SO Dúlra at long last can hear the birdsong he always wanted outside his home - a screaming swift. Problem is, it’s just a recording. For now.
He needed the expertise of swift expert Mark Smyth to figure out the technology.  Here is Mark putting up the tiny speaker at the swift nestboxes at Dúlra’s home this week.
Without the sound of the swift’s call echoing through the street, these incredible birds would never check out the boxes. They have to be lured in.
It’s no wonder when you consider how extreme evolution has turned swifts into masters of the sky, but duds on land.
Here’s a stunning fact that Mark brought to Dúlra’s attention: Many swifts don’t breed until they are four years old, so when they find a potential nest site, it could be the first time they’ve set foot on land since they themselves left the nest as chicks four years previously. Swifts eat, drink, breed and even sleep in the air. They have to land to lay their eggs, but it’s fraught with danger. Their feet are almost useless and their wings so elongated that they find it impossible to take off from level ground.
If they fall to earth for any reason, it usually spells death. And they can’t afford to check out just any old hole in a building or box – they could easily find themselves unable to get back out. So they only trust the recommendation of other swifts.
The tech cost £40 in total – a transmitter sits on the bedroom windowsill inside with a thin wire out the window to the speaker, which Mark hung on a hook above the three boxes.
Yes, it’s a considerable outlay during a cost of living crisis, but for the swift it’s actually a living crisis. The population of the gabhlán gaoithe is plummeting in Ireland as nest sites vanish when buildings are demolished or refurbished.
There used to be a gang of them flying overhead in Dúlra’s estate – today there is none. Nestboxes designed especially for them could be their saviour. The birds lay two precious eggs, and there are many stories of eggs slipping off ledges to the ground below. At least these boxes will be 100 per cent secure.
Dúlra just hopes the soundtrack of the screaming swifts which Mark recorded outside his Antrim home doesn’t put off the more cosmopolitan and obviously more sophisticated Belfast swifts. By the way, between the swift calls you can actually hear the 1E bus passing the Stiles estate! So not only is Dúlra broadcasting the famous squeals of the swift to the whole street, but they’re also getting a roaring Ulsterbus engine!
While Mark was in Belfast, he hadn’t abandoned his own swifts. He’s got cameras rigged up inside each of his 21 boxes along his gable wall and this year six of them are occupied. He was able to check on his breeding birds in real-time on his phone while he was in Belfast.
Dúlra's new working-from-home swift calls soundtrack is on a timer. “There are three times of the day when swifts are most active, a bit like us. It’s at breakfast and lunch and then late in the evening,” said Mark. He set the calls to broadcast from 8.30am to 10.30am, from 1pm to 3pm and from 8.30pm to 10.30pm. Swifts are in Ireland for just three months and already breeding pairs should be sitting on eggs.
But there are always stragglers and singletons – Dúlra should know – and it’s those birds that Dúlra is trying to attract. “If you get one visiting, that bird will then disappear and try to find another single bird and woo it back,” said Mark. “And when both enter the nestbox, you’ve got them as breeders.”
Mark is relying on individual bird enthusiasts to volunteer to put up swift nestboxes, but he feels the local authorities should come on board, installing them in new homes and buildings as a matter of course. So far, he’s only met with rejection, with the usually response being: “There’s no legal obligation to do it, is there?”
Mark adds: “Swift boxes are the universal nestbox. They can be used by house martins, tits, sand martins and house sparrows.”
Nest cameras can be a godsend. Last week Mark saw that one egg had rolled from a nest cup, and he was able to open the box and put it back. Also this week, fellow birder Geordie Hynes saw on camera that the last great tit chick hadn’t left the box in his garden. After a few days, he opened it and found that the chick’s foot had been trapped like concrete in hardened droppings. He spent five minutes delicately freeing it, before returning it to the box. Hours later its parents had coaxed it out.
Mark has even turned the cameras on himself. “I set one up in the bedroom because I wasn’t sleeping well,” he told Dúlra.
“When I looked at the footage in the morning, I was moving 16 times from left to right and pulling the duvet off me and not even realising it! Then I’d wake up and pull it back over me. Sixteen times. That's why I was knackered. Or it might be those coffees I drink before going to bed!”
• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.