They can eat, sleep and breed in mid-air, fly an average of 500 miles every day and weigh around the same as a Cadbury’s Creme Egg - swifts really are the superheroes of the bird world!
Now a new project to find out where they forage in Northern Ireland has taken flight, thanks to a partnership between RSPB Northern Ireland, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Northern Ireland Swift Group. In a first for conservation science in Northern Ireland, dozens of swifts will be fitted with tiny GPS ‘backpacks’ in a bid to shed light on key feeding areas.
Every year, swifts return to breeding sites within the UK and Ireland from their African wintering grounds. They are acrobatic masters, swooping high through the sky with their distinctive scythe-shaped wings.
Swifts nest in the cracks and crevices of buildings, high up in the eaves. They pair for life, meeting up each spring at the same nest site which is ‘renovated’ and reused year after year. Unfortunately, as old buildings are fixed up or demolished, these sites are often lost and it can be difficult for a displaced pair to find a new site in time to lay eggs and raise a brood before heading back to warmer climes in August.
The UK swift population has declined dramatically in recent years and, as a result, the species has been placed on the Amber List of birds of conservation concern.
In recent years RSPB NI has been surveying swifts, primarily in south Belfast, to identify the areas they favour. Using this information, we’ve been working with communities and industry to try and protect nest sites. For example, new houses in The Village area have been constructed with ‘swift bricks’ built into the design – these special bricks contain nesting chambers that the birds can use.
However, because swifts may feed many miles away from where they nest, it’s vital that these feeding sites are protected too.
Today (30 June) experts will be safely capturing a number of swifts, some of which were previously tagged as part of a BTO and NI Swift Group migration study, and fitting them with miniature tracking devices, which weigh less than one gram.
Being used for the first time in Ireland, and building on work carried out by the BTO over the previous two summers, these will record the locations of the swifts at approximately hourly intervals with an accuracy of just a few metres, revealing the feeding behaviour of nesting swifts in unprecedented detail.
We hope to learn where nesting birds from specific colonies forage when they leave the nest, including differences in behaviour between swifts nesting in highly urban and more rurally-located colonies. After recovering tags the team at RSPB NI will be able to see, on screen, where the tagged birds spent each hour of the last few days – offering a unique insight into their behaviour. It is hoped that this joint initiative will run over several years and that the data collected will be invaluable in protecting one of the most special and threatened migratory species to its home here.
Guest blog by Kenny Bodles, RSPB NI Conservation Officer
With the recent summer sunshine, people have been flocking to the coast in their droves to enjoy the good weather and the wildlife that makes its home in our seas at this time of year.
If you’re lucky, you might see visiting tern species starting to breed in the safety of a coastal island or our largest sea duck, the eider, foraging in our coastal waters and sheltered bays. But sadly, far from the idyllic scene set by beautiful weather and stunning coastline, all is not well for many of our seabird species.
Common tern. Credit David Tipling (rspb-images.com)
Many, like the enigmatic manx shearwater, are in decline and efforts must be taken immediately to try and reverse this trend. But conserving any species, let alone highly mobile seabird species, can be extremely difficult.
The establishment and enforcement of Marine Protected Areas is one way to do this. A Marine Protected Area (MPA) is a way to set aside important areas as safe havens for threatened species. But they are often difficult to put in place and opportunities to make new designations are rare. However, in Northern Ireland, two major new MPAs called Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are currently being considered for designation in the near future.
SPAs are specifically designed to protect bird species and these two new proposals, if designated, will offer new and widespread protection for species such as sandwich and common tern, eider, manx shearwater, light-bellied brent geese and red throated diver.
Manx shearwater. Credit Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
The two proposed areas - one in Carlingford Lough and one on the east coast of Northern Ireland, stretching from Larne Lough to Ardglass - will set aside vital habitat for these species and put measures in place to ensure these threatened species can recover and thrive around our coasts.
RSPB Northern Ireland is committed to giving seabirds a home around our coasts. We see the huge value of these new proposed Marine Protected Areas and fully support their designation. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to offer our most threatened seabirds safe haven around our coasts to recover and thrive once again? We believe it is possible and could mark a turning point for many of our most amazing seabirds.
We hope to hear good news on these designations in autumn 2016, so keep on this blog and our social media channels for some big announcements coming soon!
Over the last few months we have been working closely with Belfast Print Workshop (BPW) to create a huge display of handcrafted paper wildflowers.
They represent species that would have been common in our countryside, such as knapweed, common poppy and yarrow, and demonstrate the beauty and fragility of nature and the need to protect it.
Next week 1,500 of these flowers will be ‘planted’ on the front lawn at Queen’s University Belfast to create a visually stunning display and celebrate 50 years of the RSPB in Northern Ireland.
The creation of this beautiful display has taken a lot of time and effort. The artists involved have had to use a range of innovative techniques, working tirelessly to create a paper meadow full of vibrant colour and movement. We hope that their work inspires you to help give nature a home too.
BPW artist Dónall Billings describes how Paper Meadows was created -
“The Paper Meadows installation is a unique project and a great opportunity for me and my fellow artists from Belfast Print Workshop - Eimear McCann and Anushiya Sundaralingam - to work with RSPB NI and Queens’ University Belfast to create a piece demonstrating the beauty of the natural world, the need to protect it and its role in inspiring art.
Six different coloured paper pulp mixtures and moulds were created to form the six species of flowers to be represented. The paper pulp was beaten in large containers to open the fibres and straw was added to strengthen the mixture as the eco-seeds and dyes were added.
Each paper wildflower was individually sculpted into shape, threaded and woven with wire to enable the stems to sway and move in the wind as they would do in a wildflower meadow.
The challenge was ensuring that the paper wildflowers could resist weathering for the week of the display and still retain their form when distributed to and planted in school gardens. They will subsequently biodegrade, allowing the seeds to grow into a real wildflower meadow.
A number of the dried paper wildflowers were selected to be printed with bees and butterflies using a relief printmaking technique. The surfaces of the relief blocks were individually hand carved and inked up in different colours to represent the buff-tailed bumblebee, the common blue butterfly and the peacock butterfly.
As part of the installation a number of handmade swift and swallow silhouettes have also been made to ‘fly’ over the top of the meadow. They were made out of handmade blue paper to represent the sky and coated in wax to represent clouds.
You will be able to see the Paper Meadows installation at the lawns of the Lanyon at Queen’s University Belfast from Monday 6 June to Sunday 12 June. We hope you enjoy our work and take as much inspiration from nature as we have.”