Swift diary- a brief summary of the 2021 swift season

The swift season started with a later than average arrival of last year’s breeding birds; that said our existing  breeding pair really didn’t waste much time in laying eggs and they fledged young earlier than in 2019/20. There are many highlights each season, but perhaps the overall impression this year is of an uninterrupted performance from swifts. As an exceptionally wet May ended the weather improved and the next wave of younger swifts quickly joined breeding adults; there was no mass exodus of non-breeding birds as happened twice for lengthy periods in 2020.  Consequently there was lots of time for younger birds to prospect and superb weather for breeders. A new pair (our second) first entered a box on June 8th and quickly began breeding; their young should fledge in the next few days. Then in early July while many were watching football, I was outside watching our third pair performing the most beautiful flight displays before they settled in the nest box alongside our second pair. Despite having nest boxes on three sides of our house, both new pairs chose to nest next to our existing breeding pair. Calls played on the opposite side of the house to the breeders were largely ignored as young birds piled in to the occupied side. So no need to play them anymore. They have done their job well but it was lovely this year just to hear the natural sounds of a developing swift colony.

We’ve had great success at Helmsley Swifts this year with our first nest boxes occupied by breeding pairs. There are now over sixty nest boxes around the town. Some evenings surveying there were memorable for the large screaming parties above several areas with over 120 swifts recorded at one time on the evening of 14th July. Ampleforth and Gilling also saw fine displays and hopefully swifts finding new nest sites. I learnt a lot about the formation of a colony, studying interactions between our one existing pair and the two new pairs; as always though there are so many questions as we cannot identify the birds’ sex in flight. I watched swifts mating in the air on several occasions, always alerted by a particular sequence of calls high above. I saw countless fast flypasts, each so thrilling and each raising my heart rate as I rushed to watch them ripping the air centimetres from our walls and windows. I also had a season studying swifts’ interactions with house martins, affirming my belief that these species really compliment each other.

With most swifts leaving last week we are now left with our late breeding pair. They come and go quietly and while it is a delight to still see those crescent wings above the garden the season has wound right down. For me the presence of swifts is so intense that it would not be sustainable for more than three months; for example the continuous early mornings when I am woken by screaming parties before 5am followed by evenings watching them ascend at dusk, which leads to another couple of hours staying up watching noctilucent clouds well past midnight!

The robins are already singing their late summer song which leads my thoughts to autumn and the arrival of beautiful winter visitors. Watching swifts has since my childhood been a passion, without doubt an obsession, but there is so much else to see and inspire; so I’m not going to spend the next eight months or so longing to see them without relishing the beauty of autumn and winter and all those seasons have to offer. Swifts have their niche in the year, it is short and that is part of their mystery and aura. The house martins’ calls fill the air over our garden keeping summer alive for now. Their grace and precision in flight comes into its own without the distraction of swifts hurtling round the eaves. I will enjoy them for the next month at least as two pairs will be feeding young until mid to late September.

It has been another inspiring summer watching swifts. Our colony has increased from one to three pairs and this adds a whole new dimension to next spring as now we shall hope for the return of six breeding age birds. I have amassed hundreds more swift sketches and written thousands of words, firmly implanting this year’s sightings into my memory, ready for recall when I need them most on the darkest evenings of winter.

Below- some highlights of the swift season 2021


August 7th- swift diary

After a week in the Highlands we returned yesterday to plenty of swift activity. Some low level screaming passes welcomed us home as we unpacked, even in the cool showery conditions. All three occupying pairs returned to roost around 9pm. They act very much as a colony, feeding together before darting into their boxes in a short space of time. The nearby village hall also has most if not all of its occupying birds roosting so there is plenty of swift action to see. At least 83% of breeding and occupying non breeders returned to roost in Gilling East last night. All younger non breeders without nest sites seem to have departed.

One of our roosting pairs is a late breeding pair, their young should fledge around 20th August and I would expect them to stay until then, but the other two pairs are interesting because they are lingering; our original breeding pair, this year breeding for their third year saw their young fledge eleven days ago but they still roost every night and they are still nest building in a defined period around mid morning, bringing in feathers and thistle down and really bolstering the nest cup after this season’s wear and tear; I still find it amazing that that some swifts build a new nest or repair a used nest ready to use in the following year. To me this seems to offer a great message of hope and trust that all will be well.

Our third pair first entered their nest box on 4th July this year and they still roost each night. By now, having followed our breeding birds they will have extensive knowledge of colony life. They will have learnt all the prime feeding spots in different weathers and at different times of the day from May to August. When they first enter the nest box together their soft piping calls are intense before they settle. The bond they have formed is unbreakable for now. If both survive the next nine months they will be prepared to breed without delay in May 2022.

So yesterday evening I counted our six swifts home to roost, listening to the air rush over their wings and sketching their dramatic silhouettes as they sped towards the eaves against a gorgeous dusk sky. Next spring will be very different to this year’s when we welcomed home our only pair. The colony is growing now and there is some security in knowing that there are more birds to keep it alive for next year and that is a lovely thought to have in the middle of winter.

Swift nest building and repairing this morning- adding feathers and thistle down to a nest used to raise chicks this year.
Swifts coming back to roost yesterday evening at 8.51pm.




29th July- swift and house martin diary

House martin diary

Yesterday evening after the warm humid air was swept away we found ourselves in very breezy fresher air. A strong westerly wind was shaking the tree tops. This forced the house martins to feed in the lee of the woods, twisting amongst the tops of the tall limes. Swifts too swooped in low over the woods to feed, but as dusk approached they started to gather above breeding sites.

I stood on the back lawn mesmerised by approximately thirty swifts and twenty five house martins hanging in the strong wind. The were at varying height between eaves level and about five hundred feet. Occasionally all the swifts would swirl together and scream before the breeze forced them to face back into the wind again. They were almost motionless at times the swifts holding themselves on bowed wings. As dusk approached the house martins descended, eight breeding adults back into their nests. This year’s fledglings tried unsuccessfully to follow them; they are no longer welcome and the adults push them away if they try to enter.

The increasingly independent house martin fledglings are forced to find a roost site of their own. I have seen them roost in trees, sometimes very near the nests they came from. They fly extremely fast around tree tops at dusk and as if by magic disappear into the foliage, a habit they may continue in rain forests in their wintering grounds?

Swift diary

The swifts as ever surprise me. The numbers last night were near the peak of early July. There was no low level screaming but no obvious decline in numbers from a week or so ago, it’s just the birds stayed higher. We have been treated to some fine low level fast passes in recent days and more prospecting too. This morning, although breezy and cloudy we saw more prospecting than on recent very warm days. They were probably older non breeding birds taking a last look before departure.

Though we have seen a decline in prospecting recently it is quite possible there will be more to come before the final mass departure. Last year I well remember a morning of frantic prospecting on 14th August, so as always with swifts never say never!


Swifts and house martins- watercolour studies.