Masham and its Swifts...
Masham, the town on the edge of the Dales next to the River Ure, famous for its two breweries is also famous for its swifts!
Come May each year the birds start to arrive in large numbers back to the market town using holes and cracks in the buildings to nest. The Swifts have travelled a long way – flying all the way from sub-Saharan Africa – a journey of over 3,000 miles which takes some of the birds just 5 days. This long journey takes place for them to breed.
Swifts breed for life – meeting up at the same nesting site each year. One the eggs are laid they share the nesting duties with incubation tending to take 19-20 days.
Swifts often get confused with sandmartins, housemartins or swallows, but swifts are dark sooty brown all over and you can sometimes spot a small pale throat (martins are black and white). The tail is slightly forked but not anywhere near as forked as a swallow.
Swifts legs are so small that they cannot land or perch on wires or branches like sandmartins and swallows, but they are equipped for gripping onto the vertical sides of buildings. They spend their whole lives in the air, apart from the few weeks when they nest.
Swift numbers have decreased over the last 40 years by 50% - part of this is believed to be down to pesticides, but some of it down to people insulating roofs and blocking up access to nesting space. It is for this reason that my Christmas present from my wife this year was a swift nesting box which now sits in the eaves just below the roof of my house.
Masham has also put up many nest boxes around the town including some on the church tower. This was part of an initiative by the Mashamshire Swifts Community Project and there are now over 90 nest boxes around the town.
Come the late spring and summer, Masham’s market square is a wonderful sight, with swifts soaring across the sky, swooping down to catch insects and letting out their distinctive cries – sometimes described as “screaming parties”.
The swifts live off a diet of air born insects and once their babies are born in is known that a pair of swifts can feed their young up to 20,000 insects a day.
The swifts don’t stay long after their young are born and return back to Africa in late August leaving the market place in peace.
To celebrate the Masham Swifts – a Swift Trail has been put around the town where sculptures of swifts which were commissioned by Masham Arts Festival now adorn the town. There is a leaflet available from the Tourist Information Office which allows you to follow the trail with information about the artists – Adrian Wood, Katherine Dereli, Jennifer Tetlow, Michael Kusz and Gaynor Pearson.
Make a date in your diary to drop into the market square between May and August to see the Swifts – you won’t be disappointed!