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The swifts are gone and life moves on.

It always feels strange when the weather is sultry and insects abound, yet the swifts are all but gone. My initial feeling of melancholy when they go is quickly replaced by excitement at all the other sights there are to see. When the swifts are here I am continually distracted by their presence and at times I must confess this leads me to miss other animals.

These last few mornings house martins have been very active between 6-7am. Adults and young birds fly up to our artificial nests. The breeding occupants guard their nest cups but empty ones are visited by new adults- I wonder where they are from and if they might decide to occupy them next year, but after 7am they are gone and they certainly don’t return to roost.

I have taken to getting up early(woken by the calls of the martins just before 6am), make strong coffee then stand outside in the cool morning air to watch and sketch them. It is bliss. No swifts to watch at the same time just the lovely sight and sound of house martins around the eaves. They are such smart looking birds and I feel compelled to sketch and paint them. I have amassed many watercolours of this species as part of a new project. So far we have seen about fifteen young fledge from our eaves and at least four pairs are raising second broods.

This house martin study takes me right back to my childhood when I spent hours in the garden with my first rather cumbersome pair of binoculars observing their every move. When the swifts are gone house martins take centre stage and I love them equally.

Since my last blog I have indeed heard the first late summer robin song- daily, beginning on 9th August. It is slower paced than the spring song, relaxed and befitting of this time of summer when natural food abounds and the living is relatively easy. A sighting of this songster revealed immaculate, fresh, moulted plumage- what a beautiful bird a robin is. I have watched a moulting willow warbler frequent the garden. Occasionally It utters a soft version of its glorious spring song from the cotoneaster. I wonder where it bred and ponder the route it will take when it is ready to proceed with its migration to south Africa?

I have seen goshawk, peregrine and hobby over the garden and watched a great variety of butterflies on the hemp agrimony by our pond. Our buddleia is only just starting to flower- I am no gardener, but I deliberately cut the buddleia back hard in June to delay flowering. This works a treat in attracting late August and September butterflies and other insects as neighbours’ buddleias fade.
I look at the branches of beech trees bending under the weight of mast and rather than miss the swifts look forward to flocks of brambling, chaffinch, tits and nuthatches to be seen on our mid winter walks.

I will keep the blog going through late summer, autumn and winter, sharing my observations of landscape and wildlife as I observe and sketch the changing seasons until I look forward again to the arrival of the swifts in spring. 2023.

All images and text copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

 

Adult house martins defending their nests- watercolour
Robin in freshly moulted plumage- watercolour
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The 2022 swift season in Gilling East

After a couple of weeks away on Anglesey we have returned to near swiftless skies. The main swift season ended very early here in Gilling East with the last prospecting behaviour observed on 21st July and not much at all in the air after 23rd July (similar on Anglesesy). I cannot help but think the extreme heat played a part in this but that is speculation and every year is different. However for this part of North Yorkshire this was a very early departure of breeding and non-breeding swifts. I would normally expect aerial activity well into August and sometimes until mid August.

To summarise the year here- amazing breeding performance by our first three pairs (two of these raising three chicks) but a very mixed year for aerial activity with many seemingly suitable days quiet. Our first three pairs all arrived between 9th- 16th May. In addition a forth pair took up residence on 21st May so we were up from two pairs in 2021 to four pairs. June was largely very quiet in the air before 23rd when the youngest non- breeders arrived . This silence masked the superb breeding performance happening under the eaves. You could be forgiven for thinking we had no swifts nesting most of the time, but the breeders were efficiently incubating eggs then feeding young with the weather very kind on the whole.

July saw mixed aerial action but was notably lacking in sustained yearling activity. A few exceptional days saw birds landing on random spots on the wall and house martin nests etc. -classic younger non breeder behaviour. Could this relatively quiet year for prospecting be related to poor breeding success in 2020/2021?

What really impressed me was seeing our colony develop as a unit. 4th, 2nd and 1st year breeders all returned between 9th- 16th May and laid first eggs within a few days (23rd-25th May) resulting in 8 chicks being fledged between 26-29th July. 50% of these chicks fledged at dusk. The adults left promptly after their chicks had fledged. The pair in box 2 took some time to add a little new nest material and repair the nest on the day they left!

Several friends in the North West of England are still seeing flypasts today and have good numbers roosting. This is a puzzling aspect of swift behaviour, the difference between colonies and regions. Perhaps it is best for the swifts that they go immediately rather than hang around after young have fledged? Or perhaps it is the other way round? What I can say is that for us the season ended very early and this coincided with record breaking heat (38.9C on 19th July here)- coincidence or not?

I do not have a camera in the nest box of our 4th pair but my suspicion is that a single adult is feeding a single chick. I do know one of two chicks died in the nest box. I have just seen the adult return with food bolus mixing with twenty or so house martins before descending to the box, but seeing a single swift is so different to watching their communal behaviour. But for now I am assured of seeing those beautiful crescent wings for a couple of weeks or so.

What doesn’t change is my emotions after they have departed. I am very used to this now, but I am always taken by surprise by the relative silence and the melancholy feeling it brings. Swifts’ dramatic aerial activity transforms the ambience of villages and towns for three months of the year. Birdsong is at its quietest at this time in August which accentuates their departure- I await the first late summer robin song as they finish their moult. But, we do have the house martins, their cheerful “chirrups” filling the air, with the fledglings’ slightly deeper “chirrup” particularly good to hear. We arrived home from Anglesey to see little piles of house martin droppings, indicating at least four pairs on second broods, so summer is very much here. For me having house martins lessens the blow of the swift exodus.

The love for swifts has never been greater. They are undoubtedly an iconic bird of summer. Some like to single them out as the greatest bird- I don’t buy that at all and feel we mustn’t think any species is greater than another. Every species is adapted to its own niche in the ecosystem and many are now dependant on how humans act. Swifts are no greater than a blue tit which lands with perfection on the end of a branch to take a tiny caterpillar. But swifts please us, enhancing our lives with their dramatic flying displays and incredible noise and perhaps crucially they are a species we seem to be able to help. This is not so with the beautiful spotted flycatcher, now so scarce – we can put dozens of open fronted nest boxes up, but the flycatchers are gone. We have to start treating all species as we treat swifts.

Images and text copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

Below- some highlights of the 2022 swift season

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Swifts, hobby and cuckoo

Swifts often surprise us. I have enjoyed one of the best swift watching mornings of the year in rather cool, cloudy conditions. The youngest non-breeders were flinging themselves at the walls, boxes and house martin nests between 9-11am. This provided me with a superb opportunity to really study swifts clinging to vertical surfaces. The views are usually very brief as they are often seized upon by following birds but as an artist there is a chance to try and capture the character of a swift through its facial expression. There is also an opportunity to see those sharp claws deployed as they grip the walls or nest box.

As a painter I am not trying to record each feather but the impression I have of the swift’s activity. On this sheet I have attempted to capture the chaos that comes with an intense prospecting session. There are some amazing photographs of swifts which I find fascinating to look at, but I am not drawn to use them as reference because most of them are images of swifts that the human eye cannot see- the action is simply too fast to take in every feather or facial detail. So I strive to capture movement and the impression of the shape of a swift and the make up of their flight formations.

On the left hand A3 page I have painted a few sky scenarios as seen this morning. The skies were leaden throughout so the swifts were very dark silhouettes most of the time. A hobby scythed its way across the village in an attempt to catch a house martin or swift, unsuccessful I think; it disappeared behind trees in pursuit of a house martin that dived towards the ground, outcome unknown.

A while later there was a second mass panic. At first I assumed another hobby, but to my surprise they were reacting to a high flying cuckoo which flew north to south. Swifts often get above and behind an aerial predator. They reacted in this way to the cuckoo and escorted it out of the colony airspace. Swifts with a cuckoo, a combination I could never have predicted.

All images and text copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

Two A3 pages of my watercolour sketchbook- 21st July 2022 9-11am.
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The hottest day I have ever experienced.

Update- the temperature climbed to 38.8C here on 19th July. All ten swift chicks and six house martin chicks are fine.

I was woken early (4.45am) by eager non-breeding swifts. The adult breeders had already left the nest boxes. There was a delightful coolness in the garden- we were fortunate, after yesterday’s 36.2C heat that the temperature fell to 13C overnight. We have had much warmer nights but we have not had hotter days, ever.

There is plenty of commentary on the science behind this weather and its destructive effect on humans and the natural world. Suffice to say this is a temperature I hoped I would not see, but what else could I do but observe the swift and house martin behaviour in such conditions?

Watercolour does not behave well in this heat. It dries, almost instantly, so the challenge of moving the paint fast saw me drawing very quickly with the brush. An advantage perhaps as observation had to be fast and sharp.

I watched the swifts at first in warm early morning temperatures and knew what to expect as time went on. At what point I wondered, would they start dangling their feet to expose their toes to cooling airflow. I have seen this many times before and always thought that when the temperature reached 28C the first swifts become foot danglers! It proved to be exactly so this morning, then as the temperature continued its brutal rise more and more swifts dangled. I also noticed house martins and tree sparrows doing the same. This was something I was very keen to sketch. Gradually a sheet of studies emerged- as seen below. It gives a snapshot of swift and house martin behaviour on the hottest day in UK recorded history.

Fortunately three out of five house martin pairs have fledged young. They fed high early on, probably not a bad start for these recent fledglings. But below in their baking nests the remaining nestlings panted and gasped for air at the entrance. Swift nestlings seemed to ride it out by keeping largely very still. They spread out in the nest boxes. I have to hope that they make it through the rest of the day before finally cooler temperatures arrive.

The hot weather has brought me undeniable pleasure watching swifts. They perform effortlessly, fuelled by abundant food. I have relished seeing very fast, low passes inches from my face and seen year old birds throwing themselves at the eaves. A new nest box has been entered and others peered into another box giving hope for a further increase at the colony in 2023. So I have accepted this weather for what it is and produced the watercolour below- a sheet of observations on a historic day of weather.

I must mention the skilled rehabilitation workers especially our own Northern rehabbers Linda Jenkinson of Leeds Swifts and Start Birding and Louise Bentley of Bolton and Bury Swifts. They make huge sacrifices and work crazy hours to release healthy swifts and house martins. My thoughts are very much with them as they battle to save lives in this heat. Thank you swift and house martin carers everywhere.

All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

Swift and house martin activity- 19th July. I have never painted a watercolour in such hot conditions before.
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July 11th- swift and house martin diary

So much activity since my last update. Most obvious, particularly this morning, is the return of the younger non-breeders who are putting on quite a show. There has been little direct prospecting or clinging on walls yet, but they have performed countless high speed, low passes. These passes certainly involve the breeders at times as they can be seen swerving off into their nest boxes. The noise is incredible! Their screams a few centimetres from my head at times with the additional sound of the air being ‘split’ by those stiff blade like wings is hard to put into words- it is a sensory feeling that runs right through me. I hope my studies convey some of the excitement of these low passes.

As an artist I relish sketching the dusk sky and to have layers of screaming swifts criss-crossing it is a treat. These evening gatherings, particularly high-level screaming parties, remind me that the main swift season is really in its final quarter. However there is plenty of prospecting time left given good weather- and our first pair here was attracted on 23rd July 2018, they bred the following year. So keep playing those calls if you are attempting to start a colony.

I am reminded watching these young swifts of times when I used to find their behaviour frustrating- why won’t they go in the nest box? But I have seen this so many times that I see it and enjoy it for what it is- swifts choosing a colony to join, then choosing a nest site. They cannot be rushed, it is part of the process of starting a colony unless you happen to be lucky enough to attract a breeding pair straight away. Entering a nest site will come when they are mature enough. Although I would normally recommend playing calls from around 6-10am and 8pm to twilight, very warm or hot weather often sees prospecting at different times, most often perhaps around lunchtime and late in the afternoon. The swifts have energy to burn, fuelled by an abundance of food. As I write I am being continually itched by thrips, money spiders and flea beetles, all of which are part of a swift’s diet- the sky is full of them. We have not had a significant hatch of flying ants yet but we surely will this week. This is another important food source when it happens.

This could be a very testing week for nestlings. The heat is on and forecast to be more extreme towards the weekend. Inevitably some young swifts will jump too soon and already our Northern swift carers are taking birds in- I am in awe of their skill and devotion. Swifts have undoubtedly benefitted from sharing human habitation but this is not always ideal, for example when their attic nest spaces become dangerously warm- it is then that some swifts ‘jump’ too soon, unable to fly.

I am making the most of watching swifts. I cannot resist sketching new angles and of course their sky backdrop. I write about them too jotting down detailed aspects of their behaviour and my emotional response to watching them. I feel an urgency to see them and sketch them before they depart. If the weather flips to be colder next week and stays that way, it is feasible that the young non-breeders may not return until 2023. But given reasonable temperatures here in North Yorkshire we often see prospecting well into August.

House Martins

It is now, as the swift season sees its final few weeks that I am reminded how grateful I am to see the house martins who will be with us into September. Their summery sounds will fill the sky for a couple of months yet. Our first brood has fledged with two more close behind. I was watching the ten or more adults and three fledglings above the house this morning as they ‘swirled’ with about ten swifts. A couple walked past our house on their early morning stroll and the lady remarked “look at the beautiful swifts and martins.” She didn’t know I was tucked in behind our holly with sketchbook and her comment filled me with joy- I am not just doing this for the birds and for me but for anyone who wants to enjoy them, here, in Europe and in Africa.

All images and text copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

Swifts and summer cumulus cloud- oil on canvas. Available at Global Birdfair 15-17th July.
Swift studies in watercolour- July 10th, available at Global Birdfair 15-17th July.
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July 4th- swifts battling gusty winds and house martin update

This morning the weather has been very gusty with variable cloud. Initially I thought I had some older non-breeding swifts ‘banging’ on the boxes, but I soon saw that these birds were breeding adults with stuffed throat pouches trying to access their nests. The strong crosswinds did not suit their final approach and I watched many touch and go’s.

My heart almost stopped at times as I watched last second swerves away from the nest boxes, but all aborted attempts were well judged and the swifts eventually entered safely to feed their chicks. Sometimes adults arriving with food bolus for young circled deliberately to wait until the gusts subsided then dived in their boxes during the lull. Swifts although incredibly proficient fliers do not cope well with strong wind when in confined airspace. In this respect the house martins who share our eaves are much more manoeuvrable and able to come and go more freely.

Prospecting swift activity remains very sporadic at best in this area, tempered often by windy or rather cool conditions. Looking at reports across the country I think colonies further south have seen more prospecting days. This would not be surprising as the North being closer to the centre of low pressure systems has generally seen stronger winds and slightly cooler air. The clock is ticking now on the main swift season with less than four weeks to go now for most prospecting activity. I have found that we tend to have some later activity in the north of the UK, often well into August, but we are around two thirds of the way through the swifts’ time with us. Make the most of their presence.

We should see our first lot of house martins fledge this week. They look healthy and strong and ready to fly soon. We still have five pairs breeding(four with nestlings, one incubating) and it is a great joy to see them coming and going, but our house holds I think over half of the village house martin population. Numbers are a shadow of what they were just two years ago.

Young house martins and swifts have a very strange habit. They often call incessantly through the night. I can see no logical explanation for this and it is concerning that they are continually giving their presence away to predators. I have received credible reports of tawny owls predating house martin nests in this area and quite frankly I’m not surprised.

Another key predator of house martins in the nest is the great-spotted woodpecker which hammers open the mud nests to take egg or nestlings.  Predators are natural of course but great-spotted woodpeckers have vastly increased in number over the last couple of decades(partly fuelled by garden feeding) and this is yet another blow to precarious house martin colonies.

In the gusty conditions both species have been hunting for insects in the lee of the woods opposite our house. The nestlings are fed very frequently so this seems to be a very successful technique and shows how they continually adapt to changeable weather conditions.

All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

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June 29th- a fine swift evening!

When the weather is calm and warm, house martins and swifts form a collective swirl above our house. This can include the 15-20 birds that breed on our house, not to mention the swell in numbers when the non-breeding swifts visit. I like to think that it enhances other people’s lives as they wander along our road or see swifts screaming overhead from the Fairfax Arms beer garden!

I have provided some basic information on a sign by our gate so people can read about these birds. It includes a a basic identification chart- hand painted in watercolour of course! I am delighted to say many people stop to read it and take leaflets on swifts and house martins from a holder on our gate. It is perhaps particularly effective because they see the results in front of them as house martins and swifts come and go.

Yesterday evening it was a bit warm, the sort of evening you put on a jumper on at a BBQ! But my older son and I were sat out enjoying a beer and just taking in the scene. Honeysuckle and apple became silhouetted against a glorious twilight sky with breaking, dark Payne’s Grey cloud. We stood on our very solid picnic table and experienced full velocity flypasts within a few centimetres of our faces. Feeling and hearing the air being sliced by those sharp, stiff primary feathers.

As the light faded we suddenly became aware of another face just below the eaves. Tolly whose bedtime was long gone was enjoying the swift action(as well as eaves dropping our conversation!) from the landing window. We must be doing something right!

All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

Frequent flypasts by three swifts around 9.45pm. Very fast and low. Breeders duetting from boxes.
Three swifts in very tight formation. Painting swifts gives me a chance to indulge another passion- painting skies in watercolour.
The sign by our gate.
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Swifts in a typical English summer

We’ve seen some classic English summer this week with a variety of weather ranging from very warm days to cool breezy days and some periods of much needed rain. The youngest non- breeders put on a lovely show for a couple of days in the heat last week but have not returned since, so the colony is largely quiet again. Adults are brooding their week old young quite late into the morning in the cooler conditions to keep them warm, but there seems to be plenty of food coming in from mid morning on. All eight chicks on camera look strong and healthy. There are chicks in a fourth box but I don’t know how many.

The young non-breeders vanished last Friday after ripping up our airspace for a couple of days with their crazy fast passes and mad flings at the wall! The east coast of Yorkshire saw some southerly swift movement on that day. This is almost guaranteed when our yearlings go, but I cannot of course be sure why so many end up on the coast or where exactly they are from. I do know that they will be back when the weather improves from all but the very late July/ early August departures.

Some swifts appear to be bonded in flight before they have a nest site. They follow each other very closely and constantly and make the bonding ‘peep’ call to each other- this call or very similar is heard when birds first enter a nest site together. These pairs sometimes perform a display flight in which they quiver their wing tips while making the bonding call as they approach the eaves. It’s a beautiful flight to watch- often both birds wing quiver and call in unison. These pairs are likely to find a nest site this year and settle without breeding, perhaps building a nest. Such non-breeding pairs being older are now committed to the colony and do not disappear with the yearlings unless the weather is exceptionally bad. I can now watch this potential new pair fitting in to our colony and they have a ‘tagger’ who might be one of our 6th pair. He(?) follows them everywhere as he learns the colony feeding areas in all weathers. This could explain why observers often see flypasts of three swifts?

I have been delighted and moved really by the way this colony has settled down in the last three years- three pairs right next to each other and a fourth on a different side of the house. All were in spectacular screaming flypasts until incubation began, when the skies suddenly turned much quieter as they all started diligently tending to eggs then nestlings. This seems to show the importance of those joint flypasts in cementing the colony as a unit- but as ever this is speculation. 

I was privileged to sketch on stage and talk about my passion for swifts at a Welcome Back Swifts event at the Friends Meeting House, Pickering on Saturday afternoon. There is great work for swift conservation happening in Pickering, with boxes now installed on the North York Moors Railway engine sheds as well as many houses. Swifts were celebrated through painting, poetry, writing, harp music and song. It was a relaxed afternoon celebrating the inspiration and joy that comes from knowing swifts. Depressing statistics of decline were generally avoided and a like minded crowd were immersed in swift adoration. Thank you for inviting me. It was wonderful to see the arts used effectively for conservation.

All images and text copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

One of our fifth pair prospecting this morning? I hope.
Sketching on swifts on stage at Friends Meeting House, Pickering at the Welcome Back Swifts afternoon.
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An arrival of younger non-breeding swifts, 23rd June, three years in a row.

The morning started with a very early(4.23am) ‘screaming’ pass from swifts. I was already awake at 4am for a bird survey in Gilling Woods so it was a pleasure to witness this pass of birds that had roosted in the sky. It certainly awoke our breeding pairs who responded with duetting screams.

I knew immediately that new swifts had arrived, the start of the ‘third wave’ of the youngest non- breeding swifts. Remarkably here in Gilling East these new birds have arrived on 23rd June in 2020, 2021 and now 2022! I hadn’t dared to expect their arrival on the same day in June again, particularly after several days of good weather, but here they are, bang on time probably governed in a large part by light levels and hence day length- they know their time. It does seem beyond coincidence.

This was the beginning of a morning of frantic bursts of swift activity, most notably 7.45, 11 and 11.45 am. Even at established colonies this activity may only last 10-20 minutes- such high energy flight needs refuelling. The heat kept the action going and swifts piled in to the eaves. At such times I hardly know where to look let alone sketch. Swifts criss-cross each other sometimes a few centimetres from my head. House martins flit in between them and return to their nests to fend them off; one established breeding pair currently feeding nestlings immediately started bolstering the nest entrance with more mud, a reaction I have seen before. Swifts with their extra weight and forceful landing often knock chunks off natural house martin nests. It is a temporary hindrance and the martins soon sure up the structure, often making it thicker.

So how do we tell these are younger swifts, when essentially they look the same? By their behaviour. Suddenly there are more fast screaming passes, more random approaches and cling-ons anywhere and everywhere around the eaves! If one bird clings another often immediately joins it, sometimes landing on its back- they fall away calling wildly. Approaches to the eaves are much more random, from all directions, Suddenly you notice swifts on flightpaths you haven’t seen them on before. Dawn low passes are common causing the swift watcher to lack sleep! Ascending roosting parties grow in number overnight. From now these ascending parties are a beautiful fading sight and sound as the tight flock disappears into the twilight above.

I watch the new birds and try to fathom out what they are doing, noticing their practise approaches and first attempts to cling to walls or nest boxes, but accept that they are very unlikely to enter any nest sites this year. With each landing the young swifts learn a little more until they are mature enough perhaps next year or even the year after, to seriously prospect for nest sites and find a mate. I sit and sketch them raising the binoculars quickly to gain an impression of their brief cling ons.

For those of you playing calls and hoping to attract swifts, make sure they are playing between 7-9am at the very least. The swift sessions between 7-9am always seem particularly intense here, but on a day as warm as this with the swifts fuelled by abundant insects they may appear at anytime from dawn to dusk- but much more likely in the morning. Evenings here are more likely to see low level fast passes.

Around the summer solstice I record late returns of breeding swifts to their boxes. The record here is 10.23pm. I have recorded returns in this very minute several times and it has not yet been exceeded. In Wiltshire any returns after 10pm were late whereas the further north and west swift colonies are the later the returns, proving that their roosting returns are governed by light levels. The last few nights have been ideal for late roosters with cloudless skies. As non breeders ascend to roost aloft our breeders often join them up to a certain height then break off to descend at breakneck speed to their boxes.

It’s worth pointing out that all these observations are very much about this colony. Much will vary between different colonies, but much will be the same too, so I hope readers will recognise many times and behaviours recorded. Savour every moment of swift watching, for most of the UK the bulk of these birds will be departing in about five weeks.

All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2002

A late return at 10.23pm last summer. Equalled yesterday evening.

Swift prospecting a Schwegler 17 box.
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Swift, nightjar, woodcock and noctule.

A late night for Ptolemy, we arrived on site at about 9.35pm. On leaving the car we were immediately seized upon by midges but a short walk away we found ourselves in a light but cool breeze and the midges vanished, quite unusual for a midsummer nightjar session. A nightjar was already ‘churring’ sporadically from dense cover near the dusty forest track. In the dying light the colours of yellow rattle, red campion and hogweed were just about discernible in the clear fell. I was careful not to wish the precious light away as we waited for the first nightjar sighting. 

We positioned ourselves with a great view of the north west sky, our horizon the smooth hills above Ampleforth contrasting with the jagged skyline of pines to our left and to our right. The sky was beautiful, a sky indicative of a very cool summer night ahead- the temperature dropped to 3C in the early hours of Sunday.

A lone swift flew west, silhouetted against the remnants of sunset, labouring into the breeze. I pondered where it was going at low level as the light rapidly faded and came to the conclusion it was a bird from a local village returning to its nest to incubate and roost.

In the wake of the swift a woodcock appeared on its first roding flight of the evening, dumpy and calling its high pitched ‘squeak’, interspersed with frog like croaks. Such characterful birds to see, the wings almost look too blunt and short to carry its rather fat form. We had multiple passes from woodcock roding, on one of the earlier passes we saw it in the same quarter of sky as a noctule bat, also on evening patrol.

Then the ‘churring’ started. It doesn’t matter how many times you have heard a nightjar; its remarkable ‘song’ always feels like a new sound to the ears, both strange and beautiful. I raced to try and find the nightjar perched before we ran out of light. It was against very dark pine trees so scanning the dimming foliage was not easy. Although looking through binoculars you realise your scanning is very much guided by your hearing. I found it on a bare branch, the sort that is made for nightjars! We were in time to discern some of its beautiful cryptic markings and its big eyes before the light faded too much for our optics. So Tolly had his first really good view of a perched nightjar, he even watched it quivering its head at times with the intensity of the churring.

It flew from the branch, lost against the foliage for a while, everything now increasingly silhouetted. We could hear its wing ‘clapping’ display flight but only had glimpses as it stayed below the horizon. Some quick claps with two fingers on back of hand seemed to draw its attention and it flew nearer, on unmistakable slow mechanical wing beats, making calls too complicated for me to describe; just otherworldly.

The light faded and time had evaporated. Tolly’s bedtime was two hours gone as we finally had a view of it flying against the beautiful peachy glow lingering in the north western sky. After a couple more perched views and Tolly’s voice crackling with tiredness, it was time to go. An unforgettable evening topped off with good views of roe deer and badger on the drive home.

Swift diary
There is often a quieter spell around midsummer before the youngest non breeders arrive. These are probably in the main birds born last summer and they really shake things up! They are easily discernible from older birds by their behaviour as they tour round different buildings and practice approach and landing anywhere on the walls- for many probably the first time they have touched a solid surface since fledging. They are not here yet in numbers if at all; in 2020/21 both years they turned up on 23rd June, so I am in anticipation of their arrival this week.

They are very entertaining to watch, just don’t expect them to go in your nest boxes until next year! Sit quietly in the garden with binoculars and you can enjoy fine views of them clinging onto walls if you are quick. Often one follows another and will cling onto its back as it hits the wall before they fall away making violent ‘screams’. They are fickle in poor weather and may disappear for days or even weeks until conditions suit them again. This can happen several times while they are here and often coincides with big swift movements down the East Coast.

These birds reinvigorate ‘screaming’ parties which are occasional for now. On the first evening they arrived in 2020 I recorded 104 low level passes between 8.19- 10.14pm- an exceptional evening’s swift watching! They also wake me up as they descend to perform dawn flypasts having roosted aloft- the 4.15am swift alarm call, but what a sound to wake up to! Indeed these birds swell the number of sky roosting swifts. So for the next month or so we will, in fine weather see the maximum numbers of swifts in the skies above colonies.

All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

 

18th June, 10.38pm- a watercolour painted on return from an evening watching nightjars, woodcock, swift and noctule.