Welcome to my 2022 Blog page with all the very latest wildlife news from around Swift House.
Swifts need our help more than ever. In December 2021 the species was Red-listed in the fifth Birds of Conservation Concern report. However it needn’t be like this. Whilst swift numbers have been steadily falling across the UK here at Swift House numbers have been rising from 1 pair in 2005 to 15 in 2021. We have 25 swift boxes dotted around under the eaves – see this link. 23 boxes have internal cameras fitted. Let’s hope 2022 will be just as good as last year when we saw a record number of chicks fledging. To find out what happened last year – click on our early 2021 Swift Blog.
Sometime during the summer months we’ll be opening our garden for another National Garden Scheme/Swift charity event. However the exact date will be entirely dependant on the weather this year. We will try to give as much notice as possible, so please keep an eye on this blog to find out exactly when we will be opening.
Saturday 28th May
Four more eggs were laid yesterday, but unfortunately 2 were flicked out of their nests. More on that later. The new eggs are the first one in nb5 north and the second for nb11 & 12 west and nb6 north. I also finally managed to see into nb4 south and confirmed a second egg in that box as well. No third egg in nb5 west though. That takes the total to 27 in 13 boxes. Only 1 pair left without any eggs which is nb4 north.
Back to the displaced eggs. Both pairs in nb3 & nb5 north have knocked out an egg each. I replaced the egg in nb5 north fairly quickly as both birds went straight out. What’s slightly odd with that particular nest is I’ve never actually seen any eggs in that nest before. I only noticed this egg today on the floor of the box right up in the top right hand corner. How long it had been there I have no idea. I’m hoping it was actually laid yesterday and was flicked out by mistake. But what’s confusing me is the pair have been back for 15 days now. I would have expected their clutch to be completed by now not just started. All I can do is wait and see if another egg is laid on Sunday.
I know that nb3 west had 3 eggs and the exact days when they were laid. To my surprise when the sitting bird left nb3 north there were still 3 eggs in the nest and the egg on the floor was a fourth egg! When the birds left and I had a closer look I found it had a large crack in it. The pair must have known it was damaged and removed it themselves. They aren’t as clumsy as I had thought. I’ve never had a clutch of four before so this is a first for me. Swifts often struggle to raise broods of three, so a brood of four would have been almost impossible. I’ve not counted that egg in my total as it was broken.
Friday 27th May
Only one new egg yesterday in nb2 north. However I’m 99% sure there’s a second in nb4 south. Unfortunately I’m unable to confirm at the moment because one adult is always sat on the nest. As for nb5 west there is a slight possibility of a third egg, but the camera angle is too far away to tell for sure. In that particular box I’ll have to wait until they hatch out to confirm. I’m going to count nb4 south in my egg total but not nb5 west. So that takes the egg total to 23 in 12 boxes.
This is a new one on me. I was sent the photo below by Les Cross of his new boxes. Les from Bristol is new to swift conservation and has just built himself a couple of boxes. What I wasn’t expecting was that he’s named them as well! The one on the left is Loch Nest and the other Wingfield. I must admit that did make me smile. I’m afraid my artistic skills only go as far as naming my boxes as nb1 and so on. Perhaps I should name them all as well?
Thursday 26th May
Yesterday was another egg fest with at least five more being laid. The first ones in nb6 north, nb4 south and nb11 west and the second ones in nb5 south and nb1 west. There is also a possibility of a third egg in nb5 west, but I just can’t see well enough to say for sure. I won’t count it until I know for certain. That takes the egg total to 21 from 12 boxes. Only 2 pairs still yet to lay.
Still no sign of any prospectors, although I’m hopeful some might arrive this weekend.
A swift friend Clive Chandler contacted me yesterday to say over 500 swifts feeding over Chew Valley Lake. Now that’s a sight to see! I wonder if that’s where my birds go during the day? Might have to take a trip out there in the next few days just to have a look myself.
Wednesday 25th May
Two more eggs yesterday. The first one in nb2 north & a third one in nb3 north. That’s the first 3 egger of the season. I normally get two or three of these a year except for last year when there were five which was quite remarkable. The only problem with 3 egg clutches is if the summer is really poor the last chick to hatch usually die unless I intervene. I suppose by laying 3 eggs its their way of being able to take advantage of any prolonged spells of good weather. Let’s hope that happens this year. The egg total has now risen to 16 from 9 nests.
The new pair in nb3 north are still struggling to bond. Last night they both stayed near the entrance hole rather than on the nest, but at least they were slightly closer together!
No sign of any more honeybee activity around my boxes either, but that might change next weekend as the weather warms up. Just to be on the safe side I bought another bottle of Bee Quick. Jane could only find one place in the UK that sells the stuff, see this link. It’s quite expense at over £20 including delivery. However it does work and a bottle will last me several years. It’s what Beekeepers use to harvest honey from their hives. It is harmless to swifts and to honeybees. However the bees don’t like the smell and eventually move on. To us it smells quite pleasant like almonds!
Tuesday 24th May
Egg laying continues in earnest with another four more eggs yesterday. The first ones in nb1 & 12 west & nb5 north and a second in nb5 west. That takes the egg total to 14 in 8 nest boxes.
Our ‘new’ pair in nb4 north are still wary of one another and spent a second night at opposite ends of the box!
Stephen Hartley from Stratford-upon-Avon has just emailed me. He has built a multi compartment swift/bat box for the gable end of his house. He sent me a few photos of the box below and a link with information ‘Hare brained happenings – establishing a swift colony‘. Do read it as it’s such a lovely, heart-warming story. I particularly like the silhouette of the swift on the side of the box. Fingers crossed he gets some takers soon.
Monday 23rd May
Three more eggs. The first one in nb5 west and second ones in nb3 north & nb6 west. That took the egg total to 10.
Late afternoon dozens of scout honeybees swarmed into nb1, 2 & 3 south. Luckily only nb2 south is occupied and both birds were out. I managed to spray the boxes with Bee Quick and within half and hour the bees moved on. Hopefully they’ll find somewhere else to swarm in the coming days.
The single swift in nb4 north has found a new mate. It’s old mate disappeared on 19th May. Yesterday it enticed a new bird back in. This newcomer appeared very nervous and unsure about what to do inside the box. It eventually joined the resident bird on the nest and they both preened one-another. However when I last looked it was alone in the corner see photo below. Sometimes it just takes a while for the bond to form. Hopefully it will become stronger in the coming days. The colony now stands at 14 pairs.
Sunday 22nd May
Yesterday was a bit of an egg fest with four eggs being laid. The first ones in nb1 west and nb3 north and second ones in nb1 north and nb2 south. That takes the egg total to 7 in 5 nests. Photos below show LH photo nb1 north, middle nb3 north; RH photo nb2 south. The others eggs are in nb1 west and nb6 west. Interestingly this year the pairs have hardly brought back any nesting material, just a few feathers at most. Just goes to show how useful a pre-feathered nest cup can be. Another thing I also did to each box apart from adding the feathers, was to fix a small rope ring around each nest cup. Some of my original nest cups were a bit on the shallow side. By adding the rope ring I’m hoping it will provide even greater protection to the eggs from being accidentally knocked out. You can just about make out the rope ring in the middle photo.
One more swift arrived yesterday. The mate of nb6 north. Plus the single swift in nb2 west returned and made a brief appearance but didn’t stay overnight. But at least its still here. That takes the total up to 28. We now have 13 pairs and 2 singles. Still no sign of any prospectors though.
Saturday 21st May
Another egg, the first in nb6 west. That takes the egg total to 3. The colony seems to settled at around 26 out of 40 back for now – twelve pairs and two singles. No sign of any prospectors, although I know they’re about from reports I’ve been getting from around the country. I was hoping some of my missing birds would have returned by now, but I’ve not given up hope just yet. Intriguingly though most of the missing birds are relatively new to the colony, most having only arrived last year. Maybe they don’t have the same urgency to return as do the more established breeders?
A question I get asked a lot is when to stop playing the calls once swifts are interested in your boxes. I was sent a couple of videos by Pete in Portsmouth which helps to answer that question. Pete put up a swift box last summer with a speaker already fitted on the side. He had some interest last year with one or two birds landing momentarily but never actually entering. He was playing the calls continuously. This year he tried something different.
In the first video you can see a swift continuously flying up to the speaker. It was attracted to the sound and was landing exactly where the calls were emanating from. It seemed oblivious to the entrance which was only a few inches away. He read in my blog some time ago about turning calls off when this happens. So he turned the calls off and watched.
In the second video which was filmed only a few minutes later the results are plain to see. Without the distraction of the calls to confuse it the swift flew straight towards the entrance hole. In a blink of an eye it had entered the box, followed shortly afterwards by its mate. The moral of this story is don’t be afraid to turn off your calls once you see your swifts flying close to your boxes. In fact it just might be the trick that makes all the difference. It worked for Pete and has worked for others I’ve had emails from too.
Once you have a pair in your box stop playing the calls right next to it. Move the speaker away and fix it next to an empty box. Keep doing that until all your boxes are full or if you prefer let the swifts find other boxes naturally without help from the calls.
Friday 20th May
Yesterday was my birthday and what better present than my first two eggs of the season. The first ones in nb2 south & nb2 north. Eggs are normally laid around 10 days after the pairs reunite. These two pairs were spot on – nb2 south 9 days and nb2 north 10 days.
The dynamics of the colony is a very fluid thing with comings and goings all the time. A second swift in nb2 north arrived but at the same time two went missing from other boxes. One of the pair in nb4 north and the single bird in nb2 west failed to return last night. I can understand the single swift staying out as singletons can travel far to attract mates, however more puzzling is the mate of nb4 north. Pairs don’t normally split once they’re together which makes me wonder if the new bird in nb2 north might be the missing bird from nb4 north? I’ll keep a close eye on these 3 boxes to see if I can work out what’s going on. I wish there was an easier way to tell them apart! As it stands the colony is down one to 26 – that’s 12 pairs and 2 singles.
Thursday 19th May
No new swifts arrived yesterday but something strange happened. One of the birds in nb5 north moved back into nb6 north, that’s the box immediately below. There it joined the new bird that returned on Tuesday. As I wrote in my blog yesterday I thought one of the birds from nb5 had mistakingly entered this box way back on 13th May, but now I’m not so sure. The thing that confused me is swifts generally wait some days for their old mates to return but this one didn’t. Now I reckon it might actually belong in that box after all and only paired up with the bird above by mistake. Now its true mate has returned it has abandoned its new partner and gone back to where it belongs. Such is love!
Wednesday 18th May
The first swift in nb6 north returned home yesterday. However this isn’t the first bird to enter this box this year either. In my blog on 13th May I wrote about my corner boxes entrances being close together. This resulted in one of the pair from nb5 north spending a few nights in the wrong box. Luckily it managed to sort itself out and move back into its own box just in time. Any swift found in the wrong box is given short strife by the rightful owner.
That takes the total to 27. We now have 12 pairs and 3 singles back in residence.
Waiting for the last few stragglers to return is always a bit worrying. Will they or won’t they make it back? Will their partners wait for them or pair up with new mates? There’s always a few loose ends as the colony rebuilds itself. Swift mortality rate is estimated to be around around 1 in 6 per year. So a colony like mine of about 40 birds can expect to lose about half a dozen. However the good news is swifts are pretty good at finding new mates. So if one of the pair fails to return the remaining bird fairly quickly finds a replacement. Most of the time its impossible to tell who these newcomers are, but sometimes little clues can give the game away. Struggling to enter or going into the wrong box can be an indication. Another sign is nervousness and hesitancy of one bird inside the box. It all adds to the fun of trying to work out who’s who!
Tuesday 17th May
Yesterday was the first day since 9th May that no new birds arrived home. The ones that were here spent the day dodging heavy showers, but a few managed to do a bit of nest building in between. Every now and then a small group would return with one of the party carrying a small white feather. As the group screamed around the house the nest builder would slip quietly into its box.
I’m always amazed and delighted by the lengths some swift groups go to welcome their swifts home. The Wenhaston Save Our Swift group in Suffolk raise a swift flag on their local church to show when the first swift has been seen. Kate Archibald from the group told us that this year it was on 10th May. The flag flies there all summer until the last swift departs in the autumn. What a wonderful thing to do. Click on this link to see more details about this swift group.
Monday 16th May
Yesterday was a bit of a damp squib, rained for most of the day which put a kibosh on any real swift activity. However when I checked my cameras later I found two more had returned. The mates in nb12 west & nb5 south. That takes the total to 26. We now have 12 pairs and 2 singles back.
Just thought you might like to see this photo of a superb bit of DIY swift box building. David lives in Swindon and has custom built a 5 port Zeist box to fit neatly between his bedroom windows. Looks really good to me and I’m sure his swifts will love it too.
Sunday 15th May
Another 3 returned yesterday. The mates of nb11 west, nb4 north and nb4 south. That took the total up to 24. The colony growing steadily as more and more swifts return. We’re now up to 10 pairs and 4 singles. Last year we had 15 breeding pairs, 3 non-breeding pairs plus a few single birds in our boxes. Putting the overall size of the colony around the 40 mark. At the moment we’re about half way there in numbers.
For anyone who monitors swifts here’s some useful information. The first eggs are usually laid around 10 days after the pair have reformed. Clutches normally consist of between 2 -3 pure white eggs, laid every other day. Eggs take about 20-21 days to hatch. Both adults will continue adding nesting material to the nest right up until the eggs hatch. Chicks are in the nest for about 6 weeks.
I should start to see me first eggs in about a weeks time.
Saturday 14th May
The colony continues to grow. Two more swifts returned home yesterday. The mate of nb1 west and a single in nb2 west. That takes the total up to 21 back so far. The colony now consists of 7 pairs and 7 singles. Hopefully a few more will arrive this weekend on the back of this thundery high pressure.
Yesterday was quite breezy and it was the first day I saw several swifts bringing back feathers. The conditions must have been perfect for collecting nest material.
Quick update on the other garden birds. The great tits in the box on the kitchen wall fledged a few days ago. They’ve now left the garden and moved down to the woods at the bottom of the road. Much safer there. The second pair of great tits in the conifer tree box are about a week away from fledging, as are the blue tits in the box on the old apple tree. Right next to the patio the dunnocks have nested in the forsythia hedge. Not sure how old the chicks are but they’re very, very noisy. A few newly fledged young robin chicks have also turned up and are busily chasing their parents around the garden for food. To help them all I’m putting out extra bowls of mealworms which seem to disappear almost as soon as I do.
Friday 13th May
Four more birds arrived yesterday.
Single birds in nb1 & 5 south and a pair in nb5 west. I rarely get both birds arrive on the same day, but that’s just what happened in nb4 west. In my front corner box the bird in nb6 north has moved in with the bird in nb5 north. I’m pretty sure they are the same pair who nested in nb5 north last year. The problem with my corner boxes is the entrance holes are really close. I reckon the bird in nb6 north went into the wrong box to start with and only realised its mistake when its mate turned up. Any way they seem to have sorted it out now.
That takes the total to 19 which is about half the numbers from last year. We now have 6 pairs and 7 singles back.
Thursday 12th May
One more swift arrived home yesterday. The mate of nb6 west. That takes the total back so far to 15. Four pairs and 7 singles.
On Monday there was a mass arrival of swifts all over the UK, with thousands upon thousands returning in just a few short hours. From all the reports I read they seem to arrive out of nowhere. One minute they weren’t here the next screaming parties everywhere. The strange thing is when I checked the UK coastal birding stations on Monday they only reported seeing a trickle of swifts coming in. Why the discrepancy in numbers seen during the day? We should have had reports of thousands arriving from all around our coasts. One interesting hypothesis from a knowledgable swift friend is they might migrate out of sight, hundreds if nor thousands of feet above the ground and only descend to feed occasionally or when they were close to their final destination. This just might explain why we hardly saw any arriving until they suddenly appeared. Just another mystery these wonderful birds keep to themselves.
Wednesday 11th May
Five more swifts arrived back yesterday. The first birds in nb 6 & 12 west and nb 2 & 5 north. Plus the mate of nb 1 north. That takes the total back to 14. Three boxes now have pairs in them. It also looks like I was wrong about nb 3 north. I thought the female in that box had lured away the male in nb1 north but tonight both boxes have pairs back in them. The other box with a pair is nb2 south. Photos of pairs- left to right nb1 north, nb3 north & nb2 south.
Tuesday 10th May
Yesterday was one of those remarkable days when swifts arrived all over the UK at once. Right across the length and breadth of the country reports came in of birds returning home. Here at Swift House we had our fair share too. Another 6 arrived taking the total up to 9. That’s about a quarter of the colony back now. The birds who arrived yesterday are in the following boxes – nb 1 & 11 west, nb2 south (a pair) and nb1 & 6 north. The puzzling thing is the bird in nb1 north. Yesterday I was pointing an accusing finger at the female in nb3 north. But I’m not so sure now. Perhaps I was a bit hasty to judge. I’ll have to wait and see what happens. Will the male in nb3 north realise his old mate has returned and move back in or perhaps I was wrong with my assumptions. Only time will tell.
The warm sunshine over the last few days brought out the first damselflies of the year in our pond. The large red and common blue were out in some numbers. The reds not wasting any time at all and getting straight down to business of mating.
Monday 9th May
The swift migration floodgates have finally opened. Thousand upon thousands are on the move north. Yesterday saw the biggest counts of the season so far. 68,047 at Falasise de Lecuate and 56,810 Etang de Canetin in south-east France. See Trektellen.
At Swift House a third bird returned home yesterday. The first bird back in nb4 south. That’s the simple bit!
Now it gets a bit more complicated. The mate of nb3 north has returned or has it? The reason I’m not so sure is because the swift in nb1 north has gone missing. Could it be the same bird but it has just moved boxes? I think it might be. NB3 north has a long checkered history. I’m pretty sure it’s the female who arrives back first in this particular box. It is always one of my first boxes to be occupied each year. This year she arrived back on 2nd May. Unfortunately she doesn’t like waiting for her old mate to return and quickly pairs up with other males from adjacent boxes. I think she might have paired up with the male in nb1 north. If I’m right what will happen next is when her old mate finally returns he’ll throw out the interloper. If by chance they have eggs by then he’ll throw them out too. He’s done this in 4 of the last 5 years. All I can do is watch and see what happens next. Below are some photos of the new pair.
7.30pm. At least 8 screaming around the house tonight, but how many are mine?
Sunday 8th May
I have some really good news. The winds finally dropped over the Pyrennes and thousands of swifts have made their move. Nearly 30,000 arrived over Perpignan in south-east France yesterday on their way north. That I suspect that is only a tiny fraction of the actual number on the move. Perpignan is about 800 miles from the UK or if you prefer, a couple of days away as the swift flies. We could start seeing them arrive as soon as this afternoon!
One question I get asked is why do the go to Perpignan. Well it’s actually a place called Falaise de Leucate, which is located a few miles up the coast from Perpignan. It’s a vast unspoilt area full of ponds and salt marshes and forms part of the Parc Naturel Régional de la Narbonnaise. It’s teeming with insect life and if you’re a bird on migration a super place to refuel on your long journey north.
1pm. Two birds in nb3 north. Has its mate returned or is it the single bird from nb1 north just moving boxes? I won’t know until I check my cameras tonight.
Saturday 7th May
Everything changed at Chew Valley lake yesterday. I had a swift friend call me late yesterday afternoon to tell me a big influx of swifts had just arrived at Chew. Then when I checked my cameras late last night a second swift had returned home. This one was in nb1 north. I wonder if it was one of the swifts that arrived over Chew earlier in the day? I’ve just checked the Avon birds blogspot and there were sightings of swifts all around the lake yesterday. Difficult to tell exactly how many, but I suspect in the low hundreds.
One of the reasons it’s been such a slow start to the swift season is down to the poor weather in southern Europe. For some weeks now strong northerly winds have been blowing across France. Our swifts have to fly over the Pyrenees which form in effect a high wall between France and Spain. These northerly winds has just been to strong for them to make it over the mountains in any real numbers. However the good news is the wind is easing and their migration has begun again in earnest. I’ve just checked Trektellen and almost 12,000 arrived over Perpignan in south-east France yesterday.
Friday 6th May
In The Guardian newspaper yesterday there was a plea from the RSPB urging the public to make mud pies to help endangered birds such as house martins, swifts and swallows. See this link ‘Muck in to help nesting birds during UK heatwave’ says RSPB. Whilst I fully endorse this activity for house martins and swallows, making mud pies for swifts! Come on RSPB you should know better than that. Swifts don’t land on the ground and they definitely don’t use mud to make their nests.
Still only one swift back here and nothing much on the local radar either. The nearest swift hot-spot for me is Chew Valley lake and there are only a handful that have been seen there. Maybe this weekend we’ll see some more arriving.
Thursday 5th May
Still only the one bird back and I’ve still not seen it out in the open yet!
One of the questions I get asked a lot is when to begin playing their calls?
The birds arriving now are last year breeders who already have established nest sites. I call these birds the first wave. They are unlikely to be attracted to the calls unless they have been displaced from their old nest sites. So there’s nothing wrong with playing the calls from the moment you see your first swift. However the swifts you are most likely to attract start to arrive towards the end of this month. I call these the second wave. They are predominately 2-3 year old birds. Some might even breed this year. Finally in July a third wave of swifts arrive. These are yearlings. They are also attracted by the calls, but won’t breed as its too late in the season. So to sum up it’s ok to play the calls from the beginning of May until the end of July. Swifts will prospect for nest sites on most days during their stay with us. The only time you won’t see them is on very wet and windy days.
Another questions I get asked a lot is when is the best time to play the calls and for how long and how loud?
Personally I’ve found the best time is in the morning from 6am until midday. To begin with I would play the calls at full volume. This was to get the birds attention and draw them in to investigate. Once I had them flying around the house I would turn down the volume so I could only just hear it from the ground. When I saw them starting to land momentarily on my boxes I would turn the calls off completely. If however they lost interest I would begin the whole process again. Once I had them going into a box on a regular basis I moved the speaker to a new box. Having said all that some people play their calls at full volume from dawn to dusk from May to July and swear by it. So the advice I would give is experiment with your calls, the time and the volume and see what works best for you (and your neighbours). And don’t be afraid to tweak it from time to time.
Just a note of caution with regard to playing their calls next to occupied boxes. This can sometimes lead to prospectors entering these boxes. Any intruder entering will be challenged by the resident bird. Most of the time the intruder beats a hasty retreat, but occasionally fights do occur. In extreme cases these fights can lead to eggs or even chicks being accidentally hit out of the nest. Luckily this is extremely rare. I would keep speakers well away from any occupied box if you can. Once you’ve got several breeding pairs there’s really no need to play their calls anymore. These birds will naturally draw others in.
Wednesday 4th May
I spent all day yesterday outside in the garden hoping to catch a sight or sound of our new arrival. I didn’t see nor hear anything until I turned on the cameras at 8pm and found it was safely tucked up in bed! No more birds back either. Many thanks for all the positive posts on our Facebook page. Judging by the majority of comments it seems that most of you are still waiting for their birds to return. Not much happening at Portland Bill or on Trekellen either, although on 1st May a good passage of swifts were seen crossing the Straits of Gibraltar. My guess is most are still down in Africa, probably somewhere between Liberia and Morocco. That might seem like a long way away but not for a swift. They can make the journey home in less than a week. If I’m right then in a few days time we should start to see a big influx arriving. Keep an eye and ear open from Sunday onwards.
Tuesday 3rd May
A mild and overcast morning. Our swift went out just after 8am. I wonder where it goes during its first days back? One school of thought is they head for lakes and reservoirs in the first few weeks of returning home. There’s good feeding to be had over these locations. Plus there’s always the chance you might meet up again with your old mate or other members of the colony. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone else returns home tonight.
Monday 2nd May
8pm – The first one is back!
I’ve been pottering about outside all day long and not seen or heard anything so it came as a huge surprise to find this little beauty in nb3 north tonight. No idea when it actually arrived, but just really happy it’s back. The long wait is finally over.
Saturday 30th April
It’s the last day of April and still no sign of any swifts. 2022 is turning out to be one of the years when they arrive home later than normal. I’ve been keeping records since 2005. In those 17 years they have arrived back in April 11 times, only 6 times have they turned up in May. The last time was in 2017 when they arrived on 1st May. The latest time they ever returned was on 6th May way back in 2009.
Despite the absence of swifts there were lots of swallows passing through yesterday to keep me satisfied. I must have seen a couple of dozen or more flying over Swift House. They were all heading north towards Gloucestershire. Some were on their own, others in small groups. Their flight path was straight and determined. They were on a mission to get home. It amazes me that they fly over Bristol at all. I thought they would try and skirt around the edges of this urban sprawl. Still it was lovely to watch them pass through. I couldn’t help wondering though where home might be. Some old barn or stable yard far away? Perhaps the home owner there was scanning the skies and wondering when they’ll be back. I wanted to shout out “don’t worry – they’re on their way!”
Friday 29th April
We didn’t manage to hear a cuckoo yesterday at Chew Valley lake, but despite its absence we had a super day out. We were joined by our good friend John who is an expert on bird song. This proved to be a great help as quite a few birds could be heard but not actually seen. I was hoping to see swifts and I wasn’t disappointed. Hiding in full view in a flock of over 100 house martins were at least 2 swifts. Jane and John spotted them first. Both took great delight in pointing them out to me! Here are some of the other birds of note we saw or heard – osprey, whitethroat, sedge warbler, chiffchaff, cetti’s warbler, blackcap, reed warbler, mistle thrush & garden warbler. Perhaps the most amusing was a cheeky pair of blue tits who had made their nest in a woodcrete bat box. Watching one squeeze through the tiny entrance hole amazed us all!
Here are some other locations where swifts were also seen yesterday. Thanks to Roger and Matthew for sending me their sightings.
Burgess Park, S E London – 1
Middleton Lakes, Warwickshire – 6
Belvide Reservoir, Staffordshire – 3
Westport Lake, Stoke-on-Trent – 1
As you can see none in great numbers yet, but at least they are starting to arrive.
Thursday 28th April
First swifts of the year seen at Portland Bill Bird Observatory yesterday. Maybe this is it! Off out to Chew Valley lake today, hopefully to catch a glimpse of one if we’re lucky. I’d love to hear the cuckoo as well, as I’ve not heard one for several years now.
Our good friend Geoffrey gave us a beautiful common spotted orchid yesterday to plant in our wildflower lawn. Never grown an orchid before so it’s a steep learning curve. I’m hoping over time it will self seed itself all over the place. Absolutely delighted!
Wednesday 27th April
This nagging easterly wind is definitely having a detrimental effect on our swifts. I would normally have one back by now, but all my boxes are still empty. There should also be reports of swifts starting to appear right across the UK, but apart from the odd isolated sightings there’s nothing happening out there. My guess is they are still down in Spain or France. They’re probably waiting for the wind to change direction. Alas looking at the long range weather forecast it looks like this won’t happen for another week or so.
A quick update on my other garden birds. The great tits now have young in the box on the kitchen wall. Every few minutes they are returning with beaks full of tasty morsels. The blue tits in the box on the old apple tree are still on eggs. These should hatch any time now. Sadly the magpies robbed the blackbirds nest in the hedge by the pond. They also found the second robins nest in the neighbours garden. Both blackbirds and robins are now in the process of nest building again. The blackbirds for a second time and the robins a third. I know some people say magpies aren’t a major problem regarding egg predation, but I can vouch that here they have a devastating effect on the small birds in my garden.
Monday 25th April
I saw my first house martins of the year yesterday. A pair had just arrived back to the Old Station house in Sea Mills. Sadly breeding pairs in this colony have plummeted in the last few years from over 20 in 2018 to just 3 last year. On a more positive note however Portland Bill Bird Observatory recorded huge numbers of both swallows and house martins arriving over the weekend. Hopefully we’ll all see a few more in the coming days.
Saturday 23rd April
A couple of months ago we were asked for advice about fitting boxes behind the louvres of a local church in Abbots Leigh by Sarah, Dave & Nick. We had a look inside and recommended adding bespoke boxes into the north side of the tower. Yesterday a stack of 6 boxes very professionally built by Dave were installed by the pair of us. Jane and I donated a sound system to play swifts calls which we also set up in readiness. Now that it has been completed it looks absolutely superb. Fingers crossed the local swifts will love it too! A big thank you to Sarah, Dave and Nick for all their hard work in getting this project up and running in such a short time. We wish them all the very best luck in the coming months.
More details and photos can be found on our Local Swift Projects page.
Thursday 21st April
The first swifts were seen over Chew Valley lake in Somerset yesterday. Someone on the Avon Birds blogspot saw two of them feeding over the water. It’s a great website that records bird sightings in Bristol and the old county of Avon. See this link. However now that they are back at Chew I think I’ll pop out there and have a look for myself. I must admit I got a bit excited when I first read it. So much so I triple-checked my cameras just in case they were mine. Alas the wait at Swift House goes on a bit longer.
Wednesday 20th April
On this day in 2018 a swift returned home to Swift House. It’s my earliest ever returnee. Will that record be equalled to day, I don’t think so. But I don’t think they’re that far away either. Last Sunday a big passage of swifts crossed over the Straits of Gibraltar. Yesterday they were sighted in south-east France near Perpignan in even larger numbers. Almost 12000 where seen feeding over the wetlands at Falaise de Leucate. That’s only 800 miles from the UK or put other way about 2 or 3 days away as the swift flies.
Sunday 17th April
Yesterday was another glorious day with wall to wall sunshine. The sun and the heat brought the butterflies out in great numbers. I counted 7 different species in the garden which I think is some sort of record on one day. I saw peacock, small white, holly blue, speckled wood, orange tip, small tortoise shell and the comma. The comma is one of the species that hibernate over the winter. You can see from the photos below how tatty and bleached one of its wings is. It was sun-bathing on the hedge in the exact same spot as one was last autumn. I wonder if it’s the same butterfly?
I’ve got several artificial bumblebee boxes around the garden. They are very easy to make. Basically they are flower pots turned on their sides and stuffed full of straw and old blue tit nests from my boxes. I’ve got one of these pots at the bottom of a wood pile. This short video is of a queen buff-tailed bumblebee entering it’s new home.
I was treated to a very rare sight yesterday afternoon. Whilst scanning the skies above Swift House a beautiful red kite drifted effortlessly past. A magnificent bird of prey and a memory I shall cherish for a long time.
Saturday 16th April
Good Friday was a fabulous day with blue skies and warm sunshine from dawn to dusk. The temperature in the back garden reached almost 22C. It felt like the swifts should be here. After I unblocked my boxes I spent the whole day in the garden with one ear tuned towards the skies. Despite the glorious weather that familiar scream remained elusive. That pleasure is still a few days away. Although slightly disappointed it was still lovely just being outside pottering around.
More and more swallows and house martins are arriving each day according to the reports on various birding forums. I’ve not seen either yet but I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of one in the coming days. I did however have the pleasure to watch a chiffchaff at close quarters in my garden. It was searching for aphids on the silver birch, meticulously checking each leaf for them. It must have spent a good 10 minutes going over the whole tree.
Friday 15th April
A couple of days ago there was a confirmed sighting of a swift at Spurn Bird Observatory in east Yorkshire. I’m not surprised as it’s a place where a lot of migrant birds are often seen at this time of year. Another good place to see them is on the south coast at Portland Bill Bird Observatory in Dorset, but no reports of any sightings there yet. However I think I’ll unblock my boxes today rather than wait any longer.
More and more spring flowers are starting to bloom in the garden. The espalier pears are looking superb with a beautiful carpet of forget-me-nots underneath them. See LH photo. Last year I was given a couple of plug plants of cuckoo flower also commonly known as lady’s smock. They really like damp meadows so aren’t ideally suited to my dry soil. However both plants are now in flower and look absolutely great – see middle photo. Another wild flower that also prefers damp meadows are snakes head fritillary – see RH photo. I have a clump of these which always put on a super show each spring. My flowering lawn is also just starting to come to life. More and more daisies are flowering each day along with a few dandelions. I can’t wait to see what else appears in the coming weeks!
Monday 11th April
Watching the weather forecast on Countryfile last night a plume of warm air all the way from North Africa is on it’s way by mid-week. That just might be enough for one or two swifts to hitch a ride back to us. Checking my records my earliest swift arrived on 20th April in 2018. However that was a one-off as most don’t start to arrive until after 25th April. However just to be on the safe side I think I’ll unblock my boxes over the Easter weekend.
A quick update on the wildlife in the garden. The great tits are on eggs in the box on the kitchen wall. The blue-tits have just started nest building in a new box I fitted in the old apple tree. Yesterday the blackbirds started nest building in the hedge by the pond. The robins built a new nest a couple of doors away and are now on eggs. As for the dunnocks I’ve no idea what’s going on with them. All I see is the three of them flirting with one-another in the garden!
The pond is full of frog and toad tadpoles, although last week two very late pairs of toads turned up so I’ve got a couple more strings of spawn. Lots of common and palmate newts in the pond and my best count of the rare great crested newt is four – 3 females and 1 male.
More and more red mason bees are beginning to emerge from the bee hotel.
Monday 4th April
Douglas Baxter contacted me to say he and his wife saw two swift flying over Cranham Marsh near Upminster, in Essex yesterday afternoon. Maybe the first sightings of the year?
Sorry for raising your hopes. It now appears it may have been swallows after all!
Friday 1st April
There’s an old saying about not wishing your life away but when my last swift departs in the autumn I can’t wait for the following April to begin. Their stay with us is so short, so precious. Every day they’re here to be savoured. I yearn to hear that familiar scream once again. By the end of the month my first swifts should have returned and my long wait will be over.
Thursday 31st March
Following on from Sunday’s blog I thought I’d have a look at Trektellen. It’s a fantastic website that records migrating bird species from all across Europe. Whilst we wait for the first confirmed sighting of swifts in the UK, a few early birds have begun to appear farther South. In the last few days of March a couple of hundred have been spotted over the Dunes de Prunete in Corsica. In southern Spain near Fuengirola their numbers are in the low twenties, as they are in south-east France near Perpignan.
Sunday 27th March
I was asked yesterday whereabouts do I think our swifts are in Africa? They are likely to be still in eastern Africa, either Mozambique, Tanzania or Malawi. But they are beginning to head home. By the middle of April they’ll be back in central Africa. Hawking for insects somewhere over the vast tropical rain forests of the Congo. From there in swift terms is only a relatively short flight up the west coast of Africa. Stopping briefly in Liberia to fuel up on flying termites before arriving back in the UK around the end of April or the beginning of May.
Saturday 26th March
Sad news. The robins have deserted their nest in the forsythia bush. I’m not sure why but I did see a cat lurking underneath. I wonder if that was enough to spook them. The good news is they are both still about and in the process of looking for a new nest site. Hopefully they’ll choose one a little more discreet this time.
Wednesday 23rd March.
All done! That’s all 25 boxes up and ready to go. I’ve also added a few more cameras this year. Now 23 boxes have them fitted. That should keep me entertained this summer! The only thing left to do is unblock the holes a few days before the swifts return.
Tuesday 22nd March
I’m going to start putting up my boxes today. It takes me about a day to put all 25 back up, so the weather must be settled before I start before I start. This weeks forecast looks absolutely perfect. I normally aim to do this in the first week of April but as the weather’s so good I’m starting now. The only drawback of doing it now is I’ll have to temporarily block up the entrances to stop any unwelcome guests. Some sticky tape over the entrance holes should do the trick. Photos to follow.
Friday 18th March
One of the joys of being a grandparent is talking my grandsons out for long walks. We’re lucky where we live in Bristol that we are blessed with many beautiful walks through leafy dales and parks. On my walk this morning I saw my first brimstone and peacock butterflies of the year enjoying the warm spring sunshine. Several more chiffchaffs have also arrived and the woods are beginning to echo with their familiar calls.
Thursday 17th March
The great tits have just started nest building in the box on the kitchen wall. It’s the same box they’ve used for the last 3 years. A couple of days ago our next door neighbour photographed a very unusual bird in their garden. It was a red-legged partridge! A quite remarkable sighting in a city garden. Alas it never came across the hedge into ours. It would be cheating to add it to my list of garden birds, which remains at 22 so far this year.
Monday 14th March
Not far from where we live on the west side of Bristol is the Ashton Court Estate, a beautiful 850-acre rolling country park. It’s now more widely known for holding the Bristol Balloon fiesta. As a youngster I spent many a happy hour fishing for tadpoles in one of its many ponds. Anyway back to today as we were wandering around the park this afternoon I heard the unmistakable call of the chiffchaff. My first of the year. Admittedly it’s not the most tuneful song you’ll ever hear, but its one that tells me summer and my beloved swifts aren’t that far away. Here’s a link to help you identify its song.
Thursday 10th March
The pair of robins who have just taken up home in the garden have started nesting. They have chosen a box in the middle of a large Forsythia bush next to the patio. It’s the female doing the building whilst her mate stands guard near-by. She’s also started coming up to the patio each morning waiting for me to throw a handful of mealworms out. I’m pretty sure it’s the same female from last year who used to pop over for a feed whilst Rob my tame robin wasn’t looking. Whilst she tolerates my presence she’s still wary of getting too close to me. Perhaps over time I can encourage her to feed off my hand.
Sunday 6th March
First toad spawn in the pond this morning. The frogs seem to be coming to the end of their breeding season. I reckon there’s about a dozen clumps of frog spawn which is a bit down on last year. As far as I can tell there are still only 3 great-crested newts in the pond. However on the plus side the numbers of palmate and common newts are increasing every day and there must be at least a dozen of each.
A much younger and stronger robin has just taken up residence in the garden. After a couple of days of fierce fighting the youngster has won the battle and banished Rob my tame robin to the boundary edges. Mrs Waggy, the pied wagtail has left for her summer breeding grounds. This leaves only Wrenkin, my resident wren and Waggy the male pied wagtail behind.
Saturday 5th March
The first sand martins are just beginning to arrive in the UK. A few have been seen over Chew Valley Lake in the last couple of days. I’ve also heard reports that a handful of swallows have been over-wintering around Penance in Cornwall. If anyone knows how they’ve got on please let me know.
Thursday 3rd March
I heard my first blackcap this morning. I think it’s one of the sweetest songs you’ll ever hear. I’ve had 3 or 4 blackcaps over winter again in my garden. These are migrants from Central Europe who find it preferable to spend their winters here in the UK rather than migrate all the way down to Africa. Most of the UK blackcaps still migrate down to Africa, but that could change as our winters become warmer. It’s around now the UK blackcaps start to return and begin to stake out their breeding grounds once again. What I don’t know is who’s singing. Is it a returning UK blackcap or its European cousin? The blackcap is a little grey bird about the size of a sparrow. The male has a blackcap hence its name, the female has a brown cap. Click on this video link to hear its beautiful song.
Tuesday 1st March
It’s official today is the first day of Spring. Although here in my back garden in Bristol spring actually began several weeks ago. The borders are a riot of colour as all the spring flowers are now in full bloom. The pond is full of frog spawn and the garden birds are just beginning to pair up. Ominously all this activity has not gone unnoticed. A male sparrowhawk has been watching from afar with intent. Yesterday he chased the dunnocks, narrowly missing one as it fled back into the hedge for safety. Dusting off its pride it perched on the top of the crab apple to retain its composure. It may have missed its lunch but it’ll be back to try again another day. I managed to film this short video of it just before it flew away.
Friday 25th February
The dunnocks or hedge-sparrows as I was brought up to call them have just started nest building. They make a beautiful little nest out of moss, dried leaves and twigs in which they lay 4 or 5 bright turquoise eggs. It was the first nest I found as a youngster over 50 years ago and the image of that nest is still vivid in my memory. They also have a very interesting love life. Sometimes they pair up as normal, but quite often it’s a strange set-up. It can be one female and two males or two females and two males all using the same nest. It’s all very relaxed. In our garden there are at least 4 dunnocks so your guess is as good as mine!
Thursday 24th February
The first four clumps of frog spawn appeared this afternoon. Checking my records it is a few days earlier than last year (27th Feb). The dates from the last 4 years are as follows – 20th Feb 2018, 19th Feb 2019, 10th Feb 2020, 27th Feb 2021. They are all roughly around the same time except for 2020 which was considerably earlier. If you can remember that was the sunniest Spring on record in the UK since records began in 1929. I always thought that it was solely down to the temperature, but apparently frogs can smell the grow of algae in the water and delay their spawning until they can smell the new growth. That could explain why some ponds have spawn in them weeks before others do.
Saturday 19th February
A couple of years ago Mrs Waggy lost all the claws on her right foot leaving her with only a stump. She finds it extremely difficult to perch in strong winds so normally hunkers down on the ground in bad weather. Yesterday was no exception. She spent all day sheltering under the hedge on the patio as Storm Eunice raged by. A regular supply of meal worms helped pass the time as she saw the storm out. Despite her disability she’s a feisty old bird. Every time Rob and Wrenkin tried to grab one she drove them away. Just as well that I put plenty out, so they all eventually got one in the end. Just in case you were wondering where Waggy was. He popped in from time to time, but as top bird in the pecking order he doesn’t need to wait and always feeds first!
Thursday 17th February
Heard my first blackbird this afternoon. They have such a beautiful melodic song. I rate it alongside the blackcap as one of our best spring songsters. It’s one of my favourites without a doubt. They start singing around now and will go on until June or July when they stop until this time next year. But for the next 5 or 6 months we will be treated to their wonderful flutey repertoires on a daily basis.
Tuesday 15th February
Last Spring I made the decision not to be so precious about my lawn. I’ve always liked the appearance of a weed-free green sward, but in reality it’s not as wildlife friendly as it could be. So after much umming and aahing I decided to change what I was doing. The first thing was to stop thinking of weeds as bad but as welcome guests. Believe me that took quite a bit of getting used too after 30 years of zapping anything that didn’t look like grass!
So after giving the lawn a really good scarifying to remove all the dead thatch I scattered a handful of wildflower seeds all over it. Just to be on the safe side I also grew over 200 small plug plant as well. Next I stopped mowing just to get everything really established. By mid Summer the lawn had started to take on a more natural appearance, with small patches of wild flowers here and there. Once they had finished flowering I then started mowing again, just as frequently as I did under my old mowing regime. It was a good start, but there was still plenty of room for improvement. So last Autumn I scattered even more wildflower seeds. I’ve no idea what it will look like this Summer, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes up!
To see the seeds I used to create my flowering lawn click on this link
Wednesday 9th February
Two more great-crested newts have arrived in the pond. Another female and the first male, taking the total up to 3. More and more frogs are also arriving including the first females, but no sign of any spawn yet.
The mild weather has encouraged more spring flowers to come into bloom. Vast carpets of snowdrops and winter aconites are in full flower along with the first primroses and hellebores. Taking full advantage of all this free nectar were several large queen white-tailed bumblebees.
The blue tits and great tits have been busily inspecting all the nest boxes dotted around the garden. Although they visit all the boxes in turn they have their own favourites. The great tits like the box on the kitchen wall and the blue tits the box next to the pond. I expect both will be occupied again this year.
Saturday 5th February
The first signs of Spring are beginning to appear. Last night I crept up as silently as I could and shone a light over the surface of my pond. I spotted half a dozen frogs and toads. These early arrivals were all males. It will be another couple of weeks before the first females arrive. Looking a bit deeper below the surface I picked out the unmistakable shape of a great-crested newt. It was a large female measuring well over 6” in length. Not far away weaving its way through the pond weed was a male Palmate Newt. In a few weeks time the pond will be alive with activity as the breeding season gets fully under way.
Friday 28th January
This weekend is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. I’ve just completed my survey and it didn’t take long to get my first birds either. Waiting by the back door (as usual) were my little friends, Rob the robin, Wrenkin the wren and the pied wagtails Waggy and Mrs Waggy. They’ve been with me since 2018 which makes them at least four years old. It’s quite remarkable how old they all are as most small garden birds don’t survive much longer than 2 years in the wild. Perhaps it’s the regular hand-outs I give them that keeps them going! Here’s a short video of them being fed this morning click on this link.