Swift Thinking

The little cottage sits settled in a small village with a meandering river making its way through pastures, woodland and water meadows, overlooked by rolling hills of fields carpeted in yellow oil seed rape or the more muted dun colour of wheat. In those fields not given over to agriculture sheep roam munching on lush green grass their lambs frolicking by their sides. The chalky white and deep purple blue of the flint walls of the cottage glared in the bright sunlight that blazed in a deep azure blue sky. Soaring purposefully across this sky, silhouetted against the blue, is a small bird with crescent shaped, pointed wings. One, two, three followed by more. The group swoops low, skimming around the cottage with a whoosh of air and a piercing scream, which for me is a quintessential part of the British summer. It is the swift. A bird that spends its entire life on the wing. On leaving the nest it will remain in flight, heading south to Africa and back, eating, sleeping, socialising, all without touching the ground until two years later when it touches down in a nesting hole.

Granny B’s – Google Maps

The birds skim over the immaculate flower beds and vegetable plots, the sweet scent of sweet peas lifts into the air. Around a gnarled apple tree that has stood centre stage in the lawn for as long as I remember, up and over the hedge and off down the road. It is not long before they return, once again skimming the garden but this time making a beeline for the house. They dip a little lower before heading vertically up and landing on the wall just under the eaves. A quick scurry up the wall with sharp claws and the bird disappears into the roof. Here in the dark cool roof space, amongst the aging beams the swift has its nest.

With the bird safely ensconced we quickly set up nets. Recent work has shown that swifts can spend hours in the nest hole before heading off to feed. It is generally hard to catch swifts, they are such fast, agile and high flyers. So netting a nesting site is one of the only options to catching them, but there are strict guidelines to doing so.  But why go to the effort of trying to catch them? Well the UK population is in decline, and the bird is now Amber Listed. The reasons as with many population declines are multi-faceted but one big reason for swifts is home improvements. The demolition and renovation of old houses often results in nesting sites disappearing or being blocked. Given that the species is site-faithful, returning to the same nest site year after year, and do not colonise new sites easily, numbers have subsequently dropped. To have swifts nesting in your house, for me, is therefore something very special. Ringing aims to help establish where birds are wintering, to understand migration routes and juvenile dispersal. Repeated visits over a number of years to a nest colony also helps to understand that site-fidelity.

And so we wait, patient, drinking Granny’s juice, sitting in the little kitchen I have sat in since I was a child. A room that has barely changed as the world grows older around it. Forever glancing out the window finally we are rewarded, not once but three times!

A beautiful swift

There it was, in the hand, with beautiful long curved wings, sooty brown with a pale chin, a small forked tail. Bright, dark eyes, and a tiny bill but large gape. Pin sharp claws at the end of short feathered legs. So with a new ring fitted and all the biometrics taken, each is released, soaring off once again into that blue sky, circling high and away.

Me, Granny B and a swift

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