May 21st- swifts nest building and moths in the garden

I was up at 4am to check the moth trap. I have to be up early to ensure the birds do not take the moths that settle around the trap. Stepping out onto the lawn in cool misty air (6C) was a joy and as soon as I was outside I felt wide awake. Skylarks were singing nearby and a peachy sky held the promise of another beautiful day. I had a good catch of moths including some really interesting and beautiful species. Most eye catching of all was the first eyed hawk moth of the year. The eyes on the hindwings are thought to startle birds enough for the moth to make a quick getaway. They reveal them to full effect when handled. It is a really stunning species and most people would have no idea that this fairly common hawk moth flies around their garden at night.

Some moths display examples of highly effective camouflage. The Chinese character resembles a bird dropping, so birds don’t eat it- simple as that! It is a really beautiful little moth. The buff tip mimics a broken piece of twig to great effect. Both are incredible examples of evolution. The moths are not sketched to scale.

I had an early walk along the Holbeck. I wanted to paint another dawn watercolour of the beck with May blossom, comfrey and red campion flowers. It was cold and mist was lying in the valley. As I walked I saw individual birds that I have come to know, some singing on regular song posts. The yellowhammer in its usual hawthorn, the reed bunting singing in the meadow, the garden warbler leaving its bramble patch and the long tailed tits that have frequented the same small patch of hedgerow since early April. I know this patch intimately now and I love it.



Swift Diary

The swifts were nest building today. Because swifts cannot perch like most birds (all their claws face forward) they have to gather material in the air. This often takes the form of feathers, but on windy days fresh green leaves blown from trees are gathered, and during haymaking swifts may find blown pieces of grass. They add saliva to the material to glue it to the nest cup.

I know the pair by their markings now. There are very subtle but definite differences in the feathers around their beaks and eyes. I can study them as they appear at the nest box entrance. I feel certain I know which bird is the male (the first bird back on 5th May) but will not know for sure until egg laying occurs. Having confirmed this I can go back over my extensive notes and learn more about the roles of male and female swifts.




May 20th- spotted flycatcher, wren and my daily swift diary

A male spotted flycatcher continues to sing loudly from the edge of Gilling Woods. I had good scope views this morning from my studio and made some sketches then a more detailed watercolour study. It is a real privilege to be able to see this species in Gilling East. On a recent walk in the woods I was delighted to find four singing males, not including this bird. They are such an attractive bird to paint, such a soft warm grey upper with very delicate streaks on the pale underparts. Given a good view you can see that the forehead is streaked quite heavily. I am looking forward to more flycatcher sketching sessions as summer progresses.

A wren performed its loud song frequently. It was a good opportunity to really study the species and work on trying to depict its character. Also to see how the strong May sunshine coloured the plumage. I made some sketches of some particularly intense singing where the bird stretched out horizontally, thrusting its tail forward over its rump.

Swift Diary

At least one new swift arrived today. So we have five birds back in our immediate vicinity. I watched all five tracing curves in a clear blue sky save streaky cirrus. I am not surprised to see a new arrival having looked at the surface pressure charts today. Migration conditions for the final leg of their long journey from Africa look perfect with a light southerly breeze blowing across the English Channel. I would be very surprised if more do not arrive in the next day or two. Many thousands have been counted moving North through France in the last two or three days. We had a few very fast low passes from our pair and another bird this morning, but I think our swifts are concentrating on feeding intensively to be in a good condition to breed.



May 19th- oystercatcher, fledging tree sparrows and median wasp

A box full of tree sparrows fledged this morning. I watched one make its maiden flight, straight into the glass recycling bin! I placed it in the dense beech hedge where its parents soon began to feed it.

A magnificent queen median wasp collected wood scrapings to pulp for her nest today. It was a really impressive insect (mistaken at first for a hornet) but it was far too busy to take any notice of me sketching a few inches away. Median wasps arrived in the UK in the 1980’s. They are the second largest species of wasp in the UK and build nests that hang from a tree branch.

We had a wander down to the beck to look at the sand martins, now my son’s favourite bird. A maximum of eight were zooming around the bank in the strong westerly breeze. An oystercatcher was feeding in the pasture beyond. A spotted flycatcher is staking a territory near the house. As I write it is singing constantly, a sound so thin that you sometimes think you have imagined it.

Swift Diary

Still no sign of new arrivals. Our pair were out except for the occasional visit to add nest material. With the big numbers reported in the south of France yesterday, we must surely be due an arrival in the next day or two. Watch this space…

My good friends Mark and Jane Glanville in Bristol have a superb colony of swifts on their house. They work tirelessly for swifts in Bristol and far beyond. You can read more about their work at the link below. Mark keeps a brilliant daily blog and I like to think that our blogs are complimentary as they highlight two very different colonies; my one pair in a colony just two years old, to their twenty or so pairs in a well established colony. Do read Mark’s blog, you will be very informed throughout the season.

Bristol Swifts 2020 blog

Mark has also been involved in designing a superb range of nest boxes now manufactured by Peak Boxes. Their website tells this story.

Peak Boxes

Tree sparrow fledgling, the fly is real!





May 18th- May blossom and swift fight

The May blossom stood out against leaden skies this morning. It conspires with the cow parsley to produce the most wonderful effect along our hedgerows at this time of year. We had a good walk along the Holbeck, but already it seems some species are falling quiet as nesting begins. The yellowhammers and reed buntings sang constantly, joined regularly by the soaring (literally) notes of skylarks. Red campion and comfrey flowers now brighten the edge of the beck.

Swift Diary

My prediction came true yesterday evening. When it was almost dark the second of last year’s swift pair returned. I should say this is speculation based on reason and strong evidence. A swift that enters a nest box in near darkness is clearly practised at approach and landing. Our first swift was tucked up in the box with his(?) new mate from the village hall. Last year’s mate suddenly entered and all hell broke loose. The fight lasted approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes. It culminated in the losing bird being dangled from the entrance of the nest box by its tail, its wings flapping helplessly. Eventually it was released. Clearly exhausted it only just avoided landing on the lawn and nearly hit the fence, but flew off into the pitch black.

I was determined to try and find out which bird was evicted. To do this I made some pencil and watercolour studies of the three birds that have visited the nest box this year. The first bird to return( probably a male) returned on 5th May. He was joined by a bird from the nearby village hall on 9th May. I knew at this time that there was a very strong chance that last year’s mate would return. She(?) returned yesterday evening. I had to look very closely, but there were tiny plumage details that I could observe and trace back in photographs. By doing this I was able to find that our first bird is now paired with yesterday’s bird. The interloper from the village hall was the swift evicted in darkness. It remains to be seen whether she (?) makes another takeover bid.



Below- swift fight in box 1. May 17th, 10pm.



May 17th- willow warbler, house martins and swift diary

An early walk this morning in blustery conditions. Dawn was cloudy with very light rain. The wind picked up, probably keeping birdsong to a minimum. However when I reached the Scar a willow warbler was really belting its song out while being buffeted by the wind. It was rather fluffed up in the cool breeze but undeterred it kept singing for the half an hour or so I sketched and it was still singing from the same spot when I returned about an hour later.

There was a major influx of house martins today. Numbers probably trebled overnight and they fed above the village for much of the day, often close to tree tops where they could easily prey on insects kept low in the strong breeze. It is lovely to hear their clicking calls again. I have seven artificial house martin nests up under our eaves and I live in hope that at least one is occupied this summer.

Swift Diary
Our pair left again at around 8.30am and save two fast low level passes they were absent for the whole day. Occasionally a third bird was seen. Concern is being expressed at the low or moderate numbers of swifts at colonies across the UK. But we really have to wait a few more days yet to justify this concern. Warmer weather and a change in wind direction forecast in the next few days is still likely in my opinion to see another substantial arrival of swifts.


May 16th- pied wagtail, song thrush and swift diary

I mowed the lawn this morning, leaving plenty of areas of dandelions and longer grass. I find it fascinating that a different shorter stemmed form of dandelion grows in mown areas. They flower no more than an inch or so above the mower cutting height. I welcome this, but today’s lawn mowing revealed how important areas of short grass are too.

Blackbirds, a song thrush and a female pied wagtail were quick to descend onto the lawn as soon as I had finished mowing. I sat in my studio and enjoyed making pencil and watercolour sketches of all three species. The pied wagtail came very close and each time it seized an insect there was a sharp audible snap of its beak. The male blackbird looked so elegant today, sleak and sooty. His mate is on eggs whilst he tends to rapidly growing fledglings from their first brood.

It is wonderful to have song thrushes around, they are very beautiful to look at and they enrich our lives with their impressive song. I leave rough margins at the edge of the garden for them to forage for snails. They are well known for their ability to crack open snail shells by hitting them against a hard surface, known as a thrush’s anvil. To encourage this I leave large flat stones. They are quickly accepted and soon surrounded by a variety of snail shells. So it is well worth leaving a couple near your prize border or vegetable garden.

Swift Diary
Very little change still. Our pair left the nest box at about 8.30am and were seen twice during the day as they made very quick low level flypasts, but still no sign of any new birds. However a couple of migration watchpoints in France recorded good numbers going through yesterday. Some of these could well be UK swifts. We will find out very soon…



May 15th- whitethroat, May blossom and swift diary

A walk along the Holbeck and what a beautiful morning. Light cumulus clouds drifted above a verdant landscape with splashes of creamy white May blossom. The Holbeck is lined with big clumps of comfrey and red campion which are coming into flower. Whitethroats are still arriving. We found a new bird back on territory, singing and performing its lovely display flight where it literally dances in the air above the hedgerow. We heard a brief burst of garden warbler song in its usual brambly territory. Other sightings today included a fox and the discovery of an active green woodpecker nest hole.

Swift Diary
Yesterday evening saw a beautiful sunset, I watched the swifts come in to roost and made some watercolour studies of the sky. Today we still await the next arrival of swifts. Our pair were hardly seen at all. I did see a pair, quite possibly ours, mating on the wing. I am always alerted to this by particularly intense swift screams. These are often heard high up, as for obvious reasons they lose height. But today’s mating pair started quite low down so the union was short lived, in order to avoid a crash landing!



May 14th- bullfinches, dandelion seeds and swift diary

The numerous dandelions that I have left are attracting finches now. A stunning pair of bullfinches visited the front garden to feed on the seeds this morning. At times this was a real contortion act, the pair stretching and twisting their necks to the extreme to reach the food. Both male and female are such beautiful birds. Mixing the right colour for a male bullfinch is an interesting exercise in watercolour. The female is such a delicate shade of brown with a lovely grey area to the nape which almost blends in.

Swift Diary

At dawn the temperature fell to -3C. We have had six air frosts in the last ten days. This must have been taxing for the swifts at times, but they had a comfortable day today. During the morning they were often directly over the garden feeding quite low. Occasionally they would appear with nest material. Swifts gather all their nest material in the air. Today they were coming back with pieces of grass that were presumably blown into the air on the fresh north westerly breeze.

Another arrival of swifts is likely in the next few days, but for now numbers in Gilling East are low. It will be fascinating to watch those already here mix with the later birds when they appear.




May 13th- swallows, redstart and hail showers

I was interested to see where hirundines were feeding in today’s unseasonable weather. During the late morning the temperature was in the range of 5-7C. Hail showers passed over at times. I found swallows, house martins and sand martins feeding by the Holbeck. I could sense their struggle to survive. They were feeding on the sheltered side of the hedge, very low, particularly around the grazing ewes and lambs. During a hail shower the swallows lined up close together on a fence, their feathers very fluffed up. We were lucky also to see a female redstart. A reed bunting and yellowhammer sang nearby.

Swift diary
The swifts were out for most of the day, despite the really cold temperature. It is good to know that they are finding food. I suspect that they going to Castle Howard Lake. I have seen thousands of swallows and martins and hundreds of swifts there in previous cold spells in spring and summer.

Late in the morning there was a sudden influx of around thirty swifts. They approached from the east but swirled round and round as they did so, many of them screaming. The whole ‘swirl’ moved quickly west and was gone in less than a minute, our pair came out of the flock and dropped down to the nest. I can only guess as to what this movement of swifts was, but I strongly suspect that it was a feeding movement by a colony.

In cold weather colonies often gather in the morning and then head to their feeding area. The bulk of the birds arrive back together later in the day. I think I may have witnessed swifts moving between the colony and the cold weather feeding grounds. Our swifts may have latched on to this local movement. But, as with so much with swifts this is pure speculation.

I am looking forward to warmer weather at the end of this week which may see the arrival of more of last year’s breeding swifts.

Below- hail shower over the Holbeck, Gilling East.



May 12th- little owl, tree sparrow fledglings and swift diary

We had a walk along the Holbeck this morning. This coincided with cloudy weather and it felt cool so we heard relatively little bird song. Yellowhammer, reed bunting and skylark were the most notable singing species. The garden warblers and lesser whitethroats were not seen or heard today, but we did see a little owl. We had lovely views through the scope as it perched amongst May blossom. The rooks have fledged; we saw very large numbers with their anxious parents in trees half a mile or so from the rookery.

Back in the garden the first tree sparrow fledglings were seen begging for food. A hornet was an unusual and impressive insect for the area. It joined a couple of queen wasps in scraping wood from the fence. We have recently seen queen wasps near the Holbeck scraping the woody stems of hogweed for their nests. Being hollow the stems act like small percussion instruments which can be heard from a considerable distance.

Swift diary
Another very cold start; we have had air frosts on five of the last eight nights. The swifts were able to leave at about 9.30am. They hung around today even in the cold cloudy weather this morning, feeding very close to the tree tops with house martins. By lunch time the heavy cloud cleared and swifts were often seen feeding high above the village in a blue sky with fluffy cumulus clouds. We are still awaiting a large proportion of local breeding swifts. Warmer weather forecast for the weekend will hopefully see another big arrival.