June 2nd- prospecting swifts

Swift Diary

We had some prospecting swifts this morning, giving me the chance to see a swift really well as it rested on our honey coloured walls. They are incredibly beautiful when seen like this. For those of you trying to attract swifts, enjoy this prospecting. Many people I speak to get frustrated because the swifts perch anywhere but on the nest box. But I think they are practising approach and landing as much as anything. Younger swifts need to do this before occupying a nest site having spent so long in the air. When they are mature enough they will find and enter nest sites. So don’t get frustrated watching them, this is all part of their learning process. With each miss they learn more and are probably closer to finding your nest box.  Enjoy the opportunity to see a wall clinging swift, because once they start breeding they come and go without hesitation.



June 1st- noctule bat, great spotted woodpecker and swift diary

Each day this week I am featuring a painting that would have been shown for North Yorkshire Open Studios. There is an online event taking place over the next two weekends. The featured paintings will be available for purchase on my website from this Friday evening. Today’s is a large charcoal (77x55cm) of one of my favourite winter subjects- a flock of lapwings. Like most species they face into wind when resting and on this particular day I managed to view them directly down wind with a telescope. The composition is made using sketches made on site. Drawing birds in flight is a challenge. I wanted to depict the birds as they approached into wind, slowing and looking for a space within the resting flock.


Yesterday evening I was out swift watching at twilight when a pair of noctule bats appeared over the field at the back of the garden- there had been a big mayfly hatch and I suspect they were making the most of the bounty. The noctule is Britain’s largest bat with a wingspan of 32-40cm, a similar wingspan to a swift. I loved watching them against the clear north western sky flying with amazing grace and agility. Occasionally they mixed with a very late swift, something I have seen several times before.

We had a lovely walk in Gilling Woods this morning. The bluebells and wild garlic are now over. The wild garlic is now fading fast but still leaves a potent smell. It was cool in the woods and quite quiet birdwise. There was very little birdsong, but our attention was drawn to raucous calls coming from a large tree. A nest full of great spotted woodpeckers could not have done more to advertise their presence, a rather strange tatic which most birds would avoid. We watched a feed by the male bird through the telescope and left, knowing that next time we passed that way they would have fledged.

My son found a chimney sweeper moth around its pignut foodplant and heard, but did not see our first grasshoppers of the year.

Swift Diary

Some new swifts arrived yesterday evening and they really shook things up. Suddenly we are experiencing more flypasts and it looks like we have a prospecting bird that seems to have a mate. This morning we were treated to low flypasts by up to four swifts, whilst ours were still in the nest box, there was also some prospecting by a lone swift.



May 31st- yellowhammer and swift diary

A walk along the Cawton road this morning and we had close views of a male yellowhammer on a freshly tilled field. Yellowhammers are very common in hedgerows around Gilling; they are confiding and beautifully coloured, the lemon yellow head of the male contrasting with rich terracotta upper parts. Their song has accompanied our walks throughout lockdown and for me has a rather hypnotic quality. It is heard throughout the day and I associate it with warm summer days.

Swift diary
Our pair continue to incubate their two eggs. Apart from occasional flypasts by up to three birds before 9am all is very quiet. There is as yet little sign of younger prospecting birds. With a single pair like ours most people would probably not realise they have swifts nesting on their house.

Yesterday evening we had prospecting swift at twilight. I see this most years. As the light fades non breeding birds, usually on their own, race around the house occasionally landing on potential nest sites. After these brief bursts of high energy manoeuvres they spiral upwards to roost in the sky. Are these the next occupants of a colony I wonder? They seem to be following an urge to roost in a nest site without actually doing so.



May 30th- hawfinch and swift diary

I am currently waking very early to look at the moth trap. Our tree sparrows are very partial to moths and this means I need to protect them at first light. Being up at 4am is wonderful. There is so much light, the air is fresh and cold and birds are singing full throttle. Although it must be said, the dawn chorus is reducing markedly now as birds tend to their young.

Our third swift really started to make an impact this morning, passing the colony at high speed often with a potential mate in tow. I was watching them, when I heard a call that was familiar but not instantly recognisable. It was high pitched, loud “zip” sound, first making me think spotted flycatcher, then perhaps a fledgling call that I didn’t recognise. But I knew it was different and walked to the back garden where the call was located to a cotoneaster tree. A bulky shape in the weeping branches and all became clear- hawfinch, a superb male.

I have seen more than my fair share of these incredible finches at Castle Howard Arboretum and in Gilling woods, but this was in May. All my hawfinch sightings have been in winter until now.  A late spring hawfinch adds weight to the thought that a small population breeds in this area. Historically hawfinches have been found in Gilling woods, Duncombe Park and a few other local woods but they are notoriously elusive in the summer months.

My views were brief but they remain etched on my mind. I didn’t have a sketchbook or camera at the time so quickly made sketches and referred to some old sketches of the species to paint a watercolour of my sighting. Hawfinches are great fun to draw;  with bulky features and a beady eye drawing a hawfinch feels almost like drawing a cartoon bird! It had rudely interrupted my swift watching, there was a prospecting bird at the time, but what an interuption! It flew off quickly giving beautiful views of its bounding flight against fresh green trees.

Swift Diary

Our swift pair has started a full incubation routine now with efficient change overs which leaves maximum time for feeding. A third bird prospected at dusk yesterday evening, perching on at least two nest boxes but ending up in a loft ventilation slot. It was very dim at this time, almost beyond twilight and I wondred whether it might roost. But at 10.03pm it fluttered out of the gap and sped off into a rosy sky. This could well be our next breeding swift…



May 29th- house martin display and swift diary

The house martins prospected the back of the house today. They didn’t really settle, but I had time to make some sketches and I still have some hope that they might yet nest in one of my seven boxes. The male was displaying, drooping his wings, singing with great vigour and fluffing up his bright white rump.

The landscape watercolour below is a study from the field near Gilling East village hall. There is a magnificent old oak and a very old section of hedgerow. For me the scene sums up the last few days. Blue sky and intense greens of trees. Soon these fresh greens will start to darken. Arguably, trees look at their very finest at the moment. Four swifts which breed in the nearby village hall are passing low above the oak.

Swift Diary

I am still not convinced that the swifts have started their incubation full time yet and there could be a third egg on the way. The pair spend a lot of time mutual preening, especially on arrival in the box and just before departure. This bonding is of great importance as incubation duties mean they will spend much time apart over coming days and weeks.

One swift bought in a bunch of grass today. This is probably gathered from a field where hay cutting is taking place. Because swifts don’t land to collect nest material I imagine it swooped low over and caught some grass blown upwards on the breeze.

A third bird appeared again today. It is folowing our breeding pair. I think this might be a bird that prospected here last year and very much hope that it will be one half of our next pair.



Below, sketches of swifts mutual preening.IMG_5282IMG_5281


May 28th- hare, sparrowhawk and swift diary

I spent some time studying hares just west of the village this morning. I don’t draw mammals often and found it challenging and enjoyable at the same time. One hare was very obliging and sat for some time scratching itself and seemingly soaking up the early morning sun.

Sparrowhawks are very regular in village gardens at the moment. Their surprise tactic hunting is spectacular to watch. They use cover such as  hedges and walls and other solid objects to approach low at high speed. They know very well where each bird feeding station is and have various routes towards them for a clean kill.

Swift Diary

The swifts began their incubation duties tentatively today. They may well lay a third egg because they don’t seem to be incubating full time. We had some spectacular low level flypasts from three birds this morning. These passes are wondeful to watch. They gather momentum at height and pass the house on a very fast glide, screaming as they go.








May 27th- reed bunting, sand martins and swift diary

A mid morning walk along the Holbeck. The garden warblers are secretive now and quietly nesting. We heard occasional bursts of the male’s rich warbling song. Within fifty metres we also heard blackcap, whitethroat and chiffchaff singing. The lesser whitethroats are now quiet and rarely heard. This interesting list of warblers visible from one spot has led my son to name this area “warbler corner”. We have grown very attached to this tiny piece of North Yorkshire and it always delivers something of great interest.

We had lovely views of a male reed bunting singing its pleasant song from the top of a hawthorn. We have heard it frequently but have found it hard to see until today. We saw a pair of males squabbling over a territory boundary and studied the singing male at length. They are very smart looking buntings in full breeding plumage.

Sand martins flew up and down the beck, now collecting food for their young in the bank further down stream. Orange tip, green- veined white and large white were the most abundant butterfly species today. As we walked by the cow parsley that lined the field edge orange tips seemed to pass us every few minutes. I made a watercolour of the Holbeck (below) which hopefully shows how verdant the landscape is at the end of May. The may blossom is just starting to fade, some of it taking on a pinkish hue as it does so. It is sad to watch this beautiful blossom fade, but I can look forward to the dark red berries that will feed redwings and fieldfares when they arrive from Scandinavia in the autumn.

Swift Diary

Our swift pair laid a second egg this morning. They seemed reluctant to start incubation, so I suspect they may go on to lay a third egg. They were joined in the air today by another swift. The three birds performed some spectacular fast and low passes over the garden this morning. I hope that this bird will continue to latch on to our breeding pair and choose another nest box on our house. A younger bird like this one is probably learning from our pair. Following them will enable it to find the best feeding areas in all sorts of weather conditions. This is one of the advantages of colonial nesting.