The Highcliffe area of Winchester includes two areas of Council housing built primarily between the First and Second World Wars, and a variety of other housing, much of it terraced, mostly built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As such, it would have offered ample nesting opportunities for Swifts, House Sparrows, and Starlings. But here, as in so many places, the installation of uPVC soffits and fascias and renovation of houses has greatly diminished the supply of natural nest sites for these urban bird species.
In 2018, concerns about the dire effects that Winchester City Council’s large-scale re-roofing project was having on Highcliffe’s urban bird populations led Hampshire Swifts to come to an agreement with the Council that all tenants of re-roofed properties would be offered a free Swift nest box. In addition, the Council appointed an ecologist to survey their properties before such work was carried out. You can read our earlier blogs about Highcliffe here and here.
The number of swift nest boxes in Highcliffe has grown steadily since 2018. In addition to the boxes put up on re-roofed Council houses, many other boxes have been installed by Hampshire Swifts on privately-owned houses as interest in Swifts has grown among residents. Further help for the Swift population came in 2022 when Winchester City Council gave Highcliffe Community Forum for Action the funding for 4 double swift boxes for two three-storey blocks of flats. This took the number of swift boxes in Highcliffe to 116.
The increased availability of artificial nest sites in Highcliffe has been accompanied by a marked increase in the number of breeding Swift pairs. Since we started surveying the area, the number of Swift pairs occupying boxes has risen each year: 14 in 2020, 20 in 2021, 24 in 2022, and 35 in 2023. By contrast, over the last three years we have found only 6 pairs nesting in natural sites. Three of these Swift pairs have been nesting in the top of the gables of All Saints’ Primary School, built in the early 1890s. One of our planned projects for which we are looking for funds is to allow this colony to expand by building some bespoke nest boxes into the gables of the school.
Of all the roads in Highcliffe, two are particularly well provisioned with swift boxes. Currently, Portal Road has 38 boxes, and Gordon Avenue 46. This is where the majority of Highcliffe’s Swifts nest. Numbers of breeding Swifts are increasing in both roads year on year.
Number of nest boxes occupied by Swifts according to year
It is not just Swifts who use these boxes. Highcliffe’s House sparrows are flourishing with the increased availability of nest boxes. They start breeding well before the Swifts return and can finish their first brood before May. We have not systematically surveyed House Sparrow nests this year, but in 2022, 71% of swift boxes were used by House Sparrows in early Spring. Many of these boxes were subsequently taken over by Swifts. One Highcliffe resident who has cameras in her swift boxes has seen House Sparrows return to the boxes while the Swifts are out. We need to ensure there are ample nest sites for our urban birds so that there’s a space for all of them to rear their young.
We are grateful to Caroline Hall, Rachel Hardy, and Rachel Remnant for surveying Highcliffe’s Swifts in 2023.
Catharine Gale, Hampshire Swifts
If you would like to contribute to the cost of installing bespoke swift boxes at All Saints’ Primary School, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.