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.

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, 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.





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.














bird behaviour, Bird paintings, Sketchbook, Sketching outside

Waxwings in Ampleforth


Waxwings at Ampleforth. Watercolour. 13″ x 11″ £300 unframed

The Waxwings are on their way back to Finland and Russia. This is giving me a second chance to sketch them. I had many sightings as they moved west before Christmas. But now they are on their return journey. They have been seen around Ampleforth College orchards over the last week or so. Strangely this orange rowan still has a heavy crop of berries. Waxwings are truly beautiful. Some winters there are just a few in the country, but this has been a Waxwing winter and they have filtered West across Britain in their hundreds. They gorge themselves on berries in smash and grab raids, filling a pouch beside their throats, then retiring to digest them in a nearby tree. The current Ampleforth flock will be eating any berries they can find and in warm weather catching insects on the wing which they do with grace and agility, ahead of their North Sea crossing.

Waxwing sketch available. 13″x 11″   £300 unframed   email: jonathan@pomroy.plus.com