Swifts

A piece I wrote on swifts for the Suffolk Magazine. Already looking forward to their return.

My wife is in Africa. A twelve hour flight across sea, mountains, time zones and desert. She’s tired when I talk to her. Hot and caked in red dust from the loose roads of the Rift Valley. The air itself, she says, is taut with heat. I can almost hear it in the crackle of the phone line. She tells me about the elephant corridor close to her hotel, a passage trampled through brush and scrub, swept clear by tusk and trunk in the march towards water. In the villages where she is working she has seen flocks of petrol-blue superb starlings, some tame enough to be fed by hand, while hornbills, sunbirds and firefinches filled tinder-dry trees. It all feels…well…a world away.

I make tea and carry it out into the garden, heading up the path towards the veg patch. The early afternoon sky is a soft blue and the clouds that previously threatened rain have gone.  I pick up a fork, digging into the soil and turning it over, listening to the scolding tuts of a blackbird perched in the apple tree and the stop-start thrum of a lawnmower two or three houses down.

Then, I hear something else. A scream. High-pitched, almost nasal; it rolls and swings over rooftops and walls, down pavements and paths. Swifts!  I watch as they finally race into sight, shooting between the houses and over the garden; joyriders, pulling handbrake turns with more Gs than a fighter pilot, breaking the peace with their party. I shade my eyes with my hand. I can see six, no, seven, no, eight of them, cutting through the air on scythe-like wings, their sooty brown bodies tar black in silhouette. They race off, gaining height and disappearing from view only to return less than a minute later, still travelling at speed; their tails like arrow vanes, nocked and released by some heavenly bow.

I wonder if these birds, the first wave of arrivals from Mozambique and Malawi, passed my wife’s plane in the air, riding the warm front into Britain. Our own little sun bird. The feat of travelling 10,000km – impressive enough for a creature that weighs just 40 grams – is nothing for a swift. The birds above me have probably spent every day on the wing since leaving these shores at the end of last summer. They feed and sleep in the air, one half of the brain always remaining awake to the danger of collision and the siren call of gravity. Even breeding takes place in the sky. The swift is the founder member of the mile-high club. It is only when nesting that swifts return to earth, or at least nooks in man-made buildings, wriggling in and out of holes like they were a pair of tight jeans.

For me, it feels like the sight of swifts has become even more special in recent years. I think I’ve noticed them; loved them more. Perhaps it’s because, growing older, I have a keener appreciation of the rhythms and pulses of what’s around me. I feel the ebb and flow of the seasons at a different level, the circles of life tighter, more meaningful. But then again, maybe my appreciation has deepened with the realisation that these screaming harbingers of summer are under threat. In the past 25 years Suffolk has lost almost half of its swifts. The traditional nesting places, the nooks and crannies that let swifts into our lives, have been plugged as part of humdrum roof repairs or modern improvements.

The birds’ decline, echoed across the UK, is worrying. But thankfully action, as simple as putting up a nest box, is being taken. Boxes erected in places such as Worlington (just a short swift flight from my garden) has seen a swift colony go from zero to 27 breeding pairs with 60 young in just seven years. The Save Our Suffolk Swifts Project – run by Suffolk Wildlife Trust and Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group – has been working since 2014 to raise awareness about the swift’s plight. They are now asking people to log their sightings of screaming parties and breeding behaviour to build up a picture of what is happening in the county. The results will help them to see where swifts are and, perhaps more importantly, where they are not.

I watch them go, careering off towards town, and turn back to the gardening; mounding earth around potato plants and bending to pull up the seemingly endless loops of bindweed.

The first swifts. The sun already feels hotter on my neck.

 

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