Last to arrive and first to leave — swifts are returning from their long-distance travels to villages and towns across North Yorkshire.
These visitors have come here to breed and, in the past, would have mostly nested in holes in cliffs and buildings. Sadly, our pursuit of pointing our stonework and weather-proofing gaps under eaves with soffits has deprived many of these delightful birds of nesting spaces.
This loss of habitat and a drop in our insect population is suspected of being the reason why the UK has lost 60 per cent of its swifts in 25 years. News of this plight has prompted many people to help build their own swift colonies with the use of purpose-built nest boxes. Among these nature-minded souls is Redmire resident Jonty Willis who has single-handedly fitted scores of nesting boxes throughout the Wensleydale village.
Jonty, a gardener by trade, can stand outside his stone cottage and count 15 boxes on his own and his two neighbours’ homes, all of which are occupied when the avian visitors arrive. There are also boxes made by him fitted high on the walls of the converted chapel that is the village hall, the village church and other nearby houses.
“They are fascinating birds and the beginning of May is an exciting time here in the village. We watch the skies every day and listen for their calls,” said Jonty as he busies himself in his workshop, an Aladdin’s cave of tools, pots of paint and salvaged plywood which he recycles into bird boxes. It is not uncommon to see him peering into skips for suitable wood or have neighbours drop by with off-cuts they know he will re-use.
“There are variations on designs of Swift boxes,” he said, wielding a drill as he speaks.
“I tried a few, copied a few and have come up with a design that I feel works best not only for the birds but for the householder who has to hang it on their outside wall.”
The most important aspect of the design is the hole – an entrance of 30mm by at least 65mm allows swifts to enter and keeps starlings out. Sparrows also covet swift boxes and Jonty blocks up the entrances to his boxes until early May to prevent squatters.
Like many bird watchers, Jonty’s love affair with swifts is because they are emblematic of the arrival of summer and as such have been written about in poetry and prose for centuries. Their dark scythe-winged silhouettes are easy to identify as they wheel about in a blue sky accompanied by their screaming calls. The bird is also smiled upon because it chooses to nest in our houses and does not make a mess.
Which is where people such as Jonty make a difference by installing boxes under the eaves of their homes: swifts like to nest up high, preferring to emerge and drop into the air immediately. The alternative to making wooden nesting boxes is to install swift bricks in houses or simply, in Jonty’s case when a builder was working on his gable end, cement a piece of old pipe into the wall.
“I couldn’t resist it,” he said, pointing out the tiny hole in the stonework of his cottage.
“The builder was up there working anyway so we mortared in a small piece of pipe for an entrance and joined it to another for a nestbox. It has been used every year by swifts since then.”
The swift story is an inspiring one. They breed in the UK and migrate through France and Spain to spend their winter in Africa, south of the Sahara. Apart from their short few weeks of nesting here in England and other parts of Europe they spend their lives in the air, living on insects caught as they fly. They drink, feed and even sleep on the wing by ascending to great heights during the hours of darkness.
Some of them go for months without landing. No other bird spends as much of its life in flight. And to cap this odyssey they pair for life, meeting up each spring at the same nest site. Thus, the swifts that Jonty and his neighbours see hurtling around their rooftops every May to August are the same pairs year in and year out.
What also amuses Jonty is watching and listening when the birds ‘bang’.
He said: “The young birds looking for places to nest will fly past potential sites, brushing or ‘banging’ the entrance with their wings. If the site is occupied they’ll get screamed at by the occupants.
This entertaining behaviour is just one of the reasons why swifts have caught the imagination of people such as Jonty. Throughout the UK groups of amateur conservationists have sprung up. These people build colonies on their homes or high in church towers such as in Masham where enthusiasts can also watch the young birds develop via a nest box camera.
Technology also plays its part with an online site called Swiftmapper which shows nest sites and places where ‘screaming parties’ have been observed. There is also a free downloadable phone app mimicking a swift call which people can use to encourage the birds to a potential nesting site.
So, if you are out and about in Wensleydale from May you should keep an eye out when passing through Redmire and enjoy one of the natural delights of an English summer.
Swift v swallow: how to tell the difference
- The shrill screaming call of the swift is different from the twittering of the swallow.
- The swifts narrow sickle-shaped wings are longer than its body – its silhouette in the air looks like an anchor.
- A swift’s wingbeats are deep and quick, and it glides. The swallow tends to flutter and retracts its wings further to the rear.
- Swifts have a white spot under their chin and are otherwise entirely dark brown while swallows have an almost-white underside and have long forks in their tails.