Daily blog from Gilling East, Sketchbook

June 30th- crossbills and swift diary

Tolly and I had a lovely walk on the moors near Helmsley this morning. Our target was to see crossbills. It wasn’t long before we heard their loud “chip chip” calls. Though loud these can be quite hard to locate when they are flying, but we found a party some distance away that settled in nearby larch trees. I set the scope up for some brilliant views as the small party of crossbills chattered in the tree top. There has been a large influx of crossbills in recent days, though it is quite possible that these were local birds which breed in the coniferous forests in the area. A stunning male was very vocal at times.

It was a very pleasant morning for walking, the sky was steely grey but it was not cold even in the brisk wind. We heard golden plovers though they remained elusive. Skylarks were still belting out their glorious song high above. Tolly then spotted some bilberries, this distracted us for some time as we plundered the bright green bilberry leaves for delicious and nutritious reward! The first bell heather is in bloom already adding a vague purple tint to the moor, but the dominant colour was the fresh green of the bilberry leaves.

Ringlet butterflies were on the wing. They are known for flying in rather dull and even wet conditions. We had lovely views of them settled amongst the grass. There were some wonderful specimens of common spotted orchids. We checked in on the Arctic starflowers we had seen earlier in the month, but just the leaves remained. We will come and see these beautiful flowers again next year.

Swift Diary
Quiet. The adults come and go with food. We had an interesting sighting just south of Helmsley. A flock of about 50 was feeding above a field. We knew which crop it would be, and so it was- oil seed rape. Swifts actively feed over this crop, mainly on the flea beetle which it attracts. The birds here were probably Helmsley’s breeding birds gathering food for their young. No other type of crop had swifts feeding above it, something I have come to notice each summer.


June 29th- a rather grim day for swifts

A grim day for swifts! Our breeding pair hardly went out of the nest box in the morning. They covered as best they could their two large chicks. When they did go out they fed very low at head height over vegetation.

There were impressive accounts of birds moving on the east coast today, this time from Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire where more tha 45000 birds were recorded going south. Further to this there were big movements recorded at a watchpoint in the Netherlands. Could this be the missing link? I have always thought that with cooler weather non breeding swifts from well inland in the UK move east to the east coast on a broad front, generally unnoticed. But they become concentrated when they hit the coast which is a south bound highway to warmer weather- ultimately the continent. Probably over East Anglia they head out to sea and arrive in the Netherlands.

They return with warmer weather, but on a broad front, possibly high up and appear back around colonies like magic! This can happen several times in a summer, though of course eventually they will move south for the winter as breeding adults start to depart. So if we see an improvement in the weather I am confident that the non breeding swifts will return to enliven our colonies again. But for now the skies are very quiet.

Here is the link to the south bound migration watch point in the Netherlands.




Daily blog from Gilling East

June 28th- low swallow numbers and swift diary

I am hearing of so many collapsed or diminished swallow colonies. I can think of several nest sites where they no longer nest. To hear so many people reporting low numbers is very worrying.

Swift Diary
Very little to report at the colony. The non breeding birds have gone leaving the adults to come and go feeding their young. Both chicks are starting to open their eyes. They look prickly, covered in masses of waxy feather sheaths. They have tiny wings now which are starting to sprout those massive wing feathers. The wind has been very strong today but it has been warm enough for the adults to leave their chicks who now have an insulating layer of down on their bodies.

The east coast has seen huge movements of swifts today. Top of the swift movement league was the Filey area where at Muston Sands Mark Pearson and Keith Clarkson recorded well over 16000 swifts in the first half of the morning. There is much debate about the origin of these birds which are mainly birds born last year. It will be interesting to study weather maps in more detail and to speculate as to the exact reason for this movement. However I do think that they are not going for good. These south bound movements on the east coast happen in most summers and are always weather related. Strong south westerly winds associated with a deep summer low pressure system has forced the non breeders to move south for now, but given a change to warmer conditions they will return on unseen northerly passage to delight us with their aerial acrobatics.

What I do know is that each time we lose our non breeding swifts, movements down the east coast begin. There seems to be a sort of conveyor belt of swifts moving to warmer conditions further south.

Swallow fluffed up in cold wind.

Below. Single breeding swift in grey skies.



June 27th- hobbies feeding and swift diary

Another day of breathtaking swift activity. Countless high speed passes and flying at the nest box entrance holes very fast before peeling off in a split second. We have had far more activity this year than last, possibly because our breeding pair is more experienced and their young are much older than on this date last year. I hope this means we may see another pair established this year or next. It is still possible for a pair to enter a nest box and build a nest ready for next year. Not all swifts do this. Others pair up and start to build a nest in May to breed in that year.

At dusk we had a pair of hobbies feeding over the field north of our house. They were finding insects, presumably moths or beatles and eating them held in their feet as they cruised around slowly. Hobbies have relatively large eyes which enables them to feed in low light. I watched them silhouetted against a twilight sky until 10.20pm. A really beautiful sight, though their presence certainly curtailed the final quarter of an hour of swift activity.

Today the air has turned much fresher. The non breeding swifts gathered in a high circling group this morning before vanishing, there have been big movements of swifts down the east coast today indicating a exodus of younger non breeders. However we have seen a few flypasts today, so I suspect that older non breeding birds are probably staying around for now.

Our house martin pair came in to roost at about 6pm yesterday and stayed in the box until 7.20am. A good sign that they may stay, I hope.



June 26th- curlew and swifts at dawn and house martins in nest box

I was woken again at dawn. The dawn chorus is surprisingly strong still. Robins have all but stopped singing now but blackbird and song thrush alike are still singing vigorously at about 3.30am. I went out into the garden at 4am hoping to see the first swift flypasts. It is a wonderful, peaceful time, fresh with a chance to witness the sunrise. This morning there was a bit more high cloud than recent mornings. The cerulean blue was crossed with rosy stripes.

A curlew burst into song as it passed low over the village, flying north towards the cut hay field. They have been feeding there in the early hours of light. As I listened to that evocative bubbling call three swifts powered in towards our eaves screaming as they went. What a glorious juxtaposition of species and one I would only have seen by waking very early.

Non- breeding swifts piled in towards the eaves several times before 9am. They were almost impossible to count as they criss- crossed each other in fast swerving flight. There was lots of landing on the walls today. Some individuals paused in a clinging position before being displaced by another. All the swift activity attracted a pair of house martins. Quite quickly they were in one of my nest boxes.

I have been hoping to attract martins since we moved here in 2017. They have raised my hopes before by entering a box but not staying. Whether they stay or not it was wonderful to have house martins around. The pair was in and out of the box for most of the morning. In the afternoon one bird was nearly always present. It was great opportunity to make some watercolour studies of one of my favourite summer visitors. Their calls bring back very happy memories of my childhood when they used to nest by my bedroom window. Like swifts they are a real soundtrack of summer.



25th June- young kestrels, a very warm Holbeck walk and 72 swift flypasts!

Tolly and I had a very warm walk along the Holbeck, our most regular walk since lockdown began. We have seen so much change since early April and today’s walk saw us walking through a high summer landscape. The wild cherries are covered in fruit already. We paused to smell the wild roses which will fade soon. Elderflower is fading fast now. We saw dozens of meadow brown butterflies and tortoiseshells. Tolly spotted our first ringlet of the year. Grasshoppers were heard throughout.

Very close to the village we watched a pair of young kestrels hopping around in an ash tree. They are growing well and doubtless beginning to practice their hovering hunting technique. These are probably the offspring of the adult female that has been hovering over local back gardens. This technique of looking for fledglings seems to be very successful judging by the amount of time the bird spends above the gardens. It can be quite disruptive for the garden birds who call in alarm and stop tending to their young.

There was still plenty of bird song still. We heard garden warbler, chiffchaff and lesser whitethroat singing together. Skylarks sang very high above the Holbeck- we played the game of spot the skylark! Yellowhammers and reed buntings sang in hedgerows, sometimes very close to us. It was bliss, not a cloud in the sky, but we felt very hot and walked lazily.

Back at home we sat by the new pond with a long cool drink and watched a beautiful male broad- bodied chaser. We put a perch up by the side of the pond and he was on it within five seconds. This then became his favoured perch. The swifts screamed overhead every few minutes.

Swift Diary

In short, another wonderful day of swift watching. Yesterday evening I decided to tally the flypasts again after the sensational evening of 23rd where there were 104 passes between 8.19-10.15pm. In the same time period yesterday evening we had 72 flypasts, still an incredible number compared to any evening last year. I made yet another watercolour of a swift flypast and tried to concentrate on the perspective of an approaching flock going right over my head.

The swifts performed their first flypasts at 4.24am, waking me instantly. I lept out of bed, made a strong coffee and sat on the lawn to enjoy the show. On several occasions today swifts were so low over my head I could feel the air rush. Wonderful!



June 23rd- 100+ swift flypasts!

The warm weather has brought the best swift watching of the year so far. To think two days ago I was wondering where they were. As our breeding pair continue feeding their two chicks, the younger one, two and three year old birds are speeding round outside. The youngest of these have returned here quite recently and they really mix things up. The parents often return to their nest box to scream at the younsters as they fly past or perch on their nest box. The behaviour of young birds clinging on to potential nest sites has become known as “banging”. The bangers hurl themselves at the eaves often at the entrances of occupied nest sites. This induces wild screams from the occupants which seems to encourage the bangers even more!

It is great fun to watch and at times you can have wonderful views of the swifts as they cling on. People trying to attract swifts to nest boxes sometimes become very frustrated watching this behaviour because they seem to go anywhere but into the unoccupied nest boxes! But, it is worth remembering that many of these birds will not have landed since fledging the year before. In part this behaviour is probably practising approach and landing for the first time. They are too young to think about breeding at this stage, but they are probably learning far more than we think with each miss.

But yesterday evening was really special. I have rarely seen so much low level screaming activity in one evening, even at much larger colonies. They were very loud and very fast, fuelled by the abundance of food in the warm weather. At 8.19pm I decided to start a tally of flypasts because they were so frequent. The noise at times was incredible; my youngest son was kept awake by the swifts’ screams so he came down to watch the show from the garden at 9.15pm! The last flypast of three birds came at 10.15pm ending one of the most spectacular evenings of swift watching I have experienced. Between 8.19- 10.15pm there were 104 low level flypasts, mainly of three or four swifts but occasionally up to six. There were many more passes before I started counting. But there was not much rest for me. At 4.35am, it all started again as presumably the same three that passed at 10.15pm returned to shatter the silence and my sleep!

Today has been similar and I am looking forward to seeing what this evening has in store. But you never know with swifts, it could be very different even though weather conditions are similar. Swifts really teach you to enjoy the moment.


IMG_1923 (2)
Swifts over the garden. Oil on Canvas. At Saltbox Gallery, Helmsley.

Swifts over the garden. Available as a print. See SHOP section in website menu.


June 23rd- marsh hoverfly, azure blue and swift diary

Our new pond is quite simply a joy. Tolly spotted some interesting and beautiful new species today. The first two pond skaters arrived. We enjoyed watching some marsh hoverflies, their larvae develop in water. They bask on leaves close to the water, a beautiful species with bold black and gold markings. But the real show stopper was our first azure damselfly. In fact I was so taken by the beauty of this insect that ignored two low level swift passes! We have built the pond in time for the peak dragonfly season and can’t wait to see more. Mind you, I had work to do this morning and the numerous swift flypasts and pond action proved to be a major distraction!

Swift Diary

What a difference a day makes! Yesterday evening was so quiet. But from about 6.30am the swift action came thick and fast. Some slow prospecting by a pair plus one was wonderful to watch and I made the watercolour study below of swifts approaching the eaves. This included my favourite swift flight, when the lead bird approaches the nest boxes quivering his(?) wingtips whilst uttering a soft piping call. It is such a beautiful flight. But added to this we saw countless very fast flypasts close to the eaves. I am distracted as I write by their loud screaming calls.

Today is a classic swift watching day. The birds clearly have plenty of food and plenty of energy. A random scan in the sky nearly always revealed swifts high up gulping up aerial insects. Note to myself, take this in, every flypast, every loud call, bank it in your memory for winter.




June 21st- a midsummer eve and swift diary

Not quite the longest evening of the year, but one day away, however it was interesting to compare June 21st this year with the same date in 2019. Both were clear of cloud. In 2019 the second of the swift pair came back to the nest box to roost at 10.21pm. I was keen to see if the swifts could beat this record and come in later. But at exactly the same time, 10.21pm the second arrived back to roost.

It was a beautiful summer evening. The scent of honeysuckle wafted around the garden. I remembered that on the same date last year I had watched a late swift come in and then noticed noctilucent clouds. I decided to stay up late. Sure enough, sometime after 11pm the noctilucent clouds started to show. They only appear at twilight around mid summer. They are incredibly beautiful, being a silvery pale blue in colour. At around 50 miles from the surface of the earth they are the highest known clouds.


The young swifts are growing at an incredible rate. Their first feathers are beginning to show now. The parents come and go in complete silence and often leave the young in the middle of the day.

Below, swift coming in to roost at 10.21pm.

Below. Photograph of noctilucent clouds at 11.45pm, taken in Gilling East.

Below. Swift nestlings  now approximately 6 days old.


June 21st- swift solstice

As big southerly movements of swifts were recorded down the east coast of Yorkshire over the last two days the non breeding birds have been absent from this area. However yesterday evening, the lightest and longest of the year some swifts appeared and performed some awe inspiring flypasts. Up to four carried out high speed turning passes by the nest boxes on the back of our house again and again. These are the evenings I try to savour for the eight or so months of the year when I cannot see a swift. The evening saw a beautiful sunset turn to twilight with high cloud streaks ahead of an active weather front approaching from the west.

Today saw heavy occasionally thundery showers in the afternoon. Our swiftlets have had a great start and are growing very fast now. They are starting to grow downy feathers and in warmer periods the adults are more confident about leaving them uncovered.

I have been puzzled by the absence of the non breeding birds again, the weather has been warm between rain. We know so little about these younger birds. Where were they born? How far do they roam whilst they are here in June and July? What exactly causes them to just leave for several days? Swifts pose so many questions. Mysteries that in some ways I would rather keep that way and yet I suspect if I found out they would be even more mysterious than I could imagine.

IMG_5460IMG_5459Below. Swift studies, an original watercolour painted outside from life by our swift colony. £375 unframed. For more details email pomroyjonathan@gmail.com