It’s been such a lovely summer since I got back from the USA in late June. 2013 has been a butterfly year in the garden with lots of large and small whites and a few green-veined whites too. Also peacocks, meadow browns, gatekeepers and a single female common blue. My late-flowering buddleia is just beginning to flower and I have high hopes of it being laden with butterflies in the last few weeks of summer.
I’ve had the opportunity to spend more time looking at butterflies as I have been at home most of the time writing my passenger pigeon book – probably to be called ‘A Message from Martha‘ to be published by Bloomsbury next spring. But sometimes you need a break and I have had cups of tea and coffee, sometimes lunch, often dinner and sometimes an evening drink in the garden because the weather has been so clement.
And that has meant that I’ve seen red kites and buzzards, and once a raven, over the garden too. I’ve noticed when individual blackbirds, song thrushes and dunnocks have started and stopped singing and I’ve enjoyed the swifts.
There have been, I’m sure (although I can’t prove it), more swifts in the skies above my garden this year. They’ve been an important part of my summer. Their screaming has been with me from soon after I wake (I seem to be up before the swifts) and into those last moments as the light fades and the day slips into night. I hope you’ve had a swift summer too.
As July moved into August I knew our time together was coming to an end. It was their choice – they were going to leave me. First they quietened down – they were still around but the frequent reminders of them from hearing their cries were becoming rarer. I had to stare into the skies for longer to check that they were there. And then, for a while, I hardly saw them during the day but caught up with them in the evenings. Once, when it seemed that they were slipping away, there was an evening when there were 35+ swifts, a big number for my sightings, flying high in the evening. A hobby made a brief appearance and chased a swift unsuccessfully, but excitingly for me as the observer of events hundreds of feet above my head (and feet, actually).
After that it was more and more difficult to see a swift on any day. Several times I thought that it would be the first evening without a sighting but then a swift, or two or three, would scythe past as if to say ‘Don’t give up hope!’. But I knew that evening would come – and it seems to have done last Friday. I didn’t know that Thursday 8 August was the ‘last’ day until every subsequent evening failed to deliver a swift – but they have. They left me, I didn’t leave them.
Maybe I’ll see a swift again from the garden one of these August evenings – I have seen them on evenings I’ve spent recovering from the Bird Fair before – but maybe I won’t. It’s always more difficult to pin down the moment of loss than the moment of arrival because you never know what tomorrow might bring. It’s the same with announcing that a species has become extinct – they have a habit of popping up again some time later because it’s difficult to prove a complete absence.
My first swift this year was on 27 April at Stanwick Lakes (a not unusual date) and my first over the garden was on 4 May. They were flying over my house for just three months (and I deserted them for chimney swifts and white-throated swifts for more than five weeks, I admit)
I’ll keep seeing swifts over reservoirs and lakes, and on the coast perhaps, for a while longer, but they won’t be my swifts – my swifts left me. They’ll be somebody else’s swifts which I am borrowing. I’ll lend my swifts to Africa for a few months but I want them back.