Sunday 10 August 2014

Band of volunteers work tirelessly to keep childhood memories alive

[It is nice when the press puts out a positive story, especially when they get their facts right. So we unashamedly reproduce this piece that appeared in the Newmarket Journal.]

With suitable nesting locations rapidly dwindling it is no wonder that our country's swift population is in decline. Recognising this problem, volunteers at Worlington are working to re-establish the area's swift population, bringing back the once familiar sight of swifts circling around the village's church.

Click to enlarge

Pictures by Geoffrey Pieter and Judith Wakelam;

For many they will always evoke memories of childhood as they wheel, tirelessly, high in the summer skies and although the swift's stay on these shores is short the tiny birds have, for decades, been a much-loved feature of the countryside.

But now they are in need of help as numbers are declining, not least as modern buildings have fewer holes for them to nest in.

Among a group of dedicated volunteers at the forefront of the campaign to help re-establish swifts is Worlington resident Judith Wakelam.

Her interest in the tiny globe-trotting birds was first sparked more than a decade ago when she picked one up that had fallen from a nest and set about trying to find out how to care for it.

Chris Mead ©BBC
"No one could really give me any advice until I reached the British Trust for Ornithology and with the help of member, Chris Mead, I managed to rear the bird," said Judith.

Since then she has become something of an expert and the results of her hard work are evident to anyone glancing up at the sky around the tower of the village's All Saints Church which is currently full of swifts.

The tower is now home to 38 special swift nest boxes, the first of which were installed in 2009, with the first pair of swifts nesting the following year. Now there are around 20 pairs rearing young in the church.

And at her bungalow in Church Lane, Judith has not only had a special nest box installed which she constantly monitors with the help of a television camera, she also has three young swifts. the Ely Three as she calls them, which came to her via builders replacing a roof in the city, and which she has hand reared and will release on Newmarket Heath within the next few days.

Fed on wax worms and black crickets, the tiny birds appear clumsy but once they are freed they can fly, balancing on the air at up to 10,000 feet and unlikely to ever land again feeding, drinking, preening and even mating on the wing.

"They are truly remarkable birds." said Judith. "They are prompted to leave their nest by hunger as their parents will already have begun their migration so they are completely on their own.

The birds will fly to Africa in August and return to Britain to nest in April, a round trip of some 22,000 kilometres and they will return to same nesting site, which is why Judith wants to encourage churches, households and schools to install nesting boxes.

"If everyone put up just one nest box it would really help," said Judith, who is a member of Action for Swifts, an organisation which offers advice on rescue and conservation of the birds.

And as a volunteer, Judith takes calls from all over the country and beyond from people who have come across the birds and want to help them.

Hers is truly a labour of love and she is heartened that her efforts are bearing fruit. An elderly village resident came up to me recently and said I want to thank you for what you have done to get the swifts back in the church tower," said Judith. "He told me he had not seen as many birds since around 1951 when the church roof had had to be replaced and the nesting holes were blocked up."

As for the swifts, to Judith they have become part of her family. "The fact that these tiny things will leave here totally alone and fly half way round the world and back again is amazing," she said.

"And when I release one it is a moment for a few tears, one of those sad but happy moments which leaves me looking forward to welcoming them back next year." For more information on how you could provide a nesting box for swifts, contact Judith on 01638 715971 or go to

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