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, Sketchbook

5th April- whimbrel, song thrush and 7 spot

I had another session listening for common scoters yesterday night. The waxing gibbous moon was high and bright with a ruby halo. I listened hard, local tawny owls and nearby displaying lapwings occasionally punctuated the silence. Then at 11.20pm a loud, rippling whistle, unmistakably a whimbrel on its way North, followed shortly by a bright meteor. I didn’t hear any scoters but it shows, you never know what you might see or hear.


I am sure many of us are taking a fresh look at the everyday pleasures of the natural world. We dug a new flower bed in the back lawn and retreated to watch birds find food in freshly turned ground. Soon down was a song thrush. What a beautiful bird- warm brown upperparts and those triangular and arrowhead shaped speckles on an rich yellow ochre background. A pair explored the sepia soil finding plenty to eat. In the early morning and evening they serenade us with loud clear song. As I watched the song thrush this morning, a small flock of redwing flew over- will this be the last redwing sighting of Spring? Will October be the next time we see redwings…?

My seven year old son Ptolemy is brilliant at spotting all manner of animals and deserves equal credit for this blog! Today, his spot or 7 spot of the day, was a pair of 7 spot ladybirds mating on the garden table! Wonderful to see this species well as the non-indigenous harlequin seems to account for most ladybird records these days. A small white butterfly flew through the garden, again spotted by my son. We hoped for our first swallow today, but that pleasure still awaits us.

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bird behaviour, Sketchbook, Sketching outside, Swifts in 2018

Not so swift arrival.

I stood in Helmsley market square this morning, my sketchbook on the car bonnet, gazing skyward. I was watching and sketching Swifts. It is wonderful to see that crescent shape in the sky again after nearly nine months. The Swift watching lead to another, much more unusual observation- three large birds, just white specks against the blue sky were Spoonbills, three of them moving North. I later discovered that three Spoonbills left RSPB St Aiden’s reserve near Leeds, heading North East a little over an hour before- the same three? This sheet of studies was painted in Ampleforth this morning. The sky was cloudless and this modest first arrival of Swifts should be joined by many more in the coming days and weeks. In summary I counted 9 over Helmsley, 4 over Ampleforth and none in Gilling East.

Bird paintings, Sketchbook, Sketching outside, Swifts 2018

A portrait of Swifts. My first book.

It is currently 3c and pouring with rain here in Gilling East, but I find myself surrounded by memories of high summer. I am currently working, with Mascot Media, on a book of my appreciation of Swifts due to be published in August 2018. The book will launched on my art marquee stand at Birdfair 2018. It has been a pleasure rummaging back through old diaries and sketchbooks to relive days spent with Swifts. These sketches take me back to different times in my life; primary school, art college at Bristol, our first house near Bradford on Avon right up to our present life here in North Yorkshire. Throughout this time summers with Swifts have been a constant joy.

The book will bring together my love of painting skies with more intimate drawings of the Swifts in their nest space. I hope the book will share my passion for watching and sketching these remarkable birds and raise awareness of the need to protect them.