June 9th- swift and house martin update

Swift Diary

Our swift pair has been incubating two eggs for a fortnight now. They are very quietly going about their egg care while outside much has changed since my last blog. The weather warmed at the end of May and June has started with some perfect weather for swift watching. The older non breeding birds arrived in good numbers here and have put on quite a show. We have seen them landing confidently on the breeders’ nest box, in response the breeders scream wildly at the imposters who stick their heads right in the entrance for a look. The cling on is brief and they soon fall away.

There was generally little interest in other boxes to start with but all that changed last Sunday when a pair started investigating more seriously. This coincided with an online event I was doing with Charles Foster, author of The Screaming Sky, you can watch my distraction here! 


The distraction was older non breeding birds, probably three year olds who are already paired up but are searching for a nest site. Or they were, because since yesterday they have taken to a nest box next to our incubating pair.

These newly paired birds sometimes have a late breeding attempt. When living in Wiltshire I had a pair first enter a nest box on June 14th: they bred and fledged young on September 10th. The behaviour of older non breeders is inspiring to watch. They perform the most energetic flight, especially at dusk; impossibly tight, fast turns, screaming all the while. The lead bird(probably a male?) utters a loud ‘peep’ call as he approaches the nest site and screams wildly when close to advertise it to the mate. After a few circuits they slow down a little and the lead bird flies more slowly at the nest box making sure its mate is close behind. It then enters the nest box hoping that the mate will follow. This can take practice and often the lead will have to leave the box and coax its mate again. However in this case both were in the box within a day.

It is incredible to think that a swift after nearly three years first touches down with another in such a confined space. To begin with brief squabbles take place but soon they mutually preen each other whilst uttering a soft piping bonding call. Today both have been in the box together on several occasions so I am optimistic they will stay now. From our first pair breeding in 2019 we have a second pair on the house. They could occupy the box all summer and perhaps build a nest ready for next year or perhaps like my first nest box pair in 2003 they will attempt to breed…

In the air swifts are displaying their finest flight; fueled by abundant insect life in this warm weather they have lots of energy to fly at their limits. Look out for pairs flying slowly near potential nest sites on stiff quivering wings, this is a particularly beautiful flight to see. Sometimes high speed passes also see swifts vibrating their wings. We can see swifts preforming the ‘v’ display where they hold their wings high and lose height rapidly. We can only speculate why they do this as we can’t tell male from female but it does certainly seem to be a strong signal to the following bird. These are days to savour: who knows how the rest of the summer will pan out? Last year we had roughly four weeks of poor weather in June and July with virtually no flying displays.

Take in every flypast. If you have prospecting birds throwing themselves seemingly randomly at your eaves, not your boxes, don’t become frustrated, relax and enjoy the sight and sound and be grateful you have swifts around- they will go in when they are ready and not before. Most of the birds you watch doing this are practicing approach and landing or still looking for a colony to join and will not attempt to enter a breeding site until they are mature enough. When they are it is like a switch being flicked and there is no stopping them finding a nest site.

House Martin Diary
We now have three pairs of house martins, two pairs incubating and another pair probably laying. This time last year we had none. However numbers in the area are very poor indeed. Fortunes looked mixed across the country. There is still time for first time breeders to arrive but the clock is certainly ticking now. We feel so fortunate to have them, but with many collapsed or reduced colonies being reported we can never take them for granted.

Below, watercolours from the last two days. All my studies of swifts in the sky are from observations of real formations as they pass.


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