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Swift diary- forming a new colony and some observations on banging and nest site selection

We moved to Gilling East, North Yorkshire in 2017. The village previously had a maximum of c5 pairs when we moved here, the nearest from our house c150m away in the village hall. By 2019 they were breeding. We have attracted swifts to three houses now. The first was in 2003 in Wiltshire- remarkably one of my plywood nest boxes there is still being used by swifts! I used an old Sony cassette player on the ground below the boxes to attract them there- it took just two years.

Gilling East swifts- a brief summary
2017 first summer living in Gilling East, calls played, fairly typical chaotic prospecting by three birds on just two days in late July.
2018 June- some much more serious prospecting this year with landing on boxes and brief entering of boxes.
July 23rd first bird in box 1 for a substantial amount of time but not roosting.
July 25th pair in box 1 but not roosting.
2019 pair return to box 1 late May and breed, fledging young in late August. No new pairs attracted but plenty of prospecting and single swifts occasionally entering other boxes.
2020 pair return to box 1, normal breeding time. Plenty of prospecting but only one or two very brief entries to other boxes all season. No new non- breeding pairs attracted into boxes.
2021 first pair box 1 arrive in mid-May now incubating, soon to hatch. New pair attracted to box 2 on 9th June ,roosting every night since. Hopefully they will build a nest, possibly breed late.

Bangers

I have long thought that ‘bangers’ as a description of swift behaviour should be more specific. After countless observations I see two distinct types of ‘banging’.

The first type is often most noticeable earlier in the season (from end of May) when the younger non breeders are not here, but happens throughout. They are probably older non breeders, more experienced at approach and landing. They aim at a breeders’ box and perch first time and perch long enough to invite a response from them, often screaming into their nest box. I am almost certain that my new pair did this to the breeders a couple of days before they moved in. They repeatedly land on the breeders’ box, in my case the only breeding pair on the house. They could clearly land on any box but choose the breeders’ box. Why, curiosity, or perhaps they are already fellow members of the colony so perhaps this banging is an extension of social aerial activity??

The type most often referred to as ‘banging’ is more random and involves touching or landing on multiple boxes or below them, under gutters etc. In my view many of these birds will not be persuaded to enter that year because they are simply not mature enough. They appear to be practicing approach and landing. Swifts although amazing fliers have to learn manoeuvres in tight spaces. If you watch them you can see they try different approach angles. Eventually more experienced birds learn the most efficient flight path.

Much of the swift behaviour we watch (and many get frustrated by) will not lead to finding a nest site that season because they are not mature enough to feel the urge to do so. Can we even prove that this behaviour is prospecting for nest sites or could it be something else? Many of these birds will be too young to breed or even think about breeding and perhaps they are practicing approach and landing rather than looking for a specific site? Or perhaps it is largely a social activity? A swift’s eyesight is incredibly sharp so it is inconceivable that they do not see the entrance to a nest box.

When swifts do become sexually mature the ‘switch’ is flicked and they may suddenly enter nest boxes confidently and rapidly. No amount of call playing will persuade them to do so until that ‘switch’ is flicked, however the calls have attracted them to a new potential nesting area which they will probably return to the next year. I have no doubt they see the nest box entrances, how couldn’t they, but they have to be old enough to take it further. Why they take so long to mature, we don’t know?

Solo prospectors

One more thought on nest site selection. Having started three colonies at different houses since 2003, consistently the birds to watch have been the solo prospectors. There is no doubt they select quiet times to prospect for nest sites, when the ‘bangers’ are not around. They make no calls at all. At our colony in Ampleforth one such bird was an aberrant male which silently and alone entered a nest box three short times in a season. It never roosted and didn’t attract a mate but it came straight back to breed the following spring.

Once the site is entered and selected the swift will return with a mate, again at a quiet time, sometimes even the following year. The pair will circuit fast with the lead bird showing its mate the nest site often screaming when close to the entrance. After a few fast circuits this bird will enter the site hoping the mate will follow. This can happen quickly or the mate can take many attempts to get the approach and landing right. We have just gained a second pair in the nest box next to our incubating pair. The second bird took about a day to settle with its mate in the nest box. Now they enter the box in very quick succession.

Non breeding occupants to breeding pair

I have seen two main scenarios where birds enter nest boxes then breed.

  1. A pair enter from June onwards and start a nest to be used the following year. They can enter for the first time a few days before most swifts leave and breed the following spring. I put a new nest box up on 20th July 2018, a pair was in on 23rd July 2018 and it was used for breeding in 2019.
  2. . A single bird (male?) enters a box several times in a season but doesn’t roost or attract a mate in. It returns to the box the following spring, attracts a mate and breeds that year.

For anyone currently frustrated by watching ‘banging’ without birds entering nest boxes I would say enjoy the presence of swifts in the moment. We can only speculate about the age and sex of the birds doing this and why they do it. I have watched this behaviour countless times and in some years they don’t enter a box at all. There is so much we don’t know; enjoy the experience of having these magnificent birds so close. The chances are that when that maturity ‘switch’ is flicked you will have swifts on your house. 

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June 9th- swift and house martin update

Swift Diary

Our swift pair has been incubating two eggs for a fortnight now. They are very quietly going about their egg care while outside much has changed since my last blog. The weather warmed at the end of May and June has started with some perfect weather for swift watching. The older non breeding birds arrived in good numbers here and have put on quite a show. We have seen them landing confidently on the breeders’ nest box, in response the breeders scream wildly at the imposters who stick their heads right in the entrance for a look. The cling on is brief and they soon fall away.

There was generally little interest in other boxes to start with but all that changed last Sunday when a pair started investigating more seriously. This coincided with an online event I was doing with Charles Foster, author of The Screaming Sky, you can watch my distraction here! 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=wv9NsW_T_h4&feature=youtu.be

The distraction was older non breeding birds, probably three year olds who are already paired up but are searching for a nest site. Or they were, because since yesterday they have taken to a nest box next to our incubating pair.

These newly paired birds sometimes have a late breeding attempt. When living in Wiltshire I had a pair first enter a nest box on June 14th: they bred and fledged young on September 10th. The behaviour of older non breeders is inspiring to watch. They perform the most energetic flight, especially at dusk; impossibly tight, fast turns, screaming all the while. The lead bird(probably a male?) utters a loud ‘peep’ call as he approaches the nest site and screams wildly when close to advertise it to the mate. After a few circuits they slow down a little and the lead bird flies more slowly at the nest box making sure its mate is close behind. It then enters the nest box hoping that the mate will follow. This can take practice and often the lead will have to leave the box and coax its mate again. However in this case both were in the box within a day.

It is incredible to think that a swift after nearly three years first touches down with another in such a confined space. To begin with brief squabbles take place but soon they mutually preen each other whilst uttering a soft piping bonding call. Today both have been in the box together on several occasions so I am optimistic they will stay now. From our first pair breeding in 2019 we have a second pair on the house. They could occupy the box all summer and perhaps build a nest ready for next year or perhaps like my first nest box pair in 2003 they will attempt to breed…

In the air swifts are displaying their finest flight; fueled by abundant insect life in this warm weather they have lots of energy to fly at their limits. Look out for pairs flying slowly near potential nest sites on stiff quivering wings, this is a particularly beautiful flight to see. Sometimes high speed passes also see swifts vibrating their wings. We can see swifts preforming the ‘v’ display where they hold their wings high and lose height rapidly. We can only speculate why they do this as we can’t tell male from female but it does certainly seem to be a strong signal to the following bird. These are days to savour: who knows how the rest of the summer will pan out? Last year we had roughly four weeks of poor weather in June and July with virtually no flying displays.

Take in every flypast. If you have prospecting birds throwing themselves seemingly randomly at your eaves, not your boxes, don’t become frustrated, relax and enjoy the sight and sound and be grateful you have swifts around- they will go in when they are ready and not before. Most of the birds you watch doing this are practicing approach and landing or still looking for a colony to join and will not attempt to enter a breeding site until they are mature enough. When they are it is like a switch being flicked and there is no stopping them finding a nest site.

House Martin Diary
We now have three pairs of house martins, two pairs incubating and another pair probably laying. This time last year we had none. However numbers in the area are very poor indeed. Fortunes looked mixed across the country. There is still time for first time breeders to arrive but the clock is certainly ticking now. We feel so fortunate to have them, but with many collapsed or reduced colonies being reported we can never take them for granted.

Below, watercolours from the last two days. All my studies of swifts in the sky are from observations of real formations as they pass.

 

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May 27th- spotted flycatcher and swift and house martin diary.

We feel very privileged to see spotted flycatchers back in the village. One is currently nest building. This species is one I hold with huge affection. It was one of the first species I really studied and sketched in my early teens. In the days when every reasonably sized garden or churchyard seemed to have a pair nesting I was lucky to observe them using nest boxes placed in view of my bedroom window. Indeed my first woodwork project at secondary school was a chance for me to build a flycatcher nest box!

I watched a display by the male showing a female a nest site on numerous occasions. The sense of privilege even back then that this long distance migrant appeared each summer in our garden is only increased now by their relative scarcity. How sad to think of the decline of this once common and much loved species.

It is an attractive bird. If you look closely the shade of brown or fawn of its upperparts has a slightly pinkish undertone. The breast and throat feathers are silvery white to cream admixed with very subtle stripes. Their behaviour is a delight to watch, the bird powering then gliding fast towards its insect prey with deadly accuracy before perching again.

Swift Diary
Our swift pair, which in recent poor weather has frequently been the sum of swifts visible here has at last been joined by more birds. As the air warms swifts are more able to feed locally, high above their nest sites, so we have been seeing some wonderful swift behaviour again. including courtship chases and mating on the wing. As even warmer weather arrives things should really ramp up. Some of the first younger non breeding birds should arrive and that is when those hoping to attract swifts need to be ready with call systems. This morning we were treated to frequent fast low level passes by up to five swifts, just wonderful!

Many people this year have observed birds returning and still waiting for a mate to arrive. Hopefully many pairs will be reunited this weekend as the last breeding age birds arrive. In some cases mates will have been lost and those swifts in search of a new mate will begin to lead a potential partner to their nest sites. This can be spectacular to watch. It can also be frustrating to watch as a new mate has to learn the approach path and landing. I remember a day a couple of years ago when a swift tried to lead a mate into our nest box. Thirty or more times he entered the box but each time the other would peel off at the last second. The next day the new mate finally entered the box and after that the pair never looked back.

Our pair now have two eggs but do not seem to be incubating yet, There might be a third on the way, we will have to wait and see? Unusually there was a 72 hour gap between the first two eggs being laid. This gap is normally 48 hours, the egg always being laid in the morning. The 72 hour gap is undoubtedly weather related with the female swift needing more time to make the egg in the cold conditions.

House Martin Diary
I am more concerned about house martins than I am about swifts this year. We are very lucky to have two pairs of house martins on the house but neither pair has laid eggs yet. One bird has been back over a month now without attempting to breed. Numbers of house martins are well down for this time of May though today we have seen much more activity in warmer weather so I hope we can welcome some additional pairs yet. Like swifts house martins arrive in waves and we are yet to see younger birds born last year. These birds nest later in late May and through June, but for the older birds already here breeding has been severely delayed and this could well have an impact of productivity this summer. Given good weather now, some birds will hopefully raise two broods.

It is wonderful to have house martins back. This time last year I had been trying and failing to attract them since May 2017. That all changed in June 2020, but you can never take this for granted. A friend in nearby Easingwold who had 5 pairs last year has yet to have any return. I feel his pain, for once you have lived with these birds you miss them when they are not around. Their cheerful calls are as much a part of summer as the screaming of swifts and they last through to September providing comfort when the swifts suddenly depart.

I would recommend trying to attract house martins. Artificial nest cups enable them to progress quickly with breeding which can help sustain local populations. For information on artificial nest cups and other ways you can help house martins see the link below:

Nest cups
Swifts mating in the air
Swifts confined to the nest box in cold, wet weather.
Swift on nest
Swifts feeding high in a late spring sky, at last!
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May 20th- a slow swift arrival

Since my last swift and house martin update very little has changed. There has been no arrival of house martins in the village since 10th May. This has meant that those birds that are here have settled in existing mud nests or artificial nests. I hope more of last year’s breeding house martins will turn up as well as the usual later wave of first time breeders which tends to arrive in the second half of May and June. The two pairs in our artificial nests are not yet incubating eggs and with very poor weather here I can imagine a further delay in breeding and in the arrival of more birds. We know swifts are very late to build up numbers this year and hope martins are the same- time will tell.

Our swift pair is very settled, but like the house martins they are having to make the most of any fine weather to feed, hence there is very little activity around the nesting sites. Large numbers of swifts were recorded passing watchpoints in the south of France on 17th May- yesterday the area saw an arrival of swifts from this passage. So numbers have increased but hopefully there are many more breeding swifts to arrive yet. There was another big ‘pulse’ of swifts north through the south of France yesterday but with the weather here deteriorating so rapidly it remains to be seen whether they carry on to our shores quickly or bide their time on the Continent.

The skies recently have been stunning with a typical day seeing cumulus cloud building up through the morning and some impressive cumulonimbus clouds forming by early afternoon. For me this has been a week to paint skies. Something I look forward to each winter is days outside painting summer skies containing swifts, swallows and house martins. As I write the temperature has dropped to 9C and moderate to heavy rain is set in. Our swift pair is in the nest box huddled close to each other, conserving the energy they gained from this morning’s dry feeding sortie. It is going to be a tough few days for the swifts, swallows and martins. Many swifts will have just arrived and will need to build up condition ahead of breeding- no easy task with so few insects on the wing.

It you are trying to attract swifts to your nest boxes, playing calls often has little or no effect at this point in the swift season. That is because most swifts here are already tied to an existing nest site. However it could just be worthwhile; if local swifts have lost a nest site you might persuade them to use a nest box. So for now don’t be despondent if your calls have no reaction even from swifts overhead. Hopefully towards the very end of the month, given warmer weather the first non breeding prospecting swifts will be here; this is the time playing calls can really work its magic. From my own observations starting colonies, 6-11am is the peak time for prospecting or ‘banging’, perhaps especially 7-10am. There is often a session at lunchtime or at the end of the afternoon on really warm days. Evenings in my experience are best for watching high speed low fly pasts and actual prospecting is more unusual than during the morning. Good luck!

 

Swifts huddled up on nest
Swifts mutual preening

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May 14th- BTO BBS 2021 and swift and house martin diary.

Yesterday morning my alarm was set for 4am. As is always the case I awoke before the alarm. The dawn chorus was already underway and there was a soft glow of light in the sky. I was up before dawn for my British Trust for Ornithology Breeding Birds Survey on the Ampleforth estate. It is such a rewarding experience to be out enjoying the countryside, so quiet, at this time of morning, while recording valuable data on bird populations. Many of the statistics on bird populations you hear in the media are down to hundreds of us who go out and gather information. On a local level it can be valuable information to protect threatened habitat.

I am lucky to survey an area with a wide variety of species. There was nothing particularly unusual this morning but it was reassuring to see familiar species such as yellowhammer, whitethroat and lesser whitethroat in the usual territories. The water colour below shows the sky at dawn looking east from Gilling. I had superb views of a fox as a bonus. After the survey I walked in the local woods and was delighted to find a spotted flycatcher, my first this year and a stunning male redstart.

Swift diary
11th- 14th May
Our swift pair is very settled. They leave one after the other at around 8am and return at about 7pm to roost. The mornings and evenings are too cool to offer them any insect food so they reserve energy by siting tight on the nest. There are one or two visits in the day to add feathers to the nest structure and very occasional fast screaming passes by the nest box but essentially they are off feeding as much as possible to gain condition for breeding.

The number of swifts back over Gilling East remains low. This is a common story across the country. I think we have around 20% of breeding birds back here. This number would include well established breeders and those that occupied a nest site before they were old enough to breed last summer. It is worth rereading David Lack’s Swifts in a Tower at this time of year. In the chapter Migration he describes the annual variation in arrival of swifts, it was just as unpredictable in the 1950s. What might have changed since then is the long term climate trend which could be influencing arrival times? While it was cold here in April we were surrounded by areas that were much warmer than average, including the Arctic. 

Today has been grey and cool and the swifts have not been seen at all since they left this morning.

House martin diary
We have two pairs established, one pair possibly laying eggs now. They come and go, but a bit like the swifts are absent for much of the day as they feed up ahead of breeding. There has been no sign of any new birds arriving recently. Soon we should expect some one year old first time breeders. They are usually easy to spot because they prospect new sites and ‘bother’ established breeders as they look for a place to settle.

Look out for male house martins as they try and coax a female to a new nest site. They fly down to the eaves in a graceful fast descent with tail held down and closed almost to a single point. Once in the nest or perched on a potential new site they utter a rasping “chi, chi, chi” call to the female. Sometimes she will land next to him and they ‘chatter’ or he will not succeed and will be left under the eaves calling, unable to see his potential mate due to the roof overhang.

It is lovely to have both species nesting on our house. They are a great combination and exist very well alongside each other. House martins tend to forage much closer to their nests when the weather is poor, so when swifts are away the martins are often close. We can watch them feeding around tree foliage in the nearby woods. This is a regular habit for martins, particularly in cooler weather or in the evenings. They fly right between the tree tops, almost taking insects directly from the foliage. Such maneuverability offers them an advantage over swifts.

 

May 13th, Gilling East, 4.50am
Redstart- Gilling Woods
Spotted flycatcher- Gilling Woods
Swift pair bonding soon after reuniting in nest box.
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May 11th- swift and house martin diary

9th May– our first swift returns to nest box 2. It (almost certainly a male) first enters the nest box early in the morning, rests for a while and then leaves to feed for the day returning to roost at around 4.30pm. The evening cooled quickly so the swift had little cause to leave the nest box, preferring instead to save the energy it gained from food caught in the warmest part of the day.

10th May– after leaving at 7.30am the swift is out feeding for most of the day. It returns early in the evening to roost. A maximum of three swifts seen above Gilling East today.

11th May– I awake to the sight of a pair of swifts in the nest box. The second bird (probably last year’s mate) arrived at 5.38am. The pair quickly settled on the nest and began mutual preening. They left to feed at 8.30am. This gave me the chance to sketch one bird’s face. Swifts can be easy to tell apart with a good view. This was the first bird back on 9th and almost certainly the male. I will make some studies of his mate tomorrow. To do this I use a telescope and sketch the birds as they look out of the entrance hole before they leave. At 10.30am 8 swifts were screaming in a tight flock about 200 feet above the village, a sure sign that the breeding birds are beginning to assemble; shortly afterwards our pair make a couple of very fast passes by the nest box. At around noon a swift brings a large white feather to the nest box.

I spent a glorious morning painting in the garden. It is dandelion time and I’m proud of our show of these cadmium yellow beauties, soon to turn to seed which attracts bullfinches, greenfinches and goldfinches. I made some cloud studies in oil and water colour. This was the first morning of the year when swifts could always be seen trawling the sky above the village. I am struck, as every year by the sheer distance they cover in a few seconds. We had several fast screaming passes.

While we relish having the swifts back we are also thrilled by the arrival of a second pair of house martins. They are using an artificial nest cup on the back of the house. The airspace above the garden is suddenly very busy and the sound of house martins and swifts fills the air. The morning was warm with some stunning cloud formations. Convective showers built up by early afternoon. As I write torrential rain and lightning is overhead, our swift pair came back to their box just before the rain arrived. It is an impressive storm, but I can’t help wondering how it compares to the thunderstorms they may have encountered over the winter in Africa.

 

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May 7th- still no swift and our single house martin

I still haven’t seen a swift. I have scanned the skies relentlessly to no avail. Talking to other friends with swift colonies around the north it does look like the north has fewer swifts back, though even in the south the majority of this year’s breeding birds are yet to arrive. When they do numbers could increase suddenly and dramatically; there must be a build of of swifts now somewhere south of the Mediterranean.

A single male house martin arrived back at our house on 26th April. He vanishes for most of the day, probably to feed over water, then returns at about 8pm to roost. On one occasion a second bird nearly joined him but with the arrival of more really cold days he has spent each freezing cold night alone. It seems that there was an initial early arrival of some house martins and since then the prevailing cold northerly wind has delayed the arrival of other birds. With a change, at least briefly, to southerly winds this weekend he may have a chance of attracting a mate soon…?

Our house martin, clearly eager to return and secure a nest, has taken quite a risk. He has endured some unseasonably cold conditions. Yesterday afternoon we had an hour or so of continuous hail with a few lightning strikes for good measure. The skies were spectacular as towering cumulonimbus clouds tracked south east across our area. Incredibly at about 4pm the temperature dropped to 2.7C. I simply don’t know how these birds survive sometimes. But yesterday evening after the storm had cleared he appeared and entered the nest to roost.

He is probably the male who left a female to tend to three chicks last September. He left with the main departure of house martins. Sadly the female and all three chicks died of starvation at the end of September; it was very sad finding four house martin corpses in the nest cup. But if you look at the situation objectively, he was saving himself to hopefully have a more successful breeding season this year. Had he stayed there might have been five corpses? I cannot prove of course that it is the same bird, but on 26th April he returned straight to the same nest and has not visited any other nest, so it does seem highly likely.

For now he awaits back up. There have been just 2-3 house martins in the village since 26th, all awaiting the next arrival. I will be writing a regular blog with sketches of house martin and swift activity throughout the summer. Do sign up to receive the blog by email if you would be interested to read future updates.

 

The artificial nest cup currently occupied by our first returned male house martin. The positioning offers superb views of the birds from my son’s bedroom!
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Pied flycatchers, redstarts and house martins.

Redstarts and pied flycatchers are back in some local woodlands. They are two species I cannot wait to see each spring. Both seem exotic in colour and song. Tolly and I went to watch them at dawn on Sunday 18th April. We soon found a male pied flycatcher singing near a nest hole. With the females yet to arrive he was singing almost non stop. The temperature at the time was well below freezing and buds were held tight on the oaks. It felt incongruous seeing this black and white gem with feathers extremely fluffed up, in a wintry looking wood while we felt the biting cold air. The black and crisp white plumage makes the male stand out like a little marker in a still, leafless wood.

Nearby a redstart, equally stunning was also singing. We had good views of it atop some birch trees, another male bird waiting for females to arrive. Redstarts are one of those birds I remember yearning to see when I looked through bird books as a child. In West Berkshire we were far from their strongholds in old oak woodland in the North and West of England. I literally dreamt of seeing one and today thousands of sightings later, each redstart feels as fresh as the first.

April has thrown at us a bizarre combination of exceptionally dry days with intense night frosts. This I suspect has held many migrants back, but yesterday three house martins returned to the village. One of them came straight to last year’s nest on our house. After a few visits in the morning it spent the afternoon making the most of the best time of day to find insects and was not seen again until the evening when it came in to roost. Its artificial nest cup was specially positioned so Tolly could see the entrance from his pillow and this morning, his birthday, he had the gift of a newly returned house martin! Hopefully the first of many…

Many people, especially in the south, have seen their first swifts. I have that pleasure to come. People exclaim “the swifts are back”; well, a very small percentage of the swifts are back. Swifts that will breed this year will keep on arriving well into the second half of May. Most years see several obvious arrivals of breeding swifts. Sometimes these can be dramatic with huge increases literally overnight. But for now what is here is the very tip of the iceberg.

As I stand in the garden as the evening cools I look for the first local swift. Evening time is a good time to look for these birds as they sometimes circle before they descend into last year’s nest site. It is a time to savour as the cool air is filled with the rich sound of blackbird song. This is the sound I most associate with seeing my first swift of the year.

 

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April 15th- spring at Yorkshire Arboretum. Observations from my artist’s residency.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at Yorkshire Arboretum as artist in residence, catching up on the many changes as spring progresses. A subject I have been really keen to paint is shadows of branches on tree trunks. From the start of my residency I began to notice the strength of tone in these shadows on larger oaks in particular. Tonally they are as strong as the branches themselves often continuing over the ground around the tree. They make a fascinating subject sometimes forming some really interesting shapes. It has become something of an obsession, the painting process feeling almost abstract at times although very much the result of life observation.

The shadows of bare branches are a particular feature of winter and early spring so I have been making these studies in anticipation of emerging foliage. It really teaches you to draw what you see rather than what you think you know. Painting a dark shadow of a branch on a trunk can at first seem daunting, but with careful observation of the subject you start to realise that this is what we see all the time. Next time you pass a large tree try looking at the shadows rather than the bark and you may see what I mean.

It has been a delight to be in the grounds as spring advances. A visit on March 22nd came after an intense early frost (-5.7C). By mid morning the sun felt really warm in a light breeze- one of those early spring days when for the first time in a long time you realise that you are overdressed. The goat willows were in full bloom and heaving with insects, especially queen buff-tailed bumble bees. Amongst them up to four small tortoiseshells nectaring on the flowers. I stood mesmerised by the sight, sound and smell. suddenly after a long cold winter the warmth hit me. The sight of the yellow flowers and orange tortoiseshells against a cerulean blue sky was a true tonic.

A single chiffchaff freshly arrived belted out its name from a nearby ash, those two rather plaintive notes repeated over and over again pure joy to my ears. I had good views and managed a few sketches of this restless bird. The lake has a pair of little grebes. I spent some time sketching these incredibly fluffy grebes with their gorgeous burnt sienna cheeks. Patient observation enabled me to find the nest site which will soon be hidden by emerging leaves.

We have had an intense run of hard frosts at night, in fact every night in April thus far has seen a frost to some degree. Although some days have turned reasonably warm the night time temperatures (and lack of rainfall) are wilting some plants and probably holding back a certain amount of bird migration. Swallows remain very scarce. I find myself gazing into the blue sky willing Hirundines and swifts to be here when I know that most are still days or weeks away. But there is no doubt, the season of sky gazing in a craned neck posture has begun!

 

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April 7th- rooks and snow showers. The anniversary of the start of sketches and notes from from Gilling East.

It is now just over a year since I began blogging regularly from Gilling East, North Yorkshire. All the blogs are available on this website if you want to read them again and compare 2020 to 2021. April 7th this year is a lot colder than the same date last year. No chance today of the first orange tip, recorded on this day in 2020. Blue tits were busy building their nest, no sign of that yet this year. Recent days have seen the most beautiful skies, cold, crystal clear Arctic air bringing snow showers over the valley, another stark contrast to this time last year when we were experiencing settled warm conditions.

I have not yet started to sort out a year’s worth of writing and sketching. I have painted hundreds of watercolours with 19 sketchbooks filled, including some very specific projects on skies, swifts, house martins and other subjects, but seen together this body of work represents a natural year around the village of Gilling East. I have always been something of a local patch naturalist but never more so than now. My art college dissertation was about my hero the Reverend Gilbert White who was perhaps the ultimate patch naturalist. His natural history of Selborne remains one of the greatest works of its kind; as I wandered I found myself thinking of him often. He would perfectly understand what so many have come to understand this last year about the advantages of being a local naturalist.

I can expand my horizons now as lockdown eases, but I find myself torn. Yes, I crave new horizons; sea, moors, estuaries and marshes, ancient woodland and wider skies, but the thought of driving to go for a walk now seems ridiculous! Through exceptional circumstances I have been forced to change the way I work. More than ever I simply go out and paint exactly what I want to paint with no thought as to whether it will be framed or sold in a gallery. This is how I will to continue to work, blogging on a regular basis as a major incentive to create and share new work. I have been both surprised and delighted by the response to the blog. Thank you so much for all the comments, shared sightings and enthusiasm over the past year. I may not match the continuous 125 day stretch achieved last year but I will be aiming to blog two or three times a week. 

I have been sketching rooks again. They are busy commuting back and forth from the rookery to the fields. This displaying bird was largely ignored by all other rooks around it. What a stunning bird to look at in bright early morning sunshine. The iridescence of its feathers constantly changing.

The cold weather has rather checked the rush of spring that was happening in last week’s warmth. Blackthorn blossom is just starting to make an impact locally, it is easy to see the colder spots where much remains firmly in bud. I love the flower bud stage of blackthorn, like thousands of tiny stars shining against the dark inner branches. With frequent snow showers and such sharp frosts I cannot remember such a perfect example of a blackthorn winter.

 

Heavy showers decaying at dusk- 5th April 7.45pm.
April 7th 2020- a much warmer day than April 7th 2021!