Regular visitors to this blog will know how I feel about swifts.
I was due to make an appearance at the International Swift Conference in Cambridge this spring, but alas my unreliable health has forced me to pull out of that event – something I had been looking forward to for some time. Perhaps I’ll make a future conference, but in the meantime, I wish all delegates who are lucky enough to attend, an enjoyable few days. As for my health, I’ll be hoping for a “swift” (hur hur) recovery this year.
Some people visiting this blog (or indeed website) having followed me from my old blogs – Blue-grey and Theblackrabbitwarren might remember that I have had a little success in filming the nesting behaviour of my favourite bird of all.
If you don’t know about (or didn’t see) my in-nest video clips of nesting swifts - all the clips can be found on my original you-tube channel here.
My many clips there include rare footage of a swift ejecting another female’s eggs in her beak. I haven’t seen another clip showing that anywhere on the web.
In July, all that footage will be three years old – my wife and I moved from that particular old beautiful house (which we named “Swift Half”) on the southern outskirts of Reading just after the swifts left - three years ago this August.
Today we live on the northern outskirts of Bracknell – a post war town not reknowned for its nesting swifts (swifts invariably, naturally nest in pre-war buildings) unlike the far older town of Reading.
In each of the three properties we lived in Reading, we had nesting swifts, but I would suggest for every 100 swifts there are in Reading, there are perhaps 2 in Bracknell. Perhaps not even that.
Because of my fascination and love for swifts, before I had even laid a carpet down at our “new” house, I was keen to measure up opportunities to provide any passing swifts a few spots to investigate and maybe even nest – one day.
Of course we moved in August and all our British swifts had pretty-well gone by then, so I had nine or so months to start providing nesting spots for them high up on (or in!) our house.
I started work immediately therefore! In September 2011. A month after they had left Britain and eight or so months before any were due to return!
By the time May 2012 had arrived, I had drilled through the attic (external) wall with a diamond cutter, lined the foot long hole with a plastic pipe, erected an internal swift box (made from thick clear acrylic sat on a shelf screwed to the internal attic wall) and provided an “entrance for the swifts to get into (and out of) my attic swift box.
My thoughtful wife had also bought me one of Handykam’s excellent cedar swift boxes for Christmas 2011 which was quickly screwed into the wall by the eaves.
As well as those two nesting spots for swifts, I took the opportunity to cut a wee downward-facing hole in our newly replaced PVC soffits (the old wooden ones were rotting and full of old squirrel dreys), so any pioneering swifts could investigate our soffits also. I’m not sure my wife was too keen on me cutting a swift hole into our new soffits, but I made a neat job of it and she knows how important this fantastic species is to me.
I installed Handykam mini HD cameras in the attic space and the cedar box and we were all set to go by January 2012.
Or were we?
You see… swifts are not the most intelligent of birds and don’t tend to find new spaces to nest very easily. As I’ve mentioned before, they naturally tend to nest in old houses (pre-war) in spots and sites that have been used by swifts for years and years. They will find “new” nesting spaces near traditional nesting spaces, by screaming (quite literally screaming) around traditional nesting sites and either trying to nest in a traditional nest site in an old building, or whilst investigating that site, happening across another space in the brickwork, under the eaves etc very close to a taken, traditional site.
There are NO traditional, long-used nesting sites where we live – this part of the town was built in the early 1950s and swifts have never nested here.
So…. Unless I attracted passing swifts down from the sky to investigate our house – there’d be no swifts ever nesting with us.
Luckily, swifts are relatively easily-fooled birds and can be attracted down to a house with a simple set up.
In 2012 I had an old mobile phone with a “swift call” MP3 as a ringtone.
I set that ringtone playing on repeat, placed the phone on top of the cedar box and played a loud swift call as soon as I saw swifts flying overhead.
There are many other ways to play swift calls near your swift boxes to persuade swifts to investigate them – I’ll come onto that – but that’s all I had at the time.
But did it work? Did we have swifts nesting with us in our first year in our new house?
The short answer is no.
Oh sure… the swifts flew around the house all summer long (it wasn’t a great summer in 2012 if you remember – a superb spring, but it started to rain in June and didn’t let up until all the swifts had headed back to the Congo).
Swifts had a terrible summer in 2012. A sunny, warm spring had them all pushing out three eggs (they seem to “know” whether to only lay two if conditions are not right), but by June, when swiftlets were hatching, there was too little airborne food for the adults to catch for themselves let alone for their young and many many swiftlets died. As did adults to be fair.
Our visiting swifts had been attracted down by my phone belting out the calls made by “screaming” and banging “swifts” but they couldn’t seem to find any of the nest spots I’d constructed for them and understandably were keener to try and surf the storm clouds, looking for scarce food.
Now this is not unusual; having swifts take a long time to find new nest sites.
I realised after we had left Reading that it might take a few years (I speculated five) before I got my favourite birds back nesting with us in our new abode. And that would be after I had spent much money and more time making our first bought house (that’s how I could drill through external walls and cut away soffit boards) “swift friendly”.
Even if I played swift calls from our roof at top volume all summer long, every summer and gave the birds a dozen places to nest - it still might take five (perhaps more) years for the lightning swifts to locate a spot in/on our house and start to breed there.
In the “off season” (August 2012 to April 2013) I was often to be found in the garden, peering up at the un-used swift nests, calculating how I could make them easier to find.
I made a new entrance to the attic box, fitted another Handykam camera to the soffit space and downloaded new MP3 swift calls to my knackered old phone.
So what happened in 2013 then?
Well… in a reversal of 2012, the spring was bitter. Vast areas of the UK were pretty-well frozen until the last week of May (when a mini heatwave hit if you remember) and then the summer was pretty good. The “best” summer we and the swifts had had for a decade I’d say.
But… alas, back when the swifts arrived en masse, in May, there were virtually no insects around, so by the time they decided to nest in their traditional spots, they cut down the number of eggs they laid, or gave up laying at all that year, such was the scarcity of food.
I was playing my swift call at dawn and dusk all summer long again (early in the summer to attract potential nesters for that year, late in the summer to attract potential nesters for the following year).
Swifts were investigating the house all summer long again (see the photo below) but no swift ever totally entered one of my swift spaces. A quick head in, look around, fly away was all I got. A lot of screaming around the house – a lot of swift landings under the gable end of our house – quite a lot to be hopeful for next (this) year but no nesters.
(Those are tree bumblebees in the photo above by the way - they've nested in our roof for the past two years).
I’d been at the game two full swift seasons in 2012 and 2013 – our avenue was ringing to the sounds of screaming swifts all summers long – for the first time ever I expect, but I had no nesting swifts.
We come on to the present day now.
It’s nearly St.George’s Day. April 23rd is traditionally the day I tend to see my first swift over Berkshire. A little earlier than most people admittedly, but then again most people don’t spend the last week of April peering, narrow-eyed into the skies, on the lookout for those sickle-shaped wings.
What have I done to increase our chances of filming nesting swifts in the off season this year?
A hell of a lot to be honest. It feels like I’ve been doing little else but building new swift spaces since October last year. Of course I’ve been doing other things – filming little owls, watching barn owls, digging frog ponds in the back garden, making improvements to the house and garden, bringing up our new son and of course…. working. I’ve had my appendix out in that time and even though my health has improved markedly since two years ago, I do still have to take things very easy.
The main work I’ve been carrying out during this year’s (swift) “off season” is purchasing, building, customising and putting in place a “habi sabi” swift box or two.
To be honest my review might have been written a little prematurely, (before I’d even put them in place let alone had any swifts nesting in them). If I had time (after this monster blog) to write a new review, I would… but I really don’t have that time.
All I’ll say for now is look at my comment(s) after the review, or below – would I buy a habi-sabi swiftbox again? I doubt it to be honest – I think I could now design and build a far more attractive, watertight, custom-fit box.
I’ve spent months (quite literally) customising the boxes, priming them, painting them (several coats), covering them in textured brickwork-effect waterproof paper, purchasing nesting rounds, fitting cameras and sealing them with three types of sealant (both inside and out) including a join coat of German carbon-fibre mastic.
Finally I’ve scaled the heights of our house in high winds, on a bouncy ladder, with a very heavy SDS drill (our house seems to made of diamond coated bricks) to fix under the gable end.
(I’ve of course got cameras in the boxes and tacked 20metre cables to the pointing to “control” (the portable TV in the conservatory).
Why wouldn’t I buy a habi-sabi swift box again?
A fair few number of reasons….
1 – I was extremely careful putting the box(es) together, but the material they use to form all surfaces of the box is too brittle and too weak. I broke the first roof without even trying.
2 – The boxes even when properly assembled with extreme care and caution are not waterproof. This is a design fault – pure and simple. I won’t bore you with the details here, but take it from me that if you get a heavy rain storm, the design of the boxes is such that rain runs down into a hole in the roof (there are 6 to fit the roof to the box), pools and eventually runs into the inside of the box. I have got around this by sealing all roof holes with acrylic sealant – though waterproof mastic and roofing felt would have done the same trick I expect.
3 – The boxes are FAR too expensive for what they are – basically just four pieces of recycled material which you assemble yourself. £100? Come off it.
4 – The fixing baton (for box to wall mounting) is poorly-designed and not reliable. Again I have solved this by screwing two metal plates onto the baton which slip into the corresponding baton on the wall. If you require details or help on any of these points above, please email me.
5 – 51% (own habi-sabi) maintain that the boxes are easy to paint and easy to clean (just whip the roof off). Let me be clear – I painted the first box unassembled. I had to really. Big mistake. Then assembly becomes impossible. My advice is to assemble and then paint, even if that isn’t ideal (it wasn’t for my set up). As for whipping the roof off quickly – if you do that, you a) never had a waterproof roof anyway (see point 2 above) and b) you will split the roof like I did.
You MUST waterproof the roof somehow (I used a mixture of German mastic and acrylic sealant) and then the roof is fixed ON.
6 – The base is badly designed also. You allegedly can switch the base around to have the entrance holes either by the wall or away from the wall. This can be done in the same manner as “whipping the roof off”. You’re getting the picture now aren’t you? Whipping the base off to switch the entrance hole position will mean a) you haven’t got a waterproof or white-painted base (both unattractive to swifts) and b) you’ll split the base, just like you did the roof.
7 – Replacement roofs or bases cannot be ordered on their own. No. You will need to buy a whole new expensive £100 box. A box that NHBS have now decided to withdraw from their catalogue. I wonder why? I’ll let you know when I find out.
7 – See point two again. 51% are a design company that have branched into bat, bee and swift box manufacture. I hope the bee and bat boxes are more waterproof than the swift boxes they make! Boxes for wildlife that are NOT waterproof are….. yep….. NO use to wildlife at all.
That all said, I will road test the boxes this year (that’s the Handykam cedar swift box and the habi-sabi swift boxes). I’ve certainly invested waaay too much time and effort (and money) to not give them a go – and the massive improvements I’ve made to them might help me attract a swift or two, perhaps one that investigated our house last year to nest with us.
How will I call the swifts in this year?
Unfortunately my knackered old Sony Ericsson (unsmart) phone carked it last year (pushed out into the rain I’m afraid) so I’ve leaped into the 21st century this year.
I’ve bought two showerproof wireless speakers and a remote control – so I can control the volume and power to the speakers from 7m below on the ground.
The transmitter is plugged into the stereo inside and each speaker has a receiver in it, which works up to 50m away from the transmitter I hear.
I have two swift call CDs ready to be played on repeat mode from the stereo inside – so we’re all set then?
I have no idea why the only two swift call CDs (one from the excellent swift conservation and another from the continent) have wonderful loud recordings of swifts – but in 30 or so second bursts, which don’t fade in and fade out but stop and start abruptly.
That might seem a little harsh as a criticism.
But my old phone’s swift MP3 calls faded in and out. Neighbours thought nothing of it – it just sounded like birds to them.
With this new stop start recordings, believe me it sounds like a house or car alarm and only because its stop start – rather than fade in and fade out. It’s clearly a very man-made recording rather than a more natural sound.
I hope any visiting swifts are lured into the boxes this year in double quick time as I don’t fancy my neighbours will want to listen to my swift call CD for more than a day or two (unlike the last two years).
I think I’ve jussst about bored you enough now.
As I type, I have five spots for nesting swifts (one habi sabi double berth box, one Handykam cedar box, one internal attic space and one soffit space which starlings have already taken).
All have Handykam cameras set in them, all of which are connected to the control TV in the conservatory.
The swift "car alarm" CD is ready in the stereo and the wireless speakers are on standby. Not literally on standby but you know what I mean.
Everything has had a dress rehearsal or five. And finally the habi-sabi swift box is waterproof.
The beautiful, fascinating, incredible swifts are probably still around the Congo now, fattening up for their journey north to breed in Blighty. They’ll stop off in Liberia (they all do) for a pit stop, but when they set off in earnest, it’ll only be a week or two’s travel time for them.
My sister in Paris will probably notify me when her “martinets noirs” arrive there, and then it’s only a matter of a couple of days perhaps, before my eyes spot them dashing through our skies with their quick, bat-like wing beats.
And as soon as I do spy them, the CD player will go on and I’ll be glued to the skies around our house, or I hope…. The portable TV in the conservatory.
If they do nest again with us this year, it’ll only be a gap of three years, swiftless so to speak – and I’ll consider buying a DVD recorder to put some clips back on this site.
And if they don’t nest with us this year?
Well…. I already have plans for new design swift spaces on our house for next year….
Cross your fingers grapple fans.
St.George’s Day is less than a month away…
It's exciting isn't it?
Hurry back now… my little dark beauties!