Daily blog from Gilling East, Sketchbook

June 30th- crossbills and swift diary

Tolly and I had a lovely walk on the moors near Helmsley this morning. Our target was to see crossbills. It wasn’t long before we heard their loud “chip chip” calls. Though loud these can be quite hard to locate when they are flying, but we found a party some distance away that settled in nearby larch trees. I set the scope up for some brilliant views as the small party of crossbills chattered in the tree top. There has been a large influx of crossbills in recent days, though it is quite possible that these were local birds which breed in the coniferous forests in the area. A stunning male was very vocal at times.

It was a very pleasant morning for walking, the sky was steely grey but it was not cold even in the brisk wind. We heard golden plovers though they remained elusive. Skylarks were still belting out their glorious song high above. Tolly then spotted some bilberries, this distracted us for some time as we plundered the bright green bilberry leaves for delicious and nutritious reward! The first bell heather is in bloom already adding a vague purple tint to the moor, but the dominant colour was the fresh green of the bilberry leaves.

Ringlet butterflies were on the wing. They are known for flying in rather dull and even wet conditions. We had lovely views of them settled amongst the grass. There were some wonderful specimens of common spotted orchids. We checked in on the Arctic starflowers we had seen earlier in the month, but just the leaves remained. We will come and see these beautiful flowers again next year.

Swift Diary
Quiet. The adults come and go with food. We had an interesting sighting just south of Helmsley. A flock of about 50 was feeding above a field. We knew which crop it would be, and so it was- oil seed rape. Swifts actively feed over this crop, mainly on the flea beetle which it attracts. The birds here were probably Helmsley’s breeding birds gathering food for their young. No other type of crop had swifts feeding above it, something I have come to notice each summer.

Daily blog from Gilling East

June 28th- low swallow numbers and swift diary

I am hearing of so many collapsed or diminished swallow colonies. I can think of several nest sites where they no longer nest. To hear so many people reporting low numbers is very worrying.

Swift Diary
Very little to report at the colony. The non breeding birds have gone leaving the adults to come and go feeding their young. Both chicks are starting to open their eyes. They look prickly, covered in masses of waxy feather sheaths. They have tiny wings now which are starting to sprout those massive wing feathers. The wind has been very strong today but it has been warm enough for the adults to leave their chicks who now have an insulating layer of down on their bodies.

The east coast has seen huge movements of swifts today. Top of the swift movement league was the Filey area where at Muston Sands Mark Pearson and Keith Clarkson recorded well over 16000 swifts in the first half of the morning. There is much debate about the origin of these birds which are mainly birds born last year. It will be interesting to study weather maps in more detail and to speculate as to the exact reason for this movement. However I do think that they are not going for good. These south bound movements on the east coast happen in most summers and are always weather related. Strong south westerly winds associated with a deep summer low pressure system has forced the non breeders to move south for now, but given a change to warmer conditions they will return on unseen northerly passage to delight us with their aerial acrobatics.

What I do know is that each time we lose our non breeding swifts, movements down the east coast begin. There seems to be a sort of conveyor belt of swifts moving to warmer conditions further south.

Swallow fluffed up in cold wind.

Below. Single breeding swift in grey skies.


bird behaviour, Daily blog from Gilling East, Sketchbook, Sketching outside

June 11th- redstarts, pied flycatchers and swift diary

Tolly and I had a very early trip to the North York Moors this morning. We went to see pied flycatchers and redstarts. We were lucky to see both very well. The male pied flycatcher is a little black and white gem. They contrast so well against fresh green foliage. The male was busy feeding young with his mate. Both dart around the woods very fast when looking for food. The only chance to see them well is when they perch briefly before entering the nest hole.

We were spoilt for choice because a pair of redstarts were also showing well. The male sang on an open perch for a while giving us superb views. He was very fluffed up in the cold conditions. We found some wild strawberries to feast on to keep us going for breakfast! This was a welcome trip out, but we feel keen to continue our coverage of the local patch around Gilling East. As the weather improves in the next few days we are keen to walk the Holbeck again and see how our local birds are doing. So expect more local updates in the coming days and weeks.

Swift Diary
Some older non breeding birds returned yesterday afternoon though they have not yet been putting on low level flying displays around the colony. Our pair continue to incubate with the prospect of the eggs hatching in the next few days. We are still awaiting fine weather. Today is atrocious with both swifts huddled in the nest box throughout the afternoon, but on this day last year the same pair didn’t leave the nest box at all with wind and rain keeping the temperature below 10C, so some improvement!

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.



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.



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.



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.


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.


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.