Welcome back to another year from Swift House. It’s really good to be up and running once again. We have 25 swift nesting boxes under the eaves, many fitted with cameras – for their exact location see Swift nest box location on our house. In 2020 we had 15 breeding pairs of swifts making it the largest single colony in Bristol. If you’re interested in what happened last year here is a link to our 2020 Swift Blog.
We will be holding another National Garden Scheme/Swift charity event on Sunday 4th July 12.30-4.30pm (Adults £5.00. Children Free). See swifts flying around our house and watch Live video from inside their nest boxes. Wander around our wildlife friendly garden and buy plants, cards, booklets and nest boxes. Click here to book. We hope that by July restrictions on numbers will be eased, so more can visit. We will update here if that happens.
Monday 17th May
8am. The mate of nb1 north who arrived yesterday morning spent most of the day inside the box. The strange thing is when it went out to feed in the afternoon it didn’t return later to roost. Sometimes this happens with new arrivals and I don’t really know why. Perhaps they get so used to sleeping on the wing that it takes some birds a while to get used to sleeping inside a box again. I’ll keep an eye on that box. Hopefully it will make a return today.
Another swift returned last night. The mate of nb5 west returned. That takes the total back to 14 – 6 pairs and 2 singles.
On Countryfile last night the 5 day forecast looked grim for the UK, but what I thought was interesting was the position of the jet stream. The jet stream is a core of strong winds around 5 to 7 miles above the Earth’s surface, blowing from west to east. Since early May it has been looped around the UK with the bottom edge extending right down to Spain. It’s acting like a conveyer belt drawing in a succession of low pressures one after another, whilst at the same time blocking any high pressures from building. I wonder if that’s what’s holding our birds up?
One positive aspect of the unsettled weather is the effect it has had on the wildflower seeds that I sowed in the bottom lawn – see 7th May blog. When I sowed them back in early March nothing much happened because it was so dry. But since it started to rain in May they’ve all germinated and now there are lots of little seedlings poking their heads up in between the grass. So looking good so far.
Sunday 16th May
9am. Sorry about the late blog this morning the mate of nb1 north has just arrived in the last few minutes. See this short video. It’s the first time they’ve been together for almost 9 months, lots of mutual preening, some of which looks a bit rough to me! That’s 5 pairs and 3 singles safely home.
Continuing the theme in yesterdays blog here’s some interesting data comparing 2018 and 2021. Both years had very cold Springs in the UK with slow returns to begin with then a gap in the middle before the remainder arrived.
2018: 20th April – 13th May 8 swifts. 14th-15th May no swifts. 16th-25th May 19 swifts.
2021: 25th April – 13th May 11 swifts. 12th-15th May no swifts. 16th May 1 swift so far ………
As you can see for the data in 2018 over 2/3rds of the colony arrived in a 10 day window from 16th-25th May. In that period at least 1 or 2 swifts arrived every day, except 24th May when there were no new arrivals.
Another pair of breeding toads arrived yesterday taking the total up to 6 so far in May.
Saturday 15th May
8am. I saw some interesting behaviour yesterday. I’ve had my suspicions that a swift was back in one of my non-camera boxes – see my blog of April 28th. Yesterday I managed to confirm which box it was in. It was nb6 west. That box had a pair of first time breeders in it last year. I watched one bird trying to entice another bird to follow it back in. Round and round the house both would fly, getting closer and closer to the box. The lead bird would then disappear into the box hoping the following bird would join it. It never did. A few minutes later it would leave the box and repeat the same process again. What I witnessed was classic new mate behaviour. Assuming that the swift in nb6 west did arrive on 26th April its waited 20 days for its old mate to return. Yesterday it has decided that was long enough and has actively gone out to find a new mate. If I’m lucky I’ll be able to see if it has succeeded in the next few days. What it has confirmed though is how strange this Spring is. Normally swifts return to their respective colonies in a steady and consistent manner. Colonies building back up over a few weeks as pairs are re-united with one-another. What I fear we are witnessing this year is a blockage in that process. The early birds have arrived back as normal, but now we have a gap in that process. This is just what happened in 2018. Eventually all the missing birds did return that year, but not before quite a few of their old mates had paired up with new birds. The result was 4 clutches of eggs thrown out as the old mates re-established their dominance. I hope I’m wrong but I can’t see any signs of the missing birds yet. All the European birding locations I monitor are showing no big influx yet. The confirmation of the swift in nb6 west takes the number of birds back to 12.
A couple of days a go we had a researcher from BBC Springwatch contact us regarding the late Spring. She wanted to know if we had any footage to compare this year to last. Did we have a swift that arrived later this year when compared to last year? We told her we never get the same birds back first in our swift boxes. It is always a different swift back first each year, so she was really asking the wrong question. What she should be asking is how many swifts are back and how does that differ from previous years?
Friday 14th May
8am. First some sad news. The blackbird who I featured in my blog on Monday lost its chicks yesterday. I’ve no idea to who as they were in another garden, but I suspect magpies were the most likely culprits. They are now looking to build another nest in my garden. That’s the second brood this year they’ve lost. Fingers crossed third time lucky.
Sarah a local swift friend of ours kindly offered to take some of the late toad spawn. She popped over yesterday and in spite of the weather (it was tipping down) we managed a short tour of the garden, accompanied by Robsy and Wrenkin hoping to be fed.
I was completely wrong about the single bird in nb6 north pairing up with the single bird in nb3 north. I had assumed it had paired up with the flighty female in that box. But yesterday evening around 7pm it returned after a day’s absence. I’m not sure why it stayed out overnight on Wednesday, but it’s now back taking the total number of birds up to 11.
Whilst we wait for our birds to return here is a quite spectacular video of Vaux’s swifts in Canada. It was on the news a couple of days ago, see this link
You can see thousands of Vaux’s swifts using the Vancouver Island Museum chimney as a temporary roosting place on their annual migration north. Vaux’s swifts migrate annually from as far south away as Venezuela, to as far north as Alaska. They normally roost in hollow trees, but with less natural habitat available they have taken to using human structures as an alternative. Luckily this old abandoned chimney at the museum has made the perfect pit stop on their annual migration north. In the video about 4500 use the old chimney to rest overnight. It’s amazing to see them disappearing inside. Just one thought with 4500 birds in the chimney I’d hate to be the one at the bottom!
Thursday 13th May
9am. I’ve been getting quite a few emails from people worried about the lack of swifts this year. Let me try to reassure all of you who are still missing birds. It’s not unusual for swifts to arrive late in the UK. It happens from time to time. A very good example was recorded by David Lack in his Swifts in the Tower book. This is what he recorded.
” In 1951, the pattern of arrival was rather different. The first two came on May 1st and 13 others had arrived by May 6th. The next newcomer did not appear until May 15th, and the rest came between then and June 8th, between 2 and 5 arriving each day. There was thus a gap of 9 days with no arrivals, presumably due to a hold-up on their migration route.”
We had an extremely cold and dry April with a huge blocking high pressure sat over us for virtually the whole month. I expect its influence reached much far than these shores and is probably the reason for the late arrival. They will return, but not I expect for another week or two.
Not much activity around Swift House yesterday other than the single bird in nb6 north has paired up with the single bird in nb3 north. Unfortunately this is a regular occurrence in that particular box. It has happened in 6 out of the last 7 years. When the old mate finally returns the result is a massive fight and all the eggs are thrown out. Why can’t she just wait a little longer?
Wednesday 12th May
8am. A tenth swift arrived yesterday lunchtime. I was unsure which box it entered on the west side at the time, but later confirmed it was nb 5 west.
The great tits from the box on the kitchen wall fledged yesterday morning. I was only out for an hour but when I returned all bar one was out. The last making its maiden flight around noon. I’m not exactly sure how many as I don’t have a camera in that box, but I think at least 5. Luckily we are surrounded by lots of hedges and trees which provide excellent cover for them. To help the two parents who were desperately trying to keep tabs on their brood I put out a big dish of meal worms. Unfortunately the fledging didn’t go unnoticed. The resident sparrowhawk had seen all the activity and came swooping down over the hedge took at least one of the youngsters.
The second pair of toads spawned yesterday so again I removed it from the pond, otherwise it would be eaten by the tadpoles before it had time to hatch.
Tuesday 11th May
12.30pm. At least one new swift has arrived. 5 were whizzing around the house and one disappeared into either nb5 or nb6 west. I couldn’t quite tell as it was so quick.
The great tits from the box on the kitchen wall have just fledged. Unfortunately I missed the actual moment as I was out, but there’s at least 5 in the surrounding bushes. Fingers crossed it doesn’t tip down with rain like it did yesterday.
8am. In this topsy-turvy Spring we’re finally getting April showers a month late in May. We had some tremendous downpours yesterday and it looks like we’ll get the same today. Welcome for the gardeners no doubt, but not very good for swift watching. One more bird returned last night, the mate of nb1 west. That takes the total up to 9. At the moment we have 3 pairs and 3 singles back.
As I returned from the paper shop this morning I was greeted by a super swift display around the house. I counted 7 swifts whizzing around the house at high speed. I’m not sure if these are new birds or the ones that are already back, but it was a lovely sight to see. As I walked up the hill towards my house my attention from watching the swifts was suddenly diverted. A huge commotion was going on inside a dense bush when out flew a family of dunnocks closely followed by a jay. It pursued the fledglings across the road and up and over a 6 foot fence before disappearing into the neighbours garden. I’m not sure what happened next, but I fear the worst for one of the fledglings. I can still here the adults alarm calls coming from the garden 20 minutes on.
Monday 10th May
10am. Great news. With the imminent easing of lockdown expected on May 17th we’ve increased the number of tickets available to our NGS/Swift open event on July 4th – see above for details.
7am. No new arrivals yesterday so still on 8, however I did have my first screaming party of the year. Admittedly it wasn’t a very big party only 3 swifts, but it was a most welcome sight and sound.
It really has been a funny old Spring. Yesterday two more heavily pregnant toads turned up in the pond. Luckily there’s always a few male toads that hang around in the pond, so they’ll soon find mates. Where they’ve been is a mystery, but it’s good to see them back.
For those of you who follow my blog are aware of Rob the robin, Wrenkin the wren and Waggy the pied wagtail. They’ve been with me for several years now. Well I also have a few other birds who have been with me just as long. We don’t normally see any house sparrows during the year except around now. For the last 3 years the same pair has returned to catch damselflies as they emerge from the pond. House sparrows normally eat seeds and grain but at this time of year they like to feed their chicks with insects and flies. After a while I shoo they away to give the damselflies a chance.
I also have a pair of blackbirds who have been here since 2018. They are both a bit timid and normally fly away as soon as they see me. However during the Beast from the East the male bird in particular, started to visit the patio to pick up any spare meal worms left over by the other birds. Since then each Spring when they have chicks to feed they lose some of their fear and come visiting again. Jane filmed this short clip of the male blackbird who we affectionately call Blackie, a couple of days ago. He has a huge appetite, we’ve seen him eat 20 and carry off another 10 in one visit alone!
On the swift front yesterday. Quite a few reports from all over the UK of singles arriving back to their nest sites. Still no sign of any major passage further south across Europe though.
Sunday 9th May
8am. Two more swifts returned last night taking the total up to 8. The mate of nb2 south and the first bird back in nb1 north.
You might remember my blog on April 27th about a blue tit that had started to roost in nb1 north overnight. Well it did more than just roost there, a few days after that blog it started to build a nest. I felt kind of helpless watching this because I knew it would be all in vain. The nest got bigger and bigger and it had started to line the nest cup with feathers. The harsh reality was when the owners finally returned there was only going to be one outcome! The inevitable happened last night. See the photos below. The LH photo was taken on 27th April and shows the blue tit on the remains of last years nest. The RH photo shows the newly arrived swift. You’ll also notice how much more nest material there is. I didn’t see the actually confrontation, but it would have been very short and sweet. Don’t worry either about the amount of nest material the swift will stick all that into place over the coming weeks. As for the poor little blue tits I have no idea where they went last night. However I have several unoccupied nest boxes around the garden that they are more than welcome too.
On the swift front, numbers continue to rise over Chew Valley lake with over 350 sighted yesterday. Further afield no significant increases in numbers in either Corsica or the South of France, both still in the low thousands.
Saturday 8th May
8am. I received quite a few emails yesterday from people all over the UK saying they’ve just seen their first birds. It must have been a good day for swifts to travel. Here at Swift House a sixth swift arrived at 7.30pm. I was still pottering around in the garden when it first arrived. It misjudged its first attempt on landing, but flew straight into nb2 south on its second go. Nb2 south is the middle box of a row of three. It always amazes me how they recognise exactly where their boxes are. They must have really good memories.
I was sent some lovely photos of DIY swift boxes. Alex Elliot lives in Birmingham and has been building boxes for the last 3 years. He’s up to 10 now. He’s built a range of different designs to fit under his eaves. They look really, really good. Only another 15 to go to catch me up!
No further arrivals here at Swift House yesterday despite Portland Bill reporting a steady trickle a couple of days ago. I think they must all be going to Chew Valley lake if this report on Wednesday is anything to go by “1000+ hirundines – most Swallows + House + Sand Martins and 200+ Swifts over lake”. My money is on a big influx arriving either on Saturday or Sunday.
I’ve always been a bit precious about my lawn. Every spring I would apply a generous amount of weed and feed to create that perfect green sward. But not anymore. Prompted by Gardeners’ World presenter, Monty Don I’ve ditched the weed and feed this spring. Instead I’ve under-sown the bottom lawn with a selection of wild flowers. I’m trying to create a flowering lawn rather than a flowering meadow so I’ve opted for plants that can withstand the odd mow. My inspiration comes from a couple of ancient pastures near our caravan in Devon. These fields are grazed all the year round by cattle and sheep and yet they’re full of wild flowers. So I’ve gone for the same wild flowers in my lawn, with the mower replacing the cattle and sheep. Back in March I bought 10g of wild flower seed which included Birdsfoot Trefoil, Selfheal, Red Clover, White Clover and Daisy. The lawn needed to be scarified first, not only to remove all the dead thatch but also to reveal patches of bare soil. Once I had achieved this I mixed the seed in a bucket with fine sand to give it bulk. After spreading it evenly across the lawn I then gently raked it over. After that the slightly monotonous job of treading the seed in over the whole lawn. Ideally this procedure should be done in the autumn to give the wild flowers chance to become established before the grass starts to grow the following spring. However as I had missed that opportunity as an insurance policy I’ve grown 200 plug plants (40 of each) to plant in a few weeks time. Time will tell if it’s a success or not. If it is I intend to do the same to the top lawn in the autumn.
Thursday 6th May
8am. A fifth swift returned home late last night. Around 8pm as the other swifts returned to roost they were joined by another who went into nb6 north. The lone prospector and the single swift roosted together in nb4 south again. That’s the second night in a row, so it looks like they’ve formed a bond.
I’ve been keeping a close eye on the late pair of breeding toads in my pond. The arrived on Monday and finally spawned yesterday. Just as well I did as tadpoles had already started to eat it. Toads unlike frogs lay their spawn in one long continuous string. Frogs lay their spawn in great big clumps. I managed to remove the whole string that was wrapped around a chunk of pond weed. It’s now in a bucket for protection. As soon as it hatches out I will return the tadpoles to my pond.
Wednesday 5th May
8am. Still only the 4 swifts back. Last night the lone prospector who had been roosting in nb6 south decided to roost in with the single bird in nb4 south. Now we wait and see what happens when the old mate returns to nb4 south. My guess is the newcomer will be unceremoniously kicked out. Talking of swift numbers back so far, I’ve been checking my records to see what’s happened in previous years. I’ve looked back over 5 years to see how many birds were here on 5th May. I was quite surprised by my findings. I thought this was a particularly bad year because it’s been so cold, but in fact it’s about normal. Below is the list of swifts back by the 5th May from 2017 to 2021. The one stand out year was 2020 with 12 birds. If you can remember last year’s April and May was unusually hot and sunny, so that probably explains the exceptionally high number that year. All the other years are about the same number.
2017 – 6 swifts back by 5th May
2018 – 2 swifts back by 5th May
2019 – 3 swifts back by 5th May
2020 – 12 swifts back by 5th May
2021 – 4 swifts back by 5th May
And another fact my records show is the vast majority of my birds arrive home between 10th-25th May. If my colony numbers are a fair representation for the rest of the UK there’s no need to worry if your birds aren’t back yet.
Tuesday 4th May
9am. Yesterday was extremely wet and windy and the coldest May bank holiday on record. All 4 swifts decided enough was enough and returned to their boxes at 2.30pm and didn’t go out again. My heart went out to the pair of great tits in the box on the kitchen wall. They battled on throughout the afternoon bringing in food for their chicks. They were absolutely soaked through. Luckily one of the neighbours has a bird feeder full of suet logs which was a real godsend. Tonights meant to get down to freezing again. What’s going on with the weather it’s all over the place at the moment.
I was sent some lovely photos of a pair of tree creepers by Stephen Howells. They have nested behind a broken wooden panel in his shed. The nest was in an extremely precarious location. Stephen has very carefully fixed a bit of bark over it for protection. The photos below were taken just before he added the bark. Inside are 4 very healthy young chicks about a week old, shown here just about to be fed.
Quick update on the swift front. Their numbers continue to rise slowly in southern France. Yesterday 11000 were sighted at Etang de Canet – Saint Nazaire.
Monday 3rd May
8am. No new arrivals at Swift House – still only the 4 back so far. The ‘new’ pair in nb4 south continues to intrigue me. I’ve seen them both together inside the box a couple of times now and they seem very attentive to one another. Lots of mutual preening and no sign of any aggression at all, but they don’t stay in long. And what’s more puzzling the new bird doesn’t roost there overnight. Instead it has chosen the compartment immediately above. It’s the nearest entrance hole to where I filmed it banging the other day. Checking my records from last year I did have some interest shown in that compartment. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s that bird who has returned? I filmed this short clip on Saturday. The new bird is the one at the top. My gut feeling is even though I’ve seen them together they won’t actually become an established pair.
This spring is definitely turning out to be quite odd. Yesterday I photographed a pair of breeding toads in my pond. That’s almost 2 months after the rest had finished! I can only guess this female got stuck on the wrong side of my house and it’s taken her all this time to find a way back. The one problem with spawning this late is there’s far too many hungry tadpoles in the pond. They would devour the spawn in a matter of hours. To give it a chance I’ll have to remove it and let it hatch out in a bucket first.
Some good news on the swift front. Their numbers in southern France increased to almost 10,000 yesterday. However I can’t see much happening here until we get rid of this nagging northerly wind. Looking at the forecast it’s meant to veer round to a south-westerly direction on Friday. That’s when I reckon we’ll see a lot more arrive.
Sunday 2nd May
8am. They’re getting closer to us. Yesterday over 5000 swifts were sighted over Engbertsdijksvenen in the Netherlands. Engbertsdijksvenen is a rare peat bog with lots of open water, full of flies and midges. Just the place for a hungry swift to linger for a while.
Here at Swift House another swift arrived last night and went into nb3 north. Also I’m 99% sure the lone prospector has paired up with the single bird in nb4 south. It followed that bird back into its box around lunchtime and stayed for a while, although it didn’t roost there overnight. How long it remains depends on when or if the old mate returns. If it does there’s going to be trouble! That takes the number of swifts back so far to 4.
Here’s a heartwarming story that I thought you’d might like to know about. North East Herts Swifts enthusiast Gavin Vicary has been touch with me about a super swift project in Albury, a small village in Hertfordshire. Their original plan was to take full advantage of scaffolding around the village hall and fit a 6 port Apex box. Unfortunately the scaffolding came down before they had finished building their box. The village hall is well over 8 metres high, so the option of using a ladder was also out of the question. But quick thinking Gavin had another idea. He contacted UK Power Networks and asked if they could help. And help they did. Not only did they provide a cherry picker, but a team of willing hands as well. In no time at all the team had fitted the box, see their Press Release.
Now that’s what a call a good news story.
Saturday 1st May
8am. Without doubt May is my favourite month of the year. Out of all the months in the year it’s the one I look forward to most. The days are getting longer and warmer, the garden is starting to bloom and there’s new life everywhere. I think my favourite poem is Swifts by Ted Hughes, which I have a framed copy hanging on my wall. It’s opening few lines are as follows;
Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialise at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
On a steep
Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Absolutely beautiful. Now doesn’t that just capture everything about them when they first appear.
Not much to report here at Swift House. Only the 2 swifts back so far. The lone prospector returned yesterday at exactly the same time, around 12ish as it did on Thursday. Flew up to the same spot on the corner about 20 times again then disappeared. Very odd. I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on.
Friday 30th April
7.30am. I witnessed some very interesting behaviour yesterday. I always thought the only swifts around now were last year breeders returning to their nest sites. I didn’t think any prospectors arrived until mid to late May. However yesterday I filmed this individual making at least 20 attempts to find a way in. It wasn’t trying to get into one of my boxes but instead was banging up against the top of the box and the soffit board. Classic prospecting behaviour. See this short video clip.
I hope it will come back and try again. Perhaps if I’m lucky it will find the top entrance hole by default. Back in 2018 I added that top compartment to this corner box. I had some interest shown in it that year but nothing much since. Surely it can’t be one of those birds that has come back again?
Swift numbers at Chew Valley lake continue to rise with over 150 sighted yesterday.
Thursday 29th April
7am. Although the rain was welcome for the garden, yesterday was a thoroughly wet and miserable day. So much so that the 2 swifts in the camera boxes didn’t bother going out until nearly lunchtime. I don’t think it got much warmer than 9C, very disappointing.
With nothing much happening outside I decided to check up on all the birding websites across the UK and Europe. The highest number recorded in the UK so far was 50 seen at Chew Valley lake on the 27th. In Corsica and southern France swift numbers continue to build slowly with about 5000 sighted at each location. However looking at those totals I reckon the main body of swifts has still not arrived. We should be talking about 30000-50000 at each location at this time of year. Maybe it’s something to do with this cold spring we’ve been having. I think I read yesterday that is was the frostiest April in the UK for 60 years. I’ve had a quick look at the long range forecast and it looks like it warms up around Sunday. When I say warms up I mean the nights aren’t so cold! More importantly though the wind shifts around to a south, south westerly direction. That should really make a big difference.
It should be noted that the number of swifts seen at the two locations above only represent a tiny fraction of the total number of European swifts, which for whole of Europe would be in the millions. The UK breeding population alone is estimated to be somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000 pairs. The vast majority of swifts will travel to their towns and villages unseen by any recorders. However by monitoring the sites in Corsica and southern France gives me an idea of what’s happening out there.
It was too cold to stand outside last night to check my non-camera boxes, so that will have to wait for another day. So my total stands at 2 with a possible unconfirmed third.
Wednesday 28th April
8am. Last year I had 15 pairs in my camera boxes, plus another 3 or 4 pairs and a couple of singletons in my non-camera boxes. I reckon the size of my colony is around 40 birds. Swifts are quite long lived birds, the oldest ringed bird recovered was estimated to be 20 years old. They have very few natural predators to contend with, most of them live long lives and die of old-age. Having said all that the experts reckon their mortality rate is about 1 in 6. So sadly out of my 40 birds about half a dozen won’t make it back this year. The good news is swifts can quickly attract a new mate if the old one has gone missing. Most of the time you don’t notice any change at the nest site at all. For all intents and purposes it looks like the same pair has returned. The worst case is when both birds fail to return and then their nest site can be lost forever. Thank goodness that doesn’t happen that often. It’s only occurred twice to me in over 15 years of recording.
Yesterday I had 3 swifts buzzing the house all day, but when I checked my cameras only 2 boxes were occupied. I’m assuming the third disappeared into one of my non-camera boxes. Swifts can be quite predictable and tend to return to roost at roughly the same time each evening. I’ll have to work out what time it is and keep an eye on the non-camera boxes to confirm if any are back. Trouble is if the weathers horrible it means standing outside getting cold for quite some time!
Tuesday 27th April
7am. The LH photo is of our second bird, back home safely in nb1 west. The RH photo is an imposter in nb1 north. Can you guess what it is? Answer below.
Give yourself a pat on the back if you said Blue Tit. It’s been roosting in that box for the last few nights. Unfortunately it’s in for a big shock when the resident swifts return. They won’t tolerate any intruders in their box and will fire it out immediately.
Monday 26th April
7.45pm. The second swift isn’t the mate of nb4 south, but it is the first bird to return to nb1 west.
3pm. Another swift has just joined the one that arrived last night. Both are buzzing the house but only one has entered nb4 south. Is it the mate or just another swift from the colony?
9am. I really thought I wouldn’t see any swifts yesterday. I’d been watching a steady trickle of swallows flying overhead all day long, but had long given up hope on seeing my first bird back, when suddenly out of the blue, quite literally one appeared. It did a single circuit of the house before disappearing back into its box. It always amazes me how confident they are at landing considering they’ve been flying non-stop for the last 9 months. But it flew straight in without any fuss at all. It’s still in there this morning as I write this blog, preening itself and re-arranging the feathers in its nest. I can’t imagine what it must be like to stop flying after so long, it must feel really strange.
Another first happened yesterday – the first Large red damselfly emerged from the pond.
Sunday 25th April
8.15pm. Our first swift has just returned home. It did a single circuit around the house before flying back into it’s nest box (4 south). And before anyone emails me about the date on the photo I know it’s wrong. But at least the time was right. I’ll update my laptop tomorrow if I can remember how to do it.
For the last few days a steady trickle of swifts have been arriving into the UK over Portland Bill Observatory. Quite a few have been sighted in Somerset which is getting closer to me, but alas none have made it home yet. Maybe today if I’m lucky?
Whilst I wait for my first birds to return I thought I’d give you a quick update of the other wildlife in the garden of Swift House.
I’m lucky to have 5 different species of amphibian living in my pond. Lots of common Toads and Frogs, quite a few Smooth and Palmate newts and a handful of rare Great Crested newts. I removed all the fish last year to make conditions better for them and it has made a huge difference. Not only is the water much clearer but there’s now an abundance of other creatures as well. The pond is absolutely full of Daphne (tiny water fleas) and tadpoles which everything else likes to eat. I saw my first Frogs and Toads on 22nd January, followed by a single Palmate newt a day later. The first Frog spawn appeared on 27th February. That was about a couple of weeks later than normal and was due to a particularly cold spell of weather around the middle of February. The first Toad spawn appeared on 1st March. Below is a photo of a female toad who was waiting by the front door one wet morning in March. Each year I have to transport a few of them through the house to the back garden pond.
I have 4 compost bins around the garden. Two bins for household waste and two large chicken-wire cages for hedge-cuttings and woody material. The household waste makes excellent compost which I use on the veg patch. The chicken-wire cages make beautiful leaf mould which I use as a mulch on the herbaceous borders. Everything from the garden is recycled, nothing goes to waste. In early March I was emptying out one of my chicken-wire cages when I came across several newts. Below is a photo of female Smooth newt and a female Great Crested newt. As you can see the Great Crested is much bigger than the Smooth. Don’t panic, both were safely rehoused into the other chicken-wire cage. I always leave one cage untouched during the summer. Not only do the newts like it, but it also makes a wonderful habitat for slow-worms as well.
The recent sunny weather has brought out the Red Mason bees. They’ve been emerging out of my bee hotels over the last few days in some numbers. The females lay several eggs inside each tunnel. I don’t know how she does it but the female eggs are laid at the back of the tunnel and the male eggs at the front. In this short video we filmed you can see several males jostling each other outside the bee hotel. Each one trying to secure the best position so they can mate with any emerging females. They are also super pollinators. The experts have found that a single Red Mason Bee is equivalent to 120 Honey Bees. Now that’s what I call a busy bee!
In the absence of Rob the next doors Robins have moved in. Robsy as we affectionally call him has brought his family along. There are at least 3 speckled fledglings who follow the pair around the garden demanding food. Luckily I still have plenty of live meal worms left which seems to be helping. Wrenkin is doing fine and Waggy still pops back for the odd feed every now and then. The Great tits in the box on the kitchen wall are now sat on eggs. Out the front the Blue tits are in a nest box on the holly tree and the front door Robins are back in the box within the clematis. Only this time to help protect them from marauding Magpies I’ve built a wire cage around it. The holes are just big enough for a Robin to squeeze through but nothing else.
And finally, it’s also been a great week for butterflies. I’ve seen several different species fluttering around the garden already, including the Comma, Holly Blue, Orange Tip, Peacock, Speckled Wood, Brimstone and Small Tortoiseshell. Here are photos of the Speckled Wood and Peacock butterflies.
Friday 23rd April
Single swift sighted over Weston-Super-Mare yesterday. Further south in Europe a big influx of over 5000 were counted over Les Dunes de Prunete in Corsica. It’s one of the places they tend to gather over on they way back to us, the other place being Falaise de Leucate in southern France. By the way from Corsica to the UK is about a 3-4 days flight for a swift. Looks like they just might be on their way.
Sunday 18th April
Despite all the sunshine it’s still really chilly here. Every morning for the last week I’ve been scraping frost of the car windows. I’m so glad our swifts aren’t back as it’s far too cold for them at the moment. However I expect all that to change as soon as this blocking high pressure moves away. It’s been acting a bit like a cork in a bottle, effectively bottling up our summer migrants somewhere down in Southern Europe. As soon as we get a change in wind direction it will be just as though the cork has been removed. When it happens we should see a big influx of birds, including our beloved swifts. So if you’re still thinking about putting up a box you better hurry, it won’t be that long before our swifts return.
One thing I have found over the years is that fitting a nest cup inside your box really does make a difference. It definitely helps reduce the number of dislodged eggs and chicks. Unfortunately an all too common occurrence amongst first time breeders who lack nesting experience.
There are various ways of making a nest cup. One is to cut out a 100mm diameter hole and mould a shallow concave using filler. You can find an example of this at the bottom of my Nest Box Design page. However it is a bit fiddly to make so I’ve experimented this year with a much simpler version.
All you need is a length of 1/2” rope about 12”-13” long, form it into a circle to make a diameter of about 90-100mm and glue it firmly into place. Once set stick in some soft feathers or thistle down as a starter nest. The rope nest cup can either be added directly to the floor of a box (see first two photos) or fitted onto a small piece of ply first and then glued onto the floor of your box (see RH photo).
Note. It’s vitality important to only use good quality rope that is undamaged. If the rope is badly worn or frayed there’s a slight possibility that the swifts could get their claws tangled up in the loose fibres. As an extra precaution I would recommend coating the rope with a thin layer of glue or sealant just to be on the safe side.
Wednesday 14th April
The first big influx of swifts arrived in Spain yesterday. Almost 1500 were sighted over Falaise de Leucate, it’s a large nature reserve full of marshes and lakes just north of Barcelona. This time of year it’s absolutely teeming with newly hatched flies and midges which makes it irresistible to any passing migrant. Think of it as a sort of super petrol station. It’s where our birds gather to refuel. They normally stay for about a week or two. Once fully satiated they’ll continue on with the last leg of their journey. All bodes well for the first swifts arriving back in the UK by the end of April.
Sunday 11th April
For a city garden we don’t do too badly with the number of different species of bird who come to visit us. We usually get well over 30 during the year. About 15 are what I call resident birds, that is they tend to be here more often than the others. If I include our Swifts then about a dozen have nested in the garden at one time or another. At the moment the Great Tits have just taken up residence in the box on the kitchen wall.
However there are 4 birds who are really special to us. Those of you who followed my daily blog last season will be familiar with Rob my tame Robin, Waggy and Mrs Waggy, a pair of Pied Wagtails, and Wrenkin the Wren
Rob and Wrenkin are with me all year, but the Pied Wagtails only come for the winter. At the beginning of last October Mrs Waggy arrived back. A few weeks later Waggy returned. This winter they stayed until early March. Mrs Waggy was the first to leave. I presume to start nesting again, followed by Waggy about a week later. Occasionally Waggy pops back for a quick feed, but I haven’t seen Mrs Waggy now for several weeks. I expect I won’t see her again until the autumn. During the winter of 2019/2020 Mrs Waggy lost all the claws on her left foot. I’m not sure how but it left her with just a stump. I really thought she wouldn’t survive that winter, but one year on she is still here and looking really good despite her disability.
Rob has moved into the territory of a nearby female Robin. He still pops back every now and then, but he’s too busy nesting to spend much time with me. He’ll be back when the breeding season is over. In his absence next door’s Robin (Robsy) has taken full advantage. He’s a bit tatty looking due to the many fights he had with Rob. As well as being a fighter he’s also a very good parent. He got a nest full of youngsters to feed and is constantly on the look-out for food. Luckily I still have plenty of meal worms, see this clip https://youtu.be/p72EwFYuU3E
That leaves only Wrenkin. He’s become really quite bold in the absence of the others. He was at the bottom of the pecking order and had to wait his turn to feed, but now he’s number one bird. See this clip https://youtu.be/zSL74BrwCvs. He’s built a few nests around the garden for his mate to inspect. The one she likes the best will become the brood nest. Sound familiar?
During the winter months the Wagtails are the dominant birds, bullying both Rob and Wrenkin, so I have to feed Rob on my hand otherwise he gets nothing! Poor little Wrenkin gets picked on by everyone, so I feed him separately when the others have gone. Rob will be 4 years old this summer. He’s been with me since he fledged back in 2017. I’m not sure how old the other three are, but I do know they are at least 3 years old. Here’s a video of Rob being fed, watching impatiently in the background are the Wagtails see https://youtu.be/QTIq9-_gRd4
Monday 5th April
An extra blog this week. I’ve been busy putting up my boxes again. It’s a bit earlier than I normal do, but the weather was just too good not to take advantage of. Last Tuesday it got up to 22 degrees. It felt just like summer, so we had a BBQ to celebrate! I take my boxes down each winter to help protect the cameras, although I’m not sure if it really makes any difference or not. But it’s a routine I’ve got into and I do like my routines! Anyway I started to put them up last Monday. With 25 boxes to fit it takes me a few days now. I used to be able to do it all in one day, but not anymore. Before I put them up I make sure each camera is working properly, give it a bit of a clean and add a handful of fresh nesting material to each box. I was sent a big bag of thistledown by some swift friends from Stockport. Big thanks to the Richards family. Thistledown makes superb bedding. I mix it together with a few soft feathers and place it in each nest. The swifts will do the rest when they return. One final thing, as the boxes are up a little earlier than normal I’ve temporarily blocked up the entrance holes to stop any unwanted guests entering. The Blue Tits are still looking for somewhere to nest and these would make ideal homes for them. In a week or so time it will be safe to unblock them.
Sunday 4th April
We’ve seen a big increase in people wanting to put up boxes over the last year. The majority of interest is from individuals who want to put up a box or two on their house and are seeking our advice. However we have also been involved with several larger projects as well.
There’s a community project in the Chew Valley area organised by Anne-Marie Morris. Last December we surveyed over 20 households and fingers crossed, most will have boxes on them by the time the swifts arrive. Anne-Marie has done a fantastic job despite all the restrictions. We hope this is just the beginning and more households will want to be involved in the future. Photos of our visit and wonderful sunset over Chew Valley Lake on our way home.
In March we visited Grimsbury Farm, a community farm park run by South Gloucestershire County Council and met Caroline Gaze on site to discuss possible swift nest sites. The farm has great potential and we identified several excellent locations. Since we visited an order for 14 boxes (2 x 7 port apex boxes) and a sound system have been placed with Peak Boxes.
Last week we were invited to the Bishop’s Palace in Wells by James Cross the Head Gardener. He wants to attract swifts to the Palace. His long term ambition is to turn it into a swift mega-colony. We’ve never been there before and were amazed just how beautiful it was. We spent a lovely morning surveying the grounds with James. With so many super locations to fit boxes the potential there is massive. My personal favourite is the bell tower. We know swifts are nesting nearby so hopefully we can entice one or two over. If all goes well this summer the aim is to increase the total number of boxes over time. This will be done over three phases, with the first phase starting immediately.
Phase 1 is for 2 double eaves boxes and a sound system to be installed either side of the drainpipe before the swifts return in May. See photo 1 below.
Phase 2 is for 3 bespoke multi-compartment boxes to be fitted into the top of the bell tower. He hopes this will be done by the summer. See photos 2 & 3.
Phase 3 is for more boxes to be fitted along the length of the Eastern perimeter wall, possibly as early as next year if all goes to plan. See photo 4.
Peak Boxes are supplying the boxes and sound systems to all three projects.
Thursday 1st April
It’s really difficult to say anything positive about this horrible pandemic. However it does seem to have rekindled a greater appreciation of wildlife and green spaces which is absolutely fantastic. We’ve definitely noticed the change. We’ve been extremely busy on the swift front, in fact it has probably been our busiest year to date. It’s been quite remarkable. We’ve been involved in lots of interesting projects which we will go into more detail over the coming weeks.
For those of you who read my blog last year you’ll be pleased to know that Rob the Robin, Waggy, Mrs Waggy and Wrenkin are all fit and well. More on them in a later blog.
Here are a few things that have happened since the 2020 Swift blog finished.
After we appeared on BBC Breakfast in March 2020 we were amazed by the amount of interest it generated. We had people contacting us from all across the UK asking for advice about swifts. We even had emails from Finland, Italy, Spain & France! As a result hundreds of new swift boxes have been built and fitted. A big thank you to everyone with their efforts. I also appeared on BBC Breakfast talking about the Big Garden Birdwatch in January 2021. Ironically on the day of filming not a single bird appeared, but at least I got to mention our swifts.
During the summer a film was made in our garden for Clifton Climate Action entitled ‘Bristol’s Wild Gardens: the Swift Conservationist’ as one of a series of films about wildlife and environmentally-friendly gardens. Here is a link the video that was finished last September.
Look after yourselves and stay safe.
Mark & Jane