Country diary: are all our swifts out for the count?

Mark Cocker

The station car park on the town’s busiest road must be the least discreet place to go birding. But how else can you monitor common swifts, given that they nest only in domestic rooftops? The station just happens to have the best panorama over their breeding habitat.

As we stood here five other groups were dotted strategically about town performing the same sky-gazing exercise. Together we attempted a coordinated count of the Buxton total. Swifts once bred throughout this area but modern roofing practices have eradicated many of the niches that they once used and it’s striking how they seem to survive best where perhaps the older, traditional slate roofs are intact.

Our census is part of a scheme to help the local swift population, which has probably shared in the species’ nationwide decline of 53% in just 25 years. To reverse this locally, the Buxton Civic Association, an organisation devoted to the town’s natural and built environment, initiated a project to create additional nesting accommodation. More than £1,000 has provided scores of state-of-the-art nest units that reflect the latest research on swifts’ breeding preferences.

But what is really heartening is that our Buxton efforts are replicated, not just across Britain, but also Europe. Social media is heavily populated with those who feel the same passionate concern and I doubt there is another organism that could have aroused the same mixture of public anxiety, determination and love.

Related: Saving Britain's swifts - in pictures

Why do we do it? I’ll offer you a glimpse of what I think is at play. Our count that night was down by roughly 50%, because swifts, faced with the recent 48-hour spell of non-stop rain showers, fly right around such wet weather systems and continue to feed while their chicks and partners survive by fasting. Half of Buxton’s swifts could have been flying and feeding over Exeter or Bournemouth.

In short, swifts make their own weather. When the skies clear they head home, bringing a sense of wonder and mystery with them. Sometimes they travel more than 1,800km in rain-avoidance excursions. If that isn’t an animal worth fighting for (or receiving funny looks at the station for) I don’t know what is.