Louise takes swift action to help endangered birds in Bolton and Bury

Swifts are now on the Amber List of endangered birds, but thankfully, a fantastic local group is working to reverse their decline in our region.

Swifts are on the Amber List of endangered birds in the UK, having halved in population in the last 20 years. Louise Bentley is the leading light in the Bolton & Bury Swifts Group (BBSG) which is very active locally in helping this bird survive and thrive as a wonderful feature of our summer skies. BBSG is a member of the Bolton Forum for Greenspace (BFG), and Louise met with me recently to tell us about her work and how she became such a champion for these special birds.

Louise set up the Bolton & Bury Swifts conservation project about three years ago, very much supported by her husband Jim.

“I had become aware of the plight of swifts who are the ultimate urban bird,” said Louise. “Living in Bolton, it is a very dense urban area and the thing with swifts is they nest in colonies in the eaves of houses. Many moons ago they used to nest in woodpecker holes in ancient woodland. We cleared much of our woodland so the swifts moved into our homes - stone buildings, thatched roofs and into the more modern eaves spaces. The big problem is the way we now make completely sealed new-builds and the way we are renovating our existing buildings and putting UPVC on, which totally blocks them from accessing their nest space."

Louise has always been a lover of animals and the natural world and was brought up just seven miles outside Manchester in Whitefield. One of her earliest memories gives a clue to Louise’s commitment to bird conservation now.

“A sparrow fell out of its nest at the side of our house and we had to get the neighbour’s ladders to put it back up, but it fell out again because it couldn’t fly and then had to be hand-reared by another neighbour. Sadly it died because he couldn’t feed it the live worms, but I am very willing to do that for my swifts now, feeding them the live insects that they need to survive”.

Louise Bentley of the Bolton & Bury Swifts Group (BBSG) raising awareness about these special birds

Louise Bentley of the Bolton & Bury Swifts Group (BBSG)

Louise has a great knowledge of swifts and their behaviour but stresses there is so much more to learn. She tells us that, “Swifts have an endearing quality in that they are 100% faithful to their nest site, so any changes to properties, such as roofing improvements on an estate, can decimate an entire colony of swifts. They will come back from their migration and can continue flying up to the nest site all summer. They call it banging against the nest, looking for the hollow to get in and then that bird may never breed again, so it’s a real problem”.

Swifts are 100% faithful to their nest site, so any changes to properties, such as roofing improvements on an estate, can decimate an entire colony of swifts

Louise continued, “I’ve always enjoyed watching David Attenborough programmes, like most people do, and because everything is in decline it always has an edge of pessimism, so in more recent years I just thought I needed to get more involved. It’s no good just sitting here enjoying these programs but then feeling sad because of what is happening with the decline of nature. I needed to do something about it and that is when I joined the Wednesday Wildlife Volunteers which was probably about six or seven years ago now. That was what really prompted me to find out what was happening in my local area with wildlife that I could actually do something about. I found out about the Wildlife Trust and the Wednesday Wildlife Volunteers who meet here, and I had some Wednesdays off work so I came out with the group.”

Under Louise’s leadership the BBSG has taken very practical steps to help swifts including setting up swift boxes across Bolton and Bury. This has been supported by recruiting Swift Champions in many areas, though more are are needed.

“We need people who can find out where the local colonies are and keep an eye on them,” said Louise. “They can then advocate for them because some people might think, ‘Oh I’ve got this pesky bird nesting in my roof’ and they shouldn’t. Swifts are not a messy bird. We need to cherish our populations of swifts and try not to let them decline any further”.

Typical of Louise’s love of birds is that she was quick to defend house martins too: “Poor house martins get vilified a little bit because they can make a bit of a mess, but you can put a shelf up to stop the droppings”.

Louise is an ambassador for birds, wildlife and the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside. She is a volunteer speaker for the Trust: part of a team that gives talks on many different subjects to lots of different groups across the county.

“It’s really brilliant because not only are we raising awareness about the wonderful work of the Wildlife Trust, but we also get a donation and that all goes into the Wildlife Trust’s pot to help nature on people’s doorsteps. I deliver my talk called A Swift Recovery and I also deliver a more general talk on the work of the Wildlife Trust to various groups up and down the county”.

A swift flying out of its wooden nest box

Swift leaving its nest box by Peter Smith

There is a national network of independent swift groups who are all doing similar things and there is also an international network of groups that are working on swift projects, especially in Europe. Louise and Jim were lucky enough to go to their first international conference on swifts just last year in Israel.

“The organisers took us on a visit to the Western Wall which is obviously a big pilgrimage site for many Jewish people, and where there is the most remarkable colony of swifts that are nesting in the holes on the Western Wall. At dusk it was fantastic to see the people praying and over their heads there were these sweeping, swirling and screaming swifts that were chasing each other, dashing about and coming out of the nest holes - it was a spectacular display with the backdrop of a beautiful sunset. It was something really, really special”.

Louise knows the power of stories and the power of the media in getting messages out there about swifts. David Attenborough’s TV programs have been an inspiration for Louise first joining the Wednesday Wildlife Volunteers group based at the Trust’s Environmental Resource Centre on Bury Road a few years back.

Recently Louise has appeared on the Bolton community radio station, Bolton FM, and had a lovely 45 minute-long slot where she played records and talked about swifts.

The Deviling was a Lancashire name for the swift. It gives them quite a sinister feel

“One of the records they chose was Devil Woman. I was talking about the fact that swifts have been known historically as the devil bird because of their high pitched scream and the fact that they look like a black arrowhead as they dart across the rooftops.”

Louise tells us that swifts have been known by different colloquial names in different counties in years gone by, such as the Screech Martin and the Devil Bird.

“The Deviling was a Lancashire name for the bird. It all gives them quite a sinister feel and they are quite a mysterious bird, but I just think it adds to the air of mystery that we all still hold for these wonderful birds”.

Louise has a wealth of stories about swifts so if you want to hear those, do invite her to talk to your group. Just one more for now and it illustrates the way that Louise and her husband Jim are extending knowledge about swift behaviour through real citizen science.

Adding a swift box to your house can help populations of these declining birds

Adding a swift box to your house can help these declining birds

“We have a pair of swifts in the box on our house and a camera on the box gives a fascinating insight. Once they have got used to the box entrance they will fly at it and come to a screeching halt inside. Then you see them scrabble ungainly across the box onto their little nest mound. They are just like fish out of water when not on the wing.

"A swift is quite capable of navigating around big weather systems and flying up to 100 miles a day, probably further if they needed to for food, but they are also quite happy on a wet day when insects are less available. As Jim says, they have a duvet day and stay in the box. He gets up and sees them on the camera and says, ‘The lazy buggers, have they not gone out yet?’”

Louise is full of plans for helping swifts, including responding to requests for new swift boxes (Jim puts them up after a survey by Louise). She also wants to encourage more churches to install swift boxes and for housing developers to install ‘swift bricks’ as standard in any new build. She also promotes the reasonable use of call players which emit swift calls to encourage nesting. It's no wonder that Louise is also a big admirer of Chris Packham and the way he champions every creature as an essential part of our ecosystems, because Louise takes a whole approach to supporting swifts and wildlife. Louise also does voluntary work at the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit, updating vital records of species, and has helped introduce a swift layer on the unit’s mapping system.

Finally, and there is a lot more that Louise could tell us, Louise mentioned her standout moment in working with wildlife. For Louise, it is a recent incident in which a lady with a swift box and call player on her house in Smithills was disappointed that it hadn’t attracted any swifts to nest despite obvious interest from them. Louise conducted a visit at dusk.

“I was enjoying watching the swifts circling high, as they do when they are getting ready for the migration, and then right on cue two swifts broke off from the flock and came down and circled and screeched around the boxes and then darted into the left-hand box at this lady‘s house, just as it went dark. The lady was as thrilled if not more so than I was to see them go into the box. That is nice because you feel like you have created some new homes which is what you want to do”.