Friday, 24 July 2015

Trumpington Swift Tower 2015 update

The tower is appreciated by the local
Wood Pigeons (click to enlarge)
The Trumpington Community Orchard Swift Tower was erected in October 2013 (see story), and its first full season was 2014. Although attraction calls were played throughout the season, as far as we know, no Swifts occupied any of the nest boxes. Now in 2015 we have our first breeding pair.

by Dick

This is great news and a well deserved reward for all of the effort put in by everyone involved. Screaming parties of up to 20 birds have been seen circling the tower.

A Swift was first seen entering the tower by a member of the public in late May, but it was not until 28th June, when 2 birds were seen entering the same nest box at dusk, that a pair was confirmed. Since then chicks have been heard cheeping when parents enter the nestbox, this is proof of breeding. Also occasional entries to other nest boxes have been witnessed.

This post also gives us an excuse to publish a picture of the tower (above), complete with its 20W solar panel, 2 bat boxes and squirrel barrier. The triangular cabinet, half way up, supports the solar panel and contains a 25 amp-hour golf cart battery, regulator, timer and Cheng Sheng player amplifier.

A parent leaving the box on the left

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Another gable in the sun

My daughter and son-in-law decided they would like a Swift box on their Elsworth, Cambs house. The only viable place was at the top of a west-southwest facing gable end.

[Postscript: On July 1st 2015, the "hottest July day ever", the temperature reached 32.8°C in the box - well within safe limits]
[Postscript 2: on July 23rd, A Swift enters the top box. There have been up to 7 'bangers' pulled in by the attraction calls]

by Dick

The design is a very similar idea to this box, which did not have a potential over-heating problem. This configuration contains just 3 nest chambers. West-southwest is not as bad as south, but the afternoon sun could well be a problem.

4 things should keep the temperature within reasonable limits:

•  The front is 24mm thick - 2 layers of 12mm plywood.
•  The shaped battens cover about half of the front and provide shade from sun directly into the entrances.
•  It is painted white.
•  Air can ventilate into the space between the box sides and the eaves.
A wireless max-min thermometer has been placed in the top box to monitor the maximum temperature each day.

The battens keep the entrances in the shade. The tweeter is attached to the bottom of the box with Velcro.
[Postscript: the swifts pulled the tweeter off, so it has been moved inside one of the boxes]

The detailed construction is illustrated in the pictures below:

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Maiden Tower, Baku, Azerbaijan update

We previously reported on the Swifts in the Maiden Tower here
It was one of the most stimulating talks at the Cambridge International Swift Conference

Maiden Tower on the left, nest boxes o the right

Despite extensive restoration of the Maiden Tower, the project team were able to keep up to 150 nest cavities in the Tower itself. In addition, many more nest cavities were created on a neighbouring modern building. By regular watching during the breeding season and inspection of sites afterwards, it was estimated that at least 40 pairs bred. Playing of calls seems to be very successful and the team are expecting the number of breeding pairs to grow in coming seasons. A valuable spin-off from the project is the publicity given to Swift conservation: last year over 250 official delegations visited the Tower and the adjacent building.
For this update, we wish to thank Samir Nuriyev, Director of the Administration of State Historical-Architectural Reserve “Ichersheher” under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Special thanks are also due to Mrs Leyla Aliyeva, Vice-president of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and founder of IDEA (International Action for Environmental Action) for initiating and coordinating the project to provide alternative accommodation for Swifts in the adjacent modern building.

 One of the challenges to architects and designers is how to add Swift accommodation to a new building in a way that does not spoil the appearance of the buildilng. Essentially you either try to hide the boxes, or you make a feature of them. The Baku architects took the second route and boldly arranged the boxes on the buildling surface to look like giant Swifts.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Beijing Swift project preliminary results

Action for Swifts is delighted to have been involved in the Beijing Swift project where we attached 31 geolocators to Swifts at the Summer Palace in 2014 (see story). On 24th May 2015 we retrapped 13 of these birds, and downloaded all of the data successfully.

by Dick

Prior to this project, the journey made by these iconic birds - synonymous with Beijing since 1417 when they made their nests in the original city gatehouses, was a matter of speculation. We now know that they arrive in Beijing in April and, after breeding, begin their long journey to Africa in late July, taking a route that first leads them west-northwest into Mongolia, from where they pass north of the Tianshan mountains, then south through Iran and central Arabia into tropical Africa, before spending 3 months of the winter in Namibia and the Western Cape.

They begin the return journey in February, retracing a similar route on the way back, arriving in Beijing in mid-April, a journey that sees them cross about 20 borders. 

For the full story, read the Press release

One track of 13 geolocators recovered (click map to enlarge)

Lyndon Kearsley releasing a Swift with geolocator PhotZhang Weimin

Terry Townshend, right, releasing a Swift PhotZhang Weimin

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Milton Country Park, Cambridge

Milton Country Park is an attractive local amenity, with trees, open spaces, lakes and a visitor centre. The visitor centre provides a suitable opportunity for some Swift boxes on one of its gable ends.

The park has a small staff of wardens and rangers and also a band of volunteers to help with maintenance and upkeep. The idea for Swift boxes came from Clarke Brunt, one of the volunteers who lives in Milton. Clarke has a successful colony of Swifts on his house which you can see online.

2 sets of 3 boxes, each with a double roof
The visitor centre has no eaves, and the gable end is quite exposed. So we made our own eaves by putting a double roof across 2 groups of 3 boxes, designed to fit the angle of the roof (18°). The roofs are covered with roofing felt.

The entrances are at the left (high) end of each box, as fitting cameras, eventually, will be made easier.

The result fits in with the architecture of the visitor centre.

A tweeter was attached to the side of the 2nd box from the left, driven by a Cheng Sheng player-amplifier.

Following future success with this project, there is scope for at least another 9 boxes on this gable end.

The double roof is effective in the mid-day sun
See Milton Country Park website

Thursday, 16 April 2015

More experiences of retrofitting internal Swift boxes

There are a number of examples on this blog of retrofitted nestboxes in a roof-space, behind a gable end (e.g. herehere and here). We had not ourselves done this by using a core drill to make a hole through the wall, so when the opportunity arose, we grabbed it with open arms.

[Postscript July 2015: a pair moved into the right most box and raised 2 chicks]

by Dick

Christina Day, of Haverhill, had been trying to attract Swifts to some Zeist nest boxes installed under the eaves on the north east side of her house. She attracted Swifts alright, but they only paid attention to the fascia board on her south east-facing gable end. Thus she felt that she needed more nest boxes on this gable end. She bought 4 woodcrete boxes and contacted AfS to install them. The situation is ideal, as the gable end faces out over open land.

The roof trusses next to the inside wall, restricted what one could do with the woodcrete boxes, so we ended up making 2 plywood boxes.

Having established a reference point by drilling a single hole through the wall through the mortar, we then judiciously chose 4 suitable verticle bonds to make an entrance. This was achieved by using an angle grinder on the outside to slice a quarter brick off the ends of 2 adjacent bricks and then a masonry drill to remove the rest of the material.

This was quite hard work.

A hole from the outside through the middle of the vertical bond provided a reference point for using the 107mm diamond core to drill through the inner wall of soft concrete blocks.

This was the easiest part of the job as the core drill went through the wall like a knife through butter - quite therapeutic!

As in the case of Judith Wakelam's boxes, we used an insert fashioned out of a 30mm airbrick liner to make the entrances on the outside. A 4 inch plastic pipe, butted against the outside wall, bridged the cavity to the inside.

It was more than a full day's work for 2 of us, but we were pleased with the end result.

It would be so much easier if it was standard practice to build boxes like this in at the time that the house is built

The following pictures illustrate the result:

4 entrances
View through the pipe to the outside entrance

4 entrances prior to fitting nest boxes

Bill Murrells finishing off the installation of 2 plywood and 2 woodcrete boxes.
Picture of a diamond core drill

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Gable end Swift cabinet

Gable ends are often a good opportunity for Swift boxes because of their height. This gable end, in Reach, Cambs., faces north-west and is high, so very suitable.

[Postscript July 2015: the pair nesting in the apex of the brickwork returned to use the new apex entrance. Another pair occupied the left box on the 2nd row and House Sparrows occupied 2 boxes on the right of the bottom row]

by Dick

Photo Dafila Scott
As the eaves were quite narrow (~150mm),the only option was a flat fronted box with holes in it. So, in order to make it a little more interesting we added battens above the entrances.

These were fashioned by slicing a '4 by 2' at 45°. The battens had the added advantage of providing some level of shade and defending the entrances from the rain.

The wood stain used is Rosewood.

The cabinet contains 9 nesting places, the top most entrance, in the apex, is in front of an entrance in the brickwork which has previously been used by Swifts.

The box is secured by screws through the side walls into the wooden soffits. The final erection required scaffolding supporting a ladder.

Photo Dafila Scott
The images below show how it was constructed:

Friday, 3 April 2015

Milton Road Primary School upgrade

In 2010, 4 DIY swift boxes were installed, one of which was occupied that year (see story). In 2011, 2 more boxes and a camera were added. In 2014 we added a 2nd camera, by which time all 6 boxes were occupied. Pictures were streamed online via the The Birdbox Project.

by Dick

We have now added 6 more boxes as well as 2 more cameras. The original boxes were 525mm long whereas the new boxes are 315mm long. We believe the Swifts will find them acceptable.  The design is an example of this generic template.

Temperature measurements on this south-facing aspect have shown that the temperature remains within acceptable limits.
The original, larger boxes are, from the left, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11 & 12, all occupied by Swifts in 2014.
The AV cables have yet to be tidied up.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Eaves nest box design tool

We have built quite a few Swift nest boxes to fit under broad eaves. Some eaves are horizontal and some slope at an angle. The angle and width of the eaves varies. Every time I generate a new drawing, so I decided to see if one could produce a generalised template. This is not for those allergic to spreadsheets or for technical Luddites, but it may have some mileage for those who can overcome these psychological barriers.

Contributed by Dick

The great thing about boxes under eaves is that they are largely sheltered from the weather. So plywood is a suitable material and it is ideally suited to those with a DIY bent. The generic design proposed here looks neat under eaves. The carpentry is not that challenging. It doesn't cover all eaves situations, but it is ideal for broad flat horizontal or gently sloping eaves. (slope less than 30° say).

Ideally one needs a parametric CAD system for these sorts of things, but they are expensive, so, we have encapsulated the design in a spreadsheet which calculates all of the necessary dimensions from a few parameters provided by the user.

You can see the spreadsheet here then download for use in Excel.

Designs resulting from 3 parameter settings

Dimensioned design drawing

Thursday, 19 March 2015

More Swift boxes in St Neots church

In 2007, we installed 12 Swift boxes in the north side of the belfry of St Mary the Virgin, St Neots. Most years, attraction calls have been played and in 2014, 9 of the 12 boxes were occupied. With the help of generous funding from 'St Neots in Bloom' we have now added 32 more boxes, 16 in the east and 16 in the west.

by Dick

West side of belfry, the boxes are just
visible half way up the louvres
The louvres in this church are enormous, and it was not possible to follow our usual advice of putting boxes behind the highest louvres first. We therefore went for putting boxes behind the openings half way up. Even so, it was quite a feat of engineering to erect boxes 15 feet above the floor of the belfry. We thought that entrances here would be more obvious to the Swifts compared to entrances behind the louvres.

We had 2 choices for the colour of the boxes, black or stone. We chose stone (Sandtex 'Mid Stone') to provide a better contrast for the entrances. Whether this contributed to the success of the first 12 boxes we cannot say, but it worked.

Battens were affixed to the stonework each side of the louvres, by screwing into the soft mortar. No holes were drilled in the stonework. The boxes are secured to these battens.

8 of the 16 entrances on the west side.
The original 2 cabinets contained 6 boxes each. This was done at a time when we thought that Swifts required a larger space. Since we have discovered that Swifts readily accept smaller boxes, we increased the number of boxes to 8 per cabinet, we could not have got any more entrances in the limited size of the openings in the stonework. The floor area of each nest box is 20cm x 29cm.

4 completed cabinets, ready for installation
The inspection doors of the earlier cabinets were a simple flap rotating about a single screw. This wouldn't have worked in the new cabinets because the flaps would have collided, so we went for a simple hinge and a catch.

Many people contributed to this phase of the project, not least, Alison Pearson of St Neots in Bloom with their generous funding and encouragement, but also Jake Allsop, Bill Murrells, Bruce Martin, Bob Tonks, Judith Wakelam, Alan Clarke, grandchildren Katie, Lucy and Benjamin Thompson (who got paint all over his shirt). Lastly, we would like to thank the Vicar, the Reverand Dr Paul Andrews, and PCC for their permission to do this project as well as Catherina Griffiths, David Griffiths and George Bonham for their help with access to the church.

We hope that residents and visitors to St Neots will enjoy a magnificent Swift spectacle for years to come.
The original cabinets on the north side installed in 2007
New cabinets on the west side installed in 2015.
The cabinets on the east side are similar

Friday, 6 March 2015

Swift Conservation at Ecobuild

On 5th March, I had the pleasure of spending a day with Edward Mayer on Swift Conservation's exhibition stand at Ecobuild. 

Contributed by Dick

Held at the Excel, Ecobuild is the world's biggest sustainability event for the built environment, with roughly 800 exhibitors. It has everyone from those making money out of climate change, to recycling, houses made of straw, specialists in Japanese knotweed and those interested in the environment. Swift Conservation was one of a suite of stands in the 'Biodiversity Pavilion' alongside the Bat Conservation Trust,  British Beekeepers Association, Buglife, RSPB, Woodland Trust and NBN.

It was a great opportunity to talk to many people in the building industry about what they can do to reverse the decline of Swifts. Winning the hearts and minds of this industry is key to getting something done.

Eventually all of the UK Swift population will be in nestboxes, after every roof, eave and wall has been repaired. it will be like the situation with Purple Martins and Eastern Bluebirds in the US where the whole population now breeds in nestboxes.

The only way that the hundreds of thousands of nestboxes needed can be installed is to get the building industry on board. Ecobuild is a great opportunity to get at some of them.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Screamer the Swift - a review

AfS produced and published a booklet called 'I am a Swift, I am in trouble' (viewable here). It was aimed at children, but was so popular with adults too that we revised it to give it more universal appeal. We sell it for £1.50.
Langford Press, the publishers, have published a book called Screamer the Swift, which is also aimed at children. It is a glossy illustrated hardback and retails at £7.00. The question is: what do you get for seven pounds that you don't get for one pound fifty?

Contributed by Jake

Click to enlarge
First of all, it is a book, not a booklet, bigger page size, hardback, and produced on good quality paper. It is attractive to look at and to handle. The illustrations are in the form of line drawings by artist Barry Robson, and are superb, especially the ones that include architectural detail, primarily the Crescent, Bath, one of Britain's most iconic buildings. I would buy the book for the illustrations alone. My only quibble is the colour tone of the Swifts in the book: some are suspiciously pallid. Swifts ARE a sober brown, but they look black in the air, so it is unwise to give them the coloration of, say, Sand Martins.

As to the text, the facts are all there, breeding, behaviour, migration, etc, and there is also a brief account of how lost nest sites can be replaced by nestboxes or similar. A nice touch is the description of the young Swift on migration finding itself in the company of other migrating species like Honey Buzzard. There are other bonuses: illustrations of the Sahara which the migrants have to cross, and of the wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. There is also some historical detail to account for the Swift's dependence on buildings.

Everything is seen through the eyes of the Swift nestling, the eponymous “Screamer”. This inevitably leads to an anthropomorphic tone which adults might not find to their taste: “This is much better than that dark hole, he thought”, ie, Screamer on leaving the nest. But I assume it is what children (defined as, say, aged 7-12) like, or at least expect.

I was brought up on Ladybird books, an amazing commercial success in its time. “Screamer” is intended to be the first of a series, with Peregrine, Tawny Owl and Song Thrush to follow. Providing price is no deterrent, Langford may be poised to produce the modern equivalent of the Ladybird series. I wish them well.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Fulbourn Community Swift Survey 2014

The nest boxing project at the 'The Swifts' housing estate in Fulbourn, Cambs is probably the largest and most successful in the country. You can read background information in Fulbourn Community Swift Survey 2013 and Fulbourn Community Swift Survey 2012. This report brings things up to date for 2014.

Contributed by John Willis

This was another successful year for the Fulbourn Swifts Group – our fourth year of surveying in the village. Our main focus was again on surveying swifts around the new houses of The Swifts Development, which was approaching completion, but also we were able to do some monitoring of the small colony located at St Vigor’s Church including undertaking some point counts for the RSPB. 

It was a great summer for the swifts with a substantial increase in observed nest box use and in our estimated number of breeding pairs thanks to the continued popularity of the internal boxes.

We met on site at 'The Swifts' every Wednesday evening between 7 May and 27 August, and individuals made observations on many other evenings during the summer as well. With 23 people active in the survey we had an average of 8 observers each Wednesday. As in previous years, several local residents reported observations made from their own homes.

To raise awareness of swifts in the village ahead of the swift season we published articles in the Parish Council Newsletter and the Parish Magazine and we distributed a flyer to all homes on the Swifts Development.  At the end of May we organised a coffee morning and swift display at the Community Library where we had support from Action for Swifts – Judith Wakelam provided photographs and display material and Bob Humphrey brought nest boxes. Also we mounted displays at The Fulbourn Community Market and the Fulbourn Feast in June and a few new people were recruited to the group.

On the Swifts Development an estate of 1960s system built houses, which had become home to a large colony of swifts (72 breeding pairs in 2009), has been demolished and replaced by new homes with provision of swift nest boxes. 

John Willis with an internal nest box.
Photo © Rosemary Setchfield
The boxes are of two types; internal custom made wooden boxes incorporated in the house timber frames in gable ends (see design here), and external Schwegler 1MF double boxes fitted on gable ends in phase 1 and on front/rear elevations in phase 2. The photograph shows the structure of an internal box prior to incorporation into the timber frame of a house. The plastic pipe is cut flush with the external brick wall.

At the start of the swift season, work on the final part (Phase 2b) of the Development was well under way with a number of houses having been completed over the winter.  This added another 20 internal and 10 external nest boxes bringing the total on the site up to 159 internal and 98 external – it was quite a challenge for us to successfully monitor all of these!

Our first swifts of the season arrived a little later than usual on 5 May and during the month there were decent numbers flying overhead but with relatively small screaming parties. 

Activity increased significantly at the beginning of June with an influx of prospecting young birds and with the generally good weather there were spectacular flying displays with large screaming parties throughout June and July. Peak numbers of 70+ were seen on 23 July with low level screaming parties of up to 20 birds providing a wonderful spectacle. Numbers started to decline around 27 July and by the beginning of August there were no more than 20 birds flying overhead and with virtually no screaming parties.  We were aware of 8 nest boxes still being used in early August and one pair were feeding young right up to 1 September.

Swift leaving an internal nest box
Photo © Judith Wakelam
This year, swifts were observed using 102 out of 159 internal nest boxes, 8 out of 98 external nest boxes and 4 sites in the one remaining old block – 114 sites in total. This represents a substantial increase on the 80 sites observed in 2013.  We estimated that there were 78 potential breeding pairs – 72 in internal boxes, 4 in external boxes and 2 in the old block. The corresponding estimates of potential breeding pairs for 2013 and 2012 were 58 and 32, so it appears that the colony is making a rapid recovery following the demolition of the old nest sites.  With 36 other sites having been prospected during the summer there is optimism for further growth in the number of breeding pairs in 2015.

The increase in activity comes from the third phase of the development (2a), which was part completed for the summer of 2012 and which the birds first colonised in 2013.  This area includes a high concentration of internal boxes (76), which are mainly in groups of four located on gable ends of houses and 3 storey blocks of flats – birds were using boxes in both types of location. Table 1 shows the history of occupancy.

Internal boxes
% occupied23.42%36.69%45.28%
Schwegler 1MF
% occupied2.17%3.41%4.08%
% occupied17.20%23.79%29.57%
Old buildings
Grand total
Table 1: Summary of nest box activity 2012 - 2014.
Encouraging positive trends.

The major preference was again for the internal boxes with just one additional breeding pair using the external Schwegler boxes this year.  We have previously noted the presence of starlings in some Schwegler boxes but we have not observed any direct interaction between starlings and swifts. During April we walked the site on a number of evenings to assess the use of the external boxes by starlings and we were surprised to find that the starling population appeared to be relatively low.  We saw birds using 15 of the 98 external boxes and 2 of the 159 internal boxes and we heard evidence of young in just 5 of the external boxes.  We observed starlings using all four of the external boxes in the photograph below, but there was no evidence of young present.  Subsequently swifts nested in both of the top boxes for the second season running.
Schwegler 1MF external boxes
Swifts nested in the top boxes
So it appears that starlings are having little impact on swift use of this type of box. At the same time we noted sparrows using at least 9 internal boxes – nearly all of these boxes were subsequently used by swifts.

The builders have now completed the last houses of the Swifts Development so for the 2015 swift season there will be another 20 nest boxes available and we will have the task of monitoring over 270 boxes!  We will continue with our publicity within the village to maintain awareness of the project and to ensure that we have good participation in the 2015 survey. If any Fulbourn residents reading this would be interested in putting up a nest box or taking part in the 2015 survey, then please contact us at 

Thursday, 5 February 2015

I AM A SWIFT - 2nd edition

In 2011 Action for Swifts published the 1st edition of 'I am a swift - I am in trouble'. Since then it has been reprinted twice plus an Irish version, with some new ideas was produced by Lynda Huxley, Swift Conservation Ireland. So, in September we decided to do a 2nd edition.

If you wish you can read the online version.

It is produced in an A5 landscape format, copies can be ordered, £1.50 each from

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Swifts Local Network

The Cambridge International Swift Conference provided a great chance for networking.  One result has been that a Swifts Local Network (SLN) has been set up. This will enable the many UK-based individuals and small groups now working on Swift conservation initiatives to share experiences and ideas more easily.

As a first step, Peta Sams has produced this map showing where members of the Network are operating.

First hit the 'full screen' icon, then click on any symbol for brief details of the activities in that location.

There is also now a SLN Yahoo group, which anyone in the UK can join by invitation, and through which users can exchange news and information, and seek help or advice. This newsgroup should sit neatly alongside the Swallows Martins and Swifts Worldwide group (known as SMS).

So if you are working on Swift conservation in the UK and would like to join the Group and register your project on the map please contact Peta Sams.

Useful links to SLN are:

Post message:



List Owner:

Chris Mason

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Swift crusader gets RSPB recognition

The RSPB gives a "President's Award" to honour those volunteers who have made a truly outstanding contribution.

Stephen Fitt
And few have made a more outstanding contribution for Swifts than Stephen Fitt. Stephen has campaigned tirelessly to persuade planners, developers and architects in the South West to ensure that Swift boxes are installed in new buildings - a practice endorsed by planning institutions, and hopefully to be replicated nationally.

It was as recently as 2009 that it was officially recognised that Swifts were in trouble in the UK, when the species was amber-listed. The decline has been going on for far longer than the start of the Breeding Bird Survey, BBS, which monitors the population level each year.

Stephen was one of a number of people who, ahead of officaldom,  recognised the problem.

While Stephen would be the first to recognise that he is part of a team effort, it is good to see official recognition of both the plight of Swifts and of someone devoted to doing something about it.