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August 15th- willow warbler song and sea fret

Since Friday’s blog we have had two very grey days, to be honest local inspiration has not come easily. The wind has been coming off the North Sea, dragging sea fret well inland. We have not seen the sun since Friday. This stubborn cloud is hiding a night sky that might otherwise reveal Perseid meteors. It is keeping the temperature low enough to prevent the flight of many insects. Even the ubiquitous large whites are gone, dragonflies and damselflies are hidden, biding their time before the next warm sunlight.

I was reflecting on lockdown back in April. It was remarkable for so many reasons, many of them sad and involving immeasurable suffering. We were very lucky here and for a while we lived in a rather timeless state. I will never forget the blue skies courtesy of high pressure which blocked all weather systems. But lockdown coincided with one of the busiest times of year for a naturalist. There is so much change at such a fast pace in April and May that each year I struggle to take it all in. But lockdown enabled daily observation of local change. I watched single plants change and became familiar with individual birds on territory.

Now in mid August they hide away, moulting their feathers to be warm and protected for the cold dark months ahead. Many plants are fading, the hogweeds are already brown skeletons of their former selves. Leaves on trees and shrubs look tired and worn partly from the adverse weather we experienced after true lockdown. Bird song has almost ceased completely. Occasional bursts from a robin set me thinking of cold autumn mornings when they will be singing more regularly. Even the hoards of tree sparrows are deserting the village- they can be seen enjoying the annual bounty of ripe grain in the fields nearby. The house martins fill the air with their contact calls, a reminder of late spring and high summer. We hear swallows occasionally. I never thought I would say that; swallows sang and twittered above the garden almost seamlessly through summers only a few years ago. They are becoming notable by their absence-what has happened to our swallows?

I am not feeding the birds in the garden at the moment. There is an abundance of natural food now. Our new pond attracts birds to drink and bath and to feed on the numerous insects. Yesterday morning the silence in our garden was punctuated by a willow warbler. It sang a near complete version of its sweet yet mournful spring song and reminded me of the fact that thousands and thousands of migrant birds are creeping through our gardens by day and flying over our heads at night. I watched it sally out from the hedge to take a fly over our pond. Just one fly, but showing that our new pond is part of a much bigger picture; we have helped to fuel a willow warbler on its journey to Africa, I hope someone somewhere will enjoy its complete song next spring. 


Tree Sparrow studies. Available from my studio.
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August 14th- robins singing again, wall butterfly and house martin fledging. Also a bonus swift diary!

Each August I look forward to seeing robins freshly moulted into their immaculate autumn plumage. Robins are territorial in the winter and from now you can start hearing them sing again. This song is very different to the loud spring song, it is unhurried, quieter and very sweet to listen to. It seems to compliment the last days of summer when the sunlight is softer and tinted with ochre.

We have seen wall butterflies this week. This seems to a good year for this lovely little butterfly. The impression in flight is of pale orange, but a view of the butterfly settled shows sepia lattice like markings breaking the pale orange ground colour. As their name suggests they like walls to bask on. This last week has seen big hatches of small tortoiseshells and speckled woods. This follows a large hatch of peacocks a couple of weeks ago. In sunny periods there are lots of butterflies to enjoy now. I prune our buddleia back very hard in late April which delays flowering to late summer, This seems to work well to catch this second generation of butterflies. I also provide fruit later on for red admirals, commas and speckled woods.

Our house martin chick fledged this morning. It was a joy to see it fly confidently and quickly high into the sky to join about 25 other house martins. In profile through binoculars I could see the missing feathers on its head where it was attacked. I took a chance moving the chick to another nest box when it was being attacked by a new male. Its father presumably died and the new male probably killed its three siblings. I placed it in a nearby nest box and its mum continued to feed it through to fledging, so one more precious house martin has fledged today. After its maiden flight it landed near a nest box allowing me to make some sketches. It is easily recognisable due to the feather loss on its head, a result of the attack earlier this month.

Swift Diary
Yesterday in cool cloudy weather we were visited by five prospecting swifts. They prospected frequently between 10am- 1pm. This was totally unexpected, our breeding pair have been gone over a week now. After days of hot weather and no swifts where had these birds come from? They behaved very much like young non breeding birds, flinging themselves randomly at the eaves and forming low level screaming parties. It was wonderful to see this behaviour in mid August but another great example of how swifts can surprise us with their behaviour.

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August 12th- juvenile bullfinch, song thrush fledglings and swift diary.

We think there are bullfinches nesting in our beech hedge which is becoming draped with convolvulus. The adult birds come and go very discretely. But we also see full grown young from another brood. They are very distinctive looking juvenile birds. They share some of the same basic plumage patterns of their parents but the head is uniform brown. They love to eat honeysuckle berries if you have them in your garden, though the main aim is to eat the seed within.

A late brood of song thrushes has just fledged. The young are often fed on red currant berries from a nearby garden. There is no song thrush song at the moment. Like many species as the breeding season ends they will begin moulting their worn feathers. Now is a time of great plenty for birds. There is abundant food and adults who are worn after breeding can hide away and replace feathers.

The house martin chick that I moved to another nest (because it was be attacked by a rival male- see earlier blog) is thriving. Today its mother was trying to coax it out of the nest by perching out of reach with food. I know her by markings on the back of her neck. The chick should fledge very soon. Meanwhile I am delighted and surprised to say we have acquired two new pairs in nest boxes- I wonder if they will raise broods at this stage of August?

In my experience house martins can take years to attract to artificial nests, but once you have one pair the other boxes are very quickly prospected. They are a delight to have around the house and have given me a new subject to study in detail now the swifts are gone. Their flight is spectacular. Whilst swifts often steal the glory for their flying displays around our eaves, house martins display a more manoeuvrable flight, so they are more versatile in tighter spaces than swifts. Their gentle flight curves into the nests are fast and impressive. The males leading females in, are particularly graceful as they pull their tails down presumably to show off the white rump to best effect. It is a beautiful flight to watch and I am enjoying them so much I have to remind myself we had swifts piling around the eaves little more than a week ago.

Swift Diary

There are still swifts in the village. I discovered a new active nest today because I found a pile of swift nestling droppings. Swifts are often said not to create mess like house martins, but in certain nest sites droppings are easily ejected by the young. I could see the swiftlets clearly through the nest entrance in the eaves. They should fledge soon. Meanwhile we have 5-8 adult swifts above the village. They perform flypasts round the nest site at times, but activity is a shadow of that we saw a couple of weeks ago.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.