More daily swift and wildlife observations from Swift House. 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 – here is a link to our 2020 Swift Blog. My daily swift blog for 2021 has been separated into two pages, as it was just getting too long! My early 2021 blog page from 1st April 2021 can be read here.
Saturday 31st July
9am. Another chick has fledged which came as a big surprise to me as I wasn’t expecting any more to leave until next week. Historically the average fledging time at my colony is around the 42 day mark. This chick fledged at 37 days from nb1 north. Going back to my blog on 16th July you might remember that was the box I wanted to foster little NB5 into, but when I opened the hatch I found one of the chicks inside was huge. It was this monster of a chick that fledged early. That takes the number of fledglings to 6, with another 21 to go.
My very late pair of chicks in nb3 west are growing fast. Both adults are bringing in lots of feeds despite the unsettled weather conditions. The first egg hatched on 23rd July, the second a day later. I filmed this short clip of them being fed on Friday 29th July. The oldest is 6 days old and its sibling 5 days old, but they look exactly the same size now. That’s a sign of very good parenting. It means the feeds are being evenly distributed between both chicks. See this clip.
Friday 30th July
9am. Even though virtually all the adults are still here there has been no screaming activity since Monday. This is mostly down to the poor weather. However another factor affecting the lack of action is there are no chicks ready to fledge either. There shouldn’t be any more fledglings until the middle of next week at the earliest. With poor weather forecast over the weekend I don’t expect to see any action at all in the coming days. It’s all rather disappointing. I was hoping for a spectacular end to the season, but it seems to be going out like a damp squib rather than a bang. Another concern is the weathers meant to remain unsettled for the next two weeks. One or two adults, especially the first time breeders might decide to migrate early before their chicks are ready to fledge. Most of my chicks have at least another week to 10 days left. Anxious times ahead.
The single bird in nb4 north has found itself a new mate. That was the box that bees attacked in June and the original pair deserted shortly after. I don’t think it’s the same birds. I watched the new bird enter last night and it took it several attempts to get inside. Definitely not one of the original pair returning. In my 17 camera boxes this year there has been 12 breeding pairs and 3 non-breeder pairs. In my other 8 boxes there has been at least 3 breeding pairs. I won’t be 100% sure until I have a look inside once they’ve all gone. That makes the colony around 18 pairs strong. There are 27 chicks in my camera boxes with probably another 6 in my other boxes. If all 33 fledge successfully that will make it my best season ever for fledglings.
Thursday 29th July
8am. I find it fascinating that swift chicks need to loose weight before they can fledge. Chicks are normally just over 6 weeks old when they first take to the sky. Its weight is all important if it’s going to fledge successfully. Once a fledgling leaves the nest it will be completely independent, so it must be in good condition from the moment it takes flight.
Below are photos of chicks at 2, 3, 4 and 6 weeks with their weights. The ideal fledging weight is somewhere between 40-45g.
You’ll notice that the chick reaches its maximum weight of 50g at around 4 weeks old. It needs to be that heavy in order to grow its flight feathers and build up its wing muscles properly. Then in the final couple of weeks the chick begins to lose weight. This happens in a couple of ways. Firstly, its flight feathers are growing fast and it is starting to exercise its wing muscles more and more each day so using up more energy. Secondly, the parents start to reduce the number of feeds. How the parents know when to do this is a mystery, but around the 4 week mark they start to bring in less food. By the time the chick is ready to go it hardly gets any feeds at all and has slimed down to the required fledging weight. Occasionally the parents will migrate before their chicks are ready to go, leaving them all on their own. I’ve seen this happen often and on one occasion it took the chick 4 days to leave. It must have been really hungry and probably quite lonely by then!
Wednesday 28th July
10am. Here’s a lovely story with a heart-warming ending on a wet Wednesday morning. You might remember just over 2 weeks ago one of the adults in nb4 south went missing. At that time that box contained 3 chicks about 4 weeks old. Leaving all three in there would have meant at least two would have died. So on Monday 12th July I removed the biggest and the smallest youngsters, leaving just the one chick in the box for the single parent to raise. The biggest chick I fostered in nb1 west. That box contained 2 chicks roughly the same size and age. I’m pleased to say all three chicks in nb1 west fledged in the last few days. Unfortunately at the time I didn’t have a suitable foster box to place the smallest chick into, so it had to be hand-fed instead. Luckily a good friend of ours, Tom Carter offered to help out once again. You might remember Tom from last year when he looked after another abandoned chick for me. See my blog on Monday 27th July 2020. Tom is a primary school teacher and he’s also a really good swift rehabber. Yesterday the little swift, which Tom’s pupils lovingly named Shadow was released. Below are a few photos of Tom and Shadow and a lovely video clip of the moment it fledged.
At the same time that one adult went missing in nb4 south the same thing happened to nb5 south. One adult went missing. That box had 2 three week old chicks in it. I fostered one immediately into nb12 west. That box had two chicks of the same age and size. I left one chick in nb5 south, but unfortunately it was abandoned by its single parent a few days later. Luckily I rescued it just in time. It was too weak to foster straight away so I hand-fed it for a while. We called it NB5. It was only 22g and close to death when I removed it on the Tuesday but by the weekend it had gone up to 37g. It was now big enough and strong enough to be fostered. I placed it into into nb5 north that contained two chicks about the same size. Both foster chicks and their adopted siblings are doing really well and have been well fed. They will all be ready to fledge in about a weeks time.
Tuesday 27th July
9am. All colonies follow roughly the same pattern of behaviour, but the big difference is the timing of such behaviour. The behaviour in my colony in the last two days has changed. Gone are the prospectors, even though almost all the adult birds are still here including some non-breeders. I won’t see any more prospectors banging on boxes this year. Their behaviour is now focused solely on the chicks, especially the ones just about to fledge. The screaming parties circle the house just under the eye line of the entrance holes. They’re looking for any boxes with chicks peering out from. When a box is located it seems to excite the group into a screaming frenzy. It looks as if they are calling the youngsters out to join them. Watching the chicks they seem almost bemused by all this fuss. I’m not sure what to make of this behaviour but I think it’s some sort of colony initiation. Perhaps it is to reinforce the bonding not only of the adult members of the colony, but also the chicks as well. Maybe it’s saying to them you belong to this group, remember that when you fledge.
I’ve just finished reading The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster. It is a good read, full of interesting facts about swifts plus lots of unanswered questions and theories. The one thing we know for certain about swifts is how little we actually do know. Their mystery is one of the things we hold so dear about them. One of the questions Charles addresses is how do they navigate? When a young chick fledges, how does it know where to fly to? He suggests they might have blue-light-sensitive flavoproteins in their retinal cells that act like a compass. It makes them sensitive to their magnetic environment, in other words the earths magnetic field. He also speculates that they may have some sort of map stored within their beak. A deposit of tiny particles of an iron oxide called magnetite. He postulated that magnetite might detect the strength of the earth’s magnetic fields, while the flavoproteins give the direction. Put the two together and perhaps add some memory of landmarks and star signs and each bird has it’s own built in navigational system. I find this fascinating and maybe one day we’ll know. What we do know is when a chick fledges it flies on its own to Africa, spends the whole winter flying over the vast continent and somehow manages to return to the same location in the UK the following year. That I found absolutely remarkable.
Monday 26th July
8am. The third chick from nb1 west fledged yesterday morning taking the total number of fledglings to 4. That’s all the chicks from my two early laying pairs now gone. That is except for the little swift Tom’s hand-rearing. Both these pairs laid their eggs around the middle of May, whereas the other 10 breeding pairs delayed their egg laying until the beginning of June.
Below are a couple of photos to show how difficult it is to tell the adults from the chicks when they are just about to fledge. The LH photo is the pair of birds in nb4 south. I had originally thought on Thursday night that one of them was the chick, but on closer examination the next day it became obvious it wasn’t. They are in fact both adults. One of the subtle differences to help tell them apart is the white fringes to the wing feathers of fledglings. In the RH photo you can clearly see this. That’s a 5 week old chick in nb6 north. Another small difference is that chicks have a slightly whiter face than the adults, although this can vary from chick to chick. And finally, fledglings wings are a little bit shorter than the adults by a few cm’s. There’s a very good reason why this is. It’s much easier to control shorter wings. It gives the fledglings time to perfect the art of flying which is so important to them. Their wings will continue to grow as they make their way to Africa. By the time they reach their destination they will be as skilful as flying as their parents.
Sunday 25th July
9am. Another two chicks fledged yesterday. Both were from nb1 west. Originally there were only two chicks in that box but on 12th July I placed a foster chick in there as well. A quick reminder of what happened. A couple of weeks ago there were three 4 week old chicks in nb4 south when one of the adults went missing. To help ease the burden on the single parent I fostered the largest chick into nb1 west. Luckily that box had two chicks in there roughly the same age and size. I left the second biggest chick in nb4 south for the single parent to raise and removed the smallest chick to hand-rear. Our good friend Tom Carter has been looking after it ever since then. It’s doing really well and is almost ready to go. More on this is in another blog soon. I’m also delighted to say that one of the chicks that fledged yesterday from nb1 west was the foster chick. That takes the number of fledglings up to 3. The remaining chick in nb1 west will probably go in the next few days. Then there will be about a gap of about a week or two before the rest of the other chicks start to go. Most should have gone by the middle of August.
I filmed this short clip of the adults in nb3 west feeding their newly hatched chicks. In the clip you can see one parent has just returned. It moves slowly up to its mate and gently nudges it off the nest. It then feeds the day old chick first before moving slightly to feed the other one which is only a few hours old. You’ll notice how it breaks off tiny chunks of the bolus to feed each tiny chick in turn. It’s a bit difficult to make out what’s going on as the camera is at the far end of the box, but you can just about see both little chicks being fed. Both parents are very careful and deliberate in their motions, taking it really slow and steady so not to hurt or dislodge their chicks. Watching them I reckon they are both experienced breeders who have done this many times before. See this clip.
Saturday 24th July
9am. I spent quite a bit more time yesterday checking all my cameras. The good news is both the missing adults from the two boxes with chicks in returned last night. There is also a new single bird roosting in nb4 north. That’s the box the original bird deserted back in June after the honeybee attack. Both eggs in nb3 west have also hatched, the first one yesterday and the second this morning. If all goes well the will fledge around the first week in September.
The 12 breeding pairs in my camera boxes laid 30 eggs this year. One egg failed to hatch. Two little chicks died young leaving a grand total of 27 nestlings. The first of which has fledged. In nb4 south we had a single parent looking after a single chick. When I checked on Thursday night there were still two birds in that box. I assumed it was the parent and chick, however on closer examination yesterday it became clear it’s another adult. Just before we went away last week I noticed several newcomers entering that box. I think one of those newcomers has now paired up with the single parent. The chick must have fledged sometime between 16th-22nd July. That would make its fledge date somewhere between 36-42 days. Thinking about it now I may have also witnessed the fledging. On the morning of Saturday 16th I was pottering around right underneath that box when suddenly a swift fell to the ground. It immediately dusted itself off and flew off. I thought it must have been one of the newcomers. Sometimes several will land on the entrance of the boxes together and tumble away in a big bundle of flapping wings. Maybe it was that chick which was spooked by the newcomers and fledged early?
Friday 23rd July
7am. We got back from Devon late last night to find the inside of our house a absolute furness – 36 degree! It took several hours to bring the temperature down to something reasonable to try and sleep in. Whilst that was happening it gave me time to check up on all my boxes. I was very worried about what I might find. When we were away I started to receive distressing emails from all over the UK. People were finding baby swifts on the ground. It started off a trickle emails, but by Wednesday became a flow. The extreme heat was forcing some chicks to try and fledge early. I read that Animal Rescue centres and swift rehabbers were being inundated with pleas to help. To make things worse I was getting reports of honey bees swarming near to our house. To say I was anxious was an understatement. Trying not to get too upset at what might be happening at home I spent some time looking for swift nests in Sidmouth. Luckily I found a pair nesting under the eaves of the Victoria Hotel right on the sea front. Watching the small group of swifts flying up to the entrance was quite reassuring. I reckon there were probably chicks in the nest and this group were trying to encourage them out. I spent a good few hours just watching their antics from the beach. I think it helped take my mind of things.
Back home last night a quick check of all my cameras revealed that I had been worrying unnecessarily. There were no honey bees, all the chicks were still in their boxes, including little NB5 who we fostered just before we went on holiday. The only thing missing were 4 adults. Two non-breeders, one from nb2 west and the other from nb1 south. There was one adult missing from nb1 north. That box has 2 chicks in it due to fledge around 5th August. The other missing adult was from nb1 west, again that box has 2 chicks in it due to fledge on 27th July. At the moment I’m not overly worried about these missing adults. It’s not uncommon on extremely hot nights for adults to stay out all night. I shall keep an eye on the two boxes with chicks in over the coming days just to see what happens. I’m hoping when the weather cools down the missing birds will return. Needless to say I spelt soundly last night for the first time in almost a week. Below is a photo of NB5 and its two siblings. Not sure which one is NB5 now as they all look so similar now.
Thursday 22nd July
9pm We’re back from our swift break. Here is a link to an article about us and our garden that is in the latest issue of Garden Answers magazine (August issue). Update about our swift colony tomorrow.
Sunday 17th July
6am. Quick update about the little chick NB5 is that it is doing well. Its foster parents have been bringing back lots of feeds in this fine weather. I’ve got a new pair in nb5 south. My guess is that one of them is the parent that abandoned NB5 on Tuesday. I reckon it has hooked up with one of the newcomers that have been screaming around the house for the last few days.
We still don’t know when we’ll be on BBC Gardeners World. We’ve been told it may not be until next Spring when the swifts return. As soon as we know then we’ll put details on the blog.
Saturday 16th July
7am. We fostered NB5 yesterday lunchtime however my idea didn’t quite go to plan. I thought nb2 north would be the most suitable nest box. Looking at the camera in that box both chicks looked about the same size as each other, albeit slightly bigger than NB5. However when I opened the box they were massive compared to NB5. So plan B went into action. I was reluctant to foster them into nb5 north because I thought there was a bigger, dominant chick already in there. However when I opened the box both chicks were actually about the right size and weight. The decision made I popped NB5 in without further ado. Moments after I had placed NB5 inside a huge smiley face appeared in the sky just above me. Now that’s got to be karma at work!
Within twenty minutes of me putting NB5 in the box both adults had been back with feeds. I couldn’t quite see who actually got fed but NB5 looked really at ease.The LH photo below is of the 2 original chicks in nb5 north. The middle photo is an adult at the top of the picture with NB5 at the bottom. The RH photo is all 3 chicks snuggled together with NB5 in the middle.
I’m confident NB5 will be OK and to make things even better later on that afternoon we had a mass ascent of flying ants. That was a real bonus. Millions of ants rose up into the skies for our swifts to feast on. I’m sure little NB5 would have had its share of the bonanza. Sorry to pinch a story from the bible but it was just like manna from heaven appearing out of nowhere.
Friday 16th July
8am. Little NB5 is doing superbly well. I’ve just weighed it this morning and it’s up to 32g! It’s put on a staggering 10g in just 3 days and is looking so different to the poor little thing I rescued on Tuesday. I was hoping it would get to around 30g by the weekend but its exceeded that target a bit earlier than I thought. I could continue feeding it for longer but I think chicks should be with their own kind. NB5 is 21 days old and strong enough to be fostered. I’ve got two boxes, nb2 north and nb5 north, with chicks in around 19 days old. However in nb5 north has one chick slightly larger than the other which is not ideal. I don’t really want to put it in a box with a dominant chick already in there. In nb2 north on the other-hand, both chicks look exactly the same size although they look a little bit bigger than NB5 despite being 2 days younger. The reason they’re slightly bigger is their parents are excellent foragers, bringing back more feeds than the adults in nb5 north. That’s one of the reason I’m going to foster NB5 into nb2 north later on this afternoon. The other is the weather is meant to be really warm for the next week or more, so there will be plenty of insects about for the adults to find.
5.30pm. We’ve had flying ants emerge from our patio this afternoon. A real feast for the gulls. Not many swifts to be seen, but hopefully they are enjoying the bounty elsewhere. Here is a link to our videos. Little NB5 settling in well into its new nest box. Will update tomorrow with photos.
Thursday 15th July
8am. Our little chick which we’ve named NB5 now weighs 28g. I feed it roughly every hour and a half, 8 to 10 times a day. I don’t have to force feed it, as it takes food from my hand. This makes feeding much easier and quicker than chicks that I’ve hand fed before. Each feed is a mixture of wax worms and brown crickets and a few flies that I catch in the house and garden. It doesn’t need water, as it gets enough from its food however I do wet the feeds just to make them a little moist and easier to swallow.
A marked increase in the size of screaming parties above the house with 15 and sometimes 20 swifts whizzing around. I think it’s a mixture of newcomers and established breeders just enjoying themselves. I didn’t see much prospecting just lots of low level screaming fly-bys.
Wednesday 14th July
8am. For some reason the remaining adult nb5 south has deserted the little chick. I watched it for some time yesterday in the hope it would be fed but after a while it became obvious that it had been abandoned. Just as well I didn’t wait too long as it was nearly dead when I removed it. It was very cold and only weighed 22g. That’s the same weight as it was on Saturday. I don’t think it had been fed for a couple of days. I put it in the airing cupboard to warm up and quickly popped to the local pet store to buy some live food. When I returned it had perked up a little and was begging for food, albeit only weakly. Its first feed was a few wax worms and small brown crickets. I’ve been feeding it every hour since then and the transformation in its demeanour is amazing. It’s much more alert and active now. I’ve just weighed it this morning and its up to 25g. I shall continue to hand feed for a few more days just to build up its size and strength. I have a couple of boxes with chicks in about the same age but a little bigger in size. If all goes well I should be able foster it into one of those boxes by the weekend.
Quite a bit of swift activity yesterday. Judging by the numbers in the screaming parties (10 -15) I think the third wave might have just arrived. I’m hoping to see lots of activity around my empty boxes in the coming days. If I’m lucky I might even get a new pair or two.
Tuesday 13th July
8am. Despite the poor weather in the last couple of days all the foster chicks and their adopted siblings are doing well. The weather is meant to get much warmer so I’m optimistic things will be OK for now on. However I did witness some very interesting behaviour from the single adult in nb5 south on Saturday. That box had 2 chicks in it. There was only two days difference in age between the two chicks but one weighed considerably more than the other, 35g to 22g. That’s a massive difference. I decided to remove the larger chick as it was roughly the same age and weight as the two chicks in the foster box. The key to successful fostering is to match the chicks as closely as possible in both age and weight. See RH photo of foster chick snuggled in with its new family.
That left just the smaller chick in nb5 south -see LH photo. When the adult first came back in on Saturday it initially refused to feed it. I watched in disbelief as the little chick begged for food but was ignored. Thank goodness that after 5 minutes the adult finally relented and fed the poor little thing. But why did the adult behave like that to begin with? Maybe there’s something wrong with the little chick. That would explain the huge difference in weight between the two chicks. During the evening the adult brought no food back at all and I wonder if it has given up on the chick. I’ll have to keep a very close eye on this box today.
Better news from nb4 south. That box had 3 chicks in it. I fostered the biggest chick into nb1 west. See the RH photo below.The two adults in that box are really good foragers and are bringing back plenty of feeds for all 3 chicks. The smallest chick I removed to hand-rear and it’s doing really well. The remaining chick in nb4 south is also being well looked after by its single parent -see LH photo below.
Monday 12th July
8am. Following on the theme of yesterdays blog. David Lack found that the more chicks the parents have the harder they work to feed them. However the increase in the number of feeds is not proportionate to the number of young.
He recorded the frequency chicks were fed during a ten hour period from 8am to 6pm. His findings showed that in fine weather single nestlings were fed on average 9 times, broods of two about 7.5 times each and broods of three about 6.5 times each.
However in poor weather the number of feeds was greatly reduced in larger broods. Whilst single nestlings were still fed on average 7.4 times (not much less than in fine weather). Broods of two were only fed about 3.5 times each and broods of three only about 2.2 times each. Both much lower.
He concluded that the influence of the weather on chick survival depends greatly on the size of the brood. Virtually all single nestlings survived to fledging regardless of the weather conditions. Most broods of two also survived except in extremely bad summers. Whereas the summer only had to be middling (like it is now) for the mortality rate in broods of three to be as high as 40%.
Unfortunately his study was only on adult pairs. He didn’t record any findings from single adult broods. So I’ve halved his findings to give me an idea of what a single parent might bring back in. It’s not an exact science as some birds will be much better foragers than others, but at least I have an idea of what to expect. My own observations over the last few days confirm single adults bring back slightly less feeds. On Saturday they only brought back 4 feeds each and yesterday only 2 each. However if the weather improves from tomorrow as it’s meant too I think the two single chicks and the two foster chicks will be OK.
On the wider swift front I don’t think the third wave of swifts has arrived yet. If the high pressure builds as forecast I reckon we might see a big influx of new birds later in the week. Apparently the jet-stream is going to move and we will be on the sunnier, warmer side of it bringing us some much needed heat. Still plenty of time to bag a new pair or two.
Sunday 11th July
9am. I spent most of yesterday monitoring nb4 and 5 south. Sadly my observations confirmed only one adult in each box. I recorded 4 feeds per box with the possibility of another 1 or 2 that I missed. Admittedly the weather wasn’t brilliant so that may have had a bearing on the total number of feeds, but even so that’s barely enough for one chick let alone two or three. My reference guide is taken from Swifts in a Tower written by David Lack. It’s an excellent book and well worth reading, written over 60 years ago it’s still as relevant now as it was then. Chapter 16 The Birth Rate goes into great detail about the survival rate of nestling swifts. I was particularly interested in comparing the number of feeds in a ten hour period 8am-6pm. Lack recorded two tables one observed during fine weather the other during poor weather. His recordings were of pairs bringing back food to broods of 1, 2 & 3 chicks. As I have only one adult in each box I have halved his findings. He concluded that pairs in fine weather fed a single chick about 9 times, a brood of two about 7.5 times each, and a brood of 3 about 6.5 times each. So a single chick needs a minimum of at least 6 feeds a day. Based on his findings the single adult with 3 chicks in nb4 south would need to bring in at least 18 feeds. The single adult in nb5 south with 2 chicks would have to bring in at least 12 feeds. Both brought in about 5 or 6 feeds which is only enough one one chick. Luckily I have several boxes with chicks in about the same age and size. Based on my observations I removed 2 chicks from nb4 south and 1 chick from nb5 south. I fostered one chick from nb4 south into nb1 west. That box contains 2 chicks the same size and age. The remaining chick from nb4 south will be hand-reared as I have no other suitable foster parents. The chick from nb5 south I fostered into nb12 west, again that box contains 2 chicks the same age and size. I’ve found through past experience it’s better to act sooner rather than later regarding fostering. The quicker you can foster chicks the more chance they have of surviving. I left one chick in both boxes for the single adult to raise. Hopefully my interventions yesterday will mean all 5 now stand a much better chance of surviving.
Saturday 10th July
8am. A little cooler yesterday meant not as much swift action as there was on Thursday. The colony seems to have now settled into a new routine. Mostly the activity is incoming adults silently bringing food back in, harassed by the small group of noisy newcomers. I managed to take a photo of the eggs in nb3 west when the sitting adult momentarily left to feed for a few minutes.
Every night just before I go to bed I have a quick check of all my cameras just to make sure everything looks OK. One thing that has started to worry me is since last Thursday only one adult has been roosting overnight in boxes nb4 and 5 south. At the moment I’m not sure if the missing birds are just staying out at night or whether it’s something more serious. I’ll have to watch both the boxes more closely during the day to count the number of times food brought back in. In nb4 south there are 3 chicks ranging from 28 to 30 days old. In nb5 south there are two chicks that are 15 and 17 days old.
Friday 9th July
8am. Yesterday was the first really good day since last Thursday. There was plenty of sunshine and quite a bit of swift activity to keep me occupied all day. I spent the whole day just pottering about in the garden. It’s changed quite a bit since our Open day last Sunday, lots more flowers have come out whilst a few are just going over. It’s amazing what a difference a few days can make. Taking full advantage of the swift action I got the deck-chair out. A couple of photos of the garden and one of me watching the swifts. You’ll also notice Rob the Robin perched underneath, although I don’t think he is that interested in swifts! Unfortunately Rob wasn’t seen much on Sunday and seems a bit more skittish. I think he is moulting so has been keeping a low profile.
I’ve noticed a subtle change in the behaviour of the newcomers. They seem less interested in banging and much more interested in screaming around the house as the incoming adults come back in. I’ve seen this behaviour in previous years and it generally starts around now. I wonder if it is some sort of distraction behaviour. Any opportunist predator will be focused on them rather than the incoming adults who sneak back into their respective boxes almost unnoticed. Regardless of whether it’s tactical behaviour or just done for sheer devilment, it’s really good fun to watch.
Thursday 8th July
8am. The noisy newcomers are back again. They’ve been missing for a few days whilst the weather has been poor. However about half a dozen are whizzing around this morning.
I managed to get a look into nb3 west yesterday. Sometimes especially when it’s really warm they will leave the eggs uncovered. This is what happened last evening when the sitting bird decided to go out and feed for a few minutes. I could just about make out 2 eggs in the nest.
Update on the colony status. In my 17 camera boxes there are 12 breeding pairs, 2 non-breeding pairs and a singleton. There are 25 chicks in 11 boxes and 2 eggs in another. In my 8 other boxes there are 3 breeding pairs. That’s about the same number of pairs as last year. However this year we’ve only had 2 chicks die, whereas last year we had 6. So if the weather remains fine we should see more chicks fledge this year. Research from Erich Kaiser’s gable colony in Kronberg, near Frankfurt have proved that around 30% of fledglings return to their natal home each year. Erich studies a colony of about 60 breeding pairs of swifts nesting in boxes around his house and rings every chick. Each year he checks each birds ring to see who has returned. So the more chicks that fledge the better it is for the overall health of the colony.
Finally thank you to everyone who contacted me regarding pop-up events. The consensus seems to be that it is a good idea.
Wednesday 7th July
8am. The new pair in nb3 west have started incubating. I didn’t get the chance to see how many eggs, but I expect there are probably 2. Based on when the first egg was laid (4th July) they are due to hatch around 25th July. If all goes well the chicks will fledge around 7th September. Fingers crossed.
I’m wondering why the pair in nb1 south haven’t bred this year. The first bird arrived on 20th May. It waited for its old mate to return but eventually gave up and hooked up with a new bird on 16th June. I can only assume that the new partner is not quite sexually mature yet. I’m thinking that it is probably a young female who is not ready to lay. They have roosted together every night since 16th June and seem really content together. It all bodes well for next year.
Tuesday 6th July
8am. Jane and I have had a couple of days now to think about what to do next year regarding open days. We really like doing the NGS/Swift open day but we have to book the day almost a year in advance to be included in the NGS yellow book. The trouble with this is you are at the mercy of the English weather. The last few years our Open day has either been wet or windy or both. Neither are any good for decent swift activity. So we’re thinking of just doing a pop-up swift morning(s) on a weekend with perhaps a small admission charge donated to charity. Something along the lines of if we know the weathers going to be OK we can put something on our blog a few days before. It will be very short notice, but at least we can almost ‘guarantee’ the weather and hopefully the swift action. Plus it will be only swift enthusiasts attending so it will give everyone more of an opportunity to get to talk to one-another about swifts. That’s something I missed out on Sunday. I just didn’t get enough time to talk to everyone I would have liked to. Nothing finalised yet but that’s our thinking at the moment. We’d love to have some feedback on this. Wether you think it’s a good idea or not, please drop us a quick line via our Contact page.
On the swift front. I’ve been thinking about the new pair in nb3 west that laid their first egg on Sunday. It’s extremely late for a new pair to lay and I was wondering if they might be the pair that deserted nb4 north after the bee attack in June. Watching them in the box they look and behave like an experienced breeding pair. They’ve built a beautiful nest and are very careful with the egg. In the adjacent box there is another new pair that arrived at almost the same time as they did. However the differences between the two pairs is quite plain to see. The second pair have made no real attempt to build their nest which remains really scruffy. Whereas the pair with the egg have been regularly bringing back nesting material. Although I can’t prove anything the more I think about it the more it makes sense. I’ll check later this morning to see if a second egg has been laid.
Monday 5th July
8am. Jane and I are a bit tired this morning after our open day yesterday. We think it went pretty well despite the almost constant rain! There was a bit of swift activity to start with, before the heavens opened. In one of the nest boxes, nb3 west an egg was laid yesterday which visitors could see on our laptop. This is a new pair that only turned up a couple of weeks ago. Whilst it was a lovely surprise to see I worry that it just might be too late in the season to be viable. Rob and Waggy made a few appearances but I think they were keeping a low profile due to the weather. When we moved all the plants we were selling we found some baby frogs, a toad and a great crested newt. I put them in a bucket to show the children which went down well. At the end of the day we raised over £1000 for NGS charities which was really great. We want to say a big thank you to Simon Bament (Taunton Swifts) and John and Julien Crowther (Stroud Swifts) as without their help we couldn’t have coped on the day. Also many thanks to everyone that braved the weather to visit our rather soggy garden.
Sunday 4th July
8am. Yesterdays weather wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been. Several huge thunderstorms rumbled past during the afternoon, but thank goodness we weren’t directly in their path. Some places locally had almost a months rain in under an hour! It’s still drizzling at the moment, but hopefully it will begin to dry up by the time our garden is open. If we’re really lucky we might even see the sun later. A final tidy-up of the garden and then move the plants for sale to the driveway, put signs up and we’re ready to go.
A quick check of the cameras and most pairs are still in. It’s too wet for foraging. There will be hardly any insects out and about now so no point in them wasting any energy looking. In a strange way that might even work in our favour. If it does dry up later, then we might see a bit more activity than normal this afternoon as the birds make up for lost time. It would be great for our visitors to see some swifts going in and out of our boxes. Fingers crossed.
Saturday 3rd July
8am. I managed to take down nb12 west yesterday morning when the newcomer was out. The entrance hole was a bit small so I made it slightly longer and higher. It didn’t take me that long to do and within about 20 minutes the box was back up in situ. Despite lots of of activity around my boxes I never actually saw if my alterations made any difference or not. I’m hoping it sneaked back in when I wasn’t looking.
I spent most of yesterday tidying up the garden ready for our open day on Sunday but I think it might all have been in vain. Today’s forecast is for heavy thundery showers so I expect everything will be flattened! Not much we can do now except pray it doesn’t rain all day tomorrow.
Friday 2nd July
8am. Yesterday was a bit full on, but we somehow managed to keep going. It was really hard work. The BBC Gardeners World team arrived just after 7am and left at 4pm. They were a great team and made us feel really at ease. We were amazed that they have to shoot hours of film for what we expect will be just a few minutes of air time. They filmed us, the garden and lots of wildlife. Thank goodness the weather was on our side. As I predicted yesterday Rob was filmed more than once, he’s such a natural on camera. By the end of the day we were both exhausted, but we think they’ve got some nice footage. When we know when it is going to be shown then I’ll put it on the blog. Hopefully it will be in the next few weeks.
On the swift front I reckon a few more newcomers might have arrived. I know I’ve got 2 new pairs, one in nb2 west and the other in nb3 west and there’s still half a dozen birds screaming around outside. Last night I noticed a new bird in nb8 west for the first time. The box is one of my old Zeist boxes which has never been occupied before. It managed to get in OK but seemed to struggle to get out. I think the angle of the hole is a bit on the tight side. Once it’s gone out today I’m going to quickly take down it and tweak the entrance hole shape. Now I’ve finally got a bird interested in that box I don’t want it to leave because it finds it too hard to get in or out.
A quick update on the colony status. In my 17 camera boxes there is 11 breeding pairs with 25 chicks between them. 3 non-breeding pairs and 3 empty boxes. In my 8 other boxes there is 3 breeding pairs, 1 single bird and 4 empty boxes as far as I can tell. That makes it around 35 birds regular using the boxes with another 6 or so undecided.
Thursday 1st July
6.30am. Just a short blog today as we have the BBC coming today to film us. They will be here all day. Unfortunately we’re not allowed to give away any details at the moment, but as soon as we can we’ll update the blog. What we can say is that it will be aired in the next few weeks, and more than likely Rob will be in it! We’re both a bit nervous but I’m sure it’ll be OK once we get going. At least the weathers meant to be good today which is great, and the other big bonus is the swifts are already out and about and preforming well.
On the swift front to my surprise there is a third chick in nb5 west. The camera’s position in that box isn’t very good and I was sure there was only 2 chicks in there, but last night I could just make a third chick. It’s quite a bit smaller than the other two, but its parents are excellent foragers so I’m hopeful it will be OK. That takes the total number of chicks in my camera boxes back up to 25.
A quick update from nb12 west. The little chick is doing really well. Now that both parents are back it was fed many times yesterday so panic over.
Wednesday 30th June
8am. The missing adult in nb12 west returned last night at 10pm. I’m not sure where it has been for the last day or so but it’s good to see it back home. Unfortunately yesterday afternoon I fostered the smaller of the two chicks into nb1 north where it was immediately accepted and fed. However despite the minor inconvenience of having to go up the ladder again I shall remove it from nb1 north and replace it back with its natural parents.
Lots of newcomers screaming around the house this morning. I’ve definitely got 2 new pairs, one in nb2 west and another in nb3 west. Both pairs roosted in their new homes last night.
We were sent some lovely photos from Olveston Primary School yesterday. Swifts nest under the low eaves of the school. Teacher Tom Carter’s class (aptly named Swift class!) have created some beautiful posters which are displayed outside the school for everyone to read. They did this as part of Swift Awareness Week (see above). What a super idea. Tom loves swifts and inspires pupils in the school to learn all about them. In 2019 we visited his class and heard the children’s excited squeals of joy as we tried to locate the swift nests just above our heads. We included photos of our visit in on our Swift Projects page – see this link. Last year Tom successfully hand-reared a swift chick that the children affectionately named Swifty. We featured Swifty fledging in our blog on 27th July 2020 – see this link.
Tuesday 29th June
8am. Sad news this morning. The third and smallest chick in nb12 west has died. I’m not sure if one of the adults has gone missing as only one roosted overnight. Maybe that’s the reason. If there is only one adult then I will have to foster one of the remaining two chicks into another box. Swifts readily accept foster chicks. A single adult can just about raise one chick but definitely not two. Luckily I have two other boxes with chicks of similar age and size where I can foster it if necessary. I’ll continue watching the box in the hope the missing adult returns. The total number of chicks now is 24.
Monday 28th June
8am. Four eggs hatched yesterday. That means that all the eggs that were due to hatch have now hatched. From 11 breeding pairs in my camera boxes we have 25 chicks. I still haven’t quite worked out how many breeding pairs in my other boxes, but I’m sure there is at least 3. Working on that assumption and that most pairs produce on average 2 chicks I reckon this year we have somewhere in the region of 31 chicks.
This year I’ve had a record number of large clutches. 5 out of my 11 pairs have laid clutches of 3 eggs. Normally I only get 2 or 3 pairs laying 3 eggs. Large clutches put a huge strain on the adults. In my opinion swifts are only really designed to raise one or two chicks a year. A third is a bit of a lottery. To raise 3 chicks they really need two things going for them. A regular supply of insects and/or continuous days of warm sunny weather. Swifts that nest near large bodies of water generally do better regardless of the weather conditions, because they have easy access to unlimited food supply right on their doorsteps. The more time it takes a swift to find food the less feeds they bring back. Each chick needs about 6-8 feeds a day. So clutches of 3 require somewhere in the region of 20 feeds. That’s 10 per parent. Swifts nesting near water tend to bring back food roughly every hour, whereas swifts that nest farther away that time is doubled. So if they don’t nest near water they need to spend every minute of everyday out finding food. That’s no problem if we get a good summer but our summers don’t tend to be like that. More often than not they’re a mixed bag. Three sunny days and a thunderstorm is the well used analogy. So the point I’m trying to make is large clutches don’t tend to be very successful.
Going back to my birds. I now know that one of the eggs in nb 2 south is infertile, leaving 4 pairs with broods of three. Unfortunately when I checked yesterday the smallest chick in nb1 north has gone missing. It hatched a couple of days after the other two eggs and was always on the small size. It probably just couldn’t compete with its other siblings for food and has perished. I expect the adults have removed it from the box. That leaves only three pairs now. In two of those boxes all 3 chicks are roughly the same size. That’s a really good thing as it means there is no dominant chick to grab all the feeds. Worrying though is the pair in nb12 west. The third chick in that box is younger than its siblings by 2 and 3 days. It’s quite a bit smaller, but seems to be holding its own at the moment. I’ll have to keep a very close eye on that box just in case it starts to struggle.
Sunday 27th June
8am. The third egg in nb2 south should have hatched a couple of days ago. I’m pretty sure now that it’s infertile. In the photos below you can just make it out between the two chicks being fed by one of the adults. The largest chick in the photo is 7 days old and the other slightly smaller one is 4 days old. If it were to hatch now it would be at a huge disadvantage being so small compared to its siblings. If I’m right then in a few days time the adults will remove the egg from the nest to give the chicks more room. Ideally in clutches with 3 you want all the eggs to hatch out close together as possible as the chicks grow so quickly. The last thing you want to see is one massive chick in the nest that bags all the feeds.
Very little swift activity yesterday until late in the evening when the newcomers put on quite a good display. When I checked my cameras at 10pm I found single birds in three of my empty boxes, nb2, 3 & 4 west. The interesting thing now is whether they will pair up with one another or try to attract new partners.
I’ve always had a soft spot for butterflies especially the Tortoiseshell. When I was a boy there was a large patch of stinging nettles near to where I lived which was covered in Tortoiseshells, both large and small. Sadly the large Tortoiseshell has become extinct in this country, although I have read they’ve been re-introduced it in several secret locations. Perhaps one day I will see them again. A couple of days ago I took this short video of a small Tortoiseshell feeding on a flower in my garden – see this clip.
Saturday 26th June
8am. Yesterday the second egg in nb5 south hatched. I’m still waiting for the third egg in nb2 south to hatch. It’s now a day overdue so I’m beginning to wonder if it might be infertile. After that I only have 2 pairs left with eggs, nb2 north and nb5 north. Both have 2 eggs apiece which are due to hatch on Sunday or Monday. As it stands this morning in my camera boxes we have 22 chicks and 1 egg in 9 nest boxes. 2 pairs still on eggs. 1 non-breeding pair and a single bird.
I’ve also noticed some interesting behaviour from the adult pied wagtails. They turned up yesterday along with their three chicks yesterday but this time they deliberately didn’t take any mealworms to feed them. They completely ignored their chicks and just fed themselves. After a while two of the chicks came down from the roof and picked up a few mealworms themselves, the third chick remaining up on the guttering. I suppose its how the adults force their chicks to look after themselves. After about 10 minutes they all flew off. I expect in the next day or two the family will begin to break up as the chicks go their own way.
Friday 25th June
8am. Yesterday was a much cooler and breezier day and that took the edge of the swift activity. There wasn’t much prospecting in the morning or afternoon, although it did pick up a bit in the evening. Most of the activity around the house is from the adult birds quietly coming back in with food for their young.
Another 3 eggs hatched yesterday. The third eggs in nb12 west, nb1 north and nb6 north. That takes the number of chicks to 21, only 6 eggs left now.
The two pied wagtail chicks are coming to visit us on the patio now. Both chicks are still being fed by their parents, but they’ve also learnt to pick up the odd mealworm or two for themselves. One little chick is quite bold and waits on the patio for food. In the next week or two they will become fully independent. Next doors female Robin is feeding her third brood of youngsters. She’s been popping over the hedge to pick up any spare mealworms much to Rob’s annoyance. As soon as he sees her he chases her back over again. However she’s pretty determined and stands on top of the hedge to see if the coast is clear before venturing down.
8am. Quite a bit of swift action yesterday. One newcomer has definitely picked nb3 west as home and has been trying to entice a mate back in. It keeps flying up to the box and entering with several other birds in close pursuit. As far as I can tell it’s not succeeded in tempting one in yet, but things look promising. Maybe today?
Another 4 eggs hatched yesterday. The first egg in nb5 south and the second eggs in nb2 south, nb5 west and nb6 north. There are now 9 boxes with 18 chicks in them. Only 2 boxes have eggs in them, nb2 north and nb5 north and both are due to hatch over the weekend. If all goes to plan by 1st July all the eggs will have hatched and we should have 27 chicks in 11 boxes. Fast forward 6 weeks and most will be ready to fledge around mid-August.
Wednesday 23rd June
8am. The newcomers are back. About half a dozen arrived just after 6am this morning and are buzzing my boxes. They’ve been missing since last Thursday, so it’s good to have them back once again.
I was expecting several eggs to hatch in the coming week but not 5 in one day! Yesterday two eggs in nb1 north, the first eggs in nb5 west and nb6 north, and the second egg in nb12 west hatched. Another thing that has surprised me is the number of clutches with 3 eggs. I normally only expect to see one or two pairs with 3 eggs but this year its five. What makes it even more remarkable is the early pairs, the ones that arrived at the beginning of May delayed their egg laying because of the cold and lack of insects. It would appear that by the time they were ready to lay eggs there was an abundance of food, so more pairs than usual have laid 3 eggs. At the moment in my boxes there are 13 eggs and 14 chicks from 11 pairs.
Yesterday Portland Bill Observatory sighted a large group of swifts. Perhaps it was some of the ones seen over De Vulkaan on Monday.
Tuesday 22nd June
8am. Another disappointing day yesterday with no swift activity at all. The only action was inside my boxes where the first egg in nb12 west hatched. I only thought there was two eggs in that nest but to my surprise when the adult bird moved to feed the chick I could clearly see there were still two eggs left. This quite often happens to me. Trying to see inside the nest before the adult starts incubating can be somewhat tricky. Some adults don’t start incubating until a day after the last egg has been laid so I have plenty of time to good look. Others however start to incubate after the second egg is laid. So if their clutch is 3 I never really know until the first egg hatches just like in nb12 west. Still it’s a welcome surprise and takes the remaining egg total up to 18. There are 9 chicks at the moment, but I expect that number to double in the next few days. Looking at my records at least 8 eggs are due to hatch by the weekend.
Checking Trektellen yesterday I noticed over 3300 swifts were sighted over De Vulkaan near Rotterdam. I’m not exactly sure what this means. They could be our birds who have moved across the channel to escape the rotten weather in the UK or the could be the start of another wave of newcomers. I did speculate recently whether they travelled in single sex groups, with the males arriving first and the females a few weeks later. Could these be the females on their way to us? The next few days should be very interesting.
I thought the pied wagtails had only one chick but yesterday they brought along a second to the garden. This one was a little smaller but still had the same insatiable appetite as its larger sibling. I was also wrong about wrenkin. I thought he had finished breeding, but no he’s picking up mealworms and taking them back to his nest in a neighbouring garden. What with Rob demanding food every few minutes I think I’m going to have to start ordering live mealworms in bulk!
Monday 21st June
9am. If it wasn’t raining yesterday it was drizzling and that put the kibosh on any swift activity. It was also rather cool considering it was almost the longest day of the year. The highest temperature reached only 15C. However despite the poor conditions 3 more eggs hatched. Both eggs in nb3 north and the first egg in nb2 south. The remarkable thing about nb3 north is these eggs were left uncovered for over 24 hours. See my blog on 10th June. That’s the day the box was invaded by honeybees. Both parents deserted and didn’t return until the following evening. If any other species of bird left their eggs that long they would certainly have perished, but swifts are no ordinary birds. Their eggs and young have evolved to withstand being left uncovered for long periods by going into a kind of torpor. It certainly worked for the two eggs in nb3 north. With these latest hatchings the total number of chicks now stands at 8. There are still 18 eggs remaining. The new pair in nb3 west can’t make up their mind on which box is best and ended up in nb4 west last night!
I was a bit late getting up this morning and a certain individual was getting very impatient for his breakfast. You know you I mean!
Sunday 20th June
9am. Unbelievably we’ve reached the half-way point of the swifts stay with us. Where did that time go! So what can we make of it so far. May was a complete write-off. The weather was terrible. It was without doubt the worst May since I’ve started up my colony and thats over 16 years ago. My colony took most of the month getting back, so much so that the second wave arrived before some of my established breeders had retuned. It was so wet and cold at the beginning of the month that the early pairs couldn’t find enough food to produce any eggs. It delayed their whole breeding season by at least 2 or 3 weeks. June has been a lot better and last week was superb. Its turned wet again now and things have quietened down once again, but it looks like the weather will warm up towards the end of the month. That’s a good sign because that’s when most of my eggs will hatch. It always amazes me how much of their activity is weather dependent. I have 30 birds in my colony but you would never guess it at the moment. I don’t think I’ve seen or heard them for the last couple of days. Most of the newcomers have gone. I’m not sure where they go when the weather turns unsettled, but this happens every time. They’ll be back as soon as it warms up again. It’s them and not the established breeders who bring the colony to life with their noisy fly-bys.
With the lack of swift activity to keep me occupied I’ve been spending more time with my garden birds. The wagtails have brought one of the newly fledged chicks with them. It’s about the same size as the adults but more grey than black. As far as I can tell there’s only one chick but I could be wrong. Rob my tame Robin has started his summer moult and looks decidedly odd looking. He didn’t have many feathers to start with and he looks even worse now. Still once he’s moulted he’ll look like a new bird again. And finally in the last couple of days Wrenkin my tame Wren has turned up again. He must have finished breeding and has come back for a few juicy hand-outs. It’s good to have all 4 of my little friends back again.
9.30am. The newly fledged Wagtail has just been on our patio being fed live mealworms by the adult.
Saturday 19th June
8am. Yesterday was rather cool and cloudy and the swift activity didn’t do anything to brighten it up. There was virtually none all day. I had hoped that the new pair in nb3 west would return to roost overnight but they had other ideas. One did pop in around 9pm, had a wander about and promptly left. However I’m not overly concerned about this as I’ve seen this behaviour before. Some new pairs take a few weeks or more to fully take up full residency. Their presence is also dependant on the weather. The more unsettled it is the less likely they are to hang around, sometimes ‘disappearing’ for a week or more and only returning when it warms up again.
Friday 18th June
8am. Following on from yesterday’s post Stuart has just sent me some photos of the church in Feniton. The remarkable thing about this project is the boxes were only fitted last summer. Stuart told me “we installed the boxes on 23 June 2020 (with calls). A nest was built that year (in box 5) and there were signs of roosting in box 3. This year I’m sure birds are breeding in box 5 and present in one other box (maybe 3)”. In the LH photo the boxes are situated behind the narrow arrow slit window. The middle picture shows all 5 boxes and a prospecting swift.The RH photo is a close-up of said prospector. It just goes to show if you put up boxes there’s a good chance they will be occupied.
There were still quite a few newcomers buzzing around Swift House last night. What I haven’t worked out is, are they the newcomers that arrived at the beginning of the month or have they just arrived. What I do know is I have a second new pair. Watching my boxes last night as the birds came into roost I saw 2 birds entered nb3 west for the first time. A quick update on the colony stats. In my 17 camera boxes there are; 2 pairs that have 5 chicks between them. 9 pairs are on eggs and 2 non-breeding pairs. In my 8 other boxes there are 3, possibly 4 breeding pairs.
Thursday 17th June
8am. We’ve just got back from a few glorious days down in Devon. I’ve had a quick check of my cameras to see what’s happened since we’ve been away. I can see that the second chick has hatched in nb1 west. There are 3 chicks in nb4 south and the other 9 pairs are still on eggs. There are also a new pair in nb1 south, however I think one of the birds is from last year. It arrived back on 20th May, stayed a couple of weeks and left. I reckon whilst it has been away it’s managed to attract a new mate and has brought it back. It will be interesting to see if they have a go at breeding as it’s getting late in the season. It will take me another day or two to see if any new birds have taken up residency in my non-camera boxes.
Whilst we were down in Devon we managed to catch up with a few old swift friends. Stuart McFadzean has been doing fantastic work along with his mate Steve Ryan around the little village of Kentisbeare. We first met Stuart about 4 years ago when he embarked on a swift project to install boxes in the local church. It been a great success. Swifts bred in the boxes last year for the first time and he thinks there might be 3 breeding pairs this year. Along with Steve they expanded their range and have begun fitting more boxes in other local churches as well. Not only that, but driving around it looked like half the houses in the local area too! They’ve done brilliant work and it now looks like all their hard work is paying off. We were invited to Steve’s house to have a look at a remarkable swift nest on his shed. My usual advice is to try to fit nest boxes as high up as possible. Well this particular nest location broke the rules. It was only about 8 feet off the ground and I could almost jump up and touch the entrance hole. Here are some photos. The LH is Stuart and I doing a bit of pond gazing in his garden. The middle photo is me pointing to the swift nest alongside Steve outside his shed. The RH photo is eggs from inside that nest box. I shall have to rethink about the advice I give to people in the future.
After we left them we went over to see our other good swift friends, Margaret and Ian in Beer. Alas the swift update from there was not so good. Margaret told me that the swift numbers in Beer were well down on last year. When we went further along the coast to Branscombe the news was even worse. The local colony which was about 8 strong last year has completely vanished. I don’t know why, but I reckon they were probably nesting only in one building and their nest sites have been lost by maintenance work. It just goes to show how easy it is to lose an established colony and that’s why the work of Stuart and Steve along with Margaret and Ian is so important. Well done to them all.
Wednesday 16th June
8am. I’m expecting the second wave of newcomers any day now. If they are predominately females then they should immediately pair up with the males that are already here and hopefully start to take up residence in my empty boxes.
The first group of arrivals have already been sussing out the empty boxes by banging and have entered a few, but never stayed overnight. At the moment I have vacancies in 6 or 7 boxes, so there is room for plenty more.
Tuesday 15th June
8am. The question I often get asked regarding new pairs is ‘Will they breed this year?’. From my own observations I’ve found that pairs must have formed before the middle of June to stand any real chance. The earlier they get together the greater the possibility. So any birds that pair up in May will almost all have a go at breeding, but by the time you get past the middle of June then the odds of that happening are getting less and less.
So where does that leave new pairs that arrive this June. It really all depends on the weather. If we get a spell of prolonged warm weather there’s an outside chance they just might have a go. In exceptionally hot summers such as 1976 some first time breeders laid eggs right up into early July.
Fingers crossed we get a scorcher of a summer!
Monday 14th June
8am. Something that has always puzzled me is the gender of the newcomers. Do they arrive in same sex groups or are they a mixture of both sexes. Unfortunately there is no way of telling the males apart from the females, unless of course you see one laying an egg! About a week ago my newcomers arrived. Mostly I see about 5 or 6, but occasionally I’ve seen as many as 10 or 12. They’ve been buzzing my boxes quite a bit, but none have taken up residency overnight in any of my empty boxes. So I started to ask myself, do they travel in same sex groups? If so, could the first newcomers to arrive be predominantly males? I first suggested this theory last year in my 5th June 2020 blog. My reasoning behind same sex groups was why haven’t any birds in this first group of newcomers paired up with one-another? Let’s say for the sake of argument that the first group of newcomers was predominantly males. What advantage is it to them to arrive first? One possible answer is that it gives them time to suss out suitable nest sites before the females arrive. Perhaps having found a potential nest site puts them in a much stronger position to attract a mate. Sounds reasonable.
If my theory is right the second group of newcomers due to arrive soon should be predominately females. I then would expect to see several new pairs take over my empty boxes. This is exactly what happened in 2020, a second group of newcomers arrived about 2 weeks after the first and paired up. I wrote about this in my blog last year on 17th June. I’ll have to wait and see if this happens again this year and will report back.
Sunday 13th June
7am. Yesterday two more eggs hatched. The third egg in nb4 south and the first egg in nb1 west.
A quick update of the colony. status. In my camera boxes there are 11 pairs and 1 single bird. The 11 pairs have 22 eggs and 4 chicks between them. Unfortunately the pair in nb4 north have deserted after the honeybee attack on Thursday. In my other boxes there are definitely 3 pairs possibly 4, but I still need to confirm the fourth pair. That makes 14-15 breeding pairs, roughly the same number as last year. The newcomers arrived just after 5am this morning. I have a feeling it’s going to be a busy day. The next few days we should see plenty of prospecting activity, so keep an eye on your boxes!
Yesterdays hot and sunny weather brought out the insects in their droves. The pond was absolutely buzzing with damselflies and dragonflies. I counted at least a couple of dozen Large Red and Common Blue damselflies and several Broad-bodied Chasers. The first baby frogs have just emerged from the pond.
We also heard a very loud whirring noise coming from the herbaceous border. On further inspection we found this beautiful adult Cockchafer. All Scarab beetles (including the chafers and dung beetles) have characteristic antennae in which the final segments have fan-like extensions (in the photo below they are bright orange). Cockchafer is the largest and most conspicuous of almost 90 species found in the British Isles and is also called the May-Bug.
Here are a few of Janes photos. The LH photo is a Large Red Damselfly. The middle photo is the Cockchafer and the RH photo is a Broad-bodied Chaser.
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.