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May 27th- spotted flycatcher and swift and house martin diary.

We feel very privileged to see spotted flycatchers back in the village. One is currently nest building. This species is one I hold with huge affection. It was one of the first species I really studied and sketched in my early teens. In the days when every reasonably sized garden or churchyard seemed to have a pair nesting I was lucky to observe them using nest boxes placed in view of my bedroom window. Indeed my first woodwork project at secondary school was a chance for me to build a flycatcher nest box!

I watched a display by the male showing a female a nest site on numerous occasions. The sense of privilege even back then that this long distance migrant appeared each summer in our garden is only increased now by their relative scarcity. How sad to think of the decline of this once common and much loved species.

It is an attractive bird. If you look closely the shade of brown or fawn of its upperparts has a slightly pinkish undertone. The breast and throat feathers are silvery white to cream admixed with very subtle stripes. Their behaviour is a delight to watch, the bird powering then gliding fast towards its insect prey with deadly accuracy before perching again.

Swift Diary
Our swift pair, which in recent poor weather has frequently been the sum of swifts visible here has at last been joined by more birds. As the air warms swifts are more able to feed locally, high above their nest sites, so we have been seeing some wonderful swift behaviour again. including courtship chases and mating on the wing. As even warmer weather arrives things should really ramp up. Some of the first younger non breeding birds should arrive and that is when those hoping to attract swifts need to be ready with call systems. This morning we were treated to frequent fast low level passes by up to five swifts, just wonderful!

Many people this year have observed birds returning and still waiting for a mate to arrive. Hopefully many pairs will be reunited this weekend as the last breeding age birds arrive. In some cases mates will have been lost and those swifts in search of a new mate will begin to lead a potential partner to their nest sites. This can be spectacular to watch. It can also be frustrating to watch as a new mate has to learn the approach path and landing. I remember a day a couple of years ago when a swift tried to lead a mate into our nest box. Thirty or more times he entered the box but each time the other would peel off at the last second. The next day the new mate finally entered the box and after that the pair never looked back.

Our pair now have two eggs but do not seem to be incubating yet, There might be a third on the way, we will have to wait and see? Unusually there was a 72 hour gap between the first two eggs being laid. This gap is normally 48 hours, the egg always being laid in the morning. The 72 hour gap is undoubtedly weather related with the female swift needing more time to make the egg in the cold conditions.

House Martin Diary
I am more concerned about house martins than I am about swifts this year. We are very lucky to have two pairs of house martins on the house but neither pair has laid eggs yet. One bird has been back over a month now without attempting to breed. Numbers of house martins are well down for this time of May though today we have seen much more activity in warmer weather so I hope we can welcome some additional pairs yet. Like swifts house martins arrive in waves and we are yet to see younger birds born last year. These birds nest later in late May and through June, but for the older birds already here breeding has been severely delayed and this could well have an impact of productivity this summer. Given good weather now, some birds will hopefully raise two broods.

It is wonderful to have house martins back. This time last year I had been trying and failing to attract them since May 2017. That all changed in June 2020, but you can never take this for granted. A friend in nearby Easingwold who had 5 pairs last year has yet to have any return. I feel his pain, for once you have lived with these birds you miss them when they are not around. Their cheerful calls are as much a part of summer as the screaming of swifts and they last through to September providing comfort when the swifts suddenly depart.

I would recommend trying to attract house martins. Artificial nest cups enable them to progress quickly with breeding which can help sustain local populations. For information on artificial nest cups and other ways you can help house martins see the link below:

Nest cups
Swifts mating in the air
Swifts confined to the nest box in cold, wet weather.
Swift on nest
Swifts feeding high in a late spring sky, at last!
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May 20th- a slow swift arrival

Since my last swift and house martin update very little has changed. There has been no arrival of house martins in the village since 10th May. This has meant that those birds that are here have settled in existing mud nests or artificial nests. I hope more of last year’s breeding house martins will turn up as well as the usual later wave of first time breeders which tends to arrive in the second half of May and June. The two pairs in our artificial nests are not yet incubating eggs and with very poor weather here I can imagine a further delay in breeding and in the arrival of more birds. We know swifts are very late to build up numbers this year and hope martins are the same- time will tell.

Our swift pair is very settled, but like the house martins they are having to make the most of any fine weather to feed, hence there is very little activity around the nesting sites. Large numbers of swifts were recorded passing watchpoints in the south of France on 17th May- yesterday the area saw an arrival of swifts from this passage. So numbers have increased but hopefully there are many more breeding swifts to arrive yet. There was another big ‘pulse’ of swifts north through the south of France yesterday but with the weather here deteriorating so rapidly it remains to be seen whether they carry on to our shores quickly or bide their time on the Continent.

The skies recently have been stunning with a typical day seeing cumulus cloud building up through the morning and some impressive cumulonimbus clouds forming by early afternoon. For me this has been a week to paint skies. Something I look forward to each winter is days outside painting summer skies containing swifts, swallows and house martins. As I write the temperature has dropped to 9C and moderate to heavy rain is set in. Our swift pair is in the nest box huddled close to each other, conserving the energy they gained from this morning’s dry feeding sortie. It is going to be a tough few days for the swifts, swallows and martins. Many swifts will have just arrived and will need to build up condition ahead of breeding- no easy task with so few insects on the wing.

It you are trying to attract swifts to your nest boxes, playing calls often has little or no effect at this point in the swift season. That is because most swifts here are already tied to an existing nest site. However it could just be worthwhile; if local swifts have lost a nest site you might persuade them to use a nest box. So for now don’t be despondent if your calls have no reaction even from swifts overhead. Hopefully towards the very end of the month, given warmer weather the first non breeding prospecting swifts will be here; this is the time playing calls can really work its magic. From my own observations starting colonies, 6-11am is the peak time for prospecting or ‘banging’, perhaps especially 7-10am. There is often a session at lunchtime or at the end of the afternoon on really warm days. Evenings in my experience are best for watching high speed low fly pasts and actual prospecting is more unusual than during the morning. Good luck!

 

Swifts huddled up on nest
Swifts mutual preening

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May 14th- BTO BBS 2021 and swift and house martin diary.

Yesterday morning my alarm was set for 4am. As is always the case I awoke before the alarm. The dawn chorus was already underway and there was a soft glow of light in the sky. I was up before dawn for my British Trust for Ornithology Breeding Birds Survey on the Ampleforth estate. It is such a rewarding experience to be out enjoying the countryside, so quiet, at this time of morning, while recording valuable data on bird populations. Many of the statistics on bird populations you hear in the media are down to hundreds of us who go out and gather information. On a local level it can be valuable information to protect threatened habitat.

I am lucky to survey an area with a wide variety of species. There was nothing particularly unusual this morning but it was reassuring to see familiar species such as yellowhammer, whitethroat and lesser whitethroat in the usual territories. The water colour below shows the sky at dawn looking east from Gilling. I had superb views of a fox as a bonus. After the survey I walked in the local woods and was delighted to find a spotted flycatcher, my first this year and a stunning male redstart.

Swift diary
11th- 14th May
Our swift pair is very settled. They leave one after the other at around 8am and return at about 7pm to roost. The mornings and evenings are too cool to offer them any insect food so they reserve energy by siting tight on the nest. There are one or two visits in the day to add feathers to the nest structure and very occasional fast screaming passes by the nest box but essentially they are off feeding as much as possible to gain condition for breeding.

The number of swifts back over Gilling East remains low. This is a common story across the country. I think we have around 20% of breeding birds back here. This number would include well established breeders and those that occupied a nest site before they were old enough to breed last summer. It is worth rereading David Lack’s Swifts in a Tower at this time of year. In the chapter Migration he describes the annual variation in arrival of swifts, it was just as unpredictable in the 1950s. What might have changed since then is the long term climate trend which could be influencing arrival times? While it was cold here in April we were surrounded by areas that were much warmer than average, including the Arctic. 

Today has been grey and cool and the swifts have not been seen at all since they left this morning.

House martin diary
We have two pairs established, one pair possibly laying eggs now. They come and go, but a bit like the swifts are absent for much of the day as they feed up ahead of breeding. There has been no sign of any new birds arriving recently. Soon we should expect some one year old first time breeders. They are usually easy to spot because they prospect new sites and ‘bother’ established breeders as they look for a place to settle.

Look out for male house martins as they try and coax a female to a new nest site. They fly down to the eaves in a graceful fast descent with tail held down and closed almost to a single point. Once in the nest or perched on a potential new site they utter a rasping “chi, chi, chi” call to the female. Sometimes she will land next to him and they ‘chatter’ or he will not succeed and will be left under the eaves calling, unable to see his potential mate due to the roof overhang.

It is lovely to have both species nesting on our house. They are a great combination and exist very well alongside each other. House martins tend to forage much closer to their nests when the weather is poor, so when swifts are away the martins are often close. We can watch them feeding around tree foliage in the nearby woods. This is a regular habit for martins, particularly in cooler weather or in the evenings. They fly right between the tree tops, almost taking insects directly from the foliage. Such maneuverability offers them an advantage over swifts.

 

May 13th, Gilling East, 4.50am
Redstart- Gilling Woods
Spotted flycatcher- Gilling Woods
Swift pair bonding soon after reuniting in nest box.
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May 11th- swift and house martin diary

9th May– our first swift returns to nest box 2. It (almost certainly a male) first enters the nest box early in the morning, rests for a while and then leaves to feed for the day returning to roost at around 4.30pm. The evening cooled quickly so the swift had little cause to leave the nest box, preferring instead to save the energy it gained from food caught in the warmest part of the day.

10th May– after leaving at 7.30am the swift is out feeding for most of the day. It returns early in the evening to roost. A maximum of three swifts seen above Gilling East today.

11th May– I awake to the sight of a pair of swifts in the nest box. The second bird (probably last year’s mate) arrived at 5.38am. The pair quickly settled on the nest and began mutual preening. They left to feed at 8.30am. This gave me the chance to sketch one bird’s face. Swifts can be easy to tell apart with a good view. This was the first bird back on 9th and almost certainly the male. I will make some studies of his mate tomorrow. To do this I use a telescope and sketch the birds as they look out of the entrance hole before they leave. At 10.30am 8 swifts were screaming in a tight flock about 200 feet above the village, a sure sign that the breeding birds are beginning to assemble; shortly afterwards our pair make a couple of very fast passes by the nest box. At around noon a swift brings a large white feather to the nest box.

I spent a glorious morning painting in the garden. It is dandelion time and I’m proud of our show of these cadmium yellow beauties, soon to turn to seed which attracts bullfinches, greenfinches and goldfinches. I made some cloud studies in oil and water colour. This was the first morning of the year when swifts could always be seen trawling the sky above the village. I am struck, as every year by the sheer distance they cover in a few seconds. We had several fast screaming passes.

While we relish having the swifts back we are also thrilled by the arrival of a second pair of house martins. They are using an artificial nest cup on the back of the house. The airspace above the garden is suddenly very busy and the sound of house martins and swifts fills the air. The morning was warm with some stunning cloud formations. Convective showers built up by early afternoon. As I write torrential rain and lightning is overhead, our swift pair came back to their box just before the rain arrived. It is an impressive storm, but I can’t help wondering how it compares to the thunderstorms they may have encountered over the winter in Africa.

 

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May 7th- still no swift and our single house martin

I still haven’t seen a swift. I have scanned the skies relentlessly to no avail. Talking to other friends with swift colonies around the north it does look like the north has fewer swifts back, though even in the south the majority of this year’s breeding birds are yet to arrive. When they do numbers could increase suddenly and dramatically; there must be a build of of swifts now somewhere south of the Mediterranean.

A single male house martin arrived back at our house on 26th April. He vanishes for most of the day, probably to feed over water, then returns at about 8pm to roost. On one occasion a second bird nearly joined him but with the arrival of more really cold days he has spent each freezing cold night alone. It seems that there was an initial early arrival of some house martins and since then the prevailing cold northerly wind has delayed the arrival of other birds. With a change, at least briefly, to southerly winds this weekend he may have a chance of attracting a mate soon…?

Our house martin, clearly eager to return and secure a nest, has taken quite a risk. He has endured some unseasonably cold conditions. Yesterday afternoon we had an hour or so of continuous hail with a few lightning strikes for good measure. The skies were spectacular as towering cumulonimbus clouds tracked south east across our area. Incredibly at about 4pm the temperature dropped to 2.7C. I simply don’t know how these birds survive sometimes. But yesterday evening after the storm had cleared he appeared and entered the nest to roost.

He is probably the male who left a female to tend to three chicks last September. He left with the main departure of house martins. Sadly the female and all three chicks died of starvation at the end of September; it was very sad finding four house martin corpses in the nest cup. But if you look at the situation objectively, he was saving himself to hopefully have a more successful breeding season this year. Had he stayed there might have been five corpses? I cannot prove of course that it is the same bird, but on 26th April he returned straight to the same nest and has not visited any other nest, so it does seem highly likely.

For now he awaits back up. There have been just 2-3 house martins in the village since 26th, all awaiting the next arrival. I will be writing a regular blog with sketches of house martin and swift activity throughout the summer. Do sign up to receive the blog by email if you would be interested to read future updates.

 

The artificial nest cup currently occupied by our first returned male house martin. The positioning offers superb views of the birds from my son’s bedroom!