Salisbury's Swift Safari
Simply put – a swift is a bird of magnificent capacities. The sooty coloured bird, that appears black as it soars through our skies is a summer visitor to the UK, where it comes to breed. It’s long, scythe shaped wings allow it immense amounts of manoeuvrability as it swoops on insects, or streams through rows of houses and into tiny holes in the eaves of houses where it likes to nest. They spend so much time in the air that they have evolved tiny feet and legs, so if you see a bird perching on fences, wires or even on the ground then you’re looking at a swallow or house martin – both confused with swifts.
To me they encapsulate summer. I can’t think of a warm summers evening without imagining it accompanied by the shrill screams from parties of black arrows as they race past buildings, jinking and diving in all directions. So, what better way to spend a fine Thursday evening, then heading out on a swift safari through the city streets of Salisbury.
An Evening Swift Safari
I had arranged to meet with the super swift savvy Daniel Kronenberg from the Salisbury and Wilton Swift group (SAW’s for short). After exchanging emails, and me expressing my interest at getting more involved with surveying, he had kindly agreed to let me accompany him on an evening stroll around the city checking out the local nest sites.
After being mugged off by a rather persistent wasp, we headed to our first stop – a street just opposite from the leisure centre. It was here Daniel pointed out to me all the various nest boxes he had put up with the SAWS volunteers. Swifts like to nest in the eaves of houses, but with more and more houses having soffets (plastic barriers along the eaves) put up, swifts are having problems gaining access to nest sites. If the swifts have nowhere to nest, then the population here will dwindle.
Daniel also explained that the various unpredictable weather patterns we have been experiencing may be affecting the numbers of swifts. With unusually warm early months swifts will begin migration early and then face storms, bad weather and cold spells – not great for the swifts survival. It’s possible that the decline of the insect population may also have an affect on swift numbers, but swifts are capable of travelling vast distances to find the food they need.
Swifts in the Community
As well as fundraising for swift conservation projects Salisbury and Wilton Swift Group aim to raise awareness of the swifts plight here in Salisbury. By engaging with members of the community they encourage them to get involved in anyway they can. Swift boxes and swift bricks (bricks with holes that provide access for the birds) are just one of those ways that people can help to ensure that swifts have access to the nesting sites.
We were invited in the garden of one of the residents, who was keen to show us their nest box and tell Daniel about the swifts that had been nesting in there. It was fantastic to hear someone so enthusiastic about these incredible birds that had made their home in his house.
After a few fly-bys from these avian experts they started to rise to lofty heights in the blue summer sky. This was their feeding behaviour and not ideal for surveying. The behaviour Daniel wanted to see was the screaming parties that flew low past houses. I was fascinated to learn that these groups of swifts are screaming as they pass the nest sites of others. A fantastic indicator that nests are present and a brilliant surveying tool. So, the key for swift surveying is to keep your head out of the clouds and focus on the lower aerial acrobatics because that’s where the good stuff happens.
By the time we had reached the city centre the evening sky had turned a dusky pink, and the screams of the swifts floated high above the evening’s revellers. The evening was drawing in and our safari finished at Salisbury’s largest swift colony at Sarum College. From the courtyard we watched as the gathering groups ascended upwards, to settle high for the night where they would sleep on the wing. Our discussion turned to what an enigma these wonderful creatures were, and how much there’s still to learn about this spectacular species; how do they communicate with one other? How do they bond as pairs? How do they find new nest sites?
They’re certainly a bird that evokes wonder.
How Can You Help?
The more we know about swifts, the more of those questions we’re able to answer, and the more answers we have the better equipped we will be at helping to ensure that the swifts visit summer after summer.
Why not think about think about recording your swift sightings? If you’re spending your summer evenings taking in this spectacular sight, then you may as well shout about your findings.
Even better, why not join your local swift group – you can find your local group on the Swift Conservation Website alongside plenty of other swift resources and information.
For more information about Salisbury and Wilton Swift please contact Daniel Kronenberg at email@example.com or head over to their Facebook group; Salisbury and Wilton Swifts