Swift Race

Vicky, Wader project officer at the Cairngorms National Park Authority shares her other love of birds, swifts, with us in this blog. A break away from the amazing waders she’s works with in partnership with farmers across the national park to protect and enhance their spring and summer breeding grounds.

As I write, swifts are starting to trickle into the country.  Actually, “trickle” is completely the wrong verb to use, these birds scream back into our lives for the summer.   The Common swift or Apus apus is the UK’s only swift.  We describe them as British birds, but they are only here for a few short weeks, bursting onto the scene about now and by mid August most are gone.  It might be better to call them an African bird that we just borrow for a few weeks.   Like all our African migrants they are here to breed, to frantically nest build, lay and feed young in our long summer and insect rich nights.  

A medium sized sooty brown bird, they are unmistakeable in flight with long scythe shaped wings, short forked tail and of course that unmissable screaming call.     They live an almost total airbourne life (including sleep), landing only to breed.    Although there is still a lot we don’t know about swift ecology, we do have some incredible facts to share.   Perhaps my favourite is their ability to fly around a bad weather front to good weather behind the storm in search of airborne insects, sometime hundreds of kilometres away.  To survive long absences from the parent birds, the chicks have the ability to enter into a state of torpor, akin to hibernation to cope with lack of food for a couple of days. 

Unfortunately, like a lot of wildlife, loss of habitat is affecting swift numbers and in particular suitable nesting places.   Centuries ago, Swifts used to nest in woodlands, seeking out suitable crevices and holes in gnarled ancient trees.   There is in fact still a very small but famous population in Abernethy Forest that still nest in trees.   However, largely now, they are a species that have adapted well to live alongside man and they seek out small crevices in our buildings to nest, under eaves.  Sadly, we have over the years, become neater with our homes and blocked off all nooks and crannies and renovated or demolished old buildings.  Consequently, swifts have lost many places to nest.   

Artificial nesting boxes provide a very good alternative and there are several websites where you can get good advice about what type to buy or you can have a go at making one.   I’m in the middle of making one from scrap wood from another project.   I used a basic design from the RSPB website together with some top tips from the Bristol Swift Project, one of several projects across the UK that are helping local swift populations.  You’ll find a wealth of designs on the Bristol Swift Project and loads of top tips learnt from experience and over 13 years of making nest boxes for swifts.   

In terms of location, they have been known to nest at 1.5 metres, but this is rare, nest boxes need to be at least 5 metres high and access to and from it not impeded by trees or any other infrastructure   Aspect is not important, but if your box is affected by a prevailing wind, pay extra attention to extra strong fixings.   You can attract swifts to the prescience of your boxes by playing swift screaming calls through audio media. But be aware loud incessant swift calls for long periods may irritate your neighbours after a while.  

You’ll see from my photos below, I’m not quite finished yet.   On the left I’ve still to chisel out a shallow 10cm nest bowl and add a bit of nest material.  I need to paint the inside black as swifts prefer a dark nesting place and I’m also going to add a baffle to partially partition the box as the swifts as it mimics an eave type structure, which the swifts like.    Sadly, I don’t think I will finish it and get it erected time for this season as I also want to repair and repaint all the fascia boards on the house before I do.   Plus, after reading in more detail about what has and what hasn’t worked in the Bristol Project and others I’m keen to make several different types for different parts of the eaves. 

Internal view: nest site on left.

Internal view: nest site on left.

Entrance hole and landing ramp. Some designs have the entrance hole on bottom of box and have proved popular with Swifts

Entrance hole and landing ramp. Some designs have the entrance hole on bottom of box and have proved popular with Swifts

If you’re building your own home, you can build swifts into your design by the use of swift bricks.   Here in the Cairngorms National Park, there have been several commercial developments that have incorporated artificial nest boxes or “swift bricks” and these can be incorporated into residential homes too and look something like this….

“Swift brick”

“Swift brick”

Recording swift sightings and nest sites is crucial and there are several different sites where you can record bird sightings.  For example there is the BTO Birdtrack app or the RSPB has on ongoing Swift recording project, more information here: 



Here in the Cairngorms, arrival dates are typically sometime between the 5th and 12th May, so look to the skies, you’ll probably hear them before you see them.   Finally, here’s one more swift fact: when prospecting for a vacant nest: when prospecting, swifts will whack a site with their wings, any pre-existing occupants pop their heads out of the hole to scream loudly that this particular site isn’t available! 

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Location: Cairngorms National Park Wide Date: May 23, 2020 Time: 9:00 am - 11:59 pm