Exciting times in Masham, North Yorkshire, located on the River Ure, as summer reaches its peak and the news of the last few years of hard work on a project flies into the world. During the past four years, ideas have come to fruition from the work of a small group led by Carla McCowan and John and Janet Darby to finds ways to halt the decline in the summer swift population in this part of North Yorkshire.
The decline is due in part to nest site loss, but now lots of public awareness events and engagement have meant that people in and around Masham are investing effort into creating additional and alternative nesting sites for swifts, the screeching twilight birds of our summer skies.
Using nest boxes to attract swifts
People are being helped to understand more about swifts and their nesting places, and encouraged to offer nest sites through using boxes, sometimes with sound systems, on their houses or other buildings. These boxes are best used on north facing second storey or higher wall locations. The use of a sound system by the nest box can be timed to play swift calls, usually early morning or evening. This helps increase the interest of swifts in a possible nest site for the following year or, if used in early May, the same year.
The playing of such calls means some swifts from this year’s visit to the UK, usually the young non-breeding ones, will explore and take note for next year’s return. It seems especially helpful for those swifts who will be breeding for the first time next year.
The evidence this is making a difference is the creation within the church tower of St Mary’s Masham of 18 nest box sites behind the louvre shutters of the bell tower, thanks to the support of the church and the bell ringers. Some of these nest boxes have cameras, making it possible to watch from egg laying through to the first flights of this year’s young swifts on the TV screen in the church itself and via YouTube links.
This amazing community project has come about through close working by enthusiasts and supporters in and around the Mashamshire community and the church. 2022 has been a busy period of producing young swifts with a possible six boxes being used. There may be even more happening in other boxes without camera viewing, so exciting times!
As figures recorded up to 28 July 2022 show, the trend has been a sustained number of nests, eggs and chicks fledging, a crucial stage in slowing the decline:
Amazingly just this last week, Thursday 28 July, John Darby captured on video 47 swifts flying and screeching over Masham during a warm and humid late morning.
The amazing facts and activity can be seen on the YouTube Channel Mashamshire Swifts, where it is possible to watch the courage of the young swift viewing the world from their safe nest. Then the ‘moment’ arrives to take off and fly with a no return policy, as the swift then continues to fly non-stop, catching their own food, strengthening their wings and endurance for long journeys to Africa in September and October.
Raising awareness of swifts
A recent ‘swift awareness’ week across Europe was the chance to share information and support via a stall in the Saturday market in Masham in early July. John and Janet Darby and local supporters shared information about the life cycle of the swift, how to support them and practical things to do.
The pupils in the local Church of England primary school had participated in a ‘create a T-shirt’ project to portray the swifts and their life cycle and our role as part of that cycle. A remarkable and creative series of ideas emerged, from which Carla McCowan identified a winner whose design will be on a new T-shirt for 2023.
Lots more support and help are needed. Climate change, a new airport in the winter feed grounds in South Africa and building development to old houses that block up swift nest sites (for example at Summerbridge Mills, Harrogate) mean that the challenge for swifts is never-ending. This summer’s photos in the news media from all around the UK and Europe, including Spain, show the recent heatwave’s impact on young swifts. They become too hot in a heatwave of >35C, try to exit their safe nests to cool off and fall to the ground. Sadly, many are killed or damaged as they are still unable to fly.
A positive outlook for Masham swifts
So, it is a positive and fulfilling step to bring this good news for swifts given the problems from climate change and the impact of the human population. No wonder BBC Look North came to see what was happening in this part of Yorkshire!
Next year maybe 50 birds or more will be swiftly returning to Masham, the River Ure and many other places, and even more people will be willing to offer possible nest sites on their houses or other places.
The Mashamshire Swift Conservation Community Project would like to thank the Nidderdale AONB, Masham Parish Council and the St. Mary’s Church bell ringers for their sponsorship.