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.

3 thoughts on “May 14th- BTO BBS 2021 and swift and house martin diary.”

  1. I am so envious, Jonathan, of the abundance of wildlife around your home. I am in Hull in quite an urban neighbourhood, but still have 3 Swift boxes on my house and still stay positive that one day they will locate them and move in for many seasons to come. Beautiful art as always. Thank you.

    1. Dear Melanie, do get in touch if you need any swift attracting advice, calls etc. The weather has been perfect for them. Hope you’ve seen some near?
      Thank you for your comments. Best wishes, Jonathan

  2. We also got up at 4am (on Friday), to take advantage of a break in the wet weather and make the second visit to one of our BBS squares in South Wales The early start and steep hillsides present an increasing challenge as we age, but the rewards are great.

    We had a real surprise on the way when a Barn Owl flew in front of us, far from common in this area. Further unexpected birds for the square in question included Tree Pipit and Wheatear, both absent in recent years. A Whinchat was good to see, they are just clinging on in this location, where Stonechats seem to be increasing. Cuckoos and a Green Woodpecker were heard, but not seen, as is often the case.

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