Bristol Swifts 2021 Blog

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 for information. Tickets have now sold out. However we hope that by July restrictions on numbers will be eased, so more can visit. We will update here if that tickets can be bought on the day.

Saturday 12th June

7am. The first two eggs hatched in nb4 south on Thursday. It’s taken me a while to photograph them as the adult birds rarely move off them. Both parents will take turns to brood them for about a week. After that both birds will go out each day to collect food for them. The chicks are born naked and blind. They are fed on a super rich diet of insects so they grow extremely fast. Soon they will be covered in a downy fluff and after about 12 days they will start to open their eyes. They will remain in the nest for about 6 weeks before they fledge. When they leave they will be completely independent and make their way immediately to Africa. In the photo you can see the two tiny chicks, the remaining egg and the broken eggshells. The female will eat some of the eggshell to replenish her calcium levels. The rest will be tossed out of the nest.

Some really good news. Our tame Robin, Rob has returned. The last time we saw him was 1st April. Yesterday he flew back really close to my head to signal he was back. I called out his name and he flew straight onto my hand again. He looked so scruffy. I assume he’s finished raising a family and decided its time to come back home again. He ate plenty of live mealworms from my hand. It’s so good to have him back.

Friday 11th June

7am. It took me the best part of yesterday morning to finally deter the bees from taking up residence. They were looking in both twin boxes on the front of the house plus a single box at the back. However to be on the safe side I sprayed Bee Quick on the entrances of all my boxes. This is used by bee keepers when collecting honey from their hives. It’s completely non-toxic and doesn’t harm the bees, but they just can’t stand the smell of it. To me it smells like lemon marzipan. I’m hoping they swarmed off somewhere else, although I need to be vigilant for the next couple of days just to be on the safe side. Yesterday afternoon I watched my cameras to see if my missing birds would return. By 5pm I had almost given up when one of the pair in the box with eggs returned. I’m pretty sure it was the female. She was very nervous at first but soon settled down and began incubating again. At 9.30pm her mate returned. They had been absent for nearly 24 hours. I just hope the eggs are still OK, only time will tell now. In the adjacent box at 10pm one of the birds from the other missing pair came into roost. Hopefully its mate will rejoin it today. Below are a couple of photos of the pair safely back on their eggs in nb3 north.

Thursday 10th June

8.30am. A major incident is unfolding this morning. Last night both pairs in one of my twin nest boxes failed to return to roost. This was unprecedented as one pair was incubating eggs. I couldn’t understand why, but this morning it has become worryingly obvious. Honey bees! Both boxes had been targeted by scout honey bees looking for a new home for their queen to swarm into. They must have entered the boxes sometime yesterday and spooked both pairs enough for them to desert. This morning the bees have returned again. However all is not lost. I have a bottle of Bee Quick which is excellent at dispersing bees. I’ve sprayed the entrances of all my boxes and it’s having the desired effect at the moment. From my bee-keeping days I remember bees like to swarm between 10am and noon. So I think I’m going to bee busy!

7am. I’ve just noticed the first Crataerina Pallida, the parasitic swift louse-fly of the season. It was scuttling over the back of the sitting bird in nb4 south. It must have been brought in by one of the newcomers (bangers) who targeted that box recently, as I thoroughly clean out all of my boxes each winter. They hitch rides on bangers who go from nest site to nest site. Once they’ve found a suitable home they hop off, it only takes them a second. It’s the method they use to infest other nest sites. Below is a photo of their eggs and a couple of the actual louse-fly.

On a separate note the 3 eggs in the same box are due to start hatching any day now. The first was laid on 17th May and the third on 21st May. It generally takes about 20-21 days for eggs to hatch. But to complicate matters the adults don’t start incubating properly until the last egg is laid. It’s not an exact science but I tend to work on 19 days after the last egg is laid for the first to hatch.

They generally lay an egg every other day. Clutch sizes are generally 2, sometimes 3 as a rule. Incubation only really begins properly once the last egg has been laid. So if the clutch is 3 the first egg will have received 4 nights incubation and the second egg 2 nights. That means some eggs will hatch out slightly earlier than others. It’s a method that guarantees that in a poor summer only the biggest and strongest chicks survive at the expense of the weakest. It seems brutal to us, but its worked for swifts for the last 50 million years.

Wednesday 9th June

7am. A quick update following my blog on Monday. A couple of people contacted me to say they followed the advice and turned off their calls. Both had previously had birds buzzing their boxes but nothing more. As soon as they turned off the calls this changed and both of them they got their first birds into their boxes. Remarkably one was only 20 minutes after turning them off! So pleased for them both.

There was a minor mishap in one of my boxes yesterday. The female in nb5 north had just laid her second egg but in the process had flicked out her first. You can see the egg in the LH photo below just in front of her. Unfortunately she was reluctant to leave as she had just starting incubating. I had to gently nudge her off the nest to pop the egg back in which I don’t like doing. Thankfully she wasn’t too bothered by my actions and soon returned to carry on her incubating duties.

The newcomers arrived with a bang at 4.55am this morning! I think they can sense the weathers getting warmer. I hope to film some of their activity if I can.

Tuesday 8th June

7am. The newcomers are still buzzing my boxes but none have taken up permanent residency yet. One keeps going into nb1 south, stays for a few minutes then leaves. Another has gone into nb3 west for a while. But neither show any real signs of making those boxes home or for that matter bringing a mate in with them.

In between watching the activity outside I’ve also been keeping a close eye on my cameras in an effort to see into as many nests as possible. Yesterday I got lucky with two boxes of the four boxes I need to check out. I finally got a look at nb6 north. I thought there were 2 eggs in there but to my surprise there were 3. I also got a look into nb2 north and confirmed only 2 eggs in that one. I still need to confirm the number of eggs in nb5 west and nb 3 north. I suspect 2 in each, but there’s been more 3 egg clutches this year than normal so you never know.

And finally the first egg was laid in nb5 north. That’s 11 out of 12 pairs with at least 24 eggs between them. Only nb4 north still to lay.

The newcomers arrived at 6am this morning and are putting on quite a show as I write this blog. Looking out the window at the blue sky it has got the makings of a very good swift day indeed.

Monday 7th June

7am. When and how long should I play the attraction calls is a question I get frequently asked.

The accepted guidance on the Swift Conservation website is to play the calls in the mornings and again in the evenings from May to August -see this link

However there is growing evidence that this might not always be the case. In fact it might even deter swifts from entering. Without doubt attraction calls draw in prospectors. But the real question is how long should you continue playing them once you’ve got their attention.

Martin McManus from Plymouth had swifts buzzing around his boxes for some time, but none had gone inside. He told me he’d been playing their calls from dawn to dusk as per the guidance notes. Here’s the most interesting bit, on a day when he hadn’t turned the calls on he noticed them landing and peeping inside. He started to play the calls again, but as soon as he turned it on the birds disappeared. Baffled he contacted me to ask my advice on whether he should continue to play the calls or not. I’m really no expert, but I do feel sometimes the calls deter prospectors from entering boxes. I recommended he turn the calls off as soon as he had drawn them in close. Other people have done this and it worked for them. Martin tried it and amazingly within 20 minutes his first swift entered a box and here is his video. Later that day it returned with its mate and they both went in. He had finally got his first pair.

So what conclusion can I draw from this. If you’re having no luck attracting swifts once you have them coming in close try turning the calls off and see what happens. If the prospectors immediately fly away then turn the calls back on again. If however they remain just watch and see what happens. It’s worth having a go. Once you’ve got your first pair then you don’t need to play the attraction calls, unless of course you want to.

It’s World Swift Day today. Here’s a lovely video message from Dr Jane Goodhall celebrating these wonderful birds and all the super work done by individuals to help them. Martine Wauters aka Swift Lady has put together some suggestions of how you can help

Yesterday over 5000 swifts were sighted over Roncherolles sur le Vivier, in France. That’s just a few miles inland from Le Havre on the English Channel coastline. Hopefully some of them are heading our way.

Sunday 6th June

8am. Yesterday the first egg in nb2 north was laid. That’s the 10th pair on eggs, only 2 more pairs to go. In those 10 boxes I’ve definitely seen 17 eggs, but it’s highly likely there’s another 4 that I’ve missed. There are four boxes where I’m sure a second egg has been laid in the last few of days. Frustratingly I can’t tell 100% because there’s always a sitting bird on them, but clutches of two are normal. Assuming I’m right that takes the egg total up to 21 from 10 pairs.

Even though yesterdays weather in the morning was exactly the same as Fridays the level of activity was quite different. There was hardly any yesterday which surprised me. I had hoped to see the first new pairs enter my empty boxes. In the end the best I saw a single bird enter nb1 south. It stayed for about 10 minutes then left.

We saw are first broad-bodied chaser of the year. It emerged from our pond yesterday. Spot it if you can in the LH photo. A clue it’s somewhere near the middle.

Saturday 5th June

7am. At the moment I’m 2 breeding pairs down in my camera boxes. Last year I had 14, this year only 12. However in my other boxes I think their numbers are slightly up. Last year I had 3 breeding pairs. This year the same 3 pairs are back plus I think another 1 or possibly 2. I’ll have to spend an evening outside watching to see who goes where.

The prospectors were very active again yesterday morning with quite a few of the empty boxes being targeted. There’s a hard core of about 6 newcomers who are always here and these are joined from time to time by another 6 or so. When they’re all here it’s a sight to see, the noise can be quite deafening. If things follow the same pattern as last year this activity should translate into 1 or 2 new pairs taking up residency. I’ll try and film some of their prospecting today if I can.

Quick update of my other garden birds. It’s been a bit of a mixed bag. The blue tits despite building several nests failed to raise any young at all. This is the first year that this has happened here. The front garden robins abandoned their 5 eggs in May. Both failures I think can be attributed to the rotten weather we experienced for most of that month. Next doors robins have successfully raised a second brood. They fledged a few days ago and are now safely hidden in my hedges. Unfortunately the male robin we called Robsy has gone missing. There’s been a sparrowhawk about recently and I fear he may have fallen victim to it. However the female robin is doing really well on her own. I’ve been helping her out with regular handouts of meal worms. Also quite partial to free mealworms are the wagtails. They have chicks somewhere down by the river Trym and quite often pop in for a beak full or two! The blackbirds are on their third attempt at breeding, hopefully this time they’ll avoid the attention of the magpies who have taken their last two broods.The great tits are on a second clutch of eggs having successfully fledged the first. And finally there’s a pair of goldfinches nesting somewhere close by. The male sings from next doors silver birch, somewhere below is the nest but I haven’t managed to pinpoint exactly where yet.

Yesterday Portland Bill Bird Observatory reported a trickle of swifts still arriving. Maybe my missing pairs?

Friday 4th June

8am. Yesterday egg laying continued in earnest with another 2 being laid. The second eggs in nb12 west and nb6 north. That takes the egg total up to 16 from 9 pairs.

Very little activity yesterday morning as the weather conditions were quite cool, but as the day progressed it warmed up and by the evening the displays were really good. Whilst watching the newcomers prospecting I noticed some very interesting behaviour. Normally I watch from the garden so I can see all the boxes but last night I was right underneath them. Being so close I noticed a subtle different in their approaches that I’ve missed from being farther away.

When the prospector lands on an occupied box the sitting resident bird normally calls back immediately. This tells the prospector that the box is occupied and it flies away. However sometimes the sitting bird doesn’t respond immediately, so the prospector sticks its head in through the entrance hole and lets out a short scream. This approach invariably triggers a response from the resident bird and the prospector duly flies away. Either way the prospector learns that this particular box is occupied.

The slight difference I noticed was with empty boxes. The prospector lands and on hearing no response it sticks its head in and calls, waits a few moments before flying away. It was listening for a respond. In those few seconds it could work out if the box is occupied or not. Having found a silent box it then returned and repeated the same process. It did this over and over again. I can only assume they are double-checking.

All prospectors follow the same pattern. By systematically going from box to box they will eventually work out which boxes are occupied and which aren’t. I think this process takes them several days. If I’m right the next phase will be for them to enter the empty boxes. The next two or three days should be really interesting.

Thursday 3rd June

8am. Another couple of eggs yesterday. The first egg in nb1 north and the second in nb5 south. Colony status -12 pairs in my camera boxes and another 3 pairs in my other boxes. 14 eggs between 9 pairs.

Yesterday swift action was quite spectacular, especially so during the morning. There must be about a dozen newcomers prospecting around the house. They haven’t gone in any boxes yet as far as I can tell, but they do particular like my corner boxes. Where those boxes are positioned allows the newcomers to fly up to them without deviating from their flight path. I filmed this video to show the repeated attention given to my corner boxes. Every time the newcomers land on the boxes the resident birds issue a warning “this box is occupied”. They must have be exhausted by the time the newcomers had finished with them!

Any thinking of putting up boxes in the future and not sure where to fit them I would recommend putting them as close to the corners as possible.

Wednesday 2nd June

7am. Yesterday was a bit of an egg fest with 4 being laid in my boxes. The second egg in nb2 south and the first eggs in nb 5 & 12 west and nb6 north. The group of six newcomers are still buzzing the house, but I haven’t seen them go into any boxes yet. Maybe today?

Nice to be mentioned on BBC Springwatch last night with my comments about the late breeding season this year. In a normal year eggs are usually laid about 10 days after the pair have been re-united. This year it has taken one pair over double that time and another 4 pairs half as long again. I’ve never seen anything like it before in all the years I’ve been keeping records. I have 7 pairs with eggs at the moment and below are the number of days it has taken them to produce their first eggs.

23 days after pair re-united.

18 days                   

17 days                   

16 days                   

15 days                   

11 days                    

10 days                   

The 5 early pairs who arrived at the end of April/early May have been the most affected by the unusual weather. Taking 23,18,17,16 & 15 days respectively to lay their first eggs. The 2 later pairs who arrived in Mid May don’t seem to have been affected by the conditions at all and have laid eggs nearer the 10 day average – 11 & 10 days.

Quick update on the colony status. 12 pairs in my camera boxes. 7 of which have got eggs. 3 pairs in my other boxes. Total 30 birds. Last year the colony was about 40 strong, so still got a few missing. Hopefully they’ll arrive back in the next week or so.

We met Annie and Pete from the Forest of Dean yesterday. Annie is another keen swift enthusiast. Nine weeks ago she set up a local swift group and has 350 members. Well done Annie, keep up the good work.

Tuesday 1st June

7am. Even though the last couple of days have been really hot and sunny I can’t say I’m sorry to see the back of May. It’s been the worst May I can remember, hopefully June will be the complete opposite.

Yesterday we invited a couple of swift friends, Clare and Steve to come over for morning coffee. I was hoping there would be of lots of swift action for them to see, but it was all rather quiet which was frustrating. Admittedly there were a few screaming parties, but we didn’t see any prospecting like I did on Saturday. Still it was lovely just to sit in the garden and chat. Plus the wagtails and robin more than made up for the lack of swift action.

Two more eggs were laid yesterday. The first in nb2 south and the first in nb1 north. That’s now 5 pairs who have laid eggs. As far as I could tell no more new arrivals, so the total stands at 12 pairs in my camera boxes and 2, possibly 3 pairs in the others.

We had a lovely email from Kathy who we met when a group from Avon Keynsham Wildlife Trust visited our garden a few years ago. She and her husband Martin have done an amazing job building and putting up swift boxes around Keynsham and Saltford (which is not far from Bristol). In collaboration with the local WI and Waitrose they were awarded £650 towards their swift project. Making the most of the lockdown restrictions Martin who is a dab hand at DIY, made 13 x 4 compartment boxes and in late March/early April these were put up around the local area. That’s over 40 new nest sites up and ready to be occupied. Another good news swift story.

Monday 31st May

8am. Yesterday was a super swift day with lots of activity from the word go. The mate of nb2 north arrived taking the number of pairs back in my camera boxes to 12.

The first egg in nb3 north was laid. That’s the box with the flighty female in. Here’s a quick recap. She arrived on 1st May and paired up with a new mate on 12th May. On 19th May her old mate returned and threw out the interloper after a fight. In a normal Spring I would have expected her to lay eggs on or about 22nd May. That would have been 10 days after she paired up with the interloper. But this year is not normal and she’s only just laid today, 11 days later. If she had laid on 22nd May her old mate would have immediately thrown the eggs out, knowing the father was the interloper. But the lack of insects this Spring has slowed down her egg production and in this particular case saved this clutch from being thrown out.

I’m pretty sure the two missing single birds from nb1 & south are mixed in with the newcomers. All day yesterday birds kept flying up to those two boxes in particular. It looked to me like they were showing the newcomers where the nest sites were. If I’m right over the next day or two they will try and coax a newcomer back in with them.

John and Lesley Cookson sent me some lovely photos of their swift boxes and bricks on their farm house in Mid Wales. I first got to know them back in 2019 when they contacted me for some advice. John loves his birds and had built some (a lot!) of swift boxes based on my designs.

This year he’s added 3 swift bricks to his farm house. I’ve (actually Jane did) put a red ring around each hole. I think these will be extremely popular when his birds returned. They just love natural sites and these look absolutely brilliant.

I think what they have done is fantastic. It won’t be that long before they have a super-sized colony nesting there.

Sunday 30th May

7am. I love this time of year. There’s not a cloud in the sky, light winds and half a dozen newcomers whizzing about already. All the makings of a very good day ahead.

Yesterday a single bird returned to nb2 north and I also saw a newcomer enter nb3 west for the first time. But the two singletons from nb1 & 3 south again didn’t return to roost. With the arrival of the bird in nb2 north the colony total stands at 28 birds. 23 in my camera boxes and 5 in the others. As far as I can tell that breaks down into 13 pairs, 2 singles and 5 eggs.

Something very strange is going on with egg laying this year. The number of pairs I have back today is almost the same as it was in 2020, but the difference between the 2 years is quite stark.

This time last year 11 pairs out of 14 were sat on eggs (roughly 78% of the colony)
This year only 2 pairs out of 13 are sat on eggs (roughly 16% colony)

I don’t think it’s all down to their late arrival either. It’s more likely due to the lack of flying insects. They just haven’t found enough food to produce any eggs yet. A good rule of thumb is eggs are laid 10 days after a pair are re-united, but that’s just not happening this year. The 11 pairs without eggs are at least 2, possibly 3 weeks behind normal. They won’t finishing laying now until early to mid June. That will push the fledging date of those chicks into mid to late August, possibly even early September. I fear for the fate of some of those late fledglings.

A minor incident yesterday. In two of my boxes spiders had built their webs. Both had caught loose feathers and were blocking my camera view completely. I don’t like going up to the boxes when the birds are about, but I had to act before they started egg laying.

On Friday night the first bangers of the season arrived. I managed to film this short video of them in action. You can see why they got the nickname Bangers!

Saturday 29th May

9am. Quite a bit of swift activity yesterday around the house. I thought it was only a couple of newcomers but I think it’s more like 5 or 6. They are always great fun to watch, whizzing and screaming around. The mate of nb4 north returned taking the number of pairs back up to 13. But the single birds in nb1 and nb3 south didn’t return to roost. I wonder if they have given up waiting for their mates and have gone off searching for new partners. We know that single birds will look for new mates, but what we don’t know is where. Do they just stay local or do they fly further afield. Maybe there’s a special place where single swifts meet up. For want of a better description a sort of singles bar in the sky! So many unanswered questions.

Our good friend Simon Bament from Heathfield School near Taunton has just sent us the latest update from their swift project. Being a fellow swift enthusiast we’ve got to know him well since we first met him and his students back in 2016. That’s when we featured him in our blog – see entry 15th July. A couple of years later in 2018 we welcomed him and a small group of children to see our swift colony- see my blog entries on 21st & 22nd June. They had raised sponsorship money from local businesses to help fund them building swift boxes to be installed on their school building as you can see in the photos. You may have met him if you visited our open garden swift events which he has very kindly helped us with over the years. His enthusiasm has been passed onto his pupils and they have just installed new signs under the boxes about swifts for everyone to read. Last year they had their first pair nesting in a box and so far this year they have seen two entering different boxes. It may have taken a few years to get their first birds but they now have the beginnings of their very own colony.

Friday 28th May

7am. Yesterday was the first really warm day of the month and it didn’t disappoint either. There was lots of swift action going on. It was probably the best day so far. I’m pretty sure the start of the second wave has arrived, that’s new birds looking for a box of their own. I had 2 newcomers who buzzed the colony all day long. I watched them until 9.30pm last night hoping they would go into one of my boxes, but they disappeared into the night sky. When I got up at 6am this morning they are back outside. I love watching them, maybe today they’ll choose a box?

One old resident did return, the mate of nb5 north. That took the total up to 28 – 12 pairs, 4 singles and 5 eggs.

Here is a swift story that you may be interested in. Back on 10th May I had a desperate email for Debbie Curry from Stoke on Trent asking for advice. Debbie loves her swifts. She hasn’t got any birds nesting at her house but takes great pleasure from watching the pair in her neighbours house. You can imagine her horror when she saw that the neighbours new satellite dish blocked the swifts from getting in. During the winter she had seen the dish being installed, but hadn’t realised just how important it’s location would turn out to be. The swifts were frantically trying to access the hole without success.

I suggested that the best approach was to ask the neighbours if they would consider moving the satellite dish. Debbie was so passionate that she said she would pay for it to be moved. Luckily the neighbours were very understanding and arranged for the engineers to come the following day. The engineers came and moved it, but only by a few inches because of the reception. It wasn’t ideal but it was better than leaving it where it was.

With the dish moved Debbie waited to see what the swifts would do. But they didn’t return that day. Then the weather closed in and there was no swift activity at all. For 2 weeks she anxiously waited and watched. She had almost given up hope, but then yesterday out of the blue she heard a familiar scream. On rushing to her window she saw a swift flying straight back into the nest site again. They had returned.

I think that’s a really wonderful story and Debbie should be really proud of what she has done. It made my day when she emailed yesterday. I do love a  story with a happy ending.

Thursday 27th May

7am. We had a super day out around Chew Valley yesterday and met so many nice people.

Firstly we’d like to thank Peter Haigh and the other members of the East Harptree swift group for making us feel so welcome. They’ve done a brilliant job in the village and the group have found and mapped over 30 natural nest sites. Even though quite a few residents of East Harptree had put up swift boxes the majority of birds were still nesting in natural locations. The most common being just under the roof tiles, behind the soffit boards or small holes in the masonry. The village is a real mecca for swifts. We don’t think we’ve seen so many natural nest sites in such a small area. The swifts must have known we were coming as they put on a wonderful display as we walked around the village. The boxes in the church are still in the planning process so we’re hoping to see them on a future visit. We were so impressed by the ethos of the group. Not only are they keen in swifts, but also in bats and the many green spaces located around the village as well. Quite a few of the houses had bat boxes fitted and they had even persuaded the church not to mow the grass to encourage the wild flowers to grow. The community spirit was very evident and a fine example for others to follow.

After East Harptree we popped in to see Sandy and Tim at Litton. They are in the process of putting cameras in their swift boxes. They are installing the latest generation of wired cameras. They’ve put in 5 already and have potential to view 18 nests all at the same time. The action is beamed live to a split screen wide TV in full colour and with sound. The quality of the pictures is outstanding. And on top of that they have also installed an app on their phones which gives them the same access to the pictures when they’re out. Wow I was so envious. It made my set-up look like the stone age! One swift was being a bit tricky whilst we were looking at it. It had decided to ignore the purpose built nest provided by Tim and crawl just out of camera view. When we arrived Tim was trying to reposition the camera. I feel that might be a work in progress!

No new arrivals at Swift House, maybe some more will return today.

Wednesday 26th May

7am. Up early this morning as we’ve got a busy day. First we’ve off to East Harptree to meet the local swift group. We’ve been invited by Peter Haigh to meet some of the group and have a look at what they’ve done around the village. One project we’re very much keen on seeing is the boxes they’ve fitted in the local church after major restoration works. East Harptree is a small village situated a couple of miles south of Chew Valley Lake. There’s quite a few swifts nesting in the village already and we’re hoping we might see some later this morning. After East Harptree we’re off to Litton to meet our good friends, Tim and Sandy Sephton. Their swift story is truly quite remarkable. They started from nothing just a few years ago. They only thing they had in abundance was for a huge passion for swifts. We’ve lost count of the number of boxes they have now, but it’s way into double figures. And they’ve got swifts, and lots of them at that. Below is a lovely photo of their first pair back home inside their box. Can’t wait!

No new arrivals yesterday at Swift House, but I’m hoping to see some more later this week as the weather warms up.

Tuesday 25th May

8am. One indication of how poor the weather has been is both my pairs with eggs have left them uncovered in order to feed themselves. Nb4 south has 3 eggs, the third being laid on 22nd May. The clutch is complete and she should be incubating, instead she went out all day yesterday hunting. The other nest with eggs in is nb1 west. There are only 2 eggs in that clutch and again the second one laid on 22nd May. She also spent all day yesterday out feeding. The amount of time both clutches were uncovered would if it was another bird species mean both would have perished. But swifts have evolved so that their eggs can be left uncovered for a considerable amount of time. A few years ago one of my pairs accidentally knocked out one of their eggs from the nest. It took at least 24 hours waiting for the female to go out for for me to place it back in. Remarkably that egg still hatched and the chick fledged successfully 6 weeks later. I hope once the weather improves and it gets a bit warmer they won’t need to spend all day out searching for food.

No more arrivals at Swift House yesterday. Checking the local birding website quite a few were counted over Chew Valley lake yesterday. That’s where I think my birds go to feed. Numbers somewhere in the low thousands. Further South at Portland Bill Bird Observatory they’ve seen a steady trickle arriving for the last couple of days. From Wednesday the weather finally starts to improve. When it does I’m expecting to see quite a few more arrive.

Monday 24th May

8am. Another washout yesterday with virtually no swift action at all. It’s hard to believe I’ve got 26 birds back! I suppose they are too busy feeding at the moment to spend much time around the house. The only highlight of the day apart from our good friend Stuart Mcfadzean popping in to see us, was another swift arriving home. Stuart’s done fantastic swift work down in Devon and has installed dozens of boxes near his home in Kentisbeare. The most successful so far are the boxes in the local church which had 2 breeding pairs in them last year. The first swift back in nb5 north takes the total up to 27.

I was sent this extraordinary video by Clare Lyons yesterday. She filmed hundreds of swifts feeding over Hyde Park in London. So that’s where they all are! It’s such a wonderful sight to see so many all together, so beautiful. Thank you Clare for sharing it with us.

Fellow swift enthusiast, Clive Fletcher from Birmingham sent me some photos of his latest DIY boxes. Clive’s a prolific box builder and has got almost as many boxes as me now. His first bird is back and like the rest of us is just waiting for the weather to improve to bring the rest home. Good luck with the new boxes Clive they look really good.

Sunday 23rd May

7am.  Saturday was a vast improvement on Fridays weather with much lighter winds and spells of warm sunshine. The swifts certainly enjoyed the settled conditions. For a short while in the morning I was treated to my biggest screaming parties of the season. At one point I counted 14 whizzing around the house. Alas it didn’t last long before they disappeared off to feed. I assume they needed to make up for being stuck inside their boxes for most of the day on Friday.

The good news is the missing mate in nb2 south returned after spending the night on the wing. Another 2 new birds also arrived back, the mates of nb6 west and nb11 west. Both are non-camera boxes but I was lucky to be still in the garden just as all four returned to roost last night. And finally the pair in nb4 south have laid a third egg. So far 26 birds are back. That’s 21 in my camera boxes and another 5 in my other boxes. 11 pairs, 4 singles and 4 eggs. Last year the colony was around the 40 mark – 18 pairs and 4 singles. So about a third has still yet to arrive, maybe next week looking at the weather forecast.

Saturday 22nd May

8am. What a wild day yesterday. It blew a hooley all day long. My swifts didn’t go out until after lunchtime when the rain finally eased, but if anything the wind got stronger once it did. How they managed to get back into their boxes is beyond me. They all made it back, except one. Only one bird returned to nb2 south, but I’m hopeful it will return today. Not the day then to be up a ladder but duty called. In the left corner of the photo below you can make out a round object. That is or should I say was a wasps nest. The swift that is sitting on the nest returned on Thursday night in nb5 south and must have knocked the nest down. I couldn’t do anything on Thursday night but as soon as the bird left yesterday I was up the ladder and removed the wasps nest. Don’t worry I wasn’t being reckless! That box is just above the kitchen extension and easily reached by a step ladder and the wasp nest was empty.

In spite of the atrocious conditions another 2 swifts made it home. The mate of nb5 south (in photo above) and the first bird in nb11 west, one of my non-camera boxes. This time of year it’s very difficult keeping an accurate record of who is back. New birds are arriving, some birds are box hoping and others are staying out at night. Trying to work out who is meant to be where is neigh on impossible. You should see my chart, it’s full of scribbles, rubbings out and arrows pointing to different boxes. Eventually it will settle down but not for another week or two. Based on last nights observations I have 23 birds back. 20 in my camera boxes and 3 in my non-camera boxes. That’s 8 pairs and 7 singles.

One of the joys of this time of year is watching a new bird returning. I’ve just seen one arrive this morning at 7am. It was circling the house and gradually getting closer each time. Almost as though it was getting back its bearings after such a long absence. Once it had familiarised itself with it surroundings it homed in on its box. A few more circuits and it entered.

Friday 21st May

9am. What’s happened to the weather! It’s more like October than late May. That’s the fourth low pressure in a month that has battered us. I don’t know about you but I’m completely fed up with it now.

Last night I watched to see what the outcome of the fight was in nb3 north. When I looked at 7.30pm she was sat on the nest on her own. Twenty minutes later her ‘mate’ arrived. On hearing him land she immediately rushes off to confront him. He brushes past her and goes to settle down on the nest where she grabs him from behind with her claws. Luckily he doesn’t respond and she slowly releases her grip. She’s very nervous of him, but eventually relaxes and twenty minutes later they are cuddled up on the nest together.

This is what has happened in that box so far. She arrived back on 1st May and paired up with a ‘new mate’ on 12th May. On Wednesday evening her old mate returned and a fight ensued. I’m pretty sure having watched them last night that it’s the old mate who has won. I will know for certain in a few days time. Eggs are usually laid around 10 days after the pair are re-united. She paired up with the ‘new mate’ on 12th May, so the first eggs should be laid around the 22nd May. If the eggs are immediately thrown out then it’s the old mate who’s back in charge.

Apart from the drama in nb3 north there was quite a lot happening elsewhere. The first egg was laid in nb1 west. The first birds arrived back in nb1 south and nb5 south and the second bird arrived in nb12 west. In total there are now 20 birds back in my camera boxes and 2 back in my non camera boxes. That’s roughly about half the colony. 8 pairs, 6 singles and 3 eggs.

Thursday 20th May

8am. Yesterday saw the arrival of at least 3 swifts, possibly more. It was difficult to tell the exact number. Frustratingly I saw one or two enter boxes, but they kept just out of view of the camera so I couldn’t tell how many. One thing I can confirm though is the second egg in nb4 south.

 

Let’s try and work out who arrived where. A single swift returned to nb3 south around 10am. That box had a pair of first time breeders in it last year. Unfortunately they didn’t manage to raise any chicks. They laid very late in the season and then threw both eggs out. Fingers crossed they’ll do better this time. It didn’t return to roost later preferring to sleep on the wing.

The ‘mate’ was allowed back into nb1 north to roost. This was the box where on the previous night the resident bird blocked the entrance and stopped it getting in. I had my suspicions it might have been an intruder. A second bird was allowed in last night and I wonder if it might have been the old partner who had just arrived. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know unless I see 3 birds fighting in the box.

First bird back in nb12 west.

I saw two birds enter nb5 north but when I checked my camera they were both out of view. I definitely saw them both enter, but I also like to visually confirm them inside as well. That box has been occupied for many years, so I’m pretty confident they’ll return tonight.

And finally. Remember the flighty female in nb3 north. She featured in my blogs on the 13th & 14th May. I was convinced she had paired up with the single bird from nb6 north. Last night the old mate returned. The last time I saw them was at 11pm when I turned the cameras off. She was on the nest and the two males were locked together in a fight a few inches away. These fights can go on for hours so I left them to it. This morning the pair are back on the nest. Who won I hear you ask? When the eggs are laid in a few days time if they are immediately thrown out then the old mate won. If however they’re not thrown out then the new mate has prevailed.

I can’t quite give you an exact number of birds back. On Tuesday night it was 18. What I saw yesterday would suggest that number is now 21 or 22. But I can’t be 100% sure, so will check again tonight.

Wednesday 19th May

8am. Two more swifts arrived yesterday. The mate of nb6 north and the first bird in nb3 south. That takes the total up to 18 – 7 pairs and 4 singles.

Last night I witnessed some very odd behaviour. The mate in nb1 north who I had presumed preferred to sleep on the wing rather than roost in the box was in fact blocked from entering. The resident bird remained near the entrance hole and every time it landed it stopped it from entering. It must have tried 20 times before finally giving up. The question is why would the resident bird stop its mate from entering? The only answer I can come up with is that it is not its true partner but an intruder. The second question that puzzled me is why was it allowed back in during the day? I can only guess that when the resident bird is sat on the nest it can’t block the entrance hole and so it manages to sneak back in. Once inside it’s tolerated but nothing more. I’ve never seen anything like this before, so it’s really difficult to know exactly what’s going on.

We visited Chew Valley Lake yesterday. Heavy showers was the order of the day. This kept the flies and midges low down. There were absolutely millions of them, rising up from the reeds in what looked like columns of smoke. We saw quite a few swifts feeding close to the water and reed beds, probably a couple of hundred in total. Here is a very short video. It’s not brilliant as they are just too quick to film properly, but it gives you an idea of how low they were.

Tuesday 18th May

9am. Lovey article about swift bricks in the Guardian today (thanks Clare) see this link.

8am. First the news I’ve been waiting for. Yesterday almost 21,000 swifts were counted arriving over Falaise de Leucate, near Perpignan in South-East France. They were arriving at one time at a rate of 350 a minute. That must have been some sight to see. From there to the UK will take them another couple of days, so fingers crossed we’ll all start to see some more birds around mid-week.

Yesterday at Swift House turned out to be quite busy with lots of things happening one after another. I’ve captured them in a series of photos below. The LH is the mate of nb1 north. It arrived back on Sunday, but didn’t roost there overnight preferring to sleep on the wing instead. Just after 8am yesterday it reappeared again. I’m not sure how long this will go on for but I suspect a few more days. The middle photo is of the first egg of the season. It was laid in nb4 south around 10am. The pair have been back together since 8th May. A good rule of thumb is the first egg is normally laid around 10 days after a pair are re-united. The RH photo is of another bird arriving home around midday. It belongs in nb4 north.

And finally just as it was getting dark around 9 pm another bird arrived. This one belongs to nb10 west, one of my non-camera boxes. That box was occupied for the first time last year but the pair didn’t breed. Fingers crossed they will this year. With the latest two arrivals, the total number of birds back is 16 – 6 pairs and 4 singles. Pairs re-united, first egg laid and new birds arriving, all in all pretty good day.

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?

We gave her the numbers of swifts back by the 13th May from 2017 to 2021. The one stand out year was 2020 with 22 birds. If you can remember last years 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. The lowest was 2018. We had a unusually cold spring that year (Beast from the East). We also had a gap in migration in mid May. This year seems to be following the same pattern. We’ve just experienced the frostiest April for over 60 years and now we have another gap in migration. Is there a correlation between very cold Springs and gaps in migration? That’s the question she should be asking.
2017 – 15 swifts back by 13th May
2018 –  8 swifts back by 13th May (Beast from the East – gap in migration.)
2019 – 13 swifts back by 13th May
2020 – 22 swifts back by 13th May
2021 – 10 swifts back by 13th May (Very cold and frosty April – gap in migration ?)
Here’s a better example of how late this Spring is. Yesterday we had 2 more pairs of breeding toads arrive. That’s 5 so far in May. Now that really is late!

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!

Friday 7th May

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.

Our garden was featured as Garden of the Week in Garden News magazine August 1st 2020 issue. Here is a link to the first two pages and another link to the subsequent two pages.

Look after yourselves and stay safe.

Mark & Jane

 

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