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.