Save Our Swifts – A conservation project for Cornwall

Introduction

The sound of screaming parties of Swifts overhead on a warm summers evening is sadly becoming an uncommon sight in Cornwall. Swifts are in trouble. Their numbers have plummeted by 53% nationally since 1995 and they have been Red-listed as a Bird of Conservation Concern since 2021.The causes of decline are complex, but it seems a lack of suitable nest sites is a contributing factor. So what can we do to help? Cornwall Birds (CBWPS) are coordinating a county-wide project Save Our Swifts involving Cornwall Wildlife Trust, British Trust for Ornithology, RSPB, the National Trust and the general public. The project has six key objectives:

  • Raise awareness across Cornwall of these iconic birds and the very real threats to their populations
  • Promote the recording of all known Swift colonies and identify new nest sites using a dedicated page on the Cornwall Birds website
  • Encourage the use of the Swift Mapper app, as an easy tool to submit records whilst out and about for those with a smart phone
  • Promote the use of external Swift nest boxes to encourage existing colonies to expand, and offset losses due to renovations
  • Influence the planning system so that internal Swift nest boxes are conditional for all large-scale planning projects and major renovation projects, particularly in areas where Swifts are already present
  • Maintain links with other organisations and communities across the UK who are working hard to conserve Swifts.

How you can get involved? How about putting up a Swift nest box? You can either make your own with a few DIY skills or buy a ready-built one. Plans and suppliers can be found online (Swift Next Box Design Plan or RSPB Swift Box) but other options and designs are available.

But perhaps more importantly, throughout May, June and July we want volunteers to survey as many colonies as possible. This is where you can really help. We want you to record screaming parties in the morning and evening and look for possible nest sites. Some survey work was completed in 2020 and 2021 and now priority will be given to the areas not yet covered.

The purpose of this survey is to record the locations of Swift nest sites around Cornwall. This information can then be used by local Council planners, architects, ecologists and developers to find out where Swift hotspots are located around the county. It might then be possible to mitigate and protect breeding Swifts during any building development. This conservation planning tool will play an important role in reversing the decline of this charismatic bird.

How to get involved

We’d like to find out where Swifts are seen and where they’re nesting. Swifts begin their nesting cycle very soon after returning to their breeding colonies in early to mid May so this is the time to begin looking for breeding activity. In June and July young birds join the breeders, pairing up for the first time and investigating potential nest sites. They may fly up to a wall and land briefly to check out holes or breeding birds.

Swift Conservation believe the best time to survey for Swifts is early to mid-July, when the population is at its highest, enlarged by juvenile Swifts who return from Africa much later than the adults. After that numbers will diminish as they start to migrate south.

Survey instructions and downloadable forms can be found below but please contact us first via email (vice-chairman@cbwps.org) so that we can avoid duplicating any effort.

Time of day

Breeding activity may be noted throughout the day, but the best time is from half an hour before dawn to two hours after, and from two hours before dusk to half an hour after.

Weather

Warm to hot and dry days are best.

What to look for

Swifts flying round and round buildings and along streets at or just above roof top level and below, screaming.

These are the local Swifts, breeders and non-breeding juveniles who have attached themselves to the flock, and they are demonstrating their territory, we think, by this noisy circling flight. These birds may well be nesting nearby.

We do not ask for sightings of very high flying Swifts, well above the buildings for this survey. These are probably feeding birds and due to their habit of flying very long distances each day to find food, they may not be the local Swifts nesting nearby. Similarly, we do not require sightings of swifts flying over water bodies, such as lakes, reservoirs or rivers, etc as these will also be feeding and may not be nesting in the surrounding area. However please report any large gatherings of >50 birds to the county recorder.

Suggested technique

A suggested initial step might be to conduct one or two “Swift Walks” around the survey areas to detect any low- flying screaming flocks and then mark the locations on a map. After that stage you can conduct repeat visits to the marked areas to determine the numbers of Swifts, and the exact locations of nests. Zero counts are also useful.

Walk slowly round the areas where there are low-flying, screaming Swifts. Count the circling flocks until you have an accurate estimate of birds in flight. You will need to do this several times as they are fast flyers and their criss-crossing flight- paths can be very confusing for the observer to disentangle.

Listen as the birds pass the buildings for the answering screams of Swifts still in their nests; they will answer the birds screaming as they fly past outside. Add those birds you can hear but cannot see to the total number.

Note details of the nest site

Hopefully, you may also detect their nests – perhaps a hole in the wall or roof, or under the eves, a loose slate or tile. Watch for Swifts entering or leaving the nest during the day. Also at dusk when the adults return to spend the night with the chicks. We would like to know details of the nest location so we can establish the preferred sites.

Recording the information

You can either enter your sightings by downloading the recording form or via the Swift Mapper smartphone app. This can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play. Please enter as much information as possible as this will enable us to find out the most important nest site locations. Or use our recording form found here. Please return recording forms to Bruce Taggart at vice-chairman@cbwps.org by 15th September 2022.

Using the data

The survey results will be used to protect local Swift colonies from inappropriate development and disturbance. They will also be used to supply national ornithological groups with relevant up-to-date statistics. Three UK-wide surveys are current: the RSPB’s Swift Inventory, the BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey, and BirdTrack. All are “on-line” surveys and can be easily located at:

www.rspb.org.uk/swiftsurvey

www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/bbs

www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/birdtrack/about

Thank you for your help in taking part and if you have any queries please don’t hesitate to drop us a message at vice-chairman@cbwps.org and we will be happy to assist where possible.