This summer marks five years since we undertook our ground-breaking and collaborative swift tracking study with the BTO.

The two-year study involved placing long-term deployment tags (essentially miniature 1g backpacks!) on the swifts in Northern Ireland and gave us a scintillating snapshot into the autumn-winter movements of three birds from Belfast, Antrim and Portadown on their epic migration to sub-Saharan Africa.

The project focused on the movements of foraging birds providing food for their chicks. The single most interesting result was the significance of the flying insects above Lough Neagh for birds not just in colonies adjacent to the lough, but for birds nesting as far as away as Belfast, including our swifts. That constituted a 40-mile round trip each time for these hard-working swift parents.

One bird in particular flew from our RSPB NI HQ in Belvoir Park Forest and regularly foraged at our Portmore Lough reserve on the eastern shore of Lough Neagh (see map below, tracking the birds' movements to and from the lough)!

The project started in the summer of 2016, when eight swifts were tagged - six in Antrim and Portadown and two in Belfast at RSPB NI HQ. These swifts foraged at Lough Neagh as it is the largest freshwater lake anywhere in the UK and Ireland. The lough is home to huge hatches of chironomids (non-biting midges), which are great food for swifts.

The summer of 2017 saw a continuation the study with the BTO, involving further deployments to investigate the foraging behaviour of swifts in urban and rural parts of Northern Ireland, recoveries of ‘long-term deployment’ tags (which covered the migration over the 2016 winter) and a larger number of deployments covering the 2017 migration to sub-Saharan Africa.

It is quite amazing to think that we were able to get frequent GPS locations of migrating swifts from the summer through to the following spring just by using a little piece of technology weighing less than 1g and with a tiny solar panel.

Breeding birds were tagged, fledged their young, migrated to Africa, returned and the tags were removed (see above, with former RSPB NI Senior Conservation Scientist Kendrew Colhoun) when they were at the chick-rearing stage in the subsequent breeding season and the data showed thousands of GPS positions over the nine months (see map, below).

We’re also keeping a close eye on swifts this summer, when we hope to chart the story of the birds who occupy the new swift boxes at RSPB NI HQ, with newly installed nestcams in two of the boxes.

Hopefully the swifts will choose to occupy the boxes with the nestcams (pictured below, far left and far right) so we can keep tabs on their fascinating story as they return to Belfast after another epic intercontinental flight. It would give us a fascinating opportunity to find out more about the birds as we livestream their story in real time from incubation to independence.

Once much more common, swifts are these days sadly declining throughout the UK and Ireland. Just weeks ago, the new Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland (BoCCI) study showed that swifts have been moved on to the Red list – relating to species of highest conservation concern – across the island of Ireland.

RSPB NI is working to protect precious species and habitats across Northern Ireland, and campaigning for targets in law to save nature.  For more information or to support RSPB NI’s work, visit

Photo credits: Swift (top) by Ben Andrew (, GPS maps by ©Google and ©ESRI, swift (further down) by Killian Mullarney.