by Mark Wagstaff
There are few sounds more likely to remind us of summer than swifts screeching overhead on a warm balmy evening in June and July. These aerial summer visitors only spend about three months with us between May and August each year – just enough time to recover from their long journey here, find a nesting site, make a rudimentary nest of feathers stuck together with saliva and then raise a brood of usually two (perhaps three in a good year) young swifts. Sadly, swift numbers have been dropping in recent years and the major reason for this is the lack of suitable nesting sites. Swifts need the nooks and crannies of older houses in which to nest, and modern house building techniques and the introduction of plastic fascias and soffits to replace timber means that many sites have been lost. Luckily, swifts will readily use a nest box so there are actions we can all take to improve their breeding success. Attracting the first pair can be the hardest part.
I have lived in Lee on Solent now for over 50 years and have never owned anything but a relatively modern house. When we moved to our present house I couldn’t wait to put up nest boxes – boxes for just about everything that flies as anyone walking by our house will quickly notice! My first attempt for Swifts was putting up a very expensive Schwegler box which remained empty for many years. After reading Edward Mayer’s website I purchased three John Stimpson boxes in 2013 and fixed them under the eaves with a call player. The result was almost instantaneous, and we quickly attracted up to a dozen birds at any one time with three Swifts entering the boxes. That year a pair of young birds made a very basic nest but to my huge disappointment did not breed.
The following year, 2014, the swifts returned and this time I was ready for them, having installed a camera in their box the previous winter. After about three weeks their eggs hatched and the adults set about raising their two young.
They are simply wonderful parents, sharing their responsibilities and keeping the box immaculately clean. They come and go with the minimum of fuss – its hard to know they are here sometimes (as you will see later on). As the chicks grew it crossed my mind that someone might like to ring them (as they are so easily accessible compared to natural swift nest sites) so I contacted the BTO and was almost knocked down in the rush for one of their ringers to get here! Fortunately, it was a friend from my Titchfield Haven days, Trevor Codlin who got the job. He is a specialist at this type of ringing and arrived one evening after work when the chicks were about three weeks old, and they were duly ringed. Whilst up the ladder, Trevor was keen to check the other boxes which I was convinced were not being used – but to my utter amazement he found a pair sitting on eggs in another box so was able to ring the adults with a promise to return if and when the young hatched.
Hatch they did, about three weeks later, so they were ringed too, making a total of four youngsters and two adults from our site in 2014. These later birds fledged in August and I was lucky enough to be outside when it happened – the two youngsters went mad with excitement at their ability to fly and swooped and screamed around my head for ten minutes in what seemed like pure delight – and then were off never to be seen again.
The adults used the box (probably to recover!) for a few more days and then they too were off on their long trip to Africa. Just a wonderful experience.
In 2015 both pairs returned but it was a difficult year weather-wise, for swifts and the eggs were ejected from one of the nests just before they were due to hatch. Edward Mayer advised me that this was not unusual behaviour that year.
Trevor has returned each year to ring the young but it wasn’t until 2018 that we had a further increase in numbers – to four pairs rearing seven young. This included two pairs on my neighbour Janet's house who had also put up boxes. More boxes have since been erected and the totals are now 15 on my house and five on Janet’s a few doors down. The ones on my house include four Peak boxes – none of these have been used yet and it will be interesting to monitor how quickly they are as they have a different design of entrance. The maximum number of Swifts in 2022 to be seen in a low-flying screaming party was 15. Ringing totals are given below – a total of 65 young birds have been ringed and fledged here since 2014, so success from hatching to fledging stands at 98.5% and three boxes this year fledged three young (compared to one box in 2021 and one in 2020).
3 + 1 retrap
7 + 1 retrap
And some notes from ringer Trevor Codlin who adds that no adults have deserted following ringing due to great care being taken in following protocol:
"In 2021 we retrapped one of the original 2014 adults (seven years since original capture). Fingers crossed she will return next year and be successful, but of course she is getting on a bit, with seven years between first and last capture that must make her at least nine or ten years old. Interestingly, two of the retrapped adults have swapped boxes since original ringing. Since commencement of ringing we have not had a single chick death, but there have been a few addled eggs. One female sat on two clutches this year, both failed to hatch, she deserted the last one during the first week of August.
In 2022, the last youngster fledged on or around the 26th August, bringing the total to 19 chicks fledged, a 90% increase on 2021, and a 50% increase in occupied boxes, up to nine in 2022. We also found one dead chick in one box this year on Trevor’s first visit, which is the first dead chick we have ever had, the remaining two in this nest fledged successfully.
My sincere thanks to Trevor Codlin for his expertise in the ringing and for providing the tables above.