Bristol Swifts 2019 Blog

This blog will be a daily record of swift activity seen around our house in Bristol and will begin again in April.

To find out about what happened last year, click on my Swift Blog 2018. We have 25 nesting boxes fitted under the eaves, for their exact location see Swift nest box location on our houseDetails of our Swift Open Garden day in June can be found at the bottom of the page.

Thursday 25th April

We spent yesterday morning at Chew Valley Lake. Not a brilliant day for bird-watching as it started to rain the moment we arrived. In fact I say the highlight of the visit was fish and chips in the picnic cafe!  However we did see quite a few different birds – 1 egyptian goose, lots of tufted duck, coots, moorhens, mallards and canada geese. In lesser numbers and skulking about in the underground trying to get out of rain were chiffchaffs, blackcaps, willow warblers, reed buntings and cetti’s warblers. We didn’t see any swifts or for that matter any swallows or martins. I think it was just too wet for them. However I’ve just checked the Avon birding blog and someone spotted a single swift at Chew yesterday. Perhaps it arrived in the afternoon? Still that’s a good sign the first swift back at Chew.

Wednesday 24th April

In the last couple of days the wind over Gibraltar has been blowing from a westerly direction and virtually all migration has ceased. A swift takes between 3 -5 days to make the journey from Southern Spain to the UK.  Based on those figures it’s highly unlikely we’ll see any big influx of swifts in the next few days. If we’re lucky maybe this weekend, more likely around the beginning of May.

Chew Valley Lake is a good place to see swifts. They normally gather there in huge numbers from late April to early May. I think I’ll take a trip out there today just to have a look. If I don’t see any swifts I might be lucky enough to hear a cuckoo.

Tuesday 23rd April

Over the weekend I received a lovely email from Steve about his swift colony in Chard in Somerset. His colony was originally under the eaves of his house but unfortunately when the roof was insulated many years ago their nesting sites were lost. Fortunately they didn’t have far to move and re-located to the garage at the bottom of his garden. Under the pan tiles of the old garage roof they found plenty of suitable nesting sites. When the garage roof was retiled about six years ago rather than risk displacing them again Steve built 18 nest boxes between the wall plate and the rafters. Since then his colony has been increasing in numbers, with more boxes occupied each year. Last year 15 boxes were visited and at least 9 chicks, possibly 12 fledged. I particularly like the photo of the 3 amigos looking out.

Monday 22nd April

Just because the weathers hot doesn’t mean the swifts should be here. I know I shouldn’t be disappointed it’s still very early days for them, but I am a little. I really did think one would be back by now. I should have taken more notice of what’s happening in Gibraltar, that’s where most our birds come from. At the moment there’s still only a handful crossing the Straits each day. That number needs to be in the hundreds or thousands. The swifts we’re seeing in Southern Europe I don’t think are ours. Most of them came via the Eastern migration route which is not the route our birds use. Still I shall be outside again today looking and listening just in case.

I think it’s important to grow flowers that pollinators feed on. The more insects there are the more wildlife you’ll attract. I can’t remember another April where I’ve seen so many insects buzzing around. Unfortunately I’m not very good at identifying what most of them are. It will give me something to do whilst I’m waiting for my birds to return.

Forget-me-nots, Everlasting Wallflowers and Crab Apple flowers in garden yesterday

Sunday 21st April

Nothing yesterday despite the near perfect conditions. It was even hotter in the garden than Friday and reached over 25C by mid-afternoon. Still the wonderful weather brought out a myriad of other wildlife to look at. Butterflies were out in some numbers, including the small tortoiseshell, holly blue, orange tip, speckled wood, red admiral, brimstone, comma and small white. The first blue damsel fly emerged from the pond. A very late pair of toads in amplexus arrived yesterday which surprised me. God knows where they’ve been, the others finished breeding about a month ago!

The blue tit and both great tit pairs are sitting on eggs. The wren has built a beautiful domed nest right in the centre of a faggot of pea sticks. I had temporarily stored them under the apple tree ready to use. Luckily I saw it just before I went to pull them out! One unusual visitor to our garden was a zebra finch. It’s quite tame and spent several hours with us. I tried to catch it as I don’t think it will survive long, but it unfortunately it flew away.

Saturday 20th April

Up at 6am this morning just in case one tries to sneak in early!

What a fantastic day yesterday, At one point it reached 24C in our back garden. I spent the whole day outside just looking and listening, didn’t come in till gone 8pm. Despite the near perfect swift weather no sign of any swifts, maybe today?

There were numerous sightings of swifts in the UK yesterday. A handful were seen in Devon near the River Teign, one spotted over Western-Super-Mare in Somerset and three in Caton Lancashire.

I also monitor the Trektellen birding website which shows a huge increase in swift numbers over the last couple of days. Swifts have now been seen in the following countries – France, Spain, Belgium and Holland.

Friday 19th April

As I eagerly await the arrival of my swifts, hopefully sometime this weekend here’s a brief summary of what happened at Swift House last year.

In April 2018 I increased the number of boxes from 17 to 25. I wanted to have plenty of spare boxes available, as 14 out of the 17 were occupied in 2017.

On April 20th my first bird arrived back, beating the old record by 5 days. By the end of the first week in May another 6 had joined it. Then nothing. Bad weather on their migration route held the rest up. It took another 2 weeks before any more arrived. By that time some of the early birds had paired up with one-another. Trouble erupted when the old mates entered their boxes and saw what had happened. Two whole clutches of eggs were thrown out, along with the interlopers. A couple of days of pandemonium followed before calm finally returned to the colony.

The fine weather in May continued into June and it got warmer and warmer. Due to the fine weather more and more swifts arrived. By the middle of the month the number of breeding pairs had increased to 15 – up by 4 on 2017. Joining them were another 2 non-breeding pairs and half a dozen single birds. At one point all 25 boxes were occupied.

July was even hotter than June and the swifts took full advantage of it. Their activity around the house was spectacular with screaming parties of up to 20 whizzing around. Unfortunately a male sparrowhawk also noticed this activity. A record number of eggs were laid – 35 out of which 31 hatched. Food was so abundant that we only lost 2 small chicks all season. The sparrowhawk returned from time to time and managed to catch a couple of adult swifts, one unfortunately from a breeding pair. Luckily I managed to foster one of its chicks into another box, leaving the single adult to raise the remaining chick. Both chicks fledged successfully. As July came to an end more and more chicks started to fledge and as they went so did some of the adults. Tragically this included a first time breeding pair who upped and left their two-week-old chicks behind. One died before I had chance to intervene, the other I tried to foster but in the end ended up having to hand-rear it. We named it Jack and he fledged on August 28th.

The last 2 adults left on August 16th. Their stay with me had been a few days shy of 4 months.

Overall 2018 was a super season, no doubt helped by the exceptional summer weather. We had spectacular activity around the house virtually everyday from mid-May to the end of July. The number of breeding pairs increased to 15 and they produced a record number of fledglings 29 – that’s 9 up on 2017’s total.

Thursday 18th April

The chap from Crumlin (see Tuesday 9th blog) emailed to say his first swift arrived home yesterday morning. After receiving his email I spent all yesterday scanning the skies hoping. I even checked my cameras at 10pm just in case one sneaked in. Alas nothing to report except a couple of spiders! However I’m still fairly confident one will arrive this weekend. The weather conditions are going to be perfect with warm air coming all the way up from Spain. One of the birding blogs I’m reading daily is the one from Chew Valley Lake. They’ve not reported any sightings yet, so I think I’ve got a little longer to wait. However Portland Bill recored a few coming in yesterday, so you never know I might get lucky.

Wednesday 17th April

A huge movement of swifts into Eastern Europe yesterday. It looks like they took full advantage of a change in wind direction. Over 5000 arrived at the Dunes de Prunete in Corsica.  Further north and closer to us 125 were spotted at Breskins in Holland. That’s a well known birding hot-spot on the Dutch coast near the border with Belgium. I expect more and more will arrive here in the coming days, whether they make the short hop across the channel remains to be seen. According to the latest Birdguide report only 11 or so sighted in the UK so far. Still only a trickle of swifts crossing the Straits of Gibraltar at the moment.

Tuesday 16th April

It’s rather damp and overcast here in Bristol this morning. However the overnight rain seems to have pepped the birds up. The woods near me are full of songsters. There must have been at least a dozen chiffchaffs and blackcaps singing. Accompanying them were blackbirds, song thrushes, robins and wrens and on the drums a lone greater spotted woodpecker. Absolutely magical. Even better was the fact that pesky cold north-easterly has stopped blowing. Tomorrow the wind is set to move around to a more south-easterly direction heralding warmer weather. There’s  a steady flow of swallows and martins arriving at Portland. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two fly overhead today.

I’ve just been sent this slow motion video clip from China of swifts. To me they sound a little like whales singing.  Personally I prefer their high pitch screams over this slowed down version. Just thought you might be interested to hear it for yourselves.

5pm.  Hooray I’ve seen my first swallows of the year. Two have just flown over the house heading north.

Monday 15th April

Amnonn Hahn the swift man from Israel has just sent this video clip of swifts fighting inside one of his boxes.

Once a box has been chosen by a pair it will be defended vigorously. Any intruder who enters an occupied box risks conflict. Fights can be quite vicious and can often lead to injury or even death in extreme circumstances. They can also go on for some considerable time, over 6 hours is not uncommon. Luckily this fight only lasted 12 minutes and ended when the intruder was unceremoniously kicked out by the resident bird.

Sunday 14th April

I’ve just had a quick look at the long range weather forecast for next week and it’s looking really promising. This cold north-easterly wind we’ve had for some days now is going to shift to a more south-easterly direction. Around mid-week it will be pulling up warm air from central Europe and by the weekend temperatures in the UK should be in the low 20’s. A north-easterly is not a good direction for our swifts. It makes their migration really hard and many choose not to come, preferring to wait until it changes direction. Sometimes this can lead to massive hold up’s just like it did last year. In 2018 the first wave of swifts arrived in late April, but a north-easterly took over and there was a long delay of several weeks before the rest turned up. Looking at next weekends forecast I’m fairly optimistic I might see my first swift back. Can’t wait!

Saturday 13th April

I’ve spent the last few days gardening. It’s been quite sunny here in Bristol although the easterly wind had a keen edge, not the temperature to linger about in. I’ve been digging over the flower beds ready for the NGS open day in June. Even though it seems such a long time away it’s amazing how quickly plants grow this time of year. I grow most of my own plants as it helps keeps the cost down. The back garden looks like a mini garden centre at the moment with hundreds of small pots and seed trays dotted about. Anyway the reason I’m telling you this is it gives me the opportunity to be outside. When I’m gardening one ear is tuned into the general background garden noise, blackbirds, robins and the like. The other ear has a far more important role, it’s listening out for swifts. It’s waiting for that unmistakeable scream. It’s so familiar with the sound it can pick up the faintest scream from miles aways. It’s much more sensitive than ones eyes and more often than not I hear the first swift before I actually see them.

Friday 12th April

I thought you might like to find out about how Lester Hartmann is getting with his new box building venture. A quick recap. Lester is an experienced carpenter who lives in Derbyshire. He came to see me in November to talk about swift boxes. He wanted to start up his own business making boxes and wondered if he could incorporate my special box features in his designs. After a few tweaks he went into full production just before Christmas. To date he’s sold over 140 boxes. He makes a wide range of different designs including singles, doubles, quadruples and triangular apex boxes. In the 140 boxes he’s sold if you counted all the individual compartments that’s well over 220 nesting places. I’m humbled so many people have faith in these designs, fingers crossed their swifts will like them as well. Not only has he been making boxes to sell he’s also been involved in a large swift conservation project near his home in the Peak District. He’s put up in the region of 150 boxes in the adjacent villages. That’s over 300 potential new homes which is fantastic.

Thursday 11th April

There’s been a steady increase in the numbers of swifts seen over Europe, however not many have made it to us yet. According to Birdguides only 2 have been spotted in the UK. A ridiculously early bird seen over Cape Cornwall on February 28th and the single swift seen over Portland Bill on March 28th. As far as I can tell no other sightings have been recorded. The early bird seen in Cornwall was spotted during that record breaking spell of warm weather we enjoyed at the end of February. I hope it had the sense to nip back over the Channel!

However the great news is the first swifts of the season have now started crossing the Straits of Gibraltar.  Their numbers are as follows, April 5th – 2; April 6th – 3; April 7th – 17; April 8th – 7; and April 9th – 22. I know it’s only a trickle but it’s a good sign. This is the direction our swifts come from.

Wednesday 10th April

Swifts have been back in Israel for some time. They first started to arrive around mid-February. Most are sat either on eggs or very young chicks now. I always find it strange that just as our swifts are arriving theirs are just about leaving. I wonder if they make their way up here for the summer or do they return immediately to Africa. One day with the help of tracking technology we might be able to answer that question.

Amnonn Hahn lives in Givataymin in Israel, a city east of Tel Aviv. He’s passionate about swifts and has several swift boxes around his house. He’s just sent this lovely little clip of a newly hatched chick. You can just about see it under one of the parents.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWtOUxCkQt8 

He is also helping to organise World Swift Day on June 7th. See this link  http://worldswiftday.org/en/home/

Tuesday 9th April

There’s a chap in Northern Ireland who has a huge swift colony at his house. I’ve lost count of how many boxes he has but I think it’s well over 30, all occupied. He’s even put up a swift tower in his garden to attract more, now that’s what I call dedication!  He lives in Crumlin a small town in County Antrim. It’s located at the head of a wooded glen on the Camlin River, near Lough Neagh, about 20 miles west of Belfast city centre. For anyone who doesn’t know anything about Lough Neagh it’s the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles and an absolute swift magnet. There’s probably more swifts there than anyway else in the UK.

There’s a gentle rivalry between us swift enthusiasts as to who records the first swift home. I’m one of the earliest in England, but he always manages to beat me each year. His first usually arrives on the 16th, and there’s always one back before the 20th. My earliest ever was on the 20th. My average is around the 26th. The slightly annoying thing is they probably fly over me first, no doubt blowing me a raspberry as they go by! However what I do know is that once he’s spotted his first one mine aren’t that far behind.

Monday 8th April

The first swifts of the season have been sighted in Holland.

The first one was spotted in Wageningen on March 31st and the fourth a few days later on April 4th in Amsterdam.

However much greater numbers have been arriving at Etang de Canet, Saint Nazaire in France. That is near to a series of large wildlife lagoons on the East coast, just up from Barcelona. Nearly 500 were counted on Saturday. I made a mistake in my Blog on April 3rd when I said a handful had been seen over Saint Nazaire on the West Coast of France. All the sightings seen so far have been over the other Saint Nazaire near Etang de Canet. Apologies for my mistake. It looks like we’re only seeing swifts coming to Europe via their eastern migration route. They’re probably the same birds that were sighted a few days earlier over Corsica on the 3rd. No reports of any crossing over the Straits of Gibraltar yet.

Sad news, my old friend the tame robin has gone missing. I’ve not seen him since last Thursday and I’m starting to fear the worst for him.

Sunday 7th April

A couple of days ago I received a lovely email from Paul Hopkinson aka “The Devon Artist”.  He’s just finished building some of my Zeist boxes and fitted a camera in one and put up around his house. He’s a wildlife artist based in North Devon who specialises in painting birds. I’ve seen some of his work and it’s really good. He’s written a lovely piece about this and put it on his blog see this link. I thought you might like to read it.

Saturday 6th April

A question I get asked a lot is do I know of any other swift groups across the UK.

The answer is yes. As well as doing our little bit for swifts in the West Country we also belong to the Swift Local Network (SLN).  It’s made up of individuals and small groups of swift enthusiasts from all over the UK and Ireland. It’s a Yahoo discussion group where members share ideas and experiences. Currently there are 79 different swift groups in SLN. If you click on this link you’ll find a map showing their location and how to contact them. If you are working on your swift conservation work and would like to join the SLN then please contact Peta Sams. We are currently helping to organise the next SLN members conference in Bristol.  It’s going to held at Bristol Zoo on Saturday 9th November 2019.

Friday 5th April

A good mate of mine who lives down in Devon sent me this report a couple of days ago. Thanks Simon.

“Big fall of sand martins and swallows today (2nd) with some house martins in Devon, best of all a red-rumped swallow at Dawlish Warren. The fall probably to do with the northerly weather, no swifts seen yet”

I’m still waiting to see my first hirundines. I might have to take another trip out to Chew as there’s reports of hundreds arriving there in the last few days.

The first alpine swifts have returned to Switzerland, here’s a live link to a nest in a church tower. Turn the volume down when the bells ring!

Thursday 4th April

Nature notes from the garden at Swift House. It’s been a remarkably mild winter. I can’t remember another winter when so many flowers remained in bloom. The large garden bumblebee has been active the whole time. Most weeks I’ve seen it out and about feeding. The red mason bees have just started to emerge from the bee hotel. I noticed several whizzing about last week in the warm sunshine. I’ve seen 4 different species of  butterflies so far – the brimstone, comma, peacock and speckled wood. No sign of them now, it’s freezing!

The pond is full of tadpoles, both frog and toad. I lost count of the number of clumps, well over 100 I think. The frogs were first to spawn in mid-February followed by the toads about a month later. Joining them in the pond are the newts. I’m lucky to have all 3 species – the common, palmate and great-crested.

My tame robin is still here. He must be over 3 years old now and is really quite bold and cheeky. Every morning he sits on the windowsill waiting for me to get up and feed him. The pair of wrens and pied wagtail from last year have also returned. The wagtail bringing along a new partner. All 5 wait patiently to be fed each day. A strict pecking order exists between them – robin first, followed by the wagtails and finally the wrens.

We have 2 pairs of great tits nesting in boxes, one in the apple tree and the other by the house. Stuck in the middle is a pair of blue tits in a box by the pond. A fragile truce exists between all three. Although if one bird enters the others territory it’s quickly chased out!

Regular visitors to the bird-table include bullfinches, coal tits, collared doves and goldfinches. Scratching about underneath it are blackbirds, wood pigeons and hedge sparrows. No sign of any of these nesting yet, as it’s still a bit early. Since the new year I’ve counted over 30 difference species, which isn’t bad for a city garden.

Wednesday 3rd April

Swifts return to the UK from Africa via two directions, East or West. Most migrate up the west side of Africa crossing over the Straits of Gibraltar. Once back in Europe they continue heading North, hugging the west coasts of Portugal and France before flying over the English channel. Some however migrate much further to the East. Unfortunately this exact route isn’t fully known, but we do know that many come up through Greece and Italy and head towards Holland and Belgium before crossing the North Sea into the UK.

So about this time of year I begin to check the migration recording stations across southern Europe. A few days ago several thousand swifts were seen near Les Dunes de Prunete in Corsica, that’s on the Eastern migration route. A handful have also been seen over Saint Nazaire in North-West France. Surprisingly none have been seen crossing over at Gibraltar. So don’t get too excited by the numbers seen over Corsica as I expect the majority of these aren’t our birds and are destined to go elsewhere.

Tuesday 2nd April

Taking full advantage of last weeks wonderful spring weather I decided to put up my boxes. Normally I wait until early April to do this but as the weather was so good  it seemed silly not to. No changes to the number of boxes either. I still have 25, with cameras fitted inside 17 of them. I only had to replace 1 camera which isn’t bad considering most of them are well over 6 years old. However you might remember me having to alter the design of my new corner boxes. Earlier in the year I had converted both single corner boxes into doubles by squeezing a smaller top compartment inside both. However it soon became obvious that this design wasn’t quite right. My swifts just didn’t like them. I think both entrance holes were too small, plus there wasn’t enough grip outside for them to hang onto. So last August I added angled landing strips to both, made the entrance holes slightly bigger and more D-shaped and fitted small internal wind baffles inside each box. I’m hoping these tweaks will make a big difference. Only time will tell whether my birds like them or not.

Monday 1st April

Spring is my favourite season. Winters icy fingers are finally loosening their grip and the unmistakable signs of spring are everywhere to be seen. Optimism fills the air once more and everything seems possible again. April for me is the month my swifts return. When will it be this year, perhaps the 20th again or maybe the 23rd or 24th?

Friday 29th March

The first swift was seen a couple of days ago at Portland so I thought I’d take a trip out to Chew Valley Lake . Alas there was no sign of this elusive visitor, nor for that matter any early swallows or martins. However as the weather was so good I thought I’d wander around the nature walks that meander through the reed beds. I did see 3 summer migrants – the chiffchaff, willow warbler & reed bunting and 3 butterflies – the brimstone, comma & peacock.  One thing that was there in vast numbers were millions of black sedge flies. Dense columns of these little insects rose like smoke from the reeds beds – perfect swift food!

Thursday 28th March

Exciting news! The first swift of the season was spotted over Portland Bill yesterday 27th. See this link.

Diary Date – Come and See our Swifts & Wildlife-friendly Garden

Following last years open day which proved very popular, we will be holding another NGS/SAW Swift Open Garden afternoon on Sunday 23rd June 2-5pm (Adults £3.50. Children Free) as part of the Swift Awareness Week (SAW). See them flying around outside and watch Live video action from inside their nest boxes. You can wander around our wildlife friendly garden and buy plants, cards, booklets and nest boxes. The entrance fee is for National Garden Scheme selected charities. See this link for more details about our garden and location. All plant, card and booklet sales will be donated to swift rehabilitation, plus 5% of each swift box sale. If Bristol is too far, then please try and support a local SAW event near you during the week 22nd-30th June 2019 – see this link for events.

For more details please email us via the Contact page.

NGS/Swift Open Day 2018

Copyright © 2019 Mark Glanville. All Rights Reserved.