Monday and Tuesday saw our last brood of house martins fledge. The nest, by my son’s window has seen its fair share of tragedy with unsuccessful broods in 2020 and 2021. Last year was particularly tragic- the male disappeared when the nestlings were about two weeks old. The female could not keep up with feeding on her own and we were heartbroken to find her and her three nestlings dead in the nest in late September.
Fledging for house martins can be a rather protracted affair. After their first flight the fledglings return to the nest regularly for a few days and usually roost with their parents. As I write they are all back in the nest box being fed frequently by their parents. This period enables them to gain flying experience and map the local area. Within days they will be on their way to Africa.
This year we have seen at least thirty house martins fledge from our eaves, all from artificial nest cups. This offers some hope for the recovery of the house martin population in Gilling East and surrounding villages. Our artificial nests have enabled six pairs to maximise their breeding performance. After a very cold May set breeding back they were able to lay eggs quickly without having to expend valuable energy building a nest. I would hate to see a world where all house martins nest in artificial nests, one of the great joys of studying house martins is looking at individual mud nest structures, but for now needs must.
I have made many watercolour sketches of house martins this year. I find their bold markings irresistible with splashes of deep midnight blue mixed with sepia and Payne’s grey in their upper parts. Subtle colour on their white underparts are a challenge to paint especially as they are often depicted within the shade of the eaves. I have a large body of work on house martins now- I have always found projects on single species very rewarding.
They remain amongst my favourite birds. I don’t really do lists of favourite species, but some have associations with my past. House martins shared our eaves at our house in Hungerford where I made them chicken wire and gummed paper nests after school! I was fortunate to have them play out their lives a few feet above my head at break times at both primary and secondary school in Hungerford. We had them on the first house we bought in Westwood, Wilstshire, then through our time in Ampleforth and Gilling East, so I have rarely lived without them each April- September. They are a constant through my life and since attracting swifts way back in 2003 I realised that they were especially delightful during the relative silence after the swifts’ departure.
So as the last of our house martins inevitably depart in the next week or so I can reflect on a successful season. A season in which I have studied and sketched them more prolifically than ever. As we hear the last of their calls there will be a short gap before the winter thrushes descend on the village. These thrushes will fill most of the gap before the first house martins prospect our nests again in April. I will miss them but there are countless autumn and winter spectacles to be enjoyed in their absence.
All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022