Saturday, 6 February 2016

More swift boxes in Milton, Cambs

We already reported on Clarke Brunt's Swift boxes, where he had 6 breeding pairs of Swifts in 2015. Our recent successes with installing internal nest boxes in roof spaces convinced Clarke that he could do the same. Although there are no new ideas here, this is another example of a well executed installation.

by Dick

The location is perfect, right on Milton High Street and opposite the Lion & Lamb public house, where people sit out on summer evenings. The Lion & Lamb can expect increased custom from Swift nuts this summer and all future summers!

The project is very similar to what we did in Newnham. Again it was a Victorian solid wall, where removing a header was an easy way of making a hole through the wall. The same cast moulded concrete inserts were used for the entrances.

This time the boxes were made with hinged doors on the back, but were constructed so that these can easily be replaced with perspex backs if so desired.

This project was implemented by Bill Murrells and Clarke himself, with a bit of help from me.

The following pictures are self explanatory.
The view from the Lion & Lamb
3 entrances on the right hand side
Detail of a single entrance
6 boxes neatly installed
3 boxes on left side of gable
Close up of a single box


Friday, 5 February 2016

Swift nest box 1908-09 style

The February 2016 issue of British Birds magazine contains a fascinating letter by Richard Porter and Graham Madge about the value of nestboxes to bird conservation (Brit. Birds February 2016).

by Dick Newell

The letter references a leaflet published by the RSPB over 100 years ago, in 1908/09, which includes nest box designs for the usual tits, woodpeckers, flycatchers, and Wrynecks (now extinct in the UK) and also a very nice looking design for  Swifts!

Swift box cropped from the leaflet below

In those days, you could buy a Swift box for 2 shillings (10p then, £10.75 in todays money).

Recorded bird calls had not been invented then, so one wonders what success rate they had with these boxes.

The BB article asks the question whether nest boxes have had any conservation impact on various species? The 3% per annum decline on a Swift population of 87,000 pairs (in 2009) (Musgove et al 2012) could mean that ~2600 pairs of Swifts are being lost each year. As the 87,000 is almost certainly an underestimate, and given likely occupancy rates, then 3 or 4 times 2600 nest boxes may be needed just to stand still.

If the mass house-builders get on board with the idea of incorporating nestboxes in every suitable gable end, then this should be doable.

The inspiring RSPB leaflet, published in Bird Notes and News 1908/09 is here:

Musgrove A., Aebischer N., Eaton M., Hearn R., Newson S., Noble D., Parsons M., Risely K. and Stroud D. 2012.
Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. British Birds 106 * February 2013 * 64-100
Porter R.F. and Madge, G.  2016. Boxing Clever: the value of nestboxes to bird conservation Brit. Birds, Letters, 109: 122

Friday, 29 January 2016

Circular entrance inserts

We have been quite successful in retrofitting half brick-sized entrance inserts in brick walls, either by removing a header from a solid wall (here), or cutting an entrance in a cavity wall (here). We here present an idea more suited for inserting in a rendered cavity wall comprising building blocks.

by Dick

The mould is made out of a 50mm piece of a pipe 102.5mm
internal diameter. The entrance formers are 3D printed.
Builders are accustomed to making circular holes in walls to fit such things as ventilation grills and extractor fans. So this idea may be preferred by some builders, even in brick outer walls.

Michael Osborne did something similar here.

We have used the same 3D-printed former that we used for the half brick entrances, but this time we made a mould out of a piece of 4 inch pipe.

The internal box could either be embedded in the inner wall or inside the inner wall, typically in a roof space, accessed via a pipe.

Although we have not used this idea on a real project yet, we thought it worth sharing.

Computer generated pictures below:

Outside view of insert

In this case, the nest box is inside the roof-space (back removed) .
Alternatively the nestbox could be embedded in the inner wall, spanning the cavity.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Swifts and traditional nest sites in Anglican churches

This is an appeal for records of Swifts nesting in churches in Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire

by Chris Mason

St Nicholas, Islip, one of the many Oxfordshire churches
which formerly had nesting Swifts
50 years ago most of our local parish churches had nesting Swifts.

Now in my part of the country (North Oxfordshire) I reckon it’s roughly one church in seven, and even those will eventually disappear as essential repairs and maintenance work are carried out; or rather they would have disappeared. But this is now much less likely as a result of an agreement reached with representatives of the Oxford Diocese (Berks, Bucks and Oxon).

Holy Trinity, Shenington,
where Swifts still nest under the eaves
The agreement is that if planned repairs will affect traditional nest sites, the sites will be left intact if possible, and if that can’t be done efforts will be made to create alternatives.
Also in appropriate cases the Diocese will look
favourably at proposals to include Swifts bricks when major renovations are being undertaken, and at the idea of nest boxes behind louvred windows.

Major renovations are already planned for the church in Cropredy (below left) where Swifts still nest in a wall of the tower and we expect the church will benefit from the new agreement. Swifts have also nested for many years at the church in Kidlington (below right). We hope the same will apply when the roof there is eventually repaired.

St Mary the Virgin, Copredy (left) and St Mary's, Kidlington (right)
However all this is dependent on one thing – knowing which churches in these counties are being used by Swifts.  At present I only have information about parts of Oxfordshire.

So this is a plea to anyone visiting or watching in any of these counties to note and report any Swift activity around Anglican churches; also if anyone already knows of a church in these counties which has recently had nesting Swifts please would they report as below:

Any reports for Berkshire please inform Jan Stannard
Any reports for Oxfordshire please inform me: Chris Mason
Any reports for Bucks please inform me for the time being. At present there is no one in the Swifts Local Network based in Bucks. I am working on that.

Parties of Swifts wheeling and screaming around village church towers and steeples are one of the glorious sights and sounds of an English summer. I hope we can keep it that way.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Cherwell Swifts Conservation Project (CSCP) 2015

We are pleased to host another report, for 2015, of the Cherwell Swift Conservation Project. It is, yet again, a good example of what a local group can achieve (see 2014 report)

by Chris Mason

Our objectives are:
  • looking after traditional nest places
  • creating new ones
  • encouraging interest in Swifts   

Report 2015
This year saw the Swifts Local Network (SLN) established. The Network (which includes CSCP) enables groups and individuals working on Swift conservation in the UK to share experiences and expertise. We already have over 30 members, and it’s proving to be both popular and a great source of inspiration and help.

Edward Mayer and Dick Newell talking
 to visitors at the Birdfair Swift Stand.
In August, Action for Swifts and Swift Conservation organised a Swift stand at the annual British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water. Several members of SLN helped out and the display generated enormous interest on all three days. Do come and visit us at the Birdfair in August 2016 if you can.

Oxford’s Swifts
Much of my Swifts time was spent in Oxford this year. With other volunteers, I helped with a Swift survey for the RSPB which aims to:
          - establish the locations of nesting colonies in Oxford
          - monitor changes in Swift abundance through time and
           - raise awareness of and enthuse people about their local Swifts.

Regarding Oxford and Swifts, we think mainly of the Museum of Natural History. So it’s pleasing to know that there are thriving colonies in several other parts of the City.

Jocelyne Hughes and I undertook talks and walks in Oxford for staff at the University and Oxford University Press (OUP), and as part of Oxford’s Festival of Nature. We are now beginning to build useful relationships in the City. For instance OUP and the Council will take account of nest places which are recorded on properties they own, when doing repair and maintenance work.

Cherwell News
We knew that Bloxham School had nesting Swifts, but we only discovered quite how many when emergency repairs were needed at the school during the nesting season. Thanks to the alertness of local volunteers, the RSPB was called to advise about protecting the nesting Swifts and House Martins. Subsequently the volunteers were allowed to check the whole campus for nest sites. As a result we know that there are at least nesting 13 pairs. We now want to create a stronger link with staff and students at the school to increase interest and help monitor the nests.

Reg Tipping and Bill Cupit have again been active in putting up nest boxes. In Stanton St John which has only one building with nesting Swifts, boxes were installed in the tower of the parish church. Already in the first season Swifts have been seen approaching but not so far entering, the boxes. There was also a lot of interest in the boxes in Bodicote church tower.
With Councillor Mallon at 1 West Street Banbury
at one of the Cherwell Council’s Build! sites.
Cherwell District Council has been installing Swift bricks in its 'Build!' developments. Build! is the Council’s scheme to create about 250 new affordable homes in the District.

Alison Urwick and children making Swift
badges at the Oxford Festival of Nature.
We have continued to give talks and show the film Swift Stories. We had stalls at 2 major local events – the Oxford Festival of Nature organised by the local Wildlife Trust (where lots of children made Swift badges helped by Alison Urwick and David Yates), and the Wychwood Fair.

Walks were arranged in Cropredy and the Sibfords. Both evenings were memorable because we met the unsuspecting owners of important Swift homes (several nesting pairs in each) and chatted at length about their Swifts and the importance of looking after the nest places. Liz Moore made some very useful contacts on a walk in north Kidlington which resulted in requests for several boxes.

We took 6 injured Swifts and one Swallow from Oxfordshire to Gillian Westray in Laverton for her expert care. Thanks to her skill and dedication all the birds were successfully rehabilitated and released.

Also a young Swift which had been disturbed by building work was taken to Richard Woodward who has a nesting colony at his home in Combe. Richard fostered the young bird with a pair of his own Swifts which had a single nestling of similar age, and both birds successfully fledged after a couple of weeks.

Further afield
There’s a very good news story from nearby Daventry. Ian Dobson (another SLN member) persuaded the owners of the factory where he works to put up nest boxes (photo left). The boxes have only been up 2 years, but this year birds were seen flying into 2 of them. There must be plenty of similar opportunities we could propose at factories, offices and other non-residential buildings in the district. Any suggestions?
Finally please ask me if you’d like to borrow Swift Stories, or want me to show extracts to a local audience. It’s available free.

From early 2016 I shall have greetings cards of Swifts and some local churches (Horley, Carterton, Kidlington, Upper Heyford and Shenington) for sale. Do let me know if you’d like to see them or think there is an opportunity for local sales. Proceeds will go towards care and rehabilitation of injured Swifts and Hirundines.

My thanks again to all who have monitored and reported on nest sites, sent in records, raised alerts about building work and made space for Swifts in their homes; to those who have organised walks and meetings and helped at events; to TVERC for checking the records so carefully and submitting them to the Council, and to all at the Cherwell DC who have made good use of the data; and to the ever-willing team of nest box installers.

Chris Mason

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Vine House Farm wildlife towers

As a result of being invited to give a talk to the South Holland Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, we had the pleasure of staying with Nicholas & Ann Watts at Vine House Farm, where, on a tour of the farm, I was shown a number of interesting towers, built for Barn Owls, Kestrels, Tree Sparrows and other species, which struck me as being a very nice model for a Swift Tower.

by Dick

Vine House Farm is an exemplary farm for wildlife conservation. Nicholas was awarded an MBE in 2006 and he won the RSPB 'Nature of Farming' award in 2013 (see here) and just recently, the Champion Sustainable Farming Award. The keys to success at Vine House Farm are many innovative ideas for providing habitat, including creation of ponds and reservoirs, hedges in parallel rows bordering meadows and other uncultivated plant life; provision of bird food and food crops; organic cultivation; and large numbers of nest boxes for Tree Sparrows, Barn Owls and Kestrels.

The farm is a profitable going concern of about 2500 acres, much of it used for growing bird food sold to feed garden birds.

You can read about Nicholas and the farm by googling e.g. here and here

Hexagonal tower with entrances for Barn Owls, Kestrels and Tree Sparrows

Square Tower with entrances for
Tree Sparrows, Barn Owls and Kestrels
One bird that is not nesting on the farm is the Swift, but what the farm does have is 6 brick-built towers which, to my eye, are a very good model for what an effective Swift Tower could be, so we thought it worth including some pictures here, in the hope of giving people ideas.

The hexagonal tower above has entrances under the eaves for Tree Sparrows and other cavity nesters, such as tits. There are also more Tree Sparrow nest boxes in the lower half. Larger entrances lead to accommodation for Barn Owls and Kestrels.

One of the square towers, left has provided accommodation for 6 species, including Stock Dove, Jackdaw and Mallard.

These towers were built using reclaimed bricks and local manpower for the construction. Such a tower could be built for something like £3000.

At 4 metres high at the eaves, these towers would require little in the way of modification for Swifts. Though not essential, slightly higher eaves, say an additional metre, could be an advantage.

The hexagonal structure, in particular, would make an attractive addition to any project, and could accommodate a substantial Swift colony.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Maurice Wilkinson's nest boxes

Maurice Wilkinson has been attracting Swifts and House Martins to his house in Needingworth since 2010. He has a number of innovative ideas which are worth sharing, including the use of uPVC as a material, and simulated eaves for House Martins.  It is a good example of how to grow a Swift and House Martin population in a rural village, estimated at 3 pairs of Swifts in 2009 to an expanding population which has reached 8 pairs in 2015 together with 15 pairs of House Martins.

A  DIY uPVC box and 3 Schwegler 17's
Maurice started attracting swifts into Schwegler 17 nest boxes in 2010, after a single bird was seen trying to regularly access a House Martin nest the previous year. Calls were played each summer. Swifts subsequently visited, with first breeding in 2014.

He then started to make his own boxes out of 9mm uPVC, normally used for fascias and soffits.

Occupied artificial House Martin
Nests under normal eaves
uPVC is an ideal material as it has good thermal properties, it reflects sunlight, is waterproof, indeed, it is designed to resist all weathers.

Maurice's boxes have a plywood floor, which gives some absorbency.

In 2015, Maurice had 2 pairs of Swifts, in his own-designed nest boxes, as well as 1 pair in a Schwegler box. 2 more pairs took up residence during the summer in Schweglers, building nests, with several birds investigating other boxes.

Occupied artificial House Martin 
nests under simulated eaves
Maurice has also attracted House Martins into artificial nests under his eaves, as well as under simulated eaves on his gable end. In 2015 he had 17 occupied House Martins nests, the highest number to date.

The simulated eaves are also made of uPVC, so they should have a long life. 

An artificial House Martin 
nest beneath a uPVC Swift box
Plywood exposed to the elements eventually deteriorates. There is a case for plywood boxes, which are exposed, to be given a uPVC roof.

Maurice fitted a uPVC double box on his neighbour's house and another near neighbour has put up 2 of John Stimpson's Zeist boxes, with another 2 to be put up this winter.

This autumn he has added more Schweglers and uPVC boxes, making a total of 29 Swift homes on his house. 

There are now 23 artificial House Martin nests plus 5 naturally built nests on Maurice's house.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Owlstone Road, Newnham, Cambridge

In 2011,  we installed two 4-box Swift cabinets on 2 houses in Owlstone Road, Newnham. As in many places over the years, a street with a vibrant Swift population had been reduced to virtually nothing. The first Swifts probably occupied the cabinet on Pam and Vic Gatrell's house in 2014, but they were away for much of the summer, however in 2015, 2 pairs were definitely in residence, and one of them raised 2 chicks. 

by Dick

Two chicks looking out of the cabinet. Photo Vic Gatrell
Not being satisfied with this, Pam and Vic wanted more boxes. While we could have suggested a second cabinet, instead, we took a good look at the structure of the gable end, and suggested built-in boxes.  

The gable wall is 2 bricks thick, with no cavity and is built in Flemish bond: a sequence of headers and stretchers. Removal of a header makes a hole all the way through the wall. This was relatively easy, as the bonding was soft lime mortar.

Two entrance pieces and their moulds
With previous experience of retrofitting entrances fabricated out of airbrick liners, (here and here), this time we decided to try something different, with entrances cast in a mould using a 50:50 cement/sand mixture. 

The mould was made on a 3D printer. This meant the hole could be made to a fine tolerance, with dimensions 65mm x 29mm on the inside and 68mm x 32mm on the outside. Thus it was slightly tapered, allowing easy extraction from the mould and any rain drops would tend to flow out rather than in.

Casting entrances in a mould is a lot easier than slicing up airbrick liners.

Pam and Vic own the part of the wall
left of centre. Photo Pam Gatrell
Apart from manufacturing the entrances, the only other thing we did was to build the first nest box. We then handed over to Newnham Property Services who fitted all 6 entrances in the wall, built the remaining 5 boxes and fitted them inside the roof-space.

The work also included making a trap-door from an upstairs bedroom into the roof-space.

The end result is very pleasing, and bodes well for the return of a thriving Swift colony in Owlstone Road.

The following pictures should be self-explanatory.

[For Newnham Property Services, contact Marek on phone 0773 137 6154]
6 new entrances; the natural colour of the cement/sand mixture
matches the brick colour remartkably well. Photo Pam Gatrell

Design drawing for the nest boxes. All boxes are fitted with a perspex back.
The perspex is held in place with slots top and bottom and slides out sideways

6 boxes inside the roof-space. Photo Pam Gatrell