July 25th- swift and house martin diary

The swift season is showing real signs of winding down here in Gilling East. This is a few days earlier than usual, but the summer has been so good for them and I think that all ages have probably achieved all they need to until next year. Any birds old enough to enter nest spaces have probably done so, younger birds have had ample good weather to build up a memory map of feeding and nest sites and have perhaps joined a colony in anticipation of next year.

Prospecting activity ceased well over a week ago now though we have been treated to some wonderful fast passes and some big high level calling packs of 30-40 swifts on occasion- exceptionally good numbers for Gilling. This number has almost halved in recent days.

We have had quite an influx of house martins though it remains to be seen how many second broods we will see. Two lots of fledglings still clamour into the nests at night with some taking over empty artificial nest cups too. I often wonder how the adults even contemplate a second brood with the young crowding into the nest.

Recently fledged house martins pile in at roost time and often end up entering swift boxes by mistake. Usually they encounter wild screaming from the rightful occupants and leave rapidly but last Thursday evening a house martin found itself cornered after entering an occupied swift box. The box has two 17 day old chicks. I think the house martin was lucky to get away with its life on initial entry as it was attacked; I fully expected it to be killed by the adult swifts, but the situation settled down after the initial hostility. The house martin roosted right in the nest cup with the two chicks and was often preened by the adult swifts. It had countless opportunities to leave unhindered. The swifts had plenty of opportunity to attack or usurp it after first light as it lingered until it heard our other house martins. At 6.53 am it casually wandered to the entrance and flew off unharmed.

What I find interesting is the wider relationship between house martins and swifts. I’ve had both species on three different houses now and the interaction between these birds is fascinating. I think this sort of behaviour probably happens more than we realised but could be nothing more than inexperience leading to misjudgement and timing. A few seconds later and the house martin would not have been cornered in the box and would have roosted elsewhere. In other similar situations young martins may have been killed by swifts? Perhaps the most interesting question here is whether another species (for example a young house sparrow) would have been tolerated to the same extent?

At times the airspace above our house is alive with house martins; adults and fledglings mingling with our swifts. After a very late start with poor numbers the population in Gilling East is looking much better, if still well below last year. As we are already seeing the departure of most swifts I look forward to enjoying the rest of the summer in the company of house martins. We will also have swifts until around 20th August as our later pair continue to feed their chicks.


House martin fledgling roosts in swift nest.
Many swift fast low level passes today but no nest site prospecting.
House martins prospecting today.
High flying packs of swifts now a common sight as large numbers prepare to leave.

July 19th- swift diary

Well what a weekend! Saturday topped 30.7 Celsius here in Gilling East and the swifts responded with panache. The non breeders visited almost continuously in the afternoon going round and round, the noise at times almost hurt our ears. Fortunately in that heat we were able to stay at home and laze in the garden so a day of water fights, icy drinks and swift watching with the family was in order! Late in the morning some swifts began to dangle their feet to gain the cooling effect of airflow over their toes, something I have noticed that a proportion do above about 28C.

In another adaption for hot weather my first breeding pair roosted in the sky on Saturday evening, leaving their 31 day old chicks to roost alone in the nest box. I have seen this happen before but it is always a tense wait to see the pair return. They did so early in the morning, one arriving at 4.58am to be joined by its mate at 5.39am. After that it was business as usual. Their chicks are gazing from the nest box entrance often. You can see their white faces as they watch other swifts in flight and perhaps this is the reason those screaming parties pass so frequently at this time.

Strangely, Sunday although warm saw very little action until the evening. Swifts have their reasons but can be so unpredictable. Instead of the frantic and frequent fly pasts of Saturday the late evening saw noisy, large screaming parties of 20-35 over the village with about 15 passing very close to the eaves at about 9.30pm- one of the largest low level screaming parties we have seen here. The action has certainly escalated as we have gained more pairs as I have found with each growing colony at four different houses we have lived in.

Today I sketched outside on the lawn as the swifts repeatedly passed inches from me. The sketch sheet also shows a passing hobby; they give a mixture of awe and dread to those of us with colonies. They are beautiful and so impressive and I have seen them take swifts and house martins on several occasions.

It has been a magnificent few days, some of the best swift watching I can remember and I soaked up and will continue to soak up every moment.

Swifts at 9.30pm. Typical high screaming party towards the end of the swift season.
Sketches in the garden today- frequent fast passes, 33 day old swiftlets looking out of the nest, swifts with dangling feet and a passing hobby.

July 14th- Swift Diary

Swift Diary
Our colony now stands at three pairs. We have gained on average a pair each year, though this is a bit misleading because the first pair bred in 2019. They bred again in 2020 but we didn’t gain any new pairs or even have any substantial interest in other boxes. This year our pair has been joined by two more pairs. They are all nesting in nest boxes alongside each other.

Pair 1- now with chicks 28 days old
Pair 2- first entered nest box on 9/6/21 now has chicks 5 days old
Pair 3- has occupied a nest box since 8/7/21

Today has been the best swift watching day of the year. Besides the three pairs up to eight carve up the air above the garden. Some very impressive low and fast screaming parties and prospecting of nest boxes. Swifts are attracting swifts and the airspace above our house is mesmerising at times with double figures of swifts and a similar number of house martins. The two species mingle well and circle together in threat when the local sparrowhawks visit gardens below them. At this time you can hear a swift’s alarm call, a loud single piping note.

I have been studying the ‘v’ display today. This happens when a bird is tailed by another, its wings are held right up in a ‘v’ shape. The displaying bird loses height quickly in this position so the ‘v’ is very quick, but it is beautiful to watch. We have no idea why they do it. I have seen it performed by one of a prospecting pair, but I have also seen it performed to another by a breeding bird while its mate was in the nest box.

The next few days look like being some of the best of the summer for watching swifts. We are probably just inside three weeks away from the bulk of swifts departing now. Imbibe every moment with these birds.



July 6th- swift and house martin diaries and fledged flycatchers

Swift Diary
On Saturday evening a pair of swifts focused intensely on the rear of the house. The lead bird was seen to land regularly on a box next to pair 2, eventually going in. It tried several times to lure the mate in. She(?) banged the box several times but failed to enter. I think the first bird roosted, but when they roost alone these birds often leave the nest box in the dark to roost aloft.

Next morning the pair was soon reunited and both entered the box. They settled quickly and certainly look to be a third pair for our house as they are still in and out today. It is thrilling to see the colony expand with more swifts still passing the boxes today. The flypast activity today is superb despite rain and cloud and it really feels like I am watching the makings of a solid colony. This is the fourth house we have lived in where we have started swift colonies- Westwood, Wiltshire and Thornton in Craven, Ampleforth and Gilling East in North Yorkshire. In all cases I had nesting swifts within two years. I have stuck to the same basic box designs, roughly shoe box sized with slightly varying front entrance designs.

I experimented this year, playing calls softly on the opposite side of the house to the breeders. Swifts did look here, but both new pairs have chosen boxes next to each other to the right of the breeders- on the opposite side from the calls. I really dislike listening to recorded swift calls and I will not be playing them at all from now on- it was clear to me this year that the pull of an existing pair is far greater. They are of course really useful, essential in most cases for first attracting swifts.

The latest pair is in a Schwegler 17 box. This type has been a consistent favourite, of bought designs. All my boxes in Wiltshire and three different villages in North Yorkshire have used a front entrance design. This seems to offer an advantage of good visibility as the birds leave and when entering they fly straight in without clinging or perching. 

Meanwhile our most established pair has young about twenty days old and our second pair which first visited the box on 9th June is incubating eggs due to hatch in about three days time. It has been a very successful season here with a good increase and fantastic stable weather through June, unlike the challenging conditions of the same period in 2020.

July has started wet with 55mm of rain already, but it has been warm and non breeding birds have not had to move away as they did in late June 2020 (for two weeks). I am relishing every flypast mindful that the mass departure of swifts is now less than a month away.

House Martin Diary
Our two pairs are successfully feeding young. One nest should see young fledge within the next day or two. To my knowledge this will be the first nest to fledge young in the village this year. Numbers remain very low although for the first time in days there were signs of prospecting by a pair. Perhaps very late arrivals or birds from a failed nest?

The spotted flycatchers fledged last week. It looks like they will try for a second brood with the male singing by the nest site again. This pair wasted no time, nest building and laying in poor conditions in May and so this has left them plenty of time to raise another brood. What a privilege to be so close to these now scarce summer visitors. Their quiet presence and beautiful flight is an absolute joy.



July 2nd- swifts nest building and exhibition at Nunnington Galleries

It has been a very busy swift day, distracting as I tried to prepare for tomorrow’s Meet the Artists event at Nunnington Galleries. Each time I tried to start something the swifts screamed in again, I find it impossible to ignore them!

The birds in the sky today were probably some of the youngest swifts in the air, some almost certainly fledged last summer. I noticed small groups dropping to eaves across the village at completely new sites where no swift nests exist. These younger parties seem to roam around; when they arrive at your colony they criss cross everywhere piling into the eaves and making high speed passes, but within a few minutes they can vanish completely having moved on to look at another potential colony to join.

Older non breeding birds lingered around the colony for most of the day, prospecting seriously at times. This included some examples of single birds prospecting. I think these are the birds(males?) that are really serious about finding a nest site. Having done so they will attempt to lure a mate in, perhaps this year, but quite possibly waiting until next year. Some non-breeding pairs build a nest together to use the next year but alternatively some single birds enter a nest site and lure a mate in the following year.

Meanwhile our second pair of swifts is 15 days into incubation and by swift standards collecting ridiculous amounts of nest material. They were coming in today with pieces of grass at least 30cm long, bunched at times. These pieces of grass were probably gathered when lifted by the wind from a freshly cut field or roadside verge. Swifts stop nest building as soon as the young hatch but this pair has added more material than I have seen in any other nest I have watched. There are feathers and grass strewn across the nest box.

Meet the Artists event at Nunnington Galleries

I will be showing many swift sketches along with other bird sketches and plenty of landscapes at Nunnington tomorrow and Sunday, open 11am- 4pm each day. If you are in the area do come and chat. It is always a pleasure to talk about swifts; I feel very fortunate that my art has become a useful tool in my own efforts to conserve swifts and other species.

Here is a small selection of the work on show this weekend. I will be sketching swifts on the spot as long as Nunnington’s swifts perform!

Lapwing in floodwater. Watercolour.
Barn owl near Gilling East. Watercolour.