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.


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