Friday 14 December 2012

Warsaw Swift tower is up!

We previously reported on a design competition for a Swift tower in Warsaw, which was won by Menthol Architects. Since then we have been pleased to be asked for our opinions on detailed aspects of the implementation.

Rafal Pieszco writes: 

Click picture to enlarge
We have completed works on the construction and installation of the swift tower, therefore the first free-standing tower for swifts in Poland is up! On Monday, Dec. 17, at 12.00 in the park at Odkryta street (Warsaw, Białołeka), a press briefing will be held related to the completion of the investment.

The structure is 8 meters high and its shape refers to the silhouette of the flying swift. Why swifts arouse so much emotion? Well, they are irreplaceable, and above all, a natural weapon against the mosquitoes and biting flies. During the day, one swift can eat up to 20 thousand of these troublesome insects. 

For the complete story see here

Thursday 6 December 2012

Michael Osborne's Swift Hotel

UPDATE August 2013: Michael succeeded in attracting Swifts into 3 of his boxes, of which one pair settled in the top box on the right. Michael had used black paint below the entrances on all 3 boxes that the Swifts entered

UPDATE 2017: Michael has divided the top space into 2 new nest chambers, making 10 in total. In 2017, 6 of these chambers were occupied.

It is good to see some considerable effort put into the architectural form of a structure built for Swifts. Our Victorian ancestors got the hang of it with their elegant dovecotes. More recently, the Americans have a whole industry using creative designs for Purple Martin houses. It is desirable that accommodation for Swifts not only suits the birds, but also that it enhances the architectural forms in our environment. Of course, Swift accommodation may be more challenging, as it needs to be erected at least 5 metres high, but Michael Osborne has shown here what can be achieved on the gable end of a modest house.

Here is a picture, left, of Michael's complete 'hotel', which is installed on his girlfriend Amy's house. And my, what an improvement to an otherwise bland gable end.

This birdhouse contains 8 nest chambers for Swifts, it is constructed out of marine ply, and all cut ends are sealed so they are permanently waterproof.

The internal structure is quite complicated, so the following Google Sketchup drawings are intended to illustrate how it goes together.

Sketchup model of complete box

There are 2 sets of 4 boxes each, 4 with their entrances under the louvres on the front and 4 with their entrances on the right. There are no entrances on the left. 

For illustrative purposes, we have chosen a sun angle that highlights the relief of the box, in practice it is installed facing away from the sun.

Front assembly removed

In this picture on the left, the entrances to the 4 boxes on the right can be seen in the 4 floors.

The space under the roof, behind the decorative grill can be used to house speakers to play attraction calls.

Most cuts in this design are at 15°, so relatively easy to make with a jigsaw.

View from inside of front assembly
The front assembly shows the 4 entrances to the boxes on the left side of the box (when viewed from the front).

Should anyone wish to create something similar, then MIchael is happy to supply the Google Sketchup model so you can read off the dimensions.

For many more pictures of this 'hotel' under construction, see SMSWW (requires login).

Saturday 1 December 2012

Car batteries and solar panels

[We have now consolidated everything on attraction calls on this page]

There are some situations where there is no mains power, in which case, the only alternative is a battery, possibly backed up with a solar panel.

Contributed by Dick

There are commercially available bird call systems to solve this problem, for example based upon the Martley Electronics Bird Scarer and the Spark4 Birdsong Player. There is nothing wrong with these systems, except they are probably overkill for a Swift attraction call player, and cost more than you might wish to pay.

We have been exploring the use of a solar panel to recharge a car battery which then powers a Cheng Sheng player amplifier system. At maximum volume, it consumes half an amp at 12 volts (6 watts). At a more reasonable volume it consumes about 0.3 amps (~4watts).

Thus, a car battery of, say, 45 amp-hours could provide 150 hours of continuous running before the battery becomes flat. It is probably not a good idea to run a battery completely flat. However using half its capacity would provide 75 hours. At 4 hours per day, it would run for nearly 19 days.

Such an approach might be workable, recharging the battery every 19 days, longer if you use a bigger battery. This is barely practical if the battery is in a remote location, such as the top of a church belfry (we've tried it), in which case the addition of a solar panel should be considered.

Schematic showing component connections

As the Cheng Sheng player amp consumes up to 6 watts, we bought a 20 watt xm solar panel (costing £30) and a Morningstar SunGuard 4.5A solar regulator (costing £28) from Midsummer Energy in Cambridge, and we used an old car battery which still had about 25 amp-hours capacity. We used a 12 volt digital timer (see here) to limit the playing to 8 hours a day and it has been running successfully (in winter!) for 40 days without the battery going flat [it finally went flat after 50 days on 23rd December after a week of cloud].

It is worth taking some trouble to mount the solar panel at the optimum direction towards the sun. We reckon that, for the period 21 May to 21 July (the main Swift attracting season, one month each side of mid-summer's day), facing south, with the plane of the panel at 35° to the horizontal is about right (the latitude of Cambridge is about 52°N). See here for a useful sun-angle calculator.

For an alternative 12 volt timer, we have tried DC 12V Digital LCD Power Programmable Timer Time Switch Relay 16A. it requires some wiring up, but is a low price and seems to work well. It is also available on Amazon.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Swifts nesting in House Martin nests

Ulrich Tigges sent us an article in French which was particularly relevant for when one gets into discussions about nest-box sizes. We thought it worthy of a wider audience, so Jake has translated it. 

Summarised from a paper by Willy Raitière and Patricia Audureau

On July 05, 2008, while we were surveying the town of Bouin in search of urban breeding birds, as part of the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Brittany, we found two active colonies of House Martins Delichon urbica. One of them had about 10 nests located under the roof of a house in the main street. When counting nests of this colony, we noticed that one of them had very dark primaries visible over the edge of the nest. On closer inspection, we concluded that it was a Common Swift brooding in a House Martin's nest, which was very cramped.

The back of the Swift protrudes from the martin's nest (Boin - Vendee, July 2008). W. Raitière

White faces of 2 chicks are just visible
Aware of the unusual nature of this discovery, Willy decided to go back to the site a week later to verify that it was not just a Swift using the martin's nest for roosting. Upon arrival on the morning of 13 July, he noted that the dark primary feathers were no longer visible; instead, he could make out the head of a young swift, clearly not ready to fledge, as the primaries had still not fully emerged from the sheath. Shortly afterwards, an adult Swift arrived with food, just managing to enter the nest. Thus, a pair of Common Swifts raised a brood of at least two young in a House Martin's nest.

Similar occurrences were recorded at Anton during the nineties (Deliry, pers comm); near Loches in the 1950s, and at and Brétigny-sur-Orge in the early 2000s (Voisin, pers comm); and in the 8th arrondissement of Paris in 2007 (Detalle, pers comm). Beyond our borders, similar cases have also been noted in Moira, County Antrim, Northern Ireland in 2007, Markgröningen, northwest of Stuttgart in Germany in 1987 (Wendt, 1988) and more recently in Mengeringhausen in Hesse in the center of Germany in 2007 and 2008 (Bergmann, 2008). Moreover, in the Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas (1980), the authors note that in river valleys that do not have trees, Swifts have used the nests of both House Martins and, more rarely, Sand Martins Riparia riparia.


Glutz von Blotzheim U. N., Bauer K. M., 1980. Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas. Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, Wiesbaden, vol. IX : 686p.
Wendt E., 1988. Mauersegler (Apus apus) brütet im Mehlschwalbennest. Ornithologische Jahreshefte für Baden- Württemberg, 04 : 72
Bergmann H.-E., 2008. Mauerseglerbrut im Mehlschwalbennest. Der Falke, 11-08
Raitière, W., & Audureau, P. 2010. Un couple de martinets noirs Apus apus nichant dans un nid d'hirondelle de fenêtre Delichon urbica. Ar Vran, 21(2): 19-20

Saturday 17 November 2012

Cherwell Swifts Conservation Project - 2012 Report

We are pleased to host this report from Oxfordshire, which demonstrates just how much can be achieved locally.

Contributed by Chris Mason

Main Aims of the Project: 
1. To identify and protect Swifts nest sites in Cherwell District (though the network is expanding to neighbouring Districts too).
2. To encourage the creation of new Swifts’ nesting places in suitable sites.
3. To encourage local interest in Swifts, including their life history and the risks they face particularly from building work.

At the Kirtlington home of Chris and Ruth Powles who created nest places for Swifts
during recent renovation work. Two young Swifts fledged successfully in 2012
Progress so far: 
Since 2008 we have identified approximately 160 buildings in the District where Swifts nest and more than 20 in towns and villages just outside the District. Some of these buildings contain many nesting pairs. We have more than 30 people actively involved in looking out for their local Swifts and submitting information, and a further 30 or so who support the project in various ways.

Summary of 2012 Events: 
1. Walks.
Evening walks were arranged in Lower Heyford, Upper Heyford, Steeple Aston, Islip, Woodstock, Hook Norton and Bicester. The aims were to interest more people in Swifts and to find new nest sites. The Steeple Aston walk was rained off shortly after we set out. On the other evenings the weather varied between reasonable and, once or twice, perfect. The walks were well-attended with usually 10-15 people turning up. Gill Phillips and Adrian Bletchly also helped with a preliminary survey in Souldern (2 buildings with nests so far), and Naomi Bowen and Kath Randall organised a search in Wigginton (Swifts but no nests).

2. Displays.
These were held at fairs in Kidlington and Bicester, the Farmer’s Market in Deddington and Woodstock Library.

3. Talks:
Talks were given at the British Trust for Ornithology Regional Conference and to the Banbury Ornithological Society (BOS).

4. Churches:
Nest boxes were installed at St Edburg’s Church in Bicester. St. Martin’s Church in Bladon has been measured up for boxes which will be installed before next May. Over the last 18 months I have worked closely with Father Andrew Foster and the architects (including English Heritage) and builders working at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Carterton. This is an important nesting site for Swifts with about 20 pairs in 2011. Essential repair work was carried out on part of the building during the winter of 2011/12. The builders left nest holes in the gable ends and also provided access under tiles. The gable-end holes were well used but we did not see Swifts going in under the tiles (poor weather limited our monitoring visits). We will continue checking next summer.

Cherwell District Council
Sue Marchand and I meet regularly.
1. We hope that provision for Swifts will be included in Council-owned property to be built at the South West Bicester site and also in the new Bicester Town Centre development, both now under construction. Paradigm Housing, one of the Residential Social Landlords at South West Bicester, also plans to include Swift bricks in new homes being built there. Swift bricks are also being included in the new building at Oxford and Cherwell Valley College in Banbury

2. The Council is compiling guidance on the incorporation of features into developments to encourage biodiversity, including bird and bat boxes, which will form part of the Sustainable Buildings in Cherwell Supplementary Planning Document (SPD).

3. The first showing of Swift Stories, the film which has been made to encourage more people to care about Swifts took place at the Council’s Countryside Forum on October 17th. The film will be shown again to planners and other relevant CDC staff in early 2013.

Highlights of 2012: 
1. I attended (not paid for by the project) an International Seminar on Swifts in Berlin in April. Over 70 people from 20 countries attended from as far afield as China, Russia, Turkey and Spain as well as many East European countries. I learnt a lot, met many people and feel we are now linked to a worldwide network of people all working for Swift conservation and with whom we can share ideas and information.

 2. 3 nest boxes have been put up on a building owned by the University in Wellington Square Oxford. David Lack recorded Swifts nesting in the Square in the 1940s and there are still a few pairs there. Now they have some additional options. Nest boxes have also been included in a new extension built for the Thames Valley Police in Kidlington; many thanks to Jocelyne Hughes and Chris Bottrell for these initiatives.

3. Sanctuary (the Residential Social Landlords of flats in King’s Avenue Bicester) put up 6 nest boxes during major repair work. This is the best area for Swifts in the town.

4. Chris and Ruth Powles created nest spaces in the gable ends of their old stone house in Kirtlington. This year they were rewarded when a pair of Swifts used one of the nest holes and successfully raised 2 young. Furthermore, they have a camera on this nest.

5. Swifts have nested under slates on the roof of Julian Barbour’s home in South Newington for at least 50 years. Last winter he asked his builder to raise a few more slates to provide extra spaces for Swifts and even this first summer Swifts have used at least one of these and investigated others.

6. Recently installed nest boxes have been used in both Adderbury and Islip.

Weather 2012: 
We could hardly write a report about Swifts in the summer of 2012, without mentioning the weather. How serious the effects of the wet summer were on the Swift population only time will tell, but it made Swift watching much less rewarding than usual. One illustration of the effects is that this year 16 birds fledged from 10 nests at Richard Woodward’s home in Combe. 3 of the nests failed due to the loss of one or both of the pair, but in each case a new pair had been formed by the end of the season. Amazingly therefore the remaining 7 pairs raised 2.2 young each. In the summer of 2011, 25 birds fledged from 10 nests at this site. The story from other monitored sites was similar and there were many reports of ejected eggs being found. It should be remembered too that some young birds will have fledged in less than ideal condition for their long migration. Two such birds were found grounded in the late summer and taken to Gillian Westray for expert care and rehabilitation, and were later successfully fledged by her.

Plans for 2013: 
1. Organise a town-wide survey of Swifts in Banbury.

2. Expand the project to villages where as yet we have no local Swift friends e.g. by arranging walks, film shows and talks.

3. Continue to urge that provision for Swifts be included in new developments as a matter of course rather than on an ad hoc basis.

My thanks to all who have recorded Swifts; talked to friends and neighbours, builders, developers and planners; climbed ladders and church towers; made nest boxes; been interviewed on film, organised walks; acted as ambulance drivers and otherwise supported the project.

Chris Mason November 2012

Thursday 15 November 2012

The Cheng Sheng player amplifier

[We have now consolidated everything on attraction calls on this page]

Technology advances apace. We have discovered an even better idea for playing attraction calls, the Cheng Sheng 12V Stereo Power Audio Amplifier, with the player and amplifier combined in one box. So it is neater and slightly cheaper than the last ideabut the performance is the same.

Contributed by Dick

As with the original Box of Swifts, all of the electronics is in a single box. All it needs is a 12 volt power supply, and a speaker cable to connect a 1.5 inch car tweeter. The only soldering needed is to attach the tweeter to the speaker cable. Calls, in MP3 format, can be held on an SD card or a USB memory stick. 

Playing times can be controlled with a digital timer switch which can survive power cuts without needing resetting. 

The Cheng Sheng player amp can run off a 12 volt car battery, it consumes between ~0.3 amps and ~0.5 amps, depending on the sound volume (0.5 amps hurts your ears). Useful options are a 12 volt timer and solar panel for battery recharging.

These configurations are easy to put together yourself. You can order the player/amp singly, the speakers in pairs (which could be useful), but cheap power adapters only seem to come 5 at a time.

Although the Cheng Sheng player amp works out of the box, just switch the power on and it starts playing, it does not come with any instructions to explain what the buttons mean, so we have written some here (File>Download for pdf) [these were updated on 2/7/2013].

Websites for the components are: [Note prices and availability may have changed since posting this, so it is worth Googling for alternatives]

Rodney Monteith has brought our attention to the Kinter MA-800 as an alternative to the Cheng Sheng.

Timer Switches
We have tried quite a few 240 volt timer switches. We prefer a digital timer because it can survive loss of power without losing the current time or program settings. However, the majority of them are quite difficult to use because of their arcane user interfaces. Cheaper ones frequently break down and lose their settings, or don't work at all after having them for a short period. Our current favoured timer is the Time Guard TG77 7 day timer. It is simple to program, is reliable, it has an on/off light and is available at a good price from John Lewis in the UK, see here.

Websites for Swift calls in MP3 format are:
Netherlands Swift Protection downloadable calls recorded by Rosanne van Oudheusden. This site has been reorganised, the recommended track numbers now are 1, 10, 13 and 14 (or 14a or 15a)
Set of selected Swift  uploaded by Rick Wortelboer to the files section of SMSWW; requires login to SMSWW. These are some of the same tracks as the previous link, with quiet periods inserted.
Swift Conservation well tried calls on CD and supplied in MP3 format.
Jacobi Jayne good quality calls on CD - need converting to MP3.  Expensive.
It is also worth Googling for Swift calls, we found these:
Latvian swift calls we have not tried these, but they sound OK
More Dutch calls these sound OK too.

12 volt battery driven systems
If mains power is not available, then a 12 volt battery can be used as described on this post

Tools for manipulating sound files
For online format conversion try to convert audio files. is also a good program for performing manipulations on sound files

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Swift weather vane

It can be a long wait for the Swift season to come around, so here is an excellent idea to bridge the 9 month gap when they are not here.

by Dick

Having recently celebrated a big birthday, this was one of my birthday presents. It is one of the nicest presents I have ever received.

It will be interesting to see what the Swifts make of it when they return next May.

Distant shot, and Bill on the chimney (rather him than me!)

Sunday 11 November 2012

Slovak conference highlights problems across Europe for birds and bats in buildings.

This post highlights the growing problem of insulation in buildings and the negative impact on Swifts and bats. Helen Hodgson attended a conference in Slovakia which discussed this issue.

Contributed by Helen

The Slovak Ministry of the Environment and State Nature Conservancy hosted an international conference in Zvolen, central Slovakia, 25-26 October 2012, to discuss the problems faced by Swifts and bats in buildings. The intention was to share experiences and to exchange ideas for solutions to these problems

Zvolen town square
As a result of EU initiatives, the installation of insulation, which poses a serious threat to building-dependent species, increases each year.  The requirement to save energy and to create jobs to stimulate economic growth has driven this increase.

There are EU directives to protect wildlife, but the application, in practice, of protective measures falls far short of what is needed to halt the decline of Swift and bat populations.  This is a common problem across Europe. A great deal depends on the energy and enthusiam of individuals, both volunteers and people in official positions to ensure that planning conditions are met.  In addition, it was agreed that the penalties for infringements to planning laws are insignificant: in too many cases, Swifts and bats are killed or made homeless.

The Regional Association for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development (BROZ) in partnership with the Slovak Ornithological Society, BirdLife Slovakia and the Slovak Bat Conservation Society have received part EU funding from LIFE+ Nature & Biodiversity Programme, a four year undertaking now in its ninth month.  During these nine months, 4,000 buildings in 100 towns have so far been checked for populations of Swifts and bats. This work involves a great number of people, many of whom are volunteers.  

Seminars for state administrators and people in the construction industry are under way; practical and simple guidelines are being prepared and laws are being reviewed. 

So far, more than 1,000 nest-boxes have been installed and 2000 original nesting possibilities retained after insulation – to compensate for loss of nest sites; these will be monitored.  However, it is felt that more needs to be done to involve the general public via PR and the media, as there is still a lot of ignorance of these issues. 

A further aim of the project is to strengthen cooperation between state institutions, investors, the construction industry and local communities.

This worthwhile conference was well attended by approximately a hundred and fifty delegates from around Europe (8 countries) and the papers presented were interesting and informative. 

There are lessons to be learned all over Europe, as the unintended consequences of policies to conserve energy result in major problems for our urban wildlife.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Recovery of a grounded Swift

The summer of 2012 was challenging for Swifts, many chicks died and some adults had difficulty getting enough food for themselves. This is the story of an underweight adult Swift, which, we hope, had a happy ending. It demonstrates how small an entrance an, admittedly underweight, Swift can pass through.

Contributed by Rodney Monteith

In early July I made one of my regular checks on my local colony. About 15m from the nearest nest lay a grounded swift. Once I had it in my hands I took it to an open area and gave it the opportunity to fly from a height of about 3 meters. No amount of persuasion would get it to take off so I took it with me and put it in a nest box that I had previously modified to play a call CD.

Over the next three days it consumed 45 gm of waxworms and its initial weight of 33gm rose to 35.2gm, it also went from being totally lethargic to being quite lively, so much so that it managed to escape from the nest box.  
Box designed for holding attraction call player,
then used for rehabilitation
The box was the size of typical swift box as can be seen from the photo but since I had been concealing a CD player inside I didn’t actually want any birds to be able to get in so I made the entrance hole smaller than required. 

I positioned the box on its back so that the front became a lid and as it turned out my swift was able to climb up the smooth plywood and squeeze out through the hole at the top. The hole is only  47mm x  23mm so is much smaller that recommended entrance holes so I was surprised when I found the bird huddled in the corner of the room on the floor.

The Swift having escaped!
Having recaptured the escapee I returned it to the box as it was late in the evening and could not risk trying to set it free. The next day its weight had dropped to 32.9gm but it was very lively so I took it to a large open field and it practically struggled free and flew of strongly rapidly gaining height  until it disappeared into the distance alone.

I do not know if the bird was a breeder, non breeder or visitor. Was it grounded because of exhaustion after a fight I do not know.  It did appear to be adult and two of its tail feathers were partially sheathed so this may have had an effect on its activity.

It was also much lighter in weight that I expected, based on what I have read, but it flew off even lighter than when I found it.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Fulbourn Community Swift Survey 2012

The provision of Swift nest boxes in Fulbourn to mitigate the loss of 72 pairs of Swifts in 1960's buildings, scheduled for demolition, is probably one of the largest such projects in the country. It is also headed towards being one of the most successful. In 2012, 157 new nest-boxes were occupied by 27 pairs of Swifts, alongside 5 of the original nest-sites. 

Contributed by John Willis 

The Fulbourn Community Swift Survey was organised by the local swift group, which was formed in 2011. Our focus this year was on the 'Swifts Development' where an estate of 1960s system built houses is being demolished and replaced by a higher density of new homes in a phased programme. These old buildings had become the home for a large colony of swifts and provision is being made for both internal and external swift nest boxes in the new houses. You can read background information in Swifts in Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire and this RSPB case study.

Old houses with stopped up nest sites
where the panel joints meet the roof boards 
It was hoped that our community survey would complement the official survey to be undertaken by Applied Ecology Limited, who have been monitoring the colony since 2009, and help increase awareness of the swifts among the local residents.

We met on site every Wednesday evening from 9 May to 15 August. Individuals made observations on other evenings during the summer, especially when the weather was warm! One of the residents was a regular member of our team and many other local people approached us on survey evenings to ask about the swifts. We often received useful reports of birds using specific boxes and all feedback about the swift project was very positive.

Potential nest sites on several blocks of old houses, which had been used for breeding in 2011 (20+ nests reported by Applied Ecology Ltd), had been sealed with foam prior to the arrival of swifts. However, one remaining block of 5 houses (2 nest sites recorded by Applied Ecology in 2011) will not be affected by re-development, and the nest sites there were available to swifts this year.

With 157 swift boxes already installed on the site it was quite a challenge for us to adequately monitor all areas. The boxes are of two types; internal custom made wooden boxes (111) incorporated in the house timber frames in gable ends, and external Schwegler 1MF double boxes fitted on gable ends in phase 1 and on front/rear elevations in phase 2.

Internal wooden nest boxes are
built into the house timber frames 
The first swifts of the season were seen over the Development on 30 April with a group of up to 12 birds flying over the old buildings at the west end of the site. The numbers steadily increased reaching a peak on 11 May when there were up to 50 birds forming into screaming flocks and moving around rapidly. Numbers flying in the evening fluctuated over the following weeks but there was a distinct increase in activity from 18 June. A spell of milder weather from 17 July heralded a further increase in the level of activity with some great flying displays. Peak numbers were seen on 23 July, a warm evening, with over 50 birds flocking overhead and screaming parties of up to 20. The last large group of 35 was seen over the site on 3 August and after that the numbers steadily declined with the last sighting of the year being a pair of birds flying over the centre of the site on 20 August.

In phase 1 of the building development, which comprises phases 1a and 1b referred to below, 40 out of 63 internal boxes were used at some point in the season by swifts compared to 4 out of 22 external boxes. Of these, 26 internal boxes and 1 external box were used regularly enough during the season for us to suspect nesting activity.

We observed regular use of 15 out of 18 internal boxes in phase 1a, which has been colonised by swifts since 2009, whereas the corresponding figures for phase 1b, which was completed prior to summer 2011 but with no confirmed nesting, were 11 out of 45. The one regularly used external box was also located in phase 1a. It is encouraging that swifts now appear to be colonising the more recent phase 1b and hopefully the numbers there will increase over the next few years.

These unmodified Schwegler 1MF boxes
are very popular with starlings 
The external Schwegler boxes were clearly not favoured by swifts, but possibly this is because so many starlings were already in residence by the time that the swifts arrived.

Prior to installation, we modified the external Schwegler boxes in phase 2 to restrict the entrance size to deter starlings, but we did not observe any birds using them. You can read more about the background to this in Fulbourn Update.

Early in the season a group of swifts were observed flying close to the four internal boxes on a recently completed house in phase 2. Subsequently, site workers reported that they had seen swifts enter boxes nearby. However, despite observation of these locations over the summer on a good number of evenings we never managed to record a swift entering a nest box in that area. There were often swifts overflying this latest phase of the development, so hopefully some of the 72 swift boxes (including both types) already installed have been ‘checked out’ for use in the future.

The one remaining old block of houses was a focus for swift flying activity throughout the summer and we regularly observed birds accessing 5 nesting sites under the boards on the edge of the flat roof and occasional activity was observed at 2 other locations.

Swifts started using internal boxes in the
narrow gaps between some of these new houses 
We do not know whether there was successful nesting and rearing of young at any of the regularly used sites. However, it is encouraging that the number of these sites (32) was similar to the number of nesting places identified in the official 2011 survey undertaken by Applied Ecology Limited, especially given that around 20 nest sites in the old blocks were not available this year and there were big reductions in the number of nest sites used in each of the previous two breeding seasons.

During the summer there was a very positive response and useful input from the residents of the site and we aim to build on this for the 2013 Community Swift Survey.

We would like to thank Rob Mungovan, South Cambridgeshire District Council Ecology Officer, for his support and encouragement.

If any Fulbourn residents reading this would be interested in putting up a nest box or taking part in the 2013 survey, then please contact us at

Sunday 4 November 2012

30 year old Swift!

We were surprised to learn that there is a record of a Swift, ringed near Orléans in France at one year old, on 11th June 1967, that was retrapped 28 years, 11 months and 27 days later. So it just about reached the ripe old age of 30 years. This report appears in the French magazine La Hulotte (the Tawny Owl), Number 90 - La Nuit des Methusalem.

Written by Dick

Page from La Hulotte - click image to enlarge
There is no record of this in the Euring longevity pages, but it is not surprising that a small number of Swifts should achieve this age, given their relatively high annual survival. Indeed we predicted it in our piece How long do Swifts live?

This would established the Common Swift as the longest lived 'small bird', at least in Europe, even longer than its larger relative, the Alpine Swift at 26 years.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Ely Maltings

In 2009, Bill Murrells noticed renovations being made to the roof of The Maltings in Ely, Cambs. The work was too advanced for anything to be done that year to save the Swifts breeding there, so the loss of a breeding season could not be avoided. 

Written by Dick

A well pleased Bill Murrells
Swift nest in hand
But Bill got permission to install 10 nest boxes under the eaves, custom built by John Stimpson. Over the years there has been evidence of House Sparrows nesting in the new nest-boxes, but we had no evidence of Swifts returning to the building, so we thought it about time to get up on a ladder and take a look.

The boxes could be inspected by removing the bottom. The first eight boxes contained partial and complete House Sparrow nests, there were even discarded sparrow eggs in 2 of the boxes.

However the 9th box contained a House Sparrow nest, with a Swift's nest on top of it, and a few distinctive Swift droppings scattered around. Unlike all of the other boxes, there was no sign of any sparrow droppings.

The swift nest is a neat cup built on top of the sparrow's 'haystack'.
Invertebrates have reduced the feathers to their shafts.  

Most of the Swift nest material was from a previous year, just the remains of feather shafts, with only one new feather.

We also had the good fortune to run into the management of The Maltings, who is willing to allow attraction call playing in 2013. With any luck, the Maltings will have a vibrant Swift colony again.

Saturday 27 October 2012

The simplest DIY Swift nest-box

If you are carpentarily challenged, but would like to make your own Swift boxes, then here are some simple ideas. The whole thing is assembled from a single plank, and straight saw-cuts.
[for a wider range of DIY designs, see here]

Contributed by Bob Tonks

Dimensions: click picture to enlarge.
If Starlings are a problem then reduce the entrance to 28mm high
Buy a plank 180cm x 15cm x 15mm thick and cut it into pieces: (4 x 375mm, 2 x 120mm, 1 x 40mm).  You should have a small bit left over. Then saw out the entrance from 1 of the long pieces (2cuts 80mm & 45mm resulting in an entrance 65mm x 30mm).

The material can be weather-proof ply or pine. In either case, the wood should be treated externally with a wood sealant.

Then assemble all of the pieces, except for the front, using nails, glue or screws. The front should be screwed on, without nails or glue, so that it can be removed for maintenance and for installation. Installation is by 2 screws through the back into the wall.

Position flush with soffit.
Under the eaves is an ideal place for Swifts
The canopy above the entrance is narrow with a sloping top. It provides some shelter (as well as 'decoration'), but it does not allow predators to perch on it.

This box should not be put anywhere where the rain or sun can fall upon it, so it is only appropriate under horizontal eaves, which are at least 200mm wide.

[Hint, when you make the entrance, aim on the small side, you can always take a file to the edges to make it a little larger. If you make it too large, Starlings will get in].

A variation on the above, providing slightly more shelter for the entrance. It requires the use of a jigsaw and file.

20mm cut from the base and 20mm+wood thickness from the front gives an entrance 28mm across.

Entrance made with cuts of 80mm by 30mm
On the left are two more ideas with entrances in the floor next to the wall; these are equally simple. In both cases, the resulting entrance is 65mm x 30mm.

In both of these cases, the Swift can brace itself against the wall before entry.

Entrance made with cuts 65mm by 45mm

Both of these latter two ideas can be built without a back, provided the wall is not too uneven. The Swifts may get improved purchase on a rough wall.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

The AfS Attraction Kit

UPDATE 15th Nov 2012: This post has been superseded by a newer idea. However, the amplifier and speaker parts of this system are still appropriate for those who wish to use something like an MP3 player.

Last year, we produced the 'Box of Swifts' for attraction call playing and we deployed about 35 of them. The component costs were quite high, and it took a couple of hours of volunteer skilled soldering to assemble them, and, at the price we sold them, we ended up losing money, because of ullage and our decisions to donate them in situations with no budget.

Requirements of an attraction system
The requirements that the BoS satisfied were:
1. Simple installation: this was achieved by having a small 1.5 inch car tweeter on the end of a single piece of speaker cable. It is easy to attach to a nest-box 6 metres high, and there is no need to get mains power to it.
2. Simple operation: the BoS starts playing when the power is on and stops when it is off. There is no messing around with clamps on play buttons, nor having to restart the thing manually after a power failure.
3. To this we would add one other thing, that volume control is on the ground; for the BoS, this was not an issue because it was always set to maximum because of the limited power of its amplifier.

The biggest problem for us with the BoS was the component cost and the time taken to assemble them.

New Plan for 2013
So we have a new plan. We found an off the shelf SD card player, for about £12 that does everything the BoS does, except it doesn't have an amplifier. It is intended for use in an automated telephone answering system. So we then went searching for an amplifier, and found a good one for £9. Add in some bits of cable, a power supply and a speaker, the complete component cost comes to less than £40 per kit, with only one soldered connection to connect the speaker to the speaker cable.

The resulting kit does everything that the BoS does, but can deliver considerably more volume. The only disadvantage is that it doesn't come in a neat little black box.

AfSAK assembly diagram

Sourcing the components
Most of the components come from China, and apart from the SD card player, you can't buy things in singles. Amplifiers come in batches of 5, splitters in batches of 20, power supplies in batches of 5,  speakers in 2's (but you may want to drive 2 speakers) and speaker cable in lengths of 100 metres. The only thing you need in addition is a 240 volt digital timer with battery back up (rough cost £8).

Battery-driven systems
Depending upon whether you have 1 or 2 speakers (the amplifier has sockets for 2 speakers) and the volume setting, the AfSAK consumes between .3 and .5 amps at 12 volts. So on a fully charged 60 amp hour car battery it could run continuously for between 120 and 200 hours. So, if one rationed the playing to, say, 4 hours per day, using a 12 volt timer (rough cost £18), it could keep going for between 30 and 50 days. Add a solar panel and it could keep going indefinitely.

We are happy to let anyone have the sources of all the components, or we may consider supplying the complete assembled kit for £55 plus postage for a single speaker system, £65 for 2 speakers.

If you have any comments or suggestions or want to know more contact us at

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Cambridge AfS End of Year Report 2012

This report describes what we in Cambridgeshire have been up to this year, 2012. The Cambs team includes Jake Allsop, Guy Belcher, Helen Hodgson, Bill Murrells, Clarke Brunt, Alan Clarke, Rowena Baxter, Judith Wakelam, Dick Newell, Vida Newell and Bob Tonks

This has been a year of mixed fortunes. As far as we can tell, occupancy of all nest boxing schemes that we know of has either remained stable, or increased since last year.

St Neots in Bloom nomination
So the adult birds turned up, but then the dreadful summer weather meant that breeding success was below normal, with reports of eggs thrown out of nests and of chicks dying. Alongside this, the take up of boxes at new sites has been unusually slow.

We were delighted that our projects in St Mary the Virgin and the old Brook Street factory site in St Neots were nominated for an award by the 'St Neots in Bloom' Committee.

Nest-box progress
Large/public buildings
At Edgecombe flats, Cambridge, the 71 swift nest-boxes have been very successful with House Sparrows. However, 2 pairs of Swifts bred in the boxes outside Peter Glass's flat. We hope to install another attraction call player ready for 2013.

The 12 boxes built into the eaves of Ekin flats, Cambridge, in 2010, were not monitored in 2012.

At Birdlife International headquarters in Girton, a single pair of Swifts returned again to breed, raising 2 chicks and providing entertainment on a TV monitor in the kitchen. We still await more pairs in the other 7 boxes.

Built in nest boxes at Fulbourn.
Photo Rob Mungovan
Although our involvement in the Swifts housing estate in Fulbourn has been minimal, we are delighted to hear that about 30 of the new nest-boxes there are occupied. Swifts preferred built in boxes to those mounted outside. It is worth reading this RSPB case study. Credit to Rob Mungovan.

We were pleased to be able to contribute an idea to reduce the entrance size of Schwegler 1MF boxes to exclude Starlings.

At MiltonRoad Primary School, early in the season, birds were seen entering 4 of the 6 boxes, but we are only sure of them becoming established in 2 boxes, at least raising one chick in the camera box.

Domestic dwellings
Nest-boxes installed on people's houses in previous years included Bob’s house in Milton, where 2 pairs bred, but one failed and the other raised 2 chicks. Clarke Brunt , also in Milton, increased his established pairs from 1 pair in a nest-box with a second pair in a hole that he had made in the eaves of his house.

3 Boxes on a house in Chesterton
Bob and Mary Osborne in Histon had successful breeding, with 2 chicks raised on top of a House Sparrow's nest in their camera box.
Bob Humphrey and Neil Roberts in Landbeach, both had pairs returning to their boxes.

Dick's colony, also in Landbeach, increased from 7 to 8 breeding pairs, but only 4 pairs succeeded in raising chicks, one of which was the new pair. The geolocator bird was retrapped revealing where it spent the winter. A colony of bees occupied one box at the end of the season.

Linda Jarvis in Cambridge had her first occupant of her nest-boxes to add to the pair already nesting in her eaves.

Rowena attracted Swifts into her boxes in Dry Drayton, but it is not certain that they became established.

Although we did not continue with attraction call playing at St Andrews, Oakington this year, we were disappointed that the 8 boxes in the belfry remained unoccupied. We have now installed an extra 12 boxes at the tops of the louvres on the south and west sides, and we hope to resume attraction call playing in 2013.
At St Mary the Virgin, St Neots, the occupied boxes increased from 2 to 4, we hope to expand the number of nest boxes in 2013.
All Saints, Worlington
Photo Judith Wakelam
At All Saints, Worlington in Suffolk, there was an increase from 2 occupied boxes in 2011 to 7 occupied boxes this year. There are now 18 nest-boxes in the church.
At St Mary's Church Ely, we found a total of 30 boxes containing nests, of which 20 boxes contained a total of 31 chicks, and 3 boxes still contained eggs. This is now a major colony.

Swift Towers
We were disappointed that we failed to attract Swifts to occupy the Cambridge Swift Tower. Attracting Swifts into new boxes has proved particularly difficult this year. Apart from this, the tower attraction call player proved to be unreliable requiring attention on a number of occasions.
A number of other projects are still waiting for their first occupants.

New projects
We were involved one way or another in many projects, including the following by providing nest-boxes, Box of Swifts attraction call players, or advice:

4 double boxes in St John's chapel
Photo Bob Tonks
St John's College Chapel: 8 nest-boxes installed (plus 2 boxes on the groundsman's house)
Wessex Place, Cambridge: 34 nest boxes installed
St Neots Brook Street factory site: 12 Swift bricks installed, at least 2 occupied
Shirley Primary School: 8 nest-boxes installed
The Ace foundation, Stapleford: 8 nest-boxes installed
The School House, Chippenham: 6 nest boxes installed, 1 box occupied
Colville Road, Cambridge: 2 Swift bricks installed
Bob's next door neighbour, Milton, Cambridge: 4 nest-boxes installed
John Clamp and neighbour, Newnham, Cambridge: 8 boxes, 1 box occupied on John's house
Lackford Lakes, Suffolk Wildlife Trust: 12 boxes, built by local volunteers
St Andrew's Oakington: after the end of the season, we added another 12 boxes to the 8 there already.
Packenham, Suffolk, Sandy Jackson's property: 3 boxes installed

We advised on the installation of 7 boxes in St Catherine's, Litlington and 4 boxes in St Leonard's, Southoe.
We were honoured to be asked to design some Swift cabinets for St Rémy Church, Molenbeek, Brussels.

A number of these projects were implemented late in the the season, ready for 2013.

Presentations and workshops
We gave presentations to the Cambridge Natural History Society and to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. This was followed up by a tour of potential nest-boxing sites in Suffolk.

We ran a workshop for the eco group at Shirley Primary School where 12 children painted Swift nest-boxes before installation on the school. The children also completed a Swift quiz.

At Fulbourn Primary School, John Willis made arrangements for us to give a Swift presentation to the whole school assembly, the children made Swift mobiles and nest concaves out of Modroc.

Sound equipment
In our last report we mentioned the development of the "Box of Swifts” attraction call player. In 2012, we sent out 30 of these. Although a small number had intermittent faults, feedback was positive; people found them easy to install and to operate. On the whole, they performed well, with many people reporting Swift activity around their boxes, but occupancy rates were disappointing, with only 3 places with new occupants.  This contrasts with previous years when we have had a higher success rate. We believe this is explained by the weather.
The Box of Swifts has a component cost higher than we would like, and it took about 2 hours of skilled soldering to assemble. This we decided we would not repeat for 2013, so we have a new plan with a lower component cost, no soldering and with a more powerful amplifier. After beta tests are complete, we will describe it on this blog - watch this space!

Boxes for different sloping eaves
For nest-box design, we have found that a format similar to a Zeist-box, but with a vertical front has suited many situations where the boxes fit nicely under eaves that slope one way or another, and where a standard production model, with a horizontal top, would fit less well. Examples include Milton Road Primary School, Shirley Primary, Ace Foundation, Chippenham, Wessex Place and Lackford Lakes (see links above).

Air brick liner Swift brick
We are particularly pleased with the air brick liner Swift brick which was invoked for an emergency situation in St Neots, and they were also deployed in Cherry Hinton. We are in the process of making a short production run of 20 units. They are low cost and easy to make with the right equipment.

Judith reports that a difficult season had produced more casualties. 
3 successes. Photo Judith Wakelam
She reared and released 11 nestlings. Of 6 adults and one free-flying young bird, she rehabbed and released 4; the other 3 had to be euthanized
In addition, 4 adult Swifts were rested and released by their finders after contacting Judith for advice.

In 2013 it is our intention to focus on consolidating the projects we already have underway rather than make a push for new projects. We would like to increase the percentage of nest-boxes occupied, which currently stands at about 1 in 4. Ensuring consistent attraction call playing from May to July should achieve this. This will be made easier with the further deployment of easy to install and easy to operate sound equipment.

You can also read Cambridge AfS End of Year Report 2011