Our swifts laid an egg yesterday, but in another development I found a smashed egg on the ground outside the nest box. I think this egg was the product of the partner before the fight on 18th May. The new partner would remove the egg from the nest box to ensure it is not spending the summer raising the offspring of another swift. Their nest is really quite substantial, mainly built of feathers it is bulky enough to hide the egg from the nest box camera at times.
The weather has been wonderful for swift watching today, a light breeze and fluffy cumulus cloud. Below trees look at their very finest. The swifts largely stayed near the house. It was a joy to see them arcing through the sky and to hear their duet screaming high above; the sort of day I dream of sometimes in the middle of winter. Time to top up the memory bank for the coming winter.
25th May- swifts just after sunset, in a sky of lenticular cloud.
Fifty days of sketching and writing within two miles of home. What has it taught me? There are species I have missed seeing. April and May would normally find me chasing ring ouzels, pied flycatchers, gannets and puffins to name just a few, but I would have missed really getting to know my local area. I know where the garden warblers nest and each yellowhammer territory. Walking the same route day after day, I have seen the exact time migrants arrive and when others pass through. I know how many sand martins nest in the river bank and have found where the kingfishers nest.
Spring butterflies have emerged. My favourite the orange tip has been in flight for much of this time and I am very aware of the fact now that soon I will see the orange tip that will be my last until April 2021. I looked forward to the hatching of St Mark’s flies, saw the peak of their flight time and witnessed how important they are as a food source for birds.
I have watched flowers bloom and fade. Since I started this in early April, blackthorn, cherry and hawthorn have all come and gone. I have come to know individual trees like friends and watched their leaves open. The woodland canopy is now closed over as the mass flowering of bluebells and wild garlic fades.
The transformation of this small patch of Yorkshire in fifty days has been remarkable. I am still on the same tank of fuel in my car as I was fifty days ago and that makes me feel very good. I feel close to Gilbert White, one of my natural history heroes because he was the true master of the local patch.
The last week has seen a mass fledging of starlings. They roam around in flocks visiting pasture and local bird tables. The young are attractive looking birds with plain mousey plumage but their calls are raucous to our ears. Starlings have had a food year here with several more pairs than last year. Each precious fledgling will be a part of a spectacular murmuration in mid winter.
Yesterday evening the three local pairs of swifts put on a fine display. It was the first evening of the year that I could stand outside and watch them screaming and chasing until twilight. There are two pairs in the village hall which is c100 m away and our pair. Although these nest sites are close my feeling is that they are a seperate colony. Mine rately interact with the village hall birds. I hope to see the addition of a new pair here this year.
Our pair laid their first egg this morning though it was hidden by feathers and I have only just seen it. More on this tomorrow. The swifts have had an easy day, with fine weather. They are feeding high. I have frequently heard screaming swifts today, high up in the cobalt sky.
The wind dropped substantially today but it remained cloudy and cool until we finally saw the sun late in the afternoon. I have seen three different species of mammal in the garden today. Bank voles live in holes under a wall and entertain us regularly with their forays to eat sunflower seeds. I leave a rough strip around the edge of the garden which gives them a hidden running area. They are frequently active during daylight hours and we hear their very high pitched squeaking often. We also hear them eating. They are feasting on dandelions at the moment and their gnawing can be quite loud.
Less easy to see in daylight are wood mice. They live in our shed and can be seen when I set my trail camera as they share peanuts and sunflower seeds with our hedgehogs. As far as I know our female hedgehog will be giving birth to young soon. She is well established in our hedgehog nest box. I feed our hedgehogs peanuts, sunflower hearts and a commercial hedgehog food. The spring has been so dry, they must be having a difficult time finding worms, slugs and snails. It is important also to make sure they have safe access to water.
Our swifts left at about 8.30am and they were absent for the whole day. In fact I didn’t see a single swift between then and now, 5.57pm. It was good to have swift reports from my parents who live in Sleights, North Yorkshire. Last summer a pair of non breeding swifts built a beautiful nest in one of their three nest boxes . The first of the pair arrived home late last night to roost and today they were fortunate to have some spectacular flypasts by up to five birds. I found this intriguing given that we had no activity here at all. It shows that swift activity can vary in different areas.
The large number of swifts that recently moved north through France have not added to our count here in Gilling East- yet. I suspect many of these swifts will have bumped into the strong winds associated with the area of low pressure which has been moving east over the UK. There may well be a concentration of swifts in northern France waiting to make the final leg of their journey to the UK. In fact I would be surprised if we don’t see an arrrival of birds tomorrow or Tuesday.
There has been a big increase in house martin numbers in the village this week. This includes a number of first time breeders who are roaming around looking at potential nest sites on various houses. They keep prospecting our walls where I have seven artificial nests and I am hopeful that we might share our summer with these lovely birds. Today the wind was even stronger than yesterday and the martins were largely absent. They are almost certainly feeding over a nearby lake where more insect food can be found.
Our swift pair left their nest box at about 10am having been in there for 17 hours. They had a short flight in the cold wind and returned. They had to make several approaches to the nest box and clearly waited for calmer interludes between gusts before attempting a landing. They left again late morning for a few hours but as I write (5pm) the swifts are roosting in the box again. It looks unlikely that they will be out again today. They are huddled together almost motionless, to conserve their energy.
The forecast is for lighter winds tomorrow, though still very breezy, but it should hopefully be enough to allow them to have a good feed. This has been a very taxing period of weather for swifts, especially those that just returned from Africa. Fortunately next week should see calmer weather which will enable our swifts to find plenty of aerial insect food again.
A warm but very breezy day with gusts probably touching 40 mph at times. Many fresh leaves were being blown into the air, reminding me of autumn. During the morning the swifts and martins were feeding very low over the gardens. Insect food would have been kept low by the strong wind. We saw up to six swifts at times, so I am fairly sure a new bird has arrived in this part of the village.
I spent some time sketching the swifts and skies in watercolour, no pencil, just straight in with the brush. The swifts were making some wonderful shapes with their long crescent wings as they negotiated the strong wind. They appeared to do this with ease, feeding as they flew into wind over several hundred metres then turning back downwind to start the process again. During these downwind flights some incredible speeds were obtained. Sometimes chasing birds seemed to revel in the assisted power of the wind and they must have been approaching their maximum speed in brief bursts.
Today was a day for enjoying swifts in their element.
I was up at 4am to check the moth trap. I have to be up early to ensure the birds do not take the moths that settle around the trap. Stepping out onto the lawn in cool misty air (6C) was a joy and as soon as I was outside I felt wide awake. Skylarks were singing nearby and a peachy sky held the promise of another beautiful day. I had a good catch of moths including some really interesting and beautiful species. Most eye catching of all was the first eyed hawk moth of the year. The eyes on the hindwings are thought to startle birds enough for the moth to make a quick getaway. They reveal them to full effect when handled. It is a really stunning species and most people would have no idea that this fairly common hawk moth flies around their garden at night.
Some moths display examples of highly effective camouflage. The Chinese character resembles a bird dropping, so birds don’t eat it- simple as that! It is a really beautiful little moth. The buff tip mimics a broken piece of twig to great effect. Both are incredible examples of evolution. The moths are not sketched to scale.
I had an early walk along the Holbeck. I wanted to paint another dawn watercolour of the beck with May blossom, comfrey and red campion flowers. It was cold and mist was lying in the valley. As I walked I saw individual birds that I have come to know, some singing on regular song posts. The yellowhammer in its usual hawthorn, the reed bunting singing in the meadow, the garden warbler leaving its bramble patch and the long tailed tits that have frequented the same small patch of hedgerow since early April. I know this patch intimately now and I love it.
The swifts were nest building today. Because swifts cannot perch like most birds (all their claws face forward) they have to gather material in the air. This often takes the form of feathers, but on windy days fresh green leaves blown from trees are gathered, and during haymaking swifts may find blown pieces of grass. They add saliva to the material to glue it to the nest cup.
I know the pair by their markings now. There are very subtle but definite differences in the feathers around their beaks and eyes. I can study them as they appear at the nest box entrance. I feel certain I know which bird is the male (the first bird back on 5th May) but will not know for sure until egg laying occurs. Having confirmed this I can go back over my extensive notes and learn more about the roles of male and female swifts.
A male spotted flycatcher continues to sing loudly from the edge of Gilling Woods. I had good scope views this morning from my studio and made some sketches then a more detailed watercolour study. It is a real privilege to be able to see this species in Gilling East. On a recent walk in the woods I was delighted to find four singing males, not including this bird. They are such an attractive bird to paint, such a soft warm grey upper with very delicate streaks on the pale underparts. Given a good view you can see that the forehead is streaked quite heavily. I am looking forward to more flycatcher sketching sessions as summer progresses.
A wren performed its loud song frequently. It was a good opportunity to really study the species and work on trying to depict its character. Also to see how the strong May sunshine coloured the plumage. I made some sketches of some particularly intense singing where the bird stretched out horizontally, thrusting its tail forward over its rump.
At least one new swift arrived today. So we have five birds back in our immediate vicinity. I watched all five tracing curves in a clear blue sky save streaky cirrus. I am not surprised to see a new arrival having looked at the surface pressure charts today. Migration conditions for the final leg of their long journey from Africa look perfect with a light southerly breeze blowing across the English Channel. I would be very surprised if more do not arrive in the next day or two. Many thousands have been counted moving North through France in the last two or three days. We had a few very fast low passes from our pair and another bird this morning, but I think our swifts are concentrating on feeding intensively to be in a good condition to breed.