Tuesday, 12 November 2013


At the first talk of the winter programme Chris Mason of the Cherwell Swift Conservation Project : http://bit.ly/194CenI  gave a fascinating presentation about the swift apus apus (apus means legless).

The swift has declined to such an extent in recent years that it is now on the amber list - birds of Conservation Concern. It is thought that the loss of nesting sites is the main cause of this decline but other factors may include the effect of pesticides on their insect food source or dangers encountered on their migrations to and from southern Africa.

Chris showed us the first half of a film, called Swift Stories, made by local film maker Andy Russell (Different Films). Andy had never made a wildlife film before and knew nothing about swifts so, as he said, he was the perfect candidate to explore the fascinating world of swifts as he would ask all the questions that more expert people wouldn’t think to ask. The original plan was for a ten minute film but he got so enthused by his subject that it is now 45 minutes long, which is why we only watched the first half.

The film is visually delightful as many of the nesting locations are in old houses and castles, such as Broughton Castle. Do swifts have a good eye for prime real estate or is it just that these old building have suitable nooks and crannies that make great nesting sites? Chris told us that originally swifts would have nested in cliffs and old trees but they readily took to sharing space with humans and it is only recently that this relationship is breaking down. The main reason seems to be that as buildings are modernised, or demolished to make way for new buildings the draughty gaps in roofs and walls are blocked off and nesting sites are lost.

The film also focussed on several ‘swifters’ or swift nuts as Andy called them. One of these swift nuts was shown making extraordinary modifications to his house to accommodate swifts and the wiring for a camera so that he can watch the birds in the nests. Other interviews showed just how passionate people are about swifts and how these amazing birds have provided a thread of interest and attachment running throughout their whole lives. They wait with eager anticipation for the first sightings in May and then mourn the loss of them as they head off south in August. The ‘swifters’ all had something new to tell us about the lifecycle of swifts but there are still so many unanswered questions despite many years of study. Just how do they ‘sleep’ high up in the air?  How do the young know where to go when the adults head off south leaving them behind to complete their development into birds that are capable of flight?

Chris Mason is clearly a swift nut, putting in many hours to support local people in their interest in swifts, attending European conferences and talking to groups like ours on wet cold evenings to enthuse about these magical summer visitors. Our initial thoughts were just about putting up nest boxes but Chris has a more comprehensive three point plan of action:

1)    To identify and protect swift nest sites

2)    To encourage the creation of new swift nesting places in suitable sites.

3)      To encourage local interest in swifts, their life history and the risks they face, particularly from building work.

Several members of the audience talked about their sightings of swifts in and around Witney and are going to meet soon to set up a local swift group. If anyone is interested in finding out more about this idea please contact me at lwvp@oxfordshire.gov.uk.

For more information about swifts there is a lot on the internet with the swift conservation website: http://Swift-conservtion.org  and the RSPB has a site to record your swift observations: http://www.rspb.org.uk/thingstodo/surveys/swifts/index.aspx


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