Day 2 of my 30 Days Wild and on the penultimate day of National Volunteer Week, I’ve decided it would be an apt time to write about my experience as a RSPB Swift Surveyor for Cardiff. It’s been a tricky task for a bird that faces an uncertain future, but I’ve learnt so much and I know it’ll be very rewarding at the end!
Common Swifts are in serious decline, with their numbers between 1995 and 2015 plummeting by 51%, mainly due to the loss of suitable nesting sites and the decline of flying insects. When we seal up buildings and build new houses with no spaces or gaps for them to nest in, we are giving these birds less chances to breed and boost those numbers.
Earlier in the year, RSPB Cardiff put out a request asking for volunteer Swift Surveyors to take part in a large scale survey of swift nesting sites in the city. This coincides with a flagship scheme to provide nesting sites for swifts returning from their 6,000 mile migration from sub-Saharan Africa, in the form of a architect designed swift tower in Cardiff Bay. I signed up and was forwarded details for a workshop to introduce the volunteers to what we’d be doing.
Fast forward to early May, and the night of the workshop, set in the brand new RSPB cafe on the barrage in a bright orange shipping container – hard to miss! We were briefed on what we were looking for, told to survey twice a month between May and July when the swifts are in the UK, and how to record our results.
It was great to see the mix of people there, everyone was keen and signed up to cover a square mile in their chosen areas, or more! I took 3 squares covering my area and where I walk the dog as I knew I walked that route every day and would be able to do a little bit every day!
So what was I looking for?
Most of us know swifts from their screaming parties in the sky, darting fast high above the rooftops. However when looking for nesting swifts, you’re looking for swifts who are flying a little lower, closer to roof height, and screaming. The screaming is them looking to see if their preferred nest sites are taken. They then fly full speed into their tiny chosen space to nest, often in gaps in roofs. Once in their nest it’s nearly impossible to spot, so you really have to catch them whilst going in or leaving their nest – tricky!
Unlike similar birds, including House Martins, Sand Martins and Swallows, swifts have dark bodies all over so appear as a silhouette in the sky. They also never land, so you’ll never see them perched, they are record breakers for staying aloft and can spend years at a time in the air – and yes, they sleep on the wing! The theory of how they do that is by finding air currents high in the sky and gliding.
Throughout May (and the last few days) the screaming parties above roof height have greatly increased in numbers. I had my first swifts arrive 9th May, closely followed by their fellow migratory friends the House Martins, who build nests on the outside of buildings rather than being inside the buildings like swifts.
I spotted my first nest the other day along my own street, a pair of swifts were dancing around roof height and one suddenly darted for a roof arch. It happened in a split second and I was so chuffed to witness it – proof that swifts are nesting in Tremorfa! I’ve been keeping an eye on the nest site since to see if there are any more signs of life yet – I’ll keep you informed on that!
How Can I Help?
If you’re looking to get involved in tracking swifts in your area, the RSPB have a form you can submit your findings into, including screaming parties. The more information the better so we can better protect swifts. You can do that here.
If you’re looking to proactively make your home or area a more welcome place for swifts, consider putting in a swift brick, a brick that fits into your wall like any normal brick but has a space for swifts to nest in. Alternatively, you can fit a swift nest box high up near your roof which will have the same affect. Avoid using pesticides and supporting food producers who use pesticides.
Keep an eye out for swifts in your area, they’re only here for 3 months of the year!