Nineteen volunteers spread across Swaledale and Arkengathdale are mapping the nest sites of a bird which is providing the ‘sound of the summer’ in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, yet is in severe decline.
The volunteer recorders are out most evenings watching swifts, and will continue to do so until the birds return to Africa in August.
As well as monitoring and mapping existing nests in homes and barns, the volunteers have put up eight nest boxes, mostly in and around Gunnerside, to help the village’s colony of swifts expand.
The ‘Wing It’ project, which is now in its second year, is being co-ordinated by the community group, Sustainable Swaledale. A grant from the National Park Authority’s Sustainable Development Fund enabled the group to buy power tools and ladders to make and install the nest boxes.
The grant has also funded the purchase of a video camera, which is filming swallows as they build a nest in an outhouse behind Two Dales Bakery in Reeth. People can currently view live footage on a tablet on the bakery counter.
One of the ‘Wing It’ volunteers, Rachel Antill from Gunnerside, said the project was closely linked to Sustainable Swaledale’s work to restore species-rich hay meadows and create native woodland and hedgerows.
She said: “Once you start watching the birds, it’s really noticeable where they feed. You walk through a meadow and there are literally bucketloads of swifts and swallows swooping down all the time feeding on insects. And then you can go just two fields down and there is nothing there in the sky. So it’s really obvious how important the hedgerows, the meadows and the trees are to these visiting migratory birds, because without them the insect population just isn’t strong enough to support them.”
Fellow volunteer Stacey Adlard from Low Row said: “The data collectors are recording where they see the birds foraging and the kind of habitats that they are foraging over, the idea being that if everyone keeps sending in records we can piece together the jigsaw and work out which bits are particularly important. We’ve got 19 people in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale monitoring a little hub each – often it’s their village, or the fields around their house.
“The nests are the one thing you can follow year after year. When you see swifts flying above they could be passing through, or they could be the ones from Reeth out for a jolly. Whereas the nest sites you can actually see and record, and see if they are occupied year after year. From that we will get an idea of whether the population, or at least the number of breeding birds, is going up or down.”
Buildings in and around Gunnerside were chosen to host new nest boxes because the village is considered to support a healthy swift colony.
Rachel Antill explained: “House martins, swallows and swifts are colony-based birds and prefer to make new nests in close proximity to nests that already exist. They like to have neighbours.
“We’ve put eight new boxes up this year and that took us eight separate installation trips, and each trip required a team of four people. The equipment we bought using the Sustainable Development Fund grant has been essential for not only making the boxes but most of all for installing them. We installed one on Kisdon Cottage, which is just above Muker, at a height of 7 metres, so two long, sturdy ladders were needed.”
The Member Champion for Sustainable Development at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Richard Foster, said: “Towns and villages in the National Park are brought alive by colonies of screeching swifts. The swifts are the sound of summer. It’s great news that we have local people who are coming forward to care for them.”
This was a snatch recording of swifts in Hawes on 28 May 2020:
Mr Foster added: “The swift is a red-listed bird of conservation concern and will be a ‘species of conservation importance’ in the forthcoming Nature Recovery Plan for the Yorkshire Dales National Park. This is a species in need of bespoke conservation projects – a helping hand from people – to stand a chance of adapting to climate change and retaining stable populations. The National Park Authority is very pleased to be supporting one such project, ‘Wing It’, through the Sustainable Development Fund.”
For more detail on ‘Wing It’ and the story of how Stacey Adlard and Rachel Antill located a swift’s nest for the first time in Gunnerside, see this blog post by the National Park Authority’s Media Officer.