Look up for Swifts

One of my biggest enjoyments from nature is that there is always something to look forward to, the next season, the next event or just our next favourite moment of the year. Right now I’m pretty excited because one of my own personal favourite moments is about to happen any day now, the return of the swifts.

There are lots of reasons to love this bird and the story of its annual migration is certainly one of them. They are only with us in Northern Europe for around 3 months of the year, the rest of their time is spent in tropical Africa, so twice a year they make the journey, roughly 22,000 Km in total.

Looking on-line I found a map showing the real migration route of a radio tagged bird.

This is just one example from a specific bird, they don’t all follow this route but it is a good illustration. Generally the swifts arrive with us late April or early Map. In the mapped example the arrival date was 8th May and the departure date from Central Africa was 9th-14th April. So the journey of 11,000 Km was achieved in a little under a month.

And just like kids with their on-line Father Christmas tracker, it exists I promise, there are lots of sources to follow the progress of the swifts, building anticipation of their eventual arrival. This week I read a few reports of swifts sighted already in the UK but also of large flocks migrating across Northern Spain. So far this year I haven’t yet seen any in the skies of Chatou but I think it will only be a few days now.

For those particularly interested there is a really good website/app run by the RSPB called Swiftmapper. It is UK oriented, I couldn’t find a French equivalent, but it is a great resource where people can log the swift activity they see. Swift Mapper

The journey is an enormous effort for this very small bird and it migrates for the sole purpose of breeding in a food rich environment. These birds feed on flying insects, a swift is nearly always in the air, and at this time of the year, insects are emerging and taking flight across Europe, offering an ideal environment.

We see them a lot in Chatou which is very close to the river Seine, a great spot for flying insects. The swifts whirl and circle away overhead, sometimes quite high but often at roof-top level, feeding in large groups. Do keep looking up and listening, if you see a group of black, arrow like birds circling overhead and screeching, you are probably looking at and hearing swifts.

The other reason why we see them in Chatou, often at roof-top level, is because they frequently nest in the eaves of houses or buildings. So built-up areas near sources of flying insects are really good habitats for swifts.

But unfortunately my friends there is a problem. Modern buildings are too efficient and ‘neat’, they don’t leave any suitable spaces under the eaves for the swifts to nest. As more and more older buildings are removed this is creating a problem and the number one factor in the current decline of swift populations, and sadly they are declining, is an absence of suitable nesting sites.

Therefore as part of my nature project is was an absolute essential for me to install a swift nest box. It wasn’t used last year but I braved a very wobbly ladder and moved it a little higher as I think it offers a slightly improved position.

These are quite specialised boxes with specific entrance holes. They must be installed high up, at least 4-5m from the ground and offer a clear line of sight, or flight, into the entrance.

The other change I’ve made to my box over the Winter is to paint the inside black.

Apparently, swifts favour a dark nesting cavity and I’m hoping that this, together with the slight repositioning gives an improved chance of it being used this year.

I realise that it’s a complicated ask but if you have the time and resources I would recommend installing a swift box. Anything we can do to help these rather fantastic birds and to ensure that they keep visiting us every year is worth it.  

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