Daily blog from Gilling East, Sketchbook, Sketching outside

April 13th-hedgehog and jackdaw

I set the trail camera last night to find out how active the hedgehogs are. Our hedgehog nest box was used to raise young last summer and is in use again this year. This large hedgehog was recorded leaving the nest box yesterday at 8.34pm. It spent the whole night out feeding before returning at 5.17am this morning. The hedgehog nest box is located behind our oil tank. Whilst it is well hidden under a beech hedge the site is not partcularly quiet and the occasional strike from a football is not unknown! If you have some spare timber a hedgehog nest box might be a good Spring project?

Jackdaws are nest building in a neighbour’s chimney. Such characterful birds. Their nest is now finished with egg laying imminent I think.

Today has felt very cold compared to recent days. As I write(4.30pm), it is just 7C with a keen breeze coming from the North Sea.

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Daily blog from Gilling East, Sketchbook, Sketching outside

Easter day- robin nest building

One advantage of staying at home is the time it gives to really get to know the birds in our garden habitat. I have watched various species nest building and find myself starting to know individual birds. I start to recognise tiny plumage details which can identify an individual. Now territories are formed, all being well these individuals will remain faithful to our garden. I have started to notice really precise flight lines of different individuals too and regular song posts- not just the same tree, but the same twig, time after time.

A female robin began a new nest in our hedge today. She gathered fallen beech leaves from beneath the hedge. Robins build a substantial base of leaves before adding mosses and grasses and hair to the nest structure. Nests are far from haphazard, they are intricate structures designed for optimum breeding performance. They have to safely contain eggs and young, but they must also regulate temperature efficiently. This would include helping to keep an adult bird warm over extended incubation periods in cool weather. The location of nest site is also crucial, to avoid predation and extreme temperatures.

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Daily blog from Gilling East, Sketchbook, Sketching outside

11th April- garden moths, dawn chorus and curlew

I awoke before dawn and lay completely still, listening to the birds. After a burst of tawny owl calls at 5.14am, blackbirds and robins started the dawn chorus with loud song at 5.16am. They were soon joined by wren and song thrush, pheasant and woodpigeon. Later dunnock and chiffchaff, followed by great, blue, marsh and coal tits. Last of all are greenfinches, sparrows and starlings, species which always prefer a lie in!

Last night was ideal for moth trapping. The first half of the night saw temperatures in the low teens with cloud cover. Going outside to look at the moth trap in the morning(my 7 year old still in his pyjamas!) fills us with expectation and wonder! This morning we had some really beautiful moths. The lunar marbled brown is a new species for me and not a common species this far North. Its caterpillars feed on oak leaves. Pine beauty was also a very good catch and a really beautiful species. In all we had about fifty moths. As we studied the catch we were treated to a low level fly pass from three curlew, one of which sang loudly as it went overhead. Hearing that evocative call whilst holding a herald moth was an unforgettable moment.

Coal tits are breeding nearby and this morning they were flying over the garden with nest lining. The blue tits in my studio nest box are beginning to form the nest cup in the moss they have gathered.

We have had some beautiful sunsets recently. I love to sit outside and sketch after sunset, as the light fades. As sunset turns to gloaming the sound of blackbirds, robins and song thrushes make a fine end to the day.

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Daily blog from Gilling East, Sketchbook, Sketching outside

9th April- marsh tits and sand martins

A much cooler day today, with a chilly breeze and much more cloud than recent days. There were fewer insects around with no butterfly sightings. The female blue tit carried on her nest building, exclusively adding moss as far as I could see. She is very trusting and confidently enters the nest box if I am about twenty feet away.

We are very lucky to have marsh tits visiting the garden on a daily basis. The UK population of the marsh tit has declined alarmingly and their breeding range has contracted. It is red listed by the International Union of Conservation for Nature which sees the species as globally threatened. I know that there are at least five individuals here, including one with a white tail. This year we are in a marsh tit territory as we have been treated to frequent song by a male. Today he was tearing apart cherry blossom to eat the nectar and singing frequently in between doing so. Nearby Gilling woods are a stronghold for this species. I know this from my British Trust for Ornithology Breeding Bird Survey which consistently records the species and its breeding success. We have also had a willow tit visiting the garden for much of the Winter. Marsh and willow tits are very similar, though seeing them one after the other, or even together, one can see very distinct differences.

We still await our first swallow sighting, but we had brief flyovers from sand martins from a small nearby colony in the banks of the Holbeck.

Dandelion flowers are increasing by the day. Please leave them to flower folks, they are such an important source of early nectar for bees, butterflies and other insects and when the flowers go to seed they provide food for greenfinches, goldfinches, linnets and bullfinches.

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Daily blog from Gilling East, Sketching outside

April 8th- glorious greenfinches

The UK greenfinch population has suffered a nationwide decline in recent years, but here in Gilling East they seem to be making a welcome comeback. Their beautiful song is almost continuous at the moment. It is such an exotic sound, with a variety of notes, some rich and fluty, others sounding metallic. Sometimes the song is perfomed during a display flight. The male flies at about 50 feet on an erratic path, wings flapped in a clockwork-like motion. The displaying male is often followed quite closely by a female. We have three or four singing males around the garden and consequently, surround sound greenfinch. I suspect in future years the song of the greenfinch will remind me of this exceptional time.

It is an interesting bird to paint. The male has a mix of green and grey plumage which is often admixed on head and breast. But the recent decline has helped me to see this species in a new light. A really beautiful and hopefully, increasingly common garden bird.

The female blue tit accelerated her nest building today with copious amounts of moss. Again, building was restricted to the first half of the morning, with another short burst in the evening. Another common garden bird, so easily overlooked. I have felt privileged to watch them nesting in a box on my studio; more than I can remember since my childhood, when the thrill of seeing them choose our nest box was a highlight of Spring.

Orange tip, brimstone and small tortoiseshells passed through the garden today and a bee-fly returned. We had visits from the gingery Bombus pascuorum bumble bee and mining bees.

The sand martins from a small nearby colony drifted across our garden at times but swallows and house martins are still to arrive.

Evening update 7.35pm. Ten redwings have just flown West over the garden.

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Daily blog from Gilling East, Sketching outside

April 7th- first orange tip, bee-fly and blue tits nest building

After a sharp frost, another glorious day in the garden, with a much lighter breeze than yesterday. An orange tip flew in late morning and settled briefly on a daisy. Long enough for me to see its beautiful lacy, green underwing pattern. If I was asked to name a favourite butterfly it would be the orange tip. For me they mark the very height of Spring. They reach their peak flying time when I am expecting to see my first swifts! The female lacks the orange forewing tips seen in the male, but shares the beautiful green patterned underwing.

Also in the garden today a dark-edged bee-fly. These are very much Spring insects. They hover in front of flowers such as primrose and use their long proboscis to extract nectar. They often feed at garden flowers such as grape hyacinth and Scillas. The larvae of bee flies eat the larvae of mining bees. A beautiful and fascinating insect.

The female blue tit started nest building today. She collected moss from a branch on a nearby apple tree. She restricted her nest building time to the first half of the morning. The male followed her back and forth to the nest box.

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Daily blog from Gilling East

April 6th – swift and house martin nest boxes

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Swifts over the garden. Oil on Canvas.

Another beautiful Spring day and thinking ahead I wanted to spend some time making and putting up nest boxes in time for swifts and house martins. With the prospect of returning breeding swifts I need to have all the boxes in place now to avoid disturbing them when they return. Several years ago I had a swift return to one of my nest boxes on 16th April. This was exceptionally early for a returning breeding swift and it then had to wait another 14 days before the next swift arrived back at the colony!

Making nest boxes is an activity full of hope and anticipation. Today, I fitted a camera in a nest box which was visited by a non breeding swift last Summer. So all is now ready for the returning birds. The weather was so warm today I was almost expecting to see house martins and swifts above. For now, all the boxes have the entrances blocked to stop take over by tree sparrows. There are plenty of nest boxes provided elsewhere for sparrows though they nearly always attempt to move to the swift boxes for their second broods.