Swifts at Heathfield

Swifts at Heathfield

5 years ago a small group of staff and the student Eco Team built and installed 12 swift nest boxes to the east end of the Humanities building. Swifts are incredible birds that sleep, eat, mate and bathe in the air. They have evolved to fly continuously, and when they leave our shores in August, they spend the next 9 months winging their way down to sub-Saharan Africa and back without landing. With long pointed wings and a forked tail, swifts often scream around roof tops in large groups on warm summer evenings.

Unfortunately, building renovations mean that the old buildings that swifts rely on for nest sites are becoming less accessible for these birds as owners modernise and refurbish their properties. The nooks and crannies that swifts like to nest in are becoming increasingly rare and swift numbers in the UK have plummeted by almost 50% in the last 25 years. Our nest boxes were designed to attract swifts and create a new colony of nesting birds. We knew that swifts nested nearby in neighbouring houses and we hoped that younger visiting swifts would soon take a liking to our boxes. Mr Walker and Mr Friend helped to set up a speaker system from which we would play swift attraction calls and over the years we have had numerous fly-bys from curious swifts.

Frustratingly, we couldn't entice any swifts into the nest boxes. In June we noticed a solitary swift paying close attention to the speakers next to the boxes but it didn't seem at all interested in the box entrances.

Finally, in July I decided to check the boxes one more time before making plans to change the boxes for a different design. I set off across town towards Heathfield on a hot summer's morning and it seemed that swifts were everywhere. All over town groups were screaming around the roof tops. July sees many juvenile birds arriving in the UK and they boost swift numbers while they look for new nest sites to begin breeding the following year. As I approached school, all was quiet. Within minutes however, a group of screaming swifts arrived and made straight for the boxes; this time they were aiming for the entrances and amongst the confusion a single swift dropped out of a nest box. I blinked. After five long summers it seemed as though we finally had a resident.

I visited again later that day and at 9pm two swifts appeared from nowhere, circled the ROSLA block and bulleted into two separate boxes. This was their bed for the night and now I was sure that swifts had taken up residency at Heathfield School. The wonderful thing about swifts is that they are very loyal to a nesting site once they have found one. Over the next nine months, the swifts that roosted in our boxes will fly down over the Sahara, The Congo Basin and beyond before heading back to two specific wooden boxes at a school in Taunton next May.

These birds are a wonderful addition to the school site and for a few months of the year, between May and August, they should provide a regular, fast-flying display over our heads. We also hope to install cameras within some of the boxes which will enable us to study and follow our swifts as they use these boxes to raise their young.

Roll on May 2021.

Mr Bament

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