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Pied flycatchers, redstarts and house martins.

Redstarts and pied flycatchers are back in some local woodlands. They are two species I cannot wait to see each spring. Both seem exotic in colour and song. Tolly and I went to watch them at dawn on Sunday 18th April. We soon found a male pied flycatcher singing near a nest hole. With the females yet to arrive he was singing almost non stop. The temperature at the time was well below freezing and buds were held tight on the oaks. It felt incongruous seeing this black and white gem with feathers extremely fluffed up, in a wintry looking wood while we felt the biting cold air. The black and crisp white plumage makes the male stand out like a little marker in a still, leafless wood.

Nearby a redstart, equally stunning was also singing. We had good views of it atop some birch trees, another male bird waiting for females to arrive. Redstarts are one of those birds I remember yearning to see when I looked through bird books as a child. In West Berkshire we were far from their strongholds in old oak woodland in the North and West of England. I literally dreamt of seeing one and today thousands of sightings later, each redstart feels as fresh as the first.

April has thrown at us a bizarre combination of exceptionally dry days with intense night frosts. This I suspect has held many migrants back, but yesterday three house martins returned to the village. One of them came straight to last year’s nest on our house. After a few visits in the morning it spent the afternoon making the most of the best time of day to find insects and was not seen again until the evening when it came in to roost. Its artificial nest cup was specially positioned so Tolly could see the entrance from his pillow and this morning, his birthday, he had the gift of a newly returned house martin! Hopefully the first of many…

Many people, especially in the south, have seen their first swifts. I have that pleasure to come. People exclaim “the swifts are back”; well, a very small percentage of the swifts are back. Swifts that will breed this year will keep on arriving well into the second half of May. Most years see several obvious arrivals of breeding swifts. Sometimes these can be dramatic with huge increases literally overnight. But for now what is here is the very tip of the iceberg.

As I stand in the garden as the evening cools I look for the first local swift. Evening time is a good time to look for these birds as they sometimes circle before they descend into last year’s nest site. It is a time to savour as the cool air is filled with the rich sound of blackbird song. This is the sound I most associate with seeing my first swift of the year.

 

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April 15th- spring at Yorkshire Arboretum. Observations from my artist’s residency.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at Yorkshire Arboretum as artist in residence, catching up on the many changes as spring progresses. A subject I have been really keen to paint is shadows of branches on tree trunks. From the start of my residency I began to notice the strength of tone in these shadows on larger oaks in particular. Tonally they are as strong as the branches themselves often continuing over the ground around the tree. They make a fascinating subject sometimes forming some really interesting shapes. It has become something of an obsession, the painting process feeling almost abstract at times although very much the result of life observation.

The shadows of bare branches are a particular feature of winter and early spring so I have been making these studies in anticipation of emerging foliage. It really teaches you to draw what you see rather than what you think you know. Painting a dark shadow of a branch on a trunk can at first seem daunting, but with careful observation of the subject you start to realise that this is what we see all the time. Next time you pass a large tree try looking at the shadows rather than the bark and you may see what I mean.

It has been a delight to be in the grounds as spring advances. A visit on March 22nd came after an intense early frost (-5.7C). By mid morning the sun felt really warm in a light breeze- one of those early spring days when for the first time in a long time you realise that you are overdressed. The goat willows were in full bloom and heaving with insects, especially queen buff-tailed bumble bees. Amongst them up to four small tortoiseshells nectaring on the flowers. I stood mesmerised by the sight, sound and smell. suddenly after a long cold winter the warmth hit me. The sight of the yellow flowers and orange tortoiseshells against a cerulean blue sky was a true tonic.

A single chiffchaff freshly arrived belted out its name from a nearby ash, those two rather plaintive notes repeated over and over again pure joy to my ears. I had good views and managed a few sketches of this restless bird. The lake has a pair of little grebes. I spent some time sketching these incredibly fluffy grebes with their gorgeous burnt sienna cheeks. Patient observation enabled me to find the nest site which will soon be hidden by emerging leaves.

We have had an intense run of hard frosts at night, in fact every night in April thus far has seen a frost to some degree. Although some days have turned reasonably warm the night time temperatures (and lack of rainfall) are wilting some plants and probably holding back a certain amount of bird migration. Swallows remain very scarce. I find myself gazing into the blue sky willing Hirundines and swifts to be here when I know that most are still days or weeks away. But there is no doubt, the season of sky gazing in a craned neck posture has begun!

 

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April 7th- rooks and snow showers. The anniversary of the start of sketches and notes from from Gilling East.

It is now just over a year since I began blogging regularly from Gilling East, North Yorkshire. All the blogs are available on this website if you want to read them again and compare 2020 to 2021. April 7th this year is a lot colder than the same date last year. No chance today of the first orange tip, recorded on this day in 2020. Blue tits were busy building their nest, no sign of that yet this year. Recent days have seen the most beautiful skies, cold, crystal clear Arctic air bringing snow showers over the valley, another stark contrast to this time last year when we were experiencing settled warm conditions.

I have not yet started to sort out a year’s worth of writing and sketching. I have painted hundreds of watercolours with 19 sketchbooks filled, including some very specific projects on skies, swifts, house martins and other subjects, but seen together this body of work represents a natural year around the village of Gilling East. I have always been something of a local patch naturalist but never more so than now. My art college dissertation was about my hero the Reverend Gilbert White who was perhaps the ultimate patch naturalist. His natural history of Selborne remains one of the greatest works of its kind; as I wandered I found myself thinking of him often. He would perfectly understand what so many have come to understand this last year about the advantages of being a local naturalist.

I can expand my horizons now as lockdown eases, but I find myself torn. Yes, I crave new horizons; sea, moors, estuaries and marshes, ancient woodland and wider skies, but the thought of driving to go for a walk now seems ridiculous! Through exceptional circumstances I have been forced to change the way I work. More than ever I simply go out and paint exactly what I want to paint with no thought as to whether it will be framed or sold in a gallery. This is how I will to continue to work, blogging on a regular basis as a major incentive to create and share new work. I have been both surprised and delighted by the response to the blog. Thank you so much for all the comments, shared sightings and enthusiasm over the past year. I may not match the continuous 125 day stretch achieved last year but I will be aiming to blog two or three times a week. 

I have been sketching rooks again. They are busy commuting back and forth from the rookery to the fields. This displaying bird was largely ignored by all other rooks around it. What a stunning bird to look at in bright early morning sunshine. The iridescence of its feathers constantly changing.

The cold weather has rather checked the rush of spring that was happening in last week’s warmth. Blackthorn blossom is just starting to make an impact locally, it is easy to see the colder spots where much remains firmly in bud. I love the flower bud stage of blackthorn, like thousands of tiny stars shining against the dark inner branches. With frequent snow showers and such sharp frosts I cannot remember such a perfect example of a blackthorn winter.

 

Heavy showers decaying at dusk- 5th April 7.45pm.
April 7th 2020- a much warmer day than April 7th 2021!
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April 2nd- hawfinches!

The Holbeck banks are gradually greening up with fresh growth. I sketched this scene at dawn on Wednesday. Skylarks, a chiffchaff, reed buntings and yellowhammers provided the soundtrack to the scene. As dawn broke there was a light, cool breeze ahead of a very warm March day.

I found some hawfinches on the patch this week. I heard them make their loud ticking call before locating them at the top of a poplar tree where they were eating the fattening buds. I had great views of them bathed in early morning sunshine.

The hawfinch is one of my favourite species to draw and paint; their proportions are extraordinary, cartoon like almost! I have to keep checking my drawing to make sure I have not exaggerated the size of the huge head and bill. The head is packed with powerful muscles which make light work of splitting tough seed cases to extract the kernels; I have watched them casually cracking sloe stones in autumn. Their plumage is very beautiful, the male has a blue grey bill in the breeding season which contrasts with the rich bronze head plumage. It is easily the biggest species of finch found in the UK and they were dwarfing the siskins and goldfinches that were feeding nearby. When I returned home the bullfinches were stripping buds on our neighbour’s apple tree. 

It has been a week of contrasts. Chiffchaffs are well established now having arrived in mid March. No suitable piece of habitat seems to be without a singing male chiffchaff at the moment. Meanwhile the sand martins are back on the Holbeck. We have a small colony in the village. We saw our first swallow on Tuesday, sleek, fast and so utterly different to anything else in the sky, a joy to see; but what weather awaits this early bird? The forecast for very cold weather on Monday and for much of next week will present this bird with a challenge if it is to survive to breed in late April or May.

Meanwhile as the first summer migrants arrive winter visitors are ready to depart. We have seen a few redwings this week and a flock of about 75 fieldfares. The fieldfares were gorging themselves on ivy berries ahead of their impending North Sea crossing, en route to their Scandinavian breeding grounds. Hearing their harsh “chack-chack” calls reminded me of their arrival back in October. These lovely birds have been with us for six months and have been such a welcome sight through the winter. I will miss them until I start to anticipate their return again in October.