Thursday 14 August 2014

Cambridge Swift Tower - 2014 update

The breaking news is that, in the 4th summer of playing attraction calls, the Swifts have finally found the nest-boxes.

[Update 2018: We now have 4 pairs in the tower, 2 in the back, 1 in the front and 1 in the side nearer the river. That is up from 3 pairs in 2017]

The tower was built in 2011 and we started playing calls with a customised bird scarer. Swifts showed some interest, but none were seen going very close to the nest-boxes.

We continued in 2012 with the same result and the bird scarer had become unreliable. We suspect the 5 watt solar panel was not quite up to the task, so we installed our own 'Box of Swifts' with a 1.5 inch car tweeter. The result was the same.

So, in 2013, after we had stumbled across the Cheng Sheng player amplifier, we installed a 20 watt solar panel to charge the battery which drove the player-amp and 2 tweeters. This resulted in Swifts actually making contact with the tower, clinging to the boxes, but still not finding any entrances. As a result of this, we made some more entrances where we thought the birds were trying to get in.

Solar panel facing south at 30°
In 2014, things seemed much the same, with Swifts regularly seen near the tower, but none making an entrance. At one point the battery went flat, so we resited the solar panel so that it was never in the shade and pointing in the optimal direction (south sloping 30°).

We seemed to be making little progress, so, in mid June, I popped an email to Brian Cahalane, an attraction call playing afficionado, to ask what would he do? His reply was to start playing calls at dawn and finish at dusk.

So the timer was reset to go from 5am to 12 noon and from 5pm to 10pm - this gave 12 hours of playing, we are not confident how much longer the solar panel and battery could go in a day. We had not previously played at the ends of the day for fear of disturbing local residents.

On 26th June, Bob Tonks was cycling past the tower, and he saw a Swift exiting one of the boxes (so thank you Brian and Bob). Since then we have seen Swifts entering or leaving 15 different boxes, 12 on the front and 3 on the back. Most observation has been done on the front. We saw no Swifts entering the new entrances that we had made on the back.

The only entrance in the top half of the back;
visited by swifts in 2014
We don't think there are 15 potential pairs for next year, as this was probably a small number of birds exploring their options.

One or 2 observations:

Although there are entrances at all levels on the front of the tower, Swifts only entered boxes in the top half. On the back, there is only 1 entrance in the top half, and Swifts used it. So, should we add more entrances in the top half on the back?

3 entrances with white canopies
were visited by swifts in 2014
Another thing, on the front, the paint had peeled away from the canopies above 3 entrances, turning them white. Swifts were seen entering these 3 boxes. The statistical probability of randomly choosing 3 specific boxes turns out to be about 2% - so should we paint a few more canopies white, especially in the lower half?

For the whole of July, if one loitered near the tower one would see anything between 3 and 10 Swifts in the near vicinity with some impressive screaming displays past the face of the tower. If this is a taste of what is to come, then it should be an impressive spectacle on summer evenings in the future.

Monday 11 August 2014

Erich Kaiser's swift colony

[This may be a temporary post, as the video may disappear at any time.]
This is an inspiring video showing how Erich's Swifts trust him at close proximity, provided he does not disturb them in their space.

Sunday 10 August 2014

Band of volunteers work tirelessly to keep childhood memories alive

[It is nice when the press puts out a positive story, especially when they get their facts right. So we unashamedly reproduce this piece that appeared in the Newmarket Journal.]

With suitable nesting locations rapidly dwindling it is no wonder that our country's swift population is in decline. Recognising this problem, volunteers at Worlington are working to re-establish the area's swift population, bringing back the once familiar sight of swifts circling around the village's church.

Click to enlarge

Pictures by Geoffrey Pieter and Judith Wakelam;

For many they will always evoke memories of childhood as they wheel, tirelessly, high in the summer skies and although the swift's stay on these shores is short the tiny birds have, for decades, been a much-loved feature of the countryside.

But now they are in need of help as numbers are declining, not least as modern buildings have fewer holes for them to nest in.

Among a group of dedicated volunteers at the forefront of the campaign to help re-establish swifts is Worlington resident Judith Wakelam.

Her interest in the tiny globe-trotting birds was first sparked more than a decade ago when she picked one up that had fallen from a nest and set about trying to find out how to care for it.

Chris Mead ©BBC
"No one could really give me any advice until I reached the British Trust for Ornithology and with the help of member, Chris Mead, I managed to rear the bird," said Judith.

Since then she has become something of an expert and the results of her hard work are evident to anyone glancing up at the sky around the tower of the village's All Saints Church which is currently full of swifts.

The tower is now home to 38 special swift nest boxes, the first of which were installed in 2009, with the first pair of swifts nesting the following year. Now there are around 20 pairs rearing young in the church.

And at her bungalow in Church Lane, Judith has not only had a special nest box installed which she constantly monitors with the help of a television camera, she also has three young swifts. the Ely Three as she calls them, which came to her via builders replacing a roof in the city, and which she has hand reared and will release on Newmarket Heath within the next few days.

Fed on wax worms and black crickets, the tiny birds appear clumsy but once they are freed they can fly, balancing on the air at up to 10,000 feet and unlikely to ever land again feeding, drinking, preening and even mating on the wing.

"They are truly remarkable birds." said Judith. "They are prompted to leave their nest by hunger as their parents will already have begun their migration so they are completely on their own.

The birds will fly to Africa in August and return to Britain to nest in April, a round trip of some 22,000 kilometres and they will return to same nesting site, which is why Judith wants to encourage churches, households and schools to install nesting boxes.

"If everyone put up just one nest box it would really help," said Judith, who is a member of Action for Swifts, an organisation which offers advice on rescue and conservation of the birds.

And as a volunteer, Judith takes calls from all over the country and beyond from people who have come across the birds and want to help them.

Hers is truly a labour of love and she is heartened that her efforts are bearing fruit. An elderly village resident came up to me recently and said I want to thank you for what you have done to get the swifts back in the church tower," said Judith. "He told me he had not seen as many birds since around 1951 when the church roof had had to be replaced and the nesting holes were blocked up."

As for the swifts, to Judith they have become part of her family. "The fact that these tiny things will leave here totally alone and fly half way round the world and back again is amazing," she said.

"And when I release one it is a moment for a few tears, one of those sad but happy moments which leaves me looking forward to welcoming them back next year." For more information on how you could provide a nesting box for swifts, contact Judith on 01638 715971 or go to