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Article by Mark Pascoe

Sometimes the three heralds of summer – the swallow, house martin and swift – can be mistaken in the skies above us. Each has its own identity, its own place. Swallows have the long, forked tail, build mud nests in barns, skim fields for insects and chatter on wires. House martins are smaller, short-tailed and white bellied. Their mud nests are circular under eaves or beams, like our Town Hall. Swifts are crescent-shaped, dark coloured, flying at speed with a piercing call.

Swifts are my favourite. They spend more time in the air than any other bird.

Apus apus (latin) means “footless” as they only ever touch down to nest!

A FAMOUS MEMORY

On the radio, David Attenborough spoke about swifts with some sadness. Older age meant he no longer heard their dusk fly-past. They are shrill and acrobatic aviators over our rooftops and “flick along the summer air.” (U.A. Fanthorpe )

Some call their antics “screaming parties” but I prefer to imagine them chasing, playing, scouting out new nest sites for next year’s brood. For our town is their first home – from May to August – and their first landing!

HOW CAN WE HELP AND WELCOME THEM BACK?

Swifts champions include Hannah Bourne-Taylor who campaigns for new build swift bricks to be compulsory. Locally, several action groups promote swift boxes – fitted above five metres near other nest sites for this colony bird. Last year, Wotton’s Primary schools put up boxes, made by the Cotswold Men’s Shed.  Our Town Council is due to follow suit – as is St.Mary’s church, on their bell tower I hope. Ten confirmed nest sites were mapped last summer and celebrated with their own unique blue plaque to raise awareness. One on the wall of the Tabernacle and another on the Old Police House in Bradley Street.

THE REASON TO LOOK UP

Summer swifts are embedded in Wotton to raise their two or three swiftlets here before migrating back to Africa. The young swifts then return annually for two or three years before nesting themselves, in their home patch – remaining on the wing throughout, sleeping on the higher thermals in their “vesper flights.”

NEVER TOO OLD FOR WONDER

Sir David was right in saying swifts challenge our human senses – try counting them in the sky or following them arcing up under gutters at the Town’s speed limit. (on the flat they can reach motorway speeds!)

The swift is a tiny wonder – feeding, mating and sleeping on the wing. Surprisingly it shares its species with the hummingbird!

As the Scottish writer Nan Shepherd observed: “All that volley of speed – the mad, joyous abandon of the swift. Their headlong rush, a miracle of grace.”