September 30th- red kite

A look around around my moorland patch this morning yielded some good sightings. I had my best ever view of a red kite as it perched on a fence post. I had time to make numerous sketches. They are only just starting to populate this area. I was instantly reminded of a time in the 1980s when red kites were very scarce as a small population in mid Wales. On a long car journey on our way to a family holiday in North Wales we stopped in a layby surrounded by big hills.

As I recall we hadn’t long been out of the car, stretching our legs when a red kite drifted out over the ridge in front of us. It remains one of the best bird sightings I have ever had; at the time the red kite was rare enough to be almost mythical to me. I dreamed of seeing one as I pondered over illustrations in my first bird books. Here in front of me was a red kite, its shape was so beautiful with long wings stretched to the full and forked tail spread to take advantage of the lift off the slope. My brother and I ran as fast as we could up the hillside, soon breathless, but it had gone back over the ridge and we never saw it again.

The next time I saw a red kite was about twenty years later after introduction schemes in Central Southern England. This morning’s sighting gave me a chance to study the beautiful russet colours of the bird’s underparts and the silvery grey head markings. As it took to the air, a chance to paint sky, moor and kite to place the bird in its habitat.

The morning was also notable for the large numbers of mistle thrushes seen. They congregated around well laden rowan trees on the moor edge, one flock about twenty strong. With them sizeable flocks of starlings, soon to be swelled further by Continental birds. Crossbill calls were heard often. One pair crossed a remote section of moor completely devoid of trees, heading purposefully south west. They seemed likely to be migrants as some coastal movement of the species was observed today. 

A pair of stonechats seemed settled in a winter territory on the moor; definitely a subject I will return to, but today was all about the kite, simply sublime.


September 25th- marsh tits, bullfinch and autumn skies

Today feels like we have taken a short cut through autumn straight into winter. There is a howling wind, the trees on the edge of Gilling Woods are taking a battering with many leaves taking flight. However such weather is inspiring to me. Beautiful though the weather was recently, I soon crave clouds, showers and wind when faced with blue sky for more than a few days. Yesterday, we found ourselves near the centre of the low pressure system that now sits above the North Sea. The winds were slack and the unstable air encouraged the development of some huge Cumulonimbus clouds. I found a glorious view of them near Oldsted. Here, looking south across the Vale of York, I could see areas completely obscured by the torrential rain or hail and could study the height of the impressive shower clouds.

Marsh tits have returned to the garden on a permanent basis. They leave us for a few weeks in the summer but they are now around from dawn until dusk. Last winter we had at least five individuals (including a distinctive white tailed bird) visiting the feeders. I suspect these are birds which breed in Gilling Woods and Yearsley. They are very partial to the seeds of honeysuckle which they extract from the bright crimson berry. They grab a berry and fly off to consume the seed or cache it for winter. In the winter period after Christmas we sometimes attract the very similar willow tit. Comparing the two species at the same time is interesting, they are behaviourally quite different and usually at that time of year plumage differences are obvious.

Bullfinches compete with the marsh tits for the same honeysuckle seeds. By contrast they sit messily munching through the berry flesh to extract the prize. This individual was at an interesting stage of moult. Clearly it is a male as it is starting to display areas of pinkish plumage on its breast and flanks but its head has not started to turn black yet.

We had a very sad end to our first year with house martins. Yesterday I decided to inspect the nest. The adult female was found dead alongside her three dead chicks. The male bird left earlier in the month with the main departure of martins. It was always going to be tough for the female to raise three chicks on her own , especially this late in the year, but I rather expected that she would save herself by migrating if food was scarce. Perhaps she was an older bird and this was just her time to die, or perhaps the poor weather of June and July contributed to a decline in her condition. Whatever the reason we have plenty of hope for next year with so much martin activity around the house and birds visiting other nests on many occasions.

I saw a few skeins of pink-footed geese heading south yesterday. This follows a large arrival of the species from Iceland. They will continue south to The Humber estuary and Norfolk. They are a wonderful sight and sound, spine tingling for me; just as the first swift indicates the return of summer, the arrival of pink-feet signal the excitement of autumn and winter, still all to come.

Below- 24th September, Vale of York from Oldstead.

Below- pink-footed geese over Bransdale

Below- marsh tit.

Below- young male bullfinch moulting into adult plumage.


September 18th- dawn and dusk skies and long- tailed tits

The last few days have been fine with cold nights and warm afternoon sunshine. I was up before dawn this morning to paint the sky. A walk to the west of the village and I found myself on frosty grass. I watched a beautiful dawn with wispy cirrus cloud blowing south to north. A few song thrushes were flying around looking rather lost; often an indication that they are arrivals from Scandinavia. They might have travelled overnight and were perhaps looking for an area to rest and feed.

Long- tailed tits are occasional visitors to the garden at the moment. As the weather turns colder I would expect to see them more frequently. The flock often contains a chiffchaff or two. They are a challenging subject to sketch, never really staying still for long.

I painted a sequence of four fast watercolour skies on Wednesday evening. Sketching skies in watercolour is great practice for an artist. It fine tunes observation of subtle colour but perhaps more importantly teaches you to look closely at, and never take for granted, your chosen subject.

Sky studies after sunset- 16th September 7.08-7.31pm
Before sunrise- 18th September 6.30am
Long-tailed tits in the garden.

September 16th- garden insects and wren singing

Much cooler air today on a breeze straight off the North Sea. A lot of cloud cover too meant there were precious few insects on the wing. I made some sketches of a few insects in the garden yesterday; plenty of tortoiseshells were swarming around the buddleia, Sedum spectabile, rudbeckias and Verbena bonariensis. I enjoyed sketching some buff tailed bumble bees which preferred to nectar on our Cephalaria gigantica. All these plants are superb nectar sources for autumn butterflies and other insects. Watermint and purple loosetrife are also great and our native ivy should be left to flower and can swarm with insects through to October. These late sources of nectar are very important for butterflies that hibernate over the winter. With the temperature peaking at around 26C yesterday I suppose it is unlikely we shall see this degree of warmth again before next May.

A wren was very active around the garden and singing with great gusto by my studio. I was amazed also to hear a blackbird singing yesterday afternoon. Not quite the volume of spring and summer song but certainly much louder and more complete than I have heard before at this time of year.

There was a notable absence from the garden soundtrack today. Most house martins left the area on Monday, leaving behind the straggling breeders. In fact our pair feeding their young seem to be alone today. It is lovely to have them still and I hope for reasonably warm weather into October to give them a chance to raise their three chicks successfully. But with the near constant calls of house martins now gone I am very aware of the change to autumn. Very soon we shall be hearing the ‘tic’ calls of migrant song thrushes as they arrive from Scandinavia, followed closely by redwings and fieldfares.

I look forward to autumn and winter immensely. I love painting winter landscapes and birds in colder weather. Sketching in cold weather is both challenging and satisfying. Autumn skies, especially late in the afternoon can be spectacular. Winter wildfowl and waders are a favourite subject. I love to observe and sketch flocks of lapwings, which contain a seemingly endless variety of plumage, as they hunker down. I begin to yearn for the chance to paint in a snow covered landscape again. There is so much to look forward to as the days become darker and colder.


September 14th- September dawn, late house martin brood and studio pond progress.

I painted one of my favourite lockdown walk views again on Saturday morning. The Holbeck is now quite clogged with summer vegetation compared to the sketches I did in spring. It was a glorious sunrise with a heavy dew on the grass with just enough wind to prevent mist from forming. The dawn chorus consisted of robins singing their soft winter territorial song. But above there was a very transitory chorus of migrant birds moving south. Siskins and meadow pipits were calling almost constantly, sometimes too high to find. Siskins were scarce last winter and in spring, but around midsummer they suddenly started moving over the east coast in large numbers. A sizeable flock spent the summer in gardens here in the village. They fed almost entirely on aphids in fruit trees- behaviour I have not seen before. I think that they could be common on garden feeders this winter.

House martins gathered around our house at the weekend. It was a chance to study some different plumages. The sketch shows a bird which fledged this summer. It has duller quite brown plumage compared to adults save some glossy blue on the back, but the real distinguishing feature is the white outlined tertial feathers. Most adult birds are looking very worn now. The other sketch shows our two week old young in the nest. They are cutting it so fine. Fledging will be around 22nd September all being well, but then they have to build up flying strength to migrate to Africa. I wonder how many of these very late broods actually make it? Hopefully this all bodes well for the start of a colony next year though. I often think of our swifts arriving back during the winter months. Now I will will eagerly await our house martins too. 

I have attached some pictures of our pond finished at the start of June. It is establishing so well. Dragonflies and damselflies have laid eggs and it is a magnet for birds coming to bath and drink. Great diving beetles have bred. One of the highlights was sitting having lunch with the family while a female emperor dragonfly laid eggs in the weed in the middle. If you are wondering whether or not to build a pond, just start digging!

To date the pond has attracted emperor dragonfly, brown, southern and migrant hawker, broad- bodied chaser, common darter and azure, common and large- red damselflies.

Below. The studio pond.


September 11th- chiffchaffs, house martins and small tortoiseshells

Chiffchaffs are passing through in big numbers now. The repetitive song of a chiffchaff is a fitting end to the season of summer migrants. So often the first summer migrant heard in spring is a chiffchaff. On my run through Gilling Woods this morning the beeches echoed with the sound of chiffchaff song. For a while I really could fool myself that spring and summer was all to come. The species is a regular sight in gardens at this time of year. They seem to have an insuppressible desire to chase other small species of birds. They particularly seem to go for blue tits which means they can easily find themselves close to or even on bird tables and feeders at the end of a chase. Why, I am not sure, but I have seen similar behaviour in blackbirds that often chase collared doves in autumn.

The house martins with chicks are very busy now and fortunately the weather has been kind being largely dry and quite warm for a good part of the day. They are landing on the nest box and feeding the young by tilting in to the entrance; an indicator that the chicks are growing well. It is a delight to see them coming and going to the front of the house. Meanwhile a non breeding pair of house martins continues to occupy a nest box on the back of the house, coming into roost soon after 7pm each evening and leaving each morning at around 7.30am. Good numbers remain above the village, probably a mix of migrant and local birds. As I write their ‘raspberry’ calls fill the air contrasting with the incessant begging calls of young goldfinches; two species still feeding young.

It has been a spectacular late summer for small tortoiseshell butterflies here. We have frequently seen 40 or so on the buddleia and more still on verbena, mint and sedum. This peaked with a maximum of 59 on August 26th. Numbers are now dropping as some are predated or have entered hibernation. It is so good to see the species doing well. Sitting by the buddleia with my coffee this morning I was reminded of days of my childhood when buddleias swarmed with common species of butterflies. however even then I am not sure numbers of small tortoiseshells matched those seen in our garden this year.


My online shop has been expanded recently and more sketches will be added in coming days and weeks. To view cards, prints and originals please click here.


September 4th- immaculate garden birds and juvenile spotted flycatcher

Lockdown has taught me to look again and again at the familiar. I was watching various tits visiting the feeder today. Forget their names, just look at them. Watch their movements, the precision of their landings, their swift about turns as they grab a seed and dart for cover. Look at their colours; many are freshly moulted with new feathers to see them through the winter. Take coal tits as an example. These minute tits are striking in rich buff underparts, steely grey uppers and with a bold pied head. Just wonderful to look at.

Tolly and I did a favourite walk from the house today. We had lovely views of a juvenile spotted flycatcher in a hawthorn hedge. We watched it feed with the incredible accuracy the species is known for, one minute darting low and hovering close the ground, the next towering twenty feet above the hedge to grab an insect. It was a joy to watch this now scarce species, to hope perhaps against hope that summer 2021 will bring the species some reprise. As we wandered we heard chiffchaffs, blackcaps and a whitethroat calling in hedgerows. The countryside now alive with species preparing to depart, many already on their journey, refuelling around Gilling East.

As we meandered across the fields we remembered some of our earlier lockdown walks, so many of the birds we enjoyed, individuals we recognised are elusive now. Even the yellowhammers are quiet. Their territories abandoned as they join the safety of flocks for the winter. We ate sloes, enjoying the sensations from their intense bitterness whilst remembering the glorious blackthorn blossom which started our lockdown. We saw rosehips, the result of the very flowers we had paused to smell in June. Tolly is due back at school next week. It is a poignant moment, I will carry on the project largely on my own; we will still walk to warbler corner when we can, but I will miss the spontaneity of grabbing our binoculars and just heading outside together. As an artist I am used to spending large amounts of time alone, but it has been a rich treat to have company.


September 2nd- bilberry scrumping, house martins hatch and September swifts

A lovely walk with the boys on the moors near Helmsley this morning with the primary aim of scrumping bilberries. We found some really scrumptious berries near the old wood ant’s nest; our purple hands and faces were proof of how great they tasted! Small groups of swallows moved north to south just above the heather, crossbills roamed around the conifers and meadow pipits ‘squeaked’ overhead as they too flew south. The moor is still tinted purple by the small percentage of heather still in bloom, whilst the heather that has gone over is now a rich sepia colour. The mass of heather is broken only by bright olive green bilberry leaves. The sky was bright but with building leaden clouds racing along on a brisk, but warm southerly wind.

Our house martins hatched yesterday morning; three chicks set to fledge in the final third of the month. Their first two days have been largely warm and should have provided the adults with a good opportunity to gather food. Meanwhile a second pair continues to occupy a nest box without breeding.

The pond has seen frequent visits from female southern hawker dragonflies. They crash around the edge of the pond laying their eggs near the water but not in it. They are fearless big green dragonflies and common in garden ponds. We have found that they particularly like laying on an old log which floats near the bank. Sketches to follow.

Swift diary
Six swifts continued to grace the skies over the village yesterday. Their chicks fledged several days ago but they linger as if they too appreciate that the last two or three days have been more than a match for much of the height of our summer. They have at times put on fine screaming displays, especially around sunset. Seeing the occasional pair of swifts in September is not unusual, but to see a party screaming over their nest site this late is a first for me.