Saturday, 2 June 2012

Sky Birds

Our swifts have been back in the skies above our garden for three weeks now. We occasionally see a few swallows passing through, but I can’t remember ever seeing a sand or house martin over our garden, while our swifts are ever present through the summer.
They truly are the masters of the air, which isn’t surprising as pretty much their whole life is spent on the wing. At the end of the day as the sun slowly disappears below the horizon, you can watch the swifts circling higher and higher in to the darkening sky. They quickly become indiscernible dots, barely visible with binoculars, then, they are gone, to spend the night sleeping on the wing. I can’t prove they sleep while they are up there, but I can imagine them catching forty winks. Early morning as the sun rises they descend, and you can if you are looking be lucky enough to see them appear again, almost as if by magic.

Throughout the day they will feed on airborne insects, they are expert bug munchers, hovering them up as they fly. I find it fascinating watching them do this. Although you almost never actually see their prey. The way they are able to manoeuvre tight turns so smoothly, at times they flutter their wings to stall themselves as they take the catch. Then, with still wings and without appearing to change their body shape, they accelerate, cutting through the air at speed, and in seconds they are out of sight. They do absolutely everything on the wing, including mating and I’m surprised with all the advancements in photographic technology, that this most intimate of moments has not been captured on film. Maybe it has and I have missed it, either way there is a challenge for someone?

Often, you are aware of their presence, not by seeing them but hearing them. This for me is one of the key sounds of summer. A fairly high pitched short scream, often emitted as one chases the other during their courtship display, or really excited short screams as a group of them chase each other, and I’m sure they do this, simply because they can!

Masters of the sky, certainly, but on the ground they are the complete opposite. If they ever do become grounded, they are literally helpless. Rather than feet and legs they have claw like feet in the centre of their belly, these are perfectly adapted for nesting on cliffs and ledges, but useless on the ground. With their long wings, once grounded they literally cannot flap them without hitting the ground and therefore can’t take off from the ground. Some years ago, I was fortunate to find one grounded and so was the swift. I couldn’t see why it had become grounded, when I picked it up, it didn’t appear to be injured, so with my heart in my mouth, I tossed it in to the air, without having any idea if it would fly or crash back to the ground. It flew! And I hope went on to have a long life.

You may think the common swift is my favourite bird, and I do spend hours during each summer watching them from my garden. But, they are not quite my favourite, I will tell you next time which is my favourite and of a magical time I had with a pair a few years back. Have you a favourite?

Note: Swifts need your help.

They’re some of the last spring migrants to arrive, but the first to leave. You’ve probably seen them speeding through the air, screaming their heads off, or swooping into crevices in buildings.

But they’re in trouble. Swifts are now on the Amber List – they’re birds of Conservation Concern. Their numbers have declined dramatically in the past 10 years; we’re not sure why, but one of the possible reasons is that their nest sites are being destroyed.

We’re working with swift groups around the UK. Your information will help our knowledge of swifts so that more nest sites can be provided and protected. Tell us where you see swifts and help us to help them.

Friday, 1 June 2012

RSPB Frampton Marsh

Yesterday I paid my first ever visit to Frampton Marsh, and I was not dissappointed. A major new extension to this coastal wetland reserve includes a reedbed, large freshwater scrapes and wet grassland. These habitats have all been created to bring the wildlife of the Wash closer to you.
New facilities include a visitor centre with toilets; the centre has a refreshments area where you can get a hot or cold drink and a snack. There are three hides – two with 360-degree views – and over 3 km of new footpaths to explore.

Although I chose the worst day of the last three weeks to visit, it was dull, overcast and wet! I could see it is a cracking nature reserve, perfect for a relaxing walk or watching wildlife. Not the greatest image of a tree sparrow you will ever see, but they were feeding just the otherside of the panoramic windows in the visitor centre, along with yellowhammers…wonderful!
Tree Sparrow
A visit to Frampton Marsh will appeal to a variety of visitors. There is plenty to do for families from bug hunting, pond dipping or you could just enjoy a picnic and grab a cup of tea from the visitor centre.

RSPB Frampton Marsh is situated on one of the best wetlands for wildlife in Europe: The Wash. There are lots of different habitats to explore including reedbeds, wet grassland and freshwater scrapes and don’t forget to go up on to the sea bank and look out over the saltmarsh, which is one of the largest in the world! The reserve is free to visit and the visitor centre is open daily from 10am to 4pm (until 5pm on weekends in summer). Binoculars can be hired free of charge and for those budding nature detectives, you can hire a wildlife explorer backpack from the visitor centre which can be taken out around the reserve.

There are free games available for children to play, these are themed on the wildlife of the reserve. The ‘Kids’ Zone’ in the 360 hide has a specially created area in the center for children’s activities. Dogs are welcome on the public footpaths and sea banks, but not on the trail around the reedbed or to the hides. There is even a dog hitching post and water bowl outside the visitor centre.

And the wildlife comes pretty close too!