Lester Hartmann: the man with many arms

Imagine climbing a ladder so that you are resting against the gable end of a two-storey house a cool 4m above the ground, but a full 10m above the level of the road on which the house stands. In one arm you’re carrying a nine-pair swift nest-box that’s over a metre across and weighs about 10 kg. Then you have to place a backing panel against the wall, drill the securing holes to fix that with your handheld electric drill, hold the screws in place and tighten the whole structure home. It is the sort of technical, practical task I would struggle to achieve while standing on terra firma. And not before a lot of swearing. Lester Hartmann is the sort of friend who does these things in his sleep. I think of him as one of those Hindu deities, Vishnu perhaps, with more limbs than the average mortal.

On another occasion I had him 6m up our extension ladders against a big sycamore near the house while doing much the same trick with a 70x50x40 cm double-storey owl box. In fact most of my pictures of Lester are from behind and at angle of c65 degrees while he is balanced on a ladder step 50mm across. But then he is my go-to man for all things bird box.

Lester is the founder of Peak Boxes which has expanded its production and delivery almost exponentially in the last few years. Based near his home village of Hathersage, Derbyshire, he has just assembled a state-of-the-art workshop to a design of his own making out of the wonder product that he uses in the bird houses, a enormously longlasting material called duraply. Lester’s speciality is swift boxes. It is how I got to meet him, courtesy of a fabulous scheme to boost the bird’s fortunes Buxton-wide, which is overseen by a friend Simon Fussell and financed by Simon’s employers the Buxton Civic Association.

The boxes not only look splendid – and I like to watch passing folk stop to admire ours – but they are very effective. Lester loves to ponder how a box can actually be made to meet the birds precise needs. Much of the information has come from one of the gurus on breeding swifts in Britain Mark Glanville (here). Together they have devised a structure with the entrance, as in our unit, on the underside. This mimics natural rock cavities and has so far served to exclude starlings, which are competitors-in-chief for these sorts of manmade swift sites.

The owl box is similarly innovative because the upper hole has an S-shaped entrance ‘lobby’ that is sufficiently narrow to prevent jackdaws – equally keen to occupy boxes made for owls – transporting their long nest sticks to the interior of the box. The baffle, in effect, stops them. Another smart innovation is that the box has a lower floor with separate entrance. You could think of it as a ‘bachelor pad’, because female owls with chicks will bar entry to a partner in case he takes to eating his own young. The male is vulnerable in these circumstances, especially in wet conditions, given that the birds have little weatherproofing against rain. The annex meets his needs as well as those of the owl family, when weather stops the adults from hunting.

Lester has already made huge changes to how things are ‘done’ in the realm of nest boxes..He’s now looking at self-assembly flat-pack boxes for a range of birds. However his next wave of innovations promises to be very exciting. I will be fascinated to see his proposed multiple-nest structures that mimic the colonial conditions beloved of birds such as sparrows. Another speculative project could be luring house martins and swifts back to cliff-face nest sites.

It is interesting to reflect that nest-box technology has been pretty much static from the time I first got interested in birds 50 years ago. Since then things have been much the same, except perhaps for innovations in the material used for construction. May be what we needed was someone like Lester, someone with more arms than the average designer.

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7 Comments

  1. How fabulous. Who knew that there were innovations in the world of bird boxes? Happy the swifts, owls and so on who’re able to take advantage of these penthouse suites!

    Reply
  2. thanks Margaret yes Lester’s work is remarkable and he is really shaking things up and doing t ebirds a great service in the process. Thank you

    Reply
  3. Andy Simpson

     /  March 5, 2021

    Hi Mark, What does Lester have to say about the idea of putting a concave nesting cup inside the swift box. Is it likely to make any difference to the bird’s willingness to use our boxes?

    Reply
  4. ha ha i guess it can’t do any harm Andy. They accummulate and possibly don’t need anything to start with. I have included links for Lester and Mark, who may know more. But i wd say: experiment. some with, some without.

    Reply
  5. Hi Andy, In my opinion nest cups don’t make any difference in the bird’s willingness to use a box, but they do play an important role in how successful the birds are. The likelihood of eggs or chicks being accidentally knocked out of the nest is significantly reduced in boxes with nest cups. Swifts are extremely clumsy on their feet and concave nest cups help protect eggs and chicks especially when adults birds swap over incubating duties. I have several easy to make designs on my website or you can contact me via Bristol Swifts website Contact page.

    Reply
    • thanks Mark good point. I have seen natural sites in Scotland where the cup has accummulated over the years. And clearly there is a reason why they do that. But i have seen nests in Oxford Museum where there is almost nothing but then the young have slim chance of falling out. But good to hear your views and i am sure you know more than most of us. Thank you

      Reply
      • Hi Mark. The biggest problem is first time breeders. Generally their nests are small, sometimes almost non-existent. I’ve seen many first time breeders lay their eggs on the floor with virtually no nesting material at all. It is in these nests that the majority of mishaps happen. Nests generally get bigger over time and become more structured and pronounced. As the nests gets deeper the adults also become more experienced, so accidents tend to happen less often. Nest cups are fitted to help first time breeders.

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