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June 21st- spotted flycatchers feeding young and Swift Diary

We feel so lucky to have a pair of spotted flycatchers nesting close to the garden. This pair arrived in May and wasted no time at all. Now they are feeding young. Their needs seem to be few in terms of territory. They collect most of their food it seems within a very small area, literally two or three gardens. They very rarely visit our garden even though we are well within 100m of their nest. Considering this it does really make you wonder why they have declined so drastically to the point of being red listed? But it is a delight to watch them, such proficient aerial insect hunters and all being well there will be some very precious flycatcher fledglings around soon…

Swift diary

We currently have two breeding pairs, one our established pair feeding six day old chicks the other now incubating two eggs having first entered a new box on 9th June. The last week has been cooler than the first half of June, but we’ve seen plenty of activity and I expect this will really ramp up when younger non breeders arrive. Last year there was an obvious arrival of younger birds on 23rd June though it was short lived and they departed for two weeks due to bad weather on 26th June, returning on 10th July.

Our new pair has learnt incubation quickly. Their change overs are rapid and the eggs are rarely left uncovered. They first entered the nest box on 9th June and now they are incubating two eggs. They have not added any nest material until today, indeed they have even expelled feathers provided by us in preference of a bare nest mould. The mould is a very effective, quite expensive Schwegler woodcrete one, but talking to friends who watch bigger colonies it seems that this behaviour is down to individuals. Swifts often add material to the structure throughout incubation stopping as soon as the eggs hatch. Sometimes it looks as if they do it to relieve the boredom while they sit on the nest for extended periods! Two weeks ago we had one pair of swifts but change can indeed be swift in the swift world and it suddenly feels like we have a small colony in the making. 

Watching the swifts over the weekend I was struck as always by how low they drop to gain flying speed. Whilst we know they could leave the nest on a much more level trajectory, as most fledglings swifts do, it seems the adults deliberately choose this low path before gaining height. Perhaps gaining speed assisted by gravity gives them the highest chance of escape if a predator were to spot them or perhaps this is the most efficient way of gaining flying speed, or perhaps both? Whatever the reason their departures low above the lawn result in some spectacular views. They are very often at leg height before climbing higher and sometimes you can literally look them in the eye as they pass.

Yesterday evening one of our pair feeding young returned to the nest at 10.23pm after a late food gathering foray. Midsummer is here, there are perhaps six or seven more weeks of the peak swift season. Beyond that time only late breeders are likely to linger. So now is the time to relish every swift sighting; store them in your memory for the largely swiftless nine months ahead. 

Spotted flycatchers- Gilling East.
Swift returning to roost on midsummer’s eve eve- 10.23pm.
Swift, very fluffed up, incubating two eggs.
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June 17th- a second pair of swifts and dabchicks at the arboretum

I had a delightful encounter with a family of little grebes at Yorkshire Arboretum lake on Tuesday. They were swimming amongst bright green weed and seemed to be eating tadpoles. The lake is looking stunning, bordered by flag iris and currently attracting large numbers of azure damselflies. Also present were four-spotted and broad-bodied chasers and several emperor dragonflies.

I will blog from the arboretum very soon but if you have the chance to go at the moment it is looking very beautiful with trees at their early summer best and so much of the grounds now areas of meadow with orchids, ragged robin, buttercups and ox eye daisies to name but a few. A newly fledged family of redstarts was near the perimeter wall. As far as I can tell there were at least two pairs of these stunning birds breeding in the grounds, probably three.

We are approaching the end of a time when I simply can’t paint or see enough! March through to early June sees summer migrants arrive and so many species breeding. Plants, insects and mammals all vying for my attention. There is simply too much to paint. I only scratch the surface. I am just at the point where I am asking myself what might I not see now before it is too late this year. I haven’t seen a cuckoo this spring. I heard one distantly, but not one sighting. There might still be time with an early morning visit to the moors…

Swift Diary

I thought I’d start by setting the scene for the swift and house martin activity here. It also shows how different nest box designs are used. When we moved here in 2017 I wanted to experiment with some different aspects and designs of swift box. Traditionally most birds in this area nest under pan tiles just above the gutter. 

The photograph below shows a section of our eaves. Red is occupied swift boxes, blue is occupied house martin cups and brown is a swift box occupied by tree sparrows. The first swift box to be used (2019) was the left hand box. The swifts make dramatic 90 degree turn to enter the box parallel to the wall and have no problems negotiating the flight path, even when the window is wide open. The latest swift box to be occupied (right of the window) is a self made variation on a typical ramp box with a side rather than bottom entrance.

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Our new pair which first visited the nest box on 7th June this year have just laid an egg! They were mating on the nest last night and a dropping appeared near the nest cup this morning- a real clue that an egg is on the way, as adult swifts rarely defecate in the nest area except before laying eggs. They have not added a single piece of nesting material to the Schwegler nest mould- the egg is laid on bare woodcrete. The pair have gone completely silent since first entering the nest box. They are about three feet away from my existing breeding pair who are feeding young chicks. This pair does not react at all to screams from the new neighbours, seemingly showing complete acceptance. I suspect that my new pair will have known the breeders for two or even three summer seasons, but as ever with swifts it’s guesswork.

I will be interested to see if the new pair start to add nest material as they incubate. All being well, assuming they have two eggs they will fledge young around 19th August, so we will have swifts for a couple of months yet. In my experience these late breeding birds mingle with house martins quite a lot so the two pairs on our house will be good company for them as extra eyes for danger and as locators of good feeding areas.

It has taken two years from having our first breeding pair to attract the next. I continued to play calls on the other side of the house but the new pair chose the box next to the existing breeders where no calls were played. Personally I cannot wait to dispense with the calling system and I won’t play it anymore now. I love to hear the natural sounds of swifts. In my experience if there is a reasonable population locally, boxes fill without playing calls once you have one and perhaps especially more than one pair.

You could be forgiven for thinking we don’t have swifts recently. Once they took possession of the box screaming fly-pasts and landing on the breeders’ nest box stopped even in perfect swift weather. I am quite sure the new pair, nest site selected, threw all their energy into breeding. I think we will have to await a further wave of younger non-breeders to see anymore action now. But, it’s a lovely feeling knowing that a colony is forming.

If you have a drink outside at the nearby Fairfax Arms you will now be able to see swifts and house martins above our house. I hope the experience is enhanced for many by the sight and sounds of increasing numbers of swifts and house martins in the airspace above the pub as they approach and depart from our house. This week the Fairfax Arms joined the club and with a little persuasion from me put up two swift boxes. When we help swifts and house martins we are adding to the soundtrack of summer for so many people even if they don’t know it.

 

Little grebes at Yorkshire Arboretum.
Swifts and house martins above the studio.
Male redstart at Yorkshire Arboretum.
Swift coming in to roost- 10.05pm.
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Swift diary- forming a new colony and some observations on banging and nest site selection

We moved to Gilling East, North Yorkshire in 2017. The village previously had a maximum of c5 pairs when we moved here, the nearest from our house c150m away in the village hall. By 2019 they were breeding. We have attracted swifts to three houses now. The first was in 2003 in Wiltshire- remarkably one of my plywood nest boxes there is still being used by swifts! I used an old Sony cassette player on the ground below the boxes to attract them there- it took just two years.

Gilling East swifts- a brief summary
2017 first summer living in Gilling East, calls played, fairly typical chaotic prospecting by three birds on just two days in late July.
2018 June- some much more serious prospecting this year with landing on boxes and brief entering of boxes.
July 23rd first bird in box 1 for a substantial amount of time but not roosting.
July 25th pair in box 1 but not roosting.
2019 pair return to box 1 late May and breed, fledging young in late August. No new pairs attracted but plenty of prospecting and single swifts occasionally entering other boxes.
2020 pair return to box 1, normal breeding time. Plenty of prospecting but only one or two very brief entries to other boxes all season. No new non- breeding pairs attracted into boxes.
2021 first pair box 1 arrive in mid-May now incubating, soon to hatch. New pair attracted to box 2 on 9th June ,roosting every night since. Hopefully they will build a nest, possibly breed late.

Bangers

I have long thought that ‘bangers’ as a description of swift behaviour should be more specific. After countless observations I see two distinct types of ‘banging’.

The first type is often most noticeable earlier in the season (from end of May) when the younger non breeders are not here, but happens throughout. They are probably older non breeders, more experienced at approach and landing. They aim at a breeders’ box and perch first time and perch long enough to invite a response from them, often screaming into their nest box. I am almost certain that my new pair did this to the breeders a couple of days before they moved in. They repeatedly land on the breeders’ box, in my case the only breeding pair on the house. They could clearly land on any box but choose the breeders’ box. Why, curiosity, or perhaps they are already fellow members of the colony so perhaps this banging is an extension of social aerial activity??

The type most often referred to as ‘banging’ is more random and involves touching or landing on multiple boxes or below them, under gutters etc. In my view many of these birds will not be persuaded to enter that year because they are simply not mature enough. They appear to be practicing approach and landing. Swifts although amazing fliers have to learn manoeuvres in tight spaces. If you watch them you can see they try different approach angles. Eventually more experienced birds learn the most efficient flight path.

Much of the swift behaviour we watch (and many get frustrated by) will not lead to finding a nest site that season because they are not mature enough to feel the urge to do so. Can we even prove that this behaviour is prospecting for nest sites or could it be something else? Many of these birds will be too young to breed or even think about breeding and perhaps they are practicing approach and landing rather than looking for a specific site? Or perhaps it is largely a social activity? A swift’s eyesight is incredibly sharp so it is inconceivable that they do not see the entrance to a nest box.

When swifts do become sexually mature the ‘switch’ is flicked and they may suddenly enter nest boxes confidently and rapidly. No amount of call playing will persuade them to do so until that ‘switch’ is flicked, however the calls have attracted them to a new potential nesting area which they will probably return to the next year. I have no doubt they see the nest box entrances, how couldn’t they, but they have to be old enough to take it further. Why they take so long to mature, we don’t know?

Solo prospectors

One more thought on nest site selection. Having started three colonies at different houses since 2003, consistently the birds to watch have been the solo prospectors. There is no doubt they select quiet times to prospect for nest sites, when the ‘bangers’ are not around. They make no calls at all. At our colony in Ampleforth one such bird was an aberrant male which silently and alone entered a nest box three short times in a season. It never roosted and didn’t attract a mate but it came straight back to breed the following spring.

Once the site is entered and selected the swift will return with a mate, again at a quiet time, sometimes even the following year. The pair will circuit fast with the lead bird showing its mate the nest site often screaming when close to the entrance. After a few fast circuits this bird will enter the site hoping the mate will follow. This can happen quickly or the mate can take many attempts to get the approach and landing right. We have just gained a second pair in the nest box next to our incubating pair. The second bird took about a day to settle with its mate in the nest box. Now they enter the box in very quick succession.

Non breeding occupants to breeding pair

I have seen two main scenarios where birds enter nest boxes then breed.

  1. A pair enter from June onwards and start a nest to be used the following year. They can enter for the first time a few days before most swifts leave and breed the following spring. I put a new nest box up on 20th July 2018, a pair was in on 23rd July 2018 and it was used for breeding in 2019.
  2. . A single bird (male?) enters a box several times in a season but doesn’t roost or attract a mate in. It returns to the box the following spring, attracts a mate and breeds that year.

For anyone currently frustrated by watching ‘banging’ without birds entering nest boxes I would say enjoy the presence of swifts in the moment. We can only speculate about the age and sex of the birds doing this and why they do it. I have watched this behaviour countless times and in some years they don’t enter a box at all. There is so much we don’t know; enjoy the experience of having these magnificent birds so close. The chances are that when that maturity ‘switch’ is flicked you will have swifts on your house. 

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June 9th- swift and house martin update

Swift Diary

Our swift pair has been incubating two eggs for a fortnight now. They are very quietly going about their egg care while outside much has changed since my last blog. The weather warmed at the end of May and June has started with some perfect weather for swift watching. The older non breeding birds arrived in good numbers here and have put on quite a show. We have seen them landing confidently on the breeders’ nest box, in response the breeders scream wildly at the imposters who stick their heads right in the entrance for a look. The cling on is brief and they soon fall away.

There was generally little interest in other boxes to start with but all that changed last Sunday when a pair started investigating more seriously. This coincided with an online event I was doing with Charles Foster, author of The Screaming Sky, you can watch my distraction here! 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=wv9NsW_T_h4&feature=youtu.be

The distraction was older non breeding birds, probably three year olds who are already paired up but are searching for a nest site. Or they were, because since yesterday they have taken to a nest box next to our incubating pair.

These newly paired birds sometimes have a late breeding attempt. When living in Wiltshire I had a pair first enter a nest box on June 14th: they bred and fledged young on September 10th. The behaviour of older non breeders is inspiring to watch. They perform the most energetic flight, especially at dusk; impossibly tight, fast turns, screaming all the while. The lead bird(probably a male?) utters a loud ‘peep’ call as he approaches the nest site and screams wildly when close to advertise it to the mate. After a few circuits they slow down a little and the lead bird flies more slowly at the nest box making sure its mate is close behind. It then enters the nest box hoping that the mate will follow. This can take practice and often the lead will have to leave the box and coax its mate again. However in this case both were in the box within a day.

It is incredible to think that a swift after nearly three years first touches down with another in such a confined space. To begin with brief squabbles take place but soon they mutually preen each other whilst uttering a soft piping bonding call. Today both have been in the box together on several occasions so I am optimistic they will stay now. From our first pair breeding in 2019 we have a second pair on the house. They could occupy the box all summer and perhaps build a nest ready for next year or perhaps like my first nest box pair in 2003 they will attempt to breed…

In the air swifts are displaying their finest flight; fueled by abundant insect life in this warm weather they have lots of energy to fly at their limits. Look out for pairs flying slowly near potential nest sites on stiff quivering wings, this is a particularly beautiful flight to see. Sometimes high speed passes also see swifts vibrating their wings. We can see swifts preforming the ‘v’ display where they hold their wings high and lose height rapidly. We can only speculate why they do this as we can’t tell male from female but it does certainly seem to be a strong signal to the following bird. These are days to savour: who knows how the rest of the summer will pan out? Last year we had roughly four weeks of poor weather in June and July with virtually no flying displays.

Take in every flypast. If you have prospecting birds throwing themselves seemingly randomly at your eaves, not your boxes, don’t become frustrated, relax and enjoy the sight and sound and be grateful you have swifts around- they will go in when they are ready and not before. Most of the birds you watch doing this are practicing approach and landing or still looking for a colony to join and will not attempt to enter a breeding site until they are mature enough. When they are it is like a switch being flicked and there is no stopping them finding a nest site.

House Martin Diary
We now have three pairs of house martins, two pairs incubating and another pair probably laying. This time last year we had none. However numbers in the area are very poor indeed. Fortunes looked mixed across the country. There is still time for first time breeders to arrive but the clock is certainly ticking now. We feel so fortunate to have them, but with many collapsed or reduced colonies being reported we can never take them for granted.

Below, watercolours from the last two days. All my studies of swifts in the sky are from observations of real formations as they pass.