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Colony Portsmouth (England)


Photographs Graham Roberts


In the suburbs of Portsmouth there were very few breeding Swifts with only 1-2 pairs known in 1999. Thus, to Graham Roberts’ big surprise on 6th July 1999 three Swifts suddenly started prospecting the front of his 1930s house. He had not witnessed such behavior in his neighborhood for over 20 years. Being anxious to do all he could to encourage these Swifts, that night Graham drilled a hole through the gable weatherboard leading to a nestbox in the loft. He made a small viewing hole in the side of the nestbox enabling him to sit in the loft peering quietly inside. The Swifts took to the nestbox immediately and within five days there was a feather and thistledown nest at the back of the box. At least one, and usually two, Swifts roosted in the nestbox nightly from 10-28 July, the date they were last seen.

Swift nestboxes in Graham Roberts' loft in Portsmouth. The hole at the back of the nestbox on the right is for
an infra-red video camera. The other nest boxes have perspex backs with sliding wooden doors (removed for
the photograph) to enable close observation.

During the following winter Graham made a number of adaptations to the nestbox to enable closer study of the Swifts should they return to breed in 2000. The nest was carefully protected with a polythene cover. An infra-red video camera was installed at the back of the nestbox on a sliding door. The camera, with inbuilt microphone, was wired to a TV screen and video recorder. One side of the nestbox was also removed and replaced with a hinged door.

This photograph, taken on 1st May 2000, shows a nestbox being adapted to take an infra-red camera in a hole in
a sliding door at the back of the box (on right in photograph). The feather nest was built in July 1999 in preparation
for the following season when the Swifts first bred.

Camera set-up plus chick. Infra-webcams positioned above and behind the nest. It shows a three week old chick
plus one of two addled eggs. 9th July 2000.

On 8th May 2000, Graham turned on the camera and much to his delight a Swift, busily preening at the back of the nestbox, appeared on his TV screen. The second adult returned on 12th May. By 27th May they had a full clutch of 3 eggs. During a brief period when both adults were away from the nest, Graham cut a small hole in the nestbox and installed a second infra-red video camera directly above the nest. With two cameras, each linked to a TV, Graham was able to closely observe events at the nest. A video was used to record events when Graham was at work and capture highlights on film. Only one of the three eggs hatched in 2000, but it grew very rapidly and fledged successfully.

 A full clutch of 3 eggs. 27th May 2000

A pair, presumably the same individuals as in 1999 and 2000, bred again successfully in 2001 raising three young. Again Graham used the two infra-red cameras to observe and record events on video. However, in addition he linked the cameras to a computer (through a WinTV-USB device from Hauppauge) thus enabling him to watch the Swifts live on his p.c. monitor and at the click of the mouse capture digital images on his hard drive. Examples of a selection of Graham’s photographs are shown.

Adult feeding chicks, now only a few hours old. Third
egg (not visible) about to hatch. 17th June 2001

All three eggs hatched. The chicks are now 2-4 days
old. 20th June 2001

Chicks now five weeks old. There is a third chick, which was noticeably smaller,
hidden in the background. The entrance hole, at the far end of the nestbox, is
obscured by a baffle inserted to produce a better picture with the infra-red
webcam. 23rd July 2001


In 2000, daylight entering the nestbox through the entrance hole had caused over-exposure of the infra-red camera facing this light source. However, when, as often happened, one of the adults wedged itself in the entrance to watch the world outside, the picture was perfect. Thus, as a refinement, a wooden baffle (visible in some of the photographs) was positioned inside the nestbox 90mm from the entrance hole. 

Despite having eight Swift nestboxes, Graham has not yet attracted any other pairs to breed. Occasionally 1-3 outsiders join the resident pair in a screaming party but never enter a nestbox. Graham hopes that a colony will develop in time.

Graham Roberts is actively involved in Swift conservation work in Hampshire and Sussex, Southern England. As leader of the Sussex Ornithological Society’s Swift Conservation Project, he has co-ordinated a Sussex Breeding Swift Survey and been promoting the wider use of nestboxes.



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