A walk along the Cawton road this morning and we had close views of a male yellowhammer on a freshly tilled field. Yellowhammers are very common in hedgerows around Gilling; they are confiding and beautifully coloured, the lemon yellow head of the male contrasting with rich terracotta upper parts. Their song has accompanied our walks throughout lockdown and for me has a rather hypnotic quality. It is heard throughout the day and I associate it with warm summer days.
Our pair continue to incubate their two eggs. Apart from occasional flypasts by up to three birds before 9am all is very quiet. There is as yet little sign of younger prospecting birds. With a single pair like ours most people would probably not realise they have swifts nesting on their house.
Yesterday evening we had prospecting swift at twilight. I see this most years. As the light fades non breeding birds, usually on their own, race around the house occasionally landing on potential nest sites. After these brief bursts of high energy manoeuvres they spiral upwards to roost in the sky. Are these the next occupants of a colony I wonder? They seem to be following an urge to roost in a nest site without actually doing so.
I am currently waking very early to look at the moth trap. Our tree sparrows are very partial to moths and this means I need to protect them at first light. Being up at 4am is wonderful. There is so much light, the air is fresh and cold and birds are singing full throttle. Although it must be said, the dawn chorus is reducing markedly now as birds tend to their young.
Our third swift really started to make an impact this morning, passing the colony at high speed often with a potential mate in tow. I was watching them, when I heard a call that was familiar but not instantly recognisable. It was high pitched, loud “zip” sound, first making me think spotted flycatcher, then perhaps a fledgling call that I didn’t recognise. But I knew it was different and walked to the back garden where the call was located to a cotoneaster tree. A bulky shape in the weeping branches and all became clear- hawfinch, a superb male.
I have seen more than my fair share of these incredible finches at Castle Howard Arboretum and in Gilling woods, but this was in May. All my hawfinch sightings have been in winter until now. A late spring hawfinch adds weight to the thought that a small population breeds in this area. Historically hawfinches have been found in Gilling woods, Duncombe Park and a few other local woods but they are notoriously elusive in the summer months.
My views were brief but they remain etched on my mind. I didn’t have a sketchbook or camera at the time so quickly made sketches and referred to some old sketches of the species to paint a watercolour of my sighting. Hawfinches are great fun to draw; with bulky features and a beady eye drawing a hawfinch feels almost like drawing a cartoon bird! It had rudely interrupted my swift watching, there was a prospecting bird at the time, but what an interuption! It flew off quickly giving beautiful views of its bounding flight against fresh green trees.
Our swift pair has started a full incubation routine now with efficient change overs which leaves maximum time for feeding. A third bird prospected at dusk yesterday evening, perching on at least two nest boxes but ending up in a loft ventilation slot. It was very dim at this time, almost beyond twilight and I wondred whether it might roost. But at 10.03pm it fluttered out of the gap and sped off into a rosy sky. This could well be our next breeding swift…
The house martins prospected the back of the house today. They didn’t really settle, but I had time to make some sketches and I still have some hope that they might yet nest in one of my seven boxes. The male was displaying, drooping his wings, singing with great vigour and fluffing up his bright white rump.
The landscape watercolour below is a study from the field near Gilling East village hall. There is a magnificent old oak and a very old section of hedgerow. For me the scene sums up the last few days. Blue sky and intense greens of trees. Soon these fresh greens will start to darken. Arguably, trees look at their very finest at the moment. Four swifts which breed in the nearby village hall are passing low above the oak.
I am still not convinced that the swifts have started their incubation full time yet and there could be a third egg on the way. The pair spend a lot of time mutual preening, especially on arrival in the box and just before departure. This bonding is of great importance as incubation duties mean they will spend much time apart over coming days and weeks.
One swift bought in a bunch of grass today. This is probably gathered from a field where hay cutting is taking place. Because swifts don’t land to collect nest material I imagine it swooped low over and caught some grass blown upwards on the breeze.
A third bird appeared again today. It is folowing our breeding pair. I think this might be a bird that prospected here last year and very much hope that it will be one half of our next pair.
I spent some time studying hares just west of the village this morning. I don’t draw mammals often and found it challenging and enjoyable at the same time. One hare was very obliging and sat for some time scratching itself and seemingly soaking up the early morning sun.
Sparrowhawks are very regular in village gardens at the moment. Their surprise tactic hunting is spectacular to watch. They use cover such as hedges and walls and other solid objects to approach low at high speed. They know very well where each bird feeding station is and have various routes towards them for a clean kill.
The swifts began their incubation duties tentatively today. They may well lay a third egg because they don’t seem to be incubating full time. We had some spectacular low level flypasts from three birds this morning. These passes are wondeful to watch. They gather momentum at height and pass the house on a very fast glide, screaming as they go.
A mid morning walk along the Holbeck. The garden warblers are secretive now and quietly nesting. We heard occasional bursts of the male’s rich warbling song. Within fifty metres we also heard blackcap, whitethroat and chiffchaff singing. The lesser whitethroats are now quiet and rarely heard. This interesting list of warblers visible from one spot has led my son to name this area “warbler corner”. We have grown very attached to this tiny piece of North Yorkshire and it always delivers something of great interest.
We had lovely views of a male reed bunting singing its pleasant song from the top of a hawthorn. We have heard it frequently but have found it hard to see until today. We saw a pair of males squabbling over a territory boundary and studied the singing male at length. They are very smart looking buntings in full breeding plumage.
Sand martins flew up and down the beck, now collecting food for their young in the bank further down stream. Orange tip, green- veined white and large white were the most abundant butterfly species today. As we walked by the cow parsley that lined the field edge orange tips seemed to pass us every few minutes. I made a watercolour of the Holbeck (below) which hopefully shows how verdant the landscape is at the end of May. The may blossom is just starting to fade, some of it taking on a pinkish hue as it does so. It is sad to watch this beautiful blossom fade, but I can look forward to the dark red berries that will feed redwings and fieldfares when they arrive from Scandinavia in the autumn.
Our swift pair laid a second egg this morning. They seemed reluctant to start incubation, so I suspect they may go on to lay a third egg. They were joined in the air today by another swift. The three birds performed some spectacular fast and low passes over the garden this morning. I hope that this bird will continue to latch on to our breeding pair and choose another nest box on our house. A younger bird like this one is probably learning from our pair. Following them will enable it to find the best feeding areas in all sorts of weather conditions. This is one of the advantages of colonial nesting.
Our swifts laid an egg yesterday, but in another development I found a smashed egg on the ground outside the nest box. I think this egg was the product of the partner before the fight on 18th May. The new partner would remove the egg from the nest box to ensure it is not spending the summer raising the offspring of another swift. Their nest is really quite substantial, mainly built of feathers it is bulky enough to hide the egg from the nest box camera at times.
The weather has been wonderful for swift watching today, a light breeze and fluffy cumulus cloud. Below trees look at their very finest. The swifts largely stayed near the house. It was a joy to see them arcing through the sky and to hear their duet screaming high above; the sort of day I dream of sometimes in the middle of winter. Time to top up the memory bank for the coming winter.
25th May- swifts just after sunset, in a sky of lenticular cloud.
Fifty days of sketching and writing within two miles of home. What has it taught me? There are species I have missed seeing. April and May would normally find me chasing ring ouzels, pied flycatchers, gannets and puffins to name just a few, but I would have missed really getting to know my local area. I know where the garden warblers nest and each yellowhammer territory. Walking the same route day after day, I have seen the exact time migrants arrive and when others pass through. I know how many sand martins nest in the river bank and have found where the kingfishers nest.
Spring butterflies have emerged. My favourite the orange tip has been in flight for much of this time and I am very aware of the fact now that soon I will see the orange tip that will be my last until April 2021. I looked forward to the hatching of St Mark’s flies, saw the peak of their flight time and witnessed how important they are as a food source for birds.
I have watched flowers bloom and fade. Since I started this in early April, blackthorn, cherry and hawthorn have all come and gone. I have come to know individual trees like friends and watched their leaves open. The woodland canopy is now closed over as the mass flowering of bluebells and wild garlic fades.
The transformation of this small patch of Yorkshire in fifty days has been remarkable. I am still on the same tank of fuel in my car as I was fifty days ago and that makes me feel very good. I feel close to Gilbert White, one of my natural history heroes because he was the true master of the local patch.
The last week has seen a mass fledging of starlings. They roam around in flocks visiting pasture and local bird tables. The young are attractive looking birds with plain mousey plumage but their calls are raucous to our ears. Starlings have had a food year here with several more pairs than last year. Each precious fledgling will be a part of a spectacular murmuration in mid winter.
Yesterday evening the three local pairs of swifts put on a fine display. It was the first evening of the year that I could stand outside and watch them screaming and chasing until twilight. There are two pairs in the village hall which is c100 m away and our pair. Although these nest sites are close my feeling is that they are a seperate colony. Mine rately interact with the village hall birds. I hope to see the addition of a new pair here this year.
Our pair laid their first egg this morning though it was hidden by feathers and I have only just seen it. More on this tomorrow. The swifts have had an easy day, with fine weather. They are feeding high. I have frequently heard screaming swifts today, high up in the cobalt sky.