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Yorkshire Arboretum exhibition, 17th September- 18th October

I normally gravitate towards painting more open landscapes but the residency saw me concentrating on more enclosed wooded areas. In particular I became fascinated with tree trunks, especially the movement of branch shadows across them and the ground below.

In autumn fungi, especially the numerous fly agarics and shaggy ink caps were an irresistible subject. I have observed and sketched the birds attracted to the arboretum throughout the year, showing the value of trees to so many species and the wider ecosystem. Hawfinches appeared on the hornbeams in small numbers in October and I spent many hours studying these beautiful and massive finches. Crossbills were frequent company in autumn and early winter. Another bird highlight was the appearance of redstarts in spring. The exhibition will feature many more species see between Sept 20- Sept 21..

I experienced the arboretum through different weathers and saw damp cool autumn days, incredible amounts of rainfall at times, intense frost and snow and very warm summer days with the meadows alive with insects. The swings in weather from dry to wet and very warm to cold made me realise what trees have to withstand.

Some planned events were impossible due to covid but we managed a couple of very good painting workshops in August- these were as much about just being out in nature as the end results on paper.

I hope this exhibition shows the wonder, peace and joy I have found in the arboretum grounds. I considered myself extremely fortunate to be there at a time when so many struggled through a very difficult winter; I found being around old trees (especially the medieval holly) very moving at a time of so much suffering. The arboretum has the power to inspire and calm the soul.

Below are some of the watercolours that will be available for purchase at the exhibition.

Robin in the medieval holly.
Crossbill studies. Watercolour.
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September 1st- Black-browed albatross at RSPB Bempton Cliffs.

The coast is reasonably accessible from Gilling East. An hour or so of driving and we can be anywhere between Teeside and Bridlington. But, mindful of my carbon footprint, I am rather selective with my visits. Whilst I look with great interest at sea watchers’ records flooding in from the east coast at this time of year I am happy to accept that my visits will be occasional and therefore potentially hit or miss. But the presence of a black-browed albatross at Bempton had been nagging away at me since its arrival in June!

I wanted to go with my nine year old son Tolly and yesterday was our first good opportunity. While in some ways I feel a degree of sadness at the thought of a wandering black- browed albatross alone in the wrong hemisphere, who can deny the incredible opportunity this has presented for so many to see such a spectacular bird.

We set off before 6am into a grey dawn, yet another dull, murky start courtesy of this gloomy anticyclonic weather system. It just became more murky as we drove coast bound. On leaving the car to walk to the cliffs at RSPB Bempton Cliffs reserve we were hit by the strength of the wind which peaked where it was being ‘squeezed’ over the cliff top. Bempton never disappoints and without hesitation we were glad to be there, albatross or not. The spectacle of thousands of gannets sometimes within touching distance was simply spectacular. The sound of them and the wind and the sea almost hurt our ears.

Looking out to sea, pewter skies weighed heavy on dull turquoise waves which pounded the chalky cliffs three hundred feet below. We could just about see Filey Brigg. It was cold stood there but we had a report that the albatross was on the cliffs out of view. We kept the faith, but the temptation of a hot cup of coffee back at the visitor centre grew exponentially.

An RSPB guide kindly informed us that some birders were watching the albatross from further along the cliff top. Well if nothing else it was an excuse to keep warm by moving, so we set off, all the while mesmerised by passing gannets hanging in the updrafts. We soon joined an excited party of observers, and had our first view of the albatross albeit distantly through the scope. We marvelled at its size, its rather stern yet rather peaceful expression and its light peachy coloured bill.

We watched it preen and clamber about a little and saw those enormous wings half open, then it turned and faced out to sea, leaned forward and tipped into the updrafts. Without delay it went to land on the sea. This was our next view, its bulky head held mainly upright, it stood out well in the waves. We didn’t have to wait long to see it fly. This if I’m honest was the moment I was waiting and hoping for- an albatross in flight. It glided effortlessly above the waves giving us memorable views, very “natural” albatross views as Tolly called them. But soon it was back on the cliff within feet of where we had previously seen it. So more, even better views of it were obtained as the light was now slightly brighter.

We decided having been on the cold cliff top for several hours to head back for some late breakfast and a hot drink, quietly hoping it would take to the air again as we returned along the cliff top.

It did! We rushed to the viewpoint and joined an excited crowd watching the beauty of its flight as it drifted back and forth amongst the equally beautiful gannets. It passed over us, beside us and below us showing us all angles and demonstrating its effortless gliding abilities. I particularly loved seeing its head-on approaches on bowed wings. After several passes it gently lowered altitude to begin another landing approach towards the cliff. This gave us views of albatross wings at full stretch; it looked like a long, dark, thin ‘plank’ amongst the many bright white gannet wings. It approached the cliff, slowed down and settled out of view.

We had seen it on the cliff, on the sea and best of all in the air. The joy this bird brought was palpable all around; joy seen on people’s faces and heard in their voices. People were quite simply beaming with delight. We were elated and felt extremely lucky to have had the full albatross experience in a one off visit. We decided not to wait for another view, we couldn’t have asked for more anyway, so walked back to have some now very late breakfast and coffee.

Sitting outside the visitor centre with food and drink we could reflect on our experience, there are many memorable occasions if you look at nature, some involve rare species, others common species, but this felt very special. The albatross was the icing on the cake because at Bempton you can’t lose on any visit with spectacular scenery and countless birds just going about their lives right in front of you. But seeing the joy on other people’s faces was undoubtedly a big part of the experience- feeling collective joy. It reminded me of seeing hundreds of happy faces after watching a starling murmuration on the Somerset levels.

Nature really does have the power to lift our spirits. This bird is in the ‘wrong’ hemisphere and I can’t help wondering what sort of future it will have, perhaps remaining on its own for many years to come? But hundreds of people have seen it and perhaps that will spark a young person to pursue a career in conservation or encourage in others a life long interest in natural world? I left Bempton Cliffs feeling that this black-browed albatross has already done an immeasurable amount of good for conservation and human wellbeing.

 

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Swift diary- a brief summary of the 2021 swift season

The swift season started with a later than average arrival of last year’s breeding birds; that said our existing  breeding pair really didn’t waste much time in laying eggs and they fledged young earlier than in 2019/20. There are many highlights each season, but perhaps the overall impression this year is of an uninterrupted performance from swifts. As an exceptionally wet May ended the weather improved and the next wave of younger swifts quickly joined breeding adults; there was no mass exodus of non-breeding birds as happened twice for lengthy periods in 2020.  Consequently there was lots of time for younger birds to prospect and superb weather for breeders. A new pair (our second) first entered a box on June 8th and quickly began breeding; their young should fledge in the next few days. Then in early July while many were watching football, I was outside watching our third pair performing the most beautiful flight displays before they settled in the nest box alongside our second pair. Despite having nest boxes on three sides of our house, both new pairs chose to nest next to our existing breeding pair. Calls played on the opposite side of the house to the breeders were largely ignored as young birds piled in to the occupied side. So no need to play them anymore. They have done their job well but it was lovely this year just to hear the natural sounds of a developing swift colony.

We’ve had great success at Helmsley Swifts this year with our first nest boxes occupied by breeding pairs. There are now over sixty nest boxes around the town. Some evenings surveying there were memorable for the large screaming parties above several areas with over 120 swifts recorded at one time on the evening of 14th July. Ampleforth and Gilling also saw fine displays and hopefully swifts finding new nest sites. I learnt a lot about the formation of a colony, studying interactions between our one existing pair and the two new pairs; as always though there are so many questions as we cannot identify the birds’ sex in flight. I watched swifts mating in the air on several occasions, always alerted by a particular sequence of calls high above. I saw countless fast flypasts, each so thrilling and each raising my heart rate as I rushed to watch them ripping the air centimetres from our walls and windows. I also had a season studying swifts’ interactions with house martins, affirming my belief that these species really compliment each other.

With most swifts leaving last week we are now left with our late breeding pair. They come and go quietly and while it is a delight to still see those crescent wings above the garden the season has wound right down. For me the presence of swifts is so intense that it would not be sustainable for more than three months; for example the continuous early mornings when I am woken by screaming parties before 5am followed by evenings watching them ascend at dusk, which leads to another couple of hours staying up watching noctilucent clouds well past midnight!

The robins are already singing their late summer song which leads my thoughts to autumn and the arrival of beautiful winter visitors. Watching swifts has since my childhood been a passion, without doubt an obsession, but there is so much else to see and inspire; so I’m not going to spend the next eight months or so longing to see them without relishing the beauty of autumn and winter and all those seasons have to offer. Swifts have their niche in the year, it is short and that is part of their mystery and aura. The house martins’ calls fill the air over our garden keeping summer alive for now. Their grace and precision in flight comes into its own without the distraction of swifts hurtling round the eaves. I will enjoy them for the next month at least as two pairs will be feeding young until mid to late September.

It has been another inspiring summer watching swifts. Our colony has increased from one to three pairs and this adds a whole new dimension to next spring as now we shall hope for the return of six breeding age birds. I have amassed hundreds more swift sketches and written thousands of words, firmly implanting this year’s sightings into my memory, ready for recall when I need them most on the darkest evenings of winter.

Below- some highlights of the swift season 2021

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August 7th- swift diary

After a week in the Highlands we returned yesterday to plenty of swift activity. Some low level screaming passes welcomed us home as we unpacked, even in the cool showery conditions. All three occupying pairs returned to roost around 9pm. They act very much as a colony, feeding together before darting into their boxes in a short space of time. The nearby village hall also has most if not all of its occupying birds roosting so there is plenty of swift action to see. At least 83% of breeding and occupying non breeders returned to roost in Gilling East last night. All younger non breeders without nest sites seem to have departed.

One of our roosting pairs is a late breeding pair, their young should fledge around 20th August and I would expect them to stay until then, but the other two pairs are interesting because they are lingering; our original breeding pair, this year breeding for their third year saw their young fledge eleven days ago but they still roost every night and they are still nest building in a defined period around mid morning, bringing in feathers and thistle down and really bolstering the nest cup after this season’s wear and tear; I still find it amazing that that some swifts build a new nest or repair a used nest ready to use in the following year. To me this seems to offer a great message of hope and trust that all will be well.

Our third pair first entered their nest box on 4th July this year and they still roost each night. By now, having followed our breeding birds they will have extensive knowledge of colony life. They will have learnt all the prime feeding spots in different weathers and at different times of the day from May to August. When they first enter the nest box together their soft piping calls are intense before they settle. The bond they have formed is unbreakable for now. If both survive the next nine months they will be prepared to breed without delay in May 2022.

So yesterday evening I counted our six swifts home to roost, listening to the air rush over their wings and sketching their dramatic silhouettes as they sped towards the eaves against a gorgeous dusk sky. Next spring will be very different to this year’s when we welcomed home our only pair. The colony is growing now and there is some security in knowing that there are more birds to keep it alive for next year and that is a lovely thought to have in the middle of winter.

Swift nest building and repairing this morning- adding feathers and thistle down to a nest used to raise chicks this year.
Swifts coming back to roost yesterday evening at 8.51pm.

 

 

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29th July- swift and house martin diary

House martin diary

Yesterday evening after the warm humid air was swept away we found ourselves in very breezy fresher air. A strong westerly wind was shaking the tree tops. This forced the house martins to feed in the lee of the woods, twisting amongst the tops of the tall limes. Swifts too swooped in low over the woods to feed, but as dusk approached they started to gather above breeding sites.

I stood on the back lawn mesmerised by approximately thirty swifts and twenty five house martins hanging in the strong wind. The were at varying height between eaves level and about five hundred feet. Occasionally all the swifts would swirl together and scream before the breeze forced them to face back into the wind again. They were almost motionless at times the swifts holding themselves on bowed wings. As dusk approached the house martins descended, eight breeding adults back into their nests. This year’s fledglings tried unsuccessfully to follow them; they are no longer welcome and the adults push them away if they try to enter.

The increasingly independent house martin fledglings are forced to find a roost site of their own. I have seen them roost in trees, sometimes very near the nests they came from. They fly extremely fast around tree tops at dusk and as if by magic disappear into the foliage, a habit they may continue in rain forests in their wintering grounds?

Swift diary

The swifts as ever surprise me. The numbers last night were near the peak of early July. There was no low level screaming but no obvious decline in numbers from a week or so ago, it’s just the birds stayed higher. We have been treated to some fine low level fast passes in recent days and more prospecting too. This morning, although breezy and cloudy we saw more prospecting than on recent very warm days. They were probably older non breeding birds taking a last look before departure.

Though we have seen a decline in prospecting recently it is quite possible there will be more to come before the final mass departure. Last year I well remember a morning of frantic prospecting on 14th August, so as always with swifts never say never!

 

Swifts and house martins- watercolour studies.
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July 25th- swift and house martin diary

The swift season is showing real signs of winding down here in Gilling East. This is a few days earlier than usual, but the summer has been so good for them and I think that all ages have probably achieved all they need to until next year. Any birds old enough to enter nest spaces have probably done so, younger birds have had ample good weather to build up a memory map of feeding and nest sites and have perhaps joined a colony in anticipation of next year.

Prospecting activity ceased well over a week ago now though we have been treated to some wonderful fast passes and some big high level calling packs of 30-40 swifts on occasion- exceptionally good numbers for Gilling. This number has almost halved in recent days.

We have had quite an influx of house martins though it remains to be seen how many second broods we will see. Two lots of fledglings still clamour into the nests at night with some taking over empty artificial nest cups too. I often wonder how the adults even contemplate a second brood with the young crowding into the nest.

Recently fledged house martins pile in at roost time and often end up entering swift boxes by mistake. Usually they encounter wild screaming from the rightful occupants and leave rapidly but last Thursday evening a house martin found itself cornered after entering an occupied swift box. The box has two 17 day old chicks. I think the house martin was lucky to get away with its life on initial entry as it was attacked; I fully expected it to be killed by the adult swifts, but the situation settled down after the initial hostility. The house martin roosted right in the nest cup with the two chicks and was often preened by the adult swifts. It had countless opportunities to leave unhindered. The swifts had plenty of opportunity to attack or usurp it after first light as it lingered until it heard our other house martins. At 6.53 am it casually wandered to the entrance and flew off unharmed.

What I find interesting is the wider relationship between house martins and swifts. I’ve had both species on three different houses now and the interaction between these birds is fascinating. I think this sort of behaviour probably happens more than we realised but could be nothing more than inexperience leading to misjudgement and timing. A few seconds later and the house martin would not have been cornered in the box and would have roosted elsewhere. In other similar situations young martins may have been killed by swifts? Perhaps the most interesting question here is whether another species (for example a young house sparrow) would have been tolerated to the same extent?

At times the airspace above our house is alive with house martins; adults and fledglings mingling with our swifts. After a very late start with poor numbers the population in Gilling East is looking much better, if still well below last year. As we are already seeing the departure of most swifts I look forward to enjoying the rest of the summer in the company of house martins. We will also have swifts until around 20th August as our later pair continue to feed their chicks.

 

House martin fledgling roosts in swift nest.
Many swift fast low level passes today but no nest site prospecting.
House martins prospecting today.
High flying packs of swifts now a common sight as large numbers prepare to leave.
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July 19th- swift diary

Well what a weekend! Saturday topped 30.7 Celsius here in Gilling East and the swifts responded with panache. The non breeders visited almost continuously in the afternoon going round and round, the noise at times almost hurt our ears. Fortunately in that heat we were able to stay at home and laze in the garden so a day of water fights, icy drinks and swift watching with the family was in order! Late in the morning some swifts began to dangle their feet to gain the cooling effect of airflow over their toes, something I have noticed that a proportion do above about 28C.

In another adaption for hot weather my first breeding pair roosted in the sky on Saturday evening, leaving their 31 day old chicks to roost alone in the nest box. I have seen this happen before but it is always a tense wait to see the pair return. They did so early in the morning, one arriving at 4.58am to be joined by its mate at 5.39am. After that it was business as usual. Their chicks are gazing from the nest box entrance often. You can see their white faces as they watch other swifts in flight and perhaps this is the reason those screaming parties pass so frequently at this time.

Strangely, Sunday although warm saw very little action until the evening. Swifts have their reasons but can be so unpredictable. Instead of the frantic and frequent fly pasts of Saturday the late evening saw noisy, large screaming parties of 20-35 over the village with about 15 passing very close to the eaves at about 9.30pm- one of the largest low level screaming parties we have seen here. The action has certainly escalated as we have gained more pairs as I have found with each growing colony at four different houses we have lived in.

Today I sketched outside on the lawn as the swifts repeatedly passed inches from me. The sketch sheet also shows a passing hobby; they give a mixture of awe and dread to those of us with colonies. They are beautiful and so impressive and I have seen them take swifts and house martins on several occasions.

It has been a magnificent few days, some of the best swift watching I can remember and I soaked up and will continue to soak up every moment.

Swifts at 9.30pm. Typical high screaming party towards the end of the swift season.
Sketches in the garden today- frequent fast passes, 33 day old swiftlets looking out of the nest, swifts with dangling feet and a passing hobby.
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July 14th- Swift Diary

Swift Diary
Our colony now stands at three pairs. We have gained on average a pair each year, though this is a bit misleading because the first pair bred in 2019. They bred again in 2020 but we didn’t gain any new pairs or even have any substantial interest in other boxes. This year our pair has been joined by two more pairs. They are all nesting in nest boxes alongside each other.

Pair 1- now with chicks 28 days old
Pair 2- first entered nest box on 9/6/21 now has chicks 5 days old
Pair 3- has occupied a nest box since 8/7/21

Today has been the best swift watching day of the year. Besides the three pairs up to eight carve up the air above the garden. Some very impressive low and fast screaming parties and prospecting of nest boxes. Swifts are attracting swifts and the airspace above our house is mesmerising at times with double figures of swifts and a similar number of house martins. The two species mingle well and circle together in threat when the local sparrowhawks visit gardens below them. At this time you can hear a swift’s alarm call, a loud single piping note.

I have been studying the ‘v’ display today. This happens when a bird is tailed by another, its wings are held right up in a ‘v’ shape. The displaying bird loses height quickly in this position so the ‘v’ is very quick, but it is beautiful to watch. We have no idea why they do it. I have seen it performed by one of a prospecting pair, but I have also seen it performed to another by a breeding bird while its mate was in the nest box.

The next few days look like being some of the best of the summer for watching swifts. We are probably just inside three weeks away from the bulk of swifts departing now. Imbibe every moment with these birds.

 

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July 6th- swift and house martin diaries and fledged flycatchers

Swift Diary
On Saturday evening a pair of swifts focused intensely on the rear of the house. The lead bird was seen to land regularly on a box next to pair 2, eventually going in. It tried several times to lure the mate in. She(?) banged the box several times but failed to enter. I think the first bird roosted, but when they roost alone these birds often leave the nest box in the dark to roost aloft.

Next morning the pair was soon reunited and both entered the box. They settled quickly and certainly look to be a third pair for our house as they are still in and out today. It is thrilling to see the colony expand with more swifts still passing the boxes today. The flypast activity today is superb despite rain and cloud and it really feels like I am watching the makings of a solid colony. This is the fourth house we have lived in where we have started swift colonies- Westwood, Wiltshire and Thornton in Craven, Ampleforth and Gilling East in North Yorkshire. In all cases I had nesting swifts within two years. I have stuck to the same basic box designs, roughly shoe box sized with slightly varying front entrance designs.

I experimented this year, playing calls softly on the opposite side of the house to the breeders. Swifts did look here, but both new pairs have chosen boxes next to each other to the right of the breeders- on the opposite side from the calls. I really dislike listening to recorded swift calls and I will not be playing them at all from now on- it was clear to me this year that the pull of an existing pair is far greater. They are of course really useful, essential in most cases for first attracting swifts.

The latest pair is in a Schwegler 17 box. This type has been a consistent favourite, of bought designs. All my boxes in Wiltshire and three different villages in North Yorkshire have used a front entrance design. This seems to offer an advantage of good visibility as the birds leave and when entering they fly straight in without clinging or perching. 

Meanwhile our most established pair has young about twenty days old and our second pair which first visited the box on 9th June is incubating eggs due to hatch in about three days time. It has been a very successful season here with a good increase and fantastic stable weather through June, unlike the challenging conditions of the same period in 2020.

July has started wet with 55mm of rain already, but it has been warm and non breeding birds have not had to move away as they did in late June 2020 (for two weeks). I am relishing every flypast mindful that the mass departure of swifts is now less than a month away.

House Martin Diary
Our two pairs are successfully feeding young. One nest should see young fledge within the next day or two. To my knowledge this will be the first nest to fledge young in the village this year. Numbers remain very low although for the first time in days there were signs of prospecting by a pair. Perhaps very late arrivals or birds from a failed nest?

The spotted flycatchers fledged last week. It looks like they will try for a second brood with the male singing by the nest site again. This pair wasted no time, nest building and laying in poor conditions in May and so this has left them plenty of time to raise another brood. What a privilege to be so close to these now scarce summer visitors. Their quiet presence and beautiful flight is an absolute joy.

 

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July 2nd- swifts nest building and exhibition at Nunnington Galleries

It has been a very busy swift day, distracting as I tried to prepare for tomorrow’s Meet the Artists event at Nunnington Galleries. Each time I tried to start something the swifts screamed in again, I find it impossible to ignore them!

The birds in the sky today were probably some of the youngest swifts in the air, some almost certainly fledged last summer. I noticed small groups dropping to eaves across the village at completely new sites where no swift nests exist. These younger parties seem to roam around; when they arrive at your colony they criss cross everywhere piling into the eaves and making high speed passes, but within a few minutes they can vanish completely having moved on to look at another potential colony to join.

Older non breeding birds lingered around the colony for most of the day, prospecting seriously at times. This included some examples of single birds prospecting. I think these are the birds(males?) that are really serious about finding a nest site. Having done so they will attempt to lure a mate in, perhaps this year, but quite possibly waiting until next year. Some non-breeding pairs build a nest together to use the next year but alternatively some single birds enter a nest site and lure a mate in the following year.

Meanwhile our second pair of swifts is 15 days into incubation and by swift standards collecting ridiculous amounts of nest material. They were coming in today with pieces of grass at least 30cm long, bunched at times. These pieces of grass were probably gathered when lifted by the wind from a freshly cut field or roadside verge. Swifts stop nest building as soon as the young hatch but this pair has added more material than I have seen in any other nest I have watched. There are feathers and grass strewn across the nest box.

Meet the Artists event at Nunnington Galleries

I will be showing many swift sketches along with other bird sketches and plenty of landscapes at Nunnington tomorrow and Sunday, open 11am- 4pm each day. If you are in the area do come and chat. It is always a pleasure to talk about swifts; I feel very fortunate that my art has become a useful tool in my own efforts to conserve swifts and other species.

Here is a small selection of the work on show this weekend. I will be sketching swifts on the spot as long as Nunnington’s swifts perform!

Lapwing in floodwater. Watercolour.
Barn owl near Gilling East. Watercolour.