29th June-Swift and House Martin Diaries.

Swift Diary

29th June- easily the busiest swift day of the year here, we were bombarded by dark crescents almost continuously between 6.30- 11am. It took a while attracting a second pair of swifts to the house, but activity has really ramped up since. With both pairs of breeders in their nest boxes up to five birds hurtled around the house. Two of these birds appeared far more serious- they were probably older and alighted on nest boxes with a confidence not yet bestowed on the others, lingering to have a good look at breeders’ and empty boxes alike. This pair returned again and again.

They performed the tightest circuits and some of the most impressive aspects of swift flight. Amongst my favourite swift flight displays is the steep, tilting, wing quivering approach of a bird leading another towards a potential nest site. We saw this often. If I thought swifts were predictable, which I know they are not, I would predict another occupying pair this summer…

It was an unforgettable morning, distracting in the best possible way. Well I am so lucky to be able to call such a morning on the lawn with my sketchpad, work; so I worked (!) very hard all morning, playing with swift shapes on paper. High above a pair of RAF Typhoon pilots did well, but were easily out manoeuvred by the swifts’ insect propelled display down below.

Very predictably the action dwindled towards midday as the swifts climbed to feast on the abundance of insects. Now as I write they are passing the eaves regularly again, obliterating the sound of young finches and tits around the garden as they scream past. I think swift wise this evening could be the best of the year so far, so to sit outside with a beer and a sketchbook is my idea of a good result!

House Martin Diary
Our two pairs are feeding their young at an incredible rate now, returning with insects every minute or so. I love to watch their graceful flight curves as they swoop down to the nest, landing in the perfect position to shove food straight into the bright orange gapes of their offspring.

While we are thrilled to have two pairs of these lovely birds, if I look around the village and other villages I see terribly depleted populations of house martins. We don’t know the cause, I have a suspicion that a poor breeding season here last summer has something to do with it, but it is clear to see that house martins (and swallows) are no longer the common birds they used to be. Living near them can give you a false impression of abundance , but I have seen sharp declines and abandoned nest sites throughout this area.

Please if you know people with house martins, tell them how lucky they are, educate them, offer to clean up the droppings, ask them to put up artificial nest cups, anything to help these once common summer visitors. Truly you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Swifts and RAF Tyhpoon
Swift activity. Sketchbook page featured in Charles Foster’s The Screaming Sky.
House martins feeding young.

June 25th- surprising swifts

Swifts continually surprise me, to the extent that I am no longer surprised by them! Today, as I write at 11am it is 13.3C with continuous drizzle and a strong northerly wind which is really blowing the trees around. To my great surprise the swift activity here has been frantic all morning. The activity is multi layered. If I look up now there are swifts hanging, faced into wind and feeding high up in a leaden sky, while at lower altitude they easily negotiate strong eddies around the house to scream past the nest boxes. There are swifts at different heights between approximately 10-200 feet. When a breeder returns to feed chicks or change over incubation duty the younger birds slam in behind them, sometimes landing on the nest box entrance.

The first photograph shows this morning’s watercolour with the backdrop of some of our nest boxes. I deliberately tried a few different designs when we moved here, but decided to avoid bottom entrance boxes with a drop of just 4.5 metres. The first box to be used, the second summer after we moved in, was the box to the left of the window. The swifts have to make a sharp 90 degree turn to enter. The window, even when wide open does not present a problem. Perhaps my main motivation for positioning this box was to sketch some dramatic manoeuvres as they approach. The views of swifts are spectacular from the window. This design has proved successful and I have watched several young fledge from it with no problems. I put the box up on 21st July 2018 and a pair was in it by 23rd July!

This morning I sketched swift silhouettes; today they really do look black, against pewter clouds it is impossible to see even a hint of brown. They look menacing as they approach, my heart rate rises as they scream a few inches over my head. This morning saw the largest number swifts I have seen above the village this year, so perhaps there has been an arrival of younger birds or perhaps conditions here for some reason are suiting more transient birds who are lingering for a while. Either way I’m going back out now to enjoy the action, wrapped up in warm a fleece!

Look closely and you can see a swift about to enter a nest box by the window!
The first nest box to be used on our house.
Swifts in strong northerly wind- 13.3C, continuous drizzle.

Swift Diary- perfect nest building weather and an arrival of non-breeders.

A wonderful day of swift watching, thus far. The new incubating pair brought in lots of nest material today. These are perfect conditions for nest building swifts. It was warm but more significantly it was windy. Materials get blown into the air and held there in warm updrafts so at times the swifts were returning with long strands of grass up to c30cm long, giving them a long-tailed silhouette. Another favourite nest material is feathers and frequently they returned with a white feather in beak. This gives them a moustached look especially as they approach head on. 

There was an arrival of younger birds today, their behaviour different to the older non breeders. There were lots of fast screaming parties and more random visits to the eaves. I think it will be a very noisy later this evening in the garden as these young birds join with some breeders to show their aerial prowess. Exactly a year ago we had a big arrival of non breeding swifts. I had so many low level fast passes during the evening that I began counting. They were generally made up of 3-7 swifts and incredibly I recorded 104 fly pasts below eaves height in the two hours before dusk!

With more younger birds around watch for the dusk ascent of non breeding swifts going to roost and the late return of breeders as they drop down into their nests. The breeders have regularly been coming in to roost at 10.20pm or later in recent days. Those with chicks often leave for a last forage at 10.10pm or even later. Enjoy every moment of these mid summer swift evenings, in our garden we watch dozens of pipistrelles emerge from a neighbour’s roof before the swifts have retired. Song thrushes sing late as the tawny owls tune up and the scent of honeysuckle fills the warm air.


Swifts returning with grass and feathers- 23rd June.
Fast, low level screaming party- 23rd June 2020.

June 21st- spotted flycatchers feeding young and Swift Diary

We feel so lucky to have a pair of spotted flycatchers nesting close to the garden. This pair arrived in May and wasted no time at all. Now they are feeding young. Their needs seem to be few in terms of territory. They collect most of their food it seems within a very small area, literally two or three gardens. They very rarely visit our garden even though we are well within 100m of their nest. Considering this it does really make you wonder why they have declined so drastically to the point of being red listed? But it is a delight to watch them, such proficient aerial insect hunters and all being well there will be some very precious flycatcher fledglings around soon…

Swift diary

We currently have two breeding pairs, one our established pair feeding six day old chicks the other now incubating two eggs having first entered a new box on 9th June. The last week has been cooler than the first half of June, but we’ve seen plenty of activity and I expect this will really ramp up when younger non breeders arrive. Last year there was an obvious arrival of younger birds on 23rd June though it was short lived and they departed for two weeks due to bad weather on 26th June, returning on 10th July.

Our new pair has learnt incubation quickly. Their change overs are rapid and the eggs are rarely left uncovered. They first entered the nest box on 9th June and now they are incubating two eggs. They have not added any nest material until today, indeed they have even expelled feathers provided by us in preference of a bare nest mould. The mould is a very effective, quite expensive Schwegler woodcrete one, but talking to friends who watch bigger colonies it seems that this behaviour is down to individuals. Swifts often add material to the structure throughout incubation stopping as soon as the eggs hatch. Sometimes it looks as if they do it to relieve the boredom while they sit on the nest for extended periods! Two weeks ago we had one pair of swifts but change can indeed be swift in the swift world and it suddenly feels like we have a small colony in the making. 

Watching the swifts over the weekend I was struck as always by how low they drop to gain flying speed. Whilst we know they could leave the nest on a much more level trajectory, as most fledglings swifts do, it seems the adults deliberately choose this low path before gaining height. Perhaps gaining speed assisted by gravity gives them the highest chance of escape if a predator were to spot them or perhaps this is the most efficient way of gaining flying speed, or perhaps both? Whatever the reason their departures low above the lawn result in some spectacular views. They are very often at leg height before climbing higher and sometimes you can literally look them in the eye as they pass.

Yesterday evening one of our pair feeding young returned to the nest at 10.23pm after a late food gathering foray. Midsummer is here, there are perhaps six or seven more weeks of the peak swift season. Beyond that time only late breeders are likely to linger. So now is the time to relish every swift sighting; store them in your memory for the largely swiftless nine months ahead. 

Spotted flycatchers- Gilling East.
Swift returning to roost on midsummer’s eve eve- 10.23pm.
Swift, very fluffed up, incubating two eggs.

June 17th- a second pair of swifts and dabchicks at the arboretum

I had a delightful encounter with a family of little grebes at Yorkshire Arboretum lake on Tuesday. They were swimming amongst bright green weed and seemed to be eating tadpoles. The lake is looking stunning, bordered by flag iris and currently attracting large numbers of azure damselflies. Also present were four-spotted and broad-bodied chasers and several emperor dragonflies.

I will blog from the arboretum very soon but if you have the chance to go at the moment it is looking very beautiful with trees at their early summer best and so much of the grounds now areas of meadow with orchids, ragged robin, buttercups and ox eye daisies to name but a few. A newly fledged family of redstarts was near the perimeter wall. As far as I can tell there were at least two pairs of these stunning birds breeding in the grounds, probably three.

We are approaching the end of a time when I simply can’t paint or see enough! March through to early June sees summer migrants arrive and so many species breeding. Plants, insects and mammals all vying for my attention. There is simply too much to paint. I only scratch the surface. I am just at the point where I am asking myself what might I not see now before it is too late this year. I haven’t seen a cuckoo this spring. I heard one distantly, but not one sighting. There might still be time with an early morning visit to the moors…

Swift Diary

I thought I’d start by setting the scene for the swift and house martin activity here. It also shows how different nest box designs are used. When we moved here in 2017 I wanted to experiment with some different aspects and designs of swift box. Traditionally most birds in this area nest under pan tiles just above the gutter. 

The photograph below shows a section of our eaves. Red is occupied swift boxes, blue is occupied house martin cups and brown is a swift box occupied by tree sparrows. The first swift box to be used (2019) was the left hand box. The swifts make dramatic 90 degree turn to enter the box parallel to the wall and have no problems negotiating the flight path, even when the window is wide open. The latest swift box to be occupied (right of the window) is a self made variation on a typical ramp box with a side rather than bottom entrance.


Our new pair which first visited the nest box on 7th June this year have just laid an egg! They were mating on the nest last night and a dropping appeared near the nest cup this morning- a real clue that an egg is on the way, as adult swifts rarely defecate in the nest area except before laying eggs. They have not added a single piece of nesting material to the Schwegler nest mould- the egg is laid on bare woodcrete. The pair have gone completely silent since first entering the nest box. They are about three feet away from my existing breeding pair who are feeding young chicks. This pair does not react at all to screams from the new neighbours, seemingly showing complete acceptance. I suspect that my new pair will have known the breeders for two or even three summer seasons, but as ever with swifts it’s guesswork.

I will be interested to see if the new pair start to add nest material as they incubate. All being well, assuming they have two eggs they will fledge young around 19th August, so we will have swifts for a couple of months yet. In my experience these late breeding birds mingle with house martins quite a lot so the two pairs on our house will be good company for them as extra eyes for danger and as locators of good feeding areas.

It has taken two years from having our first breeding pair to attract the next. I continued to play calls on the other side of the house but the new pair chose the box next to the existing breeders where no calls were played. Personally I cannot wait to dispense with the calling system and I won’t play it anymore now. I love to hear the natural sounds of swifts. In my experience if there is a reasonable population locally, boxes fill without playing calls once you have one and perhaps especially more than one pair.

You could be forgiven for thinking we don’t have swifts recently. Once they took possession of the box screaming fly-pasts and landing on the breeders’ nest box stopped even in perfect swift weather. I am quite sure the new pair, nest site selected, threw all their energy into breeding. I think we will have to await a further wave of younger non-breeders to see anymore action now. But, it’s a lovely feeling knowing that a colony is forming.

If you have a drink outside at the nearby Fairfax Arms you will now be able to see swifts and house martins above our house. I hope the experience is enhanced for many by the sight and sounds of increasing numbers of swifts and house martins in the airspace above the pub as they approach and depart from our house. This week the Fairfax Arms joined the club and with a little persuasion from me put up two swift boxes. When we help swifts and house martins we are adding to the soundtrack of summer for so many people even if they don’t know it.


Little grebes at Yorkshire Arboretum.
Swifts and house martins above the studio.
Male redstart at Yorkshire Arboretum.
Swift coming in to roost- 10.05pm.

Swift diary- forming a new colony and some observations on banging and nest site selection

We moved to Gilling East, North Yorkshire in 2017. The village previously had a maximum of c5 pairs when we moved here, the nearest from our house c150m away in the village hall. By 2019 they were breeding. We have attracted swifts to three houses now. The first was in 2003 in Wiltshire- remarkably one of my plywood nest boxes there is still being used by swifts! I used an old Sony cassette player on the ground below the boxes to attract them there- it took just two years.

Gilling East swifts- a brief summary
2017 first summer living in Gilling East, calls played, fairly typical chaotic prospecting by three birds on just two days in late July.
2018 June- some much more serious prospecting this year with landing on boxes and brief entering of boxes.
July 23rd first bird in box 1 for a substantial amount of time but not roosting.
July 25th pair in box 1 but not roosting.
2019 pair return to box 1 late May and breed, fledging young in late August. No new pairs attracted but plenty of prospecting and single swifts occasionally entering other boxes.
2020 pair return to box 1, normal breeding time. Plenty of prospecting but only one or two very brief entries to other boxes all season. No new non- breeding pairs attracted into boxes.
2021 first pair box 1 arrive in mid-May now incubating, soon to hatch. New pair attracted to box 2 on 9th June ,roosting every night since. Hopefully they will build a nest, possibly breed late.


I have long thought that ‘bangers’ as a description of swift behaviour should be more specific. After countless observations I see two distinct types of ‘banging’.

The first type is often most noticeable earlier in the season (from end of May) when the younger non breeders are not here, but happens throughout. They are probably older non breeders, more experienced at approach and landing. They aim at a breeders’ box and perch first time and perch long enough to invite a response from them, often screaming into their nest box. I am almost certain that my new pair did this to the breeders a couple of days before they moved in. They repeatedly land on the breeders’ box, in my case the only breeding pair on the house. They could clearly land on any box but choose the breeders’ box. Why, curiosity, or perhaps they are already fellow members of the colony so perhaps this banging is an extension of social aerial activity??

The type most often referred to as ‘banging’ is more random and involves touching or landing on multiple boxes or below them, under gutters etc. In my view many of these birds will not be persuaded to enter that year because they are simply not mature enough. They appear to be practicing approach and landing. Swifts although amazing fliers have to learn manoeuvres in tight spaces. If you watch them you can see they try different approach angles. Eventually more experienced birds learn the most efficient flight path.

Much of the swift behaviour we watch (and many get frustrated by) will not lead to finding a nest site that season because they are not mature enough to feel the urge to do so. Can we even prove that this behaviour is prospecting for nest sites or could it be something else? Many of these birds will be too young to breed or even think about breeding and perhaps they are practicing approach and landing rather than looking for a specific site? Or perhaps it is largely a social activity? A swift’s eyesight is incredibly sharp so it is inconceivable that they do not see the entrance to a nest box.

When swifts do become sexually mature the ‘switch’ is flicked and they may suddenly enter nest boxes confidently and rapidly. No amount of call playing will persuade them to do so until that ‘switch’ is flicked, however the calls have attracted them to a new potential nesting area which they will probably return to the next year. I have no doubt they see the nest box entrances, how couldn’t they, but they have to be old enough to take it further. Why they take so long to mature, we don’t know?

Solo prospectors

One more thought on nest site selection. Having started three colonies at different houses since 2003, consistently the birds to watch have been the solo prospectors. There is no doubt they select quiet times to prospect for nest sites, when the ‘bangers’ are not around. They make no calls at all. At our colony in Ampleforth one such bird was an aberrant male which silently and alone entered a nest box three short times in a season. It never roosted and didn’t attract a mate but it came straight back to breed the following spring.

Once the site is entered and selected the swift will return with a mate, again at a quiet time, sometimes even the following year. The pair will circuit fast with the lead bird showing its mate the nest site often screaming when close to the entrance. After a few fast circuits this bird will enter the site hoping the mate will follow. This can happen quickly or the mate can take many attempts to get the approach and landing right. We have just gained a second pair in the nest box next to our incubating pair. The second bird took about a day to settle with its mate in the nest box. Now they enter the box in very quick succession.

Non breeding occupants to breeding pair

I have seen two main scenarios where birds enter nest boxes then breed.

  1. A pair enter from June onwards and start a nest to be used the following year. They can enter for the first time a few days before most swifts leave and breed the following spring. I put a new nest box up on 20th July 2018, a pair was in on 23rd July 2018 and it was used for breeding in 2019.
  2. . A single bird (male?) enters a box several times in a season but doesn’t roost or attract a mate in. It returns to the box the following spring, attracts a mate and breeds that year.

For anyone currently frustrated by watching ‘banging’ without birds entering nest boxes I would say enjoy the presence of swifts in the moment. We can only speculate about the age and sex of the birds doing this and why they do it. I have watched this behaviour countless times and in some years they don’t enter a box at all. There is so much we don’t know; enjoy the experience of having these magnificent birds so close. The chances are that when that maturity ‘switch’ is flicked you will have swifts on your house. 


June 9th- swift and house martin update

Swift Diary

Our swift pair has been incubating two eggs for a fortnight now. They are very quietly going about their egg care while outside much has changed since my last blog. The weather warmed at the end of May and June has started with some perfect weather for swift watching. The older non breeding birds arrived in good numbers here and have put on quite a show. We have seen them landing confidently on the breeders’ nest box, in response the breeders scream wildly at the imposters who stick their heads right in the entrance for a look. The cling on is brief and they soon fall away.

There was generally little interest in other boxes to start with but all that changed last Sunday when a pair started investigating more seriously. This coincided with an online event I was doing with Charles Foster, author of The Screaming Sky, you can watch my distraction here! 


The distraction was older non breeding birds, probably three year olds who are already paired up but are searching for a nest site. Or they were, because since yesterday they have taken to a nest box next to our incubating pair.

These newly paired birds sometimes have a late breeding attempt. When living in Wiltshire I had a pair first enter a nest box on June 14th: they bred and fledged young on September 10th. The behaviour of older non breeders is inspiring to watch. They perform the most energetic flight, especially at dusk; impossibly tight, fast turns, screaming all the while. The lead bird(probably a male?) utters a loud ‘peep’ call as he approaches the nest site and screams wildly when close to advertise it to the mate. After a few circuits they slow down a little and the lead bird flies more slowly at the nest box making sure its mate is close behind. It then enters the nest box hoping that the mate will follow. This can take practice and often the lead will have to leave the box and coax its mate again. However in this case both were in the box within a day.

It is incredible to think that a swift after nearly three years first touches down with another in such a confined space. To begin with brief squabbles take place but soon they mutually preen each other whilst uttering a soft piping bonding call. Today both have been in the box together on several occasions so I am optimistic they will stay now. From our first pair breeding in 2019 we have a second pair on the house. They could occupy the box all summer and perhaps build a nest ready for next year or perhaps like my first nest box pair in 2003 they will attempt to breed…

In the air swifts are displaying their finest flight; fueled by abundant insect life in this warm weather they have lots of energy to fly at their limits. Look out for pairs flying slowly near potential nest sites on stiff quivering wings, this is a particularly beautiful flight to see. Sometimes high speed passes also see swifts vibrating their wings. We can see swifts preforming the ‘v’ display where they hold their wings high and lose height rapidly. We can only speculate why they do this as we can’t tell male from female but it does certainly seem to be a strong signal to the following bird. These are days to savour: who knows how the rest of the summer will pan out? Last year we had roughly four weeks of poor weather in June and July with virtually no flying displays.

Take in every flypast. If you have prospecting birds throwing themselves seemingly randomly at your eaves, not your boxes, don’t become frustrated, relax and enjoy the sight and sound and be grateful you have swifts around- they will go in when they are ready and not before. Most of the birds you watch doing this are practicing approach and landing or still looking for a colony to join and will not attempt to enter a breeding site until they are mature enough. When they are it is like a switch being flicked and there is no stopping them finding a nest site.

House Martin Diary
We now have three pairs of house martins, two pairs incubating and another pair probably laying. This time last year we had none. However numbers in the area are very poor indeed. Fortunes looked mixed across the country. There is still time for first time breeders to arrive but the clock is certainly ticking now. We feel so fortunate to have them, but with many collapsed or reduced colonies being reported we can never take them for granted.

Below, watercolours from the last two days. All my studies of swifts in the sky are from observations of real formations as they pass.



May 27th- spotted flycatcher and swift and house martin diary.

We feel very privileged to see spotted flycatchers back in the village. One is currently nest building. This species is one I hold with huge affection. It was one of the first species I really studied and sketched in my early teens. In the days when every reasonably sized garden or churchyard seemed to have a pair nesting I was lucky to observe them using nest boxes placed in view of my bedroom window. Indeed my first woodwork project at secondary school was a chance for me to build a flycatcher nest box!

I watched a display by the male showing a female a nest site on numerous occasions. The sense of privilege even back then that this long distance migrant appeared each summer in our garden is only increased now by their relative scarcity. How sad to think of the decline of this once common and much loved species.

It is an attractive bird. If you look closely the shade of brown or fawn of its upperparts has a slightly pinkish undertone. The breast and throat feathers are silvery white to cream admixed with very subtle stripes. Their behaviour is a delight to watch, the bird powering then gliding fast towards its insect prey with deadly accuracy before perching again.

Swift Diary
Our swift pair, which in recent poor weather has frequently been the sum of swifts visible here has at last been joined by more birds. As the air warms swifts are more able to feed locally, high above their nest sites, so we have been seeing some wonderful swift behaviour again. including courtship chases and mating on the wing. As even warmer weather arrives things should really ramp up. Some of the first younger non breeding birds should arrive and that is when those hoping to attract swifts need to be ready with call systems. This morning we were treated to frequent fast low level passes by up to five swifts, just wonderful!

Many people this year have observed birds returning and still waiting for a mate to arrive. Hopefully many pairs will be reunited this weekend as the last breeding age birds arrive. In some cases mates will have been lost and those swifts in search of a new mate will begin to lead a potential partner to their nest sites. This can be spectacular to watch. It can also be frustrating to watch as a new mate has to learn the approach path and landing. I remember a day a couple of years ago when a swift tried to lead a mate into our nest box. Thirty or more times he entered the box but each time the other would peel off at the last second. The next day the new mate finally entered the box and after that the pair never looked back.

Our pair now have two eggs but do not seem to be incubating yet, There might be a third on the way, we will have to wait and see? Unusually there was a 72 hour gap between the first two eggs being laid. This gap is normally 48 hours, the egg always being laid in the morning. The 72 hour gap is undoubtedly weather related with the female swift needing more time to make the egg in the cold conditions.

House Martin Diary
I am more concerned about house martins than I am about swifts this year. We are very lucky to have two pairs of house martins on the house but neither pair has laid eggs yet. One bird has been back over a month now without attempting to breed. Numbers of house martins are well down for this time of May though today we have seen much more activity in warmer weather so I hope we can welcome some additional pairs yet. Like swifts house martins arrive in waves and we are yet to see younger birds born last year. These birds nest later in late May and through June, but for the older birds already here breeding has been severely delayed and this could well have an impact of productivity this summer. Given good weather now, some birds will hopefully raise two broods.

It is wonderful to have house martins back. This time last year I had been trying and failing to attract them since May 2017. That all changed in June 2020, but you can never take this for granted. A friend in nearby Easingwold who had 5 pairs last year has yet to have any return. I feel his pain, for once you have lived with these birds you miss them when they are not around. Their cheerful calls are as much a part of summer as the screaming of swifts and they last through to September providing comfort when the swifts suddenly depart.

I would recommend trying to attract house martins. Artificial nest cups enable them to progress quickly with breeding which can help sustain local populations. For information on artificial nest cups and other ways you can help house martins see the link below:

Nest cups
Swifts mating in the air
Swifts confined to the nest box in cold, wet weather.
Swift on nest
Swifts feeding high in a late spring sky, at last!

May 20th- a slow swift arrival

Since my last swift and house martin update very little has changed. There has been no arrival of house martins in the village since 10th May. This has meant that those birds that are here have settled in existing mud nests or artificial nests. I hope more of last year’s breeding house martins will turn up as well as the usual later wave of first time breeders which tends to arrive in the second half of May and June. The two pairs in our artificial nests are not yet incubating eggs and with very poor weather here I can imagine a further delay in breeding and in the arrival of more birds. We know swifts are very late to build up numbers this year and hope martins are the same- time will tell.

Our swift pair is very settled, but like the house martins they are having to make the most of any fine weather to feed, hence there is very little activity around the nesting sites. Large numbers of swifts were recorded passing watchpoints in the south of France on 17th May- yesterday the area saw an arrival of swifts from this passage. So numbers have increased but hopefully there are many more breeding swifts to arrive yet. There was another big ‘pulse’ of swifts north through the south of France yesterday but with the weather here deteriorating so rapidly it remains to be seen whether they carry on to our shores quickly or bide their time on the Continent.

The skies recently have been stunning with a typical day seeing cumulus cloud building up through the morning and some impressive cumulonimbus clouds forming by early afternoon. For me this has been a week to paint skies. Something I look forward to each winter is days outside painting summer skies containing swifts, swallows and house martins. As I write the temperature has dropped to 9C and moderate to heavy rain is set in. Our swift pair is in the nest box huddled close to each other, conserving the energy they gained from this morning’s dry feeding sortie. It is going to be a tough few days for the swifts, swallows and martins. Many swifts will have just arrived and will need to build up condition ahead of breeding- no easy task with so few insects on the wing.

It you are trying to attract swifts to your nest boxes, playing calls often has little or no effect at this point in the swift season. That is because most swifts here are already tied to an existing nest site. However it could just be worthwhile; if local swifts have lost a nest site you might persuade them to use a nest box. So for now don’t be despondent if your calls have no reaction even from swifts overhead. Hopefully towards the very end of the month, given warmer weather the first non breeding prospecting swifts will be here; this is the time playing calls can really work its magic. From my own observations starting colonies, 6-11am is the peak time for prospecting or ‘banging’, perhaps especially 7-10am. There is often a session at lunchtime or at the end of the afternoon on really warm days. Evenings in my experience are best for watching high speed low fly pasts and actual prospecting is more unusual than during the morning. Good luck!


Swifts huddled up on nest
Swifts mutual preening


May 14th- BTO BBS 2021 and swift and house martin diary.

Yesterday morning my alarm was set for 4am. As is always the case I awoke before the alarm. The dawn chorus was already underway and there was a soft glow of light in the sky. I was up before dawn for my British Trust for Ornithology Breeding Birds Survey on the Ampleforth estate. It is such a rewarding experience to be out enjoying the countryside, so quiet, at this time of morning, while recording valuable data on bird populations. Many of the statistics on bird populations you hear in the media are down to hundreds of us who go out and gather information. On a local level it can be valuable information to protect threatened habitat.

I am lucky to survey an area with a wide variety of species. There was nothing particularly unusual this morning but it was reassuring to see familiar species such as yellowhammer, whitethroat and lesser whitethroat in the usual territories. The water colour below shows the sky at dawn looking east from Gilling. I had superb views of a fox as a bonus. After the survey I walked in the local woods and was delighted to find a spotted flycatcher, my first this year and a stunning male redstart.

Swift diary
11th- 14th May
Our swift pair is very settled. They leave one after the other at around 8am and return at about 7pm to roost. The mornings and evenings are too cool to offer them any insect food so they reserve energy by siting tight on the nest. There are one or two visits in the day to add feathers to the nest structure and very occasional fast screaming passes by the nest box but essentially they are off feeding as much as possible to gain condition for breeding.

The number of swifts back over Gilling East remains low. This is a common story across the country. I think we have around 20% of breeding birds back here. This number would include well established breeders and those that occupied a nest site before they were old enough to breed last summer. It is worth rereading David Lack’s Swifts in a Tower at this time of year. In the chapter Migration he describes the annual variation in arrival of swifts, it was just as unpredictable in the 1950s. What might have changed since then is the long term climate trend which could be influencing arrival times? While it was cold here in April we were surrounded by areas that were much warmer than average, including the Arctic. 

Today has been grey and cool and the swifts have not been seen at all since they left this morning.

House martin diary
We have two pairs established, one pair possibly laying eggs now. They come and go, but a bit like the swifts are absent for much of the day as they feed up ahead of breeding. There has been no sign of any new birds arriving recently. Soon we should expect some one year old first time breeders. They are usually easy to spot because they prospect new sites and ‘bother’ established breeders as they look for a place to settle.

Look out for male house martins as they try and coax a female to a new nest site. They fly down to the eaves in a graceful fast descent with tail held down and closed almost to a single point. Once in the nest or perched on a potential new site they utter a rasping “chi, chi, chi” call to the female. Sometimes she will land next to him and they ‘chatter’ or he will not succeed and will be left under the eaves calling, unable to see his potential mate due to the roof overhang.

It is lovely to have both species nesting on our house. They are a great combination and exist very well alongside each other. House martins tend to forage much closer to their nests when the weather is poor, so when swifts are away the martins are often close. We can watch them feeding around tree foliage in the nearby woods. This is a regular habit for martins, particularly in cooler weather or in the evenings. They fly right between the tree tops, almost taking insects directly from the foliage. Such maneuverability offers them an advantage over swifts.


May 13th, Gilling East, 4.50am
Redstart- Gilling Woods
Spotted flycatcher- Gilling Woods
Swift pair bonding soon after reuniting in nest box.