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.
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.