UNCOVERING the secrets of spectacular summer visitors to Britain, a nationally important colony of swifts has been studied in detail for the first time.

The research, by Animal Biology student Matt Sharp, found that the colony at the University of Gloucestershire’s Francis Close Hall (FCH) campus in Cheltenham is of national importance with around 30 to 40 breeding pairs.

Our fastest birds (in level flight) can clock up 69.3 mph, and like fighter pilots they have ‘sunglasses’, hair-like bristles in front of their eyes which reduce glare from the sun. Although the population at FCH is thriving, they are declining nationally because their nest sites in old buildings are under threat.

As well as assessing the population, Matt, who has just finished his Animal Biology degree, found that infra-red thermal imaging has the potential to help the birds relocate after building renovations, which can often leave the birds with nowhere to go when they return from Africa to nest.

In his report, Matt said: “Thermal imagery was very useful for pinpointing the exact entry points used by swifts, which is difficult to do in the shadows of the overhanging roof by eye and would be ideal to guide nest box positioning after renovation. Low nest site availability appears to be a major limiting factor to breeding and pairs spend a long time prospecting for a nest site, so the large FCH population is really important.”

Cleaning Assistant Carol Ogden, who works at the campus early in the morning, was able to provide important information contributing to the research about where the nests could be found and the birds’ activity.

Dr Matt Wood, Senior Lecturer in Biology, said: “These amazing birds have been at FCH for decades, but Matt has been able to study them in detail through his Bioscience dissertation. At this time of year the newly fledged chicks are zooming around the buildings as they prepare to migrate to Africa. They never land except to nest, so when they leave us in a week or two to travel to Africa for the winter, the next time they land will be here next May.”

Matt added: “The project gave me the chance to use state-of-the-art equipment to study a charismatic species that I have subsequently become slightly obsessed with. It also taught me a huge amount about project planning and writing that I will take with me into the future.”

To find out more about how to help swifts, please visit http://www.rspb.org.uk/thingstodo/surveys/swifts/ or http://www.swift-conservation.org/

To find out more about studying Biology at the University of Gloucestershire, please visit http://www.glos.ac.uk/courses/undergraduate/bio/Pages/Biology.aspx