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 actionforswifts@gmail.com

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

Sunday 21 October 2012

St Andrew's Oakington

Written by Dick

We installed 8 nest boxes in 2 cabinets on the south side of the belfry in St Andrew's Oakington in 2008. As it is difficult getting access to mains power, we did not play attraction calls until 2011, where our Box of Swifts made this feasible. This resulted in a lot of Swift activity on many days near the nest-boxes, but no Swift succeeded in finding an entrance. We were hopeful that the birds from 2011 would persevere in 2012, but alas no success this year either. There are two pairs of Swifts nesting precariously in crevices on the sides of the louvres in the south and west sides.

St Andrew's should be a great success. Years ago it had a vibrant colony on the south side of the chancel, until roof repairs excluded them.

Fronts and backs of cabinets. The outsides are darkened 
rendering them virtually invisible. Entrance positions
are dictated by the stonework. The 3 chambers with nest
concaves on the west side did not have concaves on the 
south side, and vice versa.
Since the original cabinets, we have learned that Swifts' 1st choice is somewhere near the tops of the louvres, their second choice is somewhere near the bottom. Our original cabinets are in the middle.

So, with the permission of the PCC, we built 2 more cabinets for the tops of the louvres on the south and west sides. The triangular shape fitted the batons that support the bird-proof netting.

We debated whether to put 3 large boxes in each triangle or 6 smaller boxes. As the existing 2 pairs of Swifts nest in spaces very much smaller than this, we went for 6 boxes in each cabinet.

Boxes in the south side. Photo Bob Tonks
The floor area of each chamber is a minimum of 220mm wide by 275mm deep. The headroom in each chamber is 100mm.

Holes were made in the netting by cutting the sides and top of a rectangle with wire cutters, then bending the wire inwards and downwards. This conveniently blocks any small gaps below the entrance.

Boxes in the west side. Photo Bob Tonks
Nest concaves were placed in half of the boxes, in the hope that we can collect more data on Swifts' preference for this facility.

We did not provide inspection doors, as we think that, should we wish to inspect the boxes before the end of the breeding season, we can do that by removing the whole back, then moving it up, left and right to take a peep at the contents.

We intend to resume playing attraction calls in 2013.

St Andrew's, Oakington: Swifts once nested under the eaves on the south side of the chancel
 © Copyright John Sutton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Thursday 11 October 2012

Treble Zeist with a double roof

UPDATE August 2012: 1 pair of Great Tits occupied the box on the left, followed by a pair of Swifts which successfully raised chicks.
UPDATE 2014: Swifts nested in both the left and right boxes
UPDATE 2015: These 2 pairs returned and bred. 3 new boxes on another wall were not occupied
UPDATE 2016: All 3 original boxes occupied by Swifts, tweeter moved to 3 new single boxes.
UPDATE 2017: All 3 original boxes and 1 new box occupied
UPDATE 2018: Same as 2017

Contributed by Dick

Some old friends asked me what to do about Swift boxes on their Cambridge house, which is located within a 100 metres of a substantial Swift colony in Chesterton Road.

Click to enlarge
The house has no eaves, and the only available walls face south and east, so we decided to place a row of boxes on the east facing part. Both the sun and the rain could hit the top of the box, with the gutter providing little defence.

The Zeist format seemed most appropriate, and to use space efficiently, we built a single box with 3 chambers.

It has a double roof, made of 2 sheets of  marine ply separated by batons. The roof assembly comes off in one piece by removing 4 screws along the front into batons screwed to the inside of the roof.

Computer model showing how the roof assembly is fitted

The whole thing was first coated in clear Ronseal, followed by a coating of decking oil, which should mitigate the effects of ultra violet light.

Monday 8 October 2012

Modern buildings not Accommodating to Swirling Swifts

Brian Cahalane alerted us to this well informed and inspiring article about Swifts in Ireland, written by Michael Viney in the Irish Times. We think that it is worthy of a wider audience.

The article covers the plight of swifts in the whole of Ireland, it gives some useful publicity to the activities of the Northern Ireland Swift Group and ends with an evocative historical perspective.

You can view a pdf

Saturday 6 October 2012

Swift ringing recoveries and geolocator tracks compared

It is fascinating how 50 years of ringing recoveries had already given us a clue as to where our Swifts spend the winter, but it is also surprising that some important destinations were never detected.

Contributed by Lyndon Kearsley

The BTO recently posted a piece on their Demog Blog about more ringing recovery maps on their Online Ringing Reports

When one checks Common Swift, the selection shows totals per country, a general map and a listing of the most interesting movements with full details.

If we look at the country totals for British ringed swifts that have been found abroad and filter this to show either locations due south (France and Iberia) or in Africa, one gets the following:

BTO foreign recoveries of Swifts Apus apus
I put these more or less in a N:S order and split into Europe, N Africa, Central Africa or East and South Africa. There were no recoveries in West Africa at all.

Unfortunately the BTO does not list full details for all recoveries and not for counties with more than a handful of them. The result is a lack of recovery dates for clumps of locations in for instance France, Spain, Morocco, DRC (Congo) and Malawi.

For recoveries where ringing and finding details are listed, I was able to annotate the BTO map as follows:

Foreign locations of birds ringed or recovered in Britain & Ireland
     Purple: ringed in Great Britain & Ireland, recovered here
     Yellow: ringed here, recovered in Great Britain & Ireland

You will note that the finding dates (often many years after initial ringing) are very consistent with the periods that Dick's Landbeach geolocator bird was in that part of Africa. Of note too is that Algerian and Tunisian recoveries are all in May (Spring) and that, although there is a string of recoveries in nearby Malawi, Mozambique only has one recovery where one would expect a great many more. The same goes for West Africa; not one recovery in that part of the continent although we now know that it is so important for a large part of the European population particularly in Spring.

Since all the points on this map are the ringing or finding locations of single individuals recovered over a span of 50 years, it is quite sobering that one tracked swift from Cambridge can join the dots. On the other hand it's just that connection that increases the value of the ringing recoveries. Conversely the ringing recoveries certainly help to confirm the quality of the geolocator results.

What an exciting time we live in. Hopefully we can use this new knowledge to lever a better time for our Swift friends too

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Results from the Landbeach Geolocator Swift

by Dick Newell

We previously reported on the behaviour of one of the Landbeach Swifts, Swift 396, in its nest-box on the day that it was fitted with a geolocator, 21st July 2011.  We recorded it again on its last day, 28th July 2011, having successfully raised 2 chicks. We were therefore delighted when it reappeared in the box on 12th May 2012. It settled down to breed and we retrapped it to retrieve the geolocator on 21st June. About a week later, the chicks died, probably through lack of food, but both birds continued to visit the nest-box until 28th July, the same date as the previous year.
Since that time, the BTO has published the results of one of the Fowlmere birds retrapped in 2011, and results from birds fitted with geolocators in Sweden have also been published. So now, we can tell the story of the Landbeach geolocator swift.
click image to enlarge
The route taken by Swift 396. The red line marks its journey south and green the return journey.
The dotted green section is around the spring equinox, when positions are unreliable. 
The bird was in the Congo for the autumn equinox.
[Data shown courtesy British Trust for Ornithology]
The journey followed by Swift 396 resembles quite closely a number of other British Swifts. The following is a paraphrase of Chris Hewson's analysis and account of Swift 396 (thank you Chris):

"The positions (yellow symbols) are averages for day & night positions for three day periods, this smooths the data and also compensates for movement between successive dawn or dusk events.  Points within 20 days  of each equinox are removed, because the determination of latitude cannot be achieved reliably. After 21 April, daily 3-day running averages are shown (i.e. the three day periods overlap by two days) to give a clearer idea of the migration from central through to west Africa. It probably arrived back in Landbeach sometime on 12 May but didn't go back into the box until after dark. The first time one can be sure it was back in the box was 0728 on 13 May but it was probably there in the evening of 12 May. 

It left on 28 July 2011. It then spent about 8 days in southern Spain but still managed to be in the Congo in less than 4 weeks. There is a nice cluster in the western part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it spent the time from around 24th August until it left on its winter 'excursion' to Mozambique around 10th December.  After the spring equinox 'blackout', it looks like it is in northern Angola before moving into Gabon then across the Gulf of Guinea to Ivory Coast / Liberia. This bird seems to cross the Gulf of Guinea from near the equator with the first positions in West Africa off Ivory Coast. While at first sight, this may be hard to believe, tracks of other birds also show birds arriving off Liberia from the south-east, which indicates an oversea approach and gives confidence that these birds fly over the Gulf as does the fact that no tracks have been seen with a bird hanging around further east than the Ivory Coast."

As if a 2000km journey across the ocean was not enough, the bird refuelled for a week in Ivory Coast and Liberia until 5th May, and then it was back in its box in Landbeach on 12th May, that is over 5000 km in 7 days!