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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P01[0:0] E[146:0127]G[064:0x14] BV[97:0] IR[L]

P01[0:1] E[147:0122]G[064:0x14] BV[82:16] IR[L]


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, Sketching outside, Uncategorized

April 4th- Winter Visitors Departing

Yesterday evening I spent an hour or so in the back garden listening for a species of sea duck. Many birders have reported hearing common scoters over their gardens. Perhaps fuelled by a lack of freedom in this current C19 crisis they are trying hard to see and hear as many new species as possible from the confines of home and garden. Many have now added common scoter to their lists. I heard two flocks around 10.40pm. In the very still air I heard their fluty calls. Staring at the bright waxing gibbous moon I tried to visualise these flocks as they flew from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. From there they will journey onwards to their breeding areas around the rivers and lakes of the boreal forest of Scandinavia.

This is a time of great transition. As Spring migrants begin to arrive there is a lag as Winter visitors leave. I have seen redwings today, lingering before they make the journey across the North Sea back to Scandinavia where they breed. They too migrate under cover of night. I will miss these beautiful small thrushes and look forward to seeing them again in October. Watching birds gives me a great sense of bearing in the year. There is always something to look forward to and when Summer ends and my beloved swifts depart there will be the promise of Autumn and the passage migrants and wintering species that the season brings.

Redwing- watercolour
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.