Help Save our Swifts: May 2024 update

Swift Town Hungerford

We want to inspire local residents to celebrate and protect the wonderful swifts that have been summer-holidaying and breeding in our towns and surrounding villages since before they were built. See below for practical tips and swift guru Ailsa Claybourn’s monthly blog.

Swifts are astonishing aeronauts, evolved over millennia for flight (we know they nested alongside the tyrannosaurs). Once a young swift has left the nest, it drinks, bathes, feeds, mates and sleeps in the air, not touching land for an incredible three to four years until it’s ready to breed.

Swifts are now in critical decline: we have lost over 60% of them since 2000 when 40 to 50 ‘screaming parties’ were recorded over Hungerford. Now we have only 15 to 20 such flocks. 

Why is this? The two main reasons are the loss of nesting places and lack of insect food. 

What can you do to help swifts?

  • First of all identify they are swifts. Don’t confuse them with similar, summer-visiting birds who nest in buildings: swallows (twittery with a long ‘swallowtail’) and house martins (white bottoms). Both of these build mud cups on and inside buildings. Swifts nest in crannies inside walls and rooves. Swifts are black boomerangs, scything and flickering through the air, often in ‘screaming parties’ looking ‘as if the bow had gone off with the arrow’ (poet, Edward Thomas). See more identification tips from RSPBWildlife Trust guide or YouTube video here.
  • Locate & protect their nests in roofs, towers or eaves – they like to nest high. If the building is being done up, special nest boxes can be put up for swifts to use instead on their return (remember, they’re neither noisy, nor messy, they do everything on the wing!). See advice here.
  • Record swift activity on the user friendly RSPB Swift Mapper and please also let us know by emailing heat_hungerford@yahoo.com 
  • Encourage and protect areas of wildflowers and long grass for insects. We are losing our insects. Overtidying and chemical sprays are taking their toll in depleting food for birds.
  • Install a swift box. Some websites sell nest boxes that are very badly designed and would be actually dangerous for Swifts, but these suppliers have been recommended to me:
    Peak Boxes, based in Derbyshire:
    John Stimpson, maker of thousands of swift boxes at j.stimpson1@btopenworld.com
    Graham Fell: gfell01@hotmail.com
    Bisham Nest Boxes
    The RSPB has a special offer: buy 2 boxes and save £2.
    How to install Swift Bricks and Boxes (on Countryfile from 40 mins).
  • See more Swift resources here:

 Swift Conservation homepage
 bristolswifts.co.uk is also very informative (with d.i.y. designs too)
 actionforswifts.blogspot.co.uk and facebook.com/actionforswifts
 All Things Swift UK Facebook group: they have lots of good, practical advice.
 RSPB On Swifts
 Peak Swift Boxes 

Help us celebrate our swifts! Cheer them on, revel in their wonderful displays, point them out and be proud of them. (We’re thinking High Street welcome flags, in years to come!) These international travellers have come a long way to find us!

Thank you – we look forward to hearing about your swift spotting and we will provide all the support you need. Please contact heat_hungerford@yahoo.com

Nicola Chester
JoG Eco Club & Librarian

Swift Town Hungerford has been set up by Hungerford Environmental Action Team (HEAT) and John O’Gaunt School’s Eco Club, inspired by former student, swift champion and very talented artist, Jonathan Pomroy and school librarian and nature writer/champion Mrs Chester.

Swift Guru Ailsa Claybourn

Many thanks to Ailsa  for her illustrated introduction to swifts on Sunday 2 July 2023 in Hungerford Library – how to identify them, where they come from and return to, where they nest here in the UK and what we can do to help them.

If you missed the talk, you can watch the video here:

Ailsa’s Monthly Blog

May 2024

They’re back!!!  At least, a lot of them are, and our skies are once more being scythed by the black crossbow shapes of Swifts feeding and prospecting and generally being their wonderful selves. I’ve seen lots of reports of Swifts returning to villages, towns, homes, neighbourhoods and cities – and it’s great to know that Hungerford has had many screaming parties already. 

That’s not to say any rowdy celebrations have been going on (though maybe a glass of something was drunk on the evening of my first-Swift-over-my-garden sighting!). 

‘Screaming parties’ are what we call groups of sub-adult Swifts who are prospecting for nest sites for when, aged 3 or 4, they stop flying to raise a family of their own. Before then, they zoom around in groups, screaming and looking for holes and crevices which look good for nesting in. They will fly so close that their wings brush against the cavity, and the theory is that they can tell, from the sound this makes, how big, and therefore how suitable, the space is. Amazing, eh? When they do that, they’re known as Bangers (though ‘brushers’ might be more appropriate).

Adults will scream back at the young birds, from their nests, so there’s even more noise; hearing the adults reassures the youngsters that they have found good sites, as Swifts already nest there, and they all like to nest close by other Swifts.

This is why we play Swift calls near our nest boxes and bricks, to persuade young birds that there are other Swifts nesting close by; and it’s why it’s never too late to put boxes up and to play calls, because these sub-adult non-breeders will remember where they saw, and heard, a good future nest site; and they’ll be back….

Their fairground “screaming parties” around the High Street rooftops and out over the Marsh and Common are a soundtrack to all our summers.

If you want to know if your house is suitable for a swift nest box please contact us on heat_hungerford@yahoo.com. And please follow our facebook page facebook.com/SwiftTownHungerford.

April 2024 – keep your eyes to the skies

We are in the countdown now for Swift arrival. If your house has a roof that has clear access with no trees or telegraph poles nearby and doesn’t get too warm please consider installing a Swift nest box, especially if you know that swifts already nest in your vicinity (check out the user-friendly RSPB Swift Mapper). 

The southerly winds we’ve been having just recently brought more than warm weather and Storm Kathleen: reports are coming in of large numbers of migrating Swallows and House Martins arriving in north Norfolk on 7 April, along with 3 Swifts; and single Swifts have been seen in other places, including South Wales and Sussex.
 
These migrating birds cross the English Channel on southerly winds, having travelled from sub-equatorial Africa, stopping to feed on the way, to drink, and occasionally to rest. Thy need to feed and rest again once they cross the Channel, after which many will fly on, spreading westwards, eastwards and northwards; so the Swifts, and other migrant birds, that we see early in the season won’t all settle here to breed.
 
Some of them will, though, and it’s not too late to install Swift nest boxes for when the majority of our local birds have arrived.
 
Seeing Swifts overhead in Berkshire in early April is very unusual, and 3 or 4 weeks earlier than normal. The worry is that we are now going to have colder, wetter weather, typical for the time of year, which will be bad for the insects on which Swifts rely for food, possibly leading to hunger or, at worst, starvation. While it’s lovely to see these spectacular birds now, I’m hoping that most of them will linger longer in southern Europe, feeding up before gradually heading north and reaching us around the end of the month, by which time the weather should suit them – and us – more.
 
Meanwhile, keep your eyes and ears open for a whole range of returning summer visitors, from the tiny Chiffchaff with its onomatopoeic ‘chiff chaff’ song, who are already here in large numbers; to the much larger Cuckoo, also named after its song. The skyways are very busy with birds and it won’t be long before the Swifts are back too.
 
So keep your eyes to the skies, and your ears tuned in to all the songs and sounds of Spring.

August 2023 – quiet skies

As August arrives, our non-breeding swifts’ wild screaming parties reach their noisy peak, and they begin to wing away from us and towards their African wintering-grounds.

Usually, adults with young remain, feeding their chicks until they fledge and set off for the south alone, followed by their parents, who might stay a while to feed themselves in preparation for their long journey.

But this year’s persistently wet weather has disrupted the swifts’ normal behaviour; they can’t hunt in heavy rain, and whilst the nestlings can survive without food, or the warmth of their parents, for up to 5 days, July’s rain, and now August’s, has put them under extreme pressure. I have seen many reports of chicks, and fledglings, found grounded beneath their nests, underweight and in dire need of food and warmth. Many swift rescue centres are being kept busy with hungry birds, youngsters who aren’t developed or strong enough to have left their nests, and adults who aren’t finding enough insects to feed themselves or their young.

If you find a grounded swift, please don’t feed it, as they need expert care. Go to www. swift-conservation.org to find your nearest swift helper, who will have been specially trained. All Things Swift UK’s Facebook group also has information about Swift supporters, and group members share experiences and advice.

I’ve just returned from a 10-day trip to north Norfolk, where I’ve seen many swifts in previous years, but fewer, I feel, this year. However, I was delighted to be buzzed by a screaming party of 10 birds in Blakeney village, and around 15 in Wells-next-the -Sea, where I also watched 2 adults swoop into their nests beneath roofs on the main street. I stayed in Fakenham, a medieval market town with many old buildings; although I didn’t find any nest sites, each evening towards the end of my stay, I was entranced by parties of 20 to 30 birds screaming around the town centre. One evening, they were careering around above a company of mixed gulls, who looked large, heavy and clumsy compared with the quicksilver Swifts. There’d been a mass-hatching of flying ants that day, and all these birds were feasting on them as they were swept up on strong winds towards the aerial soup zone.

I was lucky to have relatively good weather whilst I was away, but I don’t expect there will be big screaming parties in Fakenham now. Since I came home to Berkshire, I’ve seen just 1 swift, over my garden, before the rain set-in again. As non-breeders head south, away from the rain, and well-fed fledglings leave on dry days, from now on the skies will grow quiet, until next May.

Swifts in July

July is a great time to see and hear Swifts, as the younger, non-breeding, birds will be prospecting for nest-sites for when it’s time for them to breed, which Swifts don’t do until they’re 3 or 4 years old. As Swifts like to nest communally, these younger birds will be flying around, in groups, looking and listening for adults with nests, calling as they go, in what are known as screaming parties. The adults will be calling back, warning them away from their nests, so this can be a very noisy month!

There are two advantages for us in this: firstly, we can enjoy the thrilling speed, screams and spectacle of the young birds careering round buildings and tearing across the sky; and the adults’ reactions indicate where they’re nesting. It can be tricky to pinpoint nest-sites, as, unless they’re in nest boxes, they’ll be hidden away in roofs and walls beyond our sight; and the parent birds can slip in and out of them in a trice, so are easily missed.

You may see members of the screaming parties flying very close to, or brushing, walls, roofs or other places that might look like desirable sites: these are the bangers, who, it is believed, can tell from the sound made as they brush by how deep a hidden cavity is, and whether it will be suitable for nesting in.

With all this activity, July is the best time to survey how many Swifts we have in Hungerford, and where they are. 

Treat yourselves to an evening stroll, an hour or two before sunset, looking and listening for Swift activity. Make a note of your observations, and log them on the RSPB’s Swift Mapper on their website, or download the Swift Mapper app. Your records will add to the national picture of Swift numbers and distribution, and help us to create a map of Hungerford’s Swifts, which will be helpful in deciding where to site new Swift nest boxes in the town.

Swifts nest in nooks and crannies in our buildings. Keeping those repaired and in good order often excludes swifts. But this is easily remedied (see below) and they are quiet birds when nesting, unobtrusive and not at all messy.

It’s also crucial to know where Swifts nest in case of any building work or development which may block or destroy established nest sites. Swifts are site faithful, returning year after year to the same place; if this is lost, it is unlikely that they will nest again. Evidence of nesting can inform Planning decisions and help avoid potential damage to and disruption of Swifts’ nests.If you already have a Swift nest box, or boxes (more than one is preferable – see above about their preference for communal nesting), playing Swift calls at this time of year will advertise these brilliant, custom-built, state of the art new-builds to birds who will be nesting in the years ahead. They’ll remember likely sites, and could return in 1,2 or even 3 years’ time to use them. It could take longer – patience is a necessary virtue for Swift lovers!

Blocking the nest box entrance holes in early Spring will deter other feathered families, such as House Sparrows, from moving in, but as this can be difficult with boxes at heights of 5 metres and above, don’t despair: your boxes may not be used by early nesters; if they are, those birds may have finished raising their young by the time the Swifts return to us, in early May; Swifts will evict “sitting-tenants”; and it’s even been known for some Swifts to tolerate multi-occupancy – I saw photos last year of a Great Tit family sharing a box with Swifts!

Sadly, most of our Swifts will be leaving at the end of July, with some adults staying longer, as they finish raising their young. So now’s the time to enjoy, record and absorb as much Swiftiness as possible, before the skies grow quiet and emptier.

We’ll all be so busy through the Winter, installing nest boxes, planning our organic gardening and designing Hungerford Swift Town banners, that in no time at all, it will be May again, and they’ll be back …Meanwhile, indulge yourselves in July’s peaks of activity and numbers.

Ailsa Claybourn

 

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