Aoife Doherty looks up and grasps the pockets of her puffer jacket.
“God yeah, I’m a little bit worried,” she says. “We definitely saw them here last year.”
She holds her gaze on a hollow window in the old stone building with the green clock tower on Grangegorman Road Lower, home in recent times to the Grangegorman Development Agency.
Last year, Doherty spotted a pair of swifts dart in and out of the window.
It was midsummer, she remembers. Their high-pitched twittering had ricocheted around buildings and overhead.
Swifts return to the same nest each summer to breed after their journey south, she says. She wants to see them again this year.
On Monday night, Doherty and others were out helping Birdwatch Ireland and Dublin City Council with their Swift Conservation Survey this summer, tracking the declining swift population by watching where they nest.
The decline of swift populations makes her anxious, says Doherty. That’s why she turned out.
Other Phibsboro locals stand with her. Mandy Hughes says she is a seasoned birdwatcher. Jennifer Dwyer says she just wants to learn something about the birds.
“I’d like to find out of they’re living nearby and if I could see them,” says Dwyer.
“Oh, you can kind of hear them. Can you hear that noise?” said Doherty.
Faint pellets of sound and a piercing whistle echo off the red-brick houses, somewhere above the canopy of trees on Rathdown Road.
The birdwatchers pick up their feet to follow the call.
“There’s one there now, over the roof. The way it’s flying, isn’t it, you see?”
“Yes – between the chimneys, moving towards the tower, just behind the tower.”
Eugene Langan’s finger traces the darting flight of the bird, barely visible, wings blurred.
“They’re coming back again,” Dwyer murmurs, her head arched back.
“Oh yeah, there’s one.”
Their heads stretch upwards, as they bob on the balls of their feet.
“There’s one there anyway, moving.”
The birds twist together, dancing into a blur, and disappear out of sight. Gone as quick as they came.
“Well spotted,” says Hughes, cheering on Langan.
“Eagle-eyed,” says Barbara Ebert.
“You sort of get to know they have flight patterns,” says Langan. “I have an intuitiveness that I can’t explain. I’m not sure what it is, I couldn’t define it.”
Says Hughes: “It’s kind of slightly swooping. If you ever watch a school of fish, they kind of swoop and swim and they’re up and down.”
She glides her arm through the air, to mimic their path through the sky.
The group heads towards the Technological University Dublin campus.
It’s closing soon, but Hughes wants to point out a wooden box with three tiny holes at the front, tucked under the gutter of one of the tall buildings.
It is a swift box, she says. Swifts can nest inside, lay their eggs, and raise their chicks.
Derelict buildings are their home of choice, says Hughes. But there are fewer of these each year.
“We’ve kind of created a housing crisis for swifts,” said Ricky Whelan, project officer for Birdwatch Ireland’s Urban Birds Project, earlier that day.
Sleek modern buildings don’t have the gaps and cracks and crevices that swifts use to nest each year, he says.
An old building could have 70 pairs of swifts nesting in it, he says. It distresses them to return the following year to a demolished or renovated site.
They might not nest that year, Whelan says. And they may nest fewer chicks the next year or none at all, he says.
The number of swifts in Ireland has fallen by 58 percent since 1998, says a recent Countryside Bird Survey report.
“It’s grim,” says Whelan.
Doherty says she is volunteering by organising swift walks every week in Dublin to help Birdwatch Ireland collect data on nests and pick locations for swift boxes.
“We also try to put a few funds aside. We’d even be prepared to work with homeowners as well, where we fund the box,” she says.
In the last three weeks, they’ve found 30 nests, says Whelan. “We only found less than 60 in Dublin last year, so it’s really really concerning how little nests there are.”
Doherty says she finds it hard to find new nests. “When you’re looking at the sky, like they could come from anywhere, or be going anywhere.”
Whelan says Birdwatch Ireland tries to meet with builders to help them incorporate swift-friendly architecture in new developments – and some do.
When dusk falls, Hughes and Doherty lead the group back to the junction of Rathdown Road and Grangegorman Road, to the vantage point for the hollow window.
Last Monday night, Hughes and Doherty only glimpsed one swift.
They are trying to pinpoint the moment when just enough light has escaped the day and the birds return. “We were too early again,” says Hughes.
Swifts return home while dusk passes, having fed on the insects gathering densely in cooler temperatures, she says.
They cut through insect swarms, feeding like basking sharks, with their soft beaks wide open, says Hughes.
She got caught once in the centre of a drift of swifts as they met a swarm of insects in Arbour Hill, she says.
The insects had been buzzing low that summer evening, she says. It was a feeding frenzy.
Like looking at swarms of fish, she says. “With the sea you’re looking down, whereas with this you feel like you’re at the bottom of the sea looking up.”
The streetlights pop on one by one. It’s cooler than previous nights but the birdwatchers are jacketed up.
Langan carries a pair of binoculars in his pocket. Luigi the dog circles the waiting group, whining faintly.
Ebert had learned a bit about swifts from a film, she says. “I thought they were really attractive … they’re kind of cuddly, I thought.”
The group falls quiet. A car stops and starts down the road.
“Cuddly birds. Swifts and puffins, that’s it,” says Langan with a laugh. “Not like seagulls.”
Doherty scours the sky. “Do you think it’s worth waiting a bit longer? Like we could maybe wait another five minutes but I … I’m a bit worried,” she says.
Then: “Oh there’s one there!”
The five birdwatchers’ heads turn swiftly upwards.
They squint in the twilight, trying to fix on the spot that had flown over to a chimney and over a building.
“That could have been one going in, to be honest …” says Doherty. “It went kind of like, along the roof of that building there.”
Doherty wonders aloud if it dusk has passed, if the swifts have returned home already.
“I think they haven’t come in yet,” says Hughes, her voice unsure. “It’s hard to know where they are.”