Bristol Swifts 2020 Blog

These are my observations and thoughts about my swift colony in Bristol from Monday 18th May 2020. My first swift arrived back on 23rd April. My early 2020 swift blog can be found here as we needed to create a new page. We have 25 nesting boxes many fitted with cameras – for their exact location see Swift nest box location on our house. In 2019 we had 15 breeding pairs of swifts.

Our planned Swift/NGS event on June 21st has been cancelled. However you can still give donations to help fund the NGS nursing and health charities via this link

Wednesday 3rd June

The weather is just about to change. The next few days are going to be considerably cooler than what we’ve been used to. By Sunday it might only reach 13C. It will be interesting to see if the newcomers hang around. In the previous years they’ve disappeared for a few days only returning once its warmed up again. The remaining single bird in nb3 south still can’t seem to tempt a mate in despite trying all day yesterday.

Yesterday I was sent some photos by Martin of an unusual looking structure near Plymouth where swifts are nesting. It’s called the Rifle Butts Wall at Staddon Heights and is probably 70ft high. Reading about it I discovered Staddon Battery was built in c.1780 to protect the approach to Plymouth Sound from the East. The rifle butt structure was built by the army in 1860s to enable its troops to practise with the newly issued Enfield rifle and was extended to the south in 1894 by the Royal Marines. It is on the headland overlooking the English Channel and dominates the surrounding landscape – see this short video. 

The South side of the wall faces the sea whilst the North overlooks the nearby golf course. The landscape on the south side is wild and Martin says that there are lots of butterflies and wildflowers and amazing views of the English channel 500ft below. On the North side which is protected from the prevailing weather there are at least 50 pairs of swifts nesting within the cracks of the wall.

The photos below are taken from the fairway of the local golf course and show the North side from a distance plus a couple closer up. You can see the small holes the swifts are nesting in, some are very small indeed. No one knows how long the swifts have been nesting here, but I suspect probably since it was first built.


Tuesday 2nd June

Yesterday the first egg in nb12 west was laid. I’m also pretty sure there’s a second egg in nb2 north and two eggs in nb5 west. Both these nests are very difficult to see into, but as the birds are incubating and assuming I am correct that would take the egg total up to 21. I now have eggs in 11 of my 13 nests. A slight panic last night as the partner of nb2 south stayed out all night. Panic over after a quick check this morning showed it was back. Why they do that I don’t know. Maybe its something to do with the warm weather.

The noisy newcomers arrive about 6am each morning and are particularly active for the first hour or two. I filmed this short video at 8am yesterday of them banging my boxes. I think there’s about 8 or 9 of them in their gang. The single bird in nb3 south is desperately trying to tempt one in. I watched it all day yesterday flying back to its box hoping one of these newcomers would follow it in. Alas no joy, so perhaps today?

Monday 1st June

My swift friend Len from Bolton has just sent me some lovely photos and a short video of his new swift boxes. He has made a couple of triangular boxes to fit neatly into the gable of his house. Both have nest cups lined with soft feathers. He has made the cups out of small coils of rope and glued them together. I think that’s very clever adaptation. He’s a prolific box-builder (just like me) and has made a wide range of different boxes, both internal and external. I think he’s now got almost as many as me! He’s done amazingly well and attracted his first pair only a few weeks after putting up his first boxes in 2019. Now that’s what I call good going.

I really like the look of his new boxes and I’m sure his swifts are going to find them just perfect!

Quick update from my colony. Yesterday the first egg was laid in nb12 west. Eggs now in 10 out of my 13 viable nests. That takes the egg total up to 17. No change in the number of birds in the colony despite the arrival of half a dozen noisy newcomers. I’m still hopeful that the single bird in nb3 south will find a mate soon.

Sunday 31st May

Saturday was a rerun of Friday. A few noisy fly-bys until about 10am and after that it was just birds bringing back nesting material. A check of the cameras revealed another 2 eggs had been laid. The first in nb2 and in nb5 north. That took the egg total up to 16. Out of the 13 pairs 9 now have eggs. Even though there’s half a dozen newcomers around my last remaining single bird in nb3 south has yet to find a new mate. Maybe today?

A quick update on wildlife in my garden. Now that there are no fish in the pond its absolutely full of life. In the photo below you can just about make out several Smooth and Palmate Newts on top of the weed. Large Red and Common Blue Damselflies abound and we saw our first Emperor Dragonfly of the summer. I think Rob my tame Robin has lost its mate. He came off worse after a fight with a rival male a few weeks ago and lost most of his feathers on his head. He’s looking decidedly scruffy, perhaps that’s why he’s on his own! Wrenkin is still making an appearance every now and then and Waggy is feeding chicks. I think his nest is somewhere down near the banks of the River Trym. He pops in quite often for a feed and takes several meal worms away with him each time. Finally the Great Tits are doing well. At least three youngsters are still about and chase their parents wherever they go, begging for food. Their appetite is amazing, their always hungry!

Saturday 30th May

Yesterday turned out to be very quiet which was rather disappointing. There was a bit of activity first thing in the morning which was great, but that petered out and all I was left with was the odd bird bringing back nesting material. It didn’t really pick up again until well after 9pm. I always feel slightly cheated when there’s no activity and the weather is good.

This morning the noisy newcomers arrived around 6am. I counted about 6. At the moment they’re putting on quite a display. They are targeting the occupied boxes which in turn elicits a very angry reply from the resident birds inside. I hope the noise doesn’t upset my neighbours too much!

I was expecting to see a second egg in nb6 north, but its now two days overdue so I think that’s it. Most pairs lay 2 eggs, sometimes 3. Only occasionally does a pair lay only one egg. There is the possibility that they might have laid another egg but have accidentally knocked it out of the nest. Unfortunately I can’t quite see inside that particular box. If I notice that an egg has been displaced I normally pop it back in. If I do this relatively quickly most hatch out.

Friday 29th May

Some good news. After 3 days of trying the single swift in nb5 south finally managed to attract a new mate. I was trying to film this moment of triumph for the blog. However each time the resident bird re-entered the box the following bird either missed the hole completely or just peeped in before flying away. All morning it had been trying to tempt it back in without success. By mid-afternoon I had given up filming. Their attempts had become less frequent and I had come to the opinion that was it for today. Just before 3pm I went inside to make a cup of tea. As I poured the water into the cup I could hear a lot of commotion outside. By the time I got back outside the action was over. Only this time it was different, I could hear a soft peeping call from inside the box. Sure enough both birds were inside and preening one-another – see the photo below. That takes the total up to 27 – 13 pairs and now only 1 single bird left in nb3 south to find a new mate. Perhaps it might be lucky today?

Thursday 28th May

It’s 6am and our noisy newcomers have just turned up again. They seem to arrive around this time each morning. It’s difficult to tell how many there are as some of my resident birds are mixed in with them, but I think its about 4. Both of my single birds are still trying to attract a new mate, but neither has had any luck yet. One strange bit of behaviour I witnessed was the single bird in nb5 south attracted a bird which followed it in, but as soon as it entered it chased it out. I thought the whole point was to attract it in! Maybe it was the same sex. I don’t know why it did it and it was very puzzling. I’m still not having much success with filming. I’m beginning to think the swifts are taking the mickey out of me. I’m ready with the camera and nothing but the moment I put it down and wander off they’re in like a flash. This happened on more than one occasion yesterday and it became a bit of a standing joke between Jane and myself. I’ll have another go today.

In the meantime I was sent this amazing video by our friends Tanya and Edmund in Cumbria. I always reckoned that when an egg was accidentally knocked out of the nest it was lost forever. In this clip you can see the adult bird actually looking for the displaced egg. Eventually it finds it a few inches away and deliberately starts to manoeuvre it back into the nest. It’s quite remarkable footage.

Wednesday 27th May

Hopefully the last of my missing birds will arrive in the coming days.  However if they are not here by the end of this week then I reckon they won’t be returning. The weather conditions are perfect for migration, so any birds still lingering in France should easily navigate the final leg of their journey now.

I had around 30 birds in my camera boxes last year. I always hope that they will all make it back, but realistically I know some won’t. The experts reckon their mortality rate is about 20% or put another way 1 in every 5. So based on that percentage its reasonable to expect I should lose around 6 birds. However as with most things in nature its not an exact science, as every year differs from the last. So I’m always optimistic all my birds will return each year.

At the moment I have 26 back – 12 pairs and 2 singles which isn’t a bad return at all. I’m fairly confident that the two single birds will soon find new mates, so that will take the colony total up to 28. The next 2 to 3 weeks should see the second wave of new birds arriving, some of which might even pair up and breed. Based on my records from previous years I should expect to see at least another 1 to 3 new pairs arrive. So any short fall will soon be rectified and the overall size of the colony should remain about the same.

No luck with the filming yesterday. Next door decided to mow the lawn that seemed to go on for hours! I’ll try again today, hopefully it will be a bit quieter.

Tuesday 26th May

10am. Two more eggs. The first in nb6 north an a second in nb2 south. That takes the egg total up to 14.

Well I was half right with my theory yesterday. From the reports I received it was a super swift day in some parts of the country. Much to my disappointment it never really got going here despite the arrival of a few new birds. However it was fun watching these newcomers interact with my 2 remaining single birds. My single birds are in nb3 and 5 south and both were desperate to attract a new mate. It was fascinating watching them both try. Their tactics are to fly in ever decreasing circles, getting closer and closer to their own boxes. Right behind them was one, sometimes two of the newcomers. As the resident bird got within a few feet of its box it would let out a distinctive peeping call. This call is quite unlike the harsh scream we normally hear, its more like a gentle peep that established birds make when preening one another. As far as I can tell this is to show the following bird the exact position of the nest site. Every now and then a resident bird would enter its own box. I think they were hoping one of the newcomers would follow them back in. This behaviour went on all day long, but alas it seems that neither resident bird managed to tempt any newcomers in.

This morning the newcomers are back again. My two single birds are still in their boxes. No doubt I’ll see a repeat of the behaviour I witnessed yesterday. I think its some form of courtship behaviour. I’ll try and video it today for the blog tomorrow.

Monday 25th May

The first morning I’ve been woken up by the screamers outside.  The sun’s up, there’s not a breath of wind and the sky is crystal clear – just perfect for swifts. The majority of the 60,000 swifts in South-East France started to move towards us on Saturday. They would have been here in a couple of days if the weather conditions had been good. However they came up against the strong winds that battered us over the weekend and that slowed them down. They are probably just the other side of the English Channel now. Now the wind has finally dropped I fully expect them to resume their final leg back to us. If my theory is right they should reach their destinations in Southern England sometime this morning and the rest of the UK by tonight or early tomorrow. Here it has the potential of being a super swift day!

A quick update on my colony. I have 26 birds back – 12 pairs and 2 singles. Six of these pairs have started egg laying and the total number of eggs at the moment is 12, although that will rise to 13 as I’m expecting a second egg in nb2 south this morning. In my non-camera boxes I think I have at least 2 possibly 3 single birds.

Sunday 24th May

Yesterday it blew a hooley all day. I thought Friday was bad but Saturday was even worse. Even my swifts didn’t venture out much. A quick look at the cameras at lunchtime revealed only 8 out of 26 had dared to go out. That made checking the egg total even more difficult than normal, but eventually I did manage to see into all boxes. Another two more eggs had been laid. The first one in nb2 south and a second one in nb4 south. That takes the egg total up to 12 in 6 nests. That believe it or not was the highlight of the day with regard to swift action.

In my May 3rd blog we featured a few photos of DIY swift boxes that people have built since lockdown began. Since then we’ve had even more emailed to us. It seems the DIY skills of UK householders is something not to be under-estimated. It’s really heart-warming to see how much effort and care has gone into building these boxes. Below are a few more photos of boxes that have been installed recently.

It is not just in the UK as the last photo shows two new boxes made in Sweden.

It is lovely to receive emails and photos showing us what you have done. We’ve also been told about several new projects including local Swift WhatsApp groups and Swift Facebook groups. I must admit I am not very good at either. I think it must be an age thing! However we do have a Bristol Swifts Facebook page that has attracted a lot of new members recently. We think it’s absolutely wonderful that the swift can touch so many people in such a positive way.

Saturday 23rd May

Most of the 60,000 swifts in France have already moved on and are continuing their journey towards us. Yesterday only about 3000 remained over the wetlands. If the weather conditions are good en route most should arrive in the next couple of days. My money is on them arriving early next week. However having said that a few actually made it home yesterday. In my camera boxes another one arrived back taking the total up to 26. In my other boxes at least 2, possibly 3 also arrived. It was particularly windy yesterday with some gusts reaching 40mph. I was watching a small group of swifts, 3 perhaps 4 flying around the boxes on the west side. This side feels the full force of the wind and they were really being buffeted by it as they flew by. As I watched it became evident that they were actually practising. Each fly-by was in fact a training lesson to gauge exactly what angle and speed was required to land. After about half a dozen goes they had worked it out and flew straight in without any problems at all. I was quite amazed by their skill as I was convinced it was impossible to land in such windy conditions.

Friday 22nd May

Yesterday saw some of those swifts in France make it back here to me. Three more birds arrived home taking the total up to a very respectable 25. That’s 25 out of 30 back from last year. I’m also fairly confident that some of the missing 5 will also return in the coming days as well. It appears that most of my birds have made it back safely thank goodness. The 25 consists of 11 pairs and 3 singles. The first egg was laid in nb4 south taking the egg count up to 10. There are now 5 boxes with eggs in.

Waking up this morning to rain seems quite strange after such a long hot, dry spell. The wind has also picked up, so it feels much cooler. Unfortunately these gusty conditions will make it tricky for all those birds still in France. I expect they will now stay put of an extra day or two before resuming their journey towards us. However the excellent news is their numbers continue to swell. Yesterday Trektellen recored over 60,000 feeding over the wetlands at Falaise de Leucate and Etang de Canet – Saint Nazaire, South-East France.

The first bangers of the season arrived in Northern Ireland yesterday. The swifts now in France will be a mixture of late breeders and juvenile non-breeders (bangers). When they finally arrive in a few days time we should start to see some action. For me the sooner the better, as I love watching their antics. For those of you hoping to attract your very first pairs. Get ready to play those attraction calls, the second wave is on its way!

Thursday 21st May

Yesterday saw some of those swifts in France arrive home. From the reports I received quite a few people across the country welcomed back their swifts. However if you’re still waiting don’t despair. I’ve just checked Trektellen and yesterday swift numbers continued to build. Over 30,000 were seen feeding over Falaise de Leucate and Etang de Canet – Saint Nazaire. They can make the short trip to us in less than 2 days, so expect a lot more to arrive over the coming days.

I have 25 boxes, 17 with cameras in and its these I use for monitoring purposes. So when I talk about 30 birds from last year I’m referring to these boxes only. However I do have swifts in some of the 8 other boxes. These boxes are located 1 on the north, 1 on the south and 6 on the west. Unfortunately it’s extremely difficult to know exactly how many swifts use these boxes. Sometimes I get lucky and see one flying in, but apart from that I have to wait until the end of the season to inspect each box to see what’s been using it. Yesterday saw a big influx to Bristol and I was lucky enough to get another 2 birds back. 1 in my camera box and 1 without. That takes my total up one to 22 out of 30. Plus another 1 in nb8 west.

Yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far. Perfect swift weather. I spent the whole day outside. The morning was particularly good with the arrival of new swifts. Lots of high level screaming as they reformed their pairs, however their excitement tailed off during the afternoon which gave us the opportunity to enjoy the other wildlife in the garden. Since I removed all the fish from the pond the difference has been remarkable. The water is crystal clear, the first time its been like that for years. It’s teeming with life with millions of tiny Mosquito larvae and Daphnia (Water fleas). I thought tadpoles were the bottom of the food chain by these guys are below them. Everything eats them! Over the water Large Red and Common Blue Damsel flies danced and we saw our first Broad Bodied Dragonfly of the season.

The garden was humming with the sound of insects. One of the noisiest is the Rose Chafer. They are large bright green beetles that emerge around this time. Unfortunately they aren’t very good fliers and crash into everything. They are quite comical to watch. Rob my tame robin has chicks to feed. They are only small and he prefers to take back tiny flies rather than meal worms to them, although he does stop to feed on my hand from time to time. On one occasion as I held my hand out for him the single Great Tit Mum took full advantage and grabbed a few for herself.

Wednesday 20th May

10am. I’m sure some newcomers have just arrived. The sky above me is filled with excited screams!

Swift numbers continue to rise in France. Yesterday nearly 20,000 swifts were seen feeding over Falaise de Leucate and Etang de Canet – Saint Nazaire. This area in South-East France is a nature reserve with large lagoons and extensive wetlands. It’s full of tiny flies and mosquitos. It’s where our swifts tend to gather to refuel after their long flight from Africa. I’ve just seen the weather forecast and for the next couple of days a warm Southerly wind emanating from Spain is coming our way. Without doubt our swifts in France once they’ve had their fill, will hitch a ride on the back of it. A few have already made it here. I received reports of swifts arriving in the far South West of England yesterday afternoon.

Another egg was laid yesterday in nb1 South. That takes the egg total up to 9. I currently have 4 nests with eggs in. Nb1 & 4 north and nb1 south have 2 each. Nb3 north has 3. Despite the promising weather conditions no new birds arrived yesterday. I still only have 21 out of 30 back so far. Fingers crossed that might change today!

Tuesday 19th May

Swift numbers are continuing to build up in South-East France. Over 15000 seen yesterday near Perpignan. That’s only about 800 miles away. In swift time that’s just 2 days travel. They could be here by Thursday if we’re lucky.

I rarely get a nest with 3 eggs but a third egg has been laid in nb3 north. That takes the egg total up to 8.

On the 4th May a swift arrived back to nb1 west. For about a week it couldn’t decide on which box it liked best, spending one night in nb1 and the next in the adjacent box nb3 west. Finally a few days ago it seemed to have plumped for nb1. Yesterday a second bird joined it. I thought it was its old mate from last year but on closer observation I’m not so sure now. The new bird has brought with it two unwanted guests, Crataerina Pallida (see Friday 3rd April blog). I know my boxes were clear of this blood-sucking parasite, so the new bird must have picked it up somewhere else. The only logical answer is this bird belongs to a different colony. I assume it had been waiting in its own nest for its old mate to return and that is where it picked up the Crataerina. I think it then decided its old mate was not coming back and paired up with my bird in nb1 west. Now the interesting thing is what will happen if the old mate of nb1 turns up in the next few days. Trouble I fear!

Monday 18th May

Please Note. If you’re wondering where the rest of my blog has gone it’s because the old page was completely full and I couldn’t add any more information. However you can still access my early 2020 blog but clicking here.

Yesterday three eggs were laid. The first in nb1 south and second eggs for nb1 and nb4 north. That takes egg total to seven. Also one of my infrequent visitors decided to stay in overnight so my numbers went up to 21.

It’s been well over a week since any new birds arrived, but hope is on the way. Several thousand swifts were seen in South-west France last Friday. Over 6000 were seen crossing the River Gironde just north of Bordeaux. Yesterday nearly 3000 were seen near Perpignan in South-east France. Admittedly it’s not as large as the numbers seen at the beginning of the month, but its still a sizeable amount. Recently I have received several emails from people wondering where their birds are. Hopefully the sightings from France will bring some comfort to them and the good news is they should be with us in the next couple of days.

I have 2/3rds of my colony back, but I’m still missing 10 birds. Most of mine returned in the first week of May. However I’ve hardly had any since then. The others are probably on route and will arrive soon. However I was intrigued to know if the numbers I have back were about normal when compared to others. So I posted a question on the Swift Local Network (SLN) forum to ask what percentage of swifts other members have back?  SLN is made up of over 100 swift groups from all over the UK. To see where your local SLN is located see this link and click on the map.

The response was excellent. I received updates from all over the UK, however trying to make sense of all the information is another thing though! It’s a real mixed bag out there. Some members have all their birds back, others like me about half and a few with hardly any at all. There’s also no big geographical difference, it’s the same all across the country. So for any of you who are still missing some or all of your birds my message to you is “You are not alone”. I know its hard not to think the worst when some of your birds are missing, but if you can try not worry too much. They will be back, but it might be a little later than normal.

Copyright © 2020 Mark Glanville. All Rights Reserved.