Saturday, 11 August 2012

Where have all the Swifts gone?


Have you looked up into the skies recently? Notice something missing? The swifts have gone. No longer are they racing around in flocks over our homes, showing an impressive turn of speed and ‘screaming’ their excitement. Their summer show is over for another year and I for one miss them already!

By the time you read this, most swifts will be well on their way to Africa where they will spend the winter, leaving just a few lingering youngsters. When we go on our summer holidays, we prepare by arranging for a neighbour to feed the cat and water the plants, and stopping the milk delivery, some of the things we think about before going away. For the birds preparing for their long haul flight, preparation of a very different kind is needed.

Take a few minutes to watch birds like swallows, house martins and warblers over the next few weeks. You’ll see that they spend a lot of time feeding; filling up on the abundance of insects and natural fruits available at this time of year.

They’re not feeding for fun though. They’re busy stocking up – and turning all that food into layers of fat for their big journey ahead. For birds like swallows, this can be as much as 200 miles every single day until they reach their destination south of the Sahara Desert. With around 5,000 miles to cover in total, that’s a whopping 25 days of flying before they can start their holiday!

It isn’t just birds that migrate though. Take a close look among the butterflies and bees collecting nectar from the flowers in your garden for the small, but perfectly formed, marmalade hoverfly. These beautiful little black and orange striped insects arrive in large numbers in August. They are easy to see in most gardens – usually perched on a flat flower with their wings held out.

Huge arrivals have been noted at the coast, on beaches and in coastal towns, proving that marmalade hoverflies cross the sea between Britain and Europe – quite incredible when you see how small they are!
Marmalade Hoverfly – Episyrphus balteatus male David Nicholls
When I was a child, on my summer holidays on the Norfolk Coast, I remember an ‘invasion’ of little orange and black flies. They were everywhere: on my bucket and spade, on my Dad’s car and on the door of every amusement arcade and fish and chip shop. I now know they were marmalade hoverflies.

Butterflies do it too. Painted ladies, red admirals and the dazzling clouded yellow arrive in large numbers in August. These late summer arrivals are the offspring of butterflies that bred in southern Europe earlier in the year.

And moths. The hummingbird hawk moth – causing confusion to some who think they have seen a real hummingbird as it hovers at flowers – migrates too. They love gardens and the flowers that we grow in them, as does the silver y moth, named after the ‘y’ shaped mark on each of its wings.

Take a stroll down your garden at dusk and you’ll see them flitting from flower to flower in your garden like little ghosts. They love the buddleia bushes in my garden. It’s great to see so many of them enjoying the nectar of the flowers.

So, as you sit back enjoying the break, remember to keep an eye out for the travellers of the natural world and see if you can spot them taking a break from their amazing journeys near you