Tuesday, 7 August 2018

A Sanctuary For Humans And Swifts Alike

On average, South Tipperary General Hospital takes in over 55,00 patients each year. The hospital is an essential part of the health and wellbeing of the human population in this part of the country. However, it is not only humans that this hospital is a haven for!

South Tipperary General Hospital is located in the large town of Clonmel. Before I ventured to this town to conduct nest site surveys as part of the BirdWatch Ireland Swift Conservation Project 2018, it was known that parts of Clonmel came alive on summer evenings with the euphonic sound of the screaming Common Swift. My job was to find out exactly where our flying friends were nesting.

Kevin Collins (BirdWatch Ireland Tipperary Branch) and I 
taking a break for a photo during one of the Clonmel Swift survey visits. Will Hayes

Always, my first survey visit to a town consists of a drive to every corner to determine what areas are most likely to have Swift nesting sites, usually followed a more focused survey on foot. For example, housing estates built in recent times are not likely to have any swift nests due to the energy efficient manner in which houses are built today (e.g. there will be no nooks or crannies for the Swift to nest in on the house's exterior). Therefore, as a rule of thumb, I would generally divert my focus to older parts of a town (e.g. old housing estates, churches and heritage sites). However, as I slowly drove into Clonmel along Western Road on my first survey visit, I could not help to notice a vast group of Swifts flying over my car. Due to the sheer abundance of Swifts flying above, there was no choice but to park the car up at the nearby Aldi and swiftly track down these feathery flyers. A break from my usual survey routine.

Once parked I had lost sight of the birds, but the booming sound that was coming from down the road led me to one place, South Tipperary General Hospital. As I climbed the steep ramp onto the hospital grounds, I could hardly believe my eyes, over 50 Swifts thundering past my head as if they knew I was looking for them. As I scrambled to get my survey sheets together, I noticed these birds were focused on one building, in particular. The Community Care Centre at the forefront of the hospital grounds. This building was different from others I had encountered on my journeys this summer. The architecture of the building would lead someone of my profession to believe it was purposefully built to not only care for people but also to house Swifts. The makeup of the fascia was the defining factor in this assumption (see picture). My hypothesis was confirmed within seconds as a pair of swifts entered one of the many gaps that existed along the fascia. I knew then that this survey was not going to be a quick one.

South Tipperary General Hospital Community Care Centre. 
Circled in red is one of the many similar gaps that existed on the fascia of this building. 
Most of these gaps were inhabited by a pair of nesting Swifts. Will Hayes

Further surveying over the coming weeks with local people revealed 40 confirmed Swift nests within the fascia of this building, concluding that the South Tipperary General Hospital’s Community Care Centre accommodates one of the largest known Swift colonies in Ireland. Furthermore, another building on the hospital grounds, the Cardiac Rehab Centre, contained a large colony of Swifts (36 birds) that was utilising gaps in the masonry and holes in the fascia for nesting sites. These findings have allowed me to determine that over 100 Swifts make the long trip from southern Africa every summer to breed on the grounds of the South Tipperary General Hospital.

South Tipperary General Hospital Grounds. Labelled are the two identified Swift colonies, 
Cardiac Rehab Centre (1) and Community Care Centre (2). Google Maps

It is clear that this hospital was built with the intention of saving human lives. It has not only achieved this but has unintentionally become a sanctuary for the Swift, a native bird that is currently under serious threat in Ireland. 

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

One Night in Nenagh

Nenagh Castle was built by Theobald Walter (the first of the Butlers of Ormond) around 1200. Rising to a height of 100 feet and spanning 55 feet in external diameter, it can be presumed that the castle tower was a safe-haven for its human occupants in times of siege over the last 800 years.  

Every summer this heritage site attracts summer visitors from across the world, and no, it is not the flocks of North-American homo-sapien tourists I speak of. It is Apus apus, the Common Swift. Our flying summer visitor from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Nenagh Castle Will Hayes
At the end of May, as part of BirdWatch Ireland's Swift Conservation Project, I was conducting a routine nesting site survey in Nenagh. The plan was to begin the survey in the vicinity of St Marys Church, Nenagh Courthouse, and Nenagh Castle and then branch out across the town as the evening progressed. This plan did not go to plan. A short time browsing the skies and I spotted a pair swirling above the courtyard of Nenagh Castle, and this wasn't to the only couple of Swifts to appear. After gaining access to the grounds of the castle (gates close at 4 pm) through my assistant for the evening Jim McGuire, we soon had fourteen of our friends occupying the air above the castle tower. We knew now we were in for a jam-packed evening.

As the survey progressed and the Swift numbers increased we began to identify nesting sites on the castle towers exterior walls where the birds entered and exited. First, we identified a group of three nesting cavities close to the right of a window's edge, followed by two more nesting sites just above. Five in total. Then all of a sudden, the usual screaming of the swifts came to a halt, and the skies were empty (around 7.30 pm). This absence was unusual, and after about 20 minutes we thought our work here was done... We were wrong, so very wrong. 

Out of thin air, we had close to thirty birds screaming and dashing past the castle’s walls. Our heads were moving left to right faster than the beat of a hummingbird’s wings. After about 40 minutes of this anarchic surveying, we identified over 20 nesting sites in the castle tower walls. Not bad for an evening’s work!

An interesting finding, asides from the sheer abundance of Swifts, was the location of the nesting sites. We identified all nests within a 6-metre belt encompassing the tower. Jim, a local man, informed me that this might be due to the great work of the Office of Public Works (OPW). During renovations of the castle a few years back, OPW workers noticed that swifts were nesting all around the tower and ceased from filling in holes/crevices in case they were swift nesting sites within the 6-metre belt. For me, that deserves credit given for when credit is due as the Swift's could not have survived here without this kind consideration. Bravo OPW.
Jim and I both looking forward to a cup of tea after a satisfying evenings work Will Hayes
On the drive back home following this exhilarating evening I wondered if the many bygone occupants of the castle would be happy if the knew that it is still a safe haven for their former flying neighbours. Swifts, the ancient guardians of Nenagh Castle.

The County Tipperary Swift Survey is being conducted with the support of the Heritage Council and Tipperary Heritage Office. 

Friday, 15 June 2018

Press Release - Raising awareness for Swift conservation through a week-long schedule of events

A weeklong schedule of events is being hosted by groups involved in Swift conservation here in Ireland. Swift Awareness Week will run from Friday June 15th to Saturday the 23rd June. BirdWatch Ireland and Swift ConservationIreland have come together to host a myriad of events across the country, an initiative which mirrors events being organised by groups in the UK during the same period.

Swift Awareness Week Logo

Swifts are a migratory bird that visit Ireland and northern Europe in the summer. They return to the same nest site each summer to nest and raise young. They migrate from southern Africa where they have spent the winter following the rains and feeding on the resulting profusions of insects.

Swifts are a real sign of summer, arriving in Ireland in the first days of May and vanishing again by late-August. They are a bird highly adapted for life on the wing, they feed, sleep and even mate on the wing (the only group of birds known to do this). They spend the summer whizzing around our towns and cities feeding on winged insects and making their characteristic screaming calls as they go about their daily business. Swifts are often confused with Swallows and House Martins but are larger, lack the white on the underside of the body and do not build the mud nests we on gables and below the eaves of our homes.

Screaming party of Swifts Mícheál Casey
Swifts are amazing aerial acrobats and can be seen over most towns and cities during the summer months but in recent decades their numbers have declined significantly due to the loss of nest sites and the affects of climate change. Swifts have evolved to nest in old buildings, in holes in the eaves of houses, behind fascia boards gaining access to the top of walls and in gaps in stone-built walls. Modern buildings are designed and constructed differently than to those of the past and inadvertently exclude Swifts from nesting. Restoration work and home improvements can also lead to the unintentional loss of nest sites by blocking up entrance holes.

Swift Awareness Week Events Schedule Poster

In Ireland there are numerous groups and individuals working to raise awareness for Swifts, implement conservation policy and oversee practical measures to help arrest the decline and help recover Swift breeding populations.

BirdWatch Ireland and Swift Conservation Ireland have combined efforts to host numerous events across the country during Swift Conservation Week which aim to get people out and about to observe these wonderful avian creatures and communicate the conservation pressure this species faces.
All the events planned for Swift Conservation Week are free and family friendly. 

Swift Awareness Week event details

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Fallcarragh Swift Project

Last spring Chris Ingram from our Donegal Branch was approached by Mary O’Doherty a resident of Fallcarragh, a small town in the Gaeltacht area of north-west Donegal. Mary was very concerned that the Swift population in her hometown had decreased over the years. Chirs assisted Mary in surveying the area and confirmed two nest sites in Ionad Turasoireachta (Tourist Office) building and suggested that this would be the ideal location to erect a nest box to increase nesting opportunities at the building.

Falcarragh is in the north-west Donegal - Google Maps

Later, in July, our own Brian Caffrey held a Swift Workshop in nearby Dunfanaghy which Mary attended, and was greatly inspired by his talk. Mary had no way to finance a Swift nestbox scheme, but Chris suggested the Tidy Towns might be able to assist. Mary did just that and persuaded the Tidy Towns group to fund a box and audio lure system. Mary also impressed the importance of the project to the management at Ionad Turasoireacha and gained permission to erect the box onsite. The work was carried out in early May and Mary and Chris are eagerly awaiting and hoping for new residents soon. 

Paddy McHugh with Mary O'Doherty and the new Genesis Swift box

Many thanks must go to Mary for her determination in getting the project underway, but also to Mary McGarvey of Falcarragh Tidy Towns for funding the nest box and sound equipment, and Paddy McHugh and Mary Cassidy from the centre for accepting the box on their building and implementing its placement.

New Swift Box at Ionad Turasoireacha Falcarragh
Thanks to Chris Ingram for the words and photos.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Trim Swift Update - Guest Blog by Terence Cassidy

Peter Farrell of Loman Street said they would be back on the 4th of May (plus or minus 12 hours) and sure enough I saw my first returning Swift over Trim Castle bang on that date. Peter grew up on Loman Street and has a sixth sense for Swifts and can even tell to which house a certain bird flying around belongs. Numbers of Swifts gradually increased during May and Peter, Asier Pagazaurtundua and myself put up three Genesis nest boxes on the highest point on the Town Hall. This was just in time for the non-breeding birds to inspect them on their arrival back from Africa.

Peter in action, some eight metres up, creating our "Swift tower"
 (and Swift high in the sky behind)
- Terence Cassidy

The boxes will support the Swift colony already established for decades on Castle Street. Trim Tidy towns got a grant from Meath County Council to buy the boxes and thanks to the Council also for permission to put the boxes up on the town hall. Thanks to Brian and Kim in Trim Tidy Towns for co-ordinating the funding and Andrew O’Brien for the hydraulic platform to access this site.

Crowd observes new Swift nest boxes at Trim Town Hall - Terence Cassidy

Peter Farrell did some handy work also on Loman Street, putting up four single chamber Swift boxes under the overhanging rooves of two houses at the end of the terrace. The soffits which meet the roof of these houses do not give Swifts access. One of the houses in the middle of the terrace, where Swifts nest both at the back and the front of the house, had renovations to the roof carried out in October 2017. This was outside the nesting season and Peter was on hand to advise the builder of the importance of this house as a nest site and also with the support of Patricia Farnon who lives there and our local National Parks and Wildlife Service Ranger they ensured that the soffits left a space for the Swifts to continue to have access to their nest site. With advice from BirdWatch Ireland the builder simply cut several 30mm wide strips out of the soffit creating a space between the soffit and the wall. We saw in May that the birds were able to enter this space and continue to nest in what is one of the main nest sites in the town.

So when Brian Caffrey of Birdwatch Ireland arrived for a repeat of the 2017 Swift walk in Trim we had a lot of new developments to show him. We started our 2018 walk again from the bank of the Boyne where Sand Martins were feeding on the insects also flying over the river and as we crossed the bridge into the town flew these birds were flying over our heads.

Brian points out Sand Martins flying over the Boyne
 to the group including the Kiltale brownies - Terence Cassidy

Brian pointed out that the Swifts were bigger than the Sand Martin, and spend virtually all of their life airborne, never seen resting on wires as Swallows and Martins frequently do. They also don’t build a nest unlike the mud dwellings of Swallows and Martins and the nest, in a secluded place usually under a roof and on the top of a wall, is made of a few feathers caught on the wing. Brian pointed out the distinctive scythe shaped wings held straight out from the body and in a level flight is the fastest flying bird.

Then to Castle Street which was again busy with screaming parties of Swifts, and we explained that some of the Swift screams were actually from a recording played from a speaker high on the town hall, a lure to help Swifts find the nest boxes and reassure these colony nesting birds that it is a secure site. We will keep an eye on this site over the summer to see if we have any success, but it could take a couple of years before young birds from the local population are prospecting for a nest site. Its definitely a buyers’ market for Swifts in Trim with the nestbox options now provided for them.

Taking a closer look at houses containing Swift nests in Trim - Terence Cassidy

This year the weather was exceptionally good, so we added a walk around the Castle and along the marshy area which was once a moat. Kiltale Brownies recorded 18 different species of birds, in the town, in the hedges in Trim’s porchfields as well as along the Boyne. We are still on the lookout for the peregrine falcon that has been sighted on Trim’s yellow steeple, but that’s for another day.

We finished the walk in Loman Street, enjoying the customary spectacular display of low flying Swifts going in and out of their nest sites. At least a dozen birds whizzed up and down the street passing just over our heads.

Brian Caffrey explains the difference between Swifts and Swallows
 to the Kiltale Brownies
- Terence Cassidy

This was a great end to a great event and a conservation project which has engaged local children, residents co-habiting with Swifts, Tidy towns, County council and members of Birdwatch Ireland and Birdwatch Ireland professional staff. People had travelled from all over Meath for the walk, and we also had visitors from county Monaghan keen to develop similar community based initiatives there. The town of Trim has found another interesting part of its heritage and can be proud of the conservation work done; maybe the Swifts can become another tourist attraction.

The Meath Branch of Birdwatch Ireland named the Swift its bird of 2018 and we would like to see the work in Trim replicated in other towns in Meath, contact The Meath Branch of Birdwatch Ireland if you want to get involved and help protect this species which amber-listed in Ireland due to a decline in the breeding population. The European population is currently evaluated as Secure.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

OPW Heritage Sites Swift Survey Continues

Over the past four summers BirdWatch Ireland has been commissioned to survey Office of Public Works (OPW) Heritage Sites throughout Ireland for nesting Swifts. This work continues this summer with four new sites selected for the 2018 survey season. 

The 2018 sites monitored by the BirdWatch Ireland Swift Survey Team are; Jerpoint Abbey and St Mary’s Church (Gowran) in Co. Kilkenny, Maynooth Castle Co. Kildare and Old Mellifont Abbey Co. Louth. 

Swift Survey Work at OPW Jerpoint Abbey Ricky Whelan

With the weather on our side this week, the 2018 fieldwork kicked off at the two Kilkenny sites and we couldn’t have got off to a better start with Swift nests located at both Jerpoint Abbey and St Mary’s Church. To pinpoint nest sites on the first visit in May can be tricky so we were thrilled when we observed adult birds popping in and out of multiple nests at Jerpoint Abbey and a single nest site at St Mary’s. 

OPW St Mary's Church, Gowran Ricky Whelan

Survey work will take place in the months of May, June and July with all nest sites logged and mapped to allow OPW site managers and conservation staff to protect these historic structures whilst also retaining the Swift nest locations. 

The OPW has a highly proactive approach to Swift conservation at their heritage sites with their commitment to the survey demonstrating that. But they haven’t stopped there, and they continue to implement practical conservation measures at suitable sites with known Swift activity. An example of this can be seen at Portumna Castle and Gardens, Co. Galway where the new tea rooms have just opened in the courtyard building, which is equipped with its very own specialised Swift nest boxes and caller system. 

Schwegler Triple Cavity Boxes at OPW Portumna Castle Michele O'Dea

OPW National Monuments undertook the work at Portumna Castle under the direction of Frank Geraghty, District Works Manager. Towards the end of the works phase two new Schwegler Triple Cavity Nestboxes were installed together with a caller system to alert passing Swifts to the newly available nest opportunities. Michele O’Dea, Conservation Architect and Ken Curley, Architectural Assistant were involved throughout ensuring the project was in keeping with the nature and aesthetics of the building whilst Walden Electrical made short work of wiring up the electric caller system. 

New Tea Rooms at OPW Portumna Castle Michele O'Dea

We were delighted to advise on the project and it’s a great result for Swifts. Fingers crossed the boxes will be occupied by nesting Swifts soon.

The boxes were sourced and supplied by BirdWatch Ireland through our shop and Swift Conservation Ireland supplied the caller system equipment. Swift Conservation Ireland have played a leading role in the design of Swift caller systems here in Ireland and work tirelessly for Swifts. You can find more information on the SCI caller systems and projects here.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Upcoming Events

Its that time of year and the first Swifts are being reported throughout the country, a quick search on Irish Birding revealed Swift sightings in 14 counties already. We have just had a few wonderful days of sunshine and high pressure, no doubt facilitating further influxes of Swifts into the country. Its time too to start logging onto Swift Conservation Ireland's (SCI) live Swift Nest Cams, at GMIT Castlebar, as the birds are soon to be actively preparing nests and laying clutches.

SCI - Swift Nest Camera captures an
adult Swift incubating during July 2017
Photo SCI

Following on from a successful whole-county Swift Survey of Offaly during summer 2017 we have three new counties to survey during summer 2018. This work is made possible with support of the Heritage Council and respective local authorities .We will spend the summer surveying in counties, Laois, Westmeath and Tipperary in an effort to find as many existing Swift nest colonies as possible.

BirdWatch Ireland's Anton Krastev with a group of enthusiastic volunteers
 taken whilst out Swift Surveying in Birr, county Offaly
 during the 2017 Offaly Swift Survey
Photo BWI

To effectively carryout these surveys we need your help and the help of community groups and individuals in these counties. To promote the surveys and recruit volunteer Citizen Scientists we have lots of Swift events planned throughout the three counties. See the table below for details.

Upcoming Swift related events (click to see larger image) Photo BWI

All events include a short indoor session followed by an easygoing outdoor walk to try spot some Swifts as they dash around the locality.

For more info on our Swift Projects you can see our Swift Web Pages or email swifts@birdwatchireland.ie.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Clare Community Groups Take Swift Action

Last week eight communities in County Clare took delivery of 10 new Genesis Triple Cavity Swift Nestboxes. The project funded by Clare County Council through Heritage Officer Congella McGuire aims to establish new, safe and permanent nest sites for Swifts around the county. 

Noel Enright and Pete Beaumont from O'Briens Bridge  Ricky Whelan
These projects were initiated as early as November 2017 when BirdWatch Ireland was invited to speak to Clare Tidy Towns Groups about biodiversity projects and Swift conservation measures that could be adopted locally. Following the talk the enthusiasm for Swift nestbox projects was very high and groups were invited to register their interest in establishing a project in their respective areas. 

In December we visited 12 towns and villages in Clare to assess buildings for their suitability for Swift nestboxes. Potential locations were selected in all communities visited and a report circulated to the groups. 

Clare Swift Recce Report Ricky Whelan
 With groups on-board, suitable sites selected and permissions gained to erect the boxes we ordered a batch of new specially designed triple-cavity Swift nestboxes from Stephan De Beer of Genesis Nestboxes in Killarney. 

A boot  full of Genesis Swift Nestboxes Ricky Whelan
After a day spent in the car delivering boxes and giving final advice we are looking forward to seeing all the boxes up around Clare which hopefully will become home to Swifts in the coming seasons. 

Christy Leyden and Eric Shaw of ClareCastle Tidy Towns Group Ricky Whelan
To increase the probability of attracting Swifts to breed successfully, much thought is needed when selecting sites for nestboxes. In addition, specially designed nestboxes are required both to suit Swifts own needs but also to exclude would-be home invaders such as Starlings and House Sparrows which are well known to hi-jack Swift nestboxes. Lastly an audio lure can be played close to the nestbox entrances to attract the birds in. Swifts are colonial so are more likely to establish where they find their own kind, an audio lure mimics other Swifts thus attracting birds to the new nest sites. 

Well done to all the communities involved for all their efforts and enthusiasm so far. A big thanks to Congella McGuire for driving the effort and making the projects possible. Thanks to Stephan De Beer at Genesis Nestboxes for supplying the boxes and Lynda Huxley of Swift Conservation Ireland who has supplied the audio equipment for many of the groups and given lots of additional advice. 

For more info on Swifts and BirdWatch Irelands work see our Swift Project Pages HERE.

Keep following our Swift - Life On The Wing Blog for more projects, events, survey updates and Swift related news.