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Feathered friends receive a warm welcome in Helmsley

Two Helmsley groups work together to encourage swifts back into town

A town in Ryedale is running a campaign to encourage more visitors – but these are of the feathered variety.

A number of nest boxes have been put up in Helmsley, as the town makes a concerted effort to encourage swifts to make a temporary home there ahead of the bird’s breeding season.

Four boxes have been attached at the rear of the Claridges Book Shop, with several more being erected at the North York Moors National Park Authority offices on Bondgate, Porters Coffee Shop and on homes in Castlegate.

The activity is thanks to a group called Helmsley Swifts, which aims to educate people about Swifts, ensuring that existing nest sites are retained and providing additional nest sites – many have been lost over recent years, as roofs have been replaced. Helmsley Swifts is working with Helmsley in Business to find homes for the nest boxes, and members of the business group even helped to fit them in place, with Charlie Heap, who runs the National Centre for Birds of Prey at Duncombe Park, installing the first boxes with the help of one of the Centre’s volunteers, Lynn Wraith.

The main arrival of Swifts into North Yorkshire is in early to mid-May, as they get ready to breed. The boxes will allow breeding swifts to roost safely, laying one clutch of 2-3 eggs at the end of May or early June which they incubate for about 20 days. At the end of the month they will be joined by younger non-breeding birds, who are looking for sites to breed in future years – but who never land. Swifts only land to nest and they are supremely adapted for life ‘on the wing’, feeding, drinking, bathing and even sleeping in the air.

Jonathan Pomroy, a wildlife and landscape artist who started Helmsley Swifts with Ian Kibble,  explains: “Stand in Helmsley on a warm evening in July and you may see flocks spiraling higher and higher until they are out of sight, screaming as they go. We think that they roost at between 1-3000 metres and alternate wing beats with brief gliding periods facing into wind, which gives them lift. How they remain orientated to descend back to the same location at dawn is a mystery.

“Swifts pair for life and are the most affectionate of birds in the nest boxes, constantly preening each other and snuggling up tight. Many nests in Helmsley are located under pan tiles in the loft space and consist of material gathered entirely on the wing; feathers, bud cases and pieces of grass or straw blown into the air. To make life a bit easier for them we put some downy feathers in the nest boxes before they are put in place.  These materials are glued together with saliva. When the nestlings hatch it takes about six weeks before they are ready to make their vital first flight from the nest in late July or early August. They spend periods of time exercising their wings a few days before fledging, flapping furiously or sometimes doing press ups with their wings to build up strength. They fledge, often just before dark and from this moment on they fend for themselves on their journey to the Congo area of Africa.”

The group are applying for grants to buy more boxes and electronic swift calls to attract the birds to the new boxes. As part of UK Swift Awareness Week there will also be a Midsummer Swift Eve event on 21st June at All Saints Church in Helmsley. The evening starts at 7.30pm with a short presentation before a walk around the town to look at the swifts in their new homes, along with swallows and house martins. The event is free and suitable for all ages.

If you would like to know more about Helmsley Swifts please email iankibble@yahoo.com or jonathan@pomroy.plus.com