Sunday, 16 July 2017

New Swift boxes at Lowgill

In 2013 we reported on developments at Tanya & Edmund Hoare's Lowgill house. Over the years, this has developed into 4 Schwegler 25s Swift bricks, 6 Zeist boxes, and most notable of all, 10 custom internal spaces in the eaves that are viewable from the bathroom and bedrooms! This post describes a major extension of the nest sites available with internal boxes in the gable.


Tanya & Edmund Hoare

We have swifts nesting in our eaves at Lowgill, Cumbria and four pairs in Schwegler 25s bricks in the gable that we installed 7 years ago. Those, in the gable end, were all occupied in the first year and have always been by far the most popular place with bangers. So last winter we decided to create a further 12 sites in the gable, using the Cambridge System similar to that at Fulbourn, with entrance pieces linked to internal boxes in the loft by 4” drainpipes.

Demolition of the 2' thick chimney breast
The gable wall consisted of a redundant chimney breast 2ft thick. As Swifts may be less willing to navigate a pipe 24" long, we decided to rebuild the gable with a narrower wall incorporating 12 pipes 12 inches long.

A platform of mortar was put into the pipes so that the swifts could get a grip when they crawl along.                

Former with cast entrance piece
Custom made entrance pieces were made by making a mould and using formers kindly made by Dick. They were coloured to match the sandstone walls. An attraction call system was installed with the loudspeaker in the apex of the gable.
Wooden nest boxes were fitted in the loft, each with a camera. Shelves were put up on the inner wall for the boxes to rest on so that they could easily be removed if necessary.
While the house was scaffolded we decided to also install another 2 Schwegler 25s at the edge of the gable where we couldn’t use the pipe system.
The end result is aesthetically more pleasing than using commercial bricks. 

Already in the first season we’ve had success, with both the new Schweglers occupied by roosting pairs. Bangers have approached the new holes although so far none have gone in, but fingers crossed for next year.

Rebuilding the wall 12" thick with embedded pipes and entrance pieces
The completed wall with 12 entrance pipes
Shelving support 12 nest boxes behind each pipe.
The finished wall on the outside showing the new Schwegler 25S boxes lower left and lower right, the original 4 Schwegler 25S's and then the 12 new Cambridge System entrances. Although the half-brick entrance pieces are normally used in a brick wall, they don't look at all out of place in a stone wall.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Entrances made by cutting bricks

We no longer recommend that people make an entrance to an internal nest box by cutting bricks, unless you know what you are doing. This is because of a number of experiences of getting the wrong size, both too small and too big. Here is an example of how to do it properly.

The tolerences for the smaller dimension of a Swift entrance are rather tight. Too big will let Starlings in and too small will make it difficult for Swifts. The longer dimension of the entrance is not critical. Perhaps a minimum of 50mm, often set at 65mm and bigger than this is OK.

Starlings can squeeze into 30mm. The smallest dimension that a Swift can squeeze into is ~25mm. So we recommend 28mm ± 1mm

In Kev Gray's own words:

"... I ended up cutting a very accurate slot to your dimensions into the top face of a matching house brick. I used a stone cutter in my 9 inch grinder, it didn't take many minutes, I bonded a slate lid over the top of the cut out and fitted the whole brick. If one uses mortar to fashion the 4th side of the entrance, there is much scope for getting it wrong. Prefabricating the entrance ensures the correct size.

First we cut the brick out of the wall, we used a battery powered masonry drill and bit and just drilled a series of holes all the way around the brick and it came out quite easily.

The hole was then tidied up with a bolster chisel and the swift brick fitted.

A long masonry bit was positioned in the centre of the Swift slot from the outside of the wall and guide hole was then drilled through the inner wall, the wall on the other side of the cavity, this is usually breeze block and drills very easily.

From inside the loft.

The guide hole previously drilled in the breeze block is then used to guide a large diameter masonry hole cutter, if it's breeze block it cuts quite easily, if you don't have access to a hole cutter you could use drill a series of small holes drilled in a circle and chisel the middle out.

When the hole is finished measure from the internal face of the breeze block back to the inside face of the Swift brick to establish the length of soil pipe required.

The pipe is just ordinary 110mm soil pipe, anything similar would do, you can get it from most DIY stores., I can be cut with a hand saw and positioned into the hole so that it butts up to the new swift brick, take care if the mortar is still soft as you may dislodge the swift brick, it's better to leave it time to set. When the pipe is in position use some mortar to fill in any gaps and holes that may be in the swift brick to make a nice smooth passage without any sharp edges. Also it's a good idea to put a bed of mortar along the bottom run of the soil pipe as this will help the Swifts have a bit more grip onto what would otherwise be a very slippery surface. In fact it's a good idea to give the inside of the soil pipe a good roughing out with some course sandpaper before putting it into position as this will help the mortar stick.

As mentioned earlier, I made up a couple of boxes from some spare 18mm chipboard floorboard because that what I had handy, but you could use something much thinner maybe some plywood. Bill Murrells recommend internal dimensions of W 200 x L 300 x H 150 for the box and that is what I went with.

Removing a brick
Components of the entrance brick, before cutting
Relative positioning of soil pipe and entrance brick
The completed entrance
A view from the inside

Monday, 26 June 2017

Another triangular cabinet in Elsworth

In 2015 we installed a 3-box triangle on my daughter's sunny gable end (here). It is now occupied by 2 pairs of Swifts so we wondered how to expand the number of boxes

There were 2 choices, either to add a 3rd row of 3 boxes at the bottom of the triangle, or to make a new cabinet on another northeast-facing gable. This gable is wooden-cladded and has an apex nearly 5 metres high.

As there should be no over-heating to deal with, the front is a single sheet of 12mm plywood and is painted dark to match the gable.

This is the 4th triangle of this general concept that we have installed, the other 3 all have Swifts in them.

The slope of the roof is less steep than the other 3, so the headroom of the boxes is slightly less at 14cm, and the length of the boxes is slightly greater. The depth of the boxes is 15cm.

Front removed ready for installation
6 screws through the back secure the cabinet to the boards
The lowest 3 boxes are just over 4 metres high


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Swift boxes at the David Attenborough Building

The David Attenborough Building in Cambridge houses conservation practitioners and academics, who are working together Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI).

"The David Attenborough Building will act as a collaborative hub for the conservation community within Cambridge and beyond - Mike Rands"

It had always been the ambition of the executive director, Mike Rands, to have breeding Swifts, so AfS was invited to see what might be possible. As all the building work had been finished, this was a retrofit situation on a very smart building that we would not want to compromise in any way.

Two opportunities presented themselves: boxes installed at the top of one of the towers and boxes on the parapets. As the former would be less visually intrusive, Mike suggested we go for the towers.

The tops of the towers are octagonal with vertical bars containing 4 of the sides. The bars are 50mm wide and spaced 50mm apart (see pictures below).

John Stimpson supplied 8 Model 30 nest boxes, but with no entrance in the front. This was a suitable choice as the top of the tower is exposed to the sky, so the boxes may receive both rain and sun.

For the Swifts to gain access to boxes inside the bars, it would require tunnels about 15cm long to the outside.

We have some anecdotal evidence that Swifts will not negotiate a small tunnel of this length (e.g. here). Thus we made tunnels with inside dimensions 43mm wide x 65mm high.

A D-shaped hole was cut in the back and tunnels fashioned out of roofing plastic glued in place.

Roofing plastic put into boiling water is easy to shape around, in this case, an empty can of hairspray.

Rubber strips provided separation and friction between the boxes and the metal bars.

The tunnels could also provide access for Starlings, so the top part of the tunnel is blocked on the inside face of the box. This should leave enough space for a Swift to enter, but not a Starling. One of the concerns was not to have bird droppings down the building.

The brackets, made of stainless stud and aluminium bars, were made by Dexter Bullman of Landbeach. They were painted to match the vertical bars.

A Cheny Heny MP3 player was installed driving 2 tweeters facing outwards below 2 of the tunnels. We gave some thought to the possibility of Swifts coming through the bars, but as the space is open to the sky, they should be able to get away.

The pictures below illustrate what was achieved:

4 tunnels outside the SW side and 4 boxes inside the SE side
Close up of the 4 tunnels on the SW side

Installation team: Bill Murrells, Elizabeth Allen, Collaborations & Communications Manager,
Dexter Bullman and Mike Rands, Executive Director.
Dick Newell took the picture

Monday, 24 April 2017

Headroom experiment at Greys Farm

Greys, near Royston, Herts is where Edward Darling uses 2 sq km of chalk soil to create a living landscape benefitting many forms of priority wildlife, including a wide range of birds, mammals and rare plants. The BTO Marsh Award to Action for  Swifts lead to Edward enquiring about creating Swift colonies and asked if we would suggest where Swift boxes might be appropriate.

[Update 23rd June 2017 - the first Swift has been seen entering box number 4]

At the highest point of the farm is a water tower, a cube-shaped, steel-clad building containing water tanks. It is somewhat isolated, so not the normal setting for Swifts, but the building itself has boxed in eaves on the east and west sides which are plenty high enough and wide enough for Swift boxes. It also has mains power inside.

So against a background of singing Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Whitethroats we installed nest boxes on the east side, under the boxed in eaves.

Edward is also Chief Executive of Redlist Revival, a UK based charity working to restore disappearing - "Red-listed" - species identified within the Government's UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Forming part of the country's international commitment to maintaining ecosystems and sustaining a healthy planet, Redlist Revival acts for the public benefit.

We are using this project as an experiment, giving Swifts a choice between boxes with 150mm headroom and 78mm headroom. A single-brick nest box would be 78mm high.

The 12 boxes are all basically the same, with entrances at the left or right end. As we could not decide whether to put entrances facing horizontally or vertically downwards, we used a compromise. The floor area of the boxes is 266mm x 200mm. All the odd-numbered boxes have a removable false ceiling.

We have previously set up experiments like this, including this one which has had some success.

The 12 boxes are arranged in an irregular, but neat pattern. 
This is done to reduce confusion for the Swifts 
All of the boxes are uniquely numbered 
Odd-numbered boxes have a removable false ceiling, painted black 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Swift boxes at Cley Nature Reserve

When it was suggested to Richard Porter, a Cley resident and Trevor Williams an energetic volunteer with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust that it might be a good idea to have Swift boxes on the visitor centre, they quickly responded by getting approval from the powers that be.

However, when we came to look for suitable places for Swift boxes, there was nowhere that was ideally suited. We originally thought that the Simon Aspinall Education Centre would be the most appropriate - Simon was a great fan of Swifts, and would have loved the idea. However, it is adjacent to the public area where people have their picnics in the summer, so attraction calls so close might not be appreciated by all visitors. Also the building is quite exposed.

As a result we settled on the Dick Bagnall-Oakeley Centre, an attractive thatched building, clad in timber and with broad eaves. However, the eaves are only 2.8 metres high. Although this is well below our very minimum recommendation (~3.5 metres), Swifts are known to nest at this height and lower. (see here and here) The ground in front of the building slopes away from the building, overlooking Cley Marsh, so this might help
Trevor Willlams installing a Model 30 Photo Richard Porter
The net result is that we installed 4 Model 30's supplied by John Stimpson. The geometric shape of the Model 30 fitted the underside of the eaves perfectly.

Should this plan succeed in attracting Swifts, then there is scope to expand to double or treble the number of boxes.

We regard this project as pushing the boundaries - although it challenges our own advice, it may tell us something.

Trevor Williams and Richard Porter with 4 Model 30 nest boxes

Monday, 27 March 2017

A Swift tower at The Avenue Washlands

Back in 2011, we posted an idea for a Swift tower, based upon four 4-box cabinets, so 16 nest chambers. Since then, we have installed a fair number of 4-box cabinets, many of which have between 1 and 4 pairs of Swifts in them, but we never built the tower. Now, volunteers from the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust have extended the concept and executed an excellent example with 24 nesting chambers.

The Avenue Washlands is a Derbyshire Wildlife Trust wetland reserve consisting of reedbed, marsh, ponds and grassland in the valley of the River Rother, near Chesterfield. Along with the installation of pole-mounted Barn Owl boxes, they have now successfully installed a pole-mounted Swift Tower.

The project was funded and built by members of the Chesterfield & NE Derbyshire Local Group of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. For the installation they were helped by the reserve’s Sunday work party volunteers.

The body of the boxes is made of pressure-treated timber. The roof and backs are made from Tricoya which claims to have an exterior life of 50 years! The roof has a ridge made from guttering.

The pole was donated and erected by Western Power. It is the most impressive pole that we have seen in terms of its size and rigidity, and gives a sense of proportion to the whole structure.

A solar panel driven attraction call system will be installed ready for the 2017 season.

We thank Brian Goodwin and Nick Brown for sending us this story and the pictures.

The tower is assembled from 2 each of these components
A test assembly on the ground.
Assembly in progress by reserve volunteers
A great-looking end result

Friday, 24 March 2017

A new Swift box in GRP

GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) is a waterproof material normally used for making boats, car bodies and other products which need to combine strength with light weight. So, Len Haworth decided to apply his boat building skills to produce a range of rather nice looking, very long-lasting Swift boxes.

In his own words:

"Since 2003 I have been using my boat building skills in GRP for the good of the birds. My company does not make a profit, any surplus either goes on development for more species or to buy the expensive materials which go into each box. But then I thoroughly enjoy what I do. Before I start the development of any nest box, which is a long and expensive business, I have to get the basic design spot on because later alterations are not possible with GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic). I have consulted with ornithologists such as Chris de Feu, who I greatly value as an advisor and where it comes to Swifts, Edward Mayer of and I have had a long exchange of emails to get the basics correct. "

Certainly the first Swift boxes off the production line look the business. One can see the nautical heritage in the porthole-style entrances. All the fittings are stainless - as Len "does not do rust". For south-facing aspects, exposed to the sun, Len is producing a canopy to deflect the sun.

Each nesting chamber has dimensions; 300mm long; 200mm wide; 200mm high

The oval nest concaves are a novel idea, it will be interesting to see what Swifts make of them.

Boxes are available in 1, 2, 4, 6 and 8-chamber versions.

For further information and prices, download this leaflet 
Also visit

Monday, 20 March 2017

A New colony box in Magrath Avenue

We first installed a 4-box cabinet, made by Bob Tonks on Helen Hodgson's house in Magrath Avenue, Cambridge in 2010. Helen already had one pair of Swifts nesting on top of the wall under her eaves, but despite playing attraction calls every year, by 2016, still no Swifts have occupied her boxes.

Click to enlarge
Few places are as stubborn as this. More recently we installed 3 Zeist-style boxes further along the eaves, but although attraction calls generate interest from the Swifts, they are as yet to become established in any of the boxes.

In 2010 there was a small tree in front of the house, which has now become a substantial tree. Trees in front of boxes tend to slow things down. Although the tree has been trimmed somewhat over the winter, one can imagine that it is still a disincentive for the swifts.

So, as a last resort, we have installed a 4-box cabinet facing out over Magdalene College. It faces the same direction as the eaves which contains the existing pair of Swifts.

The space between the drainage pipe and the end of the wall is 29cm, so enough to get a floor area of about 26cm x 20cm for each chamber. The headroom in each chamber is 15cm

The front of the box faces south east, so it is painted white to reflect the sun. The box is made of 12mm weatherproof plywood, and the roof is covered in 9mm PVC.

Grooves were cut below the entrances to provide some grip. This might assist the Swifts in gaining their first entry.

The picture left shows how it was constructed. There is a tweeter in the 2nd chamber up.

The cabinet is secured to the wall with anchor bolts which screw directly into the brickwork, without a rawlplug.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Swift boxes in southern Sweden

Benny Båth
We received this story and pictures from Benny Båth who lives near Rydsnäs in central southern Sweden. Benny has built many nest boxes for a range of species, but has only installed Swift boxes before last summer. He has some success already and useful experiences to share

Benny writes: 

"I have about 35 nests at 6 sites for swifts but I'm a bit unsure about the best way to place them. Some of my boxes are placed close to each other but it seems that the birds choose boxes with some distance between them.

I had seven boxes located on three different walls at my home and got one box occupied on each wall, it was then that I started to suspect they might prefer some privacy.

No occupants at the other sites were recorded, but I will open all the boxes soon.

I've noticed that the sound system is essential for fast results, I had swifts prospecting on all sites with sound systems (4) including the three nesting pairs with two chicks each at my own home. 

At the moment I  am building four internal boxes on my barn gable, facing west, the main reason is to get the nests out of the heat. I measured the temperature in the box next to the occupied box this summer. The maximum temperature reached 42°C!

I construct entrances by drilling a 64mm hole in the box and the barn wall and then fit one of the front plates outside. This plate is 9mm plywood with an oval hole of 60x30mm. I painted the plate soft yellow and around the hole with black so its seems more distinct from a distance. I got the idea to paint black near the hole from a post on Bristol Swifts website.

All three nesting pairs at my home chose boxes with this kind of front plate so it will be interesting to see if it was a coincidence or if it actually has some effect.

The farmers nearby are really cooperative and I have permission to install both internal and external boxes at many sites, this year I will have about 80 boxes and 8 sound systems up."

Benny has modelled his external boxes on the Model 30, but with a roof sloping at 15°. The material is plywood clad in 1.5mm GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) - so they should last for a long time.

It seems that, from a standing start, Benny has considerable momentum!

DIY nest box with removable entrance plate

Nest box with concave made of Asfaboard, a bituminous fibrous material

2 boxes installed on Benny's house

Entrances to internal boxes installed in the barn

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Another successful Derbyshire System project

We have reported before examples of entrances cast in situ, using an entrance former (see here). This has become known as the Derbyshire System after the first project using this idea. This is another example in Middleton-by-Wirksworth, also in Derbyshire, showing a little more of what is involved.

In Jack Roper's own words:
"My friend Rob and his old man came to create the nest spaces. They chiselled the mortar away to eventually slide the stones out of the wall, exposing the cavity. Some of the stones spanned the whole depth of the wall creating a hole directly into the loft space. They made four holes, two each side of the flue at the apex of the gable. We worked on a general rule of 200mm x 200mm nest space for each hole. 

After positioning the concave, setting it in place using a spat of mortar, we slipped a length of 65mm plastic tube from the loft to the edge of the nest space so that we could insert a speaker / camera if necessary. I've stuffed an old t-shirt into the tube whilst I get some plastic ends to cap them off properly. 

They then replaced the necessary stones, positioned the entrance former and mortared it all in place. In all it took four hours, including cleaning up the mess below!"

Stones and rubble removed from the cavity
2 completed entrances on the right
Rob working on one of the holes on the left
Finished entrance on the left

Hand-made concaves out of fibre-board and filler
4 completed entrances


Thursday, 26 January 2017

9 nest sites becomes 50 in Ludlow

This is a great story about what can happen when you put an active local group together with cooperative architects and developers resulting in a most satisfactory outcome

Robin Pote
For and on behalf of Ludlow Swift Group

Victory House in Ludlow, until recently home to the British Legion, is a large, rather neglected 4 storey building which has always had good numbers of swifts nesting in the roof away from the road. Up to 9 nests have been occupied in recent years. The sale of the building into private hands and rumours of extensive building work was of great concern to Ludlow Swift Group (LSG). Once plans became clear, a meeting was arranged with the ecological assessor and he was shown all the nest sites and left clear in his mind of the importance of the building for Swifts.

The subsequent report was extremely swift-friendly and was adopted with enthusiasm by the architects. As soon as work began to remove and re-lay all the roof tiles Ludlow Swift Group members were able to visit the site and offer advice. We were planning on suggesting box types, possibly swift bricks as replacements for the natural wall plate sites. However we were amazed to see the current sites, full of debris and old nesting material. So much old nesting material in fact that there was barely space for birds to nest and might explain why young birds have fallen out in the past.

Newly created nest sites
The wall plate was a substantial oak beam and quite deep, with free access from outside. The roofers offered to clean out all the wall plate spaces between the trusses and line each on three sides with ply to create secure spaces with no access into the roof behind and which would also prevent roof debris slipping in to nests as had happened before. Not all the ‘boxes’ are of equal size, and some may be too small. However, by the time they had finished the job the roofers had created upwards of 50 spaces suitable for swifts!! We await May 2017 with great excitement. This is potentially a ‘natural’ swift tower for Ludlow!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Another nice result of the Cambridge System

Two things are new about this project: firstly it is an example using CJ WoodStone boxes inside, secondly it is one of the first projects implemented by someone other than AfS.

Jan Stannard's Victorian gable in Maidenhead is just one brick thick, so although there was no access inside the gable, it was practical to tackle this project wholly from the outside.

The project used 2 WoodStone build-in boxes and 2 homemade entrance pieces:

2 WoodStone build-in boxes and 2 homemade entrance pieces
Boxes and entrances in place

It was necessary to remove 2 courses of brickwork to install the boxes. This is rather more intrusive than one normally likes, but an excellent result has been achieved

The half bricks have been placed nicely to avoid aligned vertical bonds.

The homemade entrance pieces were cast using white cement and were then stained using Ecos Paints. One has to agree, the colour match is very good.

The nest boxes are the WoodStone® Build-in Hidden Swift Box


Monday, 16 January 2017

CJ commercialises the Cambridge Swift box system

The first batch of Cambridge System Swift boxes has been produced by CJ Wildlife with installations by the Duchy of Cornwall at Nansledan

Nansledan is a 218-hectare urban extension of Newquay to the east of the town. It has been earmarked by local authorities for more than 20 years as a way to meet the future business, housing, educational and health needs for Newquay in a sustainable way.

The Cambridge System has evolved out of a number of bespoke projects carried out by Action for Swifts in the Cambridge area, which you can read about here. Although all of these projects have been retrofitted into existing buildings, it is of course easier to install in new build. 

The Cambridge System is designed with the following objectives:
  • To be visually unobtrusive, embedded within the wall of the building
  • To provide secure, temperature-stable accommodation for Swifts
  • To be low cost, and easy to install
It comprises 2 components:
  • A brick insert containing the entrance in the outer wall
  • An internal nest box spanning the cavity and the inner wall
Although the Cambridge system is ideally suited for installation in gable ends at roof space level, in some situations it can also be installed at the level of the eaves.

In the CJ product, the entrance piece is cast in concrete and the nest box inside is made of WoodStone® to occupy the space of a building block.  The floor of the box contains concave nesting places for Swifts.

CJ Wildlife will have the Cambridge Swift System on their stand at the Ecobuild exhibition in ExCeL, London on 7-9 March.  More information is available from Paul Sears:

The following pictures show how it is installed.

Neat external appearance
WoodStone® box occupying space of one block
WoodStone® nest box inserted behind entrance piece