THE army of swifts arrived in Belfast this week – but didn’t give a second glance to Dúlra’s offering of purpose-built, five-star nestboxes.
These are super birds – not in the meaning of being great, but actually being Superbirds. Nothing nature has produced comes close to their aerial abilities. They are on the extremes of evolution in the same way the great white shark is considered the master of the oceans and the lion the king of the animals.
And when we’re wandering through our streets and hear the screeching of those black arrows, we should look up in awe just like we’d do if we’d seen a shark or a lion.
This week the swift’s plight was brought up at a Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss in Dublin, which is made up of 99 random citizens who will be involved in a six-month programme. It’s a brilliant idea and has already heard that Ireland risks turning into a ‘ghostland’ for nature if the destruction of habitats continues. The meeting was told that our swifts have declined 40 per cent in just 15 years.
Dúlra can’t help thinking also how these insect-eating birds must struggle to find food as we turn more of our fields into green deserts and cut green areas everywhere to make them ‘neat’.
But Dúlra has met the small band of swift devotees who are turning the tide. As barn owl enthusiast Ciarán Walsh has shown by coaxing that amazing bird back to barns and woods around Lough Neagh, one determined person can make a world of difference.
The greatest threat to the Irish swift population has been the removal of nest sites. Buildings the length and breadth of the country have been done up and repaired with no thought for nesting birds. Cavities are filled when gutters are repaired or roofs replaced.
The country’s swift lover-in-chief Mark Smyth – that’s a unique title of course but one that Mark couldn’t argue with – has way too many tales of churches, community halls and city buildings that have lost their swifts because of refurbishments.

The beautiful Hawthorn at the Waterwords

The beautiful Hawthorn at the Waterwords

 Mark’s fascination with swifts, gabhlán gaoithe in Irish, started 50 years ago when he was at Antrim Primary School and they buzzed all around the schoolyard. But then, every year, he noticed their numbers declining, well before any official organisations took notice. Years later when a neighbour replaced wooden eaves and thus lost the only pair in the Stiles estate, Mark took action. Today, his house is peppered with scores of swift boxes and most of them are taken.
His crusade to fight back for the amazing bird has taken great steps forward as his growing WhatsApp swift group encourage housing bodies and hospitals and supermarkets to put up homes for swifts, some of them using swift nest ‘bricks’ in newbuilds, like here at Apex Housing in Ballycastle.
Unlike garden birds like blue tits that go searching for a place to nest each year, swifts use the same one each year – and new birds will only nest where others already are.  And that’s where technology has come to the aid of the swift. Mark and his pals are able to broadcast swift calls near new sites and the birds will arrive. Because these boxes are purpose-built for swifts, they are as secure a place to bring up a family as exists.
Dúlra remembers when he was young a pair of swifts used to nest high up in a neighbour’s gable wall, and every year we’d find a poor wee chick dead on the ground below – it had slipped out to its death. That will never happen in these new homes.
Although Mark helped Dúlra put up four new swift boxes, he hasn’t got a caller system hooked up yet. But that’s soon to be solved – and he’s on a race against time to get it up and running to attract breeding pairs this year. A guy in Kerry is selling that very thing on the internet – Dúlra never thought anyone would think there’s a market for a ‘swift nest calling system’, but a least one buyer in Belfast is eagerly waiting every morning for the postman.
* It’s a pity so few or our hedgerow hawthorns are allowed to grow to show off their glory – like this one at the gate of the Waterworks in North Belfast. A hawthorn is a small bushy tree that's often overlooked for grander ones, but it deserves to be loved. The famous Mayflower on this one was just starting to fade when Dúlra took this picture on Tuesday, but it still brightens up the Antrim Road. Birds love to nest in it and when those flowers turn to haws in the autumn, they’re gobbled up by thrushes. The mighty oak is the national tree of Ireland, but for Dúlra, the humble hawthorn has a good claim to that title.
* If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.