July 23rd- swifts moving south west

Early this morning I noticed a substantial movement of swifts. They were flying high, slowly and in complete silence and were well spaced out across the sky. Such a far cry from the impossibly tight, fast and noisy formations we associate with swifts. All were heading south west. I saw several hundred but there must have been many more. I would guess this was a weather movement, probably mainly non breeding birds undertaking a detour to avoid the rain or perhaps these were birds actually beginning their journey to Africa? There was something quite moving about this sighting, it filled me with wonder about where they were going and why they were going there. Where had they come from? But always in my mind the thought that they will be gone soon. 

It rained for much of the day, but in drier periods this morning it felt warm and the non breeding swifts responded quickly. There were several short but intense periods of prospecting including some landings on nest boxes.

Below- swifts moving slowly and silently south west.


July 22nd- little owls and the best swift day of 2020

I started the day by sketching, soon after 5am. The local little owls were as obliging as ever. I sketch them at a range of about 100m, great views through the telescope. The owls puff up their feathers when resting but pull them close when alert. I can see our house from this spot and by 6.30am I could see swifts screaming past our eaves. The owls would have to wait, they are here all year round and the swifts will be gone in under two weeks.

I ran home with all my all sketching clobber and optics to experience a very low flypast of five swifts. The air over their wings clearly audible as they passed. What followed was another morning of swift magic! The air was still and by 9am serious prospecting began. All the while one of our chicks peered out of the nest box entrance. Swifts were impossible to count. There were around ten at times and action switched to the front of our house- the opposite side to the breeding birds.

They came fast and low over my head as they approached the eaves. Momentum built and a bird started to land on nest box 6. Then a confident approach and it went in. For anyone attracting swifts seeing a new box entered for the first time is a very big moment! The nest box was right by our bedroom window too. Of course this is only one bird going in and breeding is a long way off but it is a huge milestone on the way to our second pair. It stayed in for a few minutes then returned several times. I am overjoyed watching swifts today and I kept sketching their wonderful flight shapes particularly those spectacular stoops towards the eaves.

Rain arrived soon after midday and the afternoon was quiet. Bird song is much reduced now. I heard a slight blackbird warble this morning but don’t expect to hear their glorious fluty notes again until next spring. Even the song thrushes are easing off now, robins are silent too. The breeding season for most birds has now ended and they have a few months of plenty ahead of them before short cold days return.

Below. Swift enters the nest box! Sketches of swifts approaching and leaving the eaves.

Below. Swift at dusk. A single swift glides over the garden before descending to roost in the nest box.


July 21st- problematic tree sparrows and swift diary

We have with a very large population of tree sparrows in Gilling. Now don’t get me wrong, I love tree sparrows and they are a favourite sketching subject. We were lucky to have a pair nest in our garden in Hungerford when I was a child. I remember realising one day with my new binoculars that they were tree sparrows, not house sparrows and felt so privileged to have them in our nest box. I would hazard a guess that having a tree sparrow nesting in a Berkshire garden now would be something of a mega sighting. But here in Gilling we have had an unpaired male in the garden throughout spring and summer that has caused almost constant hassle to other species.

In May it sat on top of the blue tit’s nest box relentlessly, stopping the parents from feeding their young. They only fledged three in the end. This may or may not be due to the tree sparrow, but certainly the blue tits were inconvenienced at best and the young were fed much less than they should have been. Interestingly the nest box had a 25mm hole so the sparrow couldn’t get in anyway! I have heard of another identical case in a nearby garden.

Meanwhile the swifts arrived. I always plug the nest box entrances before they arrive to prevent sparrows from taking over and provide eight nest boxes for tree sparrows. Three or four pairs nest under our roof tiles too. But come second brood time all the nest boxes are deserted and they go for the swift boxes. Not only do they go for the swift boxes, they go for the swifts, launching themselves at swifts in flight or attacking them when they prospect. The only way to prevent this is to shoo them away or stand below the nest boxes. They are more shy than swifts and won’t come near if I stand below. But I can’t do this all the time!

So the tree sparrows’ first brood boxes remain empty for the rest of the season and they begin the battle with swifts. But this year there has been a new problem. Regular readers will know we attracted a pair of house martins. No words could describe my elation at having these wonderful birds tucked up in a brilliant Schwegler nest box. But, enter our unpaired tree sparrow; they have been subject to almost constant harassment. The tree sparrow chases them when they leave the nest box, sometimes striking them in the air. A friend recently had a whole clutch of house martin eggs destroyed by tree sparrows and I have previously witnessed this too so we are on tenterhooks. As I write he is sat just above the martin nest. His harsh chirping is constant from dawn to early evening. I have shooed him away hundreds of times but still he returns. This morning he flew almost vertically up from the roof and launched himself at a swift.

Whilst frustrating and worrying it is fascinating to ponder the behaviour of this and other tree sparrows. So much of what it does seems to be born out of pent up frustration. It should be constantly busy feeding young, perhaps even raising a third brood by now. Why has this bird not found a mate I wonder?

As I mentioned the population of tree sparrows here is very high. In all my life I have not seen a more abundant bird in a garden at all times of the year. Considering it is a scarce species in many areas I wonder if someone is writing a PhD on why there are so many in parts of North Yorkshire?

Tree sparrows will undoubtedly be a benefactor of swift box schemes in this area, perhaps the main benefactor? I remain far from convinced that swifts will usurp them once the sparrows are established. Every inch of a swift box is packed tight with material, leaving just a narrow tunnel to a tiny nest chamber. Of course we must celebrate a species that is doing well, but it shows that conservation is a very tricky balancing act. More tree sparrows could mean fewer house martins and possibly affect other species too.

Below. Unpaired male tree sparrow.

Below. Swifts screaming high above the village. An increasingly common sight the nearer we are to the main departure of swifts. Watercolour 340x470cm  £375(not including postage)





July 20th- a day of swift days and comet Neowise

I stayed up until 3.15 this morning, mesmerised by the night sky. I woke up my 8 year old son who joined me between midnight and 1am. We had fun navigating our way around the night sky. My birding scope was great for seeing the comet, though due to field of view I think binoculars gave a better overall impression. I saw several meteors and we could clearly see the moons of Jupiter and rings round Saturn with the scope. The milky way looked spectacular incorporating two of my favourite constellations, Cygnus and Cassiopeia. It was a joy being out on a chilly July night with fox, little owl and tawny owl providing the sound track. There was always some glow of daylight on the Northern horizon even a month after the summer solstice, but from about 2.30am this was intensified by a beautiful show of noctilucent cloud.

A lie in then? Fat chance- soon after 6am the swifts hurled themselves round our eaves, a very effective alarm clock for me. Straight downstairs and outside into the cold air again with strong coffee to keep me going. What followed was a morning of intensive swift activity, Lots of prospecting with landing on several new boxes. Each time this was interrupted, as soon as a bird landed another would scream up and pull it off. However there were heads right in boxes, so all very encouraging for the future of our colony. Meanwhile our two swiftlets are growing very well and occasionally starting to venture to the entrance of the nest box to look out

When they prospect like this it is hard to know where to look. They fly sometimes in opposing directions, missing by millimetres, crisscrossing each other’s flight paths. I dropped all my plans, sat out with my sketchbook and soaked up every glorious moment of the best few hours of swift watching this year.

Our garden pond is establishing well now and today we were visited by a brown hawker; my favourite dragonfly. It was restless and darted around above the pond preying on other insects but never settling. I don’t know whether it would breed in a garden pond but certainly it was using it to feed. We also have a female great diving beetle who rises to the surface regularly to trap air beneath her wing cases. The whole project has been so rewarding and this is only the start. A large open beach area is a magnet for birds already as they drink and bath and I can’t wondering which species we will see there in the future.

Below. Views of comet Neowise. The lower image shows noctilucent cloud near the horizon.

Below. Swift nestling peering out of entrance to nest box.

Below. Non breeding swifts prospecting/ banging.







19th July- hobby and swift diary

A hobby coasted through the village this morning. The house martins and swifts reacted quickly . The house martins bunched up high but the swifts rally quickly and position themselves quite close behind the hobby, flying directly in its wake. They are well aware of the deadly capacity of this beautiful falcon.

I once watched a hobby take a swift over Bradford on Avon. The chase started when the hobby piled in to a feeding flock of swifts. It managed to single out one whilst the others retreated fast. The aerial chase that followed was impressive with the swift displaying speed and incredible manoeuvrability. The chase lasted for about twenty seconds. I believe the hobby was deliberately tiring the swift. It then accelerated and took it with relative ease.

Next I watched the hobby carrying the swift whose wings flapped upside down before it breathed its last. Hobbies are impressive and very beautiful and are entitled to the name swift themselves, but my heart always stops as they pass. Will it take one of our swifts or martins? This time it didn’t.

Below. Swifts trailing behind a hobby.

Below. Dusk screaming party passing low over me.


July 18th- house martins hatch and another rescued swift

I have just returned from Wetherby services by the A1M where I met Martin Calvert of Leeds Swifts to hand over a young swift found in Helmsley. It is about 32 days old and malnourished. Yet another reminder of what a poor summer this has been for swifts. As I have said before, those we find will be the tip of the iceberg as sadly many will have been predated or starved. This bird was simply forced to try and fledge through starvation. Its wings are not long enough, not to mention its lack of strength and so it was doomed the moment it left the nest hole- until it was found by Keith Pickering The Stick Man of Helmsley. Thanks to Keith it now stands a very good chance of fledging under the expert care of Linda Jenkinson. I will write more on this process and other swift rehabbers in a future blog. Their dedication is extraordinary. 

Linda runs a business called Start Birding. It is a superb idea and her knowledge of birds and her people skills together are a brilliant recipe for learning to identify and enjoy wild birds: but as important perhaps is the chance to enjoy the companionship of others who feel the same. Do look at her website

The house martins hatched today. They took up residence on 26th June and must have really got a move on with egg laying. They have diligently incubated their eggs through some very tough weather conditions. It has been fascinating watching the village house martins. In recent cool and windy weather they have been feeding right up against the edge of Gilling Woods, often venturing in between the outer trees to find insect food from the canopy.

UPDATE- just received another call about a fallen young swift, this time from Masham. Care being arranged as I write.


July 17th- little owl and swift diary

Swift Diary

This has been the day many swift watchers have been waiting for. The yearlings are back and performing around colonies. Older non breeding birds are cruising round in pairs looking at potential nest sites. The flying display has been spectacular today. I spent some time sat on the lawn with the watercolours sketching the dramatic aerodynamic shapes they make as they approach the eaves.

There were higher, tight screaming flocks at times, sadly a signal that the end of the swift season is coming. As their time to depart approaches they seem to show increasing desire to fly at high level in social groups, before finally you realise they have gone and the skies are quiet again.

I watched one of our local little owls this morning. It was fluffed up and basking in early morning sunshine. It posed well for fast sketches in pencil and watercolour as I watched it at a respectful distance through the scope. They are delightful birds to draw and though they appear to dose they are constantly watching you through slightly open eyelids! 

Swift studies painted outside in watercolour. 29x40cm. £275 unframed


July 16th- beauty and the beast

What a contrast! Stunning views of an adult male kingfisher at Ampleforth Lake today followed by a sighting of a pale giant horse fly drinking from our garden pond. One can only imagine how tough the mouth parts of this horse fly are to bite through cow hide. But what an impressive flier with those spitfire shaped wings, which make a loud and alarming buzz. Variety is the spice of life and the natural world certainly gives us that.IMG_5061IMG_5057


July 15th- swift diary

Yesterday evening cooled fast and the swifts were reluctant to put on low level flypasts. They milled around in the cool breezy air with the house martins. We had one very fast flypast at dusk and then the non breeding birds could be seen rising higher into the zenith as the breeders descended to their nest boxes.

Today started dry but still cool. We had a few frantic sessions of swift activity where about five birds frantically flew around the house and sometimes perched on the occupied nest box to look in. Mid morning saw a pair arrive and quietly prospect. They flew circuits slowly, flying up to nest boxes but not perching. They frequently indulged in the wing quivering display flight I have previously described, whilst making the soft piping call they first make to each other when they finally settle in a nest box.

All this activity and still no landing on or entering nest boxes! But with swifts you have to relax, take the long view and just enjoy watching them. There is enough choice for them and they will only land on a box, or enter it when they are ready to do so.

I pondered today the thought of being a non breeding swift, as I do! Imagine not being able to touch down, not for two years, which probably happens, but just for one day. Their rest is in the air. Of course to them this is normal, but it is worth reminding oneself every so often that this creature’s habitat is the air. Touch down is a necessity for breeding only. Most areas of the UK will have a little over two weeks now to enjoy swifts. There will be a few late pairs around and sightings of some passage birds, perhaps from Scandinavia, but their dramatic flying displays will cease for another nine months. So with warmer weather predicted for the next couple of days, soak up every sighting you can.


July 14th- siskins, crossbills and swift diary

We have a constant flock of siskins in the back gardens of our road still. They are very discrete. Occasionally a male bursts into song and performs a display flight, but generally they feed very quietly. They use their agility to hang from the leaves to feed on the aphids that hide underneath. I predict that later in the winter gardens will see plenty of siskins as natural food becomes scarce.

We had a lovely walk on the moors near Helmsley this morning. It was cold for July, but the visibility was as good as I have seen it. The Dales were so clear to our west as were Yorkshire Wolds over to the south east. The moors have a hint of purple now, mainly from the earlier flowering bell heather, though the really extensive purple of ling heather is yet to come. We heard a few crossbills and saw meadow pipits and skylarks, but the highlight was always going to be the bilberries which we scrumped in their dozens. A good handful swallowed at once is a true taste sensation, wonderful!

Small heath, ringlet and red admiral butterflies were on the wing, but as we drove away we were lucky to see a magnificent dark-green fritillary on thistle flowers, a gorgeous big orange butterfly and one we were not expecting to see.

Swift Diary
A swift chick I was given yesterday died overnight. But happily the swift chick I took to Linda Jenkinson is alive today and taking food. The consensus is that large numbers of chicks were not getting enough food during the cold spell. They were literally starving and forced to ‘jump’ from their nest sites. Many will have perished. I hope the worst is over now as the days are certainly warmer this week. Swifts were frantically flying around the house today and flying up to but not perching on nest boxes. In particular they perched on the occupied nest box to peer in and see what is going on.