Swift response

Common swift (credit Imran Shah/Wikimedia Commons)

David O’Driscoll is on a mission to help swifts nest in Walthamstow

August is a sad time for myself and many residents of the Coppermill area of Walthamstow. It’s the time to say goodbye to ‘our’ swifts, one of the most extraordinary British birds.

The common swift may not be the most beautiful or colourful bird to look at with its greyish colour and scythe-like long wings, but in flight it is something else. The swift arrives in early May and stays until August. It comes to the UK to breed. During their brief visit, it is possible to watch them around Walthamstow Wetlands and the Coppermills treatment works; it’s an extraordinary sight!

On some days the skies are alive with ‘screaming parties’ numbering a thousand birds. They are feasting on insects, which are easier to catch over water. They are supreme in the air, flying at phenomenal speeds of up to 46mph, and are able to distinguish between non-stinging insects and stinging ones.

Yet, these wonderful birds are in severe decline, numbers are down by 50% – truly a tragedy. A big reason for this is the lack of nesting sites, with the loss of old buildings where swifts like to nest in the eves. Another reason is linked to the widespread use of chemicals and fertilisers, which have an impact on insect numbers, swifts’ primary food source. There are only a few places where they are currently known to nest in Walthamstow.

Some of the older residents of Coppermill Lane have told me they used to nest here, yet I have found no evidence they currently do so. To help them nest again, I organised a number of talks from swift experts to raise awareness. This led to discussions and a survey to see if local residents would be willing to put up nesting boxes, followed by an application for funding to support the proposal. Despite local enthusiasm, we could not get any funding. I put up a few boxes myself but have not attracted any hosts yet. The specialist ‘swift tower’ recently built at Walthamstow Wetlands has not had any yet either.

Roger Ascham Primary School in Billet Road is in the process of installing nest boxes. We are hoping others will follow their fine example. To raise awareness further there is a local football club named ‘Coppermill Swifts’ which has a specially-designed swift badge in honour of our summer visitors.

After leaving the UK, swifts fly to Africa, a colossal journey of 6,000 miles. They sleep ‘on the wing’ and, because of their speed, they have few predators. These extraordinary birds pair for life; they only come to Britain to breed and raise their young. When the chicks hatch they spend the next two years flying.

Poet Ted Hughes wrote in a famous lament to swifts: “Look! They’re back! And they’re gone.”