Although I find it difficult to assign any favourite species, swifts are certainly my most favourite bird, and each year I mark their arrival and then their departure. It is the 29th April and I have seen my first swift of 2016. Looking back at my records this is the earliest I have ever seen them. I am on my bike cycling past the church in Hinton St. Mary and there above the tower is the distinctive shape of this noisy energetic summer visitor who lives its entire life (apart from having chicks) on the wing. I smile and salute their return; they are testament to our short season of plenty.
In fact their departure is as sad as their arrival is exciting. When I sit on the cliffs in South Devon in early August and watch them fly out over the sea and back to Africa, it marks the change from summer towards autumn and I know how much I will miss their shrieking flight calls over the village and my house.
Swifts feed at a higher altitude than swallows or martins and therefore can get above the pollution of our cities. In fact it is in cities and towns where there presence is most felt as they circle and swoop high above emitting their distinctive scream which is so much part of our summertime soundscape.
The more I learn about swifts, the more amazing they become. Studies of them have revealed how adults cannot hunt for insects in the rain and therefore circumnavigate depressions going as far as Germany and back for food. Meanwhile the baby birds go into a state of torpor allowing them to survive long periods without food. Adults can fly up to 500 miles in a day. So a swift which can live up to 20 years old will fly 3.65 million miles in its lifetime. Moreover young birds remain aloft never coming to land for nearly four years before they mate; somehow roosting on the wing and surviving all that the weather systems can bring.
Now the beginning of May, I look up to see more and more arrive, their distinctive shape so different from swallows or martins. They are a plain sooty brown, but look black against the sky. They have long, scythe-like wings and a short, forked tail. Take a close look at their shape and you will never mistake them for swallows again.
After fledging, young birds practice their flying with the adults in social screaming parties and then towards the end of July the adults begin to leave for their homeward passage. Two weeks later the young follow in their flight paths somehow navigating the long distances. It really is food for thought……
(photographs courtesy of Pau Artigas and the RSPB).