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August 31st- stormy seas, ammonite fossil, swifts and house martins

A break near Whitby over the weekend and my first chance to paint the sea since March. Gales overnight Friday and well into Saturday produced some dramatic waves at Sandsend. We enjoyed watching fulmars and sandwich terns close in. Majestic great backed gulls made light of the conditions and were spectacular to see against storm grey sky and sea. A party of teal hugged the coastline as they passed east to west. Our hands were soon numb in the relentless northerly blast.

On Sunday in calmer, but still cold conditions, we walked the beach to see what we could find. About ten minutes in Tolly and I simultaneously spotted a stunning ammonite fossil at the water’s edge. We yelled out loud at the same time! What a find, probably aided by the big waves that churned up the beach the day before and a real treasure to remind us of this time. The weather was autumnal in every respect. Copious amounts of rain at the end of last week followed by very high Northerly winds and then, last night our first ground frost this side of the summer solstice and probably the earliest I can remember.

Our house martins continue to incubate. I inspect the ground below the nest daily for the eggshells which would tell of freshly hatched chicks. After a very cold start today has been still and warm. Good conditions for the martins who were joined by a pair of swifts which still seem to be feeding young in the village hall. We have another pair of martins in a nest box on the back of the house, occupying a nest but not breeding, reminding me very much of non breeding swifts. This pair has been in the nest box since around 7th August. I presume that if they survive they will return to breed next spring?

 

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August 28th- wood sandpiper, late swifts and dramatic skies

It feels like we are clinging desperately on to summer at times now, but fine periods of weather see the garden alive with butterflies again. We had an all time record of 59 tortoiseshells on the buddleia last Friday. A wonderful sight, especially given how low in number the species seemed to be just two years ago. I am providing a few overripe bananas and pears for red admirals, commas and speckled woods. These three species in particular love rotten fruit. I hang the fruit in wire bird feeders in a sunny position and they are visited for much of the day.



Tolly and I had a great trip to Ripon City Wetlands last week, a superb reserve managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. We quickly found one of my favourite waders, the wood sandpiper. We had really good views of this smart, warm brown wader probably fresh in from Scandinavia- a very small population breeds in the North of Scotland. After feeding for a few days it will continue its journey to West Africa They are a beautifully proportioned and elegant wader and can change shape dramatically if alarmed as the sketches show. I couldn’t resist sketching lapwings too, an all time favourite subject. They are coming through their moult to reach smart winter plumage. Most have rather short crests at the moment. These will grow longer over coming weeks and months.

We have had some very heavy rain showers over recent days. As such skies have been dramatic so I have been sketching them in watercolour. I always have a sketchbook and watercolours ready to capture the moment. Up until a couple of days ago we still had 5-6 swifts battling the conditions. There were at least three late pairs in the village this year, doubtless a consequence of the poor weather we had in June and early July.

The house martins by Tolly’s bedroom window are giving us lots of pleasure. They swoop up to the artificial nest in front of the window. I positioned it so he can see into the entrance from his pillow! It is a treat to lie there and watch their black and white faces looking out and to hear their calls in the early morning. They are still incubating eggs which will probably hatch around 4th September. This means that if all goes well the chicks will fledge around 25th September. Not exceptionally late but they have already seen some dramatic weather and it will be interesting to follow their progress.

 

 

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August 21st- three pairs of swifts still and hirundines gathering

Swifts and house martins in blustery conditions- 21st August 2020. A watercolour painted en plein air, available at Nunnington Galleries this weekend 22nd/23rd August.

Sand martin and swallow sketches- 21st August 2020.

 

Hirundines have started to gather on the wires in front of our house. There was a big increase in numbers today. I wonder each summer where all these birds come from. There are far more than breed in village. Perhaps this is the gathering area for a large catchment of birds, or perhaps some are passage birds from further north on their way south? Hirundines consist of swallow, house martin and sand martin in the UK. We are lucky to have all three species breeding in the village and I could stand at the bedroom window on eye level with each on the wires today. It was particularly interesting to see sand martins so close, They really are minute, being the smallest of the hirundines.

The wind was very gusty  and they fed in the shelter of the trees. With them six swifts. Swifts are not, as often thought, related to hirundines. I spent an hour or so sketching swifts and house martins as they negotiated the strong wind. We still have three breeding pairs of swifts in the village. It is not unusual to see a late breeding pair of swifts in late August, but three pairs together in a village with a population of no more than ten pairs is unusual. They were feeding low with the hirundines and regularly making trips to the village hall to feed their young. It was easy to see their engorged throats which contain a bolus of insect food gathered for the nestlings. This bolus may contain hundreds of small insects. Whilst it is a treat to see six swifts this late they are very quiet and industrious, with the sole purpose of feeding their nestlings. They will head south at the earliest chance, probably leaving before their young fledge. The fledglings will have to learn to feed in the air and navigate their way to Africa immediately.

This has been another good year for tortoiseshell butterflies. We counted well over thirty in the back garden yesterday. By contrast red admirals and painted ladies are scarce.

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August 19th- bullfinches and marsh tits eating honeysuckle berries and meet the artist at Nunnington Galleries

Honeysuckle berries are a magnet for two red listed species of bird. Bullfinches and marsh tits find the berries as soon as they ripen in our garden. A female bullfinch brought at least three young to the feast today. A marsh tit dashed in and out of the honeysuckle carrying the bright red berries off. They take the berry mainly for the seed within.

It seems a pair of house martins are incubating eggs in a nest on the front of our house. They first prospected the artificial nest on 10th August and must have laid eggs within a few days. Now they can be seen changing incubation duties. If all goes well this pair will be fledging young in the last few days of September. It has been a difficult season for the martins here with very dry weather at nest building time when mud is essential, followed by some really difficult cold spells. Subsequently numbers in the village are well down on previous years. Juveniles in particular seem in short supply. I hope that we are seeing the start of a colony on our house. There will be plenty of nest boxes ready for them when they return next spring. They will be able to launch straight into breeding without having to build a nest.

22nd/23rd August- meet the artist at Nunnington Galleries- Jonathan Pomroy and Lucy Saggers

This weekend I will be at Nunnington Galleries with a large selection of work, much of which will be very recent unframed watercolours. I have loved the freedom that lockdown brought me, a time to just paint and not think about selling or galleries. But a living I must make and so I’m back on parade for Nunnington Galleries’ Meet the Artist Weekend 2 with Ampleforth photographer Lucy Saggers. The weather looks interesting! but come rain or shine, or gales there will be plenty of my new work to see and I will be there for distanced chatting and if the weather allows demonstrating watercolour.

Below. Bullfinches and marsh tit on honeysuckle.

Below. A small selection of the work available at Nunnington Galleries this weekend.

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August 15th- willow warbler song and sea fret

Since Friday’s blog we have had two very grey days, to be honest local inspiration has not come easily. The wind has been coming off the North Sea, dragging sea fret well inland. We have not seen the sun since Friday. This stubborn cloud is hiding a night sky that might otherwise reveal Perseid meteors. It is keeping the temperature low enough to prevent the flight of many insects. Even the ubiquitous large whites are gone, dragonflies and damselflies are hidden, biding their time before the next warm sunlight.

I was reflecting on lockdown back in April. It was remarkable for so many reasons, many of them sad and involving immeasurable suffering. We were very lucky here and for a while we lived in a rather timeless state. I will never forget the blue skies courtesy of high pressure which blocked all weather systems. But lockdown coincided with one of the busiest times of year for a naturalist. There is so much change at such a fast pace in April and May that each year I struggle to take it all in. But lockdown enabled daily observation of local change. I watched single plants change and became familiar with individual birds on territory.

Now in mid August they hide away, moulting their feathers to be warm and protected for the cold dark months ahead. Many plants are fading, the hogweeds are already brown skeletons of their former selves. Leaves on trees and shrubs look tired and worn partly from the adverse weather we experienced after true lockdown. Bird song has almost ceased completely. Occasional bursts from a robin set me thinking of cold autumn mornings when they will be singing more regularly. Even the hoards of tree sparrows are deserting the village- they can be seen enjoying the annual bounty of ripe grain in the fields nearby. The house martins fill the air with their contact calls, a reminder of late spring and high summer. We hear swallows occasionally. I never thought I would say that; swallows sang and twittered above the garden almost seamlessly through summers only a few years ago. They are becoming notable by their absence-what has happened to our swallows?

I am not feeding the birds in the garden at the moment. There is an abundance of natural food now. Our new pond attracts birds to drink and bath and to feed on the numerous insects. Yesterday morning the silence in our garden was punctuated by a willow warbler. It sang a near complete version of its sweet yet mournful spring song and reminded me of the fact that thousands and thousands of migrant birds are creeping through our gardens by day and flying over our heads at night. I watched it sally out from the hedge to take a fly over our pond. Just one fly, but showing that our new pond is part of a much bigger picture; we have helped to fuel a willow warbler on its journey to Africa, I hope someone somewhere will enjoy its complete song next spring. 


Tree Sparrow studies. Available from my studio.
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August 14th- robins singing again, wall butterfly and house martin fledging. Also a bonus swift diary!

Each August I look forward to seeing robins freshly moulted into their immaculate autumn plumage. Robins are territorial in the winter and from now you can start hearing them sing again. This song is very different to the loud spring song, it is unhurried, quieter and very sweet to listen to. It seems to compliment the last days of summer when the sunlight is softer and tinted with ochre.

We have seen wall butterflies this week. This seems to a good year for this lovely little butterfly. The impression in flight is of pale orange, but a view of the butterfly settled shows sepia lattice like markings breaking the pale orange ground colour. As their name suggests they like walls to bask on. This last week has seen big hatches of small tortoiseshells and speckled woods. This follows a large hatch of peacocks a couple of weeks ago. In sunny periods there are lots of butterflies to enjoy now. I prune our buddleia back very hard in late April which delays flowering to late summer, This seems to work well to catch this second generation of butterflies. I also provide fruit later on for red admirals, commas and speckled woods.

Our house martin chick fledged this morning. It was a joy to see it fly confidently and quickly high into the sky to join about 25 other house martins. In profile through binoculars I could see the missing feathers on its head where it was attacked. I took a chance moving the chick to another nest box when it was being attacked by a new male. Its father presumably died and the new male probably killed its three siblings. I placed it in a nearby nest box and its mum continued to feed it through to fledging, so one more precious house martin has fledged today. After its maiden flight it landed near a nest box allowing me to make some sketches. It is easily recognisable due to the feather loss on its head, a result of the attack earlier this month.

Swift Diary
Yesterday in cool cloudy weather we were visited by five prospecting swifts. They prospected frequently between 10am- 1pm. This was totally unexpected, our breeding pair have been gone over a week now. After days of hot weather and no swifts where had these birds come from? They behaved very much like young non breeding birds, flinging themselves randomly at the eaves and forming low level screaming parties. It was wonderful to see this behaviour in mid August but another great example of how swifts can surprise us with their behaviour.

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August 12th- juvenile bullfinch, song thrush fledglings and swift diary.

We think there are bullfinches nesting in our beech hedge which is becoming draped with convolvulus. The adult birds come and go very discretely. But we also see full grown young from another brood. They are very distinctive looking juvenile birds. They share some of the same basic plumage patterns of their parents but the head is uniform brown. They love to eat honeysuckle berries if you have them in your garden, though the main aim is to eat the seed within.

A late brood of song thrushes has just fledged. The young are often fed on red currant berries from a nearby garden. There is no song thrush song at the moment. Like many species as the breeding season ends they will begin moulting their worn feathers. Now is a time of great plenty for birds. There is abundant food and adults who are worn after breeding can hide away and replace feathers.

The house martin chick that I moved to another nest (because it was be attacked by a rival male- see earlier blog) is thriving. Today its mother was trying to coax it out of the nest by perching out of reach with food. I know her by markings on the back of her neck. The chick should fledge very soon. Meanwhile I am delighted and surprised to say we have acquired two new pairs in nest boxes- I wonder if they will raise broods at this stage of August?

In my experience house martins can take years to attract to artificial nests, but once you have one pair the other boxes are very quickly prospected. They are a delight to have around the house and have given me a new subject to study in detail now the swifts are gone. Their flight is spectacular. Whilst swifts often steal the glory for their flying displays around our eaves, house martins display a more manoeuvrable flight, so they are more versatile in tighter spaces than swifts. Their gentle flight curves into the nests are fast and impressive. The males leading females in, are particularly graceful as they pull their tails down presumably to show off the white rump to best effect. It is a beautiful flight to watch and I am enjoying them so much I have to remind myself we had swifts piling around the eaves little more than a week ago.

Swift Diary

There are still swifts in the village. I discovered a new active nest today because I found a pile of swift nestling droppings. Swifts are often said not to create mess like house martins, but in certain nest sites droppings are easily ejected by the young. I could see the swiftlets clearly through the nest entrance in the eaves. They should fledge soon. Meanwhile we have 5-8 adult swifts above the village. They perform flypasts round the nest site at times, but activity is a shadow of that we saw a couple of weeks ago.

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August 9th- hobby attacking hirundines and spotted flycatcher

Yesterday morning I was scanning the sky to the west of Gilling East. Looking for swifts I was suddenly aware of a hobby, turning this way. It was perhaps a quarter of a mile away when I first saw it. I was then looking at it approaching head on. I could see very little of its wingspan. At this point I realised that it was approaching at immense speed in a long shallow dive. What suddenly hit me was the closing speed. Through the bins its relative size increased rapidly until I could see its contrasting facial markings and the yellow around its beak and eyes. Its wings were swept back so I could only really see the leading edge of the inner wing.

At about a hundred feet I just watched without bins as it powered over our house towards a flock of hirundines to the east of the village. The whole sighting was just seconds but left such an impression. It was pure fluke that I caught the start of the dive. The view was very intimate as I watched the bird decide to strike. I saw its expression moments before attack I looked into into its eyes and sensed its concentration and determination. Its rock steady approach combined with speed was most likely deadly to a young house martin or swallow to the east of Gilling. Hobbies have been a frequent sight over the last few days. As summer progresses they move increasingly from their dragonfly diet to swallows, swifts and martins.

Having house martins nesting on the house I feel the threat keenly. They quickly ascend (if they spot the hobby’s approach) forming a tight flock high up. You can sense their panic which is in a different league to other birds of prey such as sparrowhawk and kestrel. Then, if there is a strike I anxiously count the martins home.

A commotion of house martins around the nest boxes this morning saw a grey brown bird fly up immediately. It briefly joined a martin in an aerial spat then settled on the gutter. A stunning adult spotted flycatcher graced our roof for a while. Beautifully marked around its head with subtle grey brown and sepia stripes, long elegant wings and tail, the first I have seen since early June. Yet this subtle beauty made me sad. They didn’t nest in the village this year as they have for the last few years. We are just one more small area devoid of spotted flycatchers. When I was a child starting birdwatching every large garden, park and churchyard had a pair. We walked the church path and each year expected to see their fledglings atop a grave stone. Indeed churchyard grave stones seemed to be perfect for flycatchers as hunting perches.

It is so easy to concentrate on big game and other high profile animal declines and extinctions, but not so easy to get across the message that species are disappearing in our own back gardens. For me, spotted flycatchers have come to symbolise the silent extinctions that are happening all around us. As we lose insects we lose birds and so on. It is strange feeling when seeing a beautiful bird leaves me with an unbearable sense of sadness.

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August 7th- house martin drama, pine hawk-moth and swift diary

We have had a crisis in the house martin nest box. The male died or went elsewhere and three out of four chicks died. Yesterday I moved the surviving chick to another nest box because it was being hacked at by a new male. When I took it from the nest its head was red raw and stripped of feathers. I suspect this new male killed the other three. A new male would naturally remove another’s offspring- I probably intervened just in time. The chick called and was quickly found by the female and was fed all day in the new box to the left of the original box. The new male meanwhile seems very happy with his new nest box and has succeeded in luring in a potential mate several times.

Only one of our swift pair returned to roost last night. It looked very agitated and I thought it would leave in the dark as they sometimes do when roosting alone. We had a couple of flypasts this morning by unknown swifts but the biggest surprise was a single prospecting swift ‘throwing’ itself at a nest box on the front of the house in the early afternoon. Anyone who has studied swifts will know that whilst there are constants they frequently rewrite the literature. I enjoyed watching swifts last evening. Some fine high level screaming displays in very tight formations- characteristic behaviour near to departure. The season is being prolonged for many swift watchers. As usual I will be left with many questions about what might happen next year. I am not really any closer to knowing if I will gain a second pair, but, that single prospecting swift this afternoon could be far more significant than I could possibly know?


The moth trap contained my second ever pine hawk-moth last night. Though worn it was a beautiful moth to look at, large with very elegant long wings. A brown hawker dragonfly passed through the garden today whilst a male azure damselfly made itself at home at the pond. Of some concern is the sheer number of great diving beetle larvae in the pond. They are vicious looking predators, but I have to trust that a natural balance will eventually be found. Thunder flies or thrips filled the air today and as the swift numbers decline I can already sense the season moving on. A slightly softer sunlight is evident when I sketch afternoon skies and bird song is now sparse.

Below. Swift twisting and turning extremely fast on its descent to roost.

Below. House martin, swifts and pine hawk moth.

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August 2nd- swift diary

Our swift pair have returned to the nest box for two nights after the young have fledged. This can vary greatly. Sometimes one or both parents may leave before the young have fledged. In other years they can hang around for several days after, even a week or more. But this pair for now are staying very close and bonding as much as possible. They return to the nest box to roost together and enter it within a fraction of a second of each other.

Another swift was prospecting this morning. This seemed to be an inexperienced bird, flinging itself at a number of sites but not properly landing. The swift season is fast closing now. I will miss the excitement of their flight around our house. Their impact on our air space is massive, but I am looking forward to all that late summer and autumn brings.

The house martins are wonderful to have around. Their four young are growing very fast and all being well will fledge in a week or so. The parents are feeding them at an impressive rate. This activity attracts the attention of other house martins. Some of this year’s young display similar behaviour to one year old swifts, flying up to occupied nests in groups. I hope this will lead to a growing colony next year. Artificial nests enable the birds to crack on with breeding sooner than those that have to build nests. This may help the population over a wider area.

Swift watching through June and July can be very intense and would not be sustainable for much longer! They were waking me before 5am regularly and keeping me sketching until sunset around 10pm. I appreciate the summer time when they are gone for a more relaxed time watching the martins, dragonflies and so much more.

The sun sets on another swift season.