My most recent blog for 2020 can be found here.
My first swift arrived back on 23rd April 2020. I started my blog on 1st April with wildlife activity in my garden to bring a bit of cheer in these difficult times. To find out what happened with my swift colony last year – see this link Early 2019 Blog. We have 25 nesting boxes many fitted with cameras – for their exact location see Swift nest box location on our house. In 2019 we had 15 breeding pairs of swifts.
Our planned Swift/NGS event on June 21st has been cancelled. However you can still give donations to help fund the NGS nursing and health charities via this link
Sunday 17th May
My colony numbers continue to fluctuate. It dropped again yesterday by one back down to 20 now, very odd. I now have 7 pairs and 5 singles. I expect there will be a couple more eggs today, but I won’t be able to check until mid-morning when the birds finally go out.
I get quite a few emails from people about Sparrows and Starlings in their boxes. That’s absolutely fine if you like Sparrows and Starlings, but a real nuisance if you aren’t so keen on them! I’ve found over the years by experimenting with different box designs that some designs are much better at deterring Sparrows and Starlings than others.
Sparrows and Starlings just love front entrance boxes such as the Zeist box. They find them easy to get into and sparrows in particular like to look out of the entrance hole and chirp. I think it’s a territorial thing. Once either bird has taken over a box it is unlikely that the swifts will be able to use it for that season. However there is something you can do about it. Bottom entrances boxes with a landing strips are far less attractive to both species. Starlings find them extremely difficult to get into. Their long legs and large breast bone make walking up the landing strip and trying to squeeze in through the narrow hole very difficult. Whilst Sparrows although they can still get it don’t particularly like looking down. My advice to anyone thinking about putting up a box for the first time is just be aware of what might end up using it. Below are a few photos of my boxes that highlight the differences between the two designs.
Saturday 16th May
No more arrivals although the ‘missing’ bird decided to return last night, so back up to 21. We’ve hardly had any new arrivals since the first week in May. However what is concerning me is that the number of pairs have gone up from 7 to 8. Some of the single birds are starting to pair up with one-another. This is exactly what happened last year. Then as now about 2/3rds of the colony arrived and then there was a delay with the rest from arriving. Several single birds paired up with each other, only for their old mates to finally arrive a few weeks later. The result was lots of fighting and 4 whole clutches of eggs thrown out by the returning mates. I think this years missing birds (9+) will arrive either next week or the week after. If these new pairs have started laying then I fear the same fate will happen as it did to the 4 pairs in 2019. Admittedly once the fighting was over things did settle down. However the consequence of that delay last year was 4 extremely late breeding pairs whose chicks didn’t fledge until well into August. The very last pair actually deserted their only chick over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Luckily it was close enough to fledging and left 4 days later. It is looking like the same thing is going to happen this year unless my missing birds turn up in the next few days. In the meantime two more eggs were laid yesterday taking the egg total up to four. Below nests from left to right – nb4 north, nb1 north and nb3 north.
Friday 15th May
Yesterday we had an unexpected start to our morning as we were asked to talk about swifts Live on BBC Radio Bristol at 8.25am. We were on a few weeks ago and they wanted an update. We have included the recording as it may make you laugh, as it did us!
Another egg was laid this time in nb1 north. That takes the egg total up to 2. As the egg total went up, the number of swifts here actually went down by 1. The current total now stands at 20. All 7 pairs are still here, but one of the single birds has gone missing. I’m not overly concerned at the moment as it think its probably left because of the weather. It’s been so unusually cold for the last few days especially at night so I expect it has left for warmer climes. Looking forward into next week the weather looks much better with a possible of of 24C by Wednesday. I fully expect more swifts to arrive as it warms up.
When we walked to our allotment yesterday to survey the damage done by the frosts. I can’t remember such hard frosts this late into May. Luckily our allotment was relatively untouched, but others unfortunately lost all their potatoes, beans and courgettes. On the way back Jane spotted these very large Moths mating. We think they are Poplar Hawk-moths. They were well camouflaged and we were amazed to see them right next to a main road. Just shows it is worth keeping an eye out for wildlife whenever you are out for a walk.
Thursday 14th May
Yesterday was another cold day by May standards. No new arrivals and hardly any swift activity to report except for the first egg being laid in nb3 north.
We were sent some videos and photos of swifts by Jean-François Cornuet in Paris, France that we think are truly amazing. They were shot in slow motion and show in great detail swifts grooming and foraging and reveal aspects of their behaviour that was completely unknown to us. From now on we will look at swifts in flight in a completely different way. We’re sure you will find them fascinating as well. Click on word video below to view.
GROOMING Video Common Swift – 8 minutes.
FORAGING Video Common Swift – 24 minutes.
He also sent us this link to his photo gallery showing beautiful photos of swifts – below are just a few.
Wednesday 13th May
11am. First egg of the season in nb3 north. I normally expect to see it about 10 days after the mate has arrived but this one has appeared on day 7.
No new arrivals yesterday although as the wind eased the swift activity picked up, so at least I had something to watch. In the afternoon nest building resumed with a few birds bringing back feathers. It is meant to get gradually warmer as the week goes on, so I expect a few more birds to arrive. Looking at my records from last year quite a few birds (8+) arrived between May 20-26th. Maybe the same will happen this year.
Some really good news, the chicks of the single mum Great Tit fledged in the afternoon. As you know I’ve been providing her with a few meal worms to help out. Around 2pm there was a lot of commotion around the box and within 20 minutes all of the chicks had fledged. It was difficult to tell how many but I think at least 6. Even though they are all out I’m still putting out food. She will carry on feeding them for at least another week or two.
Stephen Fitt (RSPB South West Regional Officer) emailed us with the latest news about the Nansledan swift project. Incidentally the school (Skol Nansledan) alone has over 24 swift boxes.
We reckon our friend Stephen has done more to help swifts than anyone we know. We have known him for many years and it continually amazes us with the sheer volume of swift work he gets involved with. We’ve visited him a couple of times at his lovely house in Devon and you can tell by the sheer numbers of birds he has on his bird-table that he loves all birds, not just swifts.
His work behind the scenes includes policy, strategy, helping with creating new British Standards and he has been indirectly involved with the erection of hundreds of swift bricks and boxes. In 2014 he was awarded the RSPB’s President’s award for his tireless campaigning for swift homes.
He has worked on many projects but one that he is best known for is his work with the Duchy of Cornwall, where they made a commitment to install an average of one swift box per home built on their land. So far over 500 boxes have been installed, but it is anticipated that this could conceivably lead to between 5-8,000 swift boxes being installed over the next 30 years. It is good news to read that some of the nest boxes are already being used, which is brilliant as many like me will know that getting swifts in for the first time can take many years (five years for us here at Swift House!)
Stephens latest project is trying to help with swift conservation in churches here in the South West. If you are thinking of starting a church project he has helped put together this excellent leaflet full of useful information. If you do put swift boxes in churches Stephen would like to know. He has done absolute wonders and anyone looking for inspiration would do well to have a look at what he’s done.
Tuesday 12th May
Yesterday was more like March than May. A biting cold wind and blowing a hooley, definitely not swift weather. I didn’t see my swifts once they left their boxes around mid-morning. They didn’t return until 8pm and then just flew straight back in. No displays or whizzing about just straight in no messing around. I reckon they were feeding over the lakes all day. However despite the completely unfriendly swift weather another bird arrived or to be more accurate returned. It was the mate of nb5 north who turned up on Sunday afternoon but failed to return later that evening. I think it must have decided it was much warmer in the box than staying out all night again. That takes the total up to 21 out of a possible 30 (7 pairs & 7 singles).
Here’s something to cheer you up this chilly morning. I was sent this lovely video from Jerusalem of swifts going about their daily business just like they have done for millennia. Swifts have nested between the crevices of the Western Wall ever since it was built. Over 90 pairs of Swifts have made this scared site their home. In this clip you can see them screaming and jostling together in such huge numbers. It’s the complete opposite of the worshippers just a few feet below. Social distancing has separated them. Listening to the screams of the swifts I wonder how these worshippers can concentrate on praying at all!
Monday 11th May
Last night I counted 20 birds in residence, that’s an extra two up on Saturday. Out of 30 who bred last year 20 have returned.
However the intriguing thing is I saw 7 pairs at 2pm in my boxes, but this number dropped to 6 pairs at 10pm. The mate of the bird in nb5 north who only turned up yesterday afternoon failed to return last night. Time will tell if it just stayed out overnight or whether it wasn’t the proper mate after all. Here are all the pairs that I have back at the moment.
From left to right nb1 south, nb3 south and nb5 south.
From left to right nb1 north, nb3 north and nb4 north.
Sad news. The front door Robins nest has been predated by Magpies. I was really hopeful they wouldn’t find it as it was hidden behind dense clematis but I just been out and the nest is empty. Pesky Magpies. I know they have their own chicks to bring up but it still grieves me to find they’ve raided another birds nest.
Sunday 10th May
2pm. The cold weather has finally arrived as forecast. Only 13C outside compared to 23C this time yesterday. Most of my swifts have decided to come home. A quick check of the cameras revealed 16 birds in residence. However the interesting thing is there are now 7 pairs, up by 2 on last nights total. Are these new birds? I should know more when I check the cameras tonight.
Yesterday I counted 18 birds in my boxes, up one on Friday. Thats 5 pairs and 8 singles. The 5 pairs seem to be settled whereas there is still quite a bit of confusion between the singletons. Three single birds roosted overnight in new boxes for the first time whilst in two other boxes they went missing. The difficulty is trying to work out if they are genuinely new arrivals or just box hoppers.
There was plenty of swift action for me to watch on Saturday. The first birds left their respective boxes around 7.30am. They gathered in small groups above the house. Their time was divided equally between feeding up high and noisy low level screaming fly-bys. It’s the fly-bys I like best. With a slight breeze in the air the 5 pairs spent most of the day nest building which involved catching small feathers and bringing them back in. For some reason the single birds get very excited about this behaviour and chased every feather-carrying bird all the way back to their respective boxes. It was great fun to watch.
Saturday 9th May
Yesterday I counted 17 birds in my boxes – 5 pairs and 7 singles. I had a feeing more birds had arrived by the sheer numbers of swifts around my house. Every half an hour or so small screaming parties of between 3 and 7 birds whizzed by. I’ve also noticed that when a ’new’ bird arrives if its mate is already here there is a palpable increase in the excitement level. Both birds whizz around the house and repeatedly fly close to their box, screaming as they go by. It’s almost as if one of the birds is showing the other where their home is located.The weather was so good I spent most of the day in the garden. All in all Friday was a pretty good swift day.
In between watching my swifts I have also been looking after the single Great Tit. She’s got a nest full of chicks and lost her mate a few days ago. To help her I’ve been putting out a dish of meal worms. Unfortunately the local Magpies also quite like them, so I have to keep the dish close to me to deter them. The Great Tit however isn’t bothered by my presence at all and follows me and the dish all around the garden. Even Wrenkin and Rob have latched onto this food bonus and sneak in to grab a few every now and then. The Great Tit is an extremely hard-working mother. I’m really quite astonished by the number of times she comes to feed. I counted over 30 visits to the dish in just one hour alone. I recorded a few of her visits to give you an idea of how hard working she is. Click on this link to watch her antics.
Friday 8th May
Some of you might remember our visit to Olveston Primary School last year. We were invited to attend by teacher Mr Carter (Tom to us) who loves swifts as much as he loves teaching. There are about a dozen pairs of swifts nesting under the low eaves of the school. He’d asked his class to write poems about swifts and we visited to hear them being read. It was a magical day, sitting in the playground listening to the class recite their beautiful poems whilst the swifts screamed above our heads in and out of their nests. Here are a few photos taken that day.
We were invited again this year to meet his new class, but unfortunately the lockdown has put pay to that. He set them a task at home to write about ‘Why Swifts are amazing’. He then sent us an email with a small selection of their work which we think is absolutely wonderful. It is very imaginative, well researched and heartwarming. Evie observed that “a swift weighs about the same as a Cadbury’s Crème Egg, Crunchy (or any other 40g chocolate bar)”. That really made us smile.
It’s a shame we won’t be able to meet them, but somehow we feel we have met them in spirit. We thought their work was great and think you will too. Click on the names to read ‘Why Swifts are Amazing’ by Daisy, Eve, Sienna and Evie and this lovely video by Jesse.
Thank you to all the children, parents and especially Mr Carter for sharing this with us. If you would like us to pass on any comments please email via our Contact page.
Thursday 7th May
Yesterday was a super swift day judging by the number of emails I received. I must have had at least 30 people telling me their swifts have just arrived back.
At Swift House another 2 returned, a single bird in nb3 & 5 west. However associating a swift to a particular box can be somewhat misleading. Some of them have the annoying habit of moving boxes. I’ve noticed this behaviour over the years, a bird will use one box one night and move to another the following day. I’m not sure why some box-hop but they do and it drives me nuts! These box-hoppers might take a week or more before they finally stick on one particular box. To give you examples I’m pretty sure the bird in nb2 south has moved in with the bird in nb1 south and the mate of nb4 north has moved into nb3 north to form a new pair. So I’ve decided for the time being just to count the number of birds. Once they’ve all settled down I’ll update what birds are actually in each box. So at the moment I have 15 birds back, that’s roughly half the colony back safely.
Three of my boxes have pairs in, although this might change tonight! Normally when a pair reunites the first egg appears about 10 days later so I’ve put a note in my diary to check for eggs on May 16th.
A widely held belief by swift experts is that swifts don’t start nest building until their mate has returned. I don’t think this is true. Yesterday I saw 2 single birds bringing back feathers, so I think that theory needs updating. Even though I’ve been observing them for years I am still finding out new things about their behaviour.
Wednesday 6th May
Just checked the Gibraltar birding station and they reported a heavy passage of swifts crossing over on Monday. Yesterday Portland Bill Bird Observatory reported a steady stream arriving there. Without doubt the main body of UK swifts are on their way. If there not already here, they soon will be.
Yesterday actually turned out to be a super swift day here at Swift House. It wasn’t what I was expecting which made it all the more welcome. I had decided to get up early to finish cutting the hedge. The weather forecast said it would rain by 11am, so my plan was to finish it before it rained.
Needless-to-say things didn’t quite go as planned. It didn’t rain as the forecast said it would. In fact it turned out to be a decent day. More and more swifts started to arrived making my efforts to finish by 11am impossible. To misquote Mastermind presenter Magnus Magnusson ‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’. I was determined to get the job done. So despite the numerous distractions I knuckled down and completed the task around 3pm. Phew!
Although I was conscious of the arriving swifts and spent a could deal of time watching them I was also aware of a drama unfolding with the Great Tits. The more I watched them the more obvious it became that something wasn’t right. One of the adults was missing. It was the adult male. I can tell the difference between the two sexes as the male had a much wider black strip on its chest compared to the female. He had gone missing leaving only the female to bring up the chicks. In her efforts to find enough food she had started to hang around me as I fed Rob. She was desperate for any scraps left over. Realising her plight I started to throw her the odd meal worm or two. These were gratefully accepted and her visits to me became more and more frequent. So much so that I’ve now put a dish of mealworms out just for her on the patio. The strange thing is although Rob could easily feed out of the dish he still prefers to come and feed out of my hand. That’s my boy!
Later in the day I managed to check my cameras and the wait was definitely worth it. I knew more swifts had arrived but how many? It turned out to be another 5 and the great news is 3 of them are mates of birds already here. The new returnees included the mates of nb 1 & 4 north and nb1 south. Plus 2 new single birds – 1 in nb12 west and the other in nb6 north. That takes the total back so far to 13 – 3 pairs and 7 singles.
Other news is that the front door Robin eggs have just hatched and both parents are busy feeding their young.
So all in all it turned out to be a pretty good day.
Tuesday 5th May
Wow what a day. Yesterday saw the first big influx of returning birds, 5 in total. They turned up in a small group around 11am and immediately joined up with my 3 existing birds. I was treated to the first proper screaming displays of the year. Pure bliss.
However earlier that day I had decided that it was safe to cut the hedge. I was confident that none of my birds would return until Wednesday or Thursday at the latest. Hedge-cutting at Swift House is a massive job that needs to be done at least 3 times a year. Having checked that nothing was nesting in the section I was going to cut I began at 9.30am. Don’t worry I’ve left the section where Rob and his mate are nesting, just in case you were worried!
However everything changed at 11am and I found it difficult to carry on. The choice between hedge-cutting or watching screaming parties wasn’t really a fair test and I finally gave up cutting just after lunch having only done about half.
Watching their displays all afternoon I was confident several new birds had arrived. When I checked the cameras later I found birds had returned in the following boxes – 1 each in nb1 and 4 south. Another in nb1 west and 1 each in nb4 & 5 north. The other three are in the following boxes; 1 each in nb1 & 3 north and another in nb2 south. That takes the total up to 8. Strangely though I’ve not got a pair back yet. All 8 birds are single.
Monday 4th May
Quick update following on from yesterday’s blog. Swifts numbers continue to build in South-east France. There are now over 75,000 swifts gathering over Falaise de Leucate and Etang de Canet – Saint Nazaire. That’s only about 1000 miles from the UK. Swifts can travel 500 miles in a day so they are only about 2 days away. They will be here very soon. See this link.
Still only 3 swifts back. I spent most of the day yesterday in the garden hoping to hear or see more swifts, but alas no joy. I still reckon they will arrive either on Tuesday or Wednesday.
We received a lovely email from Willem from Belgium telling us about an ongoing swift project in Ghent and swift rehabilitation work.
10 years ago during regeneration work of the old harbour area in Voorhaven, a district of Ghent the project manager of Locus, biologist Dirk Valvekens, installed 20 swift nest boxes in their NEO buildings. These initial 20 swift boxes were quickly occupied. Due to their success more boxes were added and there are now about 45 nest boxes for swifts on this building. The swifts at Voorhaven are much loved by the locals and tourists who come to watch their aerial acrobatics over the harbour-side. It just goes to show what can be done to help wildlife if developers are sympathetic to their needs. See this link to the project in Ghent and for their swift rehabilitation work see this link. There are several heart-warming stories of orphaned swifts chicks who were looked after and eventually released, unfortunately not all. You may need to use Google to translate into English.
Sunday 3rd May
My third swift return last night. It arrived at 7.30pm and flew straight into nb2 north. Also excellent news the main body of breeders are on their way.
On Friday Gibraltar reported a steady passage of swifts crossing. By Saturday they were starting to gather just north of Perpignan in south-east France. Over 14000 were seen feeding over Falaise de Leucate and Etang de Canet – Saint Nazaire. This area in South-east France is a nature reserve with large lagoons. It’s where our swifts tend to gather to refuel after their long flight from Africa. In 2 or 3 days they should be with us. Can’t wait!
We have been really heartened by the number of emails we’ve had with photos of swift boxes that have been installed since lockdown. Some of the boxes are commercial, but most are homemade. Judging by at all the different designs you really have been busy box building! Here are just a few that have been put up in the last few days from all over the UK. I think it is such a positive thing that everyone has done to try to help swifts in these difficult times.
Quite a few of the boxes are based the free designs on our Swift Nest Box Design page.
There is still time to put up swift boxes. However don’t despair if DIY is not your forte. Our friends at Peak Boxes are still working hard and can make one for you – here is a link.
Saturday 2nd May
A lovely sunny morning albeit slightly fresh. My second swift in nb3 north is having a stretch before it goes out.
Looking at the weather forecast high pressure is set to build up from Sunday. That’s when I expect the main body of breeder to start to return.
There was an unexpected bonus on the bird table yesterday. A pair of Bullfinches were feeding together on the sun-flower seeds. Bullfinches are quite beautiful birds although the females plumage is quite drab in comparison to the males. See this BTO link. His bright cherry breast and jet-black cap is quite eye-catching. I’m pretty sure it’s the same pair who have been coming to our feeder for the last 3 years. I hope they stay close, it would be lovely if they nested in our garden.
Some excellent news from the pond, I finally managed to catch a glimpse of my first great-crested newt of the year. They are our largest indigenous newt and this male was about 6 inches long. It had a magnificent crest running along the entire length of it’s back, making it look almost slightly prehistoric like a miniature dinosaur. Hopefully somewhere in the pond there is a female great-crested to keep him company.
Friday 1st May
Great news a second swift returned last night to nb3 north. It arrived just as we started clapping for the NHS at 8pm. That’s two back so far. Last year we had about 30 birds regularly roosting in my boxes, so I’m hoping we can at least equal that this year.
I’ve always been fascinated by wildlife ever since I was a toddler. I can still remember my Grampy Lewis on his allotment. I used to go with him whenever I got the chance. Picking strawberries and trying to catch grasshoppers in the long grass are just some of the fond memories of our time together. I couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 but I remember it as though it was yesterday. He was a kind hearted man with a great love of nature. He was also a very good gardener. I’m sure it’s because of him I have such a love of all things wild. He gave me a small patch on his allotment to ‘play with’ and by 14 I had my own council allotment. I’ve had one ever since.
We don’t use any harmful sprays or chemicals on our plot preferring to live in harmony with nature. We have only a small plot but it’s very productive and we are almost self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. Nothing tastes better I think than being able to eat your own produce fresh from the ground. Below are some of photos taken at my allotment last week; one of me at work and the other of bee boxes on my shed. The other two are showing some of our produce from previous years.
Our allotment is on the banks of the River Avon overlooking Sea Mills station. We have a beautiful view of the river as it meanders it’s way towards the mighty Severn at Avonmouth a couple of miles away.
Interestingly the River Severn is Great Britain’s longest river at a length of 220 miles and has the second highest tide anywhere in the world. At certain times of the year the effect of tides flowing into this estuary and up the river gives rise to the famous Severn Bore and surfers from across the world come to ride it. On April 10th on our way to the allotment Jane took these photos of an exceptional high Spring tide at Sea Mills Harbour. Notice how high the water is under the bottom of the railway bridge.
Thursday 30th April
Still only the one swift back. Yesterday wasn’t much of a day weatherise, 11c and wet. My swift didn’t even bother to go out in the morning as it was too cold. It finally left the comfort of its box around 1pm.
The first vanguard of swifts arrived in the UK around the 21st April. Over the next few days quite a few turned up. These early birds then spread out right across the country. Quite a few people I know have at least 1 or 2 birds back. However since that initial wave there’s not been much following on. I’ve been checking all the migration recording stations across Europe and there’s no real sign yet of the main body of breeders. Admittedly there has been a steady trickle of swifts crossing over the Straits of Gibraltar in recent days, but nothing really to get too excited about. I reckon we’ve got at least another few days to wait, maybe even longer than that before they start to arrive. My money is on next Tuesday/Wednesday.
In the meantime here’s a lovely article about swifts to cheer you up on a wet morning emailed to us by our swift friends Sandy and Tim in Litton. It’s a beautifully written piece of work by G J Gamble – click on this link
Wednesday 29th April
Following on the theme from yesterdays blog we just had to mention Tanya and Edmund Hoare who we also met at the International Swift Conference in 2014. Just by sheer chance they happened to be staying in the same bed and breakfast house as us, so we got to know them over breakfast. Tanya was one of the speakers at the conference and talked about their swift colony in Cumbria on the edge of the moors. It was fascinating hearing about the remarkable lengths they’ve gone to.
During Tanya’s presentation one of the slides showed their newly refurbished bathroom. Very nice I thought, but what has that got to do with swifts! All was revealed when the doors of the cabinets were opened. Behind each door was a beautifully designed swift box.
Swifts in the bathroom, now if only I could persuade Jane!!
Other people there who had a huge impression on us were; Gillian Westray a swift carer, who converted a room in her house into a swift rehabilitation centre. Edward Mayer from Swift Conservation; Dick Newell from Action for Swifts and Jonathan Pomroy, wonderful Wildlife and Landscape Artist. From Germany there was Ulrich Tigges from CommonswiftWorldwide and the legendary Erich Kasier who has been studying swifts longer than anyone I know. They all love swifts and their enthusiasm and passion is truly infectious. All of them have become good friends.
Tuesday 28th April
Until 2005 I knew very little about swifts. I knew they were summer visitors but that was about it, to be honest I wasn’t that particular interested in them. But everything was about to changed that year when by sheer chance I discovered a pair were nesting under the roof tiles of my house. That’s when I first fell in love with them. That very first pair touched something deep inside me. I only wish I could find the right words to fully express the feelings I have, perhaps in time I will.
Having been bitten by the swift bug (by the way there’s no cure!) Jane and I thought it would be a good idea to attend the International Swift Conference in Cambridge in 2014 to meet other swift enthusiasts from across the world. Personally I didn’t think it was humanly possible for anyone else to be as passionate about swifts as I was, but I was to be proved wrong. There we met people who were even more smitten than I was. We had a wonderful time and made many good friends in just a few short days. Fond memories.
One of these friends is Jochem from the Netherlands. I thought I was passionate about swifts, but he’s taken that devotion to a much higher level. On the last day in Cambridge he showed us just how much swifts meant to him.
His love of swifts and wildlife continues. He got his first swift back this year on 18th April the earliest recorded date and filmed it entering its nest – see his YouTube video. He’s a super keen naturalist and excellent wildlife photographer. He’s been counting and photographing all the different species that live in his garden. Last week that figure stood at 1100, quite remarkable. Here are some of his photos and a link to his website that can be translated to English.
Monday 27th April
No new news with my swifts, so I thought I’d show you some photos Jane took on our walk yesterday to our local Nature Reserve and woods. Despite being next to a busy dual-carriageway we still managed to see and hear lots of wildlife. We came across this Toad on the footpath next to a pond. Near-by we found this Slow-Worm sun-bathing on the warm sandy soil and all around there were lots of butterflies including this Peacock. Then you’ll never believe what we saw next – two Whales!
This field was once a barren sports ground, but now it is full of flowers and young birch saplings. The wonderful whales and face were designed and built by Cod Steaks, Bristol-based model makers responsible for Wallace & Gromit.
We walked back through the woods and listened to birdsong. The path bathed by dappled sunlight was surrounded on both sides by Wild Garlic and Bluebells. A lovely walk on a lovely day.
Sunday 26th April
Yesterday afternoon I’m sure I heard that familiar scream from way up high. I frantically scanned the skies looking for the source but couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from. I think they were just teasing me to raise my hopes. However later on two swifts did scream over my house, perhaps it was the same birds I heard in the afternoon? The stayed for a few minutes before moving on. As dusk approached one of them returned to roost in NB1 north. The other I assume is from a neighbouring colony. It was lovely to hear them again.
The dawn chorus is just about reaching its beautiful best. If you’ve never heard it before you really ought to. It starts around 5am and is truly wonderful. But don’t be tempted to lie-in and go later, it only lasts about an hour and then it’s gone. If you’ve got woods or a park near you why don’t you get up early one morning and treat yourself, you won’t be disappointed.
We don’t normally see House Sparrows in our garden, but at this time of year a pair normally turn up. They’re after the newly hatched Damselflies. House Sparrows normally eat seeds and grain, but when they have young to feed they change over to live food. As much as I like House Sparrows I don’t want them to eat all my Damselflies, so I try and scare them away every now and then.
I’ve been planting up the raised beds at the bottom of the garden and putting up the bean sticks. I grow a selection of different kales, sprouts and calabrese to see us through the year. Unfortunately the local wood pigeons also seem to like them just as much. I should really net the whole area, but instead I hang old CD’s from canes. Wood Pigeons aren’t the brightest of birds and all it takes is a few spinning CD’s to scare them away.
It’s not a big job putting all the canes up and normally it doesn’t take me long. But as you can see I was interrupted on numerous occasions by guess who? Yes my little mate Rob, the robin.
Saturday 25th April
I didn’t see much of our little bird yesterday. It left its box around 9am and it didn’t return until 8pm when it came back to roost. Still it’s nice to have one back even if it is quiet.
Yesterday I received a lovely email, photos and videos from fellow swift enthusiast, Dennis. He’s got lots of swifts nesting in his house in Devon. They are so good that I thought you must see them. I think his house is a swift paradise.
Have a look at his 2019 videos. There must be 30 birds in the screaming party. Video 1.
In this video swifts are prospecting for suitable nest sites under the slate tiles. Video 2.
Dennis loves his swifts, so along with all the natural nest sites he’s built himself a 6 port multi-stack box. It fits so beautifully into the parapet of his house that I had to look twice at the photo to actually see it – see photos 1 and 3. He’s also installed 4 internal nest boxes into the top of gable see the middle photo.
If that hasn’t whetted your appetite for the coming season I don’t know what will!
Friday 24th April
The long wait is over as my first swift has returned, summer can now begin! I will keep you updated as others arrive.
Yesterday I went to my allotment which is within walking distance of our house. On the way there is a Hawthorn hedge which has just come out into flower. The scent from the May blossom is overpowering. It’s not sweet like Honeysuckle, but more musky and quite intoxicating. It got me thinking of the old saying “Ne’er cast a clout ’til May be out” which I thought might mean the May blossom, but in fact it actually refers to the month of May. Clout is from an Old English word for cloth or clothing, and the saying was a reminder not to be too quick to remove the winter woollies before the chilly days of May were over.
Near my allotment is the old Station House at Sea Mills. A couple of days ago I was lucky enough to see the first 4 house martins arrive back. I love these little birds. To me they always sound like they’re really happy, just merrily chatting to themselves as they go about their business.
I thought I give you a quick update on my garden birds. Unfortunately it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. Magpies found and destroyed next doors Blackbirds nest and sadly my tame Robins nest. Both were sitting on eggs at the time. Fortunately there is still time for them to start again. Rob my tame Robin is looking decidedly scruffy. He’s been fighting with next doors Robins and by the looks of it he has come off worse! The Blue Tits in the box by the pond have deserted their nest. Not sure why but the good news is they’ve moved into a new box in the conifer tree. The Great Tits however are doing really well and constantly bringing in food for their chicks. Finally the front door Robin in the clematis is sitting on eggs. Below are a couple of photos of Rob, you’ll notice how battered his head is, poor thing! The other photo is of the Blue Tit box in the conifer tree.
Thursday 23rd April
7.50pm. They’re back. First swift home in nest box 1 north.
Many of my swift friends are reporting their first swifts back. It looks like their arrival this year is going to be one of the earliest ever recorded across the UK. Most people don’t expect to see their swifts until the first week in May so some of the dates below are amazing. Although as I write this I’m still waiting for my first one – bah humbug!
Here are some of the locations to give you an idea of their first arrival dates and locations.
York 19th April
Rutland 21st April
Cambridgeshire 21st April
Crumlin, Northern Ireland 21st April
Cheshire 22nd April
North Bristol (not mine!) 22nd April
London 22nd April
There are many swift enthusiasts from across Europe and the UK who stream live action from inside their nest-boxes. Jaap Langenbach from Holland has kindly sent me this link of all the different webcams. Quite a few of them already have their swifts back. They’re filming not only Common Swifts, but Pallid and Alpine Swifts as well. Enjoy! It’s in Dutch so just press the translate button to read it in English.
Wednesday 22nd April
In the last few days our garden has been absolutely buzzing with the sound of insects. This spell of recent good weather has definitely helped, but just as important to the insects is their environment. All gardens have the potential to become wildlife havens and with a little tweak from us here and there we have made our garden more wildlife-friendly. Some years ago we stopped using sprays and chemicals. The difference it has made has been noticeable. We grow a range of different nectar and pollen rich plants for insects to feed on. We aim to have something in flower every month of the year. That’s especially important for our native bumble bees who quite often pop out for a quick feed in winter. Adding a pond acts like a wildlife magnet. Also very important to us is that our garden looks pleasing on the eye. A garden doesn’t need to be full of stinging nettles, brambles and long grass to attract wildlife, however letting a little patch go wild doesn’t do any harm either. At the moment we have a few plants and trees in flower that are truly star performers, such as espalier fruit trees, ornamental Crab Apple and Clematis Montana.
Perennial Wallflowers, Rosemary and Honesty are another three excellent plants to grow for wildlife. Bees, butterflies and insects just can’t resist them.
If you want to encourage wildlife into your garden try to grow a succession of plants that flowers at different times of the year. It’s also helpful if you can provide some cover and shelter and this can be achieved by having hedges and dense shrubs. Trees and bushes that produce berries are also very important, especially for birds in the Autumn and Winter. The more insects you have then the more wildlife you are likely to get as a result. The two go hand in hand. For some ideas of what to plant and when it flowers have a look at our Bristol Garden website – see this link
Tuesday 21st April
The earliest my swifts have ever returned was on April 20th in 2018. Alas no early record this year, although I am hopeful they will turn up soon. I’m checking my cameras every night just in case one sneaks in unnoticed! Thousands of swifts were seen in France yesterday see this link
Since our swift appearance on the BBC last week we’ve been amazed and delighted by the public response. We’ve received dozens of emails asking for advice together with numerous photos of home-made swift boxes that have been made based on my designs. Here are just a few.
We also received a lovely email from Jonathan. He has built a superb twin box which puts my DIY efforts to shame! Here are his photos.
He and his wife have turned their small back garden in Suffolk into a wildlife haven. Their website is packed full of useful information and beautiful photographs. They also have videos from several webcams dotted around their garden. We enjoyed reading it immensely and hope you will too, so here is link.
If you have built one of my design of swift boxes in the last few weeks, please let me know via our Contact page.
Monday 20th April
I promised to tell you the story about Waggy our tame Pied Wagtail, so here goes.
I first saw Waggy back in October 2017. He was sat up on the gutter watching me feed Rob, my tame robin. As soon as Rob had finished he would nervously come down to pick up any remaining scraps.
However over the coming weeks he became bolder and bolder and less timid. In fact by Christmas he was waiting by the back door for me to feed him. About this time a little wren started to make an appearance and we named him Wrenkin. All 3 visitors became regular visitors, waiting patiently for me each morning to be fed. They also had their own pecking order. Waggy was first followed by Rob and last but not least Wrenkin. There wasn’t any fighting either, they all waited for each to finish before having their own turn.
The winter of 2017-2018 turned out to one of the coldest in living memory with the arrival of the “Beast from the East”. I’m convinced my little friends only survived the terrible weather because I was feeding them. In fact during that time they almost loss their fear of me completely. Rob and Wrenkin would feed off my hand and even Waggy came within touching distance. Finally the Beast from the East relented and it gradually warmed up. Waggy left in late March and Wrenkin visits became less and less and finally stopped. Only Rob stayed with me.
2018 turned out to be a glorious summer which helped banish the memory of that terrible winter. In October Waggy suddenly turned up again, only this time he brought his mate along as well. Wrenkin reappeared out of nowhere and started to visit more often and we soon settled back into the same routine as the winter before. Waggy first, Mrs Waggy second (that’s the unimaginative name we gave her!) Rob third and last Wrenkin. They stayed with me all through the winter of 2018-2019. In March Mrs Waggy left followed by Waggy a couple of weeks later. Wrenkin visits became less once again and by May I was left with only Rob to keep me company again.
Last October right on time Waggy and Mrs Waggy returned once again. A few weeks later Wrenkin made his first appearance and together with Rob all 4 were back with me again.
As I write this only 3 of my companions are here. Mrs Waggy left me at the end of March. I think she is nesting down by the banks of the River Avon which is about 3/4 mile away. Waggy still comes to see me but only occasionally. I think he only pops back for a quick feed because it’s easy picking. See this short video clip of him shot a couple of days ago.
Wrenkin is still about and busy building nests although I’ve not seen his mate yet. I’m sure she’s about somewhere. Rob and his mate have a nest in the hedge. She’s sat on eggs and Rob regular feeds her with meal worms. At the moment apart from feeding his mate he has to contend with next doors Robins who keep coming over the fence to pinch his food. He’s forever chasing them back over the hedge, but more often than not they’ve managed to grab a beak full. See this short video of one of next doors Robins on a daring raid.
Sunday 19th April
There have been sightings of Swallows across the UK for several weeks now, but I hadn’t seen any until last night. At 6pm a group of half a dozen or more flew over the house heading north. It was a lovely sight and really lifted my spirits.
As you may have gathered I like swifts, but then again I am fascinated by all birds. A Cuckoo was heard in Essex on Thursday. I used to hear them quite often around the reed-beds of Chew Valley Lake in Somerset. Alas just like so many other bird species their numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years and I haven’t heard a Cuckoo for some time now.
It’s a real pity as I used to love hearing that call. However I’m not sure the Reed-Warblers at Chew Valley would agree with me, as they were the main target by Cuckoos laying in their nests!
Cuckoos don’t make their own nests and choose to lay a single egg in other birds nests. They can lay up to 25 eggs in a season. Each individual Cuckoo has a preference for a particular species. Around Chew Valley Lake it was the nest of the Reed-Warbler as that was their favourite. The clever thing is the Cuckoos egg is almost identical in colouring to the host bird, the only difference begin is it’s slightly bigger. Along with the Reed-Warbler the other nests they like are the Dunnock, Meadow Pipit and Pied Wagtail.
Cuckoos are summer migrants, spending the winter in West Africa. They arrive here about the middle of April and leave around August. There are many reasons why their numbers have fallen, but it is generally agreed by experts that the lack of suitable food prey (mainly caterpillars) during the breeding season is a big factor. Another widely held belief is the deterioration of conditions along their migration routes, coupled with a loss of their over-wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. All in all they’re having a really tough time and need our help more than ever. See this BTO link
Saturday 18th April
As more and more sightings of swifts have been seen in the UK in recent days. I thought I’d check the migration hot spots in Europe to see what’s happening further afield.
In Gibraltar large flocks of swifts have been seen crossing for some days now – see April 13th on this link Yesterday Andalusia Bird Society member Neil Hill reported ‘This morning just west of Tarifa not far from the straits of Gibraltar there is a wonderful passage of swifts. Thousands of birds are passing over at the moment’
In Georgia near the seaside port of Butumi on the shores of the Black Sea nearly 4000 were seen on April 14th. Further south in Corsica near the Dunes de Prunete over 7000 were recorded on April 15th see this link
Swifts arrive back in Europe by two main migratory routes, the western and eastern route.
The UK swifts tend to use the Western route, crossing over at Gibraltar and coming up through Portugal and France. Swifts that nest in Central Europe tend to use the Eastern route coming in through Greece and Turkey and spreading westwards. Somewhere in the middle both groups will overlap and mix together.
Swifts migrate at about 20 miles an hour and if the weather conditions are favourable can easily cover 500 miles in a day. Gibraltar is only 1800 miles from the UK, so those swifts crossing now at Gibraltar could be with us by next weekend. Keep you eyes peeled, they’re on their way home!
Friday 17th April
Swifts have long been birds of mystery and the subject of legend and folklore. As a result they have acquired many names over the centuries.
In medieval England they were commonly seen and heard around churches. Imagine then large groups of swifts, hurtling over the graveyards and screaming like wild banshees just as it gets dark. It’s easy to see why our ancestors called them the Devil’s bird, Devil Swallow, Devils screech and Skir Devil. Other colloquial names are just as interesting. They’ve been known as the Crane Swallow, Hawk Swallow, Black Martin, Screech Martin, Shriek Owl, Screecher, Squealer, Screamer, and my favourite of them all, Jacky Squealer.
I think Jacky Squealer originated either in Ireland or the North-east of England.
Nowadays a noisy pack of swifts whizzing around our roof tops is normally referred to as a screaming party. Here is a video of a screaming party taken in our garden last July. I apologise it’s very short clip, but it gives you some idea of the noise they can make.
11am. A swift was sighted in Cornwall yesterday. A bit further up the coast the first swift of the year was seen over Portland Bill Bird Observatory.
Thursday 16th April
You may have seen us being interviewed on BBC Breakfast and BBC News on Monday about swifts and birdsong. We believe it was shown at least 4 times during the day. We have kindly been sent a copy to add to our blog. We are a bit reluctant to show it as we don’t like seeing ourselves and are self-critical. Believe me Chris Packham and the Springwatch team have got nothing to worry about at all! Nevertheless it is a good news story and we think John and Ross made a lovely film. It has generated a lot of feedback judging by the number of positive emails we have received.
As a result of this we were asked to do a Live interview on BBC Radio Bristol on Tuesday morning. Below is a copy of the recording.
We are somewhat relieved our time in the limelight has ended!
Wednesday 15th April
I saw a rather peculiar fly in the garden yesterday. It was Bombylius Major – the Dark Edged Bee-Fly. See this link As its name implies it looks like a bee, sounds like a bee and hovers like a hoverfly, but it is actually a fly. It has a long proboscis that projects from the front of its head which it uses to feed on nectar from spring flowers. By mimicking a bee it is left alone by would be predators. Clever bee-fly!
I also saw the first Holly Blue and small white butterflies over the weekend. There are three white butterflies in the UK that all look very similar. The Small White, the Green-veined White and the Large White. However most people refer to all three as if they were one species and incorrectly call them Cabbage Whites. They have acquired this “common” name because of their colour and the fact that their caterpillars feed off of the plants of the cultivated cabbage family. Anyone who grows cabbages like me will know what I mean! Below is a photo of a Green-veined White taken in our garden last Autumn.
Tuesday 14th April
I’m lucky to have a couple of narrow winged Damselflies living in my pond, a blue and a red. Damselflies are insects in the sub-order Zygoptera, meaning paired-wings. In the UK there are over 20 species. See this link
These slender insects are beautifully coloured in shades of light blue, blue-green or red-brown colouration, all with dark markings. They are all very beautiful.
The first to appear in Spring are normally the Large Red Damselflies. Two of these magnificent insects emerged from my pond yesterday. The other species we have is the Common Blue Damselfly. They emerge about a couple of weeks after the Large Red. The photos below are of a Large Red Damselfly resting on the unopened flower buds of honeysuckle next to my pond.
Along with damselflies there are over 30 different Dragonflies species recorded. Dragonflies are insects in the sub-order Anisoptera, meaning unequal-winged. I have at least 3 different species living in my pond that I know of; the Southern Hawker, Broad-bodied Chaser and Common Chaser. They don’t normally emerge from the water until much later in the summer. I’ll feature them in a later blog.
Monday 13th April
Our swifts will have just begun their long migration journey back to us from Africa. In the last couple of days there’s been a steady trickle crossing the straits of Gibraltar and on the Island of Corsica several thousand have been sighted. There have also been reports of several hundred seen over Barcelona. However the majority of the UK swifts are still down in Africa. But the good news is they are definitely on their way. They are most likely somewhere between the Congo and the Ivory Coast and heading our way.
Here is a map to give you an idea of their migration route and timeline. This data was collected from a swift that had a geo-locator fitted to it. The red line is its migration to Africa in the autumn of 2011 and the green line is its route home the following spring. The dates alongside both lines give you an idea of the timeline.
Other summer migrants are already here. I’ve been receiving reports from all over the UK of ever increasing numbers of swallows, house and sand martins.
I also heard my first blackcap of the season yesterday, it was absolutely delightful. Some people say its song rivals that of the nightingale for beauty – here is a link to a BTO webpage. The poet John Clare wrote about the blackcap and called it the March Nightingale.
You may have just seen us briefly on BBC Breakfast this morning. As you can tell we were both nervous, although it was fun! Here are photos showing the social distancing during the filming.
Sunday 12th April
Our friend wildlife artist, Jonathan Pomroy has started his own daily nature blog from his home in North Yorkshire. It’s a lovely read and beautifully illustrated with his drawings and paintings. Well worth a look – see this link.
Here’s an update about my resident garden birds. The blue tit and great tit are sat on eggs and both pairs of robins are nest building. My tame robin, Rob and his mate have chosen a dense section of the hedge in the back garden to set up home. Whilst the front garden robin has picked an open-fronted box hidden on the wall by the clematis. The blackbird has selected next doors bay tree in which to build. I think there might also be another pair of blue tits and possibly a pair of great tits in two of my other boxes. I’ve seen birds going into both boxes over the last couple of days, so that looks promising as well.
Here are the photos of the occupied boxes in order – robin, great tit and blue tit.
If you have any spare timber in the shed there’s still time to knock up a bird box this weekend. They are really simple to make and it’s something you can get the kids involved with as well. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have produced a handy pdf guide on how to make bird boxes see this link.
Along with Rob our friendly robin who follows us about all day our tame wren, known to us as Wrenkin also likes to join in. He comes to visit us every day on the patio. He’s very quick and could easily be mistaken for a little mouse as he darts about. Wrens are different to other birds in some ways. It’s the male who builds the nest rather than the female. He builds several nests over his territory and invites his mate to check each one out in turn. She will choose the one she likes best and will begin to line it with soft feathers. The nests are domed shaped, about the size of a large grapefruit with a little hole in the middle. They are beautifully made, mostly of moss and dried leaves. I know Wrenkin is a male as I’ve seen him making his nests in my garden. Here is a short video of Wrenkin who likes to feed under our patio table.
Saturday 11th April
A couple of weeks ago I heard my first chiffchaff. I always look forward to hearing the first one as it’s normally the first summer migrant to return to us. Some people say seeing the first swallow heralds the coming of the summer. For me it’s hearing the first chiffchaff.
Admittedly its not the greatest songster, its song consisting of only two syllables, chiff and chaff. Hence its name the chiffchaff. Its not the most colourful of birds either and is most commonly referred to by twitchers as a LBJ – little brown job. In German it is called zilpzalp, in Welsh siff-saff and in Dutch tjiftjaf.
Most of them spend their winters in Southern Europe and Northern Africa. However some chiffchaffs are now taking advantage of our milder winters and cutting out the risk of migration by staying here. This is a gamble, but then migration is a gamble. It has a sweet and simple song that echos from our woods in March and is something to cherish. You know once you’ve heard the chiffchaff all the other summer migrants aren’t that far behind. Have a listen out for one next time you’re out.
Click on this link to hear BTO chiffchaff & willow warbler.
Friday 10th April
It’s still a bit early for our swifts despite this spell of glorious weather. There has been the odd one sighted over the UK, but the vast majority won’t arrive until the first week in May. That got me looking at my records and I thought you might like to see some of the information I’ve collected over the years.
I’ve been keeping records for 15 years. I first started back in 2005 and as from 2011 had the added bonus of 17 nest box cameras to help me further. Swifts are site faithful and return year on year to the same nest site so reliable data can be collected. Here is a link to my the colony results for the last 4 years.
Swifts are relatively long-lived birds when compared to other songbirds of a similar size. The oldest ringed bird was found dead in Oxford and was at least 18 years old. Swifts don’t normally breed until they are 3 years old. I don’t ring my birds so it’s difficult to know exactly how old mine are. However I do know from my observations that some birds have been coming back to the same box for 9 years. That would make them at least 12 years old.
During the 15 years I’ve been keeping records the first swift has arrived back at Swift House in April nine times and in May six times. The earliest date recorded was on April 20th and the latest was May 6th.
In the last 15 years 10 of the arrival dates have been between April 26th and May 1st.
The colony takes on average 3 weeks to return.
The first egg is laid on average 10 days after the pair have reunited.
Incubation takes on average 20 days.
The average clutch size is 2 eggs.
Chicks take on average 45 days to fledge.
Most adults remain in the box about 1 week after their chicks have fledged.
However the one thing I am most chuffed about is the number of chicks that have fledged from my boxes over the years. 123 in total! That’s an 123 extra swifts in the world. Now that’s really is something to celebrate.
Here are a some videos of our swifts taken over the years and below are photos taken inside our swift boxes in previous years.
Thursday 9th April
The recent spell of warm sunshine has brought out the solitary bees. Over the last couple of days I’ve noticed increasing numbers of red mason bees buzzing around my bee hotels.
It’s the males that emerge first and they tend to stay close to the bee hotel. Groups of males jostle one another for the prime position. The reason is they want to be first to mate with any emerging female. Activity around the bee hotel can be quite intense and very interesting to watch. The beauty with these bees is they are very gentle and not aggressive at all to humans unlike wasps.
Bee hotels are simple to make and very effective, perhaps it’s something you could make with your kids? Here’s a short video by our friend Matt Collis on how to make one yourself. It was filmed in our garden a few years ago when he was working for Avon Wildlife Trust.
One point I would make is not to make your holes too big. I’ve found holes ranging from 6mm to 8mm are the ones the bees prefer, anything bigger than that and they’re unlikely to be used.
Wednesday 8th April
Is it just my imagination but since the lockdown the birds seem to be louder? Without the hum of traffic to drown them out their songs are crisper and clearer and even more beautiful than ever. I’ve just finished a delightful book by Simon Barnes “ Birdwatching with your eyes closed”. It was a Christmas present which I was saving for my holidays in Devon. Alas my beautiful Devon will have to do without me for a while, so I had the opportunity to read it now. I’m so glad I did. If you fancy a good read then I would recommend this book to you.
Simon’s a brilliant birder. He’s also a very eloquent and witty writer. I love his books and have read most of them over the years. This particular book could have been written just for the current situation we find ourselves in now. In this book he writes with great passion about 66 of the most common birds songs you’re ever likely to hear and here’s the clever part, this book comes with a free podcast so you can hear the songs of each bird as well. Have a look at this page https://shortbooks.co.uk/book/birdwatching-with-your-eyes-closed and click on Closed by Simon Barnes (mp3).
All birds sing and each species sings a different song which is really handy when you’re trying to identify them. Many of us already know about a dozen species without really knowing it. The pigeon coos, the crow caws, the duck quacks. Some birds even sing their own name like the cuckoo. See you already know some and you haven’t begun yet to listen properly.
To pinch a quote Simon’s book “Every time you walk into a wood or along the seashore, every time you take a detour through a park on the way to work, every time you sit in the garden, the sounds around you will become charged with meaning, And every bird is singing your song.”
Right now the dawn chorus is getting louder and louder each morning as more birds join in. It will reach its crescendo sometime in May. During the day you will hear the songs of many different birds and some will become your favourites. I’ve set myself a challenge. On my one permitted exercise walk I’m trying to identify as many different singers as I can. It’s a bit of fun and something we can all do for free!
Yesterday afternoon BBC Breakfast TV presenter John Maguire and cameraman Ross interviewed us about swift boxes and birdsong. Even Rob our tame robin managed to get in on the act. I’m not surprised though as he likes being the centre of attention! It was a bit surreal because of social distancing, but although we were nervous we are glad we did it. It is due to be shown on Saturday morning, although that may change. Here are a few photos.
Tuesday 7th April
I try to put my boxes back up sometime in the first 2 weeks of April. If I put them up too early then I run the risk of blue and great tits moving in. If I leave it too late I’m petrified my swifts will return and find they’re not there.
However the exact timing is always down to the weather. What’s ideal for me is a warmish day with light wind and last Friday and Saturday were perfect.
It takes me about a day to put them all up and reconnect all the cameras. However it’s very satisfying once it’s done and I can relax for a while. Even Rob knows how important it is and leaves me alone to get on with it.
My neighbours also seem to like it as well. One elderly lady commenting as she passed by on her daily walk “ I always love to see your boxes go back up. I know summer won’t be far behind”. Another neighbour offering me very sensible advice “Try not to fall of the ladder”. Thanking her for such good advice I said I do my best not too!
Here’s a few photos.
Monday 6th April
Did you guess the identity of the fluffy bird in yesterday’s blog? Pat on the back if you said it was a Great Tit. Here is a photo.
Let me tell you a bit more about Rob, our tame Robin. I first met Rob back in the summer of 2016. He had just fledged and was still speckled. He didn’t have his red breast, however he was remarkably friendly even back then. He used to follow me around the veg patch and I would throw him the odd earthworm or two.
By the autumn I had moved on from feeding him earthworms to live meal worms. Robins absolutely love meal worms and Rob was no exception. As he became tamer he started to come closer and over a period of a couple of weeks I had him feeding out of my hand. We had become firm and trusted friends.
Over the last couple of years we’ve opened our garden up for charity. It was meant to be an opportunity for us to share our garden and teach people about swifts. However Rob was having none of this and was always the star attraction. Flying from person to person for a feed, by the end of the day he could hardly move!
This year Rob will be 4 years old. That’s quite old for a robin. Most wild robins only survive for a couple of years, so he’s done amazingly well. Perhaps it’s all the meal worms he gets? Whatever it is I love having him around. He is however beginning to show his age. Whereas a year or so ago he would fly to me as soon as he saw me now he waits for me (or Jane) to go to him. I sometimes wonder who’s in charge! He also gets impatient with me if I fail to notice him, flying and landing momentarily on my head to attract my attention.
He’s found a new mate this year and at the moment she is busily nest building whilst he watches. He does however take her the odd meal worm from time to time just to keep her going, but not before he’s had 3 or 4 himself!
Here is a link to a short professionally shot video of Rob taken last July when he was he going through his summer moult, along with other wildlife in our garden at that time.
A lovely photo of Rob yesterday, all puffed up and looking particularly pleased with himself. The warm sunshine also brought out the butterflies, and in some numbers. Lots of peacocks, a few speckled wood and brimstone and the first orange tipped butterfly of the year. It landed on the purple wallflower to drink nectar. Not easy to photograph as you can see!
Sunday 5th April
Many people across the UK have cameras inside their swift boxes like we do. Our friends Tanya and Edmund in Cumbria had this bird move into one of their swift pipe boxes. Below are their photos of the fluffy ball of a bird and the location of the nest site which will give you an indication of its size. They eventually managed to identify the bird, but not before a lot of head scratching! They reckon many birders will have difficulty identifying it and thought it may be fun to add these photos to our blog for you to guess. All will be revealed in Monday’s blog.
Another swift friend Amnonn in Israel has already got his swifts back and they’ve already started laying! The swifts in Israel start to arrive from the end of February so they’re a good couple of months ahead of us. Here is a link to his live swift cameras. Please subscribe if you would like to watch, so you can get new clips. Last Friday Amnonn emailed me that “Right now there are 3 nests “On Air”: B4, B6 & 19M. The 1st 2 have already 1 egg each. B4 from yesterday, B6 as of this morning.19M had laid 3 eggs, but did not stay in and a pair of neighbouring House Sparrows smashed them”. I expect you get the gist. Nevertheless this will have changed since then, so you will need to look at his cameras.
Saturday 4th April
Since last summer I’ve been thinking about making the pond completely wildlife friendly. The only thing stopping me was getting rid of the goldfish. I’ve had them for many years and have grown quite fond of them. However I have been noticing less and less tadpoles each spring. Goldfish and tadpoles don’t mix well!
So back in February with a heavy heart I started to give away the fish. I thought there was only 20 in the pond, but when it reached 70 I stopped counting. And there is still another one in there!!
However since I removed them I’ve already seen a difference. There seem to be more tadpoles than ever. The frogs first appeared back in February and by early March over 20 clumps of spawn were clearly visible in the pond. The toads arrived a bit later, turning up in mid-March. Most have finished spawning now, however I did photograph this pair a couple of days ago. Toads lay their spawn in strings not clumps like frogs, weaving their long strands of eggs through the reeds.
The newts have also returned. I’ve seen both the smooth and palmate in the last couple of days, but I’m still waiting to see my first great crested newt. I’m pretty sure they’re in there, but the pond is green with algae at the moment so it’s difficult to see down to the bottom. Hoping it clears in the next few weeks. Pictures of smooth, palmate and great crested newts.
Friday 3rd April
During the lovely weather last week I got all my boxes out of winter storage. In the autumn I take them down and store them in the cellar under the house. I do this mainly to protect the life of the cameras, although I have no hard evidence to say whether it actually makes any difference or not! Anyway it’s a routine I’ve got into and despite it being a bit of a chore it gives me the chance to clean out each box.
Swifts are fastidious birds so most boxes are pretty clean, but as is the way of life some birds are a lot cleaner than others! I give the interiors a quick hoover to remove any droppings, but what I’m really looking for is the eggs of the parasitic louse-fly crataerina pallida. Their eggs look like shiny black vitamin pills and some nests can contain several dozen.
Crataerina is a particularly gruesome looking parasite that feeds on the blood of swifts. Like most parasites they have evolved not to kill their hosts but watching these crab-like blood-suckers scuttling over both adults and young is particularly upsetting. So to lessen the burden on each nest I try to remove all the eggs I can find. However despite my best efforts some crataerina re-appear again in May, but at least their numbers are relativity low. Crataerina Pallida has a very interesting life cycle which I will talk about in more detail in a later blog.
One of the downfalls of storing my boxes over winter is the feather mites present in all nests. The temperature of our cellar is a constant 10C and this enables the mites to carry on feeding on the nest material. By the time I take the boxes out of storage most nests are looking in a particularly sorry state, so I add a handful of fresh feathers to each box as a starter nest to help the returning birds. It’s the least I could do in the circumstances!
Here’s a photo of me adding feathers to some of my boxes and another one of our garden yesterday when the sun came out for a short time.
Thursday 2nd April
I thought it would make sense to give you an idea of the overall size and layout of our garden. A few photos can be seen here on NGS website https://ngs.org.uk/view-garden/34424/
Our garden faces due south and is approximately 35m long by 15m wide. It’s surrounded on 3 sides by a large well-established hedge. The hedge is 2m high by 1m wide and is made up of a mixture of beech, holly and hawthorn. The garden is split roughly in half to create two separate areas. The bottom half is dedicated to the production of fruit and veg for the table. The top half is much more formal, containing several large herbaceous borders, half a dozen ornamental trees and a wildlife pond. Separating both halves are two large conifers and in the middle of the fruit and veg patch is a very old and gnarled apple tree which holds pride of place.
Our pond is home to 5 different species of amphibians, plus a handful of dragonflies and damselflies. During the year we see over 35 different bird species. I’ve counted at least 13 different butterflies and 7 bees species, but I’m sure there’s many, many more I’ve missed. Popping in from time to time are a few mammals and during the summer months far too many insects to name. The majority of plants are grown to provide food and shelter for the wildlife (and hopefully food for us!) throughout the year. During the summer special emphasis is on flowers that are nectar rich and in the autumn on berries. Dotted around the garden are numerous small bird boxes of all different shapes and sizes. 12 species of bird have nested in the garden over the years, one of my favourites being the long-tailed tit. So for an urban garden just a few miles from Bristol city centre we have quite a good variety of wildlife.
Below are some photos of our garden taken last year to show you the layout. Also here is a link to our wildlife garden website https://bristolgarden.weebly.com/
Wednesday 1st April
Welcome back to another year at Swift House.
We hope all of you are well and managing to cope in these difficult and worrying times. Whilst we all try and adapt to the harsh realities imposed on us by coronavirus, nature goes on outside as normal. With this in mind I have decided to start my blog early with the help of my wife Jane, acting as editor and providing photos and occasional videos.
My name is Mark and you can follow my daily blog to find out what is happening at Swift House here in Bristol. Our first swifts should arrive back sometime in late April. I always look forward to their return and will impatiently count down the days to their arrival. This year their return will be even more appreciated than normal, if that’s possible!
However whilst we eagerly await their return there is plenty of other wildlife action going on in the garden. I’ve no idea what surprises will unfold over the coming months, but I’m sure there will be some unexpected events once again. For those of you who followed last years blog you’ll be pleased to know that Rob, my tame Robin is alive and well and so are Wrenkin and Waggy. They’re our tame wren and pied wagtail, who along with Rob have been our companions for the last 3 years. Rob’s found a new mate and has already started nesting, but I’ll tell you more about him and our other two friends on another day.
I really love this time of year. It’s so full of new life and promise. Not just because it’s when my beloved swifts return, but for all the other wildlife that abounds in spring. You’ll see the first primrose, the first butterflies begin to emerge from hibernation and hear the first chiffchaff singing. It seems that every day something new happens.
The French have an eloquent phase to describe spring, they call it is the season full of “ La joie de vivre”, which roughly translates as full of “the joys of living”. In these troubled times I’d go along with that!