Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Swift boxes at the David Attenborough Building

The David Attenborough Building in Cambridge houses conservation practitioners and academics, who are working together Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI).

"The David Attenborough Building will act as a collaborative hub for the conservation community within Cambridge and beyond - Mike Rands"

It had always been the ambition of the executive director, Mike Rands, to have breeding Swifts, so AfS was invited to see what might be possible. As all the building work had been finished, this was a retrofit situation on a very smart building that we would not want to compromise in any way.

Two opportunities presented themselves: boxes installed at the top of one of the towers and boxes on the parapets. As the former would be less visually intrusive, Mike suggested we go for the towers.

The tops of the towers are octagonal with vertical bars containing 4 of the sides. The bars are 50mm wide and spaced 50mm apart (see pictures below).

John Stimpson supplied 8 Model 30 nest boxes, but with no entrance in the front. This was a suitable choice as the top of the tower is exposed to the sky, so the boxes may receive both rain and sun.

For the Swifts to gain access to boxes inside the bars, it would require tunnels about 15cm long to the outside.

We have some anecdotal evidence that Swifts will not negotiate a small tunnel of this length (e.g. here). Thus we made tunnels with inside dimensions 43mm wide x 65mm high.

A D-shaped hole was cut in the back and tunnels fashioned out of roofing plastic glued in place.

Roofing plastic put into boiling water is easy to shape around, in this case, an empty can of hairspray.

Rubber strips provided separation and friction between the boxes and the metal bars.

The tunnels could also provide access for Starlings, so the top part of the tunnel is blocked on the inside face of the box. This should leave enough space for a Swift to enter, but not a Starling. One of the concerns was not to have bird droppings down the building.

The brackets, made of stainless stud and aluminium bars, were made by Dexter Bullman of Landbeach. They were painted to match the vertical bars.

A Cheny Heny MP3 player was installed driving 2 tweeters facing outwards below 2 of the tunnels. We gave some thought to the possibility of Swifts coming through the bars, but as the space is open to the sky, they should be able to get away.

The pictures below illustrate what was achieved:

4 tunnels outside the SW side and 4 boxes inside the SE side
Close up of the 4 tunnels on the SW side

Installation team: Bill Murrells, Elizabeth Allen, Collaborations & Communications Manager,
Dexter Bullman and Mike Rands, Executive Director.
Dick Newell took the picture

Monday, 24 April 2017

Headroom experiment at Greys Farm

Greys, near Royston, Herts is where Edward Darling uses 2 sq km of chalk soil to create a living landscape benefitting many forms of priority wildlife, including a wide range of birds, mammals and rare plants. The BTO Marsh Award to Action for  Swifts lead to Edward enquiring about creating Swift colonies and asked if we would suggest where Swift boxes might be appropriate.

[Update 23rd June 2017 - the first Swift has been seen entering box number 4]

At the highest point of the farm is a water tower, a cube-shaped, steel-clad building containing water tanks. It is somewhat isolated, so not the normal setting for Swifts, but the building itself has boxed in eaves on the east and west sides which are plenty high enough and wide enough for Swift boxes. It also has mains power inside.

So against a background of singing Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Whitethroats we installed nest boxes on the east side, under the boxed in eaves.

Edward is also Chief Executive of Redlist Revival, a UK based charity working to restore disappearing - "Red-listed" - species identified within the Government's UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Forming part of the country's international commitment to maintaining ecosystems and sustaining a healthy planet, Redlist Revival acts for the public benefit.

We are using this project as an experiment, giving Swifts a choice between boxes with 150mm headroom and 78mm headroom. A single-brick nest box would be 78mm high.

The 12 boxes are all basically the same, with entrances at the left or right end. As we could not decide whether to put entrances facing horizontally or vertically downwards, we used a compromise. The floor area of the boxes is 266mm x 200mm. All the odd-numbered boxes have a removable false ceiling.

We have previously set up experiments like this, including this one which has had some success.

The 12 boxes are arranged in an irregular, but neat pattern. 
This is done to reduce confusion for the Swifts 
All of the boxes are uniquely numbered 
Odd-numbered boxes have a removable false ceiling, painted black 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Swift boxes at Cley Nature Reserve

When it was suggested to Richard Porter, a Cley resident and Trevor Williams an energetic volunteer with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust that it might be a good idea to have Swift boxes on the visitor centre, they quickly responded by getting approval from the powers that be.

However, when we came to look for suitable places for Swift boxes, there was nowhere that was ideally suited. We originally thought that the Simon Aspinall Education Centre would be the most appropriate - Simon was a great fan of Swifts, and would have loved the idea. However, it is adjacent to the public area where people have their picnics in the summer, so attraction calls so close might not be appreciated by all visitors. Also the building is quite exposed.

As a result we settled on the Dick Bagnall-Oakeley Centre, an attractive thatched building, clad in timber and with broad eaves. However, the eaves are only 2.8 metres high. Although this is well below our very minimum recommendation (~3.5 metres), Swifts are known to nest at this height and lower. (see here and here) The ground in front of the building slopes away from the building, overlooking Cley Marsh, so this might help
Trevor Willlams installing a Model 30 Photo Richard Porter
The net result is that we installed 4 Model 30's supplied by John Stimpson. The geometric shape of the Model 30 fitted the underside of the eaves perfectly.

Should this plan succeed in attracting Swifts, then there is scope to expand to double or treble the number of boxes.

We regard this project as pushing the boundaries - although it challenges our own advice, it may tell us something.

Trevor Williams and Richard Porter with 4 Model 30 nest boxes

Monday, 27 March 2017

A Swift tower at The Avenue Washlands

Back in 2011, we posted an idea for a Swift tower, based upon four 4-box cabinets, so 16 nest chambers. Since then, we have installed a fair number of 4-box cabinets, many of which have between 1 and 4 pairs of Swifts in them, but we never built the tower. Now, volunteers from the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust have extended the concept and executed an excellent example with 24 nesting chambers.

The Avenue Washlands is a Derbyshire Wildlife Trust wetland reserve consisting of reedbed, marsh, ponds and grassland in the valley of the River Rother, near Chesterfield. Along with the installation of pole-mounted Barn Owl boxes, they have now successfully installed a pole-mounted Swift Tower.

The project was funded and built by members of the Chesterfield & NE Derbyshire Local Group of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. For the installation they were helped by the reserve’s Sunday work party volunteers.

The body of the boxes is made of pressure-treated timber. The roof and backs are made from Tricoya which claims to have an exterior life of 50 years! The roof has a ridge made from guttering.

The pole was donated and erected by Western Power. It is the most impressive pole that we have seen in terms of its size and rigidity, and gives a sense of proportion to the whole structure.

A solar panel driven attraction call system will be installed ready for the 2017 season.

We thank Brian Goodwin and Nick Brown for sending us this story and the pictures.

The tower is assembled from 2 each of these components
A test assembly on the ground.
Assembly in progress by reserve volunteers
A great-looking end result

Friday, 24 March 2017

A new Swift box in GRP

GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) is a waterproof material normally used for making boats, car bodies and other products which need to combine strength with light weight. So, Len Haworth decided to apply his boat building skills to produce a range of rather nice looking, very long-lasting Swift boxes.

In his own words:

"Since 2003 I have been using my boat building skills in GRP for the good of the birds. My company does not make a profit, any surplus either goes on development for more species or to buy the expensive materials which go into each box. But then I thoroughly enjoy what I do. Before I start the development of any nest box, which is a long and expensive business, I have to get the basic design spot on because later alterations are not possible with GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic). I have consulted with ornithologists such as Chris de Feu, who I greatly value as an advisor and where it comes to Swifts, Edward Mayer of and I have had a long exchange of emails to get the basics correct. "

Certainly the first Swift boxes off the production line look the business. One can see the nautical heritage in the porthole-style entrances. All the fittings are stainless - as Len "does not do rust". For south-facing aspects, exposed to the sun, Len is producing a canopy to deflect the sun.

Each nesting chamber has dimensions; 300mm long; 200mm wide; 200mm high

The oval nest concaves are a novel idea, it will be interesting to see what Swifts make of them.

Boxes are available in 1, 2, 4, 6 and 8-chamber versions.

For further information and prices, download this leaflet 
Also visit

Monday, 20 March 2017

A New colony box in Magrath Avenue

We first installed a 4-box cabinet, made by Bob Tonks on Helen Hodgson's house in Magrath Avenue, Cambridge in 2010. Helen already had one pair of Swifts nesting on top of the wall under her eaves, but despite playing attraction calls every year, by 2016, still no Swifts have occupied her boxes.

Click to enlarge
Few places are as stubborn as this. More recently we installed 3 Zeist-style boxes further along the eaves, but although attraction calls generate interest from the Swifts, they are as yet to become established in any of the boxes.

In 2010 there was a small tree in front of the house, which has now become a substantial tree. Trees in front of boxes tend to slow things down. Although the tree has been trimmed somewhat over the winter, one can imagine that it is still a disincentive for the swifts.

So, as a last resort, we have installed a 4-box cabinet facing out over Magdalene College. It faces the same direction as the eaves which contains the existing pair of Swifts.

The space between the drainage pipe and the end of the wall is 29cm, so enough to get a floor area of about 26cm x 20cm for each chamber. The headroom in each chamber is 15cm

The front of the box faces south east, so it is painted white to reflect the sun. The box is made of 12mm weatherproof plywood, and the roof is covered in 9mm PVC.

Grooves were cut below the entrances to provide some grip. This might assist the Swifts in gaining their first entry.

The picture left shows how it was constructed. There is a tweeter in the 2nd chamber up.

The cabinet is secured to the wall with anchor bolts which screw directly into the brickwork, without a rawlplug.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Swift boxes in southern Sweden

Benny Båth
We received this story and pictures from Benny Båth who lives near Rydsnäs in central southern Sweden. Benny has built many nest boxes for a range of species, but has only installed Swift boxes before last summer. He has some success already and useful experiences to share

Benny writes: 

"I have about 35 nests at 6 sites for swifts but I'm a bit unsure about the best way to place them. Some of my boxes are placed close to each other but it seems that the birds choose boxes with some distance between them.

I had seven boxes located on three different walls at my home and got one box occupied on each wall, it was then that I started to suspect they might prefer some privacy.

No occupants at the other sites were recorded, but I will open all the boxes soon.

I've noticed that the sound system is essential for fast results, I had swifts prospecting on all sites with sound systems (4) including the three nesting pairs with two chicks each at my own home. 

At the moment I  am building four internal boxes on my barn gable, facing west, the main reason is to get the nests out of the heat. I measured the temperature in the box next to the occupied box this summer. The maximum temperature reached 42°C!

I construct entrances by drilling a 64mm hole in the box and the barn wall and then fit one of the front plates outside. This plate is 9mm plywood with an oval hole of 60x30mm. I painted the plate soft yellow and around the hole with black so its seems more distinct from a distance. I got the idea to paint black near the hole from a post on Bristol Swifts website.

All three nesting pairs at my home chose boxes with this kind of front plate so it will be interesting to see if it was a coincidence or if it actually has some effect.

The farmers nearby are really cooperative and I have permission to install both internal and external boxes at many sites, this year I will have about 80 boxes and 8 sound systems up."

Benny has modelled his external boxes on the Model 30, but with a roof sloping at 15°. The material is plywood clad in 1.5mm GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) - so they should last for a long time.

It seems that, from a standing start, Benny has considerable momentum!

DIY nest box with removable entrance plate

Nest box with concave made of Asfaboard, a bituminous fibrous material

2 boxes installed on Benny's house

Entrances to internal boxes installed in the barn

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Another successful Derbyshire System project

We have reported before examples of entrances cast in situ, using an entrance former (see here). This has become known as the Derbyshire System after the first project using this idea. This is another example in Middleton-by-Wirksworth, also in Derbyshire, showing a little more of what is involved.

In Jack Roper's own words:
"My friend Rob and his old man came to create the nest spaces. They chiselled the mortar away to eventually slide the stones out of the wall, exposing the cavity. Some of the stones spanned the whole depth of the wall creating a hole directly into the loft space. They made four holes, two each side of the flue at the apex of the gable. We worked on a general rule of 200mm x 200mm nest space for each hole. 

After positioning the concave, setting it in place using a spat of mortar, we slipped a length of 65mm plastic tube from the loft to the edge of the nest space so that we could insert a speaker / camera if necessary. I've stuffed an old t-shirt into the tube whilst I get some plastic ends to cap them off properly. 

They then replaced the necessary stones, positioned the entrance former and mortared it all in place. In all it took four hours, including cleaning up the mess below!"

Stones and rubble removed from the cavity
2 completed entrances on the right
Rob working on one of the holes on the left
Finished entrance on the left

Hand-made concaves out of fibre-board and filler
4 completed entrances


Thursday, 26 January 2017

9 nest sites becomes 50 in Ludlow

This is a great story about what can happen when you put an active local group together with cooperative architects and developers resulting in a most satisfactory outcome

Robin Pote
For and on behalf of Ludlow Swift Group

Victory House in Ludlow, until recently home to the British Legion, is a large, rather neglected 4 storey building which has always had good numbers of swifts nesting in the roof away from the road. Up to 9 nests have been occupied in recent years. The sale of the building into private hands and rumours of extensive building work was of great concern to Ludlow Swift Group (LSG). Once plans became clear, a meeting was arranged with the ecological assessor and he was shown all the nest sites and left clear in his mind of the importance of the building for Swifts.

The subsequent report was extremely swift-friendly and was adopted with enthusiasm by the architects. As soon as work began to remove and re-lay all the roof tiles Ludlow Swift Group members were able to visit the site and offer advice. We were planning on suggesting box types, possibly swift bricks as replacements for the natural wall plate sites. However we were amazed to see the current sites, full of debris and old nesting material. So much old nesting material in fact that there was barely space for birds to nest and might explain why young birds have fallen out in the past.

Newly created nest sites
The wall plate was a substantial oak beam and quite deep, with free access from outside. The roofers offered to clean out all the wall plate spaces between the trusses and line each on three sides with ply to create secure spaces with no access into the roof behind and which would also prevent roof debris slipping in to nests as had happened before. Not all the ‘boxes’ are of equal size, and some may be too small. However, by the time they had finished the job the roofers had created upwards of 50 spaces suitable for swifts!! We await May 2017 with great excitement. This is potentially a ‘natural’ swift tower for Ludlow!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Another nice result of the Cambridge System

Two things are new about this project: firstly it is an example using CJ WoodStone boxes inside, secondly it is one of the first projects implemented by someone other than AfS.

Jan Stannard's Victorian gable in Maidenhead is just one brick thick, so although there was no access inside the gable, it was practical to tackle this project wholly from the outside.

The project used 2 WoodStone build-in boxes and 2 homemade entrance pieces:

2 WoodStone build-in boxes and 2 homemade entrance pieces
Boxes and entrances in place

It was necessary to remove 2 courses of brickwork to install the boxes. This is rather more intrusive than one normally likes, but an excellent result has been achieved

The half bricks have been placed nicely to avoid aligned vertical bonds.

The homemade entrance pieces were cast using white cement and were then stained using Ecos Paints. One has to agree, the colour match is very good.

The nest boxes are the WoodStone® Build-in Hidden Swift Box


Monday, 16 January 2017

CJ commercialises the Cambridge Swift box system

The first batch of Cambridge System Swift boxes has been produced by CJ Wildlife with installations by the Duchy of Cornwall at Nansledan

Nansledan is a 218-hectare urban extension of Newquay to the east of the town. It has been earmarked by local authorities for more than 20 years as a way to meet the future business, housing, educational and health needs for Newquay in a sustainable way.

The Cambridge System has evolved out of a number of bespoke projects carried out by Action for Swifts in the Cambridge area, which you can read about here. Although all of these projects have been retrofitted into existing buildings, it is of course easier to install in new build. 

The Cambridge System is designed with the following objectives:
  • To be visually unobtrusive, embedded within the wall of the building
  • To provide secure, temperature-stable accommodation for Swifts
  • To be low cost, and easy to install
It comprises 2 components:
  • A brick insert containing the entrance in the outer wall
  • An internal nest box spanning the cavity and the inner wall
Although the Cambridge system is ideally suited for installation in gable ends at roof space level, in some situations it can also be installed at the level of the eaves.

In the CJ product, the entrance piece is cast in concrete and the nest box inside is made of WoodStone® to occupy the space of a building block.  The floor of the box contains concave nesting places for Swifts.

CJ Wildlife will have the Cambridge Swift System on their stand at the Ecobuild exhibition in ExCeL, London on 7-9 March.  More information is available from Paul Sears:

The following pictures show how it is installed.

Neat external appearance
WoodStone® box occupying space of one block
WoodStone® nest box inserted behind entrance piece

Thursday, 8 December 2016

SLN meeting Bristol November 2016

On 19th November, around 60 SLN members met at Bristol Zoo to hear about some of the latest developments in the world of swift conservation and – just as importantly – to meet each other.

Photo Bristol Zoo
Carol Collins chaired the meeting.

The morning kicked  off with Edward Mayer on Engaging Local Councils and Stephen Fitt on Developments in the Southwest.

Following lunch, we had Edward Jackson on Suffolk Swifts - our first 2 years, Dick Newell & Tim Collins on Nest Box Design and Jan Stannard on Building local interest through social media.

Finally we had 3 short talks: Peta Sams - News of Caring for God’s Acre’s New Project, Chris Mason - Oxford’s Swift City Project and Steph Morren – The RSPB Swift Survey and an update on the Swift Cities Project.

Notes and presentations have been assembled here:
If you want to get in touch directly with any of the speakers, contact details are on the agenda.

Jane & Mark Glanville. Photo Jon Perry

Peta Sams did a great job pulling this all together and we are very grateful to Bristol Zoo trustees for allowing us to use the Education Centre and its great facilities and we thank Jane and Mark Glanville and zoo staff for ensuring the day ran smoothly.

Some people are already talking about a 2017 meeting so if you have any thoughts do share them with the rest of SLN.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Belfry cabinets without screws

We have recently looked at a belfry in Suffolk where there is no way of attaching nestboxes directly to the church fabric. Normally one can either screw the boxes to wooden louvre frames, or by screws into joints between masonry blocks. Screws into the masonry would require a faculty.

The church in question has flint and lime mortar walls, so it would not be sensible to attempt screws into the walls, even if permission was granted. The louvres do not have a frame adequate for supporting nest boxes. 

So, if this project goes ahead we plan to use a system that was first used in Holy Trinity, Haddenham over 10 years ago. Holy Trinity is on a hill and has slate louvre blades 350mm apart.

The church architect has kindly provided a PDF of this installation, which was approved by the DAC.
Download the PDF to see detail
We thought it worth publishing this now, as there will be many belfries suitable for swift boxes with this particular challenge.

The key idea is that the sides of the openings (the reveals) are lined with 25mm WBP plywood which is braced with 20mm diameter galvanised threaded steel rods fitted with locking nuts and pressure plates. Then the boxes are screwed to the plywood.

Any tapering or unevenness of the reveals can be filled with suitable softwood wedges.

The picture left shows the particular belfry we are considering and some outline computer models of what we might do:

Click on image to enlarge

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Guests of Summer

In 2013 we publicised Enric Fusté's research on diets for rehabilitated Swifts. Despite this, advice continues on various websites and in publications advocating diets that are harmful to Swifts.

Most recently, the otherwise highly regarded book about House Martins, Guests of Summer, by Theunis Piersma contains a short chapter on Swifts again advocating inappropriate practices.

As the book is published by the British Trust for Ornithology, they, the BTO, will do as much as they can to include in their publications, online and in print, advice not to use the information in the offending chapter.

The following words have been drafted for inclusion in all future books sold.

Guests of Summer - vital information for Swift rehabilitation

It has come to our notice that the chapter titled ‘Swifts’, pages 86-88, in the book ‘Guests of Summer’ contains much erroneous and misguided information on Swift rehabilitation and should be ignored.

Contrary to the information given, we now know that Swifts are difficult to care for and require specialist expertise.

Of special note:
Swifts are insectivorous birds, so they need to be fed only on insects. Diets based on any meat, cheese, cat food, or other non-insect food are ultimately fatal (Fusté 2013).

Swifts should not be thrown into the air; the technique for releasing a Swift safely is to find a large open space in still, fine weather, hold the bird in the palm of your hand, raise it high and it should go of its own accord.

If you find a grounded Swift and it refuses to fly, put it in a box on some fabric, and keep it quiet, warm and dark then find someone who is a specialist in this field.

There is a list of people who can rehabilitate Swifts in the UK here:

Basic advice is here:

More comprehensive advice is here:

The RSPCA or your nearest wildlife hospital may be another source of help, but make sure they know that Swifts are insectivores.

Friday, 25 November 2016

St Vigor's Belfry

The roof on St Vigor's church, Fulbourn, containing 4 Swift nest sites under the eaves (described here), needed repairing. Although the nest sites could be preserved, it could not be done without the Swifts losing the 2016 breeding season. It was therefore decided to install nest boxes in the belfry for the displaced birds.

Before the 2015 season, we installed 8 boxes on the west side of the belfry. Attraction calls were played throughout the summer, and birds were seen investigating the boxes but no pairs became established.

However, in 2016,  2 pairs of Swifts raised chicks and a third box contained a small amount of nest material and an unhatched egg.

Following this success, a further 10 boxes have now been installed in the south side.

In both cases, only the top two louvres are accessible from the inside, the lower louvres being obstructed by a wall.

In most belfries,  a simple box cabinet with a vertical front wall is used. In the case of St Vigor's it seemed better to angle the front at 45° over the louvres.

David Gant, church warden lead the project, ensuring that the attraction calls were played consistently in both years

The following pictures show how it was done.

The south side - view from the inside
Computer model showing how cabinet fronts relate to louvres
2 cabinets before installation. The upper cabinet abutted against the vertical wall,
and the lower cabinet fitted below the top louvre
10 boxes installed. Photo David Gant
The entrance positions are dictated by the stonework resulting in larger central boxes

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Sedburgh School makes Swift boxes

Thank you to Tanya & Edmund Hoare and Sedburgh Community Swifts for this story.

Our Sedbergh Community Swifts group was delighted when the Design Technology department at Sedbergh School in Cumbria approached us about a project to make swift boxes. This was a project with a difference however: Firstly, the pupils would make boxes based on the Stimpson design but then dismantle them and repeat the process as a production line exercise, to demonstrate efficiency.

Pupils developed skills using several different machines and techniques, including a table router, bandsaw, pillar drill with Forstner drill bit, jigsaw and bobbin sander.

They incorporated two design features:
1. A recessed concave made using 3D CNC machining: a separate base slots in so that the top of the cup is flush with the floor.

2. An acrylic housing under the box for an amplifier's loudspeaker, to keep it shielded from rain.Staff and pupils really liked the project, it was very different from what had been done before, and they are going to repeat it next year.

The boxes have been donated to Sedbergh Community Swifts so that they can be put up around town. We are choosing prominent places around the town so that the pupils, and everyone else, can monitor what happens.

This picture shows the pupils proudly holding their boxes.