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April 30th- great spotted woodpecker and robin fledglings

A male great spotted woodpecker visited the peanut feeder this morning. There was no subtlety about his approach. He flew straight at the feeder making it swing violently from the tree. Smaller birds scattered and he dominated the feeding area until he had had his fill! Watching him feed was impressive. The power in his beak sent peanut shrapnel flying in all directions. They are impressive birds and always grab my attention, but I rarely sketch them, so it was out with the pencils and watercolours for another lockdown sketch tick!

Robins are fledging in woods and gardens alike. Their thin call notes are very hard to locate. The dark brown and ochre speckled plumage offers superb camouflage in the undergrowth. The adults will soon attempt another brood.

Today it has been cold again. As I write, hail pelts the studio roof. I am longing to see swifts and martins back over the village again, but until the weather warms up I feel happy that their arrival is not premature. Weather like this at the end of a long migration can be fatal to an exhausted bird.

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April 29th- redstart

A walk this morning in dull, grey conditions. Areas of bluebells and wild garlic in Gilling woods are coming to their very best now. The scent of both species filled the air at times. We had great views of a buck roe deer through the scope.

Despite the cold, birds were singing. We had superb views of a tree pipit singing at the top of a birch tree and occasionally watched it launch into its display flight. But the undoubted star of the show today, was a male redstart fresh in from Africa and back on its usual territory. I consider myself very lucky to be able to walk from the house and see this species. I first heard the bird’s melodic bursts of song. Redstarts often sing at the top of a tree and so it was this morning. A sadly demised ash tree was an ideal song post.  Behind it were the dark greens of the forest which contrasted beautifully with the bird’s plumage.

it was not quite in full breeding plumage and will continue to develop more black around its face, but what a bird! In the cold conditions, it was often puffed up like a Christmas robin! We were certainly ready for a hot drink and a warm up having spent half an hour taking it in turns to view the bird through the scope, but we returned home glowing from the sight we had seen.

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April 28th- swift and house sparrow

A single swift was above the village again this morning. It seemed strange standing outside on what felt like a Winter’s morning (7C with leaden skies) while watching a swift. It was cruising around very slowly, conserving energy. Through the binoculars I could clearly see that its body feathers were very ‘puffed up’. I am fairly sure that this bird has returned to nearby Gilling Castle, where a few pairs nest in the old stonework. It remains the only swift in the village for now.

Tolly and I went for a walk to see the sand martin colony this morning. It was surprisingly active given the cold weather, with three pairs feeding low over the river and occasionally investigating the banks. At least six swallows and a pair of house martins joined them.

On our walk back we stopped to watch a male house sparrow displaying. The display involved loud chirping and extreme ‘puffing up’ of its plumage. The back feathers were raised and breast and flank feathers loosened to exagerate the bird’s size. A truly beautiful bird to watch and clearly one very ‘pumped up’ with the joys of Spring! Gilling’s house sparrows are concentrated in a very small area.

We don’t often see house sparrows in our garden despite being within 100m of the colony. Tree sparrows predominate here; one was quick to prospect a swift box when I unblocked it this morning. They much prefer swift boxes to standard nest boxes. The hole at floor level seems to suit them and they fill the whole box with material save a tunnel and small nesting chamber. They are very feisty birds and will attack prospecting swifts.

At this time of year I would normally be sketching pied flycatchers and redstarts in the woods, ring ouzels and whinchats on the moors or puffins and gannets at the coast. Once again the current restrictions meant that I had studied a common bird in great detail and enjoyed every moment.

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April 27th- red kite and blackbird song

A cooler day than yesterday, but one of beautiful skies with cumulus cloud under much higher cirrus streaks. I was watching buzzards, rooks and herring gulls thermalling this morning. Without a wingbeat they climbed hundreds of feet in minutes. Then a less familiar shape came from the South West. A red kite drifted over us and began circling, joining a pair of buzzrads who were already riding high on the same thermal. Within minutes the kite was a speck, even through binoculars.

Blackbird song filed the air today. Two males were singing at each other only about fifty feet apart. Now is the time to savour that rich, slow song, with Spring at its peak. The trees are bursting into leaf now, it is peak dandelion time. Within a few days those warm yellow blooms will all be clocks providing a banquet for finches.

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26th April- SWIFT!

Another glorious April morning, espresso outside looking at the sky,

SWIFT

The significance of my first swift of the year cannot be overstated. Since primary school days, where they used to nest under the eaves, the species has captured my imagination like no other. The impact of my first swift of the year seems to increase annually; the shape never fails to be a visual shock, memories of past Summers flood back, my heart rate literally increases and without caring who hears, I just cry “swift”!

I immediately reached for the watercolours and made some studies to get my eye in again. This was without doubt the first Gilling East swift to return. I could almost sense the swift familiarising itself with its aerial map again. We saw it several times during the day, sometimes quite low, probably checking our colony to see if others were back. But it remained alone, awaiting last year’s mate and other birds from the colony.

I hope you will allow a little plug here. On Crescent Wings- a Portrait of the Swift, published by Mascot Media is available here. It combines about 15 years of sketches with my writing about swifts and what they mean to me. It is a largely visual study of the swift and through sketches illustrates intimate aspects of a swift’s life. Many sketches were made from footage inside my nest boxes, but these are combined with studies of swift behaviour in the air and watercolour sketches of the skies they cross. The book was an ambition realised, but above all I am grateful for the platform it has given me to help swift conservation.

I will be using this blog to take you through my Summer with swifts. The nest cameras are ready and I have a lot of very good watercolour paper ready for big sky studies. I will point out aspects of behaviour which you can look out for, as and when it happens. There will be ups and downs as the swifts go about producing the next generation. The weather plays a huge part in their breeding success. I wonder what will unfold this Summer?

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April 25th- treecreepers and garden warbler

Another walk along the Holbeck today. After a cold, cloudy start the sun broke through late in the morning. Butterflies were quick to respond, especially orange tips, brimstones, tortoiseshells and peacocks. The sand martins were busy feeding along the beck.

We had very close views of a pair of treecreepers, that were undoubtedly nesting nearby. We watched the male feed the female an insect and saw him singing a rather plaintive song. We were mesmerised by them. Treecreepers are simply like no other bird in the UK. They are completely adapted to life on the tree trunk and we watched them clinging without effort upside down on ash boughs. They ascend the tree exploring nooks and crannies in the bark and then descend with a flight that is fast and inconspicuous. Like magic they suddenly appear at the base of another trunk to start the process again.

We also had good views of a garden warbler. Its song is beautiful and to mind richer than a blackcap’s with which it is often confused. I spent some time on another watercolour study of a garden warbler when I returned. I am trying to capture the subtle beauty of this species.IMG_4813IMG_4812IMG_4811

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April 24th- pied wagtail, queen wasp and red mason bee

A day of big temperature range. We awoke to a bird bath frozen over. The overnight minimum of -2C, climbed to 18.3C early in the afternoon. Ptolemy and I went for a walk in Gilling Woods. We walk everyday now and see this time as a gift, natural history is a perfectly valid subject as far as we are concerned and he scribes notes as we go.

There were so many highlights, we feasted again on wood sorrel leaves and admired the last wood anenomes that still flowering in shady areas. Bluebells are starting to flower and will be at their best soon. Wild cherry trees are in full bloom on the North facing slope of the wood. We stood below and listened to the loud hum of bees feeding above us. Cowslips and dandelions dominated the avenue. Tolly found 9 peacock butterflies feeding on dandelions, together with a green- veined white, a tortoiseshell and an orange tip.

Birdwise, blackcaps dominated. They are very common this year. We found four singing tree pipits, a species which does very well in this area, especially in clear-fell areas. Willow warbler, chiffchaff, green woodpecker, marsh tit, treecreeper and goldcrest were also of note.

Back in the garden, I spent an hour or so sketching a queen wasp collecting wood from our fence. Her scraping was clearly audible up to about thirty feet away. The red mason bees nesting nearby flew fast at her if she landed too close. They punched well above their weight, but their tactics worked each time as the wasp was forced to land further away.

We saw a female pied wagtail with a very large white feather in the driveway of the Fairfax Arms. A beautiful looking bird with such elegant proportions and clean cut markings. She was giving nothing away though and would not fly to the nest site while we watched.

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April 23rd- swallows and jackdaws

Yesterday evening I spent some time watching and sketching the jackdaws on a neighbour’s chimney. Like many birders, lockdown has forced me to really concentrate on wildlife at home. Jackdaws are such charismatic birds and I have vowed to make more studies of the species in the coming weeks.

We went for a walk to the East of the village today, in the hope of finding yellow wagtails. We didn’t find one, but we definitely heard one. The slurry covered field where it was probably feeding was shimmering in the warmth making viewing quite difficult.  But, we did see swallows. There has been an arrival of swallows in the village; one two days ago, two yesterday and six today. A few house martins were swooping back under the eaves too. It was lovely to listen to the swallows twittering on the wires again.

I have unblocked the entrances to the swift boxes. There has been an arrival of swifts across the country in the last few days. This is still a small percentage of our breeding swifts. The majority will arrive in the first half of May, but these early birds always raise expectations. Still the boxes are ready and the cameras inside three of them are set, so I look forward to sketching swifts again as soon as they arrive. Watch this space.

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April 22nd- first garden warbler of 2020

A two mile loop from the house gives a good variety of birds. We are really getting to know local bird territories. We can plot yellowhammer territories now and are making up names for small areas of habitat. “Warbler corner” is a dense patch of bramble by the Holbeck, surrounded by a mixture of hedgerow and trees. Crab apple, hawthorn, blackthorn, elder, ash, alder and holly surround the brambles which grow right down to the beck. This sheltered area is bathed in sunlight for most of the day. We stood in one place and watched blackcap, garden warbler, lesser whitethroat and chiffchaff. All were singing.

It was great to have good views of a garden warbler. The species is often thought to be one of the plainest of British birds, but I have always admired their subtle beauty. As an artist it is interesting to study a bird free from bold markings and colour which actually makes them a real challenge to draw and paint- you could not get away with overworking a garden warbler painting. We watched this bird, fresh in from its migration from Africa and listened to its rich song.

Skylarks and lapwings performed beautifully for us. The male lapwings displayed as a skylark sang high overhead. Yellowhammers are numerous and their lovely song was a soundtrack from hedgerows throughout our walk.

Orange tip, peacock and small tortoiseshell were the butterfly species seen today. The flower buds on hawthorns are swelling, so we can look forward to a mass of May blossom in a week or two. Back in the village, a pair of house martins mingled with at least two swallows indicating a fresh arrival of Hirundines.

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April 21st- goldfinches and dandelions

Another fine day, but with a strong Easterly breeze. We have had day after day of unbroken sunshine. You have to be careful what you wish for, but as an artist I am rather missing clouds now. The ground is very dry and we could really do with a good soaking. My son has a school project on sounds, so we walked down to the sand martin colony to listen to their distinctive calls. The strong wind in the Scots pine trees was a great start; the ivy cladding the tall, straight trunks rustled, the harsh sound increasing in volume with each gust. By contrast the wind through the pine needles above was soothing. We listened intensely to each birdsong, this morning we heard sand martin, stock dove, woodpigeon, goldfinch, greenfinch, great tit and blackbird. Finally we stopped by the spring and listened to the water dropping into the beck.

I watched a goldfinch feeding on the dandelions this morning. A small percentage of the cadmium yellow flowers are now turning to seed and they are quick to spot this. This beautiful species clamours over garden feeders these days and I am grateful for that, but somehow seeing a pair quietly feeding on dandelions, which I had deliberately left, made me look anew. Not the mass riot of colour of a flock, but time to study individual markings and behaviour.

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