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.


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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