Thursday 26 May 2016

New Swift nest sites in the Alcázar of Segovia

When we met Javier Saez Frayssinet in Szczecin, we discussed an idea of how to transform irregular holes in walls into entrances suitable for Swifts. We, AfS, had developed a method suitable for casting entrances in situ. The result of this conversation is most gratifying, with 60 new nest sites, so far, being incorporated in the walls of the castle, it may well end up with over 100 new nest sites.

The Alcázar of Segovia. Photo Wikipedia
The Alcázar of Segovia is spectacular (see Wikipedia), and a wonderful setting for a Swift colony. There were many holes in the walls with the potential for turning them into Swift nest sites. Javier took our idea and used it innovatively to fashion attractive entrances in the walls of the castle.  

The method uses a 'former', an object the same size and shape as a Swift entrance.

2 formers
Inside each entrance is a space at least 15cm x 30cm.

The idea is a development of the Cambridge System, but instead of pre-casting entrance pieces, entrances are created in situ in the wall using the formers.

In this project, pieces of terracotta have been used, allowing the formers to be redeployed before the mortar has fully set.

The pictures below show the results.

An entrance fashioned out of terracotta, with former still in place
A finished entrance

An entrance cast around the former
Some of the new entrances in the wall on the right


Monday 23 May 2016

Beijing Swift Project 2016

On Saturday 21st May, we undertook the next stage of the Beijing Swift Project at the Summer Palace, here in Beijing. 

Some of the team
We succeeded in catching 10 birds with geolocators. 9 of these had good data, 6  from birds tagged in 2015 and 3 from birds tagged in 2014. 2 of these we had caught in 2015, but one was a new bird carrying 2 years worth of data.

So we now have 23 complete tracks, 14 of the 2014/15 migration and 9 of the 2015/16 migration. 

Preliminary analysis shows the birds doing similar things, with some interesting differences, in the 2 annual cycles.

The following is a video animation by Lyndon Kearsley of the results of the 2014-15 migrations. The gaps in the anmation occur in the periods near the equinoxes:

We also succeeded in fitting 46 new loggers of various types: GPS loggers, loggers with accelerometers and pressure sensors, as well as some more light level geolocators. These should give us more valuable information in 2017.

This year, the team comprised Lyndon Kearsley (Belgium), Susanne Åkesson (Lund University), Chris Hewson (BTO), Terry Townshend (Birding Beijing), Wu Lan (Beijing Forestry University), Robert Jolliffe and Dick Newell (Action for Swifts), as well as about 60 people form the China Birdwatching Society and Beijing Normal University led by Professor Zhao.

For more, with pictures, read Birding Beijing

Friday 13 May 2016

"I am a Swift" now in Dutch and Greek

Since the recent adaptation and translation into French, we have now received copies in Dutch and, from Cyprus, in Greek.

Click to enlarge

Since we produced "I am a Swift - I am in trouble", in 2011, we did a second edition in 2015. There has been an Irish adaptation, called "We are Swifts - we are in trouble" as well as a French Version, and now it is in Dutch and Greek.

We are naturally delighted that an idea conceived by Helen Hodgson back in 2011 has now received such wide acceptance.

Our second edition is now out of print, and we are planning a 3rd English edition.

For the various editions, you can contact:

Sedbergh Community Swift project at St Andrew’s Church

When Dick went up the church tower with Edmund at St Andrew’s, Sedbergh, his comment was that ‘this is the most difficult tower I’ve come across yet. Pity it’s your first!’ The church is a good location to try, however, as swifts nest not far away in the eaves of Sedbergh School library. 

by Tanya & Edmund Hoare

St Andrews, Sedburgh 
And undeterred we went ahead, even though the design of box required was rather complex, and needed entrance tubes for the swifts.  The tower is not boarded on all sides. 

Luckily we had fantastic help from Nick, the local vet. Without his super carpentry skills this project could not have been accomplished.

Over the winter he and Edmund have spent many cold hours up the tower working out what to do. But finally the boxes have been installed behind the louvres of the west side, and an attraction call system has been fixed too.

The boxes could be fitted with cameras later.
All we need now is swifts!

The entrance tube is there to get through 2 layers of netting to the outside world

Nick installing the boxes, left, and the completed job, right.

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Internal Swift boxes in a difficult situation

We have had external Swift boxes on our 17th century house since 2004, with 9 pairs in 2015. Being a listed building, the scope for internal boxes is limited, with just one possible location at the top of a gable end which was built about 50 years ago to replace what was a wooden dairy. 

by Dick Newell

There is no possibility of access to the roof space behind the gable. However a test hole showed that there was a cavity 100mm wide behind Dutch bricks 110mm wide. So, I reckoned we could fit a nest box spanning the cavity and 8cm of the outer wall, giving a floor area of 18cm by 25cm - big enough for a Swift box.

The wall is constructed of nicely selected reclaimed bricks of many textures and colours, so the challenge was how to produce forged brick entrance pieces which look the same.

I eventually took the plunge and we removed one brick from high up in the gable and cast a whole brick insert, 3cm thick out of white cement. A nest box was assembled in the cavity, ship-in-bottle fashion, out of cement fibre-board and glue. This is another variant of the Cambridge Swift Box System.

The internal length of the nesting chamber is 30cm in the cavity and 25cm in the outer wall. The head room is 14cm in the cavity and 7cm in the outer wall.

The first box we deemed a success, so 2 more bricks were removed and 2 more inserts were used, one made of a mixture of white and grey cement and the other the same, coated in crushed red-brick .

The 3 inserts looked a little different from the bricks around them, but with a judicious use of a used tea bag, coffee spread with a finger, and cement powder dotted liberally over the surface, a very good match was achieved.

If the Swifts like these first 3 nest boxes, then there is scope for at least another 2 boxes.

Much of the credit for this goes to Bill Murrells and his remarkable brick laying skills.
Old Beach Farm, Landbeach with 3 internal nestboxes at the top of the near gable
Close up of 3 entrances with forged bricks coloured to match the existing brickwork.
Note the tweeter below the alarm box
3 cast brick entrance inserts.
Components of the fibre-board box before assembly in the wall.
The overall internal length in the cavity is 30cm.
The first nest box completed, and the second brick removed ready for assembling the nest box.
The colour of the first box was a little too white, but tea bags and coffee toned it down.
UPDATE July 21st 2016 - the first Swift occupies one of the boxes.  The wire leads to a small tweeter poked in through the entrance:

UPDATE 2017 We have one pair! This was taken from a camera supported in the top entrance.

UPDATE May 2018 - As1 pair bred in 2017, we have added two more internal boxes. The entrance bricks, made of a 50:50 mixture of sand and white cement are stained with 2 applications of a wet teabag - giving a good match to a red brick.

UPDATE July 2019: Numbering the boxes 1 to 5 from left to right, Swifts are in residence in boxes 2, 4 and 5. In box 2 they have raised 2 chicks.

UPDATE 2020: We have Swifts in boxes 2, 3, 4 and 5!


Monday 9 May 2016

Rt. Hon Theresa May MP opens first ever ‘swift hotel’ at Premier Inn in Maidenhead

We have previously reported on Swift nest boxes installed in the Cambridge Premier Inn. This was just one of a number of installations in Premier Inn Hotels.  Seldom does such a project achieve such a high profile as a visit by the Home Secretary herself to switch on the attraction calls, but this is what Jan Stannard achieved in Maidenhead. AfS played its part by advising on the configuration of the boxes within the structure of the building. The following is the official press release, illuminated by a few pictures from the day

·       The Home Secretary opens 20 new swift nest places which have been built into the structure of the new Premier Inn site in Maidenhead
·       Maidenhead and Cookham now holds the UK record for the most swift nesting places created in one year
·       People can find out more about putting up their own swift nesting boxes at

The home secretary switches the attraction calls on, supervised
by Premier Inn sustainability manager, Ben Brakes
Maidenhead, 6th May 2016 – The Home Secretary Rt. Hon Theresa May MP has today opened 20 new nesting places for swifts at the Premier Inn site in Maidenhead. The new hotel opened its doors to the public in November last year, and the nesting boxes were built in to the roof during construction.
Swifts visit the UK in the summer months to nest and breed, but local surveys suggest that their numbers have fallen by 50% in the past 20 years. Their nesting sites have steadily disappeared as roofs are refurbished and old buildings are knocked down.
To combat this decline Jan Stannard, a Maidenhead resident, formed the Maidenhead, Marlow and Cookham Swift Group in June 2015. Since then, 200 new swift nesting places have been created in local houses and churches to provide a home for breeding swifts in the area.
To support the Swift Group’s campaign, Maidenhead Premier Inn agreed to lodge 20 new nesting places in the roof of the hotel. In a first for Premier Inn swift boxes, one of the boxes has been fitted with a caller to mimic the call of a swift in an effort to encourage breeding pairs to use these new sites.

Ben Brakes, Premier Inn sustainability manager

Ben Brakes, Premier Inn Sustainability Manager, said:
‘Swifts are an iconic UK bird. Their arrival in our skies signifies the start of summer and the startlingly decline in their numbers is a real cause for concern. When Jan approached us there was a clear opportunity to build the nesting places into the new site. Hopefully our Premier Inn Maidenhead will house generations of swifts as they breed and raise their young.’

The Home Secretary, Theresa May

Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary and Member of Parliament for Maidenhead, said:
‘I’m grateful to Maidenhead Premier Inn and the Swift Group for working together on this initiative. It is important that new buildings are developed with the natural environment in mind, and this is an excellent example of how this can work in practice. I hope this will be successful in supporting the swift population and reversing the decline in numbers that has been witnessed recently.’

Jan Stannard

Jan Stannard, founder of Maidenhead, Marlow and Cookham Swift Group, said:

‘I have nothing but praise for Premier Inn and Whitbread, whose response has been exemplary. From my first phone call highlighting the issue, the team and their building contractors worked positively and quickly to make the project happen. Now we hope that more localities will be able to work with them to give swifts the support they need around the country.’   

4 of the 20 nest box entrances, under the eaves, near to the wall.

Swift boxes at the BTO

When the Chris Mead library was conceived at BTO's headquarters, there had been a discussion about installing Swift boxes in recognition of everything that Chris had done in campaigning for Swifts. Chris was a pioneer, way ahead of his time, in recognising the problems that Swifts face and doing something about it.

In 2012, a conversation with Andy Clements, BTO director, reinvigorated the idea of installing Swift boxes at the Nunnery in Thetford. The most suitable buildings are Grade 2 listed, resulting in a protracted process, taking 4 years to get permission, and not inconsiderable expense. However, the persistence of David Agombar finally succeeded, so we, Action for Swifts, designed, built and installed 6 boxes on the east-facing chapel, together with an attraction call system and timer switch.

The requirements were for the boxes to be unobtrusive, to be painted a colour that matched the stonework and to not be attached to the stonework. It was also required that access doors be provided for BTO scientists to monitor the boxes for nest recording purposes.

The chapel has open eaves with protruding roof joists, providing a convenient space for boxes between adjacent pairs of joists. Two prototype boxes were built of which one, in discussion with the architect,  John Atkins of Thetford, was chosen as the template for the boxes.

The width and depth of these spaces varied widely so 6 custom made boxes were made, all with different dimensions. The paint used was Sandtex Mid Stone - a colour intended to match stonework.

The boxes are attached to the building by removing the bottom of the box, inserting 2 screws each side into the joists, then replacing the bottom.

Should Swifts occupy these boxes, then we have permission for 10 boxes, so a further 4 boxes may be added in the future.

The AfS team comprised Bruce Martin, Bill Murrells and Dick Newell

The following pictures should be self explanatory

6 boxes before installation

6 boxes installed

3 boxes at the north end, with tweeter on the left box

Close up of 1 box

Bill Murrells, Bruce Martin and David Agombar


Saturday 7 May 2016

Some implementations of the Cambridge Swift Box System

The Cambridge Swift Box System is a method of installing internal nest boxes, by replacing a whole brick or half brick with a cast insert containing an entrance hole, with a nest box inside the building.  

We have now installed boxes in 8 houses with pleasing results in all cases (see examples - scroll down to see all examples). It is particularly straightforward in solid walls, at roof space level, where the headers go all of the way through the wall. Such walls typically have soft lime mortar, so removing a header is an easy job. Below are some pictures of the results from 3 such projects. In all cases, the boxes inside the roof space are a simple plywood construction, with a hinged inspection door.

The first example 
This came about when we were walking down Haddenham High Street and we spotted an old unused Zeist Swift box on a gable end. The owner was in the garden, so we engaged in conversation. There were 3 missing bricks in the wall above the Swift box, so we made the obvious suggestion to her, resulting in 3 new nest places for Swifts, instead of the Zeist box.
[Update 2022 - all 3 boxes are occupied]

The original unoccupied Zeist box, exposed to sun and rain,
with 3 bricks missing from the wall

3 entrance pieces inserted
Close up

The second example
This is right next door to the first example, and was the reason we were walking down Haddenham High Street in the first place
[Update 2017: 2 pairs of Swifts have moved into the boxes on the right]
The whole gable end, with 2 sets of 3 entrances
[UPDATE 2018: all 6 nest boxes are occupied!]

Close up of 3 entrances

The third example
This is an old vicarage in Longstanton.
[Update 2017: the first pair of Swifts has moved in]
[Update 2022: 3 boxes are occupied by Swifts and 1 by Blue Tits
6 entrances virtually invisible from a distance
[UPDATE 2017: 1 box is occupied]

Close up

An idea that has not worked (yet)

In 2010, we installed 3 Swift boxes in St John's Church, Bury St Edmunds. While we all like publicising our successes, it is probably informative to publish the odd failure as well. Despite playing attraction calls every year, with Swifts showing interest and banging the nest box entrances, by 2015, we still have no boxes occupied.
[UPDATE JULY 2016: I suppose it was tempting fate giving this post its title, as the re-engineering described below has resulted in 2 pairs of Swifts raising 2 chicks each]
[UPDATE JULY 2017: the boxes were increased to 12 this year, all of which show some evidence of Swift activity: 4 had chicks, 2 had eggs and 1 well feathered when last inspected] 
[UPDATE JULY 2018: a further 48 boxes were added bringing the total to 60 boxes. When inspected, the number occupied was 25 - a major increase]
[UPSATE JULY 2021: 40 boxes are occupied by Swifts!]

The west side of St John's, the boxes are
near the bottom of the right side
The church has a very high tower, but the windows are not louvred, they have a trellis pattern with a  large number of diamond-shaped holes, with netting on the inside. The entrance to each nest box is an equilateral triangular tunnel, with sides 65mm. This should be enough for a Swift to enter, but clearly they don't like the look of it.

Despite our attempts to make the entrances stand out (literally), it could be that the profusion of holes confuses the birds.

We have decided to re-engineer the entrances, by removing the floor of the triangle, so that the birds have a whole diamond available.

We have also added a small ramp below the entrances to the boxes (see last picture below).

If we could get Swifts into these boxes, the potential of this church is enormous. The pictures below show what we have done.
3 entrances, before re-engineering. The 'ladders' below the entrances were added later.
Close-up of 1 entrance

The 3 boxes rest on the floor

A re-engineered entrance with the entrance
floor removed and a ramp below the box.
The re-engineered entrances reinstalled

The crazy flying birds of Toulon

This story was sent to us by Katherine Dubourg, volunteer and Vice President of the LPO PACA, in Toulon. It is the story of a concerned set of individuals who are doing something to reduce the destruction of Swifts' nests in Toulon. There may be ideas here for some members of the Swifts Local Network in the UK.

(Text translated by Jake Allsop)

SEASON 1: 2015


As elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean coast, three species of swift are present in Toulon in the breeding season:
  • Common Swift (Apus apus) is the most common and most abundant; it nests throughout the city.
  • Pallid Swift (Apus pallidus) is rarer. In Toulon, it nests in the structures of the old port, in naval buildings, in the Bd de la République, and on the cliffs along the coast path.
  • Alpine Swift (Apus melba) nests in the cliffs of Mont Faron and the coastal path.
A Common Swift over Toulon
Photo André Schont (LPO PACA)
A Common Swift over Toulon
Photo André Schont (LPO PACA)
In Toulon, as almost everywhere else, mandatory renovation work is carried out every 10 years, but the restoration or rehabilitation of old buildings does not take account of the swifts' presence or their needs. Given that every single nesting cavity is filled in or destroyed, we were aware that the future of the birds was under threat.
And that is why the LPO PACA and its local volunteer group decided to act in Toulon to ensure that the protection and enhancement of this iconic species so closely associated with our built environment, should be implemented in all works of urban renewal.
In Toulon, which is the third city in the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur region after Marseille and Nice, an ambitious urban renewal program of the historic centre has been ongoing for several years. There is a phased programme for the renovation of all districts, ranging from simple facade cleaning and restoration to demolition and reconstruction of entire blocks. And of course what concerns us is the risk of missing opportunities to provide compensatory nesting accommodation for swifts.
After two years of contacts and meetings, several City Hall services have responded, at first listening politely, then curious to know more, and finally showing great interest in the project. They include: Sustainable Development; Sustainable City; Protection of Wildlife; Urban Renewal; and Var Development Planning (A combined private and public consortium charged with the rehabilitation of the old centre of Toulon).
BREEDING CENSUS (May-June 2015).
Before a plan for protection can be formulated, it is necessary to gather precise information about the existing situation. For this purpose, a census of swift nesting sites in Toulon was proposed, which in turn led to a project involving a number of participants.
  1. LPO PACA produced a leaflet "Campaign to census breeding Swifts in Toulon". About a thousand were distributed to residents, tourist offices, retailers, restaurants, schools and to various other public places. Some volunteers even went from door to door in the town centre to tell people about the reasons for the campaign.
  2. A conference on "Swifts in the Toulon Built Environment"was led by Katherine Dubourg. (Director LPO PACA) in Toulon.
  3. Katherine also participated in two radio programs on the swifts of Toulon and the Breeding Census Campaign 2015 (RCF and France Bleu Provence), France Bleu Provence also did a life outside broadcast on the arrival of the first swifts.
  4. In the end, nearly 30 people volunteered to participate in the original operation. And even though not everyone was available during the two months of the census, there were regularly between 5 and 12 people, getting out twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays in late afternoon, near the Cafė Culture in the old city centre.
  5. Teams of 2-3 people were then formed. Armed with a section map* and a tally sheet**, they spent three hours with their noses in the air and their eyes open looking for and noting evidence of the birds' presence.
  6. * The local authority topography department kindly provided us with maps of the city showing streets and properties. The old center was divided into eight sectors.
  7. ** The tally sheet recorded the following information: the name or names of participants, weather, sector number, the name of the street, number of buildings, the property reference, the location of nest cavities or nests (eg 3rd pigeon hole to the left behind right gutter), times when birds observed entering or leaving cavity, and the number of A/R observed).
  8. After each survey, data were entered in an Excel spreadsheet, which was then submitted every weekend to the City Hall and to Var Development Planning.
  9. Once the survey was completed, all data were posted to
The census campaign ran from 21 May to 11 July 2015.

Although the Swifts are still present in the city in mid-July, most volunteers were exhausted. No more formal counts were done, but for some of us, observations continued until the end of September, especially for Pallid Swifts, which are the last to leave.

20 sessions of volunteer counting
250 hours of prospecting
384 active nests identified in the old center

In the old centre of Toulon, the majority of nests are in old pigeon holes (there are many old buildings in Toulon) on façades, behind guttering, under tiles and in the frameword of metal shutters, in delapidated walls of some historical monuments such as the Royal Tower, which is an historical monument at the entrance to Toulon harbor.

Location of nests in the Alexander Garden

The Mayor of Toulon in cooperation with LPO PACA has just published a leaflet: "Protection of Swifts in Toulon”, which will now be included by the Urban Planning Department in every future planning application (PIX credit: Swift Conservation). It is also at posted on the official website of the town hall:
A meeting of the various stakeholders - buildings, businesses, architects, public and private donors - should be organized soon by Var Land Development and the City Council to ensure that everyone is made aware of the need for swift conservation in the city.
The Toulon Provence Méditerranée consortium (TPM) is committed to installing several temporary nest boxes on the site of the former Chalucet Hospital to provide accommodation for Swifts dislodged last year during demolition work. These will be installed before the birds arrive.
The Bouygues Immobilier company and ELAN Group carriers have also agreed to incorporate swift nestboxes in buildings in the Eco Font-Pré area which are currently under construction (800 homes of 30,000 m2).

For our part, LPO PACA and our volunteers will resume our surveys in several neighborhoods that were covered last year because lack of time, for example, the Montety district, which is part of a sprawling urban regeneration project. Forty swift nests were observed last year there in just three nights of observation.

A conference on Swallows and Swifts will be presented by Elise Cougnenc (LPO PACA) on Tuesday, March 30 at 17:45 at Peiresc Collège de Toulon tomark the beginning of SEASON 2 Swifts Toulon.

Katherine Dubourg
Vice President LPO PACA
Installing a Schwegler treble box