July 11th- swift and house martin diary

So much activity since my last update. Most obvious, particularly this morning, is the return of the younger non-breeders who are putting on quite a show. There has been little direct prospecting or clinging on walls yet, but they have performed countless high speed, low passes. These passes certainly involve the breeders at times as they can be seen swerving off into their nest boxes. The noise is incredible! Their screams a few centimetres from my head at times with the additional sound of the air being ‘split’ by those stiff blade like wings is hard to put into words- it is a sensory feeling that runs right through me. I hope my studies convey some of the excitement of these low passes.

As an artist I relish sketching the dusk sky and to have layers of screaming swifts criss-crossing it is a treat. These evening gatherings, particularly high-level screaming parties, remind me that the main swift season is really in its final quarter. However there is plenty of prospecting time left given good weather- and our first pair here was attracted on 23rd July 2018, they bred the following year. So keep playing those calls if you are attempting to start a colony.

I am reminded watching these young swifts of times when I used to find their behaviour frustrating- why won’t they go in the nest box? But I have seen this so many times that I see it and enjoy it for what it is- swifts choosing a colony to join, then choosing a nest site. They cannot be rushed, it is part of the process of starting a colony unless you happen to be lucky enough to attract a breeding pair straight away. Entering a nest site will come when they are mature enough. Although I would normally recommend playing calls from around 6-10am and 8pm to twilight, very warm or hot weather often sees prospecting at different times, most often perhaps around lunchtime and late in the afternoon. The swifts have energy to burn, fuelled by an abundance of food. As I write I am being continually itched by thrips, money spiders and flea beetles, all of which are part of a swift’s diet- the sky is full of them. We have not had a significant hatch of flying ants yet but we surely will this week. This is another important food source when it happens.

This could be a very testing week for nestlings. The heat is on and forecast to be more extreme towards the weekend. Inevitably some young swifts will jump too soon and already our Northern swift carers are taking birds in- I am in awe of their skill and devotion. Swifts have undoubtedly benefitted from sharing human habitation but this is not always ideal, for example when their attic nest spaces become dangerously warm- it is then that some swifts ‘jump’ too soon, unable to fly.

I am making the most of watching swifts. I cannot resist sketching new angles and of course their sky backdrop. I write about them too jotting down detailed aspects of their behaviour and my emotional response to watching them. I feel an urgency to see them and sketch them before they depart. If the weather flips to be colder next week and stays that way, it is feasible that the young non-breeders may not return until 2023. But given reasonable temperatures here in North Yorkshire we often see prospecting well into August.

House Martins

It is now, as the swift season sees its final few weeks that I am reminded how grateful I am to see the house martins who will be with us into September. Their summery sounds will fill the sky for a couple of months yet. Our first brood has fledged with two more close behind. I was watching the ten or more adults and three fledglings above the house this morning as they ‘swirled’ with about ten swifts. A couple walked past our house on their early morning stroll and the lady remarked “look at the beautiful swifts and martins.” She didn’t know I was tucked in behind our holly with sketchbook and her comment filled me with joy- I am not just doing this for the birds and for me but for anyone who wants to enjoy them, here, in Europe and in Africa.

All images and text copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

Swifts and summer cumulus cloud- oil on canvas. Available at Global Birdfair 15-17th July.
Swift studies in watercolour- July 10th, available at Global Birdfair 15-17th July.

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