A Tale of Swifts in Winchester

My name is Mary and when I moved to Winchester in the early 2000s, I delighted in the swifts. They seemed to arrive in late April and some nested in the roof of one of the houses opposite – and I’m sure in many other places. There were what seemed to be large numbers of swifts in Winchester generally.

Over the years, the number of swifts around dropped. Then the roof of the house opposite was replaced and there were no holes left there for them.

In 2017 I had to have major work on the roof of my house. I approached Tim Norriss of Hampshire Swifts who advised that I could have swift nest boxes inside the eaves, entered by holes in the soffits. He drew up the spec and the carpenter who did the work on the fascias and soffits – himself a birder - made them up and installed them.

The work wasn’t finished until late July 2017 – so too late even to play the little sound system Tim had sold me - but I did play it the following spring. I didn’t do anything clever in terms of fitting the speaker properly – I just put the call player on the internal windowsill and the speaker on the outside window sill – and played it on the mornings and evenings when I was at home and it wasn’t raining. Surprisingly, this worked.

I don’t have any cameras inside the boxes and I have learned how difficult it can be to know if you have swifts in occupation. They’re not like blue tits which are constantly to and fro to feed the youngsters. Late in the season, I have noticed a few droppings below some of the boxes. I gather this might mean that the parents (who normally remove the droppings) might have left for the last few days before the youngster flies away. But for most of the time, there is little sign of occupation. The adults fly in and out of the nest so quickly that it’s easy to miss them.

The first summer, 2018, I eventually realised I had one box occupied when I saw a little face looking out of it. This was on 5 August – after most of the swifts I had been seeing flying around had left. I saw it again on the next day and then no further sightings. The nest was on the south side of the house and they seemed quite happy. I was so lucky to get one nesting in the first summer the eaves boxes were installed.

The following summer, in 2019, I had two boxes occupied – the one occupied the previous year and another also on the south side. On 7 August I saw a swift flying south from the house with a slightly unusual flight – a bit zigzag and erratic but determinedly southwards – was this a bird on its maiden flight from one of the nests? I’ll never know. Then on 2 September, I was in the house and heard a noise, went out to look and saw a baby swift poking its head farther out of the nest than I had ever seen before. Then it launched and flew away. My most exciting wildlife moment of the summer!

This year, 2020, I eventually realised I had four boxes occupied – and I saw two young in one of them. And there is one nest in one of the houses across the street. This was after a rather slow start – other places were reporting swifts but Winchester seemed to have few. One day in late July we had parties of swirling screaming swifts who seemed to be examining every nook and cranny – a sign of hope for more next year?

They are such exciting birds and it’s wonderful when they fly down low over the garden – they’re big! I realise every year how little I still know about them. Without nest cams, it’s easy to miss them, and I don’t know how many young were raised in each nest. I was lucky they were still some left in the area when I put my boxes up – and very lucky to have the help of Hampshire Swifts!

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