Thursday, 26 March 2015

Eaves nest box design tool

We have built quite a few Swift nest boxes to fit under broad eaves. Some eaves are horizontal and some slope at an angle. The angle and width of the eaves varies. Every time I generate a new drawing, so I decided to see if one could produce a generalised template. This is not for those allergic to spreadsheets or for technical Luddites, but it may have some mileage for those who can overcome these psychological barriers.

Contributed by Dick

The great thing about boxes under eaves is that they are largely sheltered from the weather. So plywood is a suitable material and it is ideally suited to those with a DIY bent. The generic design proposed here looks neat under eaves. The carpentry is not that challenging. It doesn't cover all eaves situations, but it is ideal for broad flat horizontal or gently sloping eaves. (slope less than 30° say).

Ideally one needs a parametric CAD system for these sorts of things, but they are expensive, so, we have encapsulated the design in a spreadsheet which calculates all of the necessary dimensions from a few parameters provided by the user.

You can see the spreadsheet here then download for use in Excel.

Designs resulting from 3 parameter settings

Dimensioned design drawing

Thursday, 19 March 2015

More Swift boxes in St Neots church

In 2007, we installed 12 Swift boxes in the north side of the belfry of St Mary the Virgin, St Neots. Most years, attraction calls have been played and in 2014, 9 of the 12 boxes were occupied. With the help of generous funding from 'St Neots in Bloom' we have now added 32 more boxes, 16 in the east and 16 in the west.

by Dick

West side of belfry, the boxes are just
visible half way up the louvres
The louvres in this church are enormous, and it was not possible to follow our usual advice of putting boxes behind the highest louvres first. We therefore went for putting boxes behind the openings half way up. Even so, it was quite a feat of engineering to erect boxes 15 feet above the floor of the belfry. We thought that entrances here would be more obvious to the Swifts compared to entrances behind the louvres.

We had 2 choices for the colour of the boxes, black or stone. We chose stone (Sandtex 'Mid Stone') to provide a better contrast for the entrances. Whether this contributed to the success of the first 12 boxes we cannot say, but it worked.

Battens were affixed to the stonework each side of the louvres, by screwing into the soft mortar. No holes were drilled in the stonework. The boxes are secured to these battens.

8 of the 16 entrances on the west side.
The original 2 cabinets contained 6 boxes each. This was done at a time when we thought that Swifts required a larger space. Since we have discovered that Swifts readily accept smaller boxes, we increased the number of boxes to 8 per cabinet, we could not have got any more entrances in the limited size of the openings in the stonework. The floor area of each nest box is 20cm x 29cm.

4 completed cabinets, ready for installation
The inspection doors of the earlier cabinets were a simple flap rotating about a single screw. This wouldn't have worked in the new cabinets because the flaps would have collided, so we went for a simple hinge and a catch.

Many people contributed to this phase of the project, not least, Alison Pearson of St Neots in Bloom with their generous funding and encouragement, but also Jake Allsop, Bill Murrells, Bruce Martin, Bob Tonks, Judith Wakelam, Alan Clarke, grandchildren Katie, Lucy and Benjamin Thompson (who got paint all over his shirt). Lastly, we would like to thank the Vicar, the Reverand Dr Paul Andrews, and PCC for their permission to do this project as well as Catherina Griffiths, David Griffiths and George Bonham for their help with access to the church.

We hope that residents and visitors to St Neots will enjoy a magnificent Swift spectacle for years to come.
The original cabinets on the north side installed in 2007
New cabinets on the west side installed in 2015.
The cabinets on the east side are similar

Friday, 6 March 2015

Swift Conservation at Ecobuild

On 5th March, I had the pleasure of spending a day with Edward Mayer on Swift Conservation's exhibition stand at Ecobuild. 

Contributed by Dick

Held at the Excel, Ecobuild is the world's biggest sustainability event for the built environment, with roughly 800 exhibitors. It has everyone from those making money out of climate change, to recycling, houses made of straw, specialists in Japanese knotweed and those interested in the environment. Swift Conservation was one of a suite of stands in the 'Biodiversity Pavilion' alongside the Bat Conservation Trust,  British Beekeepers Association, Buglife, RSPB, Woodland Trust and NBN.

It was a great opportunity to talk to many people in the building industry about what they can do to reverse the decline of Swifts. Winning the hearts and minds of this industry is key to getting something done.

Eventually all of the UK Swift population will be in nestboxes, after every roof, eave and wall has been repaired. it will be like the situation with Purple Martins and Eastern Bluebirds in the US where the whole population now breeds in nestboxes.

The only way that the hundreds of thousands of nestboxes needed can be installed is to get the building industry on board. Ecobuild is a great opportunity to get at some of them.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Screamer the Swift - a review

AfS produced and published a booklet called 'I am a Swift, I am in trouble' (viewable here). It was aimed at children, but was so popular with adults too that we revised it to give it more universal appeal. We sell it for £1.50.
Langford Press, the publishers, have published a book called Screamer the Swift, which is also aimed at children. It is a glossy illustrated hardback and retails at £7.00. The question is: what do you get for seven pounds that you don't get for one pound fifty?

Contributed by Jake

Click to enlarge
First of all, it is a book, not a booklet, bigger page size, hardback, and produced on good quality paper. It is attractive to look at and to handle. The illustrations are in the form of line drawings by artist Barry Robson, and are superb, especially the ones that include architectural detail, primarily the Crescent, Bath, one of Britain's most iconic buildings. I would buy the book for the illustrations alone. My only quibble is the colour tone of the Swifts in the book: some are suspiciously pallid. Swifts ARE a sober brown, but they look black in the air, so it is unwise to give them the coloration of, say, Sand Martins.

As to the text, the facts are all there, breeding, behaviour, migration, etc, and there is also a brief account of how lost nest sites can be replaced by nestboxes or similar. A nice touch is the description of the young Swift on migration finding itself in the company of other migrating species like Honey Buzzard. There are other bonuses: illustrations of the Sahara which the migrants have to cross, and of the wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. There is also some historical detail to account for the Swift's dependence on buildings.

Everything is seen through the eyes of the Swift nestling, the eponymous “Screamer”. This inevitably leads to an anthropomorphic tone which adults might not find to their taste: “This is much better than that dark hole, he thought”, ie, Screamer on leaving the nest. But I assume it is what children (defined as, say, aged 7-12) like, or at least expect.

I was brought up on Ladybird books, an amazing commercial success in its time. “Screamer” is intended to be the first of a series, with Peregrine, Tawny Owl and Song Thrush to follow. Providing price is no deterrent, Langford may be poised to produce the modern equivalent of the Ladybird series. I wish them well.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Fulbourn Community Swift Survey 2014

The nest boxing project at the 'The Swifts' housing estate in Fulbourn, Cambs is probably the largest and most successful in the country. You can read background information in Fulbourn Community Swift Survey 2013 and Fulbourn Community Swift Survey 2012. This report brings things up to date for 2014.

Contributed by John Willis

This was another successful year for the Fulbourn Swifts Group – our fourth year of surveying in the village. Our main focus was again on surveying swifts around the new houses of The Swifts Development, which was approaching completion, but also we were able to do some monitoring of the small colony located at St Vigor’s Church including undertaking some point counts for the RSPB. 

It was a great summer for the swifts with a substantial increase in observed nest box use and in our estimated number of breeding pairs thanks to the continued popularity of the internal boxes.

We met on site at 'The Swifts' every Wednesday evening between 7 May and 27 August, and individuals made observations on many other evenings during the summer as well. With 23 people active in the survey we had an average of 8 observers each Wednesday. As in previous years, several local residents reported observations made from their own homes.

To raise awareness of swifts in the village ahead of the swift season we published articles in the Parish Council Newsletter and the Parish Magazine and we distributed a flyer to all homes on the Swifts Development.  At the end of May we organised a coffee morning and swift display at the Community Library where we had support from Action for Swifts – Judith Wakelam provided photographs and display material and Bob Humphrey brought nest boxes. Also we mounted displays at The Fulbourn Community Market and the Fulbourn Feast in June and a few new people were recruited to the group.

On the Swifts Development an estate of 1960s system built houses, which had become home to a large colony of swifts (72 breeding pairs in 2009), has been demolished and replaced by new homes with provision of swift nest boxes. 

John Willis with an internal nest box.
Photo © Rosemary Setchfield
The boxes are of two types; internal custom made wooden boxes incorporated in the house timber frames in gable ends (see design here), and external Schwegler 1MF double boxes fitted on gable ends in phase 1 and on front/rear elevations in phase 2. The photograph shows the structure of an internal box prior to incorporation into the timber frame of a house. The plastic pipe is cut flush with the external brick wall.

At the start of the swift season, work on the final part (Phase 2b) of the Development was well under way with a number of houses having been completed over the winter.  This added another 20 internal and 10 external nest boxes bringing the total on the site up to 159 internal and 98 external – it was quite a challenge for us to successfully monitor all of these!

Our first swifts of the season arrived a little later than usual on 5 May and during the month there were decent numbers flying overhead but with relatively small screaming parties. 

Activity increased significantly at the beginning of June with an influx of prospecting young birds and with the generally good weather there were spectacular flying displays with large screaming parties throughout June and July. Peak numbers of 70+ were seen on 23 July with low level screaming parties of up to 20 birds providing a wonderful spectacle. Numbers started to decline around 27 July and by the beginning of August there were no more than 20 birds flying overhead and with virtually no screaming parties.  We were aware of 8 nest boxes still being used in early August and one pair were feeding young right up to 1 September.

Swift leaving an internal nest box
Photo © Judith Wakelam
This year, swifts were observed using 102 out of 159 internal nest boxes, 8 out of 98 external nest boxes and 4 sites in the one remaining old block – 114 sites in total. This represents a substantial increase on the 80 sites observed in 2013.  We estimated that there were 78 potential breeding pairs – 72 in internal boxes, 4 in external boxes and 2 in the old block. The corresponding estimates of potential breeding pairs for 2013 and 2012 were 58 and 32, so it appears that the colony is making a rapid recovery following the demolition of the old nest sites.  With 36 other sites having been prospected during the summer there is optimism for further growth in the number of breeding pairs in 2015.

The increase in activity comes from the third phase of the development (2a), which was part completed for the summer of 2012 and which the birds first colonised in 2013.  This area includes a high concentration of internal boxes (76), which are mainly in groups of four located on gable ends of houses and 3 storey blocks of flats – birds were using boxes in both types of location. Table 1 shows the history of occupancy.

Internal boxes
% occupied23.42%36.69%45.28%
Schwegler 1MF
% occupied2.17%3.41%4.08%
% occupied17.20%23.79%29.57%
Old buildings
Grand total
Table 1: Summary of nest box activity 2012 - 2014.
Encouraging positive trends.

The major preference was again for the internal boxes with just one additional breeding pair using the external Schwegler boxes this year.  We have previously noted the presence of starlings in some Schwegler boxes but we have not observed any direct interaction between starlings and swifts. During April we walked the site on a number of evenings to assess the use of the external boxes by starlings and we were surprised to find that the starling population appeared to be relatively low.  We saw birds using 15 of the 98 external boxes and 2 of the 159 internal boxes and we heard evidence of young in just 5 of the external boxes.  We observed starlings using all four of the external boxes in the photograph below, but there was no evidence of young present.  Subsequently swifts nested in both of the top boxes for the second season running.
Schwegler 1MF external boxes
Swifts nested in the top boxes
So it appears that starlings are having little impact on swift use of this type of box. At the same time we noted sparrows using at least 9 internal boxes – nearly all of these boxes were subsequently used by swifts.

The builders have now completed the last houses of the Swifts Development so for the 2015 swift season there will be another 20 nest boxes available and we will have the task of monitoring over 270 boxes!  We will continue with our publicity within the village to maintain awareness of the project and to ensure that we have good participation in the 2015 survey. If any Fulbourn residents reading this would be interested in putting up a nest box or taking part in the 2015 survey, then please contact us at 

Thursday, 5 February 2015

I AM A SWIFT - 2nd edition

In 2011 Action for Swifts published the 1st edition of 'I am a swift - I am in trouble'. Since then it has been reprinted twice plus an Irish version, with some new ideas was produced by Lynda Huxley, Swift Conservation Ireland. So, in September we decided to do a 2nd edition.

If you wish you can read the online version.

It is produced in an A5 landscape format, copies can be ordered, £1.50 each from

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Swifts Local Network

The Cambridge International Swift Conference provided a great chance for networking.  One result has been that a Swifts Local Network (SLN) has been set up. This will enable the many UK-based individuals and small groups now working on Swift conservation initiatives to share experiences and ideas more easily.

As a first step, Peta Sams has produced this map showing where members of the Network are operating.

First hit the 'full screen' icon, then click on any symbol for brief details of the activities in that location.

There is also now a SLN Yahoo group, which anyone in the UK can join by invitation, and through which users can exchange news and information, and seek help or advice. This newsgroup should sit neatly alongside the Swallows Martins and Swifts Worldwide group (known as SMS).

So if you are working on Swift conservation in the UK and would like to join the Group and register your project on the map please contact Peta Sams (

Useful links to SLN are:

Post message:



List Owner:

Chris Mason

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Swift crusader gets RSPB recognition

The RSPB gives a "President's Award" to honour those volunteers who have made a truly outstanding contribution.

Stephen Fitt
And few have made a more outstanding contribution for Swifts than Stephen Fitt. Stephen has campaigned tirelessly to persuade planners, developers and architects in the South West to ensure that Swift boxes are installed in new buildings - a practice endorsed by planning institutions, and hopefully to be replicated nationally.

It was as recently as 2009 that it was officially recognised that Swifts were in trouble in the UK, when the species was amber-listed. The decline has been going on for far longer than the start of the Breeding Bird Survey, BBS, which monitors the population level each year.

Stephen was one of a number of people who, ahead of officaldom,  recognised the problem.

While Stephen would be the first to recognise that he is part of a team effort, it is good to see official recognition of both the plight of Swifts and of someone devoted to doing something about it.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Cherwell Swifts Conservation Project (CSCP) Report 2014

We are happy to host this report of the activities of the Cherwell Swifts Conservation Project. CSCP is a good example of a number of such groups in the country who hope to establish a Swift Local Network in 2015 with a view to sharing experiences and ideas.

by Chris Mason

The worldwide network of Swift enthusiasts grows. So too does the range and extent of our own activities. This year we attended the International Swift Conference in Cambridge which was attended by over 150 delegates from 24 countries and we took part in a survey organised by the RSPB studying Swift populations. We further strengthened our link with the Cherwell District Council; we have been involved in discussions to set up a nationwide network of local groups which, like CSCP, are trying to help conserve Swifts (similar to CSCP) and established an important link with Oxford University Estates Services.

Our priorities remain: 
1. Finding and looking after nest sites.

Survey map. Click to enlarge
The RSPB is trialling ways to improve estimates of the UK Swift population. We took part in surveys organised by the Society. George Candelin, on a short assignment with the RSPB, spent long hours surveying Swifts in Bicester, Bloxham and Bodicote, and with a lot of help from Alison Urwick and David Yates in Bloxham and Reg Tipping in Bodicote, we now know pretty well which buildings are being used in these two villages, and even how many nests there are in each building. The results show that there were more than 40 active nests in each village this year, making them two of the best places to watch Swifts around here; also in Bicester George recorded nearly 20 Swifts nests just on one estate of 1950s council-built properties (Kings Avenue). There is a map showing the latest information we have about Cherwell Swift numbers by parish at the end of this report.

2. Creating new sites 
The Cherwell District Council is building 250 new affordable homes in Banbury and Bicester. The Build! Project enables future residents to get a discount on their rent or purchase price in return for undertaking some of the work themselves. We have been in discussion with the Council’s planning department and expect that nest places for Swifts (boxes or bricks) will be included at 8 of these sites. Swifts nests are also to be included in several new private developments in the District where the Council has made the inclusion of Swift bricks/boxes a condition of the development. Data from the CSCP about local Swift nest sites have been instrumental in these decisions. Nest boxes have been put up, and in some cases new nest places created under eaves, in Bicester, Epwell, Bodicote, Lower Heyford, Souldern, Swerford and Adderbury. We were particularly delighted to receive an invitation from Broughton Castle. Swifts have nested there for as long as anyone can remember, and we were asked if we would like to take advantage of scaffolding at the castle to create some new nest places under the eaves - which Reg Tipping and Bill Cupit did. 

Reg Tipping and Bill Cupit at work at Broughton Castle (left) 
and Bill installing a made-to-measure box in Bodicote (right)

Making the concrete base for the tower
In November work on the installation of a Swift tower at the Banbury Ornithological Society’s wetland reserve in Bicester was finished. The tower has a box with 20 nest places on a galvanised steel pole, and we hope that as Swifts nest nearby in Bicester and often feed at the reserve they will eventually find and use these new nest places. We are grateful to the HDH Wills Trust and the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment (TOE2) for funding this project. 

Fitting the nest box on to the pole and the completed tower    

3. Generating Interest 

Swift Stories: The film was premiered at Kirtlington Village Hall in February and later also shown in full at Broughton Castle. On both occasions it attracted full houses (about 100 at each event) and an enthusiastic reception. Since then I have shown extracts of the film in Charlbury, Kidlington, Abingdon, South Newington, Bloxham and at the Cambridge conference, and have more commitments for 2015.  Copies of the film are available on request. The complete film lasts 110 minutes, but extracts lasting about 45 minutes are available, as is a 17-minute version suitable for use in schools. For more information please contact me or visit

We ran stalls at Village Festivals in Bloxham and Bodicote. These generated plenty of local interest, tied in well with efforts to find the local Swifts nest sites and resulted in several requests for nest boxes. We also had a stall at the market in Bicester, but shoppers obviously had other priorities that day.
Making Swift kites at the Bloxfest with David Yates    

Setting up at Bodfest with Reg Tipping    

Evening Swift-watching walks were organised in Leafield, Fritwell, Kidlington and Kirtlington. Oxford University We made a link with Estates Services in Oxford University. A lunchtime meeting took place and two walks were organised, beginning in Wellington Square and finishing at the Museum of Natural History to see the tower and watch nesting Swifts on the webcam. The aim is to encourage interest in Swifts amongst University staff and Swift-friendly building work at the University. On the second walk we were delighted to spot a Swift’s nest in Wellington Square (the second one we have found) where the great David Lack watched them 70 years ago. We were equally excited to be told that Swifts have been seen going into one of the nest boxes we put up in the square a couple of years ago.

My thanks to all who have checked on nest sites, sent in records, raised alerts about building work and made space for Swifts in their homes; to those who have organised walks and meetings and helped at fetes and other events; to TVERC for checking the records so carefully and submitting them to the Council, and to all at the Cherwell DC who have made such good use of the data; to BOS members who have helped to get the tower erected; to the ever-willing team of nest box installers and of course to Andy Russell for the wonderful film and setting up the website. 

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Premier Inn Cambridge

We previously reported on a press release by Whitbread, publicising their intentions to install Swift boxes in new Premier Inn Hotels.  One of the first Premier Inns to adopt this idea is the new hotel in Newmarket Road, Cambridge.

Front view of the hotel
All of the Swift boxes are on the back
Although, in an ideal world, it is best to plan nest boxes at the design stage, by good fortune, the geometry of the eaves of this building lent itself to adding nest boxes unobtrusively after the building was erected.

The building has broad eaves, with a channel along the top of the wall of an ideal size to accommodate Swift boxes. As there were no right angles, something custom designed was required, so Filcris undertook the building of treble boxes, tailored to fit the shape of the channel.

It was also important that the colour of the boxes matched the grey of the building, so Filcris chose a recycled material that could be painted the required colour.

As a result, the hotel now has 24 homes for Swifts (8 treble boxes) in groups of 12, 6 and 6.

It is planned to install an attraction call system by next May.

The following pictures are self explanatory:

12 boxes
6 boxes
6 boxes
Design model
Design model, internal structure

Monday, 1 December 2014

Elizabeth Way Bridge, Cambridge

The Friends of Midsummer Common (FoMC) in Cambridge have noticed a significant decline in the numbers of Swifts in their part of Cambridge, so we searched for a suitable place for Swift boxes. It did not take long to realise that Elizabeth Way Bridge provided a good opportunity.

Elizabeth Way Bridge supports one of the main arterial roads into Cambridge across the river Cam. It forms part of the boundary of Midsummer Common. At the top of the wall under the very wide eaves runs a channel which looks as if it was designed to take Swift nest-boxes. The channel has a circular section so we thought the ideal design would be a recycled water-pipe nest box.

6 double pipe boxes installed
After consulting both Cambridge City Council and Cambridge County Council (who have responsibiity for the bridge) we were given permission to install the boxes.

We came up with the idea of a pipe box a few years ago when we installed a small number, 3 of which now have breeding Swifts and at least 4 have breeding House Sparrows. We documented the idea here.

A view across the river Cam
For the bridge, we decided to make 6 double boxes. We used 2 2-metre pieces of recycled water pipe cut into pieces 66cm long with some simple internal carpentry to make 2 boxes out of each piece. The finished boxes were painted with Sandtex, colour 'Mid Stone'.

The boxes are secured with small wedges, glued in place with silicon glue - brand name "Sticks like Sh*t" (and it does!)

Power is available within the bridge to drive an attraction call system.

The following pictures show how the boxes were constructed.

Components of a double pipe box, before painting
6 sets of components, painted and ready for assembly.

This project was a combined effort by Action for Swifts and Friends of Midsummer Common. Pictured (left) are Bruce Martin, Barry and Susan Stobbs .

Bob Tonks and Dick Newell installed the boxes.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

How to help House Sparrows

House Sparrows are said to be in trouble in the UK. They are a red-listed species, apparently in a  worse predicament than Swifts which are only amber-listed, even though, according to official estimates, there is only 1 pair of Swifts for every 60 pairs of House Sparrows.

Although the rate of decline of House Sparrow numbers has reduced since 1994, the start of BBS, prior to that, between 1976 and 1994, there had been an enormous drop of about 70% detected by the Common Bird Census (see BTO webpage)The causes of the decline in House Sparrows are stated to be a decrease in survival and a decrease in productivity.

There is little data on the population level of Swifts prior to 1994, apart from the Atlases of 1968-72 and 1988-91, which show a contraction. It could also be the case that environmental factors affecting food availability are a contributory factor in the decline of Swifts.

A House Sparrow in an internal Swift box in Fulbourn
House Sparrows also largely depend upon cavities in human dwellings, but loss of nest sites has not been cited as a contributory cause of any decline. This is surprising, since modern building standards, renovation practices and insulation policies would affect House Sparrows at least as much as Swifts. 

This may be more damaging for House Sparrows, as they prefer to nest in close association with their congeners, whereas Swifts will nest either alone or in close association with each other, depending upon the distribution of cavities.

Many more House Sparrows than Swifts occupy these
Zeist boxes at Edgecombe flats, Cambridge
It is therefore good news for sparrows that they will happily occupy Swift boxes. It seems that a horizontally extending cavity, with an entrance near the floor, is perfectly acceptable to sparrows. 

Sparrow terraces, comprising 3 adjacent tit-like nest boxes are commonly erected for House Sparrows, but occupancy rates are low. They host more Great Tits and Blue Tits than House Sparrows.

Swift nest on top of House Sparrow nest at Ely Maltings
Should Swifts wish to take over a Swift nest box occupied by House Sparrows, then they will usually evict the sparrows, and then nest on top of the 'haystack' built by the sparrows. 

There can be a risk that Swifts get themselves entangled, especially if string or twine is brought into the nest, so removing this at the end of the season might be a good idea.

Therefore, if you wish to help House Sparrows, erect plenty of Swift boxes!

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Worlington celebrates Suffolk Wildlife Trust accolade

Worlington has won the Suffolk Wildlife Trust Award for Conservation for 2014.

In 2012 we reported on the success of nest boxes in All Saints church, now increased to 20 occupied nest boxes in 2014. Originally, back in 2009, Judith Wakelam raised the alarm when a cottage with breeding swifts was scheduled to be knocked down.

Swift boxes were installed by Action for Swifts as mitigation for the loss of these nest sites. Don McBean, who lives right next to the church organised an attraction call player and, eventually, cameras in the boxes after Swifts took up residence. A Swift Fest event in July 2013 attracted 200 people to observe a truly great spectacle.

Ironically, the conservation award was judged in Worlington in August 2014 after all of the Swifts had departed, but despite this, Judith's vivid description of the spectacle that they had missed was enough.

The following appeared in the Newmarket Journal:

Swift project helps village scoop conservation award
Villagers in Worlington have been celebrating after the village picked up a major conservation award.
Worlington, Forest Heath's Village of the Year, lost out on the county title to Whatfield but on Saturday it was awarded the Suffolk Wildlife Trust Award for conservation, recognising projects in the village, including one aimed at encouraging swifts run by Judith Wakelam and featured in the journal earlier this year. Other initiatives included not cutting areas of the churchyard in the growing season and planting hedge plants. Pictured above are, from left, Gill Jones, Val McClure and Judith Wakelam with their winners' certificates.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Experiences with small Swift boxes

Since 2006, in my local church belfry in Landbeach, we have had 4 cabinets, each containing 4 large boxes, and the swifts have ignored them, though 3 swarms of bees have not. As soon as we added small boxes in 2013, behind the top louvres, we had success.

by Dick

All Saints, Landbeach
We have been getting a gratifyingly high success rate with small Swift boxes. e.g. not only 4 out of 8 small boxes in Landbeach church, but also 7 out of 12 air brick liners occupied in St Neots, and 6 out of 18 small boxes in Worlington church. These boxes have a floor area of 175mm-200mm x 200mm and at least 100mm internal headroom. 

In the two churches we played attraction calls using the Cheng Sheng player-amplifier. In St Neots, no calls were played, but the boxes were installed as mitigation for lost nest sites. 

In all three cases, the entrances are set back from the 'outside world': behind louvres in the churches and behind a thick barge board in St NeotsAll occupations were achieved within a year or 2 of installation. 

Further evidence of the acceptability of small boxes is at St Mary's Ely: the success rate of the smallest boxes with floor area 100mm x 300mm marginally exceeds the larger boxes. Also the successful Losser box in Holland has a floor area of only 160mm x 165mm. The Ibstock swift brick, with an internal width of 100mm is accepted by Swifts.

So, it is established that boxes with a small floor area are accepted by Swifts. Could they even be preferred? We are now trying to establish where the limits are with headroom, before occupancy rates drop off to an unacceptable level. There are many examples of Swifts nesting successfully with low headroom under tiles, and we know of one occupied box in Cambridge with internal headroom 75mm, floor area ~120mm x 375mm. These birds raised 2 chicks.

We are now in the process of reengineering the Landbeach church cabinets. The louvres are close together (80-90mm), so, originally, to give what we thought was adequate headroom, the entrances were behind every other louvre gap. The original four cabinets had 4 boxes each with floor area 200mm x ~400mm and internal height ~180mm.

Two of these cabinets will have each box further divided into 4 smaller boxes - each one half the height and half the floor area. There will be 2 entrances within each louvre gap (see cabinet on the right below). In the other two cabinets, each original box is divided into 2 with half the floor area, but staggered in such a way that there is at least 1 entrance in each louvre gap. So, to make this work, there are some boxes at the top and bottom of these 2 cabinets with smaller headroom (see cabinet on the left below)

Part of the incentive for doing this is to make the boxes less attractive to bees, a problem peculiar to this belfry. Bees should not survive a winter in a box this small. But the main incentive is in the nature of an experiment (somebody has to try it), which ultimately may mean modifying one of these 2 configurations to the other in the future, depending on the results.

If small boxes are at least as effective as large boxes, then they should be preferred - they are less obtrusive and easier to install.

Front arrangement of entrances

Hinged inspection doors

(Dead) Swift on concave in box with headroom ~130mm

Swift in box with low headroom of ~85mm

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

A Remarkable Escape

We often wonder at how a young Swift, never having flown before, manages to emerge from a dark nesting place, launch itself into the outside world, then navigate itself to Africa.

Judith with one of her rescued Swifts
Judith Wakelam is an experienced Swift rehabber who so far this year (2014) had taken in 24 Swifts and subsequently successfully released all of them into the wild. Her normal method of release is to take them to Newmarket Heath, a large open space with short grass, so should a released Swift come to ground, there is a high chance of retrieving it. This cautious approach has led to nearly a hundred successful releases in previous years. On her own, Judith's efforts are equivalent to the production of a substantial Swift colony.

Then came Swift number 25, weighing in at 22 grams which Judith managed to fatten up to 33gm: quite light for a Swift, but it was a small bird. Judith realised that it was near ready for release as it was as fat as larger Swifts that are ready to go. 

The bird was in a box in the study. The walls of the box were about 31cm high with a base 51cm x 42cm. The back door was open and as Judith was putting some items away in a hall cupboard she was overtaken by a bird which came out of the study, through the short hallway, into the kitchen out of the open back door, then up and away!  From where the box was situated to the back door, is approximately 17 metres as the swift flies. 

Judith's reaction was : "I was so shocked that for a few moments I couldn’t believe what I had seen.  I rushed to look in the box to confirm what I thought I had seen and yes I had been overtaken by an escaping swift!"

This anecdote illustrates that young Swifts are nowhere near as feeble and vulnerable as we, who anthropomorphise, might think.

Swift 25 on 21st August
Swift 25 on 25th August, 5 days before it escaped

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Cambridge Swift Tower - 2014 update

The breaking news is that, in the 4th summer of playing attraction calls, the Swifts have finally found the nest-boxes.

The tower was built in 2011 and we started playing calls with a customised bird scarer. Swifts showed some interest, but none were seen going very close to the nest-boxes.

We continued in 2012 with the same result and the bird scarer had become unreliable. We suspect the 5 watt solar panel was not quite up to the task, so we installed our own 'Box of Swifts' with a 1.5 inch car tweeter. The result was the same.

So, in 2013, after we had stumbled across the Cheng Sheng player amplifier, we installed a 20 watt solar panel to charge the battery which drove the player-amp and 2 tweeters. This resulted in Swifts actually making contact with the tower, clinging to the boxes, but still not finding any entrances. As a result of this, we made some more entrances where we thought the birds were trying to get in.

Solar panel facing south at 30°
In 2014, things seemed much the same, with Swifts regularly seen near the tower, but none making an entrance. At one point the battery went flat, so we resited the solar panel so that it was never in the shade and pointing in the optimal direction (south sloping 30°).

We seemed to be making little progress, so, in mid June, I popped an email to Brian Cahalane, an attraction call playing afficionado, to ask what would he do? His reply was to start playing calls at dawn and finish at dusk.

So the timer was reset to go from 5am to 12 noon and from 5pm to 10pm - this gave 12 hours of playing, we are not confident how much longer the solar panel and battery could go in a day. We had not previously played at the ends of the day for fear of disturbing local residents.

On 26th June, Bob Tonks was cycling past the tower, and he saw a Swift exiting one of the boxes (so thank you Brian and Bob). Since then we have seen Swifts entering or leaving 15 different boxes, 12 on the front and 3 on the back. Most observation has been done on the front. We saw no Swifts entering the new entrances that we had made on the back.

The only entrance in the top half of the back;
visited by swifts in 2014
We don't think there are 15 potential pairs for next year, as this was probably a small number of birds exploring their options.

One or 2 observations:

Although there are entrances at all levels on the front of the tower, Swifts only entered boxes in the top half. On the back, there is only 1 entrance in the top half, and Swifts used it. So, should we add more entrances in the top half on the back?

3 entrances with white canopies
were visited by swifts in 2014
Another thing, on the front, the paint had peeled away from the canopies above 3 entrances, turning them white. Swifts were seen entering these 3 boxes. The statistical probability of randomly choosing 3 specific boxes turns out to be about 2% - so should we paint a few more canopies white, especially in the lower half?

For the whole of July, if one loitered near the tower one would see anything between 3 and 10 Swifts in the near vicinity with some impressive screaming displays past the face of the tower. If this is a taste of what is to come, then it should be an impressive spectacle on summer evenings in the future.