Friday 31 May 2013

The release weight of a fostered Swift

Contributed by Judith Wakelam

Weight is an important indicator of the health of a bird. When a bird is being fostered or rehabilitated, the rehabber takes its weight regularly as she feeds it up, not essaying a release until it reaches a healthy release weight, ideally around 40-45 grams, though some small Swifts can go at considerably less than this, even as light as 36 grams

50 grams is heavy for a Swift
Photo Judith Wakelam
I took delivery of a brood of three nestlings rescued from a roof in Ely last year (reported here), all of which eventually flew. The tiniest of them proved to be the one with the biggest appetite! Here it is weighing in at a colossal 50 grams. 

In the nest, chicks regularly exceed their release weight, but then they progressively lose the excess in the two or three days between the parents leaving them alone in the nest and the moment when they finally pluck up courage to launch themselves into the air. 

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Cambridge Pilot Swift City Index 2013

This post describes what we are trying to do in Cambridge, as part of the RSPB Pilot Swift City Index

As Cambridge is quite a large area, we would like to cover as much of the city as possible with 10 minute point counts, which will require point counts at more than 10 locations.  The RSPB design prefers observations made in calm, mild weather and with no rain, as well as within the time interval 5pm to 9pm, and at designated locations.

We would also welcome 10 minute point counts at any time, in any weather and at any place that participants may choose, but if you can manage to satisfy the constraints of the RSPB design, then please do.

We hope to determine to what extent time of day and different weather conditions matter.

For anyone who would like to be involved, then we have prepared a Google map of preferred locations
As well as a form to record observations (hit File> Download).

Note that there are 4 categories of weather to record, as well as 5 categories of flying Swifts - all explained on the form.

We will derive data for the RSPB form, 2 visits per site, from these records.

Please email completed forms to

Should anyone else in another town or village wish to use this form, then please help yourself.

Note, This activity is different from and in addition to our desire, with Cambridge City Council and with South Cambs District council, to locate all breeding Swifts in Cambridge and South Cambs, either by observations at nest sites, or by recording low level screaming Swifts - this being a good proxy for a breeding site. These records will be recorded in a Living Record database - it is described here

Another recent post here is intended to give a guide for good times to observe Swifts at their breeding colonies.

Hourly pattern of Swift activity

Contributed by Dick

Here in Landbeach, I have CCTV cameras watching the outside of all 19 of my Swift boxes, so that I can monitor every entry and exit in every box. I also have 2 cameras in boxes.

It is not without its problems, the motion detection sometimes misses events, spiders spinning their webs across the lenses cause much redundant footage, as do shadows dancing around on the boxes from the nearby trees. I have not time to trawl through hours of dancing shadows to see arriving or departing Swifts.

This is not to mention some mysterious creature that occasionally yanks one of the cameras so that it is pointing completely in the wrong direction.

However, I think the data I have gathered is good enough to give a reasonable idea of the pattern of activity throughout the day.

The purpose of this post is to give people monitoring colonies some idea of the best times to stand watching nest sites to see if they are occupied.

Of course on any particular day, the pattern will be affected by local weather conditions. On cold wet days, the birds will venture out later and will arrive back earlier

I will try to keep this chart up to date so that folk can check it out before venturing out to monitor breeding Swifts.

Saturday 18 May 2013

Swift intervention in Ballyclare

Rodney Monteith sent us this inspirational story, written by Sharman Finlay. It will be interesting to see if their prompt intervention will be successful.

8 Filcris Zeist-style boxes and 2 speakers.
Photo Rodney Monteith
Close up of 1 box and a speaker. Photo Rodney Monteith
One could be forgiven for wondering why James Gault and I, Sharman Finlay, were devastated by the demolition in February of a derelict, charmless former supermarket in Ballyclare, Northern Ireland . When you find out that James is a member of Larne RSPB group and I am a member of the Antrim group, and that both of us are keen and active conservationists, perhaps it becomes clearer? The old building was home for many years to nesting swifts and the prospect of the birds returning from their long migration from Africa to find their home was gone filled us with sadness, almost to the point of tears.

Both of us await the annual return of migrating swallows, martins and swifts with eagerness; the turn of the season, the anticipation of longer summer days. My late husband and I had our children primed to spot the birds, rewarding the first sighting. The swifts' joyful screeching overhead as they zoom around like miniature fighter planes is a part of summer; something without which our area and our souls would be bereft.

What to do? Brenda Campbell, the leader of my R.S.P.B. group, immediately agreed that some intervention must be possible and we met in Brown's Coffee Shop to discuss Swift Action to Save our Swifts. Edward McKee, a master craftsman and all-round handyman offered help, as did Rodney Monteith of Greenmount College, an expert with experience in interventions to secure swift habitats. Kate McAllister offered support and ideas too. Plans began to take shape; boxes and callers would be ordered and approaches made to various people.

Attempts to secure funding from the demolition company and developer fell on deaf ears, but Gary Millar of Millar's Butchers, whose premises are very close to the former site, immediately offered to have swift boxes and callers located to the rear of his building and kindly offered to install them himself. Many people looked at me as if I were mad when I explained our plan, but Gary calmly agreed. This offer of doing the installation work removed the substantial charge which would have been levied for the hire of a cherry-picker. Naturally, we queried Health and Safety issues, but Gary was happy to use the services of a friend, a local contractor, Colin Patterson.

The time up to the arrival of the swifts passed very quickly and when I spotted the first swift on the 30th April, I began to get a bit panicky; Gary had been rushed into hospital that weekend; 10 boxes had arrived and 2 callers; Rodney had got the wiring and housing organised for the latter with the assistance of Edward. Was it all going to be in vain? Swift numbers were growing by the day, but my normal joy at watching and listening to their antics was tempered by anxiety. Brenda and I exchanged feverish text messages and liaised with the others. Result!!! Gary was not to be deterred and insisted on holding the ladder while Colin did the installation and 8 Filcris boxes and 2 speakers were in place by the end of the week. Gary's wife, Daphne, also an R.S.P.B. member, is monitoring the speaker system which uses the Kinter amplifier playing an SD memory card, as detailed on the AFS site, to ensure they are working. Needless to say, we have all been inspecting the boxes( from ground level!) and some swifts have been spotted flying very close to them. It is a case of watch these spaces.....

We have had publicity from our 2 local newspapers and hope that people will realise what else, other than a building, is lost when demolition and redevelopment take place.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Pilot Swift City Index Survey – 2013

The RSPB will be running a trial of a survey based on Swift point counts during 2013.  The method involves two 10-minute point counts of flying swift parties at ten or more locations spread across a town, city or village of your choice.  The main aim in 2013 is to trial the point count method and to gather feedback on its practicality. We hope then to conduct some validation surveys in 2014 to assess how point counts relate to the local abundance of breeding swifts, and ultimately to generate a ‘City Index’ of changing swift abundance over time.

Background.  The aim of the pilot fieldwork in 2013 is to test a point count method for recording swifts in towns, cities and villages. The method is a 10-minute point count of screaming and non-screaming swifts conducted twice during the summer. The hope is that we can refine and calibrate this method to produce a measure of change in swift abundance over time for a particular town or city.    

Method.  Locations for point counts should be selected in areas where swifts are known to be active in the evenings, and which provide a good field of view for observing flying swifts. To make the data useful, at least 10 points should be surveyed in any particular town or city and these should be spaced out to ensure no more than two point locations are situated within each 200m x 200m square. You decide exactly where the survey points should be located.

At least TWO counts of 10-minute duration should be conducted at each point location. The first count should be conducted between 16 May & 15 June, and the second between 16 June & 15 July. Counts should last exactly 10 minutes and should be conducted between 17.00 – 21.00 hours (5-9 pm) preferably on dry, still evenings. The observer should keep a chronological record of all flying swifts seen. HIGH FLYING swifts (more than 100m above the ground) should be distinguished from LOW FLYING swifts (within 100m of the ground). Each low flying group of swifts should be recorded as either ‘screaming’ or ‘non-screaming’, and as flying within 50m of the observer or not. Each low flying group is therefore assigned to one of four screaming / distance categories. 

An example recording form is shown below with the information provided by the observer highlighted in blue. On the first survey, the largest count of high flying swifts was 23, and three screaming parties (containing 2, 5 and 2 swifts) flew within 50m of the observer.    
Street name / junction
Parkside / Park Terrace
Grid Reference (8 fig)
TL 4547 5832
1 km-square
TL 4558
First survey date:
24 May 2013
Start Time
Weather conditions*

Swift Counts
High Flying:
16, 23
Within 50m observer
2, 5, 2
Beyond 50m observer
2, 6
4, 2
Second survey date:
22 June 2013
Start Time
Weather conditions*

Swift Counts
High Flying:
21, 34
Low Flying:
Within 50m observer
2, 7, 9
2, 3
Beyond 50m observer
3, 5
4, 2

: ‘Cool’ (10°C or less); ‘Mild’ (between 10°C & 20°C); ‘Warm’ (20°C or more) 
Wind: Average wind speed: ‘still’ (<10mph), ‘breezy’ (10-20mph) or ‘windy’ (>20mph)
Cloud: Estimate cloud cover to the nearest 1/8 th.  Rain: No rain (‘No’) or some rain (‘Yes’). 

You can download a copy of the form to fill in here (File>Download)

Please return all completed forms either by post to Will Peach, Conservation Science Department, The Lodge, Sandy, Beds SG19 2DL or by email attachment to

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Swift boxes in a garage gable end

Back in 2009, we were contacted by Jacky Gulliver from Thornham in Norfolk for advice in putting Swift boxes into a garage she was having built - this is her story so far. It is another example of doing something aesthetically very pleasing.

Plywood nestbox sits behind the brickwork
is made from 7mm ply and each is 325 mm long x 205 mm high x 230mm deep.
The box has a hinged back for cleaning etc. 
The front of each box has a piece cut out.  This is the same size as a brick face plus mortar lines and was used as the dummy brick front.   
The entrance hole, 75mm wide x 30mm high, is positioned to one side of the front and cut about 10mm above the floor line.
To make it look like a brick we just used PVA glue and sprinkled brick dust and bits on it.  Better would be to do the whole Blue Peter thing as you suggested, and give the front a brick colour base coat first.  If the edges are left they can be painted like mortar lines.
Close up of dummy brick front
To fit the front we just screwed a ply floor to it so it sat on the bricks and pushed it up to the box - we have made them a tight fit and this has worked fine so far but possibly screwing the front into side battens would be better as long as this didn't foul the entrance hole.
In one of the lower boxes we have a small cd player and use the remote to turn it on and off.  A bird tried to get in there so we have made that entrance hole inaccessible.
We played the cd as much as possible and certainly whenever we saw Swifts about.  In 2010 birds occasionally looked in and in 2011 there seemed to be more activity and we wondered if they would nest but there was still a lot of work going on here.
In 2012 there was no disturbance near the garage and we were able spend time watching.  Sitting on the front drive, leaning back, feet up, staring with binns at the garage wall can be quite a talking point for neighbours!
Can't tell you how excited we were when we realized birds were actually going in and out.  They go so quickly - if we blinked we'd miss them!
The whole point of the project was of course to help Swifts - how awful to fly all the way back from Africa only to find your home gone - re roofed, building knocked down etc.  BUT we have had so much enjoyment watching for them and what a thrill when a bird interrupts its aerial acrobatics to look in our box - we can't wait to see what happens this year!

Saturday 11 May 2013

Tayside Swift Newsletter

We would like to thank Catherine Lloyd for this contribution

Map courtesy of Wikipedia
Tayside is a region of Scotland with an active group of Swift enthusiasts, and a lot going on. We are pleased to give a plug to their 8 page Newsletter containing a wealth of articles about Swifts and useful stuff for people who want to help Swifts.

The Tayside Biodiversity homepage also has links to much other Swift information, including issue 1 of their newsletter

Saturday 4 May 2013

Gable end nestbox in Norway

We like to see examples of well made, nice looking nest boxes, and here is an example designed and built by Johnny Reitan from Molde, which is quite far north on the coast of Norway.

The finished cabinet - click to enlarge.
The box comprises 4 nest-chambers, and is made to match the cladding of the house exactly. The top entrance is protected by a flute, and the bottom 3 entrances are adjacent to the wall of the house - a position where Swifts commonly seek a new nest site. A speaker for attraction calls is mounted inside each chamber.  The metal ventilation grill in the middle allows air to flow into the original ventilation grill in the house.

As the eaves were so narrow, the box extends beyond them, but with adequate roof insulation, this will not be a problem.

For Swift boxes to be accepted by owners and architects, it is important that they fit in well with the building - this has been well achieved here.  Thank you Johnny for letting us use it.

The pictures below tell their own story of how it was conceived and assembled, and Johnny has more pictures here and here:

Internal structure, with nest platforms
Components for front assembly
The assembled cabinet. The front is removed for installation
A view from below
A view from inside the box showing the position of 4 tweeter speakers

Close up of the installed cabinet