This is my Swift 2018 Blog from early January 2018 until 29th May 2018. My most recent Blog can be found here.
Tuesday 29th May
9am. I’ve noticed that around 6.30am each morning a small group of newcomers arrive (3 or 4). I know they aren’t mine as all 27 are still in at that time. Their routine is to buzz the nest boxes screaming as they fly past. This encourages all the resident birds to call back. I’m not 100% sure why they do this, it could be to identify those boxes that are occupied and more importantly, to identify those that aren’t. Or it could be for sheer devilment. Whatever the reason the outcome is a noisy dawn chorus of screaming swifts.
9pm. For all you early risers there’s a special treat to enjoy over your cornflakes tomorrow. BBC Breakfast contacted us this afternoon and asked if they could come and interview us and film our swifts.We said yes and we’re meant to feature along with Richard Bland from the BTO at 7am, 7.30am and 8.30am. Don’t know anything about the format, so slightly terrified! Hopefully I can just point to the sky and say that’s a swift. I don’t think it will be very long, no more than a minute or so. Still as they say any publicity is good publicity. Please don’t be too critical as we have done fairly well with our swifts this year, although we know that this is not the same across the UK.If you miss it and want to see it we think it should be on catch-up for 24 hours.
Monday 28th May
7am. A second egg in south 2 brings the egg total up to 13. One thing I also saw in the same box was the parasitic louse fly, crataerina. At least 2 were scuttling about, how they got there is a complete mystery. The box was spotlessly clean before the birds arrived, so they must have been picked up somewhere else. That means one of the returning birds entered an infected nest site before returning home. Perhaps it was a stop-over site on the migration route, but the consequences of that action means there are now 2 adult crataerina in that box. The will take a feed of blood every 3-5 days and although unlikely to kill the hosts are without doubt a irritating nuisance.
2pm. Quite a bit of activity this morning but annoyingly I missed most of it decorating. Hopefully by Thursday the work will finally be done, it seems to have gone on forever (note for diary never, ever plan decorating for this time of year again – big mistake). In the meantime a quick check of the nests revealed another 3 eggs, one each in south 2 and 5 and a second egg in north 4. That takes the egg total up to 16 from 13 pairs. Most will lay two but a couple might lay three so we should reach a final total somewhere between 26 -30 eggs.
Sunday 27th May
10am. A muggy murky start to the morning has just culminated with a superb thunder and lightening display. The few birds which had ventured out whizzed back in at the first flash of lightening. I was hoping to do an egg count this morning, but no chance at the moment as all 27 birds are in. I’ll try later.
1pm. At least three more eggs have been laid, bringing the total up to 12 from 13 pairs. One in north 4 and 6 and a second in west 5. There’s probably one or two more but the adults are incubating making it difficult for me to see. The storm has past and it’s turned very muggy again, as the temperatures starts to rise so is the swift activity. At least 6 whizzing around at low level.
Saturday 26th May
6.30am. A second bird has definitely arrived at south 1 although I’m not 100% sure if it’s last years mate. It’s not very proficient at landing and very cautious when first entering, taking it’s time to reach the other bird on the nest. However when it finally does it’s not greeted with any aggressive behaviour and allopreening starts almost immediately. It’s mutual preening carried out by both birds to strengthen the bond between them and concentrates on the areas around each others head and throat which they find difficult to reach. Very affectionate to watch.
Late last night around 8.45pm a third bird entered west 1. A fight immediately broke out and a bird was ejected. In Wednesday’s blog I said I wasn’t sure if the second bird who arrived that day was the old mate as it behaved more like a newcomer. Having witnessed yesterday’s fight I think it must have been a newcomer and was confronted by the returning mate. I didn’t actually see which bird left but normally the returning mate wins so I’m assuming the newcomer was ejected. That brings the total up to 27 out of 28 with 9 eggs (13 pairs and 1 single). The single being in north 1.
7am. There’s a couple of newcomers whizzing about outside, perhaps one of them is the bird ejected from west 1 last night as all 27 birds are still in.
Friday 25th May
9am. First proper rain for some weeks and all the birds (26) are still in, making it very difficult to confirm the egg count. However it’s quite warm and muggy so at least they’re not cold. Just checked yesterdays report from Portland and there’s still a healthy flow of swifts (also swallows and house martins) entering the UK. Good news for anyone still missing their birds.
The weekends weather forecast looks promising, hot and thundery conditions all across the UK, perfect for swifts.
10.30am. Some of the birds have just gone out and I’ve managed to confirm the first egg in south 2. Plus a second egg in both north 2 and south 4, bringing the total to 5.
5pm. Finally the majority of birds have gone out to feed and I’ve managed to check all the nests. To my surprise I found another 4 eggs have been laid. One in west 5, another in north 3 and two in north 5. That brings the total to 9 eggs so far. I also saw a second bird enter south 1, has last years mate returned or is it a newcomer? More investigation needed to confirm what’s actually going on.
Thursday 24th May
8am. Another bird returned yesterday. The mate of west 12 arrived back late last night. The colony is almost back to full strength with 26 out of 28 home. We now have 12 pairs and 2 singles. The singletons are in north 1 and south 1. We also have at least 2 newcomers possibly more. I saw 1 enter south 6 and another west 8 last night so they’re beginning to stake claims to those particular boxes.
There are eggs in 2 boxes, north 2 and south 4 but I’ve not been able to see how many yet. Both pairs have started incubating and it’s difficult to catch a time when the box is empty.
Yesterday was another good nest-building day with birds returning constantly with feathers and dried grass.
Wednesday 23rd May
7am. Yesterday the mate of west 1 arrived bringing the total up to 25 out of 28. That’s 11 pairs and 3 singles. The 3 singletons are in north 1, south 1 and west 12. Whether the wait for their old mates to return or pair up with the newcomers is a mute point. My guess is they’ll only wait for another day or two at most for their old mates to arrive before giving up on them. Times getting on and they must find a partner to breed with. How I hear you ask do I know whether it’s their old mates or newcomers? The big give-away is how easy they enter the box. The old birds from last year whizz straight in, whereas the newcomers tend to need several attempts at it. It’s a skill which takes several weeks to master. I have a feeling that the mate of west 1 who arrived yesterday might be a newcomer as it took half a dozen goes to get in. At least 3 other newcomers are roosting in the spare boxes, one in west 6, another in west 8 and finally one in south 6.
Tuesday 22nd May
7am. Just when I thought I had a bird or two back in all of last years boxes the single bird in south 1 goes missing. I’m not sure why, it might have decided to stay out all night as it was warm or it’s paired up with another single bird in the colony and moved boxes. I’ll keep a watch on that box today to see if it returns.
The first eggs have been laid in north 2 and south 4.
One newcomer stayed in west 3 overnight (camera box) and I’m almost 100% sure one in west 6 and another in 11 (non-camera boxes). I saw them enter these boxes just after 8pm last night and they hadn’t come out by the time I went in at 9pm. These newcomers have a habit of constantly moving to different boxes before they finally decide to stick with one. So I don’t count them in the overall colony numbers until they’ve actually chosen a box.
The colony numbers stand at 10 pairs – 3 or possibly 4 singles and 2 eggs (23/24 out of 28).
11am. Our singleton in south 1 has just returned, so I assume it just decided to stay out last night. Lots of newcomers around again and I’ve seen them enter west 7 and south 6. Quite breezy so the resident birds are busy nest-building, catching small white feathers in the air and bringing them in on a regular basis. Plenty of action to keep one interested.
Just seen a pair of great tits nest-building in one of my boxes. That’s very late in the season, perhaps they’ve lost their first brood and are trying again.
Monday 21st May
7am. Last night the mate of north 6 arrived bringing the total up to 22 out of 28. That’s 9 pairs and 4 singles. Only 1 box from last year, north 1 with no birds back in it.
Not quite as much activity yesterday as the previous 2 days but still enough to keep one interested. The main focus of the day was nest-building with birds coming and going all day with small white feathers. One bit of behaviour I can’t quite explain is whilst the returning bird with the feather is always silent it’s normally chased in by a pack of screaming birds. Why they do this I don’t know, but one theory is it’s some sort of distraction behaviour. The reasoning is if there is a predator lurking nearby its attention will be on the noisy birds rather than the returning bird. Or it could be they’re just very excited and happy to be alive? Whatever it is fun to watch.
The numbers of swifts arriving over Portland slowed yesterday, so I think the bulk of the breeders are now back. Some may not have reached their traditional nest areas yet, but at least they’re in the UK. They seem to be spreading from west to east. There’s still a lack of swifts along the eastern edge of the country, especially around the Cambridge area, but hopefully that’ll change in the next day or two. The next big wave will be the non-breeders (bangers) which should be in a few weeks time. Then again as this season is so unpredictable it might be tomorrow!
9am. Another arrival. The mate of south 6 has just turned up. That makes it 23 out of 28 now safely back (10 pairs and 3 singles). Lots of screaming activity outside as a small group of birds whizz around the house. Their antics even made the primary school kids stop and look on their way to school. A sight that I certainly didn’t expect to see!
8pm. To my surprise there is at least 3 newcomers checking out the unoccupied boxes. I’ve seen them enter west 6, 8 and 11. Great news the first bird has arrived back in north 1. That’s all 14 of last years occupied boxes now with either a pair or single bird in it. New total 24 out of 28. ( I not counting the newcomers yet until they actually decide on a box).
Sunday 20th May
6.30pm. Another 2 birds returned yesterday, one in west 1 and the other in west 12. That brings the colony total up to a healthy 21 ( 3/4 of last years numbers). There’s either a pair or single bird in 13 out of the 14 of last years occupied boxes. Hopefully the missing few birds will turn up in the next day or two.
The female in north 5 laid another egg yesterday as a consequence of her fling with the interloper. As soon as she had finished her mate promptly picked it up and threw it out. Both clutches in north 3 & 5 have been ejected by the returning males. This act although brutal to us is the males way of ensuring only his genes are passed on. Both females will now relay again in about a weeks time.
Yesterday was another good day at Portland with lots more swifts arriving.
8am. Lots of low level screamers whizzing around the house.
4pm. I can’t be 100% sure but I think some newcomers have arrived. Several birds have been flying up to and “banging” the boxes. If they are bangers then they’re a tad early, but as this season is so unusual I’m not going to worry about it.
Saturday 19th May
8am. What a remarkable last couple of days. I’ve never experienced such a mass return all at once. It started late on Thursday night and continued all day yesterday. Birds coming and going into different boxes, fights breaking out, eggs being ejected. It was a full on period, quite breathtaking at times.
Another beautiful morning and there must be 15 or so swifts circling just above the house. Every now and then a small group of them, 4 maybe 5 at a time, peel away and whizz round the house at roof level.
Just read yesterday’s blog from Portland and it said swifts were coming in at a rate of about 60 an hour all day long. Dare I wish for a few more arrivals today.
Friday 18th May
6am. Just a quick update after the fights of last night. Of the 5 pairs back I think 2 or 3, possibly all 5 pairs are new. A mixture of single birds from the other boxes. Last night 3 old mates (males?) arrived around 9pm and entered their respective boxes only to find interlopers in each. 3 fights ensued and 2 of the interlopers were ejected. They’ve gone back to the original boxes, one to west 5 the other to north 6. In the third box the fight went on all night so I don’t know the outcome of it yet. Unfortunately 2 of the boxes has eggs in. This morning there’s smashed eggs under north 5, don’t know about north 3 yet.
What I don’t know is what the ousted interlopers will do today. Will they resume fighting or just wait in their own boxes for their mates to arrive home?
8.30am. The nest is empty in north 5. In north 3 there’s still two birds in there ( and I presume the eggs as well) and it all looks relatively peaceful at the moment. In north 2 there’s 1 bird sat on the nest, I can’t quite see the entrance as its just off camera but that’s where the fight was going on last night. At least 10 birds whizzing around the house. What I can’t understand is why the returning mate in north 3 hasn’t ejected the eggs yet. He definitely kicked out the interloper who after being unceremoniously removed, sloped off back to west 5 where he belongs.
I’ve given up trying to tally up the colony numbers until it settles down, but I reckon it’s somewhere in the region of 13 to 15 birds.
11am. Difficult to know exactly how many birds are back but definitely one in south 5 and another in north 4. I’ll have to wait until dark to be absolutely sure.
8pm. Just as I thought both eggs have been ejected from north 3 (that’s the fifth year in a row). The returning males have resumed their authority and order has now been restored to the colony. Still lots of activity outside will update the blog later with new head count.
9.30pm. Without doubt yesterday saw a mass arrival of swifts to the UK. I thought maybe 3 to 5 had returned but checking the cameras tonight it was much more. In fact it was 9. This explains all the chaos that has happened late last night and today. Birds constantly coming and going, fights breaking out, eggs ejected.
Although all the eggs have gone a certain calm has now descended over the colony. Here’s a summary of who’s back; North 2 – 2; North 3 – 2; North 4 – 2; north 5 – 2; North 6 -1; South 1 – 1; South 2 – 2; South 3 – 2; South 4 – 2; South 5 – 1; and finally West 5 – 2.
Total back so far 19 swifts – 8 pairs and 3 singles. (last year total 14 pairs – 28 swifts).
Thursday 17th May
8am. Strange the mate of south 2 who arrived yesterday morning didn’t return last night so back to 9 again. Sometimes this happens, a bird will arrive, touch base and then disappear for a few days. I think they check to see if the nest site is still OK and then go to the nearest feeding station. The nearest place full of food is Chew Valley lake, it’s about 15 miles as the swift flies. Yesterday local birders at Chew recorded over 400 swifts feeding over the lake. Hopefully one of these was our missing mate gone to refuel after a long hard migration.
1pm. The mate of south 2 has returned and there is the an egg in north 5.
Quick summary; 5 pairs back (10 out of 28). North 2, North 3 – 2 eggs, North 5 – 1 egg, South 2 & South 4
9pm. Just as I feared a large group of last years birds have just arrived and the noise outside is deafening. It’s been almost 4 weeks since the first bird arrived over the last 3 weeks another 9 joined it. These 10 birds formed themselves into 5 pairs, 2 or 3 pairs were made up of birds from different boxes, possibly all 5. There’s fights going on in at least 3 boxes, 2 unfortunately have eggs in. The old mates are trying to reclaim their boxes. I have a feeling all the eggs will be ejected in the next few hours. Total pandemonium!
9.30pm. There’s fights in progress in north 2, 3 and 5.
9.45pm. Difficult to be 100% sure but I think the original mate (male) from north 5 has kicked out the newcomer who’s now gone back to north 6. However the female isn’t too happy and is pecking at him. Something similar has happened in north 3. I think the old mate (male again) has taken back over the box and the interloper has gone back to west 5. The difference in this box is they are both cuddled up together as if nothing has happened. There’s still a fight going on in north 2.
Both north 3 and 5 have eggs, so if I’m right and the old males have retuned tonight all the eggs will be ejected soon.
Wednesday 16th May
8am. No new arrivals yesterday so we’re still on 9, missing 19. I’ve just read a report from a fellow swift enthusiast of large numbers of swifts crossing over Capri last week. Whether these are heading here is another matter, but at least it shows there’s still plenty around. Yesterday also noted a large influx of house martins over Portland Bill.
In the 12 years I’ve been monitoring swifts this year is already turning out to be quite remarkable. My first swift arrived on April 20th, a new record for the earliest time one has ever returned. However the vast majority of the colony (19) are late which is also unprecedented. In a “normal” year over 80% of the colony would be back by now. The majority of the eggs would be laid over a 2-3 week period in mid to late May and fledging completed by early August. This year when the remainder of the colony finally arrives (and I’m confident they will eventually turn-up) egg laying will stretch over a 5 -6 week period. Subsequently fledging will extend from late July into early September.
9.30am. The mate of south 2 has just arrived. Once it got back inside the box it took another 10 minutes of tentatively inching towards it’s mate who was sat on the nest. Nothing rushed, just a slow steady approach. It’s when they first rejoin one-another that fights can sometimes break out. Each swift first instinct is to defend it’s nest from intruders. Sometimes when they first pair back up there’s a moment of temporary aggression before it recognises its partner. No such problem in this case, after some subtle manoeuvring by the incoming bird they are both cuddled up on the nest. That brings the total up to 10 out of 28.
11.30am. I’ve just found this website showing swift numbers so far in May at migration hot-spots across Europe.
Tuesday 15th May
9am. All quiet this morning, no new arrivals. What’s really frustrating is this May’s weather is probably the best it’s been for many years. Still I did get an email report of quite a few swifts arriving over Northern France. Time will tell whether these just local birds returning home or part of a larger migration wave, lets hope so. A good friend of mine told me of several large screaming parties over Pucklechurch, a small town to the north of Bristol. It appears their distribution across the UK is rather patchy, some places have quite a few, others none.
Monday 14th May
8am. Beautiful sunny morning with light winds. It’s going to very warm later on, maybe just the right conditions to usher in a few more. At the moment all 9 are still in.
8pm. I’ve been really busy decorating for a couple of days (terrible timing I know) and I’ve neglected looking at the cameras except for last thing at night. Well it came of a real surprise to find north 3 has 2 eggs in it. The other photo is of the swift who arrived yesterday returning to south 2 (middle box). Hopefully I’ll finish my DIY tomorrow. I’m desperate to get back outside.
Sunday 13th May
7am. I’m convinced the swift trying to get in south 4 is a new bird. I watched it all day yesterday and it just couldn’t work out how to get it. At about 8pm the resident bird gave up on it and went into roost, leaving it flying about outside. After about an hour and several more failed attempts it finally gave up and disappeared into the night sky. The more I thought about it the more I was sure it’s a new bird. The old mate from last year would have flown straight in without any fuss. This one just didn’t have a clue. I expect it’ll try again today, hopefully it’ll eventually work out how to get in. As they say patience is a virtue.
Still all quiet on the migration front, no reports of any mass sightings heading our way.
9.15pm. 2 swifts have returned tonight. One has just entered south 2 and the other south 6. However the bird that has just entered south 6 should have followed its mate into south 4. It’s the bird that I’ve been watching for the last 2 days, but I’m beginning to think its not that bright. The resident bird in south 4 has been trying to entice it in. Finally at 9pm it found its way in, but to the wrong box! What a star.
9.45pm. Finally it has figured out which box it should be in. Just as the light was fading it tried once more and this time it found its way into the right box. Both are cuddled up together, thank goodness for that!
That brings the total up to 9 out of 28.
Saturday 12th May
7am. A lone swift has just buzzed the west side of the house. It seems a little rusty and hasn’t actually landed yet but has come very close. It must be a newcomer as all the others (7) are still in.
Carrying on yesterdays theme regarding the slow start to the season. I’ve just had emails from South-West Germany, Northern Poland, France and Ireland all reporting no swifts. If one can draw any comfort from these reports it confirms that the problem isn’t confined to the UK but affecting most of northern Europe as well. That’s not really anything to celebrate though. Still no reported sightings of any significant migration groups heading our way. So wherever they are they’re not being picked up on the birding radar yet. My guess is they’re still down somewhere in Central Africa.
3.30pm. I’ve been watching (and trying to film) the single swift in south 4 trying to entice its mate back all day. I’m sure it was the lone swift I saw first thing this morning. The bird from south 4 keeps flying up and entering the box only for the following bird to veer away at the last moment. On another occasion it missed the hole completely and banged itself on the side of the box. I’m sure it’ll figure it out but not before its taken a few more knocks in the process!
Friday 11th May
8am. By sheer co-incidence yesterday a question to the Swift Local Network (SLN) asked where were all the swifts. He told us it was “a slow start to the season in Leicestershire, only 1 bird back out of 6 pairs” and “was this reflected across the country?”. This generated a flurry of replies. Here are some of them; Cambridgeshire 3 out of 22 back; Maidenhead numbers low; West Wales 1 back; Northern Ireland 4 out of 8 back; Warrington numbers low; Devon numbers low; Cornwall none; Luton numbers low; Suffolk numbers low; Leeds numbers low; South Notts numbers low and finally Macclesfield none. Note: the reason some numbers are specific whilst others are only general is purely down to nest box cameras.
The overall consensus from the group was that only a fraction have returned so far. Reading the reports from all over the UK I felt I’ve done rather well in comparison and I’m lucky to have 7 back. As I said in yesterdays blog, don’t worry they’ll be here soon they’re just delayed.
No new arrivals yesterday, just the 3 pairs returning every now and then with feathers.
Thursday 10th May
9am. We seem to have stalled at 7 which is only 25% of the colony. This is well down on 2016 & 2017 which were both over 50% by this time in May. However don’t despair as it’s not unusual. Reading David Lacks booklet written over 60 years ago on The Breeding Behaviour of the Swift something similar happened in 1951. That year half the colony at the now famous Oxford Tower turned up before May 6th, then there was a 9 day gap before the rest arrived. This delay was all down to bad weather on the migration route. I think this is what’s happening this year. Even though this booklet is over half a century old it’s still the most definitive paper ever written about swifts and well worth a read.
Yesterday I watched all 3 pairs start the process of nest building. All the material they use is caught on the wing, so the breezier the day the better as more material is in the air. They would arrive back in small groups, 2 or 3 at a time. One would be carrying a small feather, usually white and disappear back into its box whilst the others hung about outside. After about 5 minutes having glued the feather into position it left to rejoin its companions and off they’ll go again to find another feather. This continued all afternoon until about 5pm.
I didn’t see the roof tile swift last night, but to be honest I was watching continuously so it might have slipped back in without me noticing. I must spend a bit longer checking, however in my defence it was too chilly to stand outside until it got dark. Maybe tonight.
Wednesday 9th May
8am. It always takes me a little while to try and work out what’s actually happening inside the boxes with regard to who’s back. We already know that the bird from west 5 has moved in with the bird in north 3. On Monday a new bird turned up in north 6 which is directly underneath north 5. Both boxes were occupied last year so I assumed one of the pair had just returned. In the box above (north 5) a bird had arrived back a few weeks earlier on the 24th April. Last night I heard quite a bit of calling from inside both boxes which went on until it got dark. This morning the bird from north 6 is in with the bird in north 5. Looking at how they are cuddled up together and preening one-another I think they must be the pair from last year. I’m assuming the bird who arrived on Monday got confused over boxes and spent a couple of nights in the box below before it realised it’s mistake. The same thing has also happened in north 2. The first bird arrived on the 27th April, it’s mate arrived back on the 7th May but last night it got confused and spent the night in north 1. This morning they’re back together. This box confusion is quite common in the first few weeks after they return. I think the fault is possibly down to me of having too many boxes, too close together and all looking very similar. However it’s not a major problem and after a few mistakes they tend to work it out for themselves. Quick update; we have pairs in north 2, 3 & 5 and a single bird in south 4.
Something very odd happened last night, a lone swift tried to get back into the natural nest site under the tiles. I had them nesting there since 2005 but sadly both failed to return last year and I presumed they had both perished. However this one spent a good hour flying up to the raised tile and looking in. It gave up just as it got too dark it disappeared into the night sky. I know it’s a new bird because all 7 were back inside their boxes. I have read that on very rare occasions bird(s) will stay down in Africa and miss a year. Wouldn’t it be absolutely great if one of my original birds had returned after all this time away.
Tuesday 8th May
7am. Yesterdays glorious weather and record-breaking temperatures unfortunately didn’t translate into any record swift returns here at my colony. In fact I hardly saw a swift until late afternoon. Then just like the day before they started to gather high up, wheeling and squealing and chasing one another. By 7pm a small group of 7 were whizzing around the house. The good news is unlike Sunday, when I checked the cameras later 2 new birds were home. A single bird in north 6 and the “new bird” in north 2 was in fact its mate from last year. I first saw it yesterday morning but was worried that it might be the bird from north 5 just moving boxes, but fortunately it wasn’t. So that brings the total up to 6 out of 28, still a long way to go but heading in the right direction.
Finally I found some even better news on the Gibraltar bird blog. They’re not the quickest I’m afraid on updating their blog so this only appeared yesterday and relates back to May 1st. However it ties in nicely with all the birds seen in the UK over the bank holiday weekend.
01 May: Clear skies becoming cloudy at midday with a light shower, but clearing in the afternoon with some westerly cloud. Winds light north-westerly, becoming moderate in the afternoon. Slow raptor passage for a total of 174 Honey Buzzards, 113 Black Kites, an Egyptian Vulture, 9 Griffon Vultures, a Short-toed Eagle, a Marsh Harrier, 3 Sparrow-hawks and 2 Booted Eagles. Also seen were a heavy passage of Common Swifts, with over 2100 counted, and 1000s more heading north, 60 Swallows and 9 House Martins.
8.45am. Just checked the cameras and there’s a bird is back in south 4. That’s make it 7. A quarter of the colony is now back, that’s the first milestone reached.
Monday 7th May
7am. Most of the trees are now in full leaf and the range of colours is absolutely stunning. Eventually they’ll all turn deep green, but at the moment the countryside is a kaleidoscope of different hues. Watching from the bathroom window I can see 3 hot air balloons slowly drifting above the River Avon having just passed over the famous Clifton Suspension bridge. The sky is already a deep blue colour and it’s forecast to be another record-breaker, not bad for a bank holiday Monday!
Yesterday afternoon I saw quite a few swifts. Mostly very high up, they were wheeling and squealing in tight courtship displays. That’s where 2 swifts chase one another at very high speed. I counted at least 12 but there were probably more. Towards the end of the afternoon some came down much lower and 7 screamed round the house a few times. I was sure some of them were mine, but a check of the cameras later revealed I’ve still got only 4 back. However I shouldn’t be that disappointed. This weather is unusual and just because it’s hot doesn’t mean the swifts will behave any differently than normal. When they first arrive back they tend to gather over lakes and rivers to feed and this is exactly what they are doing. When they’re ready they’ll head back to their traditional nesting sites but at the moment most of them are still over these feeding grounds. I think the majority of swifts I saw yesterday were just passing through on their way north.
9am. A second bird has just entered north 2. Is it a new bird or the single bird from north 5 who has moved home?
Sunday 6th May
7am. Up early more in hope rather than expectation. I’ve still only got the 4 back, although I did count at least 7 high over the house yesterday. It looks like some birds from neighbouring colonies are arriving but only a trickle at the moment.
Reports from some colonies in Spain and Belgium are indicating fewer birds back than normal when compared to previous years. In Northern Spain they’ve experienced a particularly bad run of weather for most of March and April with frequent heavy rain, hailstorms and low temperatures. Further down in the south of the Iberian Peninsula the weather has also been poor with strong winds and rain. This may have had an adverse effect on their passage north and consequently delayed their arrival in these countries. The worrying thing is similar weather conditions in 2013 had a devastating effect on swift numbers. Then swifts arriving back from Africa were hit with widespread storms that resulted in a lack of flying insects for them to eat and thousands died. That is the worst case scenario and fingers crossed it won’t happen again. Hopefully they’ve just been delayed a bit longer in Africa.
1.30pm. The weather was absolutely perfect this morning and yet I didn’t see a single one. Just as I was about to give up on today 8 have just whizzed over the house. Whether they’re all mine is anyones guess.
7pm. It’s 24c and the sky is full of swifts, at least 12 possibly more. A glass of wine at the ready to enjoy the evenings entertainment.
Saturday 5th May
8am. Blue skies, not a breath of wind and 4 swifts screaming around the house – a perfect start to the weekend.
The marvellous thing about having cameras inside the boxes is that you pick up things you wouldn’t normally see. Although I saw 5 swifts whizzing around yesterday there’s still only 4 back in residence. The fifth I presume was from a neighbouring colony just passing through. What I wasn’t expecting though was to see the bird from west 5 in north 3!
My blog yesterday was rather prophetic. I talked about how long birds wait before looking for a new mate, well the answer seems to be 14 days. The bird in west 5 has paired up with the bird in north 3. I watched them all day yesterday and they kept flying up to north 3 and veering away at the last moment, classic behaviour of the resident bird showing a “new” mate where the nest is located. I wrote about the bird in north 3 in the April 24th blog. It’s the box where the eggs have been thrown out for the last 4 years. She (I’m sure it’s a female) arrived back on April 20th and the bird in west 5 (male?) on April 24th. In the past she’s had a “fling” whilst waiting for her true mate to return. When he does there’s always trouble. The interloper is always given short shrift and unceremoniously thrown out after a fierce fight, followed by the first clutch of eggs. If I’m right he’ll turn up in the next few days and it’ll all kick off. What he must think of his partner one can only imagine, but this seems to be his routine. The interloper from west 5 will be given the same treatment as all the others and undoubtedly he’ll slope back into his own box. Hopefully his mate will turn up and he’ll carry on as if nothing has happened. None of this behaviour would be seen without the aid of the cameras, it’s absolutely fascinating to see what’s actually going on.
Friday 4th May
Well last night was a complete anti-climax. I was fully expecting to see some new arrivals when I checked my cameras. However my hopes were completely dashed when all I found was the original 4. To say I was a tad disappointed would be an understatement. What fooled me was their behaviour. They were whizzing around the house like they were new birds that had just returned.
One thing nobody really knows is how long they wait for their mates to return. One of my birds has been back 14 days, two 10 days and one 8 days. A certain time period must trigger inside them for them to give up on their old mate and look for another. The textbooks say that they tend to look for new mates after 2 or 3 weeks of waiting. It’s getting close to that.\, but I’m hoping they’ll stay faithful for a little longer, at least until the bank holiday.
9am. Great news. Just seen 5 whizzing around the house, so this time I can’t be wrong!
Thursday 3rd May
Whilst I’m waiting for the rest of the swifts to arrive I’ll give you a quick update on the other garden birds.
Unfortunately it’s not been that successful for some. It looks like both the robin and wren have both lost their clutches. Prime suspects are the jays, magpies, grey squirrels and rats, not to mention cats who all regularly patrol the garden. Last week both the robins and wrens were carrying mealworms back to their nests but this has now stopped. I’ve also recently seen the male robin allofeeding the female which is a sure sign she’s preparing to lay again.
Better news for the blackbirds, they’ve nested in next doors bay tree and are still OK.
Both pairs of blue and great tits are still going in and out of their respective boxes. I’m not sure if they are still on eggs or very small young difficult to tell without opening the box which I won’t do.
The hedge sparrow has chicks somewhere deep inside a large leylandii hedge that borders my garden on the left.
The pair of bullfinches are still here but I’ve no idea where they are nesting. The come in several times a day to feed on the bird-table and then disappear into the thick hawthorn hedgerows that abuts several gardens just down the hill.
No sign of the goldfinches nesting either, although just like the bullfinches they are regular visitors to the bird table. In the winter I had up to 20 visiting but this has now shrunk to about 5 or 6.
And finally, a pair of collared doves and wood pigeons are often seen wandering around on the lawn, but again I’ve not seen them nest building. In the past they’ve nested in one of the larger conifers in the garden so that still might happen in the next few weeks.
11am. Dare I hope but three swifts have just screamed over the house. Are they new birds that have just arrived? Only time will tell, can’t wait to check the cameras tonight.
3pm. The group is now up to 4. I’m delighted to report that I’ve just seen the first proper low level screaming party of the season.
Wednesday 2nd May
There has been a sprinkling of birds returning all across the UK, but the numbers are low, nothing to write home about yet. Each morning I check all the birding hot-spots across Europe for any indications of migrating swifts. At the moment they are all pretty quiet, most are only reporting a handful coming through. To conclude I reckon the vast majority of birds must still be down in North-West Africa. But don’t despair, for them it’s a just a short hop up the west coast and they’ll be here, 5 to 7 days at the very most.
Tuesday 1st May
A tad on the chilly side, however a bright sunny morning has welcomed in the start of the new month. This is it, the time when our swifts return. Their urge to migrate will now be uncontrollable, their desire insatiable, instinct drives them on relentlessly. No matter what the weather does nothing will stop them now. Next weekend looks really good and that’s when we’ll see an explosion of activity all across the country all at once.
Last night I heard my first scream. Two swifts circled over the house at 7pm for about 30 minutes. I wondered if they might be new birds just arrived. They gradually got lower and lower and with a muted scream and final low level whiz around the house, one disappeared back into north 5 and the other west 5. They weren’t new arrivals, they’ve been here since the April 24th and were just returning after being out feeding all day.
Monday 30th April
It feels more like February than the last day of April. I won’t be sorry to see the back of it, apart from a few nice days it’s been another poor month. In fact my overriding memory of both March and April was how grey and cold they both were. However being an eternal optimist I like to think things will eventually even themselves out. So based on this theory we should get a cracking May and June, now wouldn’t that be nice!
Yesterday Portland Bird Observatory record their first arrival of swifts, only 25 but it’s a start. More and more seem to be gathering over Chew Valley Lake so much so that the local Chew birder, Rich Andrews, have started to use the term “loads” with regard to their numbers. Now I’m no expert on local terminology but I suspect loads means hundreds, possible thousands,
Sunday 29th April
To my horror yesterday I witnessed a bumblebee enter one of my boxes and instead of coming straight out stayed inside. On further examination I found out it was a queen Tree Bumblebee. It’s been a decade since the Tree Bumblebee first arrived in the UK under its own steam, and in that time it has spread rapidly. They nest in tree holes and other suitable structures including empty bird boxes.They aren’t that aggressive but will defend their nest against all intruders. The queen lays eggs in spring. These hatch into worker bees, which are all female. The workers bring nectar and pollen to the nest to feed future broods of young. Sting-less males hatch during late spring and early summer, and mate with new queens. The new queens hibernate in autumn and winter, emerging the next spring to start a new generation of bees.
The swifts who nest in that box will have no chance of ousting her or her brood. So I decided I must take immediate action to remove her before they return. It took me about 1 hour but eventually I managed it. I waited until she left to go on a foraging trip and quickly opened the box and removed the nest. Luckily none of her eggs had hatched so I had no guard bees to contend with. I then blocked up the entrance hole. When she arrived back she found her access blocked and eventually gave up and flew off. It was regrettable that I had to take the action I did but at least she can start up again somewhere else – hopefully though, not in another one of my boxes!
Saturday 28th April
What a topsy-turvy spring we’re having. Last week it was 23c in Bristol, yesterday it was 9c. There had been reports of 200 swifts seen over the Chew Valley lake so we thought it was worth a visit. When we got there it was raining so hard the water looked like it was boiling. There were hundreds of birds there, feeding just a few feet above the water. The vast majority were swallows and martins, however there was also a good handful of swifts as well. Still not managed to hear the cuckoo yet, perhaps next week.
Normally the last couple of days in April is when swift activity picks up across the UK. However looking at the long range forecast it looks poor right up to next Thursday. I don’t think will see much action until next weekend at the very earliest. I hope I’m proved wrong.
Last night a fourth swift returned to nest box 2 north. That takes the total up to 4.
To see the location of all 25 boxes click on link – swift nest box location on our house – highlighted in red at the top of the page.
Friday 27th April
More swifts are arriving at Chew Valley despite the weather. Over 200 were spotted yesterday over the lake.
I finally saw my first swift in flight last night. The bird that arrived on the 20th regularly returns home around 7pm, so I thought I’d keep an eye out for it. Sure enough right on cue I saw it, just a speck at first in the sky coming in from the south. It must have been at least 200 feet up. Then as it approached the house it suddenly dropped and entered the box in a flash. It was all over in less than a minute. No noise, no fuss, no wonder I hadn’t seen it before now!
Thursday 26th April
Yesterday was St Mark’s Day and we spent most of it at the RSPB Ham Wall nature reserve. We were hoping we might see our first swift in flight, and if we were really lucky hear our first cuckoo of the year at the same time. Alas both eluded us and a strong chilly north-westerly didn’t help matters either. However there were plenty of other birds about so we still had a great time. Notable ticks were a bittern, 2 cranes, half a dozen marsh harriers, artic tern and a whitethroat. An abundance of little songsters were also present in the scrub, mostly willow warbler, reed warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap which made the walk around the reserve quite tuneful. There were also thousands of St Mark’s flies (Bibio marci) buzzing around. They are so called because they tend to emerge on or around the April 25th (St Mark’s Day) every year – perfect timing for our hungry migrants.
No more swift arrivals at home, so still on 3. Strange thing is I’ve not actually seen any in flight yet. Seeing them in their boxes is not quite the same thing as seeing and hearing them screaming overhead. I’ve still got that pleasure to come.
Wednesday 25th April
Just when I had given up hope for the day something happens when you least expect it. Yesterday weather was poor, quite windy with frequent showers on and off all day and by 6pm the rain really had started to bucket down. Definitely not good swift weather at all. The weather was so bad I was starting to get concerned about my lone swift. It normally returns back around 7pm so when it arrived home right on cue I was mightily relieved. I was just about to shut down all the cameras for the night when the football started up, so everything got left on. You can image my surprise when I went to turn it off at halftime only to find two more swifts had just arrived back. One in nest box 5 west and the other in nest box 5 north. They both were completely sodden, but otherwise looked OK. That brought the returning total up to 3, out of a possible 28.
However the accepted mortality rate among swifts is 1 in 6, so out of my 28 birds last year I expect 4-5 won’t make it back. If it’s just a single bird out of a pair that’s not too bad. The remaining bird will soon find another mate and the box will continue to be used and the colony numbers will remain the same. However sometimes both birds don’t make it back and that’s what happened last year when my roof tile pair failed to return. They arrived in 2005 and were the reason I started box building and everything else that followed after that. Sorry for being a bit sentimental, but out of all the pairs I’ve had over the years they meant the most to me and I really do miss them a lot.
Tuesday 24th April
Whilst I wait for the others to return it gives the opportunity to tell you a little about our swift in nest box 3 north. It’s impossible to tell the sexes apart so I have no idea whether it’s the male or female who is back. Some research has been done on this subject mainly by the Erich Kaiser, a German swift expert. To mis-quote a well known lager catchphrase “he’s probably the best swift expert in the world” – sorry. He’s been studying swifts all his life and has over 60 pairs nesting in his house. He has written numerous scientific papers, several books and appeared on countless German TV programmes. I met him once a few years ago. We had a long conservation, although he did most of the talking. So much knowledge, I could have spent days just listening to him. He discovered that it’s a mixture of both sexes who arrive back first.
Now to get back to my bird, I think it’s a female. Why you ask? Something very strange occurs with this pair. One bird (female?) has returned at least a week before the other. When the second bird (male?) returns they pair up immediately and 2 weeks later the eggs are laid. The weird thing is as soon as the last egg is laid the male immediately throws them all out. He’s done this for the last 4 years. I have no idea why he does this. I assume that he thinks the female has been unfaithful and he’s not 100% sure of the parental make-up of the eggs. I don’t really know. I was so upset the first time he did this but I now realise it’s part of his routine. A week or so later they always lay a second clutch. These eggs are never rejected. They are both excellent parents, providing plenty of food for their young, so much so I once placed an orphaned chick in their nest and they’ve raised that one as well as their own.
I’ve found this video link of Erich which will give you an idea of his work. Unfortunately it’s in German but you’ll get the gist. In it he talks about tiny geo-locators which he attaches to their legs, it’s these that has helped him identify which sex returns first. Enjoy.
Monday 23rd April
Still only the one swift back so far. However the good news is a large group of 40 plus arrived at Chew Valley lake yesterday. That’s more like it! When they first return they tend to gather over the lake for a few days before heading back to their traditional nesting sites. It gives them the opportunity to gorge on the millions of flies that are just hatching. Sometimes so many of them emerge together that they looks like wispy columns of smoke rising up from the reed-beds. It’s no wonder they go there first. Once they’ve regained their strength they’ll head back out. Fingers crossed a few of them might be mine.
Sunday 22nd April
What a strange day weather-wise yesterday, beautiful sunny morning, then rain, then back to really hot sunshine and the finale, a spectacular thunder and lightening display to end the day. I spent the best part of it in the garden, neck craned towards the sky, watching and listening out. It seemed perfect and I was expecting more swifts to arrive at any moment. Alas not a single one turned up except our lone swift who sneaked back into its box just before the storm arrived. Still I did manage to get quite a bit of gardening done, so it wasn’t a complete write-off.
Looking at the local birding blogs from around Avon a few swifts were spotted yesterday, so their numbers are gradually increasing. However my attention is focused mainly on the Chew Valley lake birding blog. When they report seeing hundreds, sometimes thousands, then I know they really are back. Yesterday only one was spotted there – was it my bird out on a feeding foray?
Saturday 21st April
Up early this morning so not to miss any action, however nothing yet to report. Our single swift is still tucked up in bed!
We had three lovely days down in Devon, wall to wall sunshine and really warm. Surprising the trees were still quite bare when compared to those in Bristol, I reckon at least a week or 10 days behind. Still it made identifying the birds much easier. There wasn’t as many migrants back as I was expecting, never-the-less there were a few blackcaps and chiffchaffs busting a gut singing. However the River Otter kingfisher escaped my gaze again, it took me till October to see him last year! One thing that really did lift my spirits though was the number of skylarks singing. There must have been 5 or 6 singing from dawn to dusk near our caravan at Branscombe, it reminded me of my childhood – sweet memories.
Friday 20th April
8pm. Just checked my cameras and to my surprise my first swift has returned home. It’s in nest box 3 North, beats my record by at least one day set in 2014 on April 21st.
Sorry about my absence but the weather was too good not to take advantage of so we slipped down to Devon for a few days birding – more tomorrow.
Wednesday 18th April
On Monday over 300 swifts were spotted flying over the Straits of Gibraltar. The first vanguard to arrive back and heading our way. For once the weathers set fair and more importantly, we have a helpful southerly wind blowing in our direction. All the indications suggest a very early return. if I was a betting man someone in the UK will be seeing their first swifts by the weekend. My record is April 21st- can it be beaten!
Tuesday 17th April
One of the things I get asked frequently is how do we know their exact migration routes. The answer is all down to tiny geo-locators. These are fitted onto the backs of adult swifts in late July just before they leave. They don’t seem to cause the birds any harm apart from the inconvenience of having to be caught twice, once to fit it and again the following year to remove it. The data retrieved from the geo-locators has been a revelation. Not only do we know the exact routes to and from Africa, but also their wintering grounds as well. I’ve attached this BTO link so you can see for yourself. Going on past data our birds should now be crossing the Gulf of Guinea heading for Liberia on the west coast.
Monday 16th April
Saturdays welcome warmth bought out a flurry of flying insects. I saw my first Brimstone butterfly of the year, its wings a beautiful powder yellow. I also saw a Red Admiral. Along with the butterflies quite a few Red Mason bees hatched from my bee hotel. It’s the males who come out first. They hang about close to the hotel, returning every now and then to check if any females are about to emerge. It’s a case of first come first served, as they males jostle with each other to secure the best location. As soon as a female starts to come out it is immediately mated with, sometimes even before she’s left her chamber. One thing I have noticed is a lack of the large Garden Bumblebee. These are the great big black and yellow bees that buzz noisily around the flowerbeds this time of year, sometimes bumping with a loud bang into a window. It’s only the queens that survive the winter, emerging from their hibernation holes on warm days. I fear this very cold March may have had a devastating affect on their numbers.
Sunday 15th April
Finally the blackbird has just started nest building, better late than never! The blue and great tits have taken up home in two of my boxes, whereas the robin and wren are nesting a few gardens away. I think they must be all on eggs now as I only ever see one of a pair at a time.
Saturday 14th April
I’ve been converting a couple of spare boxes into twin compartment ones. They’ve been hanging about in the garage for a while and I thought it’s time to put them to good use. It was a bit on the fiddly side to do, but in the end I managed to do it. I’m hoping that someone coming to one of our open days will take them away and give them a good home.
Friday 13th April
I keep a close watch on the Gibraltar bird reports. It’s here where our swifts cross on their way back home. A few were spotted on April 6th but that’s about it. When thousands start crossing that’s when we can get excited, their migration will be in full swing and about a week later they should be with us. The only thing that’ll hold them up is a strong easterly wind which will keep them down in Spain. However the good news is next week the wind is forecast to be blowing up from southern Spain. Not only will it bring us some much needed warmer weather, but more than likely our first swifts as well. It’s the perfect direction for them. I have a feeling by the end of next week some will be back and if I’m right it’ll be one of their earliest returns ever. April 21st is my record!
Thursday 12th April
Yesterday we re-visited a roofing project to save a large swift colony near Castle Combe. Back in January we were contacted by the owner for advice on how to protect the existing nests whilst his roof is felted. The swifts are nesting at the back of the first tile where the rafters joined the outside wall, creating small individual nesting compartments. There must have been at least 20 old nests so we recommended that this area remained felt-free and the original tiles be replaced in exactly the same position. However it also made sense to clean out all the unused compartments and make them into potential nest-sites at the same time. Only the north and west sides were done now, and if this work proves successful, the same procedure will be repeated on the east and south sides in the autumn when the rest of the roof is done.
The fantastic news is that all the existing nests have been saved along with another 50 or so new ones. The LH photo is of me in the middle, the owner to the right and the roofer to the left. The RH photo below shows the the finished job. The second row of tiles has been raised slightly to allow access to over 75 nesting compartments. As Eric would say to Ernie “you can hardly see the join”. We’ve been invited back when the birds have returned, so fingers crossed I’ll be able to report back even better news then, can’t wait!
Wednesday 11th April
The dawn chorus is getting louder and louder each day. The route I take to the paper shop takes me close to the banks of the River Trym, near Sea Mills. It’s hardly a river more like a big stream, rarely over 10 feet wide and no more than 2 feet deep. The River Trym is a short river, some 4.5 miles (7.2 km) in length, which rises in Filton, South Gloucestershire, England. The upper reaches are culverted, some underground, through mostly urban landscapes, but once it emerges into the open it flows through a nature reserve and city parks before joining the tidal River Avon at Sea Mills. The 18th-century water mills near the mouth that gave the area its name. It’s banks are lined with the remains of an old wood, with plenty of untidy scrub underneath. Ideal habitat for wildlife, especially birds. Each morning I try to identify as many songsters as possible. Regular singers include blue, coal, great and long tailed tit, robin, wren, blackbird, song thrush, gold, green and chaffinch, blackcap, chiffchaff, green and greater spotted woodpecker, hedge and house sparrow. The most tuneful without doubt being the blackcap, blackbird and song thrush. Attached is a lovely little video, recored a few years ago which gives you a flavour of the place.
Tuesday 10th April
Another influx of toads has just arrived, last night around 10pm I counted at least 8 breeding pairs in the pond. That’s almost a month after the first toad spawn was laid. The trouble with these late spawner’s is the tadpoles from earlier batches have now hatched and are extremely ravenous, eating anything and everything they come across. If they find this spawn they’ll devour it before it has chance to hatch. I remove some of it for safety and return it once it has. Interestingly, whilst I was checking on what was happening in the pond I came across several newts who had come out of the water and were actively hunting around the edges. I saw a great crested newt with a huge worm in its mouth. I reckon they must do this most nights, I’ll have to be careful I don’t tread on any when I’m out checking.
Monday 9th April
On April 4th a solitary swift was seen over Seaforth, Lancashire and a day later another (the same one?) was spotted over Northern Ireland. Increasing numbers of swallows, sand and house martins arriving every day now, although I’ve not seen any yet. Must check out Chew Valley Lake sometime this week, might even hear the first cuckoo if I’m really lucky.
Sunday 8th April
At last, a few days of decent weather which I took full advantage of to put up the last of my boxes. That makes a grand total of 25 – my wife says I’m bonkers! 7 are facing north, 6 facing south and 12 facing west. Last year was a really good year with 14 out of 17 occupied, hence the new additions this year. That’s it now, no more room for any more. Now that’s done I’m turning my attention towards the heavens. I normally hear them first before I actually see them. I’ll be listening out now for that familiar high pitched scream to tell me they’re back again. The earliest they’ve ever returned was on April 21st in 2014. Almost there – getting excited now!
Saturday 7th April
Whilst I was becoming friends with the young robin in the winter of 2016/17, a pied wagtail, male blackbird and wren also got in the on act. As I fed the robin they would hang about in the background hoping to pick up any scraps. As time went on they became bolder and bolder, coming closer and closer until eventually all four would be waiting in a group to be fed. There was a distinct pecking order in place. The blackbird was first to feed, followed by the wagtail, then came the robin and finally right at the bottom was the wren. I continued feeding them all until the robin had completed it’s first brood around mid May 2017. Over the coming weeks they all slowly disappeared back into the garden and surrounding countryside. The marvellous thing is when I started feeding my old friend the robin again, within a few days they were all back as well. Only this time the wren had bought along its mate so now there is a group of five hungry mouths to feed. Whilst the blackbird and wagtail are still a little nervous of me, the wren regularly lands on my hand only to be immediately chased away by the robin. A bit of jealously creeping in I think! So I reckon that four of them are at least 2 years old if not more.
Friday 6th April
In December 2016 a young robin started to follow me around the garden. I bought some live meal worms and over the coming weeks it became tamer and tamer. Eventually even alighting on my hand to pick up a juicy worm. This carried on all winter and into early spring and all through it’s first brood. During that time it returned every few minutes to take back food for it’s chicks. I stopped feeding it worms after the first brood had fledged in May and our time together became less and less. You can image my absolute delight when last December just before Christmas, out of nowhere a robin flew up to me and landed on my shoulder. It couldn’t be could it? Yes it was, my old friend had returned. Every morning he (I know it’s a male now as I’ve seen him feeding its mate) comes and waits by the back door. Sitting on the windowsill looking in until I get up. When I’m busy in the garden he even flies up to me and lands momentarily on my head just to to let me know he’s about. He sometimes brings his mate to see me, but she’s a little more nervous and won’t land on my hand, preferring to pick up worms on the ground. I think she’s got a nest somewhere but I’ve not sure where. Looks like I’ve got to carry on feeding them for a while yet!
Thursday 5th April
A fantastic start to the day, clear blue skies and not a breathe of wind, and to top it all I heard my first chiffchaff singing, can’t get much better than that!
A question I get asked quite often is how long do our garden birds live for. I was recently given the book The Life of a Robin by David Lack and being confined indoors because of the weather found myself engrossed in it. I found it a fascinating detailed read on one of our most loved garden birds. I thought I knew quite a lot about robins until I read this book. Packed full of interesting facts such as some migrate whilst others don’t, generally it’s the males that sing but sometimes a female will as well. It’s only the British robin that is friendly, European robins are very shy and nervous.
Through his extensive research work David Lack found that whilst some robins can live for more than 10 years their average life expectancy was only around 2 1/2 years. Well over 60% die within the first year. He found this mortality rate was very similar to our other small garden birds. So that brings me back to the original question. The birds we see regularly in are gardens, although we see the same species year in year out the likelihood that it’s the same bird is very small. Perhaps if we’re very lucky they’ll stay with us for 2 or 3 years, but probably not much more than that. That brings me on to the story of my own robin which I’ll tell you about tomorrow.
Wednesday 4th April
Strangely even though it’s been a long cold winter it been my best for recording different types of garden birds. Since the New Year I’ve seen 30 difference species, the best start to a year by some distance. Notably ticks were the linnet, nuthatch, a pair of bullfinches and dozens of fieldfare.
Nest building has got of to a very slow start. The robin built a nest in the last week of March but this has subsequently been predated by something, probably rats. The blue tit has just started building, taking back mouthfuls of moss into their box on the conifer tree. Apart from that no other activity at all, very unusual as the blackbird and hedge sparrow are normally the first to begin.
Tuesday 3rd April
The first frog spawn appeared on February 20th followed by the first toad spawn on March 13th. Unfortunately all the spawn from these two batches perished due to the severe winter weather, however the good news is a second batch of both frog and toad spawn appeared just after the second cold snap and this has survived. The pond is now full of tiny black tadpoles. Just as well there’s thousands of them, they’re right at the bottom of the food chain and everything eats them. More and more newts are returning each day. By far the most numerous are the palmate’s with over several dozen counted, followed by a handful of smooth and 3 great crested (2 males and 1 female). Those poor old tadpoles better watch out! My garden birds tomorrow.
Monday 2nd April
In defiance of this awful weather, the first swallows and house martins of the year were seen over Portland Bird Observatory yesterday. For me, I really look forward to hearing the first chiffchaff singing, not the most tuneful of songs I admit but beautiful never-the-less. A sure sign that Spring has finally sprung! Last year it was on March 25th so there’re already over a week late. Tomorrow I’ll update you on what’s been happening in the garden.
Sunday 1st April
The long wait is almost over, only a few more weeks to go and they’ll be home. The earliest they’ve ever returned was on April 21st in 2014, however I think that was a one-off and not likely to be repeated soon. Usually I expect them back sometime during the last week of April or at the very latest the first few days of May. Even though this year’s spring has been very cold it shouldn’t affect their due date. What will though is a strong persistent easterly wind that starts up around mid-April and carries on for several weeks. If that happens it’ll hold them up somewhere in North Africa or Southern Spain until it changes direction.
Wednesday 28th March
It’s that time of year again. As the weather was reasonably OK on Monday I decided to start putting up my boxes again. I managed to get 18 up before it got too dark, only another 7 to go, what must the neighbours think! I’ve added 6 new zeist boxes (above the small side window) to fill in the gap between the original 2 boxes located either end. Following the success of last years trial they’re all painted black inside. I’ve alternated the designs as you can see and for the eagled eyed, I’ve also added a small black number (6 -11) to the lhs of each hole. Why I hear you ask. Well I thought by alternating the boxes and adding a unique number might help them (swifts) recognise their own particular box. In the past I’ve had birds enter the wrong box by mistake, mainly because they all look so similar. So I’ve tried to make these boxes look as individual as I possibly can within reason, that’s the theory anyway. Now it’s up to the swifts to prove me right or wrong.
Thursday 15th March
A little something to warm ones heart in anticipation of what we hope to see in a few weeks time. Our friend and fellow swift enthusiast, Mark Smyth has just sent me today this youtube clip of swifts screaming over the wailing wall in Jerusalem. Click on this link to see and hear them in all their glory www.youtube.com/watch?v=IS45PVBgMTA&feature=youtu.be. Enjoy.
Saturday 27th January
10 years ago I built 10 swift boxes and based their size on box dimensions that were recommended at the time. Their dimensions were 10″ H x 17″ L x 10″ W. Each was built with a sloping roof so it tapers neatly under my eaves. However I’ve just seen nest sites in Castle Combe that were barely 3″ deep under the tiles and this got me thinking about my large boxes. Could I make use of the “spare” headroom inside each, and how easy would it be to do?
So I decided to add a couple of false floors to my 2 corner boxes. They’ve always been my most popular boxes and have been occupied since 2012 & 2013 respectively. They also receive the most attention from prospecting newcomers, which makes them ideal candidates for a new trial.
The new dimensions of each top compartment is 4.5″ H x 12″L X 10″W. They also have the slope of the roof to accommodate within their design which further reduces its overall size. Which starts at 2″ H to reach it”s maximum of 4.5″ H over the nest cup. The finishing touch was to paint all the interiors matt black. Outside I’ve added gripper rungs immediately below each entrance hole to give the swifts something to hold onto to when prospecting. The new dimensions of the bottom compartment is now 5.5″H (10″H over the nest cup) x 17″ L x 10″ W.
The reason I didn’t extend the false floors the whole length is both have cameras permanently fasten in that position and it was just too awkward to move them. So I left the cameras where they were so I can still view the nest cups below and adjusted the length of the false floors accordingly.
As I’ve got another 8 boxes of similar size I could easily double my nest sites without too much bother if this proves successful, or more than likely, gradually replace all of them for smaller boxes as they wear out. Juries still out on this at the moment.
Tuesday 9th January
Apart from our swift colony, another success from last year was our swift/garden open days which raised almost £1000 for good causes – see photos below. It was so popular that we’ve decided to do it again this year.
Diary Date – Come and See our Swifts & Wildlife-friendly Garden
We will be holding a UKSAW Swift/Open Garden morning on Saturday 23rd June 10-1pm (Adults £3. Children Free) as part of the United Kingdom Swift Awareness Week (UKSAW). You will have the opportunity to learn about swifts and hopefully see some in action plus Live video from inside our swift nest boxes. You can wander around our wildlife friendly garden and buy plants, swift cards, booklets and classic Devil Birds DVD. We may also have a few home-made swift boxes for sale. All proceeds donated to swift rehabilitation. If Bristol is too far, then please support one of the local UKSAW events nearer you being held between 16th-23rd June – see this link for details.
On Sunday 24th June – 2-5pm we will be holding an NGS Swift/Open Garden afternoon (Adults £3. Children Free). It will be the same as the day before, except that the entrance fee will be donated to NGS selected charities and plant, card and DVD sales towards swift rehabilitation. See this link for details.
For more details please email us via the Contact page.
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