house martins bomb-burst before they peel off just before hitting the wall. Today the weather has at last been injected with a little warmth. It has taken a while after an early ground frost(1.8C), but now the air is still and warm and the swifts are responding.

There has been a lull in low level swift activity around colonies during the last few days. Nothing surprising about that as it often happens when birds start incubating and the weather is cool, but this morning something is different. Some new swifts have arrived, many probably last year’s non breeders that occupied nest sites, though some of these are already paired and incubating eggs; most of these previous occupiers should breed, often several weeks later than the oldest birds that arrived in April/May. The arrival could also include some of last year’s older non breeders that didn’t occupy nest spaces but could potentially breed this year. 

When an arrival of swifts occurs there is often much excitement high above the colony involving newly arrived birds and those already here, and so there was this morning. Many of these birds will already know each other. Colony members of the previous summer will reunite and there is often a lot of chasing and sometimes high speed screaming parties.  

I am trying to prepare for North Yorkshire Open Studios which starts this weekend but the distraction is ridiculous. They time their flypast immaculately to coincide with me starting a task and I cannot not watch. Each pass is different, be it in numbers or flight path taken, the different sound of air rushing over wings according to speed or the make up of calls. Unlike the Red Arrows unrehearsed, yet impeccable in execution, millimetres from certain death against bricks and mortar, all fuelled by tiny insects.

North Yorkshire Open Studios- 4/5 and 11/12 June

https://www.nyos.org.uk/jonathan-pomroy/

House martins
We had a house martin taken by a sparrowhawk today. I bear no grudge against the magnificent female sparrowhawk that took the house martin in a very impressive back flip by the kitchen window this morning, but it could be the start of a new hunting behaviour. Sparrowhawks recognise new feeding opportunities. The loss of one house martin with the population so low is very significant. This bird is likely incubating eggs which will result in several weeks of wasted effort and quite possibly now one brood being raised in this nest box rather than two. Ever since the kill the mate of the suspected victim has gazed continuously from the nest box entrance. At a time of low house martin numbers this bird will have to try and find a new mate now and start the breeding process all over again.

All images and text copyright ©️ Jonathan Pomroy 2022

Swift trio flypast
Swifts and cumulus cloud