A new project to find out where migrant birds 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, this June and July dozens of swifts will be fitted with tiny GPS 'backpacks' in a bid to shed light on key feeding areas.
Swifts are amazing birds which travel around 12,000 miles every year, migrating from breeding sites within the UK and Ireland to their African wintering grounds. They are acrobatic masters, swooping high through the sky with their distinctive scythe-shaped wings. In fact, swifts are such adept fliers that they eat and sleep on the wing, not touching the ground unless they are raising chicks. 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 order to help swifts, conservationists need to know where they're nesting and where they're feeding. RSPB NI has been surveying swifts, primarily in south Belfast, to identify the areas they favour. Using the information gained from the survey, they have 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.
Because swifts may feed many miles away from where they nest, it's vital that these feeding sites are also protected. This summer experts will be safely re-capturing dozens of swifts, some of which were previously tagged as part of a BTO and NI Swift Group migration study. Some of these birds will then be fitted 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.
Kendrew Colhoun from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science commented: "We live in particularly exciting times as research biologists as new smaller technology is making the previously impossible possible. It is a privilege to work with such remarkable birds and have the opportunity to collect this valuable information which will aid with our conservation efforts for this species."
Dr Chris Hewson, BTO Senior Research Ecologist, added: "How highly-mobile species, such as swifts, use the landscapes they depend on for breeding can only be discovered by using the miniature tracking devices that are only now becoming available. This cutting-edge technology will allow us to uncover details of the movement patterns swifts employ and the habitats they use, through which we will be able to inform appropriate conservation action and promote a better understanding of these amazing birds."