Thursday, 24 July 2014


"Swift"; it's all right there in the name. These birds are speed personified.

We spent the evening watching a flock of swifts hunting for insects in a cloudless, inky-blue sky. Night was setting in at 9:30 pm! Exactly a month after the summer solstice, the earth is slowly but surely tilting us back towards winter. It seems that these swifts only arrived a short while ago and yet they will be gone in a week or two and I will miss them.

A highlight of my summer has always been the sound of family parties of swifts screaming helter-skelter around the rooftops but this year, for the first time, I didn't hear them. I'm going deaf.

The sound of grasshoppers was lost to me years ago and goldcrests soon followed but I must be getting worse, or perhaps I just missed them screaming? I asked my wife if she could hear them and she told me that she could hear the "twirp" of a house martin, but the whole flock of swifts was silent.

Over the years, I have enjoyed watching swifts in Italy and France as well as the UK. I once clambered into a cave in the Seychelles to see a colony of cave swiftlets where the floor was knee deep in old droppings and cockroaches. In the USA I have watched skinny-looking chimney swifts mingle with night-hawks and whippoorwills as they hunted for moths around the lights of the Capitol building in Madison Wisconsin. But the best site of all was during a violent thunderstorm in Arusha, Tanzania, when thousands of swifts swung around the cloud-capped volcanic cone of Mt Meru, just ahead of the deluge. The flocks included not only our own swifts but also huge Alpine and Horus swifts. They were all over the sky for about half an hour and then they disappeared from view as the clouds emptied tons of water onto the town.

The fading summer reminds me of so many other sights that I have missed this year through being too busy: glow worms, nightjars, man orchids, spoonbills, moth trapping, badger watching. But this is a season that is special unto itself; neither summer nor autumn; a time for purple emperor and white admiral butterflies, if you know the places to go.

If birds are your thing, August will be the time to start looking for autumn migrants