The last few days have been fine with cold nights and warm afternoon sunshine. I was up before dawn this morning to paint the sky. A walk to the west of the village and I found myself on frosty grass. I watched a beautiful dawn with wispy cirrus cloud blowing south to north. A few song thrushes were flying around looking rather lost; often an indication that they are arrivals from Scandinavia. They might have travelled overnight and were perhaps looking for an area to rest and feed.
Long- tailed tits are occasional visitors to the garden at the moment. As the weather turns colder I would expect to see them more frequently. The flock often contains a chiffchaff or two. They are a challenging subject to sketch, never really staying still for long.
I painted a sequence of four fast watercolour skies on Wednesday evening. Sketching skies in watercolour is great practice for an artist. It fine tunes observation of subtle colour but perhaps more importantly teaches you to look closely at, and never take for granted, your chosen subject.
Much cooler air today on a breeze straight off the North Sea. A lot of cloud cover too meant there were precious few insects on the wing. I made some sketches of a few insects in the garden yesterday; plenty of tortoiseshells were swarming around the buddleia, Sedum spectabile, rudbeckias and Verbena bonariensis. I enjoyed sketching some buff tailed bumble bees which preferred to nectar on our Cephalaria gigantica. All these plants are superb nectar sources for autumn butterflies and other insects. Watermint and purple loosetrife are also great and our native ivy should be left to flower and can swarm with insects through to October. These late sources of nectar are very important for butterflies that hibernate over the winter. With the temperature peaking at around 26C yesterday I suppose it is unlikely we shall see this degree of warmth again before next May.
A wren was very active around the garden and singing with great gusto by my studio. I was amazed also to hear a blackbird singing yesterday afternoon. Not quite the volume of spring and summer song but certainly much louder and more complete than I have heard before at this time of year.
There was a notable absence from the garden soundtrack today. Most house martins left the area on Monday, leaving behind the straggling breeders. In fact our pair feeding their young seem to be alone today. It is lovely to have them still and I hope for reasonably warm weather into October to give them a chance to raise their three chicks successfully. But with the near constant calls of house martins now gone I am very aware of the change to autumn. Very soon we shall be hearing the ‘tic’ calls of migrant song thrushes as they arrive from Scandinavia, followed closely by redwings and fieldfares.
I look forward to autumn and winter immensely. I love painting winter landscapes and birds in colder weather. Sketching in cold weather is both challenging and satisfying. Autumn skies, especially late in the afternoon can be spectacular. Winter wildfowl and waders are a favourite subject. I love to observe and sketch flocks of lapwings, which contain a seemingly endless variety of plumage, as they hunker down. I begin to yearn for the chance to paint in a snow covered landscape again. There is so much to look forward to as the days become darker and colder.
I painted one of my favourite lockdown walk views again on Saturday morning. The Holbeck is now quite clogged with summer vegetation compared to the sketches I did in spring. It was a glorious sunrise with a heavy dew on the grass with just enough wind to prevent mist from forming. The dawn chorus consisted of robins singing their soft winter territorial song. But above there was a very transitory chorus of migrant birds moving south. Siskins and meadow pipits were calling almost constantly, sometimes too high to find. Siskins were scarce last winter and in spring, but around midsummer they suddenly started moving over the east coast in large numbers. A sizeable flock spent the summer in gardens here in the village. They fed almost entirely on aphids in fruit trees- behaviour I have not seen before. I think that they could be common on garden feeders this winter.
House martins gathered around our house at the weekend. It was a chance to study some different plumages. The sketch shows a bird which fledged this summer. It has duller quite brown plumage compared to adults save some glossy blue on the back, but the real distinguishing feature is the white outlined tertial feathers. Most adult birds are looking very worn now. The other sketch shows our two week old young in the nest. They are cutting it so fine. Fledging will be around 22nd September all being well, but then they have to build up flying strength to migrate to Africa. I wonder how many of these very late broods actually make it? Hopefully this all bodes well for the start of a colony next year though. I often think of our swifts arriving back during the winter months. Now I will will eagerly await our house martins too.
I have attached some pictures of our pond finished at the start of June. It is establishing so well. Dragonflies and damselflies have laid eggs and it is a magnet for birds coming to bath and drink. Great diving beetles have bred. One of the highlights was sitting having lunch with the family while a female emperor dragonfly laid eggs in the weed in the middle. If you are wondering whether or not to build a pond, just start digging!
To date the pond has attracted emperor dragonfly, brown, southern and migrant hawker, broad- bodied chaser, common darter and azure, common and large- red damselflies.
Chiffchaffs are passing through in big numbers now. The repetitive song of a chiffchaff is a fitting end to the season of summer migrants. So often the first summer migrant heard in spring is a chiffchaff. On my run through Gilling Woods this morning the beeches echoed with the sound of chiffchaff song. For a while I really could fool myself that spring and summer was all to come. The species is a regular sight in gardens at this time of year. They seem to have an insuppressible desire to chase other small species of birds. They particularly seem to go for blue tits which means they can easily find themselves close to or even on bird tables and feeders at the end of a chase. Why, I am not sure, but I have seen similar behaviour in blackbirds that often chase collared doves in autumn.
The house martins with chicks are very busy now and fortunately the weather has been kind being largely dry and quite warm for a good part of the day. They are landing on the nest box and feeding the young by tilting in to the entrance; an indicator that the chicks are growing well. It is a delight to see them coming and going to the front of the house. Meanwhile a non breeding pair of house martins continues to occupy a nest box on the back of the house, coming into roost soon after 7pm each evening and leaving each morning at around 7.30am. Good numbers remain above the village, probably a mix of migrant and local birds. As I write their ‘raspberry’ calls fill the air contrasting with the incessant begging calls of young goldfinches; two species still feeding young.
It has been a spectacular late summer for small tortoiseshell butterflies here. We have frequently seen 40 or so on the buddleia and more still on verbena, mint and sedum. This peaked with a maximum of 59 on August 26th. Numbers are now dropping as some are predated or have entered hibernation. It is so good to see the species doing well. Sitting by the buddleia with my coffee this morning I was reminded of days of my childhood when buddleias swarmed with common species of butterflies. however even then I am not sure numbers of small tortoiseshells matched those seen in our garden this year.
A SMALL PLUG! SHOP
My online shop has been expanded recently and more sketches will be added in coming days and weeks. To view cards, prints and originals please click here.
Lockdown has taught me to look again and again at the familiar. I was watching various tits visiting the feeder today. Forget their names, just look at them. Watch their movements, the precision of their landings, their swift about turns as they grab a seed and dart for cover. Look at their colours; many are freshly moulted with new feathers to see them through the winter. Take coal tits as an example. These minute tits are striking in rich buff underparts, steely grey uppers and with a bold pied head. Just wonderful to look at.
Tolly and I did a favourite walk from the house today. We had lovely views of a juvenile spotted flycatcher in a hawthorn hedge. We watched it feed with the incredible accuracy the species is known for, one minute darting low and hovering close the ground, the next towering twenty feet above the hedge to grab an insect. It was a joy to watch this now scarce species, to hope perhaps against hope that summer 2021 will bring the species some reprise. As we wandered we heard chiffchaffs, blackcaps and a whitethroat calling in hedgerows. The countryside now alive with species preparing to depart, many already on their journey, refuelling around Gilling East.
As we meandered across the fields we remembered some of our earlier lockdown walks, so many of the birds we enjoyed, individuals we recognised are elusive now. Even the yellowhammers are quiet. Their territories abandoned as they join the safety of flocks for the winter. We ate sloes, enjoying the sensations from their intense bitterness whilst remembering the glorious blackthorn blossom which started our lockdown. We saw rosehips, the result of the very flowers we had paused to smell in June. Tolly is due back at school next week. It is a poignant moment, I will carry on the project largely on my own; we will still walk to warbler corner when we can, but I will miss the spontaneity of grabbing our binoculars and just heading outside together. As an artist I am used to spending large amounts of time alone, but it has been a rich treat to have company.
A lovely walk with the boys on the moors near Helmsley this morning with the primary aim of scrumping bilberries. We found some really scrumptious berries near the old wood ant’s nest; our purple hands and faces were proof of how great they tasted! Small groups of swallows moved north to south just above the heather, crossbills roamed around the conifers and meadow pipits ‘squeaked’ overhead as they too flew south. The moor is still tinted purple by the small percentage of heather still in bloom, whilst the heather that has gone over is now a rich sepia colour. The mass of heather is broken only by bright olive green bilberry leaves. The sky was bright but with building leaden clouds racing along on a brisk, but warm southerly wind.
Our house martins hatched yesterday morning; three chicks set to fledge in the final third of the month. Their first two days have been largely warm and should have provided the adults with a good opportunity to gather food. Meanwhile a second pair continues to occupy a nest box without breeding.
The pond has seen frequent visits from female southern hawker dragonflies. They crash around the edge of the pond laying their eggs near the water but not in it. They are fearless big green dragonflies and common in garden ponds. We have found that they particularly like laying on an old log which floats near the bank. Sketches to follow.
Swift diary Six swifts continued to grace the skies over the village yesterday. Their chicks fledged several days ago but they linger as if they too appreciate that the last two or three days have been more than a match for much of the height of our summer. They have at times put on fine screaming displays, especially around sunset. Seeing the occasional pair of swifts in September is not unusual, but to see a party screaming over their nest site this late is a first for me.
A break near Whitby over the weekend and my first chance to paint the sea since March. Gales overnight Friday and well into Saturday produced some dramatic waves at Sandsend. We enjoyed watching fulmars and sandwich terns close in. Majestic great backed gulls made light of the conditions and were spectacular to see against storm grey sky and sea. A party of teal hugged the coastline as they passed east to west. Our hands were soon numb in the relentless northerly blast.
On Sunday in calmer, but still cold conditions, we walked the beach to see what we could find. About ten minutes in Tolly and I simultaneously spotted a stunning ammonite fossil at the water’s edge. We yelled out loud at the same time! What a find, probably aided by the big waves that churned up the beach the day before and a real treasure to remind us of this time. The weather was autumnal in every respect. Copious amounts of rain at the end of last week followed by very high Northerly winds and then, last night our first ground frost this side of the summer solstice and probably the earliest I can remember.
Our house martins continue to incubate. I inspect the ground below the nest daily for the eggshells which would tell of freshly hatched chicks. After a very cold start today has been still and warm. Good conditions for the martins who were joined by a pair of swifts which still seem to be feeding young in the village hall. We have another pair of martins in a nest box on the back of the house, occupying a nest but not breeding, reminding me very much of non breeding swifts. This pair has been in the nest box since around 7th August. I presume that if they survive they will return to breed next spring?
It feels like we are clinging desperately on to summer at times now, but fine periods of weather see the garden alive with butterflies again. We had an all time record of 59 tortoiseshells on the buddleia last Friday. A wonderful sight, especially given how low in number the species seemed to be just two years ago. I am providing a few overripe bananas and pears for red admirals, commas and speckled woods. These three species in particular love rotten fruit. I hang the fruit in wire bird feeders in a sunny position and they are visited for much of the day.
Tolly and I had a great trip to Ripon City Wetlands last week, a superb reserve managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. We quickly found one of my favourite waders, the wood sandpiper. We had really good views of this smart, warm brown wader probably fresh in from Scandinavia- a very small population breeds in the North of Scotland. After feeding for a few days it will continue its journey to West Africa They are a beautifully proportioned and elegant wader and can change shape dramatically if alarmed as the sketches show. I couldn’t resist sketching lapwings too, an all time favourite subject. They are coming through their moult to reach smart winter plumage. Most have rather short crests at the moment. These will grow longer over coming weeks and months.
We have had some very heavy rain showers over recent days. As such skies have been dramatic so I have been sketching them in watercolour. I always have a sketchbook and watercolours ready to capture the moment. Up until a couple of days ago we still had 5-6 swifts battling the conditions. There were at least three late pairs in the village this year, doubtless a consequence of the poor weather we had in June and early July.
The house martins by Tolly’s bedroom window are giving us lots of pleasure. They swoop up to the artificial nest in front of the window. I positioned it so he can see into the entrance from his pillow! It is a treat to lie there and watch their black and white faces looking out and to hear their calls in the early morning. They are still incubating eggs which will probably hatch around 4th September. This means that if all goes well the chicks will fledge around 25th September. Not exceptionally late but they have already seen some dramatic weather and it will be interesting to follow their progress.
Swifts and house martins in blustery conditions- 21st August 2020. A watercolour painted en plein air, available at Nunnington Galleries this weekend 22nd/23rd August.
Sand martin and swallow sketches- 21st August 2020.
Hirundines have started to gather on the wires in front of our house. There was a big increase in numbers today. I wonder each summer where all these birds come from. There are far more than breed in village. Perhaps this is the gathering area for a large catchment of birds, or perhaps some are passage birds from further north on their way south? Hirundines consist of swallow, house martin and sand martin in the UK. We are lucky to have all three species breeding in the village and I could stand at the bedroom window on eye level with each on the wires today. It was particularly interesting to see sand martins so close, They really are minute, being the smallest of the hirundines.
The wind was very gusty and they fed in the shelter of the trees. With them six swifts. Swifts are not, as often thought, related to hirundines. I spent an hour or so sketching swifts and house martins as they negotiated the strong wind. We still have three breeding pairs of swifts in the village. It is not unusual to see a late breeding pair of swifts in late August, but three pairs together in a village with a population of no more than ten pairs is unusual. They were feeding low with the hirundines and regularly making trips to the village hall to feed their young. It was easy to see their engorged throats which contain a bolus of insect food gathered for the nestlings. This bolus may contain hundreds of small insects. Whilst it is a treat to see six swifts this late they are very quiet and industrious, with the sole purpose of feeding their nestlings. They will head south at the earliest chance, probably leaving before their young fledge. The fledglings will have to learn to feed in the air and navigate their way to Africa immediately.
This has been another good year for tortoiseshell butterflies. We counted well over thirty in the back garden yesterday. By contrast red admirals and painted ladies are scarce.
Honeysuckle berries are a magnet for two red listed species of bird. Bullfinches and marsh tits find the berries as soon as they ripen in our garden. A female bullfinch brought at least three young to the feast today. A marsh tit dashed in and out of the honeysuckle carrying the bright red berries off. They take the berry mainly for the seed within.
It seems a pair of house martins are incubating eggs in a nest on the front of our house. They first prospected the artificial nest on 10th August and must have laid eggs within a few days. Now they can be seen changing incubation duties. If all goes well this pair will be fledging young in the last few days of September. It has been a difficult season for the martins here with very dry weather at nest building time when mud is essential, followed by some really difficult cold spells. Subsequently numbers in the village are well down on previous years. Juveniles in particular seem in short supply. I hope that we are seeing the start of a colony on our house. There will be plenty of nest boxes ready for them when they return next spring. They will be able to launch straight into breeding without having to build a nest.
22nd/23rd August- meet the artist at Nunnington Galleries- Jonathan Pomroy and Lucy Saggers
This weekend I will be at Nunnington Galleries with a large selection of work, much of which will be very recent unframed watercolours. I have loved the freedom that lockdown brought me, a time to just paint and not think about selling or galleries. But a living I must make and so I’m back on parade for Nunnington Galleries’ Meet the Artist Weekend 2 with Ampleforth photographer Lucy Saggers. The weather looks interesting! but come rain or shine, or gales there will be plenty of my new work to see and I will be there for distanced chatting and if the weather allows demonstrating watercolour.
Below. Bullfinches and marsh tit on honeysuckle.
Below. A small selection of the work available at Nunnington Galleries this weekend.