Sunday, 21 July 2019

Cameras in Swift boxes

Many people insert a camera into their Swift boxes. Normally the only option is to place the camera somewhere between the entrance and the nest, so at no time can you see the whole "stage". Usually the camera is aimed at the nest, and you may be lucky to see some wing tips as the birds peer out of the entrance.

This post is the result of attempts to get better pictures with cameras in nest boxes, particularly in All Saint's Church Landbeach.  It is part of a project to generate interest and awareness of swifts in churches sponsored by British Birds Charitable Trust.

We do 3 things:
  • Modify the nest box so that either the nest is between the camera and the entrance (or so that the entrance is between the camera and the nest)
  • Include white lights
  • Choose an appropriate focal length for the lens.

Nest box modification
In Landbeach church in 2018, 8 boxes were occupied (increased to 11 pairs this year, 2019). We modified 4 of these by extending them with a housing to take a camera. We installed 2 cameras, which are easy to move from one modified box to another. The original boxes had internal dimensions W 200, D 200, H 150 and were positioned behind louvres in the belfry.  The camera housing simply hangs onto the back of the box.

Original nest box with camera housing extension.
White lights
We used analogue cameras from Green Feathers who also supplied the white lights. These cameras are not as high quality as WIFI or IP cameras, but they are certainly easier to deploy. The lights have a sensor so that they are switched on and off suddenly when the sun comes up and goes down. When the lights are off, the camera works in the infrared, producing the familiar ghostly images at night.

Any concerns that the Swifts would be disturbed by sudden changes in light levels were unjustified - they appear to take no notice (similarly, they take no notice of some very loud bell-ringing).

The lights not only enable one to see colour,  they greatly improve the quality of the imagery and they greatly reduce light through the entrance dazzling the camera.

Lens focal length
One needs to choose a focal length compatible with the desired field of view. Too long a focal length will restrict it and too short will mean that things of interest appear too small. We used a focal length of 2.8mm

Example results

Video-clip from 4th July

Video-clip from 20th July

Saturday, 22 June 2019

An example of how traditional nest sites were preserved during a building renovation project

This is an excellent case study of what can be achieved to preserve and create Swift nest sites in a sensitive situation Many thanks to Lynda Huxley, Swift Conservation Ireland for forwarding.

Lyon's Mill - click to enlarge
Lyons Mill is a landmark historical building in Finisklin in Sligo located just off the town bypass. It is a four-storey mill/warehouse finished in beautiful cut limestone, completed about 1820.

With the decision to build a new LIDL on the site, came the exciting news that the entire Mill building would also be refurbished as part of the project (the new LIDL has been built to the rear of the Lyons Mill site.

The sharp-eyed Will Woodrow of Woodrow Environmental Solutions realised there were Swift nest sites in the building, and a multi-agency collaboration to preserve and improve Swift breeding sites swung into action.

Half-brick nest site entrances were obtained by Swift Conservation Ireland from Action for Swifts in the UK. These half bricks were inserted where ‘traditional’ nest sites were thought to exist and additional ones inserted which means that around 30 Swift nests can now be hosted in the refurbished Mill, a really wonderful outcome. In addition a water proof speaker was inset near the nest site entrances and attraction calls will be played from May to July each year.

Access points and suitable cavities for bats have also been retained.

2 entrances and a built in speaker for attraction calls
If you look hard enough, you can see 3 entrances
The entrances are cast with a 50:50 sand/cement mixture
Sincere thanks to all of the people and organisations who came together to make this happen, in alphabetical order:

Barbara McInerney (Bat Consultant)
BirdWatch Sligo (Micheal Casey)
Carrick Conservation Architects
LIDL Ireland
McCabe Architects (Gary)
McCallion Construction (esp Paul)
National Parks & Wildlife Service (Miriam Crowley)
Sligo Co Council (Siobhán Ryan, Heritage Officer)
Swift Conservation Ireland (Lynda Huxley)

Action for Swifts (Dick Newell)
Woodrow Environmental Solutions (Will Woodrow)

Friday, 21 June 2019

Swift Mapper

It has been many years since Geoff Beale set up UK-Swifts to record the locations where swifts breed. Geoff's efforts were taken over by the RSPB and became the Swift Inventory in 2009. Since then a number of other inventory systems have been implemented by local groups and the RSPB system has recently undergone a revamp. All of these systems take their input online and have had a number of differences between them. Now there is a major step forward:

First, there is a new system, Swift Mapper, which is a mobile App from Natural Apptitude

Second, a concerted effort has been made to iron out inconsistencies between the various systems so that data transfer between them is straight forward.

Swift Mapper is a very well put together system, and is a very convenient option for inputing Swift breeding data. In essence Swift Mapper can be a data capture portal to these other online systems.

People who maintain other systems can be given access to Coreo, the data management system underpinning Swift Mapper, to download data for input to their own systems.

Swift Mapper has been live for some time and is working very well. The purpose of this post is to give it a push as we think it could transform the capture of Swift breeding data.

The Android version is available here:
The iOS version is available here:

Friday, 31 May 2019

Alsager Town Council

This is a news item worthy of replicating in many places. Thank you to Councillor Jane Smith for sending it to us

Left to right: (click to enlarge)
Antony Cook, Alsager Urban Wildlife Initiative
Nicola Clarke, Alsager Town Council clerk
Cllr Jane Smith, Alsager Town Council
At Alsager Town Council in Cheshire we've been helping the town become more ‘swift-friendly’ by installing bespoke nesting boxes for endangered swifts under the eaves of the council offices in the town centre.

Last summer, three special swift nesting boxes were donated as a joint project between myself, Alsager Urban Wildlife Initiative and the local Sustainability Group. Contractors from KDE Ltd. kindly installed the three nesting boxes pro bono while they were using a cherry picker for electrical work on the town council’s offices. Even the installation garnered lots of interest from passers-by, many of whom remarked just how much they'd love to see and hear swifts in Alsager again. We also installed a simple, low-cost speaker system along with the nest boxes on to help attract swifts with recorded calls.

I felt it was really important that we play our part as a local community to help these much-loved birds who give us one of the most iconic natural spectacles of sight and sound each summer, and I think it’s a really progressive move by Alsager Town Council, being a great example of local councils can work with groups of enthusiasts to help wildlife thrive right in the heart of our communities. I hope that other town and parish councils follow suit, as swifts certainly need all the help they can get.

Antony Cook from Alsager Urban Wildlife Initiative says that a small town such as Alsager should easily be able to accommodate several swift colonies. We have lots of trees here as well as a town centre mere, which is fantastic habitat for flying insects. We hope putting up nest boxes on the Town Council building will inspire others to do the same in their homes.

The nest boxes were supplied by CJ Wildlife/Vivara

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Ely Cemetery Chapels

Of all of our swift nest boxing projects this has to be the most attractive and stunning. Built in the mid nineteenth century, the twin chapels are situated on a small hill in attractive mature woodland. It is a most beautiful, peaceful and secluded spot.

The project was suggested to us by Councillor Elaine Griffin-Singh, and approval was quickly forthcoming from Ely City Council. Richard Delahe and his staff enthusiastically embraced the project, and did nearly all of the work installing the boxes.  As we arrived on site, 4 Swifts were repeatedly screaming around the chapels, below head height, and we assumed they must have been already breeding somewhere under the very low eaves.

The belfry, with 8 sides has a single bell, with no way currently of ringing it. The louvres have vertical battens on each side to hold netting that excludes wildlife. Each of 5 swift cabinets replaces a section of netting on 5 louvres and was secured by screws through the sides into these battens. Cabinets on the other 3 sides would have obstructed entry. The belfry now contains 50 nest boxes.

A tweeter playing attraction calls in the middle of the belfry can clearly be heard on all sides

Ely Cemetery twin chapels and tower

5 cabinets with 10 nest chambers each. Every other chamber is painted black inside.
Part of the installation team. From left to right: 
Ben Lather, Dick Newell, Bill Murrells and Richard Delahe

A panorama shot of the boxes by Richard Delahe

The boxes are installed behind the lower part of these louvres

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Shrimp Cottage case study

This case study shows two things: just how small a space a swift can use for a nesting place and how to provide nesting places when roofs are repaired.

by Alan Collett, Aldeburgh's Amazing Swifts

Swifts were seen entering a nest site on a number of occasions in 2018. The owners were advised and asked to contact us should they consider renewing their roof at any time. This they did in February 2019.

Following discussions with the roofing contractors, we were allowed to be present as they removed the pantiles. We were expecting to find the nest within the roof space but actually found it 30cm up the roof slope resting on the narrow batten which supported the tile.

The Swifts had been climbing up the roof felt over the first batten under the arch of the pantile.

 It had then turned left under the tile to the adjacent arch and made its nest on the batten - possibly on an old sparrow’s nest. Cramped and hot!

The headroom would have varied between about 30mm and, perhaps 85mm at the high point of the tile. The headroom over the nest itself may have been about 50mm.

We were planning to reinstate the nest in the same location but as we couldn’t guarantee the original access route to the nest, we looked to re-site the nest within the box section behind the fascia using the same entry point.

The existing entry point was lowered slightly and then built up at the sides to produce a correctly sized entrance hole, over which the felt would lay. The route up the roofing felt was then restricted and the bird ‘made’ to go into the box section behind the fascia and above the soffit with a ramp leading down to the relocated nest.

The felt was trimmed to allow access to the hole and the pantiles replaced.

Another nest site was then created further along the roof.

Time will tell how successful this will have proved, but it does demonstrate that with the cooperation of owners and contractors, a place for wildlife can be incorporated into a building without risking the integrity of the roof.

Our thanks to the owners of
Shrimp Cottage Aldeburgh
and 3A Roofing Ltd Ipswich
A "bridge" has been installed across the gutter
in front of the entrance

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Abbots Ripton Hall

Abbots Ripton Hall is a stately home with parapet walls offering ideal opportunities for Swift nest boxes, and it is the home of Lord de Ramsey who is very much a wildlife enthusiast.

For this project we supplied half brick entrance pieces and John Stimpson provided modified Model 30's. Instead of the entrance in the front, a larger rectangular hole was made in the back. The work was undertaken by Gavin Smith and his team.

The parapet is a solid wall, with plenty of headers providing opportunities for Swift boxes. Removing the headers was easy enough, but on the inside, some of the walls were rendered on top of chicken mesh which required cutting away.

8 boxes have been installed in 3 different parts of the parapet. If/when these are successful, there is scope for many more.

From this aspect, all of the boxes are in view, but barely visible
3 out of 8 entrances
Model 30's inside the parapet
Lid off showing access tunnel through the wall.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

The Cambridge System with circular entrance pieces

This is a nice implementation of the Cambridge System with circular entrance pieces

Thanks for the pictures are due to Graham Fry, who lives near St Neots.

With rendered walls, one cannot see where the bricks are in order to go about removing a brick to make an entrance.  While one could tackle the problem from the inside, one risks making a mess of the render. So making a hole with a  4 inch core drill from the outside is another way of doing it. Then circular entrance pieces neatly fill the hole.

This is a solid wall 9 inches thick, but a 4 inch core drill is an efficient way to make a hole all of the way through.

Making holes with a 4inch core drill
Entrance pieces inserted
Nest boxes installed.
A circular entrance piece

Saturday, 13 April 2019

First installation of retrofitted S boxes

These are the first pictures of retrofitted S boxes. The S box is particularly suited for retrofit as it occupies just one course of bricks, and, normally is confined to the outer leaf and the cavity, though this first installation was slightly different.

John Hunt in Northants already has Swifts breeding in a Zeist and a Model 30 on his gable, so he decided to give the S box a go. The boxes are at a level where there is an unheated room, and John wanted access to the boxes from the inside.  As the S box is made on a laser cutter, it can be tailored to fit the space available, so it was easy to adjust the depth of the box to bridge the cavity and inner leaf. In this case, the cavity was 60mm, so extra floor area needed to be found somehow. The floor area is 475 sq cm and headroom is 88mm, quite a bit larger than our successful experimental swift bricks

Although essentially straightforward, it was not as easy as it should have been because of a measurement miscommunication, a sliver of brick required trimming with an angle grinder.

Normally the back of the S box is closed, but we cut a rectangular hole to allow for a removable door. It also allows for a perspex back and a camera in due course.

S box with brick slip cast out of sand and cement.
Note clear labelling of Top (and Bottom)

S box rear view showing the nest form.The open back was a tailored feature for this implementation.

2 S boxes installed. A reasonable colour match was achieved with some red dye.

Distant view of gable

Internal view of installed box with Velcro surround
Backs installed


Thursday, 28 March 2019

Dinton Church

This is a job particularly well done, so should be an inspiration to others. Back in August 2018 Sue Hetherington got in touch about swift boxes in the belfry of Saints Peter & Paul in Dinton, Bucks. The belfry has large louvres, more widely spaced than normal, meaning that 2 levels of entrances could fit between each pair of louvres. (We did something like this in St Mary's, St Neots).

After batting photos and measurements back and forth we, AfS, suggested a configuration (see below) which has been very competently adapted and implemented by carpenter Nick Deschamps, resulting in 16 new nest boxes in the belfry. Rosemary Jackson takes up the story:

The church of SS Peter & Paul, Dinton
"The idea for installing swift nest boxes in our village church was triggered by three incidents in 2017.

We went to the Rutland Bird fair in August 2017 and there we saw the Action for Swifts display. An enthusiastic carpenter had brought the front of a bank of nest boxes which he told us fitted in his church tower and had attracted a new colony of swifts to his village.

Also, in 2017 there was a study group amongst the churches in my area about the idea of the Eco Church and how we could make our churches more environmentally friendly.

The next summer I found out that the only nest site for swifts in my area had been blocked up and we were then very concerned that we would not get swifts back in the village. Happily, one pair nested somewhere because we had five swifts screaming around the village in August and giving us such great pleasure as they always do.

I decided that I would act to promote swifts somehow. I wrote a book about a family of swifts for young children and an artist friend illustrated it. By amazing serendipity her husband had just retired and was looking for a project to pursue and the challenge of making swift nest boxes and installing them in the church tower fired his imagination.

16 boxes installed
We realized very quickly that this was no straightforward project. After examining the Action for Swifts website and contacting a Bucks Bird Club friend we were put in touch with Dick Newell who developed a plan of 16 nest boxes to fit our very ancient church louvres inside the bell chamber. Nick set to work on the carpentry and all the winter of 2018/2019 worked on 4 banks of 4 nest boxes. Eventually when the weather got warmer, we were able to try a model in the bell chamber, and eventually mid-March fitted the real things, even putting chicken feathers in the nesting cups to get the swifts started on the soft furnishings.

At the beginning of May we plan to start playing the screaming swift family calls to alert swifts coming back from Africa that there are nest boxes here inviting occupancy.

We also plan that, should we be fortunate enough to attract out own family of swifts we will fit a camera into the nesting box and arrange a cctv so that we can have a birdwatching day with the local school children, setting up telescopes and a laptop with live pictures and information on this amazing miracle bird.

British wildlife is truly wonderful!

Rosemary Jackson,

Church warden "

The original concept model:

Conservation Evidence

Conservation Evidence is a free, authoritative information resource designed to support decisions about how to maintain and restore global biodiversity. It summarises the results of studies that have tested a wide range of conservation interventions and also categorises each intervention according to whether this evidence demonstrates that they are likely to be beneficial, of unknown benefit or unlikely to be beneficial. There is also a Conservation Evidence journal, that publishes the results of studies that have tested the effectiveness of conservation interventions, and welcomes short articles from conservation practitioners.

14 nest boxes in St Mary’s church, Ely, UK
showing 4 boxes with nest forms and 1 box
without a nest form occupied by common
swifts. (click to enlarge)

On searching the Conservation Evidence website for the keyword "swift", there is just one paper, of unknown effectiveness, titled Provide artificial nesting sites for swifts - about Vaux's Swift.

All of the research in this country and in Europe does not seem to have resulted in anything documenting a conservation benefit for the Common Swift on the CE website.

So, encouraged by Prof Bill Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology in the department of zoology at Cambridge University, I wrote up the results of our experiments on placing nest forms in Swift nest boxes:

A test of the use of artificial nest forms in common swift Apus apus nest boxes in southern England

Dick Newell
Action for Swifts, Old Beach Farm, 91 Green End, Landbeach, Cambridge, CB25 9FD, UK

Common swifts Apus apus have shown significant declines in the UK over recent decades, and one possible cause is loss of nesting sites. Nest boxes have previously shown to be effective for this species. Here we test whether the addition of an artificial ‘nest form’ affected the occupancy of nest boxes. Nest boxes that contained a form were 4.6 times more likely to be occupied by common swifts than nest boxes without a form. The design of the form did not appear to affect occupancy rate. Further study is needed to discover whether nest forms increase overall occupancy rates.

You can access the paper here

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Parapet wall Swift boxes in Ely

Elaine Griffin-Singh, a local Ely councillor announced in the local newspaper that she will focus on Hedgehogs and Swifts, so we got in touch. One of the outcomes is a project at the youth and community centre called Centre E

[Update July 20th 2019 - first Swift seen entering and leaving the 3rd box from the left on the north-facing wall]

We already have very successful projects in Ely in St Mary's Church (55 pairs in 2018) and the Maltings (11 pairs in 2018), so we were pleased to be offered a new opportunity.

The flat topped roof of Centre E is surrounded by a low parapet wall. It is a solid wall 9 inches thick constructed of headers and stretchers. We thus thought it would be a simple matter of removing some headers, inserting a half brick entrance piece with a nest box screwed to the inside of the wall. We have done this many times in Victorian walls, 

However, Centre E was built more recently, in the early 20th century, with very hard bricks and even harder mortar. So what we planned as a 1 day project turned out to be 3 days - and we have a few things left to do.

Normally we can drill out lime mortar and take the headers out whole. Not this time, we used diamond core drills (we went through 2 of them) to drill out the bricks. It was jolly hard work.

That wasn't the only complication, the inside wall was far from even, so fitting the boxes neatly proved quite a challenge, but we got it done and we are pleased with the result.

Moral of the story - test the hardness of bricks and mortar before embarking on a project like this.

The boxes are constructed larger than normal in anticipation of fitting cameras so that visitors to the Youth centre can follow the nesting of the swifts, and become environmentally aware and enthused by what they see on a monitor downstairs in the youth hub.

Centre E - 8 nest box entrances barely visible
4 entrances in the west

4 entrances in the north
4 headers removed in the west wall
2 double swift boxes in the west wall
2 double boxes in the north wall

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Guidance for including bird boxes in residential development

We have recently started walking around new housing developments in South Cambridgeshire to see what is being done in the way of Biodiversity Net Gain. In particular we have been looking to see what Swift bricks have been installed.

by John Willis & Dick Newell

Our starting point was the planning portal on the council website from which we derived maps showing exactly where every Swift brick and sparrow terrace was to be installed. Councils should carry out this kind of audit themselves, but they have no resources to do it. Thus the volunteer sector (SLN members) could have an important role to play.

As we do not wish to embarrass anyone, we will not say where we went, but we have the following observations:

1. The number of Swift bricks conditioned by the planners is low, between 10% and 20% of dwellings. There was a high percentage of empty gables. It is becoming generally accepted that It should be nearer 1 per dwelling on average, see page 101 of RIBA Publishing's Building for Biodiversity 2nd edition 2016.
2. About equal numbers of sparrow terraces and swift bricks are conditioned. Integral sparrow terraces contain three nest chambers but are seldom if ever used by more than one pair, swift boxes a metre+ apart will be used by swifts and sparrows.. There would be better outcomes for both sparrows and Swifts if there were more Swift boxes and fewer sparrow terraces.
3. Many of the conditioned Swift bricks were not installed, and, at the time of writing, we do not know what will be done to correct these omissions. None of the specified nest boxes are suitable for retrofitting.
4. Many Swift bricks were not placed high up in the gable, but in sub-optimal places at a lower elevation. Some swift bricks were even specified in garage gables, barely 4 metres high.
5. There was never more than 1 swift brick in any one gable. As Swifts and House Sparrows like to nest in groups, why not 2 or more in suitable gables?
6. Some swift bricks were placed in facing gables about 8 metres apart - this is not the clear flyway that is the ideal.
7. Some of the European sourced swift bricks are not compatible with UK brick sizes, requiring the bricklayer to cut up to 8 bricks to get them in.

Our conclusion from these observations is that there is work to be done to get both planners and ecologists up to speed in specifying bird boxes in residential development.
We have drafted some guidelines that you can read here

Figure 1: Recommended positions of internal nest boxes for Swifts and House Sparrows.
Other possibilities include holes in soffits and fascias.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Caring for God's Acre

We all know that in many towns and villages, churches are an important refuge for wildlife, including Swifts. Swifts often breed under the eaves of churches or in other parts of the fabric and we also know that many of the 30,000 churches in the country provide a great opportunity for nest boxes in the belfry. Now the charity Caring for God's Acre would like people to send in records of what you see in a churchyard.

The charity Caring for God's Acre is working with several partners including the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) and both the Church of England and Church in Wales to improve biological recording within burial grounds of all types, sizes and denominations. Burial grounds can be absolute gems for ancient trees, historic walls, monuments, lichens, fungi and flowery grassland, all of which in turn support invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and of course BIRDS! As well as feeding into the NBN Atlas and local recording systems, we will use these records to put information onto the Church Heritage Record; the system used when planning building or repair work within churches and churchyards. In this way, we hope to influence thinking and avoid uninformed decisions.

We would love to receive any records of birds in burial grounds, in particular Spotted Flycatcher and nesting Swifts. Records can be sent directly to us as a list, submitted via iRecord or the local record centre or put onto our iRecord system which is found via the Caring for God's Acre website.

Provided it is clear that the record is within a churchyard or cemetery it will reach us.