August 9th- hobby attacking hirundines and spotted flycatcher

Yesterday morning I was scanning the sky to the west of Gilling East. Looking for swifts I was suddenly aware of a hobby, turning this way. It was perhaps a quarter of a mile away when I first saw it. I was then looking at it approaching head on. I could see very little of its wingspan. At this point I realised that it was approaching at immense speed in a long shallow dive. What suddenly hit me was the closing speed. Through the bins its relative size increased rapidly until I could see its contrasting facial markings and the yellow around its beak and eyes. Its wings were swept back so I could only really see the leading edge of the inner wing.

At about a hundred feet I just watched without bins as it powered over our house towards a flock of hirundines to the east of the village. The whole sighting was just seconds but left such an impression. It was pure fluke that I caught the start of the dive. The view was very intimate as I watched the bird decide to strike. I saw its expression moments before attack I looked into into its eyes and sensed its concentration and determination. Its rock steady approach combined with speed was most likely deadly to a young house martin or swallow to the east of Gilling. Hobbies have been a frequent sight over the last few days. As summer progresses they move increasingly from their dragonfly diet to swallows, swifts and martins.

Having house martins nesting on the house I feel the threat keenly. They quickly ascend (if they spot the hobby’s approach) forming a tight flock high up. You can sense their panic which is in a different league to other birds of prey such as sparrowhawk and kestrel. Then, if there is a strike I anxiously count the martins home.

A commotion of house martins around the nest boxes this morning saw a grey brown bird fly up immediately. It briefly joined a martin in an aerial spat then settled on the gutter. A stunning adult spotted flycatcher graced our roof for a while. Beautifully marked around its head with subtle grey brown and sepia stripes, long elegant wings and tail, the first I have seen since early June. Yet this subtle beauty made me sad. They didn’t nest in the village this year as they have for the last few years. We are just one more small area devoid of spotted flycatchers. When I was a child starting birdwatching every large garden, park and churchyard had a pair. We walked the church path and each year expected to see their fledglings atop a grave stone. Indeed churchyard grave stones seemed to be perfect for flycatchers as hunting perches.

It is so easy to concentrate on big game and other high profile animal declines and extinctions, but not so easy to get across the message that species are disappearing in our own back gardens. For me, spotted flycatchers have come to symbolise the silent extinctions that are happening all around us. As we lose insects we lose birds and so on. It is strange feeling when seeing a beautiful bird leaves me with an unbearable sense of sadness.


August 7th- house martin drama, pine hawk-moth and swift diary

We have had a crisis in the house martin nest box. The male died or went elsewhere and three out of four chicks died. Yesterday I moved the surviving chick to another nest box because it was being hacked at by a new male. When I took it from the nest its head was red raw and stripped of feathers. I suspect this new male killed the other three. A new male would naturally remove another’s offspring- I probably intervened just in time. The chick called and was quickly found by the female and was fed all day in the new box to the left of the original box. The new male meanwhile seems very happy with his new nest box and has succeeded in luring in a potential mate several times.

Only one of our swift pair returned to roost last night. It looked very agitated and I thought it would leave in the dark as they sometimes do when roosting alone. We had a couple of flypasts this morning by unknown swifts but the biggest surprise was a single prospecting swift ‘throwing’ itself at a nest box on the front of the house in the early afternoon. Anyone who has studied swifts will know that whilst there are constants they frequently rewrite the literature. I enjoyed watching swifts last evening. Some fine high level screaming displays in very tight formations- characteristic behaviour near to departure. The season is being prolonged for many swift watchers. As usual I will be left with many questions about what might happen next year. I am not really any closer to knowing if I will gain a second pair, but, that single prospecting swift this afternoon could be far more significant than I could possibly know?

The moth trap contained my second ever pine hawk-moth last night. Though worn it was a beautiful moth to look at, large with very elegant long wings. A brown hawker dragonfly passed through the garden today whilst a male azure damselfly made itself at home at the pond. Of some concern is the sheer number of great diving beetle larvae in the pond. They are vicious looking predators, but I have to trust that a natural balance will eventually be found. Thunder flies or thrips filled the air today and as the swift numbers decline I can already sense the season moving on. A slightly softer sunlight is evident when I sketch afternoon skies and bird song is now sparse.

Below. Swift twisting and turning extremely fast on its descent to roost.

Below. House martin, swifts and pine hawk moth.


August 2nd- swift diary

Our swift pair have returned to the nest box for two nights after the young have fledged. This can vary greatly. Sometimes one or both parents may leave before the young have fledged. In other years they can hang around for several days after, even a week or more. But this pair for now are staying very close and bonding as much as possible. They return to the nest box to roost together and enter it within a fraction of a second of each other.

Another swift was prospecting this morning. This seemed to be an inexperienced bird, flinging itself at a number of sites but not properly landing. The swift season is fast closing now. I will miss the excitement of their flight around our house. Their impact on our air space is massive, but I am looking forward to all that late summer and autumn brings.

The house martins are wonderful to have around. Their four young are growing very fast and all being well will fledge in a week or so. The parents are feeding them at an impressive rate. This activity attracts the attention of other house martins. Some of this year’s young display similar behaviour to one year old swifts, flying up to occupied nests in groups. I hope this will lead to a growing colony next year. Artificial nests enable the birds to crack on with breeding sooner than those that have to build nests. This may help the population over a wider area.

Swift watching through June and July can be very intense and would not be sustainable for much longer! They were waking me before 5am regularly and keeping me sketching until sunset around 10pm. I appreciate the summer time when they are gone for a more relaxed time watching the martins, dragonflies and so much more.

The sun sets on another swift season.




July 31st- our swifts have fledged

Well, 42 and 43 days after hatching our two swift chicks have fledged. I knew it would happen, each spent hours gazing from the entrance of the nest box. The adults had stopped feeding them for a day or more. The evening of July 30th was perfect for swift fledging, still and reasonably warm. One adult returned to the nest box before dusk and for a while the two chicks huddled up with it in the nest cup.

Yet, there was an irresistable urge that pulled one chick back to the nest box entrance. As the gloaming set in the sky, trees and buildings were silhouetted, the swiftlet moved ever closer to the edge. At 9.46pm as if physically tugged the chick stumbled out, first clinging desperately to the outside of the nest box for about a second. Then, not the graceful downward flight curve to gain flying speed deployed by the adults but a frantic flapping, a desperate need to be well clear of the earth, to be safe in the night sky. That was it, from egg to fledging something like 63 days of care by the parents, through weather at times more akin to March, when they had to hunt in gale force winds and rain, or even opt to stay in all day to conserve energy.

So, as darkness fell the nest box contained one adult and one chick. The other parent presumably departed, or itself pulled back up to its starry roost. They stayed together for the night, close to each other, preening each other. I knew it would be their last night together, forever. Dawn arrived and the adult left at about 6am, leaving the chick to decide. It was now just a question of when.

At 9.09am after a brief rest back on the nest cup, it walked to the entrance with renewed confidence. Not the hours of teetering on the brink, but a short pause and the start of what could be three years of continuous flight. If it survives it will grace somebody’s eaves next summer, practising approaches and landings, looking for a colony to join, perhaps even exciting someone else who has provided a swift box on their house. In 2022 it might start to find a mate though that will just as likely happen in 2023. Not until summer 2024 will it likely breed for the first time.

Both are now roaming the sky fending entirely for themselves, navigating the way to Africa. Our skies will be swiftless again, leaving the air space clear for our house martins. Three years airbourne, three times to Africa before settling to breed we assume in the UK? Just think about that for a moment, let it sink in. Swifts.

Below. A final pencil portrait of our two swift chicks together both gazing at the open sky before them.



July 29th- house martin chicks, emperor dragonfly and swift diary

The house martin chicks have opened their eyes, have endearing tufted heads and inevitably produce poo, which is dropped straight from the nest. The chicks can now manoeuvre and poo from the entrance. For me this is a welcome sign that we have baby house martins. They have chosen to nest under our eaves, a bird which we still know so little about. They are assumed to winter above south and west Africa, perhaps feeding at very high level because they are not often seen. They have declined by up to two thirds in some areas in recent decades. So each poo is a sign to me that the chicks are being fed well and the more poo the more chicks we have- bring it on! It only takes a couple of minutes to clean up and that is the insignificant price we pay for the constant delight our house martins bring. They are for me like swifts a true sound of summer. Unlike swifts they are around almost constantly whatever the weather. No hour long forays gathering food, but short sorties sometimes not far beyond the garden, quickly collecting insects and swooping back and forth to the eaves.

The pond is a constant source of interest, a “why didn’t we do that earlier”, project. But we did it and already it delivers pleasure in bucket loads. Dragonflies have graced our garden and recently we had an emperor laying eggs amongst the surface plants. The southern hawker that was laying eggs only an hour before was impressive, but then the emperor arrived with its exotic blues yellows and greens using a habitat that we made. She stayed for a whole hour loving the bogbean and mint stems that emerge from the water; feverishly laying eggs, always wary of our approach and every so often breaking to snack on insects attracted by garden flowers.

Swift Diary
The swiftlets stared from the entrance this morning, but their beaks were rarely beyond the entrance hole. When they are close to going they tend to become more daring sometimes sticking their heads out. They are now 42 days old and in a normal summer I would say they could leave today, but this summer has been tough and it could several days…

We had a couple of low screaming passes today and there were more swifts around. I have been expecting a last burst of activity from non breeding swifts and this morning they returned though it still felt cool and there was no prospecting. However with a few days of warm weather we could well see activity return, hopefully one final show before the mass departure. Look out for more high level swift activity in the coming warm weather as breeders and non breeders gather socially before migration.

Below. House martin chicks aged 11 days.


Below. Emperor dragonfly laying eggs.

Swifts in high screaming party. A prelude to departure.


July 28th- swifts so near to fledging

I was watching the swiftlets today. They have been fed a few times this morning but are spending much of their day gazing at the outside world. Their facial feathers are largely white so they look very different to the adults. The white feathers accentuate the large dark eyes and finely cut bill. They gaze at anything that moves- passing flies, the nearby house martins feeding their chicks and me down below with my sketchbook. But with any sudden noise they rush to the back of the nest box, moulding into the right angled corners.

I try to imagine myself in the swiftlet’s position. 42 days of safety, bonded bliss with my parents and siblings, about to venture forth into open sky. No more mutual preening or close warmth and comfort of another swift for a minimum of two years. As I write the two nestlings sit close on the nest cup /nibbling each other’s faces and necks, perhaps a form of preparation for the astonishing bond they will have to form with a mate in two, probably three year’s time.

Much is written of the potential perils for a fledging swift, and rightly so. If they get that first flight wrong they are easy prey for a cat or corvid. But in reality they rarely do get it wrong. I have seen swifts fledge from places we would never advise people to put nest boxes, weaving through trees before aiming high into the sky, astonishing spatial awareness from the outset and often in near darkness. Think about the relative safety of fledging like a swift. Once you are away, clear of obstructions you are one of the fastest and most efficient birds. Most swifts I have seen fledge have gone into the gloaming to spend, we presume, their first night on the wing. Surely this is far safer than a blackbird or robin near the base of the garden hedge. So truly a fledging swift is remarkable but it all makes perfect sense.

Below. Swifts looking out of the best box, both on the verge of fledging.





27th July- swift portraits 2020

Numbers of swifts over the village yesterday evening were about half what they were on the previous evening. There was very little low level activity which made the two low, fast passes even more special. Many people across the UK reported reduced numbers or even a complete absence at some colonies. However there is still time for another burst of swift activity especially the further north you are. As the weather warms towards the end of the week there might just be one final show.

The adult swifts huddled up with their two nestlings until 11.31am. The weather was atrocious at times with heavy rain and strong wind. Before the adults left I positioned the scope to sketch them. A portrait of each parent before they leave. I have followed these birds each day from May and recognise each by its face markings.

With the young expected to leave in the next two or three days their work will soon be done. As far as we know they will not see each other for another nine months. All being well they will be reunited in the same nest box in May. I feel quite moved looking at their beautiful faces having shared the worst of the weather with them this summer. As other pairs have lost chicks ours have battled, sometimes in horrendous conditions to see their two chicks the forty or so days through to fledging.

I will think about them often in the winter, trying to imagine their view, wondering about the struggles they may face in their changing habitat in Africa and eventually praying for good weather as they make their return to us next April.


July 26th- swift in tree sparrow nest and house martins feeding young

Sketches and notes from Gilling East

From today I will be blogging three times a week. Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. It will be very much business as usual as I continue to observe and sketch wildlife and landscape close to home. I have been so grateful to the many readers from far and wide who have joined me over the last 16 weeks or so. I look forward to continuing to share what the coming seasons bring. If you would like to receive an email as continued blogs are published please click on the link on this page.

The house martin nestlings are now nine days old. The parents no longer have to enter the nest to feed them. As they land orange and yellow gapes appear, accompanied by cricket like begging calls. A very quick feed and the adults fly gracefully away. Of all the events I have observed since the start of this daily blog attracting house martins to nest on our house comes close to the top of the list. They are beautiful fliers. I love to watch their graceful descent to the nest, a pied flash as they disappear under the eaves. For me their calls equal swifts’ screams as a sound of summer. Their trusting nature is so endearing and yes, I find myself talking to a little black and white face as it stares down at me! Their presence brings back memories of houses I have lived in and schools where they used to nest and show that wildlife can be an important constant through life.

Swift Diary

Yesterday a swift entered a tree sparrow nest, in a swift box. As I have mentioned before tree sparrows love swift boxes and will use them willingly. The prospecting swift went straight in, almost blocking the entrance, but quickly ground to a halt due to the sheer density of material used by the sparrows. To my surprise the adult tree sparrow within squeezed around the swift and shot out on to the top of the box. Here it scolded the swift with harsh calls, but made no attempt to enter or intervene.. It seems from this observation that swifts are easily dominant over tree sparrows but their nest design would make it hard work for a swift to occupy. There is so much material in the nest, much of it long grass but also plastic garden string. Either of these materials could easily tangle a swift and pose a threat to its life.

Prospecting was intense again this morning, but by mid morning the swifts had moved on with the weather cooler than yesterday. I have not seen any swifts save our adult pair, since mid morning. Our young swifts look very beautiful at the moment, their wings probably full grown. I expect them to fledge in the next few days



July 25th- swift diary

Anyone who watches swifts will know. I settle down to do something, in this case my daily blog, I just begin thinking all is quiet when a swift screams outside. The screams of swifts are as much a feeling as a sound for me. They literally make me jump, I instinctively rush to the garden. Sometimes they are so fast that you miss them and there is no trace in the sky. Quite how they do this I still haven’t fathomed? So I settle back down to work. The same happens again, only this time the swifts linger, a couple more fast passes and now they are slowing down a little and starting to stoop towards the eaves and towards the nest boxes. Before I know it another half an hour has passed and I sit down to work again.

Today has been one glorious distraction after another. With warmth and humidity the swifts are full to the brim with energy and my how they use it. Dozens probably hundreds of passes and approaches seen, countless wings seen flapping against walls, all sketched and captured in my mind. But what set today apart here in Gilling East was the number of birds involved. We had twelve prospecting- that is an enormous number here, twice the usual summer peak. We only have approximate three pairs(including ours) in the village with roughly the same number again in Gilling Castle, to the west. With the house martins coming and going too the airspace around our house was chaotic- but what glorious chaos, enjoyed not by using fuel in my car, or travelling, but drinking a coffee in my own back garden. Not having them around is unimaginable at the moment, their visit is fleeting but their impact on my year is immense.

Below. A flypast of six swifts yesterday evening.



July 24th- swifts and house martins

We are fortunate to have a pair of house martins nesting on the back of our house. They are in an artificial nest only a few feet from our pair of swifts. The two species seem to co exist extremely well. I have lived with both species before and observed that they actually benefit from being together. Away from the nest they have a lot in common, both prefering to feed high on aerial insects when the weather allows. In colder or wet weather the two often feed low over water.

There is another benefit that I have noticed on many occasions. When house martins confidently swoop down to the eaves non breeding swifts often follow. This can really encourage a swift prospecting session. Though it can then lead to occasional mild conflict when a non breeding swift lands on the house martin’s nest. I saw this today. We had very intense period of prospecting swifts this morning, especially between 7-8 am. A house martin arrived at its nest with food for the four chicks, tailed closely by a swift which spread itselt over the martin’s nest. It quickly received a face full of house martin accompanied by aggressive chatter. The swift dropped away to carry on prospecting elsewhere.

I have seen this become a minor problem at a previous house. The ‘banging’ swift hit the natural mud nest of the martin with such force that chunks began falling off, particularly around the entrance hole. This went on for some days, but the martins responded in equal measure. They reinforced the entrance hole to form a much thicker edge which easily withstood future swift landings.

One common approach used by swift conservationists when persuading home owners to put up swift boxes is to tell them that swifts don’t make a ‘mess’ which isn’t always correct. House martins of course do make a ‘mess’. Or provide us with little heaps of compost, depending on your standpoint! I think it is important to try and persuade home owners that the ‘mess’ is easily cleared up and then to tell them how remarkable house martins are and how privileged they are to have this declining species choose their eaves to nest. Of course you won’t persuade everyone but house martins are just as deserving of our protection and encouragement as swifts. They remain for several weeks after the swifts’ depart which perhaps lessens the ‘blow’ as the sounds of summer remain. So this winter why not make plans to add some artificial house martin nests to put up next to your swift boxes?