Winchcombe Nature Notes

Winchcombe Nature Notes August

Winchcombe Nature Notes August

I have long admired that master of the air, the swift. Or more correctly, the common swift. Not that there much common about it nowadays.

Numbers have fallen dramatically and are about half of what they were twenty five years ago. The bird is now on the IUCN Red List of UK birds, meaning they are a species most in need of help.

When I first came to live in Winchcombe, over forty years ago, it was commonplace to encounter small groups of swifts flying at breakneck speed along North Street, for example, screaming as they did so. This, to me, is as much the epitome of a summer’s day as the song of  the skylark or the call of the cuckoo.

It is ironic that both these birds too have suffered a decline in their numbers as well.

The screaming of swifts can still be heard in Winchcombe but with much less frequency than hitherto.

They like to nest under the roof slates of older properties or in other niche openings so their local strongholds seemed to be what I will call Old Winchcombe such as along Gloucester Street and Gretton Road by the church.

Quite why their numbers have fallen so much may not be fully understood but it is almost certainly a combination of factors. These are usually listed as climate change (causing extremes of weather) and agricultural practices.

Swifts feed on insects and both farming and domestic gardening practices can mean a reduction in the insects on which these birds feed.

Apus Apus

Ask yourself how many dead insects you find on your car windscreen after even a modest journey in summer. Time was when the windscreen needed cleaning after each outing in summer but this is no longer the case. This reduction in insects not only affects swifts, of course, but other insectivorous birds.

Further, many older properties that once offered a nest site for swifts have been modernised. Unfortunately, this almost certainly means any openings are lost as the property receives a new roof and barge boards, for example.

I’m not suggesting that properties should not be renovated as I appreciate the comforts of modern living as much as the next person, but such activity may go some way to explaining the fall in numbers of the swift.

However, help is at hand. Winchcombe boasts a Swift Support Group who have recognised these issues and are seeking to redress the balance.

Artificial nest boxes have been installed at a number of residential properties in the town in the hope that swifts will find them and use them for breeding. They can be attracted to the site by the playing of the swift’s screaming call in the expectation that birds in the area will investigate and eventually use them as a nest site.

This is not a quick fix but may take several years of persistence before a box is used by a breeding pair, if, indeed, at all.

Some small returns are now being seen with the first swifts beginning to raise young in nest boxes in Winchcombe. It is hoped that young so raised will return in coming years and colonise their natal site, thus gradually increasing the numbers of birds in our skies locally.

The swift is a remarkable bird. It can cover up to 800 kilometres in day, flying at speeds of up to 100 kilometres an hour. It eats, sleeps and feeds on the wing (it even mates on the wing) and will stay aloft for 10 months of the year, only coming to earth to breed. Young swifts will spend the first three years of their life airborne until they reach maturity.

Add to this an annual migration to Africa for winter with a return trip in the spring and the fact that a swift can live for twenty years and one starts to realise what a gem of a bird we have in our presence.

The scientific name for the swift is Apus apus, apus meaning ‘no feet’ in Latin. This is not, of course, true as the swift does have feet although they are small and only useful for gripping walls and other vertical surfaces. They are too small to allow the swift to perch.

Southern Europe seems to do far better for swifts than we do in the UK. I’ve seen very large numbers in some the old towns in southern France, for example, and in Majorca. I’ve recently returned from a twice-postponed holiday in Corfu and it was really pleasing to see what must have been thousands of swifts filling the skies over parts of Corfu Town.

The added interest was that it was not just common swifts putting on such a superb aerial display but alpine swifts as well. And probably a few pallid swifts were mixed in the flock as well although it is almost impossible to separate these from common swifts at a distance.

Alpine and pallid swifts do turn up in the UK very occasionally when they overshoot on migration. These are usually singletons and they soon disappear, hopefully back south to rejoin their compatriots.

Back home I was pleased to be able to watch swifts flying through the skies from my own back garden. May be three or four would start the show, being joined by a few more making the group up to a dozen or more.

Their gyrations are mesmerising as they chase and twist and turn through the sky, being almost impossible to count accurately as they are forever changing direction. And then as suddenly as they appeared they have gone. The sky is suddenly silent and empty. And then perhaps an hour, perhaps a day later they’re back performing again for free.

But their time with us is relatively short-lived. Arriving at the end of April or the beginning of May, they leave us as July becomes August and by mid-month all bar the odd straggler will have left our shores.

Already I have seen reports of swifts on passage in daily numbers ranging from 1500 to 3500. Not all in one flock, but the accumulation of one of the dedicated watchers who undertake ‘vis-mig’ (visible migration) recording.

For anyone interested in reading more about the swift, an excellent book ‘Swifts in a tower’ by the late David Lack in 1956 has been revised and was reprinted a couple of years ago and should be available on-line.  Winchcombe Swift Support Group (via Facebook) would be delighted to give advice, I’m sure, if you want to install a swift box on your house.

Peter Rodgers
3 August 2022.

More of Pete’s fabulous photographs can be viewed on his flickr site.


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