Greenwich Swifts 2022

By Mick Delap

Summer must be here: the weekend’s Guardian had an editorial about the return of our migrating swifts. Like the arrival of the swifts, press interest (and my ATA Swift screed) have become an annual event. Whoever is writing, the tone is usually celebratory to start with, but then becomes increasingly worried about how long these far travelled birds will go on being able to survive the climate emergency. Swift numbers are certainly in steep decline, largely because there has been a massive decline in the air borne insects they depend on. As well as changes in when the insects are most plentiful. Plus a steady loss of appropriately old-fashioned buildings for suitable nesting sites. So they are Red Listed as an endangered UK species.

If you want to get an idea of what this is about, all you have to do is to go down Greenwich High Road to Davy’s Wine Store, just opposite Langdale Road, any time over the next 10 weeks. Because that’s where you can find Greenwich’s very own colony of breeding swifts. For years now they have been nesting under the unchanging (and welcoming) Davy’s Wine Store eaves. And if you watch for long enough, from the road (or, just as good, by peering over the wall from Platform 2 of Greenwich station towards Davy’s), you should see several “screamers” chasing each other close overhead, in the swift’s characteristically rapid, twisting and turning flight. Before the breeding birds among them slip almost invisibly back into their nests, to tend to eggs, or feed fledglings.

Once they pair up, swifts return each summer, year after year, from their southern African winter quarters to the same nest. And amazingly, a bird that left its Greenwich nest in August for southern Africa will not have touched terra firma or stopped flying for a moment until it re-enters the same nest the following May. Even more astonishingly, once a fledgling first learns to fly, it will spend the next three or so years in the air, over Greenwich each summer and above southern Africa in the winters, until it too pairs up, and takes over a Greenwich nest. That’s three years without touching the ground.

There used to be around forty active nests under Davy’s eaves. Now we are lucky to see what I estimate to be six or eight occupied nests each year (though other estimates are a bit higher). Enjoy the sight while you can! But the decline in swift numbers has led to various UK initiatives to try and support this amazing bird. Including providing swift nesting boxes to replace what’s been lost. Last year Alison Haworth of the ATA’s Green Group arranged for the ATA to pay for the installation of three nesting boxes on the tower of St Mark’s church. So far, no sign of them being used, but it’s early days. We wish them luck.

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