Not-So Swift Success by David Gittens

As you will know, the ‘doing-up’ of pantile roofs of old Norfolk cottages is not uncommon, so when the
cottage next door, which had hosted a colony of nesting swifts for many years, was bought for
‘renovation’, the writing was on the wall. And so it came to pass, despite our attempts to persuade the
new owners of the need to preserve the site for swifts. Our only option was to put up nest boxes on our
house, which we did. This was back in 2016.
Spring came and we watched and waited. We even played swift calls to advertise that the two
residences were up for grabs. To no avail. We tried again the following year, but got the same result.
Hardly a flicker of interest from the screaming squadrons that flashed by searching for a new home.
Something was clearly wrong with our offerings – a simple box-style box with an entrance slot
underneath. Then I had a (rare) flashbulb moment. Perhaps the swifts were looking for a site which
provided a flight path to the entrance which was similar to a pantiled roof? Who knows the mind of a
swift? I certainly don’t, but a bit more research followed, and we decided that maybe a Zeist style box
like the ones advocated by Bristol Swifts would be more to their liking.
Off to Travis Perkins for another sheet of 12mm ply and soon-ish two more boxes were knocked up. In
truth they are somewhat more fiddley to make than the box-style ones so maybe it was not so ‘soonish’. No matter. I was filled with renewed optimism, so much so I adorned each of them with a simple
camera and connected them to my wildlife CCTV system.
Spring 2018 came as did the swifts, the calls played and you could cut the air of anticipation with a
knife. The recent CCTV footage recorded on my PC was checked constantly for signs of interest from
the swifts. Nothing. Nada. Unless you count a curious starling and a couple of wasps.
The spring of 2019 was ‘orrible weather-wise, and to make matters worse swift numbers around our
area were dramatically down on previous years. Consequently, it was no surprise that swift interest
was no better than in previous years. Come late June and although the weather had improved, the
numbers of swifts flying around was worryingly low. I was beginning to resign myself to waiting for next
year again. I even switched off the calls.
Laying in bed early one morning we heard a ‘klonk’ coming from close to our bedroom window, a bit
like someone hitting an empty wooden box with a soft hammer. “I wonder what that was?” I thought,
but then thought nothing more of it. A while later there was another. Again, I let the thought go. I got
up, dressed and while eating my breakfast, I went through the camera footage recorded overnight. The
local tawny owl had made one brief visit to his nest box last night, the foraging mice/voles/shrew in the
log pile had survived the night unscathed and the hedgehogs had been active around the garden too.
More out of habit than expectation I also checked the swift cameras. I couldn’t believe my eyes! A swift
had tried to enter Box 1 around the time I had heard the ‘klonk’. Then again! I almost choked on my
Shreddies with excitement.
During the course of the day they tried again. And again. Then one landed and entered. Soon followed
by another. The camera on this box was looking at the entrance from the outside (drat) so I had no
idea what they were doing inside, but they stayed for 30 minutes or so before leaving. Later on, they
came back and stayed some more. Yaaaay!
This activity continued for a few days and I started to dare to wonder if they might actually be nesting
despite the lateness of the season. Then, as if this wasn’t enough excitement, another pair prospected
the second box close by. This box had the camera on the inside, but they didn’t seem to be doing
much, or stay inside anywhere near as long. After a couple of days they left and didn’t return.
Nevertheless, this all filled me with hope for the future.
Eventually, after 10 days or so the pair in Box 1 stopped coming too. It seemed clear now that they
had made no attempt to breed but I would not look in the nest box until the autumn. When I did I found
the shallow nest cup (that’s another story) I had provided for them had been neatly lined with small
non-swift feathers, bits of dry grass and straw, and a short piece of fluffy string which I assume they
could only have caught while on the wing. This had been firmly stuck to the cup (with their saliva it
turns out). Now, all the earlier activity made sense. This was the work of a young pair of swifts that
were preparing to breed for the first time the following year, provided they both managed to survive the
trials of life in the wild and two African migrations of course. Very encouraging nonetheless.
I left well alone and, other than installing a small, simple video camera on the inside of the box I put the
front panel back on and rehung the nest box exactly where it had been. Then I sat back, again, and
waited for Spring 2020. That is when the fun really began, but that’s for another time.

 

Related YouTube clips:
https://youtu.be/a59pjz13k4A
https://youtu.be/hW8FjUi0ZZg
https://youtu.be/_fEEffkNUv8

A Not-So Swift Success: Part 2
By David Gittens
Spring 2020 and under lockdown. We were hopeful that the pair of young swifts which had
prospected one of our nest boxes last year would return to breed. Cameras now on the inside of
both boxes would provide unquestionable evidence of their occupation and allow us to watch the
arrival and development of the next generation of swifts. What could possibly go wrong.
The late April weather warmed nicely and we watched the skies in hopeful anticipation that a
squadron of supersonic sickle-shaped screaming swifts would swoop above us. Come the first day of
May first reports that there were swifts in the area started to filter through. A couple of days later
there were, apparently, lots over Fakenham, Great Ryburgh and the like. Not over our house though.
More watching ensued but for no reward. It was now May 6th
. Was Colkirk going to be the swift equivalent of the Ozone Hole of Antarctica? Thankfully, it wasn’t! Three swifts screamed over our heads and broke the duck – yaaaaay!!!
They didn’t give a passing glance at our boxes but no matter. They are here. The numbers weren’t
great through. Subjectively no better than last year. And as the days passed none looked as though
they had any interest in our nest boxes either. In fact, numbers in the skies over us had dwindled to
near zero and it didn’t get much better over the next few days.
On May 20th things took a turn for the better. It was early evening when I checked the cameras to find
that one swift had arrived in the nest box unannounced. Eureka! But then it left. And returned again
a few minutes later. And then left again. This is not going to be good for my ‘ticker’ if this goes on, I
thought. Darkness approached and after a few brief forays it came in and settled for the night.
The next morning I awoke and checked the cameras. Now there were TWO swifts in the box.
Excellent! They looked like teenagers (which I guess they were in Swift terms), preening each other,
cosying up and ‘chatting’ to one-another in gentle rasps and squawks. During the rest of the day they
shadowed each other, coming and going in and out of the box like a fiddlers’ elbow, as if they couldn’t
contain their excitement at having their first home.
The following few days they shadowed one another relentlessly, spending only brief moments in the
nest box during the day but always in overnight. It amazed me that a bird that spent the last two
years of its life entirely on the wing (we believe) was suddenly quite happy to be stationary on firm
ground (plywood). Particularly so as their ungainly wobbling in getting around the nest box looked
quite uncomfortable. Mother Nature had, for a reason not clear to me, placed its little legs aft of its
centre of gravity making it near impossible for it to stand up without pitching forward. This made it
even more amazing that it was able to stand at all. After two years in the air and not having to use its
legs, how did it have the strength in them to do anything. So much we don’t know.
Try as I might I couldn’t tell which was the male and which was the female. Even under the camera’s
infrared light which lit the inside of the nest box the differences in plumage were inconclusive. (IR
light often shows differences not seen in visible light). There was a faint lightness to the tip of one
wing on one of them but it was only visible from certain angles and was not on the other wingtip. The
other swift appeared to be more assertive but I’m not at all sure this was consistent. Suppressing any
anthropomorphic tendencies, I concluded I could not tell which was which. However, it was, on
occasion, very clear that I had one of each as, contrary to my understanding that they copulate on the
wing it was obvious that this was not exclusive. But even that didn’t help as they do not appear to
couple like other birds but more like missionaries, in the nest box at least. This coupling was of
course an encouraging sign that eggs might soon adorn the nest.
And so it came to pass that, on the morning of 28th May I happened to be sat in front of my PC and
watched, live, the laying of the first egg. In truth it wasn’t obvious I was watching it until after the
event. Nothing was clear to the camera as the male (I can say that this is the one time I knew which
was which) was in intimate close attendance and shrouded the camera from any detail. For a brief
moment I felt their euphoria, but this was probably a momentary weakening of my antianthropomorphism.

Right after, both birds seemed to jostle for the right to incubate their little package  such was their apparent dedication to the task. One would persuasively push the other off and then it, a few minutes later would get the same treatment back. And so it went on. For an hour or so anyway.
Then came my second surprise. They both left the nest leaving the elongated, white and quite
sizeable egg uncovered. I subsequently found out that it is normal for swifts to start incubation only
after the arrival of a second egg and that their eggs can take prolonged period of chilling and still be
viable. I breathed again. An hour and a half later the birds returned together and the jostling for egg possession resumed. For 38 minutes anyway, then they left again and returned almost an hour later.
Again the jostling continued but this time with serious consequences. The egg became knocked out
of the nest cup and rolled towards the entrance! Strangely the birds didn’t seem to notice, or show
concern, but continued their jostling as though it was still there. What to do? Well, I couldn’t disturb
them while they were in the nest but I reasoned that they are likely to leave together and for long
enough for me to shin up the ladder and somehow put it back. I fashioned a piece of coat hanger
wire into an egg-shaped loop and waited. It wasn’t for long. Both left and I quickly put the ladder up,
spied the egg close to the box entrance and, with my wife watching the CCTV and giving me
directions (!?) I was able to get the egg onto the looped wire and back into the nest. Sort of. Then
down the ladder and away in less than 3 minutes. Mission accomplished I hoped. Sure enough, an
hour and a half later both swifts returned as though nothing had happened and resumed their
competitive egg covering antics. It didn’t last though. The very next day it happened again and I had
to go through the same palaver with the ladder and bent coat hanger wire.
I was concerned about the egg ejection, and my antics to put it back. Although Red Listed, swifts are
not Schedule 1 birds but was this in the best interests of the swifts I asked myself? I then
remembered that I had met swift expert Dr Paul Noakes a couple of years before so I contacted him
for advice. His very helpful response was that the root cause of the problem was two-fold. (1) the
pair were inexperienced and (2) the design of my home-made ‘nest cup’ I had provided them with was
far too shallow. It needed to be more like a natural swift nest, around 25 to 35mm deep (mine was 10
at a push) with steeper internal sides. Clearly there was nothing I could do to the nest cup this year.
Back to our swifts. The early hours of 31st May saw the on-time arrival of Egg 2 with much the same
melee from his nibs who was again in attendance. Now the incubation starts I thought. And so it
appeared to, after a fashion. Clearly this pair were new to the game and learning on the job. The
teenager antics showed themselves again when they seemed at times to focus more on each other
than the eggs. What incubation there was seemed misguided to me. Often one or both eggs would
only be covered by a wing, or derriere, or not at all for a while. And still the competition between them
to possess the eggs continued. On the plus side they were spending more time in the nest box but
this may be in part due to the weather, which had taken a real turn for the worse.
After a few days they started to get the hang of things a bit more. There was less competition
between them and incubation appeared more accomplished with almost scheduled sharing of the task
every few hours. This is more like it, I thought. I shouldn’t have.
8th June and the pattern changed. Both swifts left the nest at one point for over 9 hours. They had
done this for 2 or 3 hours on previous days. I could think of no reason why this should be, other than
the weather had improved and maybe they needed to feed. It couldn’t be good for the eggs though,
could it? The next day they left the eggs for 2 spells of about 3 hours each. The day following that it
was for almost 6 hours in one stint. This didn’t feel right.
Then the curse of the shallow cup returned on 11th when, during a typically ungainly repositioning of
one of the swifts in the nest, an egg rolled out again. Surprisingly, neither swift appeared concerned
or even acknowledge the wayward egg, let alone try to retrieve it themselves even though it was close
by. Sadly, I could see no way this time that I could help them either. The risk of disturbing them and
precipitate the abandonment of the other egg was too high I felt. Nature would have to take its course
I reluctantly concluded.
Interestingly, the next few days saw a return to a more dedicated incubation of the remaining egg and,
although I didn’t know if it was the first or the second to be laid, we were getting closer to the magic
19 to 21 days to hatching. But once again things changed on June 18th when the pair left the egg  unattended

for a total of over 9 hours. The next day saw a similar pattern of inattendance which later,
when the birds returned, culminated in the remaining egg also being knocked unceremoniously out of
the nest. My heart sank for them, but they didn’t seem to bat an eyelid. Both abandoned eggs didn’t
get a passing glance as the birds settled into the nest as though nothing had happened. Wild
creatures cannot afford sentiment but, after the pair had invested such time and energy into the eggs,
this felt unnatural somehow. Unless there was a reason.
Perhaps a clue to the reasoning behind all this behaviour came early next morning as, without any
preamble, one swift rose from the nest, wobbled over to the eggs, picked one up in its mouth, took it
to the entrance and dropped it outside. I found it, or the remains, on the concrete path 5 metres
below. But, as if this journey hadn’t had enough surprises, it delivered one more. There I saw the
shattered shell and a fair amount of albumin but no sign of a foetus – or YOLK! An egg without a
yolk? I’ve never heard of such a thing but clearly it would not have been viable without it. It seems
the swift(s) somehow knew it too. So when the second egg received similar treatment on the 23rd it
wasn’t really a surprise. There is a reason for everything in the natural world but we don’t necessarily
understand it. Looking back I suspect the swifts did, and their actions are a result of senses and
insights we don’t possess, or can’t appreciate from their perspective. Nevertheless, this is life in the
wild.
The pair are still around as I type but unlikely to try to breed again this year (famous last words). So,
looking forward to next year, the 6th in this saga, I am, on balance more optimistic for the swifts.
There is a fair chance, with a following wind (literally) this pair will return and armed with this years’
experience do a better job. I will also take experience from this year and hopefully do a better job of
moulding a new and more suitable nest cup. A winter project of course. Additionally, I am pleased to
report that the other two swift nest boxes have all had visits from swifts in the last few days which
gives hope that they too will return next year and at least attempt to breed as well. The start of a little
colony maybe. If so, I hope at least in part it will go some way to redress the loss of their historic sites
under old Norfolk pantiles, now sealed up.
I get a real sense of privilege being able to watch wildlife through the lens of a CCTV camera. It is
educational too. But, as humans become more detached from the realities of the natural world, it’s
not always easy viewing. Nevertheless, the overriding factor should always be that the creature being
watched should come first. Even if that sometimes means letting nature take its natural course.

 

Not-So-Swift Success – An update to the Sequel
By David Gittens

So, I have decided to give up any ambitions I had to predict the future, where swifts are concerned at
least. When I last wrote about our swifts they had laid two eggs – infertile as it turned out – and
subsequently abandoned them. With other swift pairs in the area already with chicks it seemed likely
that this inexperienced pair would now wait until next year before trying again. And this was my
statement in a piece for the last WVBS newsletter. How wrong could I be!
On June 28th, out of the blue and just two days after I had sent my piece off to the editor, we witnessed
through the CCTV camera inside the nest box, the swift lay an egg. This was followed some 60 hours
later by another. Needless to say, we were thrilled, but our hopes and expectations for a happy outcome
were tempered with the knowledge that this pair had not exactly shown good parenting skills with the
previous batch of eggs. You may remember that their initial jostling and competitive enthusiasm to
incubate the eggs had led to several egg ejections from the nest cup. Perversely though, they then
showed little concern for the exiled egg and made no attempt to bring it back into the fold. As time went
on, they had shown even less bond with the eggs, so it was no great surprise when they finally
abandoned them. Somewhat anthropomorphically, I put this behaviour down to the pair being
inexperienced and unknowledgeable, or uncommitted to the task, so our expectations for the latest
batch of two eggs were not high.
Wrong again! The parents quickly settled into a committed incubation, sharing the task more or less
equally during the day, changing over every couple of hours or so and rarely leaving the eggs
unattended. Little or no jostling and no egg ejections either (despite my less than optimal nest cup).
The behavioural transformation was chalk to cheese. And so it continued for 21 days.
Consequently, on July 19th, the first egg hatched, followed by the second 23 hours later. The parent pair switched seamlessly to chick-care mode as if they were old hands at this game. One would brood the chicks, providing warmth to the tiny, stubby winged, naked chicks, eyes sealed shut and only just
enough strength to raise a wobbly head. Meanwhile, the other would be out foraging for food. In a matter of 30 minutes or so it could gather enough insects to make its mouth bulge under its chin before bringing it back to the nest and feed it to the chicks. Usually the adults would then swap roles with the food provider taking on the brooding while the brooder went off to forage. In the first few days this cycle happened about 16 to 18 times a day.

Swift chicks being fed on 20th July 2020

With each chick getting its fair share of food both grew at a remarkable rate. After a week or so
the chicks had more than doubled in size and had enough down on their bodies to allow both
parents to occasionally go foraging at the same time. As the chick’s appetites increased the
frequency of the joint food forays also increased. But the chicks demand for food increased
further, and on Day 10, with the chicks needing little warmth from brooding, both parents spent
large parts of the day gathering insects to feed their young. At this point the number of food-gathering forays also jumped – to 26 per day. Feather ‘pins’ were now showing on the chicks and they were starting to look like young swifts.

Today, August 8th and Day 20 for the chicks, their bodies are now covered with feather (with tufts of
down poking through) and wing feathers are in place, albeit much shorter than they need to be for flight.
They look like little swifts in fact. They have been instinctively flapping their wings to exercise their allimportant wing muscles for a few days now, but much of their waking day is spent preening the waxy covering of the feather stems. Feeding rates are still in the region of 25 per day for the pair. They look significantly overweight – for flight at least. This apparently is quite normal for swifts as the layer of fat they carry at this stage protects them in the event of poor weather which prevents the parents gathering insects. According to learned information it will be at
least another 2 weeks before they fledge, and maybe a bit more than that. So it could
be September before these swiftlets are able to take to the air for the first time. Rather late in the season for swifts. Once they do of course they will, as you will have heard in Paul Noakes’ fascinating presentation recently, they will not land again for two or maybe even three years. A truly remarkable natural feat by any yardstick.
As I sit here typing this, I can hear through the window the chicks twittering to each other between bouts
of sleeping and waiting for the next feeding visit from a parent. I can only wish them the best of luck in
their journeys to come and hope they are able to revisit Colkirk in the years ahead. Who knows, one
might choose to nest in one of our other nest boxes, or maybe yours. No predictions, but that would be
simply brilliant.

Swift chicks on Day 20

 

Photo credit to David Gittens

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