Join our survey of Swifts

The magnificent sight of Swifts soaring through the skies is a sure sign of summer.

This summer the Langdyke Countryside Trust is launching a Swift action project to monitor the birds across John Clare countryside. Langdyke member and trustee David Alvey explains what you can do to help this RSPB survey …

For the summer of 2020 we are inviting everyone to join in with a targeted survey of the John Clare Countryside.

With the ongoing uncertainty of what we will be allowed to do in the coming weeks and months this survey can be conducted from inside your house, in your garden or during your daily exercise walk around the village where you live.

What to look for

We are asking you to look out and report any groups (two or more) of low flying and preferably screaming Swifts. This is not just a one off event. We would like you to continue to look out for and record the number and location of Swifts flying low around buildings in your area between May 1 and  July 31.

We’d like to find out where swifts are seen and where they are nesting.

Watch out for screaming groups of swifts flying at roof-height that means they are probably  breeding nearby. 

What not to look for

Do not report sightings of swifts that are either very high in the sky, feeding over water bodies or away from the villages. Swifts travel some distance to feed so these may not be local birds.

Swifts can be confused with three similar but unrelated species (pictured, below): the swallow, house martin and sand martin.

The primary differences are the lack of any significant white, their size and their distinctive sickle shape.

Swift
Swallow
House Martin
Sand Martin

When to look

The best time to look for ‘screaming swifts’ is around dusk on a warm still evening, or early morning.

Last year I saw my first pair of Swift’s flying low around Barnack on  May 11at 19:30. The peak activity I observed was on July 9 at 19:45 when a group of 22 birds entertained me with their aerial acrobatics around the buildings in the centre of the village.

The final sighting was of a pair on August 4. My observations were on irregular survey dates as I was walking the dogs –  normally between 19:30 and 21:00.

The beauty of watching for Swifts is you do not need to sit still or hide away – they will happily entertain you whatever you are doing.

How to take part

We would like to know where you’ve seen screaming swifts or swift nest sites.

You can enter as many records as you like at different times. Ideally we would like to add your sightings to the RSPB Swift Action database by clicking the link below:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/conservation-and-sustainability/safeguarding-species/help-us-help-swifts/

If for some reason you are unwilling or unable to do so then please feel free to email me at david.alvey@langdyke.org.uk with your survey results and location and I will add them to the map.

Information and Facts about Swifts

Swifts are one of the iconic birds of our summers. but how much do you know about them

  • The Common Swift (apus apus) is the most aerial of all birds and spends most of its entire life on the wing, flying continuously day and night.
  • Our’ swifts are only ‘British birds’ for a quarter of their lives (three months per year) – the rest of the time they are African. Living in Central and Southern Africa.
  • The wings are long and narrow, and superbly adapted for fast flight, but don’t allow slow flight or a great deal of manoeuvrability.
  • As a group, swifts are the fastest birds in level flight. The peregrine is officially the fastest bird but only in a steep dive called a stoop. Our swift holds the record for the fastest proven level flight, recording an impressive top speed of 69.3mph in a recent study.
  • A swift weighs about the same as a Cadbury’s Crème Egg,  40g. 
  • For its size, the swift has an exceptionally long life-span – averaging about 5.5 years. 
  • They almost never land – except at their nest sites – doing everything on the wing.  They eat, mate and sleep in the air – they can ‘snooze’ with one side of their brain at once, and then switch to the other side.
  • They seem to bathe by flying relatively slowly through falling rain.
  • It’s estimated that swifts fly an average daily total of nearly 500 miles. With the 6,000 mile journey to and from Africa each year, in its lifetime a bird may fly a distance in excess of 1.24 million miles. 
  • The swift probably eats more species of animals (small insects and spiders) than any other British bird. 
  • Swifts can be quite selective about what they catch. One was found to have caught only stingless drones around bee hives, and to have neatly dodged all the females, which had stings.
  • Swifts can’t feed in wet weather in the UK, so fly around storms to find dry areas – the only UK birds to do this. On the wintering grounds in Africa it’s different – there are more insects in the air on rainy days, so the swifts will head for rain. 
  • Swifts are extremely site faithful, so once they have found a suitable nest site they will continue to use it for the rest of their lives. Some colonies are very old indeed and have been used by successive swift generations for tens if not, hundreds of years. 
  • Nesting material is collected on the wing (it has to be) so they can only use what they can find in the air.
  • Clutch normally 2-3 white eggs (May-June). The weight of an egg is about one-twelfth the weight of the female that laid it approx 3.5 grams and are incubated for 19-21 days (mostly  hatching mid June)
  • Parent swifts gather insect snacks for their chicks. Each bolus (ball of food) brought to the babies weighs just over a gram, and contains 300 – 1000 individual insects and spiders. The average is 300-500 food items per bolus .
  • They have a clever adaptation. Food can be scarce in bad weather – the chicks can go cold and torpid and survive for days without food, then regain weight rapidly once supplies resume. Most baby birds can’t do this and would simply die within hours.
  • At about a month old, the babies do ‘press ups’ in the nest, lifting themselves up by pushing down on their wings, probably to strengthen the wings. By the time they’re ready to go, they can hold their bodies clear of the ground like this for several seconds 
  • Fledging is 5-8 weeks (late July-early August)
  • Once they launch themselves off on their very first ever flight, that’s it, they don’t return to the nest and are no longer cared for by the parents. After leaving the nest where they hatched, they’ll keep flying non-stop for three years!
  • There is more information about them  on the RSPB site.

Threats to the bird

Like so many other small birds, swift numbers have declined sharply in recent years, some estimates suggest by over 50 per cent.

Swifts numbers are declining for a variety of different reasons, but one that all the experts can agree on, is the lack of suitable nest sites available to them. Swifts are almost entirely dependent on our buildings for their nesting sites, squeezing into small nooks and crannies generally under the roof tiles or soffits.

Unfortunately when older buildings are refurbished these little openings are often inadvertently sealed up by the homeowner and the nest sites are lost forever.

To make matters even worse virtually all new buildings are extremely wildlife “unfriendly” with no spaces available for birds to nest. So as part of the John Clare Countryside vision we are planning to install Swift boxes in as many promising locations as we can.

In addition, an abundant supply of insects is critical for their survival. So even if you do not have Swifts nesting around your property you can help them out by making your garden more insect friendly.

Look out for tips on this being published on this website in the coming weeks or look up now the Wildlife Trusts – Take Action for Insects programme by clicking the link below: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/take-action-insects

The main Swift photograph was taken by Sarah Lambert.