Thursday 24 December 2015

Cherwell Swifts Conservation Project (CSCP) 2015

We are pleased to host another report, for 2015, of the Cherwell Swift Conservation Project. It is, yet again, a good example of what a local group can achieve (see 2014 report)

by Chris Mason

Our objectives are:
  • looking after traditional nest places
  • creating new ones
  • encouraging interest in Swifts   

Report 2015
This year saw the Swifts Local Network (SLN) established. The Network (which includes CSCP) enables groups and individuals working on Swift conservation in the UK to share experiences and expertise. We already have over 30 members, and it’s proving to be both popular and a great source of inspiration and help.

Edward Mayer and Dick Newell talking
 to visitors at the Birdfair Swift Stand.
In August, Action for Swifts and Swift Conservation organised a Swift stand at the annual British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water. Several members of SLN helped out and the display generated enormous interest on all three days. Do come and visit us at the Birdfair in August 2016 if you can.

Oxford’s Swifts
Much of my Swifts time was spent in Oxford this year. With other volunteers, I helped with a Swift survey for the RSPB which aims to:
          - establish the locations of nesting colonies in Oxford
          - monitor changes in Swift abundance through time and
           - raise awareness of and enthuse people about their local Swifts.

Regarding Oxford and Swifts, we think mainly of the Museum of Natural History. So it’s pleasing to know that there are thriving colonies in several other parts of the City.

Jocelyne Hughes and I undertook talks and walks in Oxford for staff at the University and Oxford University Press (OUP), and as part of Oxford’s Festival of Nature. We are now beginning to build useful relationships in the City. For instance OUP and the Council will take account of nest places which are recorded on properties they own, when doing repair and maintenance work.

Cherwell News
We knew that Bloxham School had nesting Swifts, but we only discovered quite how many when emergency repairs were needed at the school during the nesting season. Thanks to the alertness of local volunteers, the RSPB was called to advise about protecting the nesting Swifts and House Martins. Subsequently the volunteers were allowed to check the whole campus for nest sites. As a result we know that there are at least nesting 13 pairs. We now want to create a stronger link with staff and students at the school to increase interest and help monitor the nests.

Reg Tipping and Bill Cupit have again been active in putting up nest boxes. In Stanton St John which has only one building with nesting Swifts, boxes were installed in the tower of the parish church. Already in the first season Swifts have been seen approaching but not so far entering, the boxes. There was also a lot of interest in the boxes in Bodicote church tower.
With Councillor Mallon at 1 West Street Banbury
at one of the Cherwell Council’s Build! sites.
Cherwell District Council has been installing Swift bricks in its 'Build!' developments. Build! is the Council’s scheme to create about 250 new affordable homes in the District.

Alison Urwick and children making Swift
badges at the Oxford Festival of Nature.
We have continued to give talks and show the film Swift Stories. We had stalls at 2 major local events – the Oxford Festival of Nature organised by the local Wildlife Trust (where lots of children made Swift badges helped by Alison Urwick and David Yates), and the Wychwood Fair.

Walks were arranged in Cropredy and the Sibfords. Both evenings were memorable because we met the unsuspecting owners of important Swift homes (several nesting pairs in each) and chatted at length about their Swifts and the importance of looking after the nest places. Liz Moore made some very useful contacts on a walk in north Kidlington which resulted in requests for several boxes.

We took 6 injured Swifts and one Swallow from Oxfordshire to Gillian Westray in Laverton for her expert care. Thanks to her skill and dedication all the birds were successfully rehabilitated and released.

Also a young Swift which had been disturbed by building work was taken to Richard Woodward who has a nesting colony at his home in Combe. Richard fostered the young bird with a pair of his own Swifts which had a single nestling of similar age, and both birds successfully fledged after a couple of weeks.

Further afield
There’s a very good news story from nearby Daventry. Ian Dobson (another SLN member) persuaded the owners of the factory where he works to put up nest boxes (photo left). The boxes have only been up 2 years, but this year birds were seen flying into 2 of them. There must be plenty of similar opportunities we could propose at factories, offices and other non-residential buildings in the district. Any suggestions?
Finally please ask me if you’d like to borrow Swift Stories, or want me to show extracts to a local audience. It’s available free.

From early 2016 I shall have greetings cards of Swifts and some local churches (Horley, Carterton, Kidlington, Upper Heyford and Shenington) for sale. Do let me know if you’d like to see them or think there is an opportunity for local sales. Proceeds will go towards care and rehabilitation of injured Swifts and Hirundines.

My thanks again to all who have monitored and reported on nest sites, sent in records, raised alerts about building work and made space for Swifts in their homes; to those who have organised walks and meetings and helped at events; to TVERC for checking the records so carefully and submitting them to the Council, and to all at the Cherwell DC who have made good use of the data; and to the ever-willing team of nest box installers.

Chris Mason

Saturday 12 December 2015

Vine House Farm wildlife towers

As a result of being invited to give a talk to the South Holland Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, we had the pleasure of staying with Nicholas & Ann Watts at Vine House Farm, where, on a tour of the farm, I was shown a number of interesting towers, built for Barn Owls, Kestrels, Tree Sparrows and other species, which struck me as being a very nice model for a Swift Tower.

by Dick

Vine House Farm is an exemplary farm for wildlife conservation. Nicholas was awarded an MBE in 2006 and he won the RSPB 'Nature of Farming' award in 2013 (see here) and just recently, the Champion Sustainable Farming Award. The keys to success at Vine House Farm are many innovative ideas for providing habitat, including creation of ponds and reservoirs, hedges in parallel rows bordering meadows and other uncultivated plant life; provision of bird food and food crops; organic cultivation; and large numbers of nest boxes for Tree Sparrows, Barn Owls and Kestrels.

The farm is a profitable going concern of about 2500 acres, much of it used for growing bird food sold to feed garden birds.

You can read about Nicholas and the farm by googling e.g. here and here

Hexagonal tower with entrances for Barn Owls, Kestrels and Tree Sparrows

Square Tower with entrances for
Tree Sparrows, Barn Owls and Kestrels
One bird that is not nesting on the farm is the Swift, but what the farm does have is 6 brick-built towers which, to my eye, are a very good model for what an effective Swift Tower could be, so we thought it worth including some pictures here, in the hope of giving people ideas.

The hexagonal tower above has entrances under the eaves for Tree Sparrows and other cavity nesters, such as tits. There are also more Tree Sparrow nest boxes in the lower half. Larger entrances lead to accommodation for Barn Owls and Kestrels.

One of the square towers, left has provided accommodation for 6 species, including Stock Dove, Jackdaw and Mallard.

These towers were built using reclaimed bricks and local manpower for the construction. Such a tower could be built for something like £3000.

At 4 metres high at the eaves, these towers would require little in the way of modification for Swifts. Though not essential, slightly higher eaves, say an additional metre, could be an advantage.

The hexagonal structure, in particular, would make an attractive addition to any project, and could accommodate a substantial Swift colony.

Friday 20 November 2015

Maurice Wilkinson's nest boxes

Maurice Wilkinson has been attracting Swifts and House Martins to his house in Needingworth since 2010. He has a number of innovative ideas which are worth sharing, including the use of uPVC as a material, and simulated eaves for House Martins.  It is a good example of how to grow a Swift and House Martin population in a rural village, estimated at 3 pairs of Swifts in 2009 to an expanding population which has reached 8 pairs in 2015 together with 15 pairs of House Martins.

A  DIY uPVC box and 3 Schwegler 17's
Maurice started attracting swifts into Schwegler 17 nest boxes in 2010, after a single bird was seen trying to regularly access a House Martin nest the previous year. Calls were played each summer. Swifts subsequently visited, with first breeding in 2014.

He then started to make his own boxes out of 9mm uPVC, normally used for fascias and soffits.

Occupied artificial House Martin
Nests under normal eaves
uPVC is an ideal material as it has good thermal properties, it reflects sunlight, is waterproof, indeed, it is designed to resist all weathers.

Maurice's boxes have a plywood floor, which gives some absorbency.

In 2015, Maurice had 2 pairs of Swifts, in his own-designed nest boxes, as well as 1 pair in a Schwegler box. 2 more pairs took up residence during the summer in Schweglers, building nests, with several birds investigating other boxes.

Occupied artificial House Martin 
nests under simulated eaves
Maurice has also attracted House Martins into artificial nests under his eaves, as well as under simulated eaves on his gable end. In 2015 he had 17 occupied House Martins nests, the highest number to date.

The simulated eaves are also made of uPVC, so they should have a long life. 

An artificial House Martin 
nest beneath a uPVC Swift box
Plywood exposed to the elements eventually deteriorates. There is a case for plywood boxes, which are exposed, to be given a uPVC roof.

Maurice fitted a uPVC double box on his neighbour's house and another near neighbour has put up 2 of John Stimpson's Zeist boxes, with another 2 to be put up this winter.

This autumn he has added more Schweglers and uPVC boxes, making a total of 29 Swift homes on his house. 

There are now 23 artificial House Martin nests plus 5 naturally built nests on Maurice's house.

Friday 13 November 2015

Owlstone Road, Newnham, Cambridge

In 2011,  we installed two 4-box Swift cabinets on 2 houses in Owlstone Road, Newnham. As in many places over the years, a street with a vibrant Swift population had been reduced to virtually nothing. The first Swifts probably occupied the cabinet on Pam and Vic Gatrell's house in 2014, but they were away for much of the summer, however in 2015, 2 pairs were definitely in residence, and one of them raised 2 chicks. 

by Dick

Two chicks looking out of the cabinet. Photo Vic Gatrell
Not being satisfied with this, Pam and Vic wanted more boxes. While we could have suggested a second cabinet, instead, we took a good look at the structure of the gable end, and suggested built-in boxes.  

The gable wall is 2 bricks thick, with no cavity and is built in Flemish bond: a sequence of headers and stretchers. Removal of a header makes a hole all the way through the wall. This was relatively easy, as the bonding was soft lime mortar.

Two entrance pieces and their moulds
With previous experience of retrofitting entrances fabricated out of airbrick liners, (here and here), this time we decided to try something different, with entrances cast in a mould using a 50:50 cement/sand mixture. 

The mould was made on a 3D printer. This meant the hole could be made to a fine tolerance, with dimensions 65mm x 29mm on the inside and 68mm x 32mm on the outside. Thus it was slightly tapered, allowing easy extraction from the mould and any rain drops would tend to flow out rather than in.

Casting entrances in a mould is a lot easier than slicing up airbrick liners.

Pam and Vic own the part of the wall
left of centre. Photo Pam Gatrell
Apart from manufacturing the entrances, the only other thing we did was to build the first nest box. We then handed over to Newnham Property Services who fitted all 6 entrances in the wall, built the remaining 5 boxes and fitted them inside the roof-space.

The work also included making a trap-door from an upstairs bedroom into the roof-space.

The end result is very pleasing, and bodes well for the return of a thriving Swift colony in Owlstone Road.

The following pictures should be self-explanatory.

[For Newnham Property Services, contact Marek on phone 0773 137 6154]
6 new entrances; the natural colour of the cement/sand mixture
matches the brick colour remartkably well. Photo Pam Gatrell

Design drawing for the nest boxes. All boxes are fitted with a perspex back.
The perspex is held in place with slots top and bottom and slides out sideways

6 boxes inside the roof-space. Photo Pam Gatrell
#inserts #Cambridge

Monday 5 October 2015

New houses for people - and for Swifts

A new social housing development by T J Evers, on behalf of Sanctuary Group, of twenty affordable houses in Northumbria Close, at the northern end of the village of Haddenham in Cambridgeshire is now complete. As it is a greenfield site, with much of natural history interest in the surrounding area, the developers agreed to incorporate biodiversity enhancements in their plans.

An environmental impact assessment of the site produced a record of Great Crested Newt. However, in consultation with Haddenham Conservation Society, a provision was written into the recommendations written by the eco-consultants, MLM, and subsequently into the planning approval requesting the installation of nestbox accommodation for bird species known to nest in buildings. In the event, this meant primarily Swifts.

Jake Allsop and Dick Newell of Action for Swifts, visited the site and had constructive talks with the building contractors, T J Evers. We offered them a simple solution: to incorporate nestboxes made from clay airbrick liners inside the brickwork of the buildings, concealed behind slip bricks (a ~1 inch slice of brick) with an entrance cut in it, in most cases on the gable end. This is a low cost solution, and easy for the bricklayers to implement. [We have used clay airbrick liners on other projects here and here]

Example of a finished entrance
In this project, the exterior slip brick with its entrance slot is  mounted on the external face of the nest cavity. In this way, the provision of nesting accommodation is achieved without compromising either the fabric or the appearance of the building. 

Fourteen nestboxes were installed. Even in August and during the ongoing building work, workmen reported seeing birds entering some of the boxes. We know that one was a Great Tit, and the others were House Sparrows, but earlier, there was one report of a Swift seen in the vicinity of a box. We will need to monitor the situation closely next season, and if we can persuade one or two house owners to play attraction calls, there is a good chance of enticing Swifts.

Unfinished nest-box, showing the exposed
airbrick liner before covering with slip bricks

We learned something on this project: The size of the access hole to the nest cavity is critical. The recommended dimensions are Length 65-70mm, Height 30mm, but we know that at 30mm, Starlings can squeeze in, so we recommended a height of 28mm (tolerance 27mm-29mm). (Swifts will get into a hole as low as 25mm, but as they wriggle to get in, they may be vulnerable to predators).

In the event, there was some variation in the size of access holes, which is understandable. It suggests that in future, the boxes and their entrances should be pre-fabricated.

The building contractors were entirely enthusiastic and supportive, and it is to be hoped that they will take the message with them to future housing developments that they work on. We also hope that the message from Northumbria Close Haddenham will be heard by other developers across the land. It's the only way we can be sure that there will be Swifts in our skies in years to come.

The nest box entrance is barely visible in this gable end

Tuesday 29 September 2015

Swifts on BBC One Songs of Praise

On July 17th 2015, a BBC film crew visited the Worlington Swift Festival at All Saints Church, for a piece to be included in the religious program 'Songs of Praise' on 27th September. 

You can read the history of the Worlington project up to 2012 on this blogpost and about the last Worlington Swift Festival in 2013 here. In 2013, there were 11 pairs in the belfry, then 20 in 2014 and now 26 in 2015.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

The News from Tashkent 2015

Our Uzbeki friends, Pavel and Elena, began rescuing and rehabbing a few years back, and now their work has grown into a major operation. Operating in difficult circumstances, with very little help, with very few resources, and a limit of time (as they both have demanding jobs), they manage to rehab a large number and variety of species, mostly birds, but some mammals as well. By June this year, for example, they had already taken in over 90 Swifts.

by Jake

Pavel & Elena
Why do they do it? It is clear that rescuing a Swift nestling here or an injured Sparrow there will make no difference to the population of those species. Some people would even argue that it's a waste of time and resources, which could be better spent on other aspects of conservation. But that is to miss the point. We rescue and care for individual animals because - at least this is my view - in so doing we show a “duty of care” for our environment and its denizens. We do more than that: we set an example to others.

White, Black, Bosnly and Shugar
Whatever their philosophy of rehabilitation, Pavel and Elena are totally devoted to every one of their patients. To start with, they give each one a name - Swifts this year included Bosnly, Cobra, Elm, Emilion, Gold, Shugar and White; their Nightjars were Agatha and Ruby; their Scops Owls Solomon and Babayka; their Roller was Jora; and their two beautiful Red-rumped Swallows were Kiki and Melissa. 

Ruby the Nightjar

Most of these, and many others, were successfully rehabbed and released back into the wild. Inevitably, there are cases where the rehab is touch and go, for example, the Scops Owl Babayka, which was brought in with an old wing injury. Against all the odds, Elena and Pavel nursed it back to health and, after two nailbiting months, were able to watch leap from their hand to fly strong and free again.

Solomon the Scops Owl
They also offered to take an injured Eagle Owl, but the people who had it decided to keep it (it was later put to sleep). Swifts, of course, are their main business. By the end of August, Elena sent us a report on the Swift year so far: 

Spring was beautiful, the weather was nice. First fallen Swift chick was 18 days old! We didn't get any fallen “babies” without feathers and with closed eyes. Thankfully! But in June the weather became incredible hot, and Swifts began to jump from roofs. The last wave of swifts was the worst, with more fatalities. We had 120 birds this season, maybe we will have more later…”

Their success is amazing when you remember that they are operating on a shoestring. They depend on donations and the occasional help of friends. They can save petrol money if people who find an injured animal will bring it to them instead of expecting them to go and collect it. To have built aviaries and other keeping cages in these circumstances is nothing short of miraculous. 

Jora the Roller
To have produced posters and other publicity materials to spread the message of their work is equally so. They are getting more and more well-known for their work, and are reported occasionally in the local press. They now have plans to create their own website, with local friends to help them. And they are never short of plans for the future: already, Pavel has started on the building of a greenhouse and a big outside aviary for birds of prey.

What is perhaps most heartening is the way Pavel and Elena have become part of the international network of Swift enthusiasts and Swift rehabbers. A special mention of Ulrich Tigges, who has done so much to support them over the last few years.They are in regular correspondence with other rehabbers: ours - Judith and Deborah - and others such as Christiane Haupt in Frankfurt. 

Kiki the Red-rumped Swallow
They also get occasional visitors to Tashkent, for example, two zoologists from Spain visited them this summer. And, of course, they stay in touch with everyone by email. Their regular reports are a joy to read.

Pavel and Elena, in a word, go from strength to strength: they are the most professional of amateurs, and they deserve all our support.

Monday 31 August 2015

Internal Swift nest boxes in a Belgian school

This project demonstrates a technique that has been used several times in the UK, but using commercial, off-the shelf products. Though possibly more expensive, the end result looks very professional. It uses identical products to this project. Whereas in this country, most projects have attempted to make the entrances 'invisible' (e.g. these four projects: 123 and 4), this project has some similarity to the very successful project in Fulbourn Cambs where the entrances were made conspicuous (5).
A heartening feature is the enthusiastic collaboration of the various stakeholders -  municipal officers, local councillors, building contractors and other interested parties. Without this kind of cooperative effort, schemes of this kind are very hard to bring to fruition. Well done, the town of Jette.

We thank Martine Wauters for allowing us to translate and reblog the post on her blog. In her own words:

The school before work started
This is the realisation of a wonderful project: nest accommodation integrated into a school building

I am pleased to announce that a project that I have been dreaming about for the last 5 years has finally materialised: the installation of eight nestboxes for Swifts integrated aesthetically into the facade of a local school (French section and Dutch section) of my town in Jette (Brussels NW), as part of a renovation project.

And it is the kind of project that I like: the result of a successful collaboration with several groups and individuals: from the municipality, including two aldermen from different political parties and two officials from different departments); one building contractor and his team; and several national and international experts. My thanks to them all!

Components: a face-plate, a pipe and a nest box
In alphabetical order, the contributors to this project are:
Louis Philippe Arnhem (Leuven), Swift expert
Laurence Bottini (Municipality of Jette), Municipal Heritage Department, and responsible for the building site.
Christel Matthijs, Director Gemeentelijke Basisschool Vande Borne (Dutch section of the school complex)
Edward Mayer (Swift Conservation, UK), Swift expert (www.swift-­
Coralie Meeus (Municipality of Jette), Ecoconsultant
A view from the outside
Dick Newell (Action for Swifts, UK), Swift expert (
Johnny Van Belle (Euronet company), Entrepreneur, and his team (www.euronet­
Sylvie Vanderhaegen, Director of the Jacques Brel School (French section)
Claire Vandevivere (Municipality of Jette), Environment
Bernard Van Nuffel (Municipality of Jette), Municipal Property Assets

They are pioneers in the Brussels region, and indeed in the whole of Francophone Belgium Let us hope their example will be followed by many other entrepreneurs, councillors, officials and individuals.

Abroad, experience has shown that this type of development is appreciated by Swifts, who prefer nest boxes affixed under ledges. Fingers crossed that Swifts will soon discover the five­-star hotel we have created for them.

A view from the inside

Inside view of 4 nest boxes

Outside view of 8 entrances


Thursday 27 August 2015

A new swift tower in Amersfoort, The Netherlands

Swift towers are going up everywhere from Northern Ireland to Poland, and from England to Germany. The design, materials and methods for erection and maintenance are varied. Do they work? Occupancy rates continue to be modest, so all reports of Swifts using them for breeding are welcome. One thing for sure: they make a bold public statement. So, even if we don't get a return on our effort equivalent to the success of, say, nestboxes in buildings, they have the effect of raising public awareness of the importance of Swift conservation. The latest example of a Swift tower comes to us from the Netherlands. The design is ingenious, with a foldable mast/pole, allowing easy erection and dismantling for maintenance. We wish our Dutch colleagues luck with their venture

Contributed by Marjo van der Lelie

This new Swift tower in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, was designed and built by the Gierzwaluwwerkgroep Amersfoort (Swift Volunteer Group). It is made of red cedar. This type of wood was chosen for its durable and light qualities. The total weight of the tower is 33 kilograms.

On top of the 8 metre pole
The mast is similar to the one used in the Den helder tower. It is a standard product that is generally used for the lighting of sports fields. It is foldable and weighted so it can support the weight of the tower. The mast is 8 meters high. A platform made of galvanised steelplate is welded on top of the mast. The tower is fixed onto this platform with bolts.
Because the mast is foldable the tower is within easy reach for future work: the mast can be lowered using a winch.

Internal structure
The tower contains a small speaker. Electricity is supplied by a solar panel at the back of the speaker. Twice daily the sound of the swifts is played to entice the swifts. The roof of the structure is doubly insulated to prevent high temperatures in the nest boxes. The centre of the structure also contains a ventilation shaft for cooling the nests.

Ready for erection
The Swift Volunteer Group has christened the tower the ‘Hotel Apus’. This hotel has 15 spacious rooms. Every entrance is decorated with a wooden character. Together they make the word ‘GIERZWALUWHOTEL’, Dutch for ‘Swift Hotel’.

The tower was erected on Friday 26 June 2015. Marjo and Fred van der Lelie and Gijs Valkenhoef were the creative and organisational masterminds behind this swift tower. We hope the swifts will soon take up residence!

More information can be obtained from Marjo and Fred van der Lelie at

And here is the movie!

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Birdfair 2015

We need not have doubted our decision to take a stand at Birdfair, billed as 'The international wildlife event of the year' 2015.  It was busy, exhausting, exhilarating and we got to talk to hundreds of people.

Our presence was a joint effort by Swift Conservation, Swifts Local Network and Action for Swifts. Our display panels showed everything from the problems Swifts face to the solutions.

Visitors were stunned by our display comparing tracks from Cambridge and the Beijing Swift Project, which we believe is the longest recorded migration of any bird other than a seabird or a shorebird.

We had nest boxes on show, as well as 2 Cheng Shengs playing calls, which seemed to be universally liked by all our visitors. We were not difficult to find! On the corner of our stand, we had an Apple computer playing rolling videos of Swifts in nest boxes and nest box ideas.

John Stimpson kindly provided flat-pack Zeist nest boxes for us to sell. We sold all 34 flat-packs, a few of which were a new design. We also sold a good number of Cheng Sheng attraction kits. Together with generous donations, this all helped to cover the cost of the stand.

A number of people said we had the best stand in the show (there were 380 stands) and Edward spoke to a standing-room-only audience. Edward was told that his was the best talk in the whole show!

It would have been even more exhausting, but for our team of volunteers, so thank you to Vida, Jake, Judith, Chris, Peta, Bill, Bob, Maurice, Tanya, Edmund, John, Tim, Glynne, Rowena and Nick (did I miss anyone?). And thank you to everyone who dropped by to see us.

The pictures below tell their own story:
A gleeful Edward mayer. Photo Judith Wakelam
Edward Mayer left and Dick Newell right. Photo Judith Wakelam

Hu Qiongmei (China Birdwatching Society) and Zhu Lei (English name "Robbi")
from Parrotbill Bird Tours, Sichuan, visit the stand
Gray Jolliffe's cartoon and Tom Lindroo's Swift were visible from a long way off

Bill Murrels left and an animated Edward Mayer

Nick Baker and Dick Newell. Photo Rowena Baxter
Our display comparing the migration of Cambridge and Beijing Swifts. Photo Judith Wakelam
Enlarged version of our map - Click to enlarge

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Swift boxes in the sun - by Clarke Brunt

The normal advice for Swift nest boxes is to avoid south-facing walls. The real issue is to not subject breeding Swifts to a high temperature. South-facing walls are fine with the right kind of nest boxes.

by Dick

When Clarke Brunt moved into his house in Milton Cambs in 2006, he found some strange looking nest boxes on the south wall of his house. He eventually discovered that these were Swift boxes modelled on boxes installed on The Hirsel in Coldstream, Scotland by Major Douglas Hume, the naturalist, in 1950-54, with a modification designed to exclude House Sparrows. Clarke converted them back into something looking more conventional as well as adding a number of other boxes of various designs.

5 of Clarkes boxes. The first box occupied is the one on the left,
before it was painted white. He also has Swifts nesting inside
entrances in the eaves. Photo Clarke Brunt
This year, 2015, Clarke had 6 pairs of Swifts breeding successfully, 2 of which were in holes in his eaves, but 4 of which were in nest boxes exposed to the mid-day sun.

The main characteristic of these boxes is that they are painted white and some are made of wood 15mm thick. The Zeist boxes are made of 12mm plywood. This is sufficient to keep the temperature within acceptable limits on this east of south-facing aspect.

Clarke's house, just left of centre.
The Swift boxes are on the east of south-facing wall
I first became acquainted with Clarke as I used to cycle past his house on the way to Cambridge, and I heard Swift calls being played. It took some time before we eventually connected, and since then I have been intrigued by the progress of his colony.

Clarke's garden is a haven for wildlife with regular hedgehogs, newts in the pond, tame Starlings perching on Clarke's hands for food and a wonderful display of plants and beehives and, of course, a great Swift spectacle through the summer.

Clarke's Swifts have been online for the last 3 years, with 3 chicks being raised in both of his camera boxes this year.

So, as we have said before, south-facing walls are fine, provided the walls of the box are thick enough and they are painted white.

You can read more about Clarke's Swifts on his website.


Thursday 6 August 2015

Swifts get established in Dry Drayton

This is the story of a Cambridgeshire Village, originally with no known breeding Swifts, but now with a street with a growing Swift population.

by Rowena Baxter  Photos: Clive Cooper

During June 2008 I noticed several swifts investigating the eaves of the houses in Pettitts Close, Dry Drayton.  These houses were built in 1975, all to a fairly similar design, some with the eaves apex at the front and some with the apex at the side.  All eaves have an overhang of about 9 inches. Knowing that the houses were unlikely to have holes in their roofs or soffits suitable for breeding swifts, I contacted Dick Newell.  He suggested I put up a swift box, or even better, two.  So I bought two Zeist boxes from John Stimpson and Clive fixed them to the east wall of our house, under the eaves and around 7 feet above the garage flat roof.  

I also persuaded a neighbour further down the road to have a Zeist box.  He fixed it to a west-facing wall where the flyway was partly blocked by the house next door [See Fig. 6].

Dick advised that to make it easier to attract swifts to our boxes, I should play swift calls while the swifts are here from mid-May to end of July.  So in 2009 I bought a CD of swift calls from Swift Conservation and initially played calls on a CD player from the bedroom window on the south side just around the corner from the swift boxes.  This didn’t seem very satisfactory as it was not near the boxes, so I set up a very basic CD system in the garage playing swift calls, with speakers in a plastic box on a table on the flat roof beneath the boxes.  This involved my climbing in and out of the bedroom window whenever rain was due to shut up the plastic box to avoid the speakers getting wet.  The CD player was not suitable to be used with a timer.  If we were out for any length of time, away or during bad weather no calls were playing

Fig 1. Two Zeist boxes on south wall, painted white

However, the calls and the boxes attracted swifts that summer and they investigated the boxes, looked inside even, but here I made a major mistake.  Alongside the roof are some trees which blocked the route into the boxes from the east and I felt that this was a disadvantage as the route in from the south was free of any trees and completely open. So after some thought we moved the boxes to beneath the eaves on the south side and painted them white to reflect some of the heat from the sun.

Two more Zeist boxes made by John Stimpson were attached to the house next door, towards the back of the east side, over a flat garage roof, with a clear flyway over the back gardens [See Fig 5].

Fig 2. white Zeist boxes and new cabinet box
For two years I played the calls during May, June and July, in good weather, covering the speakers when it rained.  The swifts, attracted by the call playing, showed no interest in the same Zeist boxes on the south face.  

Following the second unsuccessful season in 2010 I consulted Dick again and he suggested that a cabinet box, end on to the south with four compartments, might be more successful.  The new box, made by Bob Tonks, was attached to the east side, entrances facing south, in April 2011.  The call playing system remained the same, speakers on a table under the box.

During the 2011 season there were plenty of swifts attracted to the calls but none seemed to discover the entrance holes in the new box and none found the other Zeist boxes (where there were no calls playing).

2012 started well.  At least 2 swifts were seen entering the cabinet box mid-May with at least 2 birds going to roost on 21-29 May during a spell of very good weather.  Second mistake made here:  I decided to stop playing the calls since the nest site had been found.  No calls were played for a week or so, and the weather turned cool and wet.   On Dick’s advice we started playing again in early June.  The rest of the summer in 2012 was frequently cool and wet, the speakers were rained on more than once and no further progress was made.

In 2013 swifts arrived rather late probably due to poor weather conditions in early May.  I switched the call playing system to a Cheng Sheng player with SD card, on a timer, with car ‘tweeters’ attached to the base of the cabinet box, which is much more convenient and reliable.  During this season, 2 pairs became established in the cabinet box, but no breeding took place.  

Fig 3. New boxes designed for local sloping eaves
All of the eaves had the same 22.5° slope.

In 2014 2 chicks were successfully fledged from each of the 2 occupied spaces in the cabinet box at the end of July, and late in the season it was realised that 2 chicks were also being reared in the single Zeist box down the road.  

It turned out that the swifts were having no trouble in accessing that box and 2 young fledged as late as 23 August. In the light of this success, and given the tolerance, support and enthusiasm of the local residents, Dick designed a box suitable for sloping eaves and John Stimpson made them.

Fig 4. New boxes being installed
2 each of these boxes were installed on 5 houses in April 2015 and 4 more Zeist boxes were added close to the single one which had successful breeding [see Fig 6] 

One resident made his own Zeist-type box. A smaller cabinet box with two entrances (again made by Bob Tonks) was attached to the house next door in a similar position to our larger, successful one. This wall also houses the 2 Zeist boxes installed in 2012 and both of these have also attracted swifts in 2015 albeit without nesting [See Fig 5].

Fig 5. Cabinet box with 2 entrances 
(note 2 Zeist boxes at rear)
In 2015 2 chicks fledged from the original Zeist box used last year, a 2nd Zeist box on the same house [Fig. 6] was occupied and also produced 2 young; and as last year, 2 compartments in our 4 compartment cabinet box produced 2 chicks each. 

In all, 8 chicks were successfully fledged in Pettitts Close this year.

The moral of this long story is that persistence does pay off eventually.  Keep playing the calls!  Swifts have been made very welcome in Pettitts Close (there are now 23 nesting opportunities on 8 houses) providing us with tremendous entertainment during the 3 months that swifts are our guests.

Fig 6. House with 1 box originally and
4 added in 2015 (note cramped access)
Fig 7: Our first 2 chicks in 2014