16th May- swifts and other birds!

There is simply too much to see and sketch in May; that’s my only complaint at this glorious time of year. Recent trips to the North York Moors have yielded good sightings of summer migrants including redstarts, pied flycatchers and ring ouzels. These three species in particular are essential annual viewing for me. The former two I try to see before the deciduous woodland canopy closes over. They are both stunning to look at, males in particular.

When first seen before leaves have burst bud they seem very exotic in a bare English wood. Tolly, my ten year old son and I had fabulous early morning trip to see them back in late April. We watched mesmerised as a pied flycatcher initiated repeated aerial combat with a male redstart. This was almost certainly about competition for a nest site. Flashes of red, orange and blue grey, met black and white in a confusion of colour around a khaki, grey oak trunk. We will never forget that sight and toasted it back at the car with cups of hot chocolate from our flask.

Higher up above the tree line ring ouzels are now breeding. They are wild, truly wild and hard to see well, but we know their haunts well and the best places to sit and wait. Again we were rewarded with good views of these magical mountain thrushes.

Whenever I go out at this time of year I feel lucky to be able to look forward to returning home to see our swifts and house martins. Ted Hughes in his poem Swifts, associated the first swifts with cherry blossom, though these days cherry is usually blown away well before the first screaming swift parties. For me it has always been first swifts with singing blackbirds. So often blackbirds sit on gables or TV aerials as fast, low level swift parties rush by. The blackbird’s rich fluty song seems to me to be at the opposite end of the musical spectrum to the wild shrieks of swifts.

This morning we have had some very welcome rain. 12mm is the most we have had for many weeks. The cloud base was very low and the air full of moisture but swifts and house martins were feeding constantly, the swifts every so often preforming spectacular low flypasts. The moisture in the air carried their calls so well. They often start screaming by my studio on the approach to the eaves and this morning the sudden sound made me ‘jump’ a couple of times! In the moist air I could hear every wing beat, as well as that smooth rush of air when they glide fast. The sun is starting to break through now; looks like it’s gong to be another swift filled afternoon.

Swifts pass a singing blackbird.
Male redstart
Male pied flycatcher puffed up but singing on a frosty April morning.
Male ring ouzel on the North York Moors.

All images and text copyright ©️ Jonathan Pomroy 2022

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