The 2009 Nestbox Diary

June (part 2) 

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21 June - A bright, if quite cloudy day, made brilliant by the antics of the local Swifts, especially during the late morning.

Since we returned form Cornwall we have seen the Swifts being a lot more active around us that ever before, and this morning they (8, or perhaps 10 of them) spent ages swooping and screaming the length of our shared driveway, sometimes passing under a cable situated above out garden gate and which is about 9ft from the ground. They were clearly investigating both houses, especially the region just below the eves, and at various times all the nest boxes were hit by a Swift, even when there was a Sparrow looking out!

A Swift lands at the entrance to the lower Swift nest boxAt least twice a Swift actually landed on the loudspeaker enclosure, and most importantly, they made a number of very close passes by the Swift boxes before I saw one land. I didn't have the camera ready the first time this happened, but I was able to get these pictures when one landed a second time and appear to respond to the CD's 'call'.

I have to add very quickly that it did not enter the box, but it still gives me reason to be very optimistic - at least the Swifts definitely know of the boxes now. It's too late for nesting this year, but perhaps in 2010...


The pictures are not as sharp as I would have liked because I was operating the camera remotely and the lens was focused on the upper entrance where a Sparrow had been a few minutes earlier, and where the first Swift landed. The camera is still in place (with focusing adjusted) just in case there is a repeat performance when the Swifts return this evening.

A male House Sparrow feeds its chicks


In the meantime, the House Sparrows are getting on with their nesting. While a male(s) continues to visits the Swift and Starling boxes, others are busy feeding their offspring.

Here, one male feeds a pair of chicks while another looks out of the nest next door.

There are chicks being fed in at least one other box, and there are at least two more boxes active.



22 June - A perfect start to the day, both in terms of weather and Swifts! After yesterday's excitement I wondered what the Swifts would do today, and they haven't disappointed me.

On the news this morning there was an item about the plight of Swifts in the UK, with their populations having dropped by nearly 50%.

A Swift spends time in Starling box RHaving heard that item before I turned on the monitors at around 7.30am it was a real treat to see that a Swift was actually in one of my nest boxes - not one of the especially made Swift boxes, but the right hand Starling box, with its ready made nest!


A Swift leaves Starling box R



Once I realised that it was a Swift my first thought was about how it would manage to get back out of the relatively high entrance hole.

That turned out to be no problem when the Swift left a few minutes later.


A pair of Swifts arrive at Starling box R



Since that early visit the Swift has returned numerous times, usually with its partner( or sibling?) following closely behind but not going in.

As I write this at 10am the Swift has just left again - it could be an interesting day...


An update at 10.30am - as I write this there are Swifts in both Starling boxes and the upper Swift box (very difficult to see amongst the straw of the Sparrow's nest)!

A Swift rests in the lower Swift nest box



And the lower Swift box has also had its visitor, although this remained the least visited box during the morning.




When I first saw a Swift in Starling box L, which only has a thin layer of straw in it, my concern about entrance height was reignited as the Swift seemed to be in a bit of distress. I headed down to the shed to improvise a ramp but by the time I had got my ladder out it had left.

 Nevertheless I put the ramp into place. As I did so the Swift pair must have passed within a foot of me as I felt the air move as they passed behind my head. There was no need to worry about disturbing them. By the time I had descended the ladder and returned indoors both boxes were occupied.

A pair of Swifts in Starling box R


During the late morning (I'm not getting much done today!) I've been watching a pair of Swifts in Starling box R, cuddled up close together, with a lot of mutual preening going on. While one has now left its partner has once again settled down in the nest. This one has a single small white feather on the back of its head which should help to distinguish it during this spell of visits.



A Swift with awhite spot at back of its head


During the afternoon things became quieter and by the late afternoon there wasn't a Swift to be seen. However, soon after 8pm one made a reappearance.

This Swift has a small white mark on the back of its head, and this has been helpful in confirming that this is the individual that has by far spent the most time in the Starling box today.




At 8.08pm a Swift entered the lower Swift box but left again after ten minutes.

A pair of Swifts settle down for the night



Around 8.45pm the white spotted bird was joined by (I assume) its partner once again, and the pair settled down quite quickly, despite activity by the other Swifts outside, which was still continuing at 9.20pm.




Quad cctv image showing roosting Swifts


It was after 9.30pm when a lone Swift once again entered the lower Swift box. This bird has been very restless, going back and forth to the entrance numerous times, and calling (screaming) out through it on a couple of occasions.

Sometimes it moves to the far end of the box where it disappears from the camera's field of view.

At approaching 9.45pm it is still moving about but does appear to be starting to settle for the night at the end of what has been quite an amazing day.

While I believe it is now probably too late for nesting (am I wrong?), what I'm seeing really does bode well for next year, if at the same time posing me with a bit of a dilemma - shall I replace the present pair of Swift boxes with a set of two, or even four boxes in a single layer terrace before next year?


23 June - On a very warm day, with temperatures up to 27C in the garden shade, Swift activity has continued on a somewhat lower scale than yesterday.

The bird in the lower Swift box left for the first time at 4.34am. It(?) reappeared in the box at 5.57am and stayed nearly an hour before leaving again. There were several more, brief visits to that box during the rest of the morning.

A Swift prepares to leave the upper Swift nest box


The upper Swift box also had a number of short visits this morning, the first at 9.12am.

Here you can see one visitor looking out before deciding to leave a minute or so later.



The left-hand Starling box only had a couple of visits this morning (possible some cctv images later).

However, it is once more the right-hand Starling box where most activity took place during the morning.

The Swift pair that roosted in that box left at 7.31am. Over the next hour or so the box was visited by a single Swift several times, before the pair were seen in there between 8.53-9.27am when one of them left long before its partner. The pair were in there again between 11.09-11.42am.

All four of the boxes being visited are wired for sound, and during one visit I listened in to the pair, and I made the mistake of putting on earphones. I could hear quite quiet 'squeeks' from one of them before the sound of another bird banging against the outside of the entrance prompted the white-spotted individual to let rip with a fully fledged scream. The microphone couldn't cope with it, and neither could my ears!

After that I decided to move out into the driveway to set up my camera to capture some of the activity outside the box. I set up the camera (+ telephoto lens) on a tall tripod, attached a wireless remote to it and then made myself comfortable to wait.

I didn't get the chance to repeat yesterday's picture of two birds but I did manage some pictures that help me understand a bit better what they really look like up close. The trouble with Swifts of course is that they can mesmerise you with their high flying but then swoop low, appear from behind a house, and be in the box in the time it takes to blink. However, on some passes they were much kinder to me. The pictures are not in sequence, with every one being taken at a different approach, in each case the bird just approached the box and left again without entering. Click on the images to see larger versions and a few extra pictures.

A Swift approaches Starling box R


With the bright sky as a background it was difficult to get the exposures I needed to show details without resorting to flash, so I have instead lightened the images somewhat.

It's interesting to see those short legs with long claws, legs that are clearly of only limited use once a bird is inside the nest box.

In this view the wings do not seem as slender as I would expect for an adult.


A young Swift flares its tail during approaches to Starling box R


This next picture suggests to me that they are juveniles, as there is no sign of the characteristic short fork in the tail


Here, the short tail feathers suggest to me that these birds are juveniles.


A Swift in the lower Swift box this evening



Compare the tail in the previous picture with that on the first Swift to return this evening, seen here in the lower Swift box.

It appeared at 7.25pm and left again at 7.51pm.


A young Swift swoops away from Starling box R



And finally, the biggest challenge of the session was to grab a picture as a Swift swooped away from the box. This was the nearest I managed as they accelerate away, or towards me in this case.




With all this attention being given to the Swifts I must not forget the House Sparrows. I'm afraid that with the Swifts about they have been seen in the Swift boxes just a couple of times today, and then for only very short visits. The chicks that I photographed on the 21st are still being fed at their box entrance.

The cctv image of the Swifts tonight


Tonight at 10pm it's a rerun of last night, with the Swift pair in Starling box R and a single Swift in the lower Swift box.

The latter bird returned to roost at 9.19pm.



The cctv image of the Swift pair roosting in Starling box R tonight


In the Starling box the arrival of the pair was staggered with the first entering at 9.24pm but its partner not appearing until 9.42pm.

Once they were together it didn't take long for them to settle down for the night, side by side.



With this 'Swift Experience' being new for me I'm grateful for any help and corrections that I receive. Andrew from Hull has e-mailed me with a useful guidance about what I'm seeing. He tells me that the birds that I'm seeing are probably adults, either not quite breeding age, or just late finding nesting places for next year (that's a great bit of news as far as I'm concerned!). It seems that it is too early for there to be fledged Swifts about, and when they do fledge in mid to late July they migrate immediately (amazing!). He doesn't think that a first year fledgling has ever been known to enter any box until at least its next to the UK.



24 June - The sunshine and Swift learning experience continues. More details later, but I thought I should record something that has just happened at 11.30am.

I was sitting by my computer, watching the two Swifts that I can see on cctv at the moment when another Swift swooped under our veranda canopy and ended up grounded just a yard or so from me. Rather than be helpless, which I thought would be the case, it took off with surprising ease from under a table and gained enough height to easily escape over the garden gate.

The Swift that visits the upper Swift box (containing the Sparrow nest) seems very inquisitive, and several times this morning it has climbed up to one side of the camera and probed all around it.

Earlier today I got my first chance to see the size of a Swift's gape when the bird in the lower Swift box yawned.

CCTV image showing a Swift's gapeThe quality of the image is rather poor but I think that it is possible to get an idea of the size of the open mouth - the appearance of a small beak that you normally see is very misleading.

The gape is just perfect for scooping up insects in mid-flight, and also for scooping up water as the bird drinks on the wing.



I have gone through the recordings for the day, up to 6pm. The day had an interesting start, with the first activity being a visit to Starling box L by a juvenile Starling at 5.50am. The Swift pair in the adjacent box hardly flinched, and the Starling left at 6.07am, not returning again today.

A short while later, a male House Sparrow inspected the nest in the upper Swift box three times before 6.35am. Five minutes later and the Swift in the lower Swift box left at 6.40am. At 6.48am a Swift made the first of several visits to the upper Swift box, staying for half an hour.

During the rest of the morning there were six visits to the Swift boxes by a single Swift, three to each box. These visits lasted between 8 - 35 minutes (averaging about 20 minutes), and the last one ended just before 2pm.

The roosting pair didn't leave Starling box R until 7.28am. At 8.20am they returned and stayed another thirty five minutes. After that, the only visits made to that box were by a single bird, the first lasting 20 minutes from 11.32am and the final one lasting 34 minutes, leaving at 1.34pm.

For the rest of the afternoon the skies over us were silent as the Swifts moved off elsewhere to feed. With the time now approaching 7.45pm I see that they have started to fly low over us again, although they seem to be silent.

Tonight I can't help but be a little concerned for one of the Swifts. There is, once again a single bird in the lower Swift box,

Lone Swift in Starling box R tonight


but Starling box R also has just one occupant. Since it arrived at 9.24pm this Swift has been restless, spending much of its time watching the entrance and sometimes calling.

It really appeared to be waiting for its partner to arrive, and only starting to settle after 10pm.


An update at 10.30pm - that Swift has just left the Starling box! Why? Will it return in the morning?


25 June - The answer is no, at least not by 9.15am, on a day that promises to be very warm again, and humid.

The Swift in the lower Swift box left at 5.05am, and I'm guessing that the same bird then entered the upper box at 5.54am, staying until 8.16am. It was back in just before 9am when it stayed for eight minutes.

We have just had breakfast outside, and other than seeing that one visitor there has been no sign of any other Swifts overhead during the last hour (up to 9.15am).

Lone Swift in the upper Swift box this morning


Well, after that rather slow start the upper Swift box has had a further seventeen visits during the day (up to 8.30pm), with two birds in there briefly just after 8pm. In comparison, the lower box had just one visit all day, just before 10am.




The first visit to the Starling boxes came at just after 10am  when a single bird (no white spot) visited box R for just four minutes. There was just one more, shorter visit to the same box just before 11am.

In the afternoon there was much more activity in these boxes. The first, a twenty minute stay was by White Spot in the left-hand box. Then, soon after 2pm the pair turned up in box R and stayed for eighteen minutes. After that it was the left-hand box that  the Swifts favoured, and between 3.25pm and 3.28pm the pair entered and stayed for nearly two hours.

The pair of Swifts roosting  in Starling box R tonight

After that long stay they didn't appear again until one entered box R briefly before the pair entered box L to roost at just after 9pm. For the last forty five minutes the pair have engaged in a great deal of mutual preening, and what I can only describe a sort of conversation(!) of squeaks, quiet and loud.

The microphone in the box cannot really cope with the loud screams, but click here (35 seconds, 548KB) to get an idea of the sounds they were making. The recording has been edited to remove quiet some longer quiet periods.



A very poor image of a pair of Swifts roosting  in the upper Swift box tonight


In the upper Swift box a bird arrived to roost at 9.03pm. However, just a minute later it was joined by a second Swift.

As with the other pair, these have engaged in mutual preening and the microphone has picked up sounds similar to those produced by the other pair.


With two pairs now roosting my confidence levels for next year have gone up a notch tonight.


26 June -  a text only entry today I'm afraid, which doesn't mean that there was nothing to report on.

There was a dull grey start to the day with a few drops of rain around 7am (but no more for the rest of the day). Perhaps the low light levels influenced the Swifts, but both pairs were slow to get going.

The pair in the upper Swift box were still together until 8.40am when the first one left, the partner not leaving until a really surprising 9.52am.

As the day progressed, in addition to there being several individual visits to the Swift boxes, the pair had four sessions together in the upper box during which they stayed for a total of a minute under three hours.

Tonight, they returned as a pair at 9.28pm.

The pair that roosted in Starling box L left for the first time at 8.33am. During the day they made fewer return visits, but were in the box together from 10-10.30am, and then again between 5.36-6.43pm, although this time they arrived and left individually.

Tonight, they returned as a pair at 9.28pm.

It seems that the two pairs retired for the night before the rest of the group because those birds were still flying (and screaming) between the houses for over ten minutes after the second pair had entered the box.

I've been really surprised by the time that the pairs are spending in the boxes during the day. While I realised that time would be spent in the nest during nesting itself, I thought that for the rest of the time the birds would be in the air.

One surprise that afternoon was the sight of a House Martin passing fairly low overhead. I've checked the day's recording but there is no sign of any bird (not even a Sparrow) visiting the Martin nests today.


27 June -  It has been a very warm, sunny day with the temperature getting up to 28C in the shaded parts of the garden.

Juvenile Robin perched on birdbath


Before I get to the Swifts I thought I'd enter a sort of postscript to the first attempt at nesting that I covered this Spring, the marathon, but unsuccessful incubation of a clutch of infertile Robin eggs  back in April/May. After that, the Robins made themselves scarce and we saw only glimpses of them from then on.

However, this week we have been visited frequently by this juvenile Robin, so at least one local pair have had some success this Spring. I have only had a single sighting of an adult robin since we returned from our holiday.


This morning the Swifts in Starling box L left at 7.31am. During the day there were six visits by individual birds to this box, the longest lasting fifteen minutes. The pair visited together just once, arriving around 10.30am and staying some fifty minutes.

Swifts engaged in courtship preeningTonight, the 'no-spot' bird arrived first, at 9.03pm. There was then a wait until 9.20pm before 'white spot' arrived. This time there was a greeting that I had not seen so far.

There was the usual mutual preening, but as it preened 'white-spot's neck the 'no-spot' bird vibrated its wings in the way I see other birds doing during courtship, this behaviour being repeated several times as 'white-spot' held its beak up high to facilitate the preen (see the picture). There was no sign of 'white-spot' vibrating its wings as it preened its partner

The question I must answer now is which one is the male and which the female. Am I correct in thinking that 'white-spot' is the male?

Despite the temporary ramp that I'd added to Starling box L the Swifts still found it difficult to reach up to the exit, so this afternoon I took advantage of their absence to very quickly supplement the ramp with a couple of steps. A Swift has only left once since that was done, but that bird had no trouble getting out so hopefully the problem is solved, at least until I get the opportunity to rebuild the box front in a more Swift-friendly way.

I have nowhere else where I can put Starling boxes so that there is no clash between the two species, so it looks more and more likely that I will need to forfeit the Starlings if I am going to provide the Swifts with nesting places next year.

In the upper Swift box, the pair that roosted there last night first left at 7.37am. They returned at 8.22am and stayed another 45 minutes. They made short visits again at 9.48am and again before noon. There were also several visits to the box by a single bird.

This evening a pair of Swifts visited the lower Swift box at 8.25pm and stayed for just over twenty minutes. However, tonight there is just a single bird roosting in the upper Swift box, having arrived at 9.27pm.



28 June - The warm, dry weather continues, although cloud cover this afternoon helped keep the temperature from rising above 27C in the garden.

Up in the nest boxes, it was the Swift in the upper Swift box (SWup from now on!) that left first, at 4.58am. At 5.12am a single Swift appeared in the lower Swift box (SWlo), staying for 37 minutes; there was a similar visit to SWup at 5.50am, this one lasting 34 minutes.

Then at 6.35am a pair entered SWup. One left again at 6.57am and the second left at 7.08am. In addition to a few indiviudal visits over the next couple of hours, the pair visited SWup again at 7.30am, this time staying for 35 minutes, and again at just after 10am. This time the pair stayed for 92 minutes.

There was just one more visit (by a single bird to SWup at 11.44am), before visits stopped for the rest of the day.

While the Swifts, with their short legs and long wings look quite clumsy as they shuffle across the empty floor of SWlo (over the last week they have managed to clean out more or less all the straw from this box!), when it comes to the pair moving about in SWup with its sparrow nest things can get pretty chaotic.

Swift pair shuffle about in a nest box

They heave themselves over the mound of straw, and often in the process over their partner as well, and I get the impression that some of the screams I hear are a result of disagreements between the pair during these movements.

I also noticed that they sometimes appeared to scream in response to the calls still being put out from the loudspeaker enclosure next to the box.


Swifts - flat fly (Crataerina pallida)This morning, during such manoeuvres I had my first sighting of one of the Swifts less welcome hitchhikers. It is a flightless Flat Fly (Crataerina pallida), an ectoparasite which is host specific to the Swift, sucking the blood of the adults and nestlings.

It is unusual in that it does not lay eggs. Instead, it broods the eggs internally and lays a fully formed larva that pupates immediately. That pupa then waits in the nest until the birds return the following year before an adult hatches and starts the cycle all over again.


Swifts - courtship preening this morning


Across in the left hand Starling box (STle from now on) the roosting pair were a lot slower to get going, Mutual preening continued - in this picture it is 'white-spot' that is taking its turn.

They finally left the box at 7.48am.



Swifts - A juvenile Starling visits this morning


Just six minutes later it was a juvenile Starling that was the next bird to enter STLe. It stayed for fifteen minutes and then took a quick trip out before staying another five minutes.

After that it didn't appear again all day.



A single Swift reappeared in STle at 8.40am, for nine minutes.

The Swift pair were back in there at 9.11am and they stayed for an hour. After that there was just one more visit by a single Swift later in the morning, and then another at 2.45pm, staying for 7 minutes during the only visit to any box during the afternoon.

This evening, the first Swift to return was a single bird into SWup at 8.10pm. It left half an hour later.

'White spot' returned to STle at around 9.15pm and its partner followed it in a couple of minutes later. Almost immediately there was mutual preening, with 'white spot's partner (the female?) vibrating its wings again.

Swifts in three of the four boxes for a short time tonight


A single Swift entered SWup at 9.17pm and another entered SWlo at 9.22pm so that for a short while we had Swifts in three of the possible four boxes.

However, the latter bird left again at 9.30pm and has not returned by 10.25pm.




29 June - A hotter day, with the thermometer on the shade of the veranda registering 32C this afternoon, and it's getting quite humid, although there is no sign of any thunderstorms building up around us.

In SWup the lone Swift was looking out by 3.54am, but didn't leave the box until 4.46am. At 5.49am a Swift pair entered and stayed until 7.39am.

Over the next three hours or so there were six visits by a single bird before the pair entered again at 11.19am. This time they didn't leave together. Instead, the first left at 11.57am and its partner at 12.08pm. The pair returned at 1.15pm for a stay of 55 minutes, then a three minute visit at 3.52pm, followed by a twenty minute visits at around 4pm.

Once again, there has been rather less activity in STle, although the day did get off to a surprising start for the pair that had roosted in the box.

Swift pair reacts to the appearance of a young StarlingMutual preening was going on at 5.17am when the pair was startled by a bird arriving at the entrance.

The first reaction was for the 'spotless' partner to swing round to be against the end of the box, and 'White Spot' seemed to cover its partner as the head of a juvenile Starling appeared.

However, the would be intruder disappeared again and it wasn't long before the pair relaxed, 'white spot' taking time to stretch its wing.


A young Starling inspects the SwiftsThe, without warning the Starling reappeared and entered the box without hesitating.

'White spot' positioned itself completely over its partner, and the pair kept very still, and quiet. It seems that the Starling was just as wary, as it venture off the ramp. It took a good look at the Swifts from the bottom of the ramp, and again as it prepared to leave.

Once the Starling had left, the Swifts soon got back to the business of mutual preening as though nothing had happened, and they didn't leave the box until 7.06am.

Although there were four individual visits in the intervening time (including one to the right hand Starling box - STri) the pair didn't visits again until just before 11am. This visit lasted some 50 minutes, and was the last time I saw activity in the Starling boxes until tonight.

The first Swift to return to roost arrived in SWup at 9.22pm, and was joined by a second bird at 9.37pm. Less than a minute later and the other pair arrived in STle in quick succession and with a lot of squeaks as they did so.

It's been interesting to see that the House Sparrow has clearly given up on the nest he built in SWup. I have seen a male exploring the gap between the top of the Swift boxes and the eves of the house, although I don't think that is a good place to nest, and this morning a male visited a couple of the House Martin nests, actually doing a pre-nest building shuffle in nest 1.



30 June - The heatwave continues - 32C in the garden again, but the high was reached quite early during the morning and it made the whole day felt hotter than yesterday.

It was a relatively quiet day in the Swift boxes, with no interlopers.

In SWup the first of the roosting pair was looking out by 4.05am, with the pair leaving at 5.35am. During the next two hours there were two visits by a single Swift, the first for just 2 minutes but the second lasting from 6.06am to 6.47am.

One bird arrived at 7.36am and was followed in two minutes later by its partner. The pair then stayed in the box for the best part of three hours, until one left at 10.25am, with the second bird leaving ten minutes later.

There were two individual visits (plus one to SWlo) before the pair arrived once again at 12.05pm. This time one bird left after just three minutes while the other stayed until 12.40pm.

After that there were three short visits to SWup during the afternoon and then another short, four minute visit to SWlo at 4.07pm.

Over at the Starling boxes, only STle was in use today. The roosting pair left the box at 7.18am and after that there were only visits by single birds during the morning and afternoon periods. Looking back through the recordings I see that a 'spotless' bird visited five times, while 'white spot' made just two visits, including the last one of the afternoon, between 3.29-3.38pm.

The first visit of the evening was also to SWlo, from 7.16 - 7.30pm.  It was at 9.11pm that the Swifts started to return for the night, with single birds entering both SWup and STle. It was a 'spotless' swift that entered STle, and it left again at 9.30pm. I assume that the same bird re-entered at 9.41pm, at the same time that the second Swift entered SWup, and tonight we have just the three in residence, with 'white spot' absent.

Once again there was a bit of related House Sparrow activity seen today. First of all, there was a pair investigating that space above the Swift boxes again, and at 10.11 a female Sparrow entered House Martin nest 1 and stayed for over half an hour. Sparrows have nested in here in the past so I shall continue to monitor them.

- Click on the images to see larger versions -

2009 Nestbox Diary Index........Start of the Year...  ..Next chapter (July)