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.