Swift Exit

This year we became homeowners for the first time. Everyone says how wonderful that must be and how happy they are for us, and while we will not miss renting, we mostly feel the weight of responsibility. I’m dubious of the idea that anyone can truly ‘own’ any part of the world; this house and garden has seen many lives and stories in its 114 years. We will look after it for a while, that’s all, before passing on. While my attempts to transform the garden into a wildlife haven are only just underway, it has already given enormous pleasure as a venue for wildlife watching. Top of the billing are swifts. Our neighbourhood of terraced streets is something of a swift city, and while I don’t have any year-on-year data, the local colony appears to be in good health. Our house is roughly in the centre of their domain, and on many evenings this summer I have found myself stood in the garden literally open mouthed watching them hurtle over my head.

After almost 39 years on the planet and having spent 15 of those watching birds ‘seriously’, I thought I knew swifts well, or that I at least had a good working knowledge of their flight patterns.  But I hadn’t heard the susurration of their wings at close range, or truly appreciated how batlike their flight can be at dusk. Their wings don’t simply ‘flap’ but appear to corkscrew as though the bird is powered by a propellor. Their speed and agility regularly left me gasping as they whistled past my ear, all but brushed the top of the garden fence and then rapidly gained height, all within about a second.

When, to our delight, we discovered that a series of investigative swoops in late spring had become an active nest by the first week of July, I realised that their breeding, too, was stranger to me than I’d thought. The nestlings’ begging chirrups rose in pitch and intensity over the next few weeks until they were joining the adults in full-throated screams. The frequency of feeding visits picked up through the middle of July, to the point that it only took a few minutes of pointing a camera to capture the video below. The summer wore on, cooler days followed the record hot spell, and no significant rain came. The nest seemed to go quiet, and I assumed perhaps they’d fledged. But the span of days from hatching to fledging for swifts is variable – the BTO gives a range of 37 to 56 days – and as far as we know they had hatched no earlier than the last week of June. Young swifts can use periods of torpor to cope with a slowdown in delivery of insects by their parents, and sure enough a few days into August I heard their begging calls once more.

Three birds appear to visit in this clip from July 16th. Not sure what’s going on!

At that point we began to worry, feeling keenly our sense of responsibility – these were our house guests, after all – but also our impotence, impossible as it is to conjure rain or the clouds of small insects that a damp spell might coax out of the ground. All we could do was watch the visits, listen to the nest and keep an eye on the garden for grounded fledglings, hoping the young birds would soon be following their neighbours on the long journey south. July’s screaming parties of tens of swifts were down to single figures, so this must have been one of the last local nests. We saw an adult visit on the 6th, and after that saw and heard nothing more. They must have fledged when we weren’t looking. On the 9th I saw eight swifts weaving over the local park, silently picking off what few insects they could. On the 10th, nothing all day, until at dusk, while I was watering the garden, I saw a single dark shape whir over, appearing small and batlike again. I wasn’t sure, but the bird came back for a lower pass and once more there was that boomerang curve of a swift overhead.

Every day since, we’ve seen two to five swifts feeding over the houses. Usually, their departure feels sudden – they’re there and then they’re painfully, obviously not. This time it is more of a slow fade-out, perhaps reflecting other delayed nesting attempts, or perhaps it’s simply that I’m paying more attention this year. In this parched summer of global anxiety, with enormous crises impossible to fully conceive of, focusing my concern on a single nest of a single threatened species has been a form of solace. And yet it is impossible to look at a swift, these birds that are all flow, all connection, and ignore the global. I fear the final silence their departure will leave behind, just as I fear that, despite their apparent stability in our neck of the woods, the unravelling threads of the world will mean that one year they won’t be back.

More activity at the nest. Mid July, the young birds appear quite well grown.

In defence of conifer plantations

Conifer plantations. Nobody likes them; at least, few folk in the strange corner of Twitter I spend time in do. In terms of planting location and species mix, the majority of conifers are indeed ecologically and culturally alien. However, even in the gloomiest plantation the odd ray of light makes it down to ground level. Inability, or unwillingness, to even contemplate the potential upsides* of a land use we dislike strikes me as unconstructive. It’s also an easy way to guarantee a lot of very depressing walks in the countryside, because whatever our perspective I doubt there are many places we could walk for miles and find everything as it ‘should’ be. If we can’t see the beauty in contested, everyday landscapes, we must surely be missing many small opportunities for joy*. So, in hesitant defence of plantations, I offer three little views from travels over the last three years.

Firstly, this summer. Seen from Hadrian’s Wall, the small conifer plantations in Northumberland stand dark, tall and incongruously angular above the gradually unfolding ridge line. Unnatural, sure, but I enjoyed the way they add heterogeneity to the scenery, breaking the expanse of only sporadically species-rich grass. The arrival of both conifers and wind turbines, which also crown many high points in the interior of Northumberland, was much lamented by some, I’m sure, yet both add to the feel of a landscape that is worked. And the trees might be the only ones for miles around otherwise, adding some blessed variety to a day’s birding – crests and coal tits, siskins and redpolls, crossbills if you’re lucky**.

Three years earlier, in Galloway – some 75 miles due west from the wall – we walked up a steep slope into the heart of a larger plantation on the edge of the Galloway Forest. This vast artificially forested landscape is much enjoyed by recreational users who view the area with a less discerning ecological eye or, if I’m being more generous, a less curmudgeonly one, able to enjoy what is without losing sleep over what could be.

We were in search of what was once a closely guarded secret, and there is surely no better place to hide something than deep within the cool, lichen-draped underworld of a plantation floor. Now relatively well signposted paths lead to a small clearing, which protect the gently crumbling aviaries that served as a release site for red kites into Galloway about twenty years ago. The still atmosphere of the plantation feels like a semi-natural cathedral, with larch stems as pillars lining the nave, the clearing a sanctuary where the jumble of plywood and chicken wire forms a conservation shrine of sorts. Neither kites nor trees were self-sown and neither are universally welcomed (though the kites have more ‘right’ to be present, from a historic ecological perspective), but both now help to draw people to this quietly captivating part of Scotland that is still off the usual visitor trail.

Closer to home, a mixed plantation offered us sanctuary early this spring when we fled the house to avoid witnessing the destruction of a beloved willow in a neighbour’s garden. Great Pen is another Forestry Commission site, with a mix of native woodland and various colossal, planted conifers. An interesting mix of wildlife rubs along uneasily with the dog walkers and casual ramblers (like us), all drawn in one way or another to spend time among big trees. It is still a working plantation, and I ironically lament the growth of trees that have now shaded out habitat for tiger beetles and woodlarks. Hopefully, when the forestry operations clear another area, they’ll be back.

* There’s a practical argument in favour of planting conifers, too – and I mean proper productive forestry, not the straggly little squares planted for tax purposes in the 1980s which were probably what I was seeing in Northumberland – considering that the demand to cut plastic from packaging must ultimately lead to increased demand for forestry products, but that’s a whole other blog, and probably not one I’m qualified to write.

**As the Wildlife Trusts say, “Plantations can support species that would otherwise be absent from the landscape.” https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/habitats/woodland/coniferous-plantation


I often say I’ve ‘always’ been interested in nature, but there are a few crucial bits of evidence that contradict that claim. Chiefly, the fact that as an undergraduate student I used to go on a moth-killing rampage around my bedroom before turning out the light for the night. I couldn’t stand the idea of an insect flying about my head in the dark while I tried to sleep. In the long years since, I eventually woke up to the fact that moths are much nicer to look at than to squash, and I very rarely kill an insect out of irritation. I will swat at the odd mosquito, true; they’re beautiful animals (really!), but I react badly to their bites. Killing anything else upsets me. This week I briefly lost patience with an infestation of fruit flies in our kitchen food waste caddy and squashed a few on the kitchen window, but immediately regretted it.

But those few fruit flies were hardly the first insects I killed this year. First of all, everyone kills insects every day without even thinking about it: crushed carelessly underfoot, hit by cars, buses and trains, or through the impacts of growing our food. Secondly, if you look in my attic room, you’ll find several wooden boxes full of unmistakably dead insects, some with pins through their thorax, some glued to bits of card.  And there we have the curious contradiction at the heart of being an entomologist. The more I understand the need to dispatch insects for identification and further scientific study, the more it bothers me to take the life of even the tiniest fly for any other purpose.

I think it comes down to reverence. Respecting insect populations means taking specimens, or for most species we can’t learn anything about them. Responsible insect-collecting has no impact on the health of populations, and in many cases the impact of taking any one individual is precisely zero if it is a member of a short-lived species that has already bred. Carefully preserved insect specimens capture the intricate beauty of a vanishingly brief life for hundreds of years, and as part of well-curated collections have enormous research value. If I have no intention of making a good specimen – and it’s difficult to make much of a soft-bodied fruit fly after it’s been mashed under a clumsy human finger – doesn’t knowingly killing an insect betray an impatient disregard for lives other than my own?

A Stilt-legged Fly (Micropezidae)