Thursday 27 June 2013

AfS attends Cambridge Natural History Society Conversazione

This year we attended the 94th Conversazione of the CNHS, at the Zoological Museum, Cambridge. This event attracts a wide variety of natural history organisations both large and small.

The AfS display with both commercial and DIY Swift boxes and Swift bricks, "I am a Swift" booklets,
a Swift mobile and an attraction call player. Photo Monica Frisch
Dick Newell demonstrates the operation of a
Cheng Sheng attraction call player.
Photo Monica Frisch

Before going, we did not know what to expect, but we ended up engaging with many people who now know more about how to help Swifts than they previously did. And we will almost certainly do it again for the 95th Conversazione next year.

Thank you to Clarke Brunt who suggested we went,  and who was also exhibiting his cacti and carnivorous plants, and to Vida Newell, Rowena Baxter, Bill Murrells, Judith Wakelam and Helen Hodgson all of whom helped man the display.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Will a swift response save the devil bird?

We thank Brian Cahalane for bringing our attention to an article in the Irish Times. Jake has prepared a summary, it is another example of the encouraging progress in Swift conservation in Ireland.

Swifts in Ireland and elsewhere are still thought to be losing out to the replacement of 18th- and 19th-century houses with modern constructions without any suitable nest sites. But good work is being done to tackle the problem. Lynda Huxley at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Castlebar, for example, has installed “swift bricks” along a modern roofline to offer the birds substitute accommodation. This project was inspired by the Northern Ireland Swift Group, which had pioneered a similar initiative at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast.

The Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast
Photo © The Crescent Arts Centre
Inspired by this example, Helen Burke, a community officer with Dublin City Council invited Eric Dempsey, national bird expert, to address a meeting of “planners, architects and parks people” about the threat to swifts’ nesting habitat. “These are Dublin swifts,” he told them. “They have a Dublin passport. They are as much a part of our heritage as the Irish language or Christ Church.” The response was immediate. “Alan Hester, the buildings superintendent, spoke from the back of the room. He simply said, ‘We’ll put 10 nest boxes on the roof. And so some nest boxes have been installed in the heart of the city, complete with recordings of swifts calling, to attract others. It is much too early to say whether they will be successful, although further projects are planned in Ballyfermot and Chapelizod. According to Maryann Harris, Dublin's biodiversity officer, Dublin City Council is planning to assess the populations of swifts in Dublin in conjunction with Birdwatch Ireland. This will inform future measures for swift conservation, including planning controls, provision of nesting areas, understanding the connections between Dublin and the wider east-coast ranges and awareness-raising.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Swifts occupy Ibstock swift bricks at Antrim County Library

The Ibstock Swift brick has an internal width of 100mm, leading a number of people to wonder whether it was too narrow for Swifts to successfully breed. This is a heartening story indicating that Swifts may well be able to cope with a space this narrow.

Contributed by Rodney Monteith

[Update: in 2013, 8 of these Ibstock swift bricks were occupied by swifts]

In 2009 a row of 15 Ibstock Swift boxes were included in the construction of a new library in Antrim, Northern Ireland.

15 Ibstock swift bricks installed in a regular array
Click picture to enlarge
Since the library service included these homes for Swifts, I took great interest in the future occupancy of the boxes and watched patiently as each of the boxes was used by House Sparrows, but no interest was shown by Swifts, at least none that was noted.

Then in 2012, with interest in our local Swifts increasing, members of Antrim RSPB put together a call system to speed up the process of colonisation and the impact was almost immediate. The morning after setting up the call system I stopped at the library just after 6.00am and watched as a group of between 3 and 5 Swifts made close flypasts parallel to the boxes and a few days later noted a pair of birds flying into one of the boxes practically beak to tail.

Close-up of 4 of the Ibstock swift bricks
This observation was said at the time to be the first confirmed use of an Ibstock brick and it dispelled all worries that the birds might be unable to turn inside the boxes as both birds did eventually come out again. For the remainder of the summer this pair continued to use the selected box and in addition other Swifts were seen entering neighbouring boxes with one bird regularly favouring a particular box in the middle of the row.

Technical issues meant that the calls were only played for part of the summer and I was asked if it should be set up again this year. Believing that this would be unnecessary as last year’s birds should return unaided we have not played any attraction calls this year.

True to form, last year’s birds have returned to their selected boxes and another pair has also taken up residence. My casual observations have seen birds entering 7 out of the 15 boxes but I think most of these were the same birds that are already nesting and on several occasions Swifts entering boxes were aggressively attacked by the House Sparrows. On one occasion a Swift visited 3 different boxes in quick succession before finally entering its own nest and even the pair that is in its second year was seen entering a neighbouring box before quickly exiting and looping back to its own box. How much of this is just curiosity or confusion from the identical holes is difficult to say. While successful breeding could not be confirmed in 2012 it is almost certain that the pair in the box for a second year will soon be happily feeding chicks!

[Birds successively entering different boxes could well be a result of confusion caused by the regular array of boxes. It is sometimes a good idea to randomly place the boxes or provide other visual clues to differentiate them.  We do not have direct evidence of negative effects of playing calls in an occupied colony, on the contrary it is known to accelerate the growth of an existing colony - Dick]

Tubbercurry's swift response to the gathering

Tubbercurry is a town in County Sligo in the Republic of Ireland, where they have an annual festival, called 'The Gathering'. Brian Cahalane sent us this article which appeared in the Sligo Champion. It is a light-hearted take on the Tubbercurry Swift Project 

In the spirit of "The Gathering" the Tubbercurry Tidy Towns group have added a warm welcome, and expanded accommodation for the town's Swift population to their other activities to welcome home all of Tubbercurry's emigrants, ramblers and wanderers.

A Swift flies high over Tubbercurry
Photo Michael Casey
Tubbercurry Tidy Towns Committee has interpreted the theme of the 2013 Gathering in a unique way, as they devised a biodiversity project to enhance their other activities that are aimed at making Tubbercurry a better place to live in.

The voluntary group has completed the construction of Tubbercurry's first post-recession housing estate, purpose-built for returning emigrants of the aerial variety.  "Swift Terrace" is a new development of beautifully appointed nestboxes specially designed for Swifts, which are a formerly common urban bird which is now in rapid decline.  
9 Schwegler nest boxes adorn this otherwise bland gable end
Photo Michael Casey

The birds return each year from their winter holiday homes in Africa to find fewer and fewer crevices to build their nests, as we get better at sealing roofs to keep out draughts.  Swifts nest in a few places in the town, but as in other towns, Tubbercurry's Swift population has been in rapid decline.  The decline in the Swifts is at odds with Ireland's reputation as a hospitable and welcoming country, so the Tidy Town Committee embarked on their ambitious scheme to attract the Swifts to special nestboxes in Tubbercurry designed for their needs.  The development also has some unique design features to prevent other species taking up residence.

Swift Terrace is the newest and most exclusive address in Tubbercurry. The development of cosy single storey apartments for Swifts is  located on a store just off the Circular Road belonging to local SuperValu owner GearĂ³id Surlis, and is the brainchild of the local Tidy Towns Committee, with the assistance of BirdWatch Sligo.  To assist birds in finding the development, a sign is planned, but in the meantime, and in case they can't read, a sound system has been broadcasting the sounds of a successful Swift colony, to ensure the birds find and inspect the 'show-house'.  The project was erected by local contractors Dermot Molloy and John James Maye, with finance for the project coming from local fundraising, and a generous grant from Sligo County Council's Community Heritage Grant Scheme.  Surlis's SuperValu sponsored a box and provided a site for the development.

The first Swift is seen flying straight into one of the nest boxes
Photo Michael Casey
The last few weeks have been an anxious time as we scanned the skies above the town roofline for the characteristically slim profiles and direct flight action of returning Swifts.  They returned in the first week of May in small numbers, but the best hope was the later arriving birds, which tend to be the young 'first-time buyers' a key market for the project. These arrived this week, with a noticeable increase in the numbers of Swifts in Tubbercurry since mid-week.  We waited with bated breath to see if they would approve the accommodation.  At 7.50am on Saturday morning 8th June,  the first Swift was seen entering one of the nestboxes.  While it is too soon to say that these birds will breed this year, it is an excellent start, and the committee are now confident that their unique development won't be a 'ghost estate'.

Friday 21 June 2013

First occupant in a heat-proof box

UPDATE August 2013 The first occupants succeeded in raising 2 chicks
UPDATE 2014: 2 chicks raised
UPDATE 2015 & 2016: 2 chicks raised both years
UPDATE 2017: the birds have returned
UPDATE 2018: 3 chicks successfully fledged

Written by Dick

It is that time of year when many people are waiting for their first Swift to occupy their new boxes. Some people will have spent some years at it, but others are more fortunate. Judith Wakelam is one person who would dearly love to have Swifts nesting on her bungalow, she spends many hours every year rehabilitating Swifts. She also provided the inspiration for the successful nest-boxes in her local church in Worlington. Her bungalow is barely suitable. The only location high enough is the apex of the south-facing gable end.

A few years ago, we built some prototype nest boxes to see if one could control the temperature on a south-facing wall. By building a double-walled box, similar to a Zeist, and taking temperature measurements on hot days, we convinced ourselves that it was possible.

One of these prototypes has sat in my garage ever since, until I suggested to Judith that she try it on her south-facing gable end. We installed the box on the 24th May, as well as a tweeter driven by the AfS Box of Swifts.

The box is made of 12mm marine plywood, with an air gap between the two layers of ply on the sides and the top. The slope-backed front means the mid-day sun cannot hit the front of the box. The whole thing is painted with Sandtex, mixed with grit to simulate bricks, which, fortuitously, matched Judith's bricks quite well. The tweeter is installed on the underside of the box. Photo Judith Wakelam
Well, we are happy to report that Judith now has two Swifts happily going in and out of her newly installed box, let's hope they stay.

A Swift enters for the first time. Always an exciting moment both for the Swift and for the owner!
The Swift seems to be making good use of the 'landing platform' below the entrance.
Photo Judith Wakelam