Sunday 20 October 2013

A brief history of Swifts at Lyndale Avenue, Bristol

We were sent this story by Mark Glanville, who has persevered with building a successful colony on his house in Bristol. Bristol has been elected Green Capital of Europe 2015 and Mark's colony is an example of what pro-active conservation in the City can achieve.

[Postscript: Mark now has a website]

I have lived in Lyndale Avenue since 1989. It is a 1920’s semi-detached property situated on the outskirts of Bristol approximately 3 miles from the city centre and ¾ mile from the River Avon as the crow flies. The local area has a mixture of both private and council houses surrounded by many parks and open spaces including the famous Clifton Downs.

I have been interested in wildlife in general, and birds in particular, all my life. My own house has a large south-facing garden which I have designed to encourage as much wildlife as possible.

I first became aware that Swifts were nesting in my house in May 2005. Whilst I was painting the front bedroom windows one flew over my head and “disappeared” under a raised roof tile. From that day on my love for these remarkable birds has been immense. 

The original nest boxes
Back in those days, information about Swifts on the internet was very basic indeed, and my first nest box designs were rudimentary to say the least. They looked like long brown shoe-boxes, with a large side entrance. I installed them in a row under the soffit above the garage which gave them only a 3 metre drop. Needless to say they were not successful.

The updated nest-box design
By 2006 I had changed my nest box design, the first of many alterations to come.

I also painted them the same colour as the house (magnolia) to try and blend, purely for aesthetic reasons.  I had also acquired a swift CD which I played almost continuously. My original pair returned to their nest under the roof tiles in late April. Throughout the summer, despite playing the CD on a daily basis, I was unable to attract any newcomers into any of my nest boxes, which now numbered 14.

This routine continued for 2007, 2008 and 2009. As soon as the original pair returned each spring I played the CD as loud and often as I could. This did attract small groups of non-breeders from time to time, but for some unknown reason I couldn’t get them to go anywhere near my boxes.

Nest box cabinet
By May 2010 and after the arrival of my original pair, the design of my boxes had changed once again.
There was now a mixture of all shapes and sizes, each with a ribbed landing strip under the entrance hole. 

It was during June that I had a flash of inspiration.  I was watching a new pair prospecting around one of my drain-pipes and completely ignoring my nest boxes (as they normally did). 

Addition of sections of pipe
These newcomers seemed intent on flying up to and trying to squeeze in behind the drain-pipe where it joins the gutter. They seemed drawn to the darkness. Immediately out came the ladder and I fitted small 80mm sections of black pipe adjacent to each entrance hole on every box.

This worked almost immediately and within a couple of days I had 2 new pairs taking up residence. By the time they left in early August they had both built two perfect small nests. 
In 2011 all 3 pairs returned to breed, they were joined by a pair of non-breeders in June. The previous winter I had installed cameras in all of my boxes, so I was able to record their activities in greater detail in my logs than ever before. I had also removed the small sections of drain-pipe on each box and replaced them by painting the landing strip black, directly beneath each entrance hole.
2-box cabinet with pipe section
This is the design which I have found the most successful and I haven’t changed it since.
In 2012 only 3 out of the 4 breeding pairs returned in May, but again they were joined by another non-breeding pair in June.
In 2013 all 4 breeding pairs returned in May and were unexpectedly joined by another breeding pair in early June making 5 breeding pairs in total. These were joined in July by 2 more non-breeding pairs who took up residency and built their own nests, making it my best year to date with 7 pairs in total (5 breeders, 2 non-breeders - 6 pairs in nest boxes & 1 pair under the roof tiles).
Black pipes replaced with black paint
My only bit of advice to anyone starting out would be to have a little patience. Install the best box design you can (doesn’t matter if it’s homemade or retail). Play the swift CD as loud and as often as possible, and if you are lucky they could take up residence almost immediately. However sometimes though (like me) it might take a little longer, but don’t give up – keep on trying!

Here are some videos:
Swifts in one of my nest boxes in June 2011
Swifts prospecting in July 2013
Mark Glanville

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