This blog tells the tale of the return of a pair of Swifts to our nestbox in Bishopthorpe and the 100 days they spent enthralling us with their airborne and nestbox-borne antics. It was a dream come true to have a pair of these fantastic birds spending their summer with us. Of course, they were completely indifferent to our presence, but it was a real thrill to be part of their world for a few short months.
Over the past two years, I have put up 50 nestboxes in the local area (built by Neil and Mikey) as part of the York Swifts project (Twitter: @York_Swifts) and I hope this diary will encourage more people to do their bit to help these special birds.
As I write, 'our' Swift family will be thousands of miles away, cruising through African skies, above the Mozambique coast, or somewhere equally distant and tropical. Go well, little friends. See you in May!
Day One - A first Swift
The bewitching sight of my first Swift arcing high over Kingfisher's Bridge near Ely on 30th April, made me stare in wonder, and gave me a boost of excitement during our Cambridgeshire Big Day.
I had been counting the days since the departure of our local Swifts last August, desperate for their return and to see whether the pair, 'our pair', would return to the nestbox I had installed last year. Nine months seemed too long a time to wait and when I thought of the spring so far in the future, I felt a little despair. I tried not to think too much about them; after all, there was lots to be enjoying during the autumn and winter. But they were never far from my mind. Would they return? Would they nest?
Our pair, named Sid and Drift by Sol, had plastered a few feathers around their nest tray back in June, seemingly staking their claim for the following year, should they survive their epic journey to Africa and back.I had fixed up a little camera to the nestbox they had claimed and following by Cambridgeshire sighting, as soon as I got back to York, I got everything plugged in and ready to roll. My eyes scanned the skies above the village, endlessly searching for the distinctive black anchor shape of a Swift.
Day Eight - York arrivals
A week later, on 7th May, a visit to Burland's Flash Poppleton, near York, looking for waders, revealed two Swifts powering over the water scooping up emergent insects and scattering the Swallows and House Martins in their wake. My pulse quickened as I watched them cruising low across the scrape in the May sunshine, as surely it wouldn't be long before they returned to Bishopthorpe.
Day Ten - They're back!
Sure enough, the following day, four Swifts were feeding high over Acaster Lane, in a blustery wind, only a stone's throw from our house. My feeling of excitement mounted! Over the next few days, more birds arrived over the village. I checked out the main three colonies and they had all got some birds back, presumably experienced adults, ready to get cracking with breeding. Good news; it seemed the local birds had enjoyed a good migration.
After an agonising wait of a few more days, I finally spied a pair circling at a reasonable height over our house on the 13th. Could this be Sid and Drift? I hoped so. I excitedly told the family and they came out to have a look. We watched as they threw wide circles over the estate, occasionally descending a little. I fired up the camera and was glued to the screen, watching for any attempts by the Swifts to visit the nestbox. To our delight, as dusk approached, one of the Swifts made three attempts to enter the box, but failed. I was a little anxious, but over the moon that one of the birds (I decided it was the male, Sid) had survived.
To my delight, the following morning (the 14th) when I switched on the camera at 7am, there was a Swift in the box! I was over the moon and woke the household up to share in the excitement. Surely this was Sid, last year's male, checking out his previous year's nest. He seemed perfectly at home, sitting on the nest tray and shuffling around the box. Sid left into a deep blue morning sky about 9am. I switched the camera off and settled down to work.
Day 11 - Neighbourly dispute
The Swifts were about on and off all day though I didn't see any further attempts by either bird to enter the box. I consoled myself with the assumption that they were having to work hard to feed as this early in the season there probably wasn't much airborne insect life for them to feed on and they needed to be in good condition for the coming weeks ahead.
After tea, the pair began to take more interest in the box and started some awesome low-level pursuits around the rooftops. This was exhillarating stuff; Sid led the way, wing-trembling and squealing in excitement as he approached the box, Drift right on his tail, following every high-speed move. After a while, Sid shot straight into the box. Drift, a little hesitant, circled widely, before making her first attempt. I stood on the drive willing her to enter the box. After a couple of attempts, she landed clumsily, clinging on to the entrance hole. To my shock, a female Starling, who was nesting a few metres away in another nestbox, suddenly shot out of her box like a missile, spooking Drift, who flew off strongly down the street. The Starling, in valiant defence of her growing brood, demonstrated amazing acceleration, easily catching Drift and tailing her for a good 50 metres. Oh no, this wasn't good. Drift circled warily at a distance. Mrs Starling returned to her guard post, on the gutter above her nestbox. After five minutes, Drift disappeard, presumably to roost on the wing, high in the sky. I turned on the camera to see Sid sitting on the nest, presumably wondering what had happened to his partner. He settled down to another lonely night. OK, I am anthropomorphising somewhat here, but this is how I felt!
That night, I dwelled on the potential impact of the Starlings. Their brood were quite well-grown now, given the noise that as emanating from the box. Hopefully, they would fledge and leave the area before it was too late for the Swifts to nest. But what if Drift gave up and went elsewhere? After all the waiting and then the recent excitement, I was not expecting a neighbourly dispute to potentially ruin everything!
This situation continued for five more days. To be fair to the Starling, she was an incredibly determined and courageous mother. For the Swifts, the Starling gauntled was becoming a real issue to run every time they wanted to visit their box. Then, round about the 21st, the Starling box was suddenly quiet and the brood had fledged. Phew! That night, Drift finally got into the box unscathed and joined her patient mate on the nest tray, where they huddled together to sleep, for the first time since last July. Bliss!
Day 31 - Un Oeuf!
I was very excited about our week in northern France, but also a little gutted to be away from the Swifts. Before we headed south, the pair had been bringing in more feathers and spending a fair bit of time each day in the box. This was looking really positive. The weather had largely been clement and the Swifts were presumably finding plenty of food.
Then, on 31st May, my good friend Philip, who was house, pet and Swift-sitting, messaged a photo from the nest camera to me. There seemed to be a whitish blob in the middle of the nest tray - an egg! This was absolutely brilliant! The following day, 1st June, another message from Philip and a photo of two eggs - deux oeufs! -well done Drift!
Despite having a great time in France, I simply couldn't wait to get home to see the Swifts and their eggs.
Day 50 - Enter Swiftlings
From the behaviour of the adults, it seemed the eggs had hatched on 20th June. The Swiftlings were so tiny that it was another week before we got a glimpse of one of the tiny naked chicks as one parent adjusted position on the nest tray. Birds returned every half an hour or so to feed their growing young, reducing slightly when the weather was cooler.
With warm, dry weather, things seemed to be going really well and after a while, the Swiftlings became visible and started moving about. By mid-July they were looking Swift-like, with rapidly developing wings and bands of new jet black feathers appearing amid the ashy grey down. When the parents entered they were subjected to two vicious little monsters who practically engulfed their heads to get the ball of mashed flies.
Day 65 - Bangers
A month or so after the breeding birds arrive back, young birds in their second or third calendar year arrive back from the south. They are attracted to existing colonies and begin to look for a vacant nest site, by 'banging' at the entrance to nest sites. This behaviour is apparently to see if a site is already occupied, and was familiar to me from the behaviour of our pair this time last year.
The presence of Sid and Drift had clearly not gone unnoticed in our street and each morning and evening, small groups of Swifts began to fly around low over the house. This infuriated our pair, with lots of screaming from inside the box, or angry staring out of the entrance hole. When things really heated up, often around 8am, young Swifts attempted to land in the entrance hole and were quickly shoved back out by one of the adults. It was fun to watch, as Swifts zoomed around, landing on the neighbouring box, in the gutter or on the nestbox roof - absolute chaos! The birds paid no heed to me standing on the driveway, dashing past sometimes centimetres in front of my face. Their agility and speed was astonishing and their excited screams filled the warm air.
One morning, through all the melee there was sudden panic as a Hobby, like winged lighning, shot through the group and between the houses. I was concerned that it had caught a Swift, but within a few minutes, the group were all back, bombing around the rooftops and banging into the boxes once more.
After a couple of weeks the visits by the bangers subsided. I wondered if one of the young pairs might return to breed next year.
Day 80 - Heatwave Nightmare
Things were not to be all plain sailing and in the third week of July a plume of very hot air swept out of Iberia into the UK. Temperatures rose rapidly into the thirties. This made me very worried about our Swifts. Exteme heat on the continent had already led to reports of hundreds of Swift chicks throwing themselves out of their nests to escape the searing heat, avoiding being baked alive, but only to die on a hot pavement below. Heroic Spanish birders had dashed round rescuing young Swifts from certain death, but how many others perished in the heat is too terrifying to consider.
Although our Swift boxes face east and are shaded from the sun after about 11am, the air temperature began to heat up to astonishing levels. On Monday 18th, my thermometer registered 39 C in the shade. The Swiftlings were clearly distressed, gaping continually with eyes barely open. I had already received reports of people finding young Swifts on the ground below their nests. It would be tragic if Sid and Drift lost their first chicks when they had done so well. I had to do something, but what?
The internet came to the rescue. In the US, they have problems with Eastern Bluebirds and Purple Martins cooking in their nestboxes, so have come up with elaborate ways of shielding the boxes from the sun. Now my boxes were already in the shade, but by considering simple themodynamics, I figured that by hanging frozen teatowels over the box roof, it would cool the air in the box down. I trialled this with two empty blue tit nestboxes and a thermometer. To my delight, within ten minutes, the temperature inside the boxes dropped by a couple of degrees. Great! I also discovered that people who own parrots often use a water mist spray to cool down their birds in hot weather. Spraying some mist into the entrance hole took the temperature down yet further, reducing the heat down by ten degrees.
Grabbing my ladder, I made sure the parents were well away before ascending and carefully draped a frozen teatowel over the roof, which immediately began to defrost. I then poked the nozzle of a mist spray into the entrance hole and gave it a few blasts. Back to the TV, I could see my actions had had an immediate positive effect. The two Swiftlings were still sitting where they had been, but were now not gaping at all. It must have cooled down! I felt very guilty interfering with 'nature' in this way, but I could not sit there and see them suffer in this heat. The following day was equally hot; down south, the British temperature record was broken with 40.3 C recorded! I went up and down the ladder several times, trying to keep the Swiftlings cool. The parents brought food in from time to time as normal and the chicks fed well. After a stressful couple of days, the heat began to subside.
Day 84 - Proving that Swifts can't count
Unfortunately, many other Swifts hadn't fared so well. Through York Swifts, I was contacted by several villagers who had found grounded Swifts. They were all chicks, some of them only a couple of weeks old, so how they'd managed to shuffle their way out I don't know. These were the lucky ones. Once rescued, I drove them to Linda over in Leeds, who runs the Leeds Swifts project. She had a room full of Swift, Swallow and House Martin chicks, all of whom had been handed in during the last week or so, mostly due to the extreme weather. Linda was doing an amazing job looking after all these young birds, but looked absolutely frazzled. It was non-stop work from dawn til dusk.
Two Swiftlings in transit. The older one from Bishopthorpe, the younger from Elvington. Both survived and were released by Linda, in Leeds.
When I called with a fifth chick from the village, Linda simply could not accomodate any more. She enquired how this Swiftling compared to the two in our nestbox. As it was about the same size, Linda suggested that I could try and see if Sid and Drift would foster the chick into their family. She explained that Swifts often have three chicks and so are quite capable of feeding a third mouth. Knowing how difficult it was to hand-rear Swiftlings, I felt I had to try. It was the only chance the little bird had, so up my ladder I went and put the Swiftling in through the hole. Watching moments later on the TV, I was relieved to see that the two resident Swiftlings seemingly ignored this intruder. Remarkably, after sitting a little sheepishly by the entrance hole for twenty minutes, it shuffled nervously forward and squeezed onto the nest next to the other two, who didn't seem to mind at all! A little later, one of the adults came back and the usual chaos ensued. The fostered chick did not seem to phase the parent at all; apparently Swifts can't count!
The foster chick checking out its adopted siblings
The three amigos
Over the next few days, it became clear that the foster chick was perhaps a little younger than the other two and would often get shoved out of the way in the race for food when the parents came back. But, even though it was hard to see what was going on, the adults were clearly doing a great job feeding all three Swiftlings, as they all continued to develop and grow. Each night, a veritable stack of Swifts piled up on the nest, snuggling in for the night in a veritable jenga of curved wings and tails.
Day 94 - The meaning of life is 42
As explained in the Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the meaning of life is 42 and certainly for Swiftlings, life in the air starts on the 42nd day after hatching. Swift chicks fledge once their wings have fully grown and their weight has dropped a little from a peak a few days before. Linda has explained that they start to refuse food and get a 'thousand yard stare' and she knows once their weight has dropped to the perfect flying weight, they will be ready to go. Our two certainly spent a lot of time watching the world from the entrance hole, following the comings and goings of the local birds; departure was clearly on their minds and their time to leave was approaching. They were impossibly cute!
When not staring out of the hole, they spent much time exercising their wings, doing press-ups against the box wall or floor. I guess once they exited the box, it was fly, or be doomed. They had to be ready!
Right on cue, in the middle of the first week of August, whilst we were away in Dorset, our two Swiftlings fledged. I would never knowingly see them again. Up until then, I didn't really know how much younger our foster chick was and to my suprise, it was still present when we got back from the south a couple of days later. To my delight, one of the parent Swifts was still bringing in food although it seemed the other one had given up. The one adult roosted with the foster chick each night.
Then, on day 98, our foster Swiftling, rescued from the lawn of a house in the village by a quick thinking resident, squeezed out of the entrance hole, spread its wings, and carved up into a blue sky, vanishing from sight. Go well, little one! This left me feeling elated but also melancholy as I knew this meant my summer of Swifts was drawing to a close. There were still plenty of Swifts around the village and I witnessed some epic screaming parties on summer evenings, which left me breathless.
Day 99 - Well-earned Rest
The day the foster chick flew, one adult came into roost alone. I like to think this was Sid. He settled on to the nest as the light shining into the box through the entrance hole faded and fluffed up, he drifted off to sleep, perhaps dreaming of the sensational voyage that lay ahead for him and his children.
Day 100 - Go Well, Sid
At breakfast time on 8th August, Sid left the nestbox and didn't come back. That was it, the end of my Swift summer.
It had been mesmerising and enthralling to get a glimpse into the lives of this incredibly specialised bird, to learn a little of their breeding behaviour. I felt dead proud of Sid and Drift for such a successful first breeding season and I wished them well on their migration. I heard a week or so later that huge numbers of Swifts had been pouring through watchpoints on the southern coast of Spain. These guys don't hang out here any longer than they have to! I wondered if Sid, Drift and the kids were among them.
A few stragglers were still around the village, presumably pairs that had relaid after losing their first clutches and were thus behind the curve. By mid-August, the skies over Bishopthorpe were empty. No more screaming parties, at least not this year. The Swifts had gone again for another summer. My vigil started, counting down the 270 days or so, before Swifts would appear in the skies above Bishopthorpe again.
Post-script - Day 100 plus 38
Having not seen a Swift for a couple of weeks, I was stoked to see one with a large group of House Martins feeding high over the abbey at Timoleague, County Cork, Ireland. I watched it gliding round majestically over the edifice, gaining height with ease amid the comparatively clumsy hirundines. Dusk gathered and we departed for the south, as surely, the Swift soon would.