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