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May 14th- BTO BBS 2021 and swift and house martin diary.

Yesterday morning my alarm was set for 4am. As is always the case I awoke before the alarm. The dawn chorus was already underway and there was a soft glow of light in the sky. I was up before dawn for my British Trust for Ornithology Breeding Birds Survey on the Ampleforth estate. It is such a rewarding experience to be out enjoying the countryside, so quiet, at this time of morning, while recording valuable data on bird populations. Many of the statistics on bird populations you hear in the media are down to hundreds of us who go out and gather information. On a local level it can be valuable information to protect threatened habitat.

I am lucky to survey an area with a wide variety of species. There was nothing particularly unusual this morning but it was reassuring to see familiar species such as yellowhammer, whitethroat and lesser whitethroat in the usual territories. The water colour below shows the sky at dawn looking east from Gilling. I had superb views of a fox as a bonus. After the survey I walked in the local woods and was delighted to find a spotted flycatcher, my first this year and a stunning male redstart.

Swift diary
11th- 14th May
Our swift pair is very settled. They leave one after the other at around 8am and return at about 7pm to roost. The mornings and evenings are too cool to offer them any insect food so they reserve energy by siting tight on the nest. There are one or two visits in the day to add feathers to the nest structure and very occasional fast screaming passes by the nest box but essentially they are off feeding as much as possible to gain condition for breeding.

The number of swifts back over Gilling East remains low. This is a common story across the country. I think we have around 20% of breeding birds back here. This number would include well established breeders and those that occupied a nest site before they were old enough to breed last summer. It is worth rereading David Lack’s Swifts in a Tower at this time of year. In the chapter Migration he describes the annual variation in arrival of swifts, it was just as unpredictable in the 1950s. What might have changed since then is the long term climate trend which could be influencing arrival times? While it was cold here in April we were surrounded by areas that were much warmer than average, including the Arctic. 

Today has been grey and cool and the swifts have not been seen at all since they left this morning.

House martin diary
We have two pairs established, one pair possibly laying eggs now. They come and go, but a bit like the swifts are absent for much of the day as they feed up ahead of breeding. There has been no sign of any new birds arriving recently. Soon we should expect some one year old first time breeders. They are usually easy to spot because they prospect new sites and ‘bother’ established breeders as they look for a place to settle.

Look out for male house martins as they try and coax a female to a new nest site. They fly down to the eaves in a graceful fast descent with tail held down and closed almost to a single point. Once in the nest or perched on a potential new site they utter a rasping “chi, chi, chi” call to the female. Sometimes she will land next to him and they ‘chatter’ or he will not succeed and will be left under the eaves calling, unable to see his potential mate due to the roof overhang.

It is lovely to have both species nesting on our house. They are a great combination and exist very well alongside each other. House martins tend to forage much closer to their nests when the weather is poor, so when swifts are away the martins are often close. We can watch them feeding around tree foliage in the nearby woods. This is a regular habit for martins, particularly in cooler weather or in the evenings. They fly right between the tree tops, almost taking insects directly from the foliage. Such maneuverability offers them an advantage over swifts.

 

May 13th, Gilling East, 4.50am
Redstart- Gilling Woods
Spotted flycatcher- Gilling Woods
Swift pair bonding soon after reuniting in nest box.
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May 11th- swift and house martin diary

9th May– our first swift returns to nest box 2. It (almost certainly a male) first enters the nest box early in the morning, rests for a while and then leaves to feed for the day returning to roost at around 4.30pm. The evening cooled quickly so the swift had little cause to leave the nest box, preferring instead to save the energy it gained from food caught in the warmest part of the day.

10th May– after leaving at 7.30am the swift is out feeding for most of the day. It returns early in the evening to roost. A maximum of three swifts seen above Gilling East today.

11th May– I awake to the sight of a pair of swifts in the nest box. The second bird (probably last year’s mate) arrived at 5.38am. The pair quickly settled on the nest and began mutual preening. They left to feed at 8.30am. This gave me the chance to sketch one bird’s face. Swifts can be easy to tell apart with a good view. This was the first bird back on 9th and almost certainly the male. I will make some studies of his mate tomorrow. To do this I use a telescope and sketch the birds as they look out of the entrance hole before they leave. At 10.30am 8 swifts were screaming in a tight flock about 200 feet above the village, a sure sign that the breeding birds are beginning to assemble; shortly afterwards our pair make a couple of very fast passes by the nest box. At around noon a swift brings a large white feather to the nest box.

I spent a glorious morning painting in the garden. It is dandelion time and I’m proud of our show of these cadmium yellow beauties, soon to turn to seed which attracts bullfinches, greenfinches and goldfinches. I made some cloud studies in oil and water colour. This was the first morning of the year when swifts could always be seen trawling the sky above the village. I am struck, as every year by the sheer distance they cover in a few seconds. We had several fast screaming passes.

While we relish having the swifts back we are also thrilled by the arrival of a second pair of house martins. They are using an artificial nest cup on the back of the house. The airspace above the garden is suddenly very busy and the sound of house martins and swifts fills the air. The morning was warm with some stunning cloud formations. Convective showers built up by early afternoon. As I write torrential rain and lightning is overhead, our swift pair came back to their box just before the rain arrived. It is an impressive storm, but I can’t help wondering how it compares to the thunderstorms they may have encountered over the winter in Africa.

 

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May 7th- still no swift and our single house martin

I still haven’t seen a swift. I have scanned the skies relentlessly to no avail. Talking to other friends with swift colonies around the north it does look like the north has fewer swifts back, though even in the south the majority of this year’s breeding birds are yet to arrive. When they do numbers could increase suddenly and dramatically; there must be a build of of swifts now somewhere south of the Mediterranean.

A single male house martin arrived back at our house on 26th April. He vanishes for most of the day, probably to feed over water, then returns at about 8pm to roost. On one occasion a second bird nearly joined him but with the arrival of more really cold days he has spent each freezing cold night alone. It seems that there was an initial early arrival of some house martins and since then the prevailing cold northerly wind has delayed the arrival of other birds. With a change, at least briefly, to southerly winds this weekend he may have a chance of attracting a mate soon…?

Our house martin, clearly eager to return and secure a nest, has taken quite a risk. He has endured some unseasonably cold conditions. Yesterday afternoon we had an hour or so of continuous hail with a few lightning strikes for good measure. The skies were spectacular as towering cumulonimbus clouds tracked south east across our area. Incredibly at about 4pm the temperature dropped to 2.7C. I simply don’t know how these birds survive sometimes. But yesterday evening after the storm had cleared he appeared and entered the nest to roost.

He is probably the male who left a female to tend to three chicks last September. He left with the main departure of house martins. Sadly the female and all three chicks died of starvation at the end of September; it was very sad finding four house martin corpses in the nest cup. But if you look at the situation objectively, he was saving himself to hopefully have a more successful breeding season this year. Had he stayed there might have been five corpses? I cannot prove of course that it is the same bird, but on 26th April he returned straight to the same nest and has not visited any other nest, so it does seem highly likely.

For now he awaits back up. There have been just 2-3 house martins in the village since 26th, all awaiting the next arrival. I will be writing a regular blog with sketches of house martin and swift activity throughout the summer. Do sign up to receive the blog by email if you would be interested to read future updates.

 

The artificial nest cup currently occupied by our first returned male house martin. The positioning offers superb views of the birds from my son’s bedroom!
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Pied flycatchers, redstarts and house martins.

Redstarts and pied flycatchers are back in some local woodlands. They are two species I cannot wait to see each spring. Both seem exotic in colour and song. Tolly and I went to watch them at dawn on Sunday 18th April. We soon found a male pied flycatcher singing near a nest hole. With the females yet to arrive he was singing almost non stop. The temperature at the time was well below freezing and buds were held tight on the oaks. It felt incongruous seeing this black and white gem with feathers extremely fluffed up, in a wintry looking wood while we felt the biting cold air. The black and crisp white plumage makes the male stand out like a little marker in a still, leafless wood.

Nearby a redstart, equally stunning was also singing. We had good views of it atop some birch trees, another male bird waiting for females to arrive. Redstarts are one of those birds I remember yearning to see when I looked through bird books as a child. In West Berkshire we were far from their strongholds in old oak woodland in the North and West of England. I literally dreamt of seeing one and today thousands of sightings later, each redstart feels as fresh as the first.

April has thrown at us a bizarre combination of exceptionally dry days with intense night frosts. This I suspect has held many migrants back, but yesterday three house martins returned to the village. One of them came straight to last year’s nest on our house. After a few visits in the morning it spent the afternoon making the most of the best time of day to find insects and was not seen again until the evening when it came in to roost. Its artificial nest cup was specially positioned so Tolly could see the entrance from his pillow and this morning, his birthday, he had the gift of a newly returned house martin! Hopefully the first of many…

Many people, especially in the south, have seen their first swifts. I have that pleasure to come. People exclaim “the swifts are back”; well, a very small percentage of the swifts are back. Swifts that will breed this year will keep on arriving well into the second half of May. Most years see several obvious arrivals of breeding swifts. Sometimes these can be dramatic with huge increases literally overnight. But for now what is here is the very tip of the iceberg.

As I stand in the garden as the evening cools I look for the first local swift. Evening time is a good time to look for these birds as they sometimes circle before they descend into last year’s nest site. It is a time to savour as the cool air is filled with the rich sound of blackbird song. This is the sound I most associate with seeing my first swift of the year.

 

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April 15th- spring at Yorkshire Arboretum. Observations from my artist’s residency.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at Yorkshire Arboretum as artist in residence, catching up on the many changes as spring progresses. A subject I have been really keen to paint is shadows of branches on tree trunks. From the start of my residency I began to notice the strength of tone in these shadows on larger oaks in particular. Tonally they are as strong as the branches themselves often continuing over the ground around the tree. They make a fascinating subject sometimes forming some really interesting shapes. It has become something of an obsession, the painting process feeling almost abstract at times although very much the result of life observation.

The shadows of bare branches are a particular feature of winter and early spring so I have been making these studies in anticipation of emerging foliage. It really teaches you to draw what you see rather than what you think you know. Painting a dark shadow of a branch on a trunk can at first seem daunting, but with careful observation of the subject you start to realise that this is what we see all the time. Next time you pass a large tree try looking at the shadows rather than the bark and you may see what I mean.

It has been a delight to be in the grounds as spring advances. A visit on March 22nd came after an intense early frost (-5.7C). By mid morning the sun felt really warm in a light breeze- one of those early spring days when for the first time in a long time you realise that you are overdressed. The goat willows were in full bloom and heaving with insects, especially queen buff-tailed bumble bees. Amongst them up to four small tortoiseshells nectaring on the flowers. I stood mesmerised by the sight, sound and smell. suddenly after a long cold winter the warmth hit me. The sight of the yellow flowers and orange tortoiseshells against a cerulean blue sky was a true tonic.

A single chiffchaff freshly arrived belted out its name from a nearby ash, those two rather plaintive notes repeated over and over again pure joy to my ears. I had good views and managed a few sketches of this restless bird. The lake has a pair of little grebes. I spent some time sketching these incredibly fluffy grebes with their gorgeous burnt sienna cheeks. Patient observation enabled me to find the nest site which will soon be hidden by emerging leaves.

We have had an intense run of hard frosts at night, in fact every night in April thus far has seen a frost to some degree. Although some days have turned reasonably warm the night time temperatures (and lack of rainfall) are wilting some plants and probably holding back a certain amount of bird migration. Swallows remain very scarce. I find myself gazing into the blue sky willing Hirundines and swifts to be here when I know that most are still days or weeks away. But there is no doubt, the season of sky gazing in a craned neck posture has begun!

 

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April 7th- rooks and snow showers. The anniversary of the start of sketches and notes from from Gilling East.

It is now just over a year since I began blogging regularly from Gilling East, North Yorkshire. All the blogs are available on this website if you want to read them again and compare 2020 to 2021. April 7th this year is a lot colder than the same date last year. No chance today of the first orange tip, recorded on this day in 2020. Blue tits were busy building their nest, no sign of that yet this year. Recent days have seen the most beautiful skies, cold, crystal clear Arctic air bringing snow showers over the valley, another stark contrast to this time last year when we were experiencing settled warm conditions.

I have not yet started to sort out a year’s worth of writing and sketching. I have painted hundreds of watercolours with 19 sketchbooks filled, including some very specific projects on skies, swifts, house martins and other subjects, but seen together this body of work represents a natural year around the village of Gilling East. I have always been something of a local patch naturalist but never more so than now. My art college dissertation was about my hero the Reverend Gilbert White who was perhaps the ultimate patch naturalist. His natural history of Selborne remains one of the greatest works of its kind; as I wandered I found myself thinking of him often. He would perfectly understand what so many have come to understand this last year about the advantages of being a local naturalist.

I can expand my horizons now as lockdown eases, but I find myself torn. Yes, I crave new horizons; sea, moors, estuaries and marshes, ancient woodland and wider skies, but the thought of driving to go for a walk now seems ridiculous! Through exceptional circumstances I have been forced to change the way I work. More than ever I simply go out and paint exactly what I want to paint with no thought as to whether it will be framed or sold in a gallery. This is how I will to continue to work, blogging on a regular basis as a major incentive to create and share new work. I have been both surprised and delighted by the response to the blog. Thank you so much for all the comments, shared sightings and enthusiasm over the past year. I may not match the continuous 125 day stretch achieved last year but I will be aiming to blog two or three times a week. 

I have been sketching rooks again. They are busy commuting back and forth from the rookery to the fields. This displaying bird was largely ignored by all other rooks around it. What a stunning bird to look at in bright early morning sunshine. The iridescence of its feathers constantly changing.

The cold weather has rather checked the rush of spring that was happening in last week’s warmth. Blackthorn blossom is just starting to make an impact locally, it is easy to see the colder spots where much remains firmly in bud. I love the flower bud stage of blackthorn, like thousands of tiny stars shining against the dark inner branches. With frequent snow showers and such sharp frosts I cannot remember such a perfect example of a blackthorn winter.

 

Heavy showers decaying at dusk- 5th April 7.45pm.
April 7th 2020- a much warmer day than April 7th 2021!
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April 2nd- hawfinches!

The Holbeck banks are gradually greening up with fresh growth. I sketched this scene at dawn on Wednesday. Skylarks, a chiffchaff, reed buntings and yellowhammers provided the soundtrack to the scene. As dawn broke there was a light, cool breeze ahead of a very warm March day.

I found some hawfinches on the patch this week. I heard them make their loud ticking call before locating them at the top of a poplar tree where they were eating the fattening buds. I had great views of them bathed in early morning sunshine.

The hawfinch is one of my favourite species to draw and paint; their proportions are extraordinary, cartoon like almost! I have to keep checking my drawing to make sure I have not exaggerated the size of the huge head and bill. The head is packed with powerful muscles which make light work of splitting tough seed cases to extract the kernels; I have watched them casually cracking sloe stones in autumn. Their plumage is very beautiful, the male has a blue grey bill in the breeding season which contrasts with the rich bronze head plumage. It is easily the biggest species of finch found in the UK and they were dwarfing the siskins and goldfinches that were feeding nearby. When I returned home the bullfinches were stripping buds on our neighbour’s apple tree. 

It has been a week of contrasts. Chiffchaffs are well established now having arrived in mid March. No suitable piece of habitat seems to be without a singing male chiffchaff at the moment. Meanwhile the sand martins are back on the Holbeck. We have a small colony in the village. We saw our first swallow on Tuesday, sleek, fast and so utterly different to anything else in the sky, a joy to see; but what weather awaits this early bird? The forecast for very cold weather on Monday and for much of next week will present this bird with a challenge if it is to survive to breed in late April or May.

Meanwhile as the first summer migrants arrive winter visitors are ready to depart. We have seen a few redwings this week and a flock of about 75 fieldfares. The fieldfares were gorging themselves on ivy berries ahead of their impending North Sea crossing, en route to their Scandinavian breeding grounds. Hearing their harsh “chack-chack” calls reminded me of their arrival back in October. These lovely birds have been with us for six months and have been such a welcome sight through the winter. I will miss them until I start to anticipate their return again in October.

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March 23rd- curlews back and blackbirds singing

This morning I awoke to the sound of a curlew making its ‘bubbling’ song as it flew over the village. In the time I listened to it I went from semi consciousness believing it to be a dream, to being wide awake and relishing the sound of each note. I have always been woken by bird song. Even back in my school days when I spent a lot of time studying spotted flycatchers in our garden, their thin high pitched calls would awake me from deep sleep before 5am as effectively as an alarm clock, continuing even through my teenage years! The sound of swifts screaming literally makes me to jump out of bed; when the first non-breeding swifts descend from their aerial roost and perform their first dawn fly-past I am dressed and outside within a couple of minutes!

We are very lucky to have some scarce species within earshot of the house; I have been fortunate to awake to the sound of turtle dove, curlew and cuckoo. Somehow in a sub conscious state my brain continues to react to bird song. As the days lengthen I wake earlier and earlier, the clocks going forward provide some relief for a while but I have come to accept that there is nothing I can do about it. But those early mornings have led to many of my most memorable and beautiful encounters of the natural world.

Blackbirds have really ramped up their song in the last couple of weeks. On warmer days they sing frequently in the afternoon but their peak singing times are early morning, around 5.30am and towards dusk at about 6.30pm. Recent twilights have been beautiful and it is mesmerising to stand outside at this time to watch the sky and listen to the blackbirds.

 

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March 16th- garganey and displaying lapwings

As I write spring is truly on the march. After a period of cold temperatures and strong wind we have a few settled days under high pressure. The frogs have spawned in the garden pond (9/10/11th March), the rookery is busy with nesting in full swing and one can almost expect to see a swallow fly over when standing in the warmth of the sun. It is of course rather too early for that but our first summer visiting migrants are arriving.

Tolly and I went for a walk around a familiar lockdown route on Sunday afternoon. The weather looked rather unpromising, cold, with blustery showers almost putting us off leaving the house. However, no matter what the weather we never regret a walk. We stopped to look at the last hazel catkins which are the plant’s male flowers hanging off the same twigs that hold the tiny crimson female flowers. These are so often overlooked, but once seen are easy to spot, like miniscule starfish tight against the twigs. Many catkins were strewn over the ground, dislodged by the recent gales.

Some lapwings were displaying in the Ampleforth valley. The males perform an impressive acrobatic flight with dramatic swoops low over likely nesting areas. In this display you could be forgiven for thinking they are black and white, but close views reveal dark alizarin crimson, iridescent blues and greens and a spectacular crest; surely one of our most beautiful birds? Up to eight were present and I consider it a real privilege to be able to see them so close to home. People who have lived around here for half a century will tell you that a few decades ago every suitable field had nesting lapwings. Unimaginable now, we have lost so much.

We walked on to view a flooded area near Ampleforth. I scanned the water with binoculars first and straight away saw a drake garganey, a pair in fact! It was one of those unexpected moments of true elation that sometimes comes when birding, perhaps especially during this long lockdown when we have been restricted to watching within a short distance of home. The garganey is a unique and unusual duck for like a swallow it winters in Africa and visits the UK for the summer. This was quite an early record particularly this far north. I went back yesterday morning to make more extensive sketches in watercolour. There is a pair of garganey on our patch, unexpected, beautiful and unforgettable.

Garganey studies- watercolour
Garganey pair resting in morning sunshine
Male lapwing in breeding plumage
Heavy spring showers over the Holbeck
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March 11th- frog blog and yaffle waffle

The frogs have been very active in the garden pond since Sunday evening. This has resulted in 7 clumps of new spawn. It shows how effective a garden pond is at bringing in wildlife; no spawn in the garden in 2019 and now the annual sight of frogs arriving to breed. In the nearby flooded meadow frog spawn is well developed after being laid a couple of weeks ago. For some reason the spawn in our garden is a good deal later. A grey heron has been taking spawning frogs from the meadow. These frogs are extremely vulnerable with virtually no cover.

Tolly and I inspect the garden pond with a torch each evening. We are recording palmate newts on most evenings as well as many frogs. The great diving beetles have also been active at night. Once you have a pond in the garden it is hard to imagine being without one. It brings so much pleasure and interest throughout the year.

The ragged robin and cuckoo flower plugs I planted around the edge are growing well and should hopefully flower this spring. I hope the cuckoo flower will attract orange tip and green-veined white butterflies to breed. It is a food plant plant for the caterpillars of both species so we hope to see the females lay eggs on the plants.

It is worth remembering when planning a wildlife garden that although nectar rich flowers are important you should try to provide food plants for the caterpillars of butterflies and moths. For example whilst it is lovely to see small tortoiseshells on a buddleia, to survive as a species they must have nettles on which they can lay their eggs, so try not to be too tidy and look at a list of caterpillar food plants as well as nectar rich flowers for the butterflies and other insects.

The ‘yaffle’ call of green woodpeckers is a very frequent sound around the valley again. It is a rather mournful sound to my ears but very beautiful. The call is particularly frequent in the first half of the morning. I managed to find a ‘yaffling’ bird in the dead sticks at the top of a diseased ash tree. I have not often had a really good view of a green woodpecker in a tree, so to view this male at length through the scope was a wonderful start to the day. They are very striking birds, a bird I remember admiring in my first bird books when they seemed almost mythical, so colourful but with that intense stare.