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Helmsley Swifts encourages people to look up to the sky this Swift Awareness Week

Despite holiday plans across the country being put on hold due to Coronavirus, Swift Appreciation Week 2020 is being highlighted to remind the residents of one Ryedale town to enjoy the annual influx of spectacular feathered visitors from Africa.

The summer plans of the group ‘Helmsley Swifts’ had to be put on hold before the swifts had even started their return journey from the Congo region of Africa. However, the group has been able to continue its work putting up nest boxes. It has now placed 51 around the town, in a tremendous achievement it attributes in no small part to a grant from Helmsley Town Council and the North York Moors National Park.

The swifts typically arrive in several waves. In May the birds that bred or built nests the previous year return. At the end of May younger birds arrive and begin looking for nest sites. Finally, in June and July the youngest birds arrive, looking for a colony to join. So, from the end of June through to July swift numbers are at their maximum.

Swifts feed, mate, preen, drink and bath on the wing. They sleep on the wing when they are not breeding. Their four claws face forward so they cannot perch like other birds. You can watch non-breeding swifts rise up into the sky at dusk on a summer evening, at the same time the breeding birds retire to roost in their nest sites.

Swifts have suffered in recent years as buildings no longer give access to the roof space where they nest. In Helmsley many swifts enter under the pantiles just above the gutter. As these gaps are filled swifts are then homeless and have difficult task of finding a new nest site. Nest boxes are one answer to this problem. Playing swift calls speeds up the process of occupation and Helmsley Swifts have provided call systems at various locations to help with this. Once the first few nest boxes are occupied swifts learn to recognise similar nest boxes.

Helmsley Swifts is run by Ian Kibble, Jonathan Pomroy and Paula Sidebottom, with help from Charlie Heap at the National Centre for Birds of Prey, and Dave Maynard.

Jonathan Pomroy is also a wildlife and landscape artist who has written a book on swifts, ‘On Crescent Wings’. He said: “Swifts are perhaps the ultimate natural symbol of summer. They are here when our weather is at its warmest and our days are longest. Although our events for Swift Awareness Week have been cancelled, the swifts are well and truly here and we can enjoy watching them. In the air they often look black but seen in good light are a lovely dark sepia colour with a paler throat patch. At times their wings can catch sunlight and look like silver blades. One simple way of identifying swifts, swallows and martins is by looking at where they nest. Swifts nest within a roof space and do not use mud. House martins nest under eaves or on the outside of a building and swallows nest within a structure such as a shed or stable.

“Breeding swifts lay eggs in the second half of May. Most lay 2-3 white eggs which are then incubated for approximately 19 days. The young are fed for around 6 weeks before they fledge. A swift fledgling has to get it right. It is quite possible that once it leaves the nest box it will never see its parents again. Some fledge in the first half of the morning, but a large number fledge at dusk and fly off into the darkness spending their first night on the wing. This actually makes a lot of sense. What could be safer than spending the night high up, compared to say the perils faced by a robin in a garden hedge.”

Jonathan continued: “As we mark Swift Awareness Week, anyone can put up nest boxes and Helmsley Swifts are happy to help with advice. A swift nest box makes a good DIY project or there is a vast range of swift boxes available to order online. Always put up more than one if you can because swifts are colonial. We look forward to the things we can do next season that we haven’t this year due to the pandemic. We hope to continue our work with Helmsley Primary School and plan education events for all in the town. But perhaps this year has been valuable for us all to just spend more time sitting and appreciating these wonderful birds.”

For more information follow Helmsley Swifts on Twitter (@HelmsleySwifts) or contact helmsleyswifts@gmail.com .  On Crescent Wings is published by Mascot Media and available at www.jonathanpomroy.co.uk