Recording Swifts

Article written by Ellen Lee, Biodiversity Data Services Manager

Swifts are one of our most iconic species of birds. When you hear your first screaming party of the year, you truly know that summer is on the way. They are also unusual in actively seeking out nesting places in urban situations. Over the last 20 to 30 years, the number we see returning from their wintering quarters in south and west Africa have been dwindling (there has been a reduction in numbers of 51% between 1995 and 2015). Nobody knows for certain what the problem is, but it’s likely to be a combination of conditions in the wintering areas and fewer airborne insects here. Lack of nesting sites is also likely to be a factor. Swifts nest in holes in walls, under eaves and gables and loose roof tiles. Over the last couple of decades, many buildings have been renovated and holes sealed resulting in loss of nesting sites. Often minor renovations don’t require planning permission, but more major work will and the information about the locations of swift nests that TVERC supplies to local authority planners is vital for ensuring that suitable mitigation of put in place.

That’s why projects such as the Cherwell Swift Project and the Oxford Swift City project are so important. Both projects rely on volunteers going out and searching for swift nests. I’m a volunteer with the Oxford Swift City Project and have been out and about in my designated 500m x 500m survey square (St Clements, Oxford) whenever I have a free evening. Initially I walked every right of way in the square, trying to see where the swifts were most active, flying low and screaming. Since then I’ve been choosing somewhere in one of the “hotspots” to stand and watch, from about 20 minutes before to 20 minutes after sunset. During this period, if there is a nest nearby, I’ll see one of the birds returning to roost thus revealing the nest location. So far, I’ve found three nests and it’s a real thrill to see a bird swooping low and flying into its nest fast and low. Sometimes I’ve heard the bird already in the nest welcome the incoming bird with calls and once I heard the nest occupants call to a screaming party that was passing overhead. On another occasion, the bird that was trying to return to roost seemed to be prevented by the bird on the nest and flew round and round “banging” on the nest till it was eventually let in! The latest news from the project co-ordinator is that nests have been reported on 11 surveys. Hopefully the number of nests spotted will increase as the eggs hatch and feeding flights begin, thus increasing the amount of activity round each nest.

Thanks to these two projects, we have a pretty good and ever improving knowledge of where the swift nests are in Cherwell District and Oxford City. However, for all of Berkshire and the rest of Oxfordshire our knowledge is very patchy. Do you have a swift nest in your roof, wall or swift box? Do you see swifts going in and out of their nest when you are walking near your home? If so, please do get in touch with us and let us know, because if we don’t know where the nests are, then we can’t help protect them.

Apparently 22nd to 30th June is “Swift Awareness Week”! I’m not quite sure what this will mean in practice, but there may be events happening near you, so it’s worth keeping a look out. In Oxford, members of the Oxford Swift City project will be manning a stall at the Oxford Green Week event at the Rose Hill Community Centre on Saturday 15th June, so if you are in the area, why not drop in and find out more.

Although their numbers are down, I do hope that you manage to spend some time this summer watching these spectacular “harbingers of summer” on their short visit to our shores.

See out Spotlight on... Swifts!

Posted: June 5, 2019