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September 11th- chiffchaffs, house martins and small tortoiseshells

Chiffchaffs are passing through in big numbers now. The repetitive song of a chiffchaff is a fitting end to the season of summer migrants. So often the first summer migrant heard in spring is a chiffchaff. On my run through Gilling Woods this morning the beeches echoed with the sound of chiffchaff song. For a while I really could fool myself that spring and summer was all to come. The species is a regular sight in gardens at this time of year. They seem to have an insuppressible desire to chase other small species of birds. They particularly seem to go for blue tits which means they can easily find themselves close to or even on bird tables and feeders at the end of a chase. Why, I am not sure, but I have seen similar behaviour in blackbirds that often chase collared doves in autumn.

The house martins with chicks are very busy now and fortunately the weather has been kind being largely dry and quite warm for a good part of the day. They are landing on the nest box and feeding the young by tilting in to the entrance; an indicator that the chicks are growing well. It is a delight to see them coming and going to the front of the house. Meanwhile a non breeding pair of house martins continues to occupy a nest box on the back of the house, coming into roost soon after 7pm each evening and leaving each morning at around 7.30am. Good numbers remain above the village, probably a mix of migrant and local birds. As I write their ‘raspberry’ calls fill the air contrasting with the incessant begging calls of young goldfinches; two species still feeding young.

It has been a spectacular late summer for small tortoiseshell butterflies here. We have frequently seen 40 or so on the buddleia and more still on verbena, mint and sedum. This peaked with a maximum of 59 on August 26th. Numbers are now dropping as some are predated or have entered hibernation. It is so good to see the species doing well. Sitting by the buddleia with my coffee this morning I was reminded of days of my childhood when buddleias swarmed with common species of butterflies. however even then I am not sure numbers of small tortoiseshells matched those seen in our garden this year.

A SMALL PLUG! SHOP

My online shop has been expanded recently and more sketches will be added in coming days and weeks. To view cards, prints and originals please click here.

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September 4th- immaculate garden birds and juvenile spotted flycatcher

Lockdown has taught me to look again and again at the familiar. I was watching various tits visiting the feeder today. Forget their names, just look at them. Watch their movements, the precision of their landings, their swift about turns as they grab a seed and dart for cover. Look at their colours; many are freshly moulted with new feathers to see them through the winter. Take coal tits as an example. These minute tits are striking in rich buff underparts, steely grey uppers and with a bold pied head. Just wonderful to look at.

Tolly and I did a favourite walk from the house today. We had lovely views of a juvenile spotted flycatcher in a hawthorn hedge. We watched it feed with the incredible accuracy the species is known for, one minute darting low and hovering close the ground, the next towering twenty feet above the hedge to grab an insect. It was a joy to watch this now scarce species, to hope perhaps against hope that summer 2021 will bring the species some reprise. As we wandered we heard chiffchaffs, blackcaps and a whitethroat calling in hedgerows. The countryside now alive with species preparing to depart, many already on their journey, refuelling around Gilling East.

As we meandered across the fields we remembered some of our earlier lockdown walks, so many of the birds we enjoyed, individuals we recognised are elusive now. Even the yellowhammers are quiet. Their territories abandoned as they join the safety of flocks for the winter. We ate sloes, enjoying the sensations from their intense bitterness whilst remembering the glorious blackthorn blossom which started our lockdown. We saw rosehips, the result of the very flowers we had paused to smell in June. Tolly is due back at school next week. It is a poignant moment, I will carry on the project largely on my own; we will still walk to warbler corner when we can, but I will miss the spontaneity of grabbing our binoculars and just heading outside together. As an artist I am used to spending large amounts of time alone, but it has been a rich treat to have company.

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September 2nd- bilberry scrumping, house martins hatch and September swifts

A lovely walk with the boys on the moors near Helmsley this morning with the primary aim of scrumping bilberries. We found some really scrumptious berries near the old wood ant’s nest; our purple hands and faces were proof of how great they tasted! Small groups of swallows moved north to south just above the heather, crossbills roamed around the conifers and meadow pipits ‘squeaked’ overhead as they too flew south. The moor is still tinted purple by the small percentage of heather still in bloom, whilst the heather that has gone over is now a rich sepia colour. The mass of heather is broken only by bright olive green bilberry leaves. The sky was bright but with building leaden clouds racing along on a brisk, but warm southerly wind.



Our house martins hatched yesterday morning; three chicks set to fledge in the final third of the month. Their first two days have been largely warm and should have provided the adults with a good opportunity to gather food. Meanwhile a second pair continues to occupy a nest box without breeding.

The pond has seen frequent visits from female southern hawker dragonflies. They crash around the edge of the pond laying their eggs near the water but not in it. They are fearless big green dragonflies and common in garden ponds. We have found that they particularly like laying on an old log which floats near the bank. Sketches to follow.

Swift diary
Six swifts continued to grace the skies over the village yesterday. Their chicks fledged several days ago but they linger as if they too appreciate that the last two or three days have been more than a match for much of the height of our summer. They have at times put on fine screaming displays, especially around sunset. Seeing the occasional pair of swifts in September is not unusual, but to see a party screaming over their nest site this late is a first for me.

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August 31st- stormy seas, ammonite fossil, swifts and house martins

A break near Whitby over the weekend and my first chance to paint the sea since March. Gales overnight Friday and well into Saturday produced some dramatic waves at Sandsend. We enjoyed watching fulmars and sandwich terns close in. Majestic great backed gulls made light of the conditions and were spectacular to see against storm grey sky and sea. A party of teal hugged the coastline as they passed east to west. Our hands were soon numb in the relentless northerly blast.

On Sunday in calmer, but still cold conditions, we walked the beach to see what we could find. About ten minutes in Tolly and I simultaneously spotted a stunning ammonite fossil at the water’s edge. We yelled out loud at the same time! What a find, probably aided by the big waves that churned up the beach the day before and a real treasure to remind us of this time. The weather was autumnal in every respect. Copious amounts of rain at the end of last week followed by very high Northerly winds and then, last night our first ground frost this side of the summer solstice and probably the earliest I can remember.

Our house martins continue to incubate. I inspect the ground below the nest daily for the eggshells which would tell of freshly hatched chicks. After a very cold start today has been still and warm. Good conditions for the martins who were joined by a pair of swifts which still seem to be feeding young in the village hall. We have another pair of martins in a nest box on the back of the house, occupying a nest but not breeding, reminding me very much of non breeding swifts. This pair has been in the nest box since around 7th August. I presume that if they survive they will return to breed next spring?

 

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August 28th- wood sandpiper, late swifts and dramatic skies

It feels like we are clinging desperately on to summer at times now, but fine periods of weather see the garden alive with butterflies again. We had an all time record of 59 tortoiseshells on the buddleia last Friday. A wonderful sight, especially given how low in number the species seemed to be just two years ago. I am providing a few overripe bananas and pears for red admirals, commas and speckled woods. These three species in particular love rotten fruit. I hang the fruit in wire bird feeders in a sunny position and they are visited for much of the day.



Tolly and I had a great trip to Ripon City Wetlands last week, a superb reserve managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. We quickly found one of my favourite waders, the wood sandpiper. We had really good views of this smart, warm brown wader probably fresh in from Scandinavia- a very small population breeds in the North of Scotland. After feeding for a few days it will continue its journey to West Africa They are a beautifully proportioned and elegant wader and can change shape dramatically if alarmed as the sketches show. I couldn’t resist sketching lapwings too, an all time favourite subject. They are coming through their moult to reach smart winter plumage. Most have rather short crests at the moment. These will grow longer over coming weeks and months.

We have had some very heavy rain showers over recent days. As such skies have been dramatic so I have been sketching them in watercolour. I always have a sketchbook and watercolours ready to capture the moment. Up until a couple of days ago we still had 5-6 swifts battling the conditions. There were at least three late pairs in the village this year, doubtless a consequence of the poor weather we had in June and early July.

The house martins by Tolly’s bedroom window are giving us lots of pleasure. They swoop up to the artificial nest in front of the window. I positioned it so he can see into the entrance from his pillow! It is a treat to lie there and watch their black and white faces looking out and to hear their calls in the early morning. They are still incubating eggs which will probably hatch around 4th September. This means that if all goes well the chicks will fledge around 25th September. Not exceptionally late but they have already seen some dramatic weather and it will be interesting to follow their progress.

 

 

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August 21st- three pairs of swifts still and hirundines gathering

Swifts and house martins in blustery conditions- 21st August 2020. A watercolour painted en plein air, available at Nunnington Galleries this weekend 22nd/23rd August.

Sand martin and swallow sketches- 21st August 2020.

 

Hirundines have started to gather on the wires in front of our house. There was a big increase in numbers today. I wonder each summer where all these birds come from. There are far more than breed in village. Perhaps this is the gathering area for a large catchment of birds, or perhaps some are passage birds from further north on their way south? Hirundines consist of swallow, house martin and sand martin in the UK. We are lucky to have all three species breeding in the village and I could stand at the bedroom window on eye level with each on the wires today. It was particularly interesting to see sand martins so close, They really are minute, being the smallest of the hirundines.

The wind was very gusty  and they fed in the shelter of the trees. With them six swifts. Swifts are not, as often thought, related to hirundines. I spent an hour or so sketching swifts and house martins as they negotiated the strong wind. We still have three breeding pairs of swifts in the village. It is not unusual to see a late breeding pair of swifts in late August, but three pairs together in a village with a population of no more than ten pairs is unusual. They were feeding low with the hirundines and regularly making trips to the village hall to feed their young. It was easy to see their engorged throats which contain a bolus of insect food gathered for the nestlings. This bolus may contain hundreds of small insects. Whilst it is a treat to see six swifts this late they are very quiet and industrious, with the sole purpose of feeding their nestlings. They will head south at the earliest chance, probably leaving before their young fledge. The fledglings will have to learn to feed in the air and navigate their way to Africa immediately.

This has been another good year for tortoiseshell butterflies. We counted well over thirty in the back garden yesterday. By contrast red admirals and painted ladies are scarce.

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August 19th- bullfinches and marsh tits eating honeysuckle berries and meet the artist at Nunnington Galleries

Honeysuckle berries are a magnet for two red listed species of bird. Bullfinches and marsh tits find the berries as soon as they ripen in our garden. A female bullfinch brought at least three young to the feast today. A marsh tit dashed in and out of the honeysuckle carrying the bright red berries off. They take the berry mainly for the seed within.

It seems a pair of house martins are incubating eggs in a nest on the front of our house. They first prospected the artificial nest on 10th August and must have laid eggs within a few days. Now they can be seen changing incubation duties. If all goes well this pair will be fledging young in the last few days of September. It has been a difficult season for the martins here with very dry weather at nest building time when mud is essential, followed by some really difficult cold spells. Subsequently numbers in the village are well down on previous years. Juveniles in particular seem in short supply. I hope that we are seeing the start of a colony on our house. There will be plenty of nest boxes ready for them when they return next spring. They will be able to launch straight into breeding without having to build a nest.

22nd/23rd August- meet the artist at Nunnington Galleries- Jonathan Pomroy and Lucy Saggers

This weekend I will be at Nunnington Galleries with a large selection of work, much of which will be very recent unframed watercolours. I have loved the freedom that lockdown brought me, a time to just paint and not think about selling or galleries. But a living I must make and so I’m back on parade for Nunnington Galleries’ Meet the Artist Weekend 2 with Ampleforth photographer Lucy Saggers. The weather looks interesting! but come rain or shine, or gales there will be plenty of my new work to see and I will be there for distanced chatting and if the weather allows demonstrating watercolour.

Below. Bullfinches and marsh tit on honeysuckle.

Below. A small selection of the work available at Nunnington Galleries this weekend.

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August 15th- willow warbler song and sea fret

Since Friday’s blog we have had two very grey days, to be honest local inspiration has not come easily. The wind has been coming off the North Sea, dragging sea fret well inland. We have not seen the sun since Friday. This stubborn cloud is hiding a night sky that might otherwise reveal Perseid meteors. It is keeping the temperature low enough to prevent the flight of many insects. Even the ubiquitous large whites are gone, dragonflies and damselflies are hidden, biding their time before the next warm sunlight.

I was reflecting on lockdown back in April. It was remarkable for so many reasons, many of them sad and involving immeasurable suffering. We were very lucky here and for a while we lived in a rather timeless state. I will never forget the blue skies courtesy of high pressure which blocked all weather systems. But lockdown coincided with one of the busiest times of year for a naturalist. There is so much change at such a fast pace in April and May that each year I struggle to take it all in. But lockdown enabled daily observation of local change. I watched single plants change and became familiar with individual birds on territory.

Now in mid August they hide away, moulting their feathers to be warm and protected for the cold dark months ahead. Many plants are fading, the hogweeds are already brown skeletons of their former selves. Leaves on trees and shrubs look tired and worn partly from the adverse weather we experienced after true lockdown. Bird song has almost ceased completely. Occasional bursts from a robin set me thinking of cold autumn mornings when they will be singing more regularly. Even the hoards of tree sparrows are deserting the village- they can be seen enjoying the annual bounty of ripe grain in the fields nearby. The house martins fill the air with their contact calls, a reminder of late spring and high summer. We hear swallows occasionally. I never thought I would say that; swallows sang and twittered above the garden almost seamlessly through summers only a few years ago. They are becoming notable by their absence-what has happened to our swallows?

I am not feeding the birds in the garden at the moment. There is an abundance of natural food now. Our new pond attracts birds to drink and bath and to feed on the numerous insects. Yesterday morning the silence in our garden was punctuated by a willow warbler. It sang a near complete version of its sweet yet mournful spring song and reminded me of the fact that thousands and thousands of migrant birds are creeping through our gardens by day and flying over our heads at night. I watched it sally out from the hedge to take a fly over our pond. Just one fly, but showing that our new pond is part of a much bigger picture; we have helped to fuel a willow warbler on its journey to Africa, I hope someone somewhere will enjoy its complete song next spring. 


Tree Sparrow studies. Available from my studio.
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August 14th- robins singing again, wall butterfly and house martin fledging. Also a bonus swift diary!

Each August I look forward to seeing robins freshly moulted into their immaculate autumn plumage. Robins are territorial in the winter and from now you can start hearing them sing again. This song is very different to the loud spring song, it is unhurried, quieter and very sweet to listen to. It seems to compliment the last days of summer when the sunlight is softer and tinted with ochre.

We have seen wall butterflies this week. This seems to a good year for this lovely little butterfly. The impression in flight is of pale orange, but a view of the butterfly settled shows sepia lattice like markings breaking the pale orange ground colour. As their name suggests they like walls to bask on. This last week has seen big hatches of small tortoiseshells and speckled woods. This follows a large hatch of peacocks a couple of weeks ago. In sunny periods there are lots of butterflies to enjoy now. I prune our buddleia back very hard in late April which delays flowering to late summer, This seems to work well to catch this second generation of butterflies. I also provide fruit later on for red admirals, commas and speckled woods.

Our house martin chick fledged this morning. It was a joy to see it fly confidently and quickly high into the sky to join about 25 other house martins. In profile through binoculars I could see the missing feathers on its head where it was attacked. I took a chance moving the chick to another nest box when it was being attacked by a new male. Its father presumably died and the new male probably killed its three siblings. I placed it in a nearby nest box and its mum continued to feed it through to fledging, so one more precious house martin has fledged today. After its maiden flight it landed near a nest box allowing me to make some sketches. It is easily recognisable due to the feather loss on its head, a result of the attack earlier this month.

Swift Diary
Yesterday in cool cloudy weather we were visited by five prospecting swifts. They prospected frequently between 10am- 1pm. This was totally unexpected, our breeding pair have been gone over a week now. After days of hot weather and no swifts where had these birds come from? They behaved very much like young non breeding birds, flinging themselves randomly at the eaves and forming low level screaming parties. It was wonderful to see this behaviour in mid August but another great example of how swifts can surprise us with their behaviour.

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August 12th- juvenile bullfinch, song thrush fledglings and swift diary.

We think there are bullfinches nesting in our beech hedge which is becoming draped with convolvulus. The adult birds come and go very discretely. But we also see full grown young from another brood. They are very distinctive looking juvenile birds. They share some of the same basic plumage patterns of their parents but the head is uniform brown. They love to eat honeysuckle berries if you have them in your garden, though the main aim is to eat the seed within.

A late brood of song thrushes has just fledged. The young are often fed on red currant berries from a nearby garden. There is no song thrush song at the moment. Like many species as the breeding season ends they will begin moulting their worn feathers. Now is a time of great plenty for birds. There is abundant food and adults who are worn after breeding can hide away and replace feathers.

The house martin chick that I moved to another nest (because it was be attacked by a rival male- see earlier blog) is thriving. Today its mother was trying to coax it out of the nest by perching out of reach with food. I know her by markings on the back of her neck. The chick should fledge very soon. Meanwhile I am delighted and surprised to say we have acquired two new pairs in nest boxes- I wonder if they will raise broods at this stage of August?

In my experience house martins can take years to attract to artificial nests, but once you have one pair the other boxes are very quickly prospected. They are a delight to have around the house and have given me a new subject to study in detail now the swifts are gone. Their flight is spectacular. Whilst swifts often steal the glory for their flying displays around our eaves, house martins display a more manoeuvrable flight, so they are more versatile in tighter spaces than swifts. Their gentle flight curves into the nests are fast and impressive. The males leading females in, are particularly graceful as they pull their tails down presumably to show off the white rump to best effect. It is a beautiful flight to watch and I am enjoying them so much I have to remind myself we had swifts piling around the eaves little more than a week ago.

Swift Diary

There are still swifts in the village. I discovered a new active nest today because I found a pile of swift nestling droppings. Swifts are often said not to create mess like house martins, but in certain nest sites droppings are easily ejected by the young. I could see the swiftlets clearly through the nest entrance in the eaves. They should fledge soon. Meanwhile we have 5-8 adult swifts above the village. They perform flypasts round the nest site at times, but activity is a shadow of that we saw a couple of weeks ago.