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

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