My swifts

By Wunderwanderer (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Wunderwanderer (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
They’ve gone for  this year.

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.

By Jorisboschmans (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Jorisboschmans (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

21 Replies to “My swifts”

  1. My love of swifts is always tempered by the fact they are one of the first heralds of the end of summer! I feel the same about Horse Chestnuts.

    A beautifully written blog. I am so looking forward to ‘Project Martha’!

  2. One of the loveliest swift experiences was with your old team of researchers outside The Old Coach House in Potton one summer evening. A little party of birds rising high in the evening sky, going ‘up’ to sleep on the wing but having a last play with each other on the way. It is the only time I have ever seen this kind of behaviour or at least, been in an ideal position to observe it.

    A solitary bird yesterday ploughing south balthough most have gone, sightings of a juvenile lesser whitethroat, spotted flycatcher and twite in the last few days shows me just where we are in the year. Sadly, a cash flow problem means I cannot make it to the Bird Fair again this year so I am hoping for a passing osprey in the next few weeks.

  3. Happy to lend you some of our swifts for a day or two, as they wing south. Still a few around in Comrie, Perthshire. I would agree that it has been a good yr for them. There seem to have been more of them around. Groups of up to 20 ‘screamers’ above the house in July. And max count 50+ high over the village one evening.
    Wonderful birds – talismanic symbols of hope for a continuing balanced relationship between man and wildness.

  4. I was hoping my children’s swift book would be out in time for the bird fair but sadly not to be. Already it is getting good reviews from its PDF and the Bath planning department [where the story starts and finishes] have added swift boxes and bricks to their planning manifesto. It is hoped to send info to all planning departments to encourage new buildings to add the bricks at least. As Pink Floyd said ‘ It’s NOT just another brick in the Wall’!! All in all, we need that swift brick in the Wall.’!!

    1. John – that’s a shame that your book isn’t out for the Bird Fair. What’s it called again? And how do we find it when it is published? Go on – give it a plug! It’s the least I can offer after all your (mostly grumpy) comments on this blog!

  5. Like you and no doubt many others Mark, I too love my Swifts. They are still here in North Yorkshire over my garden everyday (including this morning) in decent numbers, though still petering out slowly. This summer, I also had 3 Swift casualties. 1. A youngster had prematurely left a nest around 10 days early. A friend contacted me, and I ended up meeting a Swift carer from Manchester, halfway at Lancaster, passed it onto them. It eventually fledged over Manchester.
    2. A juvenile had crash-landed in our small town, which I was able to release myself, last week.
    3. The last one was found by a friend, unfortunately on its back and badly injured, and sadly died.

  6. Heard and saw three high up overhead yesterday evening as I left the house in Newcastle but they are no longer the constant presence they were a bit earlier in the summer. The moth trap, too, is hinting at the turning of the season as the mix of species changes.

  7. I do love my hirundinidae, wether it be swift,swallow,house martin or sand martin. I do like the little breeding colony of sandmartins on your patch at Stanwick but what I enjoyed and annoyed me in equal measures was for the second consecutive year the sand martins returned to Summer Leys after a couple of years absent, not many but they came back which pleased me, what annoyed me (as they should know better) was the three blokes I had a go at who went up to nest site and stated to photograph and look inside their nesting holes preventing the adults from feeding the juveniles. Swallows seemed patchy at some of the spots I visit, at one they went from 15 breesing pairs to just 4 but in other places they had increased but most sites I visit have had three broods, however they were at least one week late in arriving at some loactions-weather?
    House Martin wise was a big let down for me, a lot of my sites I visit just didn’t have any, I also noted how many nests were being destroyed by home owners (window cleaners to be precise) which might explain a lot, I really got upset as one home owner had the following stickers on his living room windows “rspb”,”wildlife trust”,”pdsa” and “rspca”, I was forced to knock on his door and his excuse was “they leave an awful mess in my windows”. TWAT.
    Swifts again have been patchy, I read your comment with some interest as along the Nene valley has been the most productive for swifts that I’ve seen for a long time at one site i recorded with great difficulty 115 passing overhead and heading west. In the town we’ve been lacking, on my housing estate we’re down to our last five breeding pairs, along the Wellingborough Road into town there is still a small breeding colony, zipping through traffic and jumping red lights 🙂 But the worse was Welford where only two swifts have been seen all summer, even one farmer asked me what he could do with his outbuildings, can anyone on here point me in the right direction so I can point said farmer in the right direction (link please).
    You want to see a Hobby chasing Swallows have a look at this well dodgy image
    Sorry for long comment, but they are one of my favourite species of birds

  8. Everyone it seems loves swifts – and me too. Has to be my favourite bird, their mastery of the air is simply awe inspiring and their screaches (sp?) make me smile.

  9. I agree it’s been a lovely summer after a slow start with more butterflies and bees than I expect these days (shifting baselines again), just enough scorchio weather and rain at just the right time to refill the water butt and re-green everything. We’ve had a good swift colony near us in Biggleswade, very vocal. They seem to reach a crescendo of screaming just before they leave as though they’re excited to be going (and with the government we’ve got, who can blame them?). It was only when walking back from dropping daughter at nursery on Tuesday morning and looking at a few house martins over a field that I realised I hadn’t seen or heard from the swifts for a few days and therefore they must have gone.

    Similar to Ian, was able to observe this swift colony going “upstairs to bed” one warm evening whilst tending a barbeque – I’d first heard them screaming above the sizzling and after squinting at the sky just managed to make out some tiny dots wheeling around, barely visible to the naked eye in front of a fluffy cumulus cloud. Having miraculously got our daughter settled before 9pm Mrs MK then joined me and I asked her if she realised that, equally miraculously, swifts sleep on the wing – a concept that still blows my mind to this day.

    Another favourite evening swift memory was sitting in the garden of the Farmers Arms in Pembrokeshire one June in the early noughties with a very scream-y colony – though in subsequent years there seemed to be far fewer of them.

    My latest ever swift sighting in the UK was 31st August one year near Andover. Late sightings never seem quite the same though, the birds are nearly always silent and flying as though with a destination in mind rather than wheeling about. It’s funny Mark, I always think of them the other way round – that we are borrowing someone else’s swifts for the summer and they are then returning ‘home’.

    I also love the way Richard Mabey ends ‘The Common Ground’ (sorry, I keep coming back to this book at the moment…):

    “As I write these last pages I can see the swifts milling above our parish church, gathering for their departure. Its the saddest moment of the year for me and I know that next May I will be fretting over the empty sky, wondering if they will ever return… they become for their brief stay, a symbolic reminder – as the whole natural world is… – that the alternative to progress is not stagnation but renewal. This is the revelation that Ted Hughes celebrated in his own tribute to the swifts’ return:

    They’ve made it again,
    Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
    Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
    Still all to come –
    And here they are, here they are again …. “

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