I find it difficult to state how utterly brilliant swifts are without resorting to cliché. They dominate the sky in our part of Newbury. Early on a weekday morning on my way to the station I see them barrelling down street canyons, boomeranging past recently vacated nest sites. When I’m here during the day, they’re intermittently visible as they follow layers of airborne insects up and down with the meteorological cycles. They’re after that productive layer between the peak of convective plumes and the point at which insects fall out of controlled flight and into the prevailing flow.
In the mid-afternoon parties of two or three break off and rocket down to the canal at the end of our garden to drink, perhaps to clear their gullets of all that dry chitin. They descend on the water in a swooping dive that’s impossible not to compare with a jet on a bombing run, clipping the water with their beaks just briefly enough to slake their thirst. I watched a trio buzz close to a kayak in the process, surprising and I hope delighting those paddling it.
In the evening swifts congregate back at low levels in great screaming parties. They pass our house in sudden bursts, so fast that the sound reaches us almost no sooner than the bird does and equally quickly fades as they accelerate away. As the sky fades to dusk the swifts rise into swirling towers, now often joined by a few house martins (which you can pick out by sound – they blow raspberries) which I rarely otherwise see here, though they must nest somewhere in the neighbourhood.
I never quite manage to notice the point at which they vanish for the night, but eventually they do, ascending to the clouds for sleep. One evening this week two came back over low, unusually late, in rapid level flight punctuated by short stuttering contact notes. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but these staccato calls sounded more serious and purposeful than the usual exuberant screams. A practice run for migration? They’ll soon leave us. It’s the saddest reminder that the months and years roll by all too quickly, a thought I can’t shake off in a month that marks 10 years since our wedding and 12 since graduation.
I seem to keep coming back to swifts, and I make no apology for it. For as long as we share a planet with creatures so ridiculously wonderful we should keep shouting about them! See also here and here.