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Swift and house martin diary- May 19th

All six swifts of 2021 are back in boxes, three pairs reunited. All arrived between 9th- 16th May which is early for a whole colony to assemble. It is a joy to watch the six in the air. After a day of poor weather yesterday they turned up early in the evening, performed a couple of rather erratic flypasts in the gusty wind and then retired to their boxes. While we cannot prove that they are the same individuals, all returned and entered the nest boxes with confidence and no hesitation and each pair settled immediately making it all but certain.

In addition this morning there was some surprising behaviour as three prospecting swifts turned up. They perched confidently on unused nest boxes and house martin cups alike. This could be a displaced pair, we’ll never know but the three seemed very familiar with our house knowing instantly, different flight paths to the nest boxes. It does look like we could have at least one more pair.

We have seen some wonderful skies recently. A thunderstorm at dusk on Monday saw swifts flying against a very dramatic backdrop. For me painting swifts has always been as much about observing the skies they inhabit and I am already filling sketchbooks with new swift skies.

The house martins in the village were gathering mud to build or repair nests today. I sat by a wall in the village sketching . Of course when cars passed the house martins flew off so I did receive some rather curious looks from passing drivers. But when these birds come down to the ground they settle very close to each other to gather a good beakful of mud. They waddle about on white feathered legs and being tame allow me  really close views if I sit quietly. Recent rain will really help a lot of house martin colonies where mud is essential to enable them to breed. So far numbers look encouraging in Gilling East after a very poor year in 2021. Watching them interact with swifts over our house is wonderful as is the sound of their mixed calls. All our house martins are nesting in artificial nest cups. While we don’t want to see a world without mud house martin nests, artificial nests offer them a reliable place to breed. In areas where numbers are low the provision of artificial nest cups enables some house martins to maximise their breeding potential.

In a dry spring nest cups can literally be the difference between house martins breeding or not, so they have the potential to save a colony. House martins could occupy nest cups and breed between now and early July, so it is not too late to attract them this year. These lovely, now red listed, birds really need our help, so please consider providing artificial nest cups.

 

House martins collecting mud- Cawton Road, Gilling East
The colony arrives home just before the thunderstorm. A couple of rather erratic flypasts in the gusty windy ahead of the down pour. Then all six straight into their nest boxes.

A SUMMARY OF THE YEAR SO FAR

Swifts in Gilling East 2022

9th May- first swift arrives and roost in box 2 10.32am

10th May- swift returns to box1 6.46pm (max. 3 swifts above village)

12th May- box 1 2nd bird arrives at 6.21pm (max. 6 swifts above village)

14th May- box2 2nd bird arrives at 8.24am 9 (max. 9 swifts above village) At dusk a swift landed on and looked in box 3. Probably the first of last year’s non breeding pair.

15th May- 5.38am swift enters and settles in box 3. 5 out of 6 birds back.

16th May- final swift arrives back and settles quickly with its mate in box 3.

19th May- a pair of swifts are prospecting new boxes and the house martin nests!

House martins in Gilling East 2022

25th April- 3 house martins prospecting house, 1 roosts in anc 3

29th April- anc 3 bird attracts a mate (max. 6 above village)

4th May- second male roosted in anc 3

6th May- single male adding mud to anc 3

10th May- pair in anc 3 and pair in anc 4

11th May- more martins arrive, max. 10 above village.

New hm into anc 6

12th May- pair in anc 6. So pairs now in anc 3,4,6.

New hms arrive over village max. 15 birds. New prospecting pair looking at potential nest building sites on our north wall.

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16th May- swifts and other birds!

There is simply too much to see and sketch in May; that’s my only complaint at this glorious time of year. Recent trips to the North York Moors have yielded good sightings of summer migrants including redstarts, pied flycatchers and ring ouzels. These three species in particular are essential annual viewing for me. The former two I try to see before the deciduous woodland canopy closes over. They are both stunning to look at, males in particular.

When first seen before leaves have burst bud they seem very exotic in a bare English wood. Tolly, my ten year old son and I had fabulous early morning trip to see them back in late April. We watched mesmerised as a pied flycatcher initiated repeated aerial combat with a male redstart. This was almost certainly about competition for a nest site. Flashes of red, orange and blue grey, met black and white in a confusion of colour around a khaki, grey oak trunk. We will never forget that sight and toasted it back at the car with cups of hot chocolate from our flask.

Higher up above the tree line ring ouzels are now breeding. They are wild, truly wild and hard to see well, but we know their haunts well and the best places to sit and wait. Again we were rewarded with good views of these magical mountain thrushes.

Whenever I go out at this time of year I feel lucky to be able to look forward to returning home to see our swifts and house martins. Ted Hughes in his poem Swifts, associated the first swifts with cherry blossom, though these days cherry is usually blown away well before the first screaming swift parties. For me it has always been first swifts with singing blackbirds. So often blackbirds sit on gables or TV aerials as fast, low level swift parties rush by. The blackbird’s rich fluty song seems to me to be at the opposite end of the musical spectrum to the wild shrieks of swifts.

This morning we have had some very welcome rain. 12mm is the most we have had for many weeks. The cloud base was very low and the air full of moisture but swifts and house martins were feeding constantly, the swifts every so often preforming spectacular low flypasts. The moisture in the air carried their calls so well. They often start screaming by my studio on the approach to the eaves and this morning the sudden sound made me ‘jump’ a couple of times! In the moist air I could hear every wing beat, as well as that smooth rush of air when they glide fast. The sun is starting to break through now; looks like it’s gong to be another swift filled afternoon.

Swifts pass a singing blackbird.
Male redstart
Male pied flycatcher puffed up but singing on a frosty April morning.
Male ring ouzel on the North York Moors.
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Swift and house martin diary- 14th May

I am writing this in a permanent state of distraction, stop, start diary writing! More swifts have arrived and they are ‘ripping’ the warm morning air. We have already had dozens of fast, high speed passes and I can scarcely remember a day so good for swift watching in the first half of May. Now the colony is clearly established I am relieved to not play swift calls anymore; I watch the swifts attracting their own kind naturally high in the air and enjoy the natural sounds of swifts as they come and go. The noise is incredible, not just their calls but the sound of air displaced by their wings as they hurtle around the houses, hedges and fruit trees. Each year the pleasure they give me is undiminished, in fact it increases exponentially. I want to draw every aspect of their behaviour and paint the skies they inhabit, they dominate my summer and I imbibe every flypast.

Social media is awash with swifts, SWIFTS written in capital letters and surrounded with multiple exclamation marks. These birds are held in such reverence, yet sometimes this makes me feel uncomfortable. I have studied and sketched swifts and been inspired by them since childhood and I’ve been part of the swift conservation movement for a couple of decades now and it is great to see all that has been achieved. But swifts are not better or more deserving than any other creature, including the parasites they carry; each species is evolved for survival but, a bit like barn owls, swifts are a bird we can directly help through provision of nest sites. I wish it were so for other species which have disappeared before our eyes. Spotted flycatchers for example. We can make nest boxes for them aplenty, but they no longer come. Like the swift, spotted flycatchers are a wonder of evolution, brilliant at what they do, but something has gone wrong and I miss them.

However I don’t intend to wallow in gloom on a day like this. The swifts are performing and they are a beacon of hope. The house martins mix with them in our airspace. It is not difficult to find where I live on a fine day in May- just look for circling swifts and house martins. I am proud that the six martins and four swifts(hopefully more to come) nesting on our house add to the ambience of our village on this beautiful day.

Swifts at sunset. Two pairs came in to roost tonight, both bred last year. We await our occupying non breeding pair.
House martins prospecting for nest sites on wall and occasionally looking into artificial nest cups.

A SUMMARY OF THE YEAR SO FAR

Swifts in Gilling East 2022

9th May- first swift arrives and roost in box 2 10.32am

10th May- swift returns to box1 6.46pm (max. 3 swifts above village)

12th May- box 1 2nd bird arrives at 6.21pm (max. 6 swifts above village)

14th May- box2 2nd bird arrives at 8.24am 9 (max. 9 swifts above village) At dusk a swift landed on and looked in box 3. Probably the first of last year’s non breeding pair.

15th May- 5.38am swift enters and settles in box 3. 5 out of 6 birds back.

House martins in Gilling East 2022

25th April- 3 house martins prospecting house, 1 roosts in anc 3

29th April- anc 3 bird attracts a mate (max. 6 above village)

4th May- second male roosted in anc 3

6th May- single male adding mud to anc 3

10th May- pair in anc 3 and pair in anc 4

11th May- more martins arrive, max. 10 above village.

New hm into anc 6

12th May- pair in anc 6. So pairs now in anc 3,4,6.

New hms arrive over village max. 15 birds. New prospecting pair looking at potential nest building sites on our north wall.

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May 10th- swift and house martin diary

I spent time today just trying to capture the freshness of the day in watercolour and gouache- the clear cerulean sky contrasting with intense fresh greens of spring.
One of the first low level, fast passes of the year.

The weather has been fine but very blustery today, the strong westerly wind stripping some fresh leaves and apple blossom. More swifts arrived this morning, though I still have only one bird visiting a box. Despite the large UK arrival yesterday the proportion of breeding swifts back at colonies may still only be about a quarter or less of last year’s number. Swifts assemble over time as David Lack observed in Swifts in a Tower and many others have observed since. No two springs are alike. But what does always seem to happen is that the breeding colony is more or less assembled by the last few days of May. After this they are quickly joined by the first arrival of non-breeding birds.

Our swift left the nest box at about 8am and I watched it drop, almost touch the lawn and rise quickly into clear blue skies. It fed for a while with our house martins but was quite quickly joined by one, two then three more swifts. They have been feeding high above the village for much of the day, sometimes almost hanging in the breeze. They dart left and right up and down swallowing insects as they plough into the wind. After a while they speed downwind again and repeat the process, remaining more or less faithful to the airspace above Gilling East.

The first day you can go out into the garden and see a swift each time you know that the breeding birds are assembling. It is a joy just to sit and watch these high fliers carving up the fresh air and occasionally, they will descend to low level to ‘scream’ past the eaves. I watched a down wind flypast this morning, the speed and accuracy of flight breath-taking. But at this stage of the season these flypasts are usually once or twice past before they rise back up high to feed. All too often you hear them scream on approach look outside and they are gone.



House martin diary
We now have two pairs occupying artificial nest cups. There is at least one other pair in the village. A few years ago it would have been hard to imagine such a paltry population. Why? We don’t know. There is plenty of mud by the beck but just like the swallows their populations are vanishing before our eyes.

To add some hope a couple of new birds arrived today, almost certainly first time breeders which hovered by the nests without perching. I watched the interaction today between the swifts and the martins. They feed together often, but crucially sound the alarm when predators are around. For example as our swift was about to leave its nest box the house martins were calling above in alarm due to a sparrowhawk going through village gardens. The swift would not have been able to see the sparrowhawk but aborted its departure until the martins stopped their warning. It is not an exaggeration to say that the martins might have saved our swift’s life.

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The first big UK swift influx

It’s not exactly breaking news! Social media is awash with first swift sightings and perhaps more significantly multiple swift sightings at different locations. There are early swifts from mid April but they tend to be quiet, often without the company of their own kind. A thrill to see yes, but not in the same league as swifts fired up by the urge to breed and reinforce their colony.

This is the beginning of the first influx of breeding swifts. Many more will surely follow, but standing in the sun at 9am this morning in Helmsley I could watch swifts flying in formation, circling over nest sites and listen to their calls. It is often called ‘screaming’, but I think it defies description really. I was struck on hearing them this morning that it really does mean summer, the longest days of the year are here.

Having enjoyed them over Helmsley I headed home. As I walked out of the back door towards the studio a swift missed me by a few feet and flew into box 3 without hesitation. The wonders of motion camera technology can prove that this was its first visit this year, in fact our first swift back this year- one of a pair of first time breeders last year returning to its rather extraordinary feathery nest. This nest has so many wildfowl feathers which were collected in such a short time that I feel it was impossible they were all collected in the air. As the nest was late and built in June when wildfowl are moulting I strongly suspect that some of these feathers were gathered from the surface of a lake. 

Our first swift sheltered in the nest box for about half an hour before heading out to feed accompanied by the so far paltry arrival of local house martins. I made some swift charcoal sketches from the camera footage, happy to be drawing that round head with big, deep inset eyes and small pointed beak. The day remained warm, perfect for our swift to regain some of the energy lost on migration.

They have kept us waiting this year, held back by a strong northerly airflow over France, ironically quite nice warm weather, just with the wind in the ‘wrong’ direction for our swifts. But today there has been a synchronised arrival across the UK. The next few days promise a huge increase. Enjoy them!

 

A2 sheet of charcoal sketches in the first half hour of our swift’s arrival.
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House martin diary- 3rd May

Watercolour studies of a single male house martin, arrived today and prospecting artificial nest cups.

Like swifts, numbers of house martins often build up slowly. Until mid May the majority of house martins are last year’s breeding birds who return straight to nests they occupied the previous year. Their return rate from Africa is much less than swifts’ so inevitably there is some nest and mate swapping before they settle down to breed. From mid May younger first time breeders arrive and look for a colony to join, or start a new colony- you can watch them touring houses looking. Eventually they settle and start building a nest, or they may use an artificial nest cup- these are the birds you are most likely to attract.

So far I reckon less than a quarter of the nests in Gilling East have house martins back. It is no coincidence that there is often a good arrival of house martins with the first substantial wave of breeding swifts. Both species feed very high in fine weather and much lower near lakes and reservoirs during windy, wet or cold weather. In addition house martins often feed on the sheltered side of trees or large hedges in strong winds, sometimes almost gleaning insects from the foliage. The weather forecast in the second half of this week looks promising for a substantial arrival of both species.

The first house martin to roost on our house arrived on 14th April this year. Now we have one pair of house martins settled in a nest cup(since 30th April) with another single male visiting from today- we had four pairs breeding last year. They are only occasional visitors to the eaves in this rather cool, grey weather, but nevertheless at times they really enliven our house and garden as they chatter in the nest and swoop round the eaves. The male performs a spectacular, fast, display flight into the nest, calling a harsh “zee zee zee zee” call to lure the female in to join him. When she does there is often an intense burst of song.

I feel extremely fortunate to say that of the five houses I’ve lived in we have attracted house martins to four, so I’ve not spent many years without their company in summer. In each case they were attracted to artificial nest cups. They are fascinating to sketch and study and give about eight weeks more entertainment than swifts each year! Their flying is incredible, more manoeuvrable, with a much tighter turning circle than swifts. Through the months ahead I’ll be sharing the fortunes of our house martins and sketching many aspects their behaviour.

For a summary of a typical house martin year based on my notes from 1985-2021 see

https://jonathanpomroy.wordpress.com/house-martins/

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Mayday Mayday swift!!!

I had an early evening phone call from Dave Maynard, Helmsley Swifts’ nest box fitter, to say he was watching a swift over Helmsley. I had to see it! On arrival in Helmsley the swift was circling in a known aerial territory; it was anything but swift, circling slowly with shallow wing beats alternated with brief glides. It was not feeding but consuming as little energy as possible after its long migration journey, before descending to roost for the night. The fact it was on its own suggests there are very few back because if there was even one other they would likely be flying together.

I experienced that annual rush of the year’s first swift and Mayday seemed a very appropriate day to see it. For me there is a visual shock on seeing the shape of a swift after a long winter, so unlike any other bird silhouette- pointed, sharp, black on an evening like this one, but aesthetically perfect from all angles.

So the swift watching season begins, the intensity of it all; of early wake up calls from non breeding swifts screaming outside our bedroom window at 4.30am, the neck straining and eye straining that comes from looking up into bright summer skies, prayers for decent weather at critical moments of their breeding season and just taking it all in while they are with us.

Across the country people are doing the same as me, those with new nest boxes anticipating and hoping, those who already have breeding pairs nervous as to whether their swifts will return. Swift groups planning events and frantically putting up boxes still. People stirred by swifts, a bird that unites so many of us in joy and wonder for three months of the year.

So, as I watched this single swift I resolved to set myself a summer project- to sketch and write about swifts, again! Today the blogging begins, I will share my sketches and observations through the summer along with a very healthy dose of house martin! You can receive the blog by email if you wish to by signing up on this homepage.

First swift sketches of 2022- playing with that shape in watercolour
Mayday swift in Helmsley. Swift circling before descending to roost on a grey evening at 8pm.
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4th April- some early nesting attempts

One of my earliest memories of watching birds is seeing them build nests in our garden. It always seemed such a privilege that wild birds chose to nest within our boundary. I realised at a young age that I could encourage nesting by providing nest boxes for tits, sparrows and flycatchers and by strategically placing flower pots in hedges and climbing plants for robins and wrens. It was then and still is such a thrill to see a bird gathering nest material, then watch it fly to a nest site I have provided, something of an addiction that has remained with me for life- there are worse addictions to have I suppose?!

This year has started well in our Gilling East garden. A robin is nesting in a box that was really provided for pied wagtails and a wren is nesting in the shed because it can use a specially cut, small access hole in the side. Numerous tree sparrows are building nests on milder days but show no inclination at all on colder days. This indicates that at this time of year nesting is still not at full pace. Colder days mean such instincts are put aside as birds concentrate on finding enough food to survive.

Our female robin has laid four eggs, but due to the inclement weather she is not incubating them full time yet, showing that self preservation comes before a nesting attempt that would demand so much time and energy. Once incubation begins her feeding time would be very limited. The wren nest in the shed was built by a male. Male wrens build several nests at this time of year. In a week or two he will hope to show off these nests to a female who will choose and line the most suitable one in which to breed. So it is possible that the beautiful moss and grass domed structure in the corner of our shed will not be used, we’ll just have to wait and see…

Wrens nest in shed showing provided access hole.
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12th March- a great great grey shrike day!

News of a great grey shrike on the North York Moors had me packing my sketching kit and optics fast. The great grey shrike’s Latin name is wonderfully descriptive and frankly sounds very cool! Lanius excubitor means sentinel butcher due to its habit of hanging and storing prey on thorns and the obvious lookout posts it uses when searching for prey. Generally I don’t pick favourite species of bird, but if forced to choose the great grey shrike would easily make my top ten, right up there with swift, house martin, hobby, ring ouzel, hawfinch, pied flycatcher, spotted flycatcher and redstart, to name a few contenders that spring immediately to mind. Tolly my nine year old son came with me and long stints at the scope in the cold wind were eased for us both with a large flask of hot chocolate!

Great greys always seem to look pristine in gorgeous clean white, black and icy grey plumage. Often this plumage is puffed out in the cold which adds to the visual appeal. They are hardy, tough birds often wintering in exposed locations. Fortunately for birders they use exposed perches to search for prey which often means locating them is reasonably easy. Clear-fell areas of forestry plantations are a favourite habitat, where they perch on exposed dead stumps so often left by forestry workers.

On arrival there was a small group of birders huddled round their scopes. I prefer to search for the bird myself first and we soon found the great grey atop a dead larch, clean and bright against a dark grey green coniferous background. My mind drifted to previous ggs sightings. Remarkably in the 80s we had two records in our garden in Hungerford, Berkshire. The garden was near the edge of town but not particularly rural and on both occasions a shrike was seen to attack our garden finch flock which then consisted mainly of greenfinches. On the first occasion my brother and I were off school with chicken pox and I spent the day garden birdwatching, so our first ever great grey was as a direct result of a virus!

Very few great grey shrikes have been recorded in the British Isles this winter. Soon this bird will fly across the North Sea to Scandinavia or Russia where it will breed in similarly open country. The natural world is brought into very sharp focus for me at the moment. My mind, distracted like many by current affairs makes me consider our responsibility for all the species we share this planet with . This beautiful shrike with its link to Scandinavia and quite possibly Russia highlights the fact that the natural world knows no boundaries.

 

Great grey shrike- Sharpie pen sketch
Great grey shrike- Sharpie pen sketches.
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Swifts and summer cumulus clouds- late morning, mid June

I lay on my back on a warm, dry lawn; the smell of cut grass filled the air. For a minute or so the sun was behind a small cumulus cloud making it easier on my eyes when I looked up. The swifts were feeding in wide arcs at high altitude, barely visible with the naked eye.

The gentle breeze combined with hot mid-summer sunshine made the watercolours dry very fast. I made some fast sketches which helped imprint the moment on my mind. On a damp, cold, 4C day such as today I remember that midsummer morning when I look at my sketchbook. Even the simplest pencil scribble or watercolour daub can recall a vivid memory on a day such as this.

Swifts and mid summer cumulus clouds.

Water colour and gouache 53x37cm.