The morning started with a very early(4.23am) ‘screaming’ pass from swifts. I was already awake at 4am for a bird survey in Gilling Woods so it was a pleasure to witness this pass of birds that had roosted in the sky. It certainly awoke our breeding pairs who responded with duetting screams.
I knew immediately that new swifts had arrived, the start of the ‘third wave’ of the youngest non- breeding swifts. Remarkably here in Gilling East these new birds have arrived on 23rd June in 2020, 2021 and now 2022! I hadn’t dared to expect their arrival on the same day in June again, particularly after several days of good weather, but here they are, bang on time probably governed in a large part by light levels and hence day length- they know their time. It does seem beyond coincidence.
This was the beginning of a morning of frantic bursts of swift activity, most notably 7.45, 11 and 11.45 am. Even at established colonies this activity may only last 10-20 minutes- such high energy flight needs refuelling. The heat kept the action going and swifts piled in to the eaves. At such times I hardly know where to look let alone sketch. Swifts criss-cross each other sometimes a few centimetres from my head. House martins flit in between them and return to their nests to fend them off; one established breeding pair currently feeding nestlings immediately started bolstering the nest entrance with more mud, a reaction I have seen before. Swifts with their extra weight and forceful landing often knock chunks off natural house martin nests. It is a temporary hindrance and the martins soon sure up the structure, often making it thicker.
So how do we tell these are younger swifts, when essentially they look the same? By their behaviour. Suddenly there are more fast screaming passes, more random approaches and cling-ons anywhere and everywhere around the eaves! If one bird clings another often immediately joins it, sometimes landing on its back- they fall away calling wildly. Approaches to the eaves are much more random, from all directions, Suddenly you notice swifts on flightpaths you haven’t seen them on before. Dawn low passes are common causing the swift watcher to lack sleep! Ascending roosting parties grow in number overnight. From now these ascending parties are a beautiful fading sight and sound as the tight flock disappears into the twilight above.
I watch the new birds and try to fathom out what they are doing, noticing their practise approaches and first attempts to cling to walls or nest boxes, but accept that they are very unlikely to enter any nest sites this year. With each landing the young swifts learn a little more until they are mature enough perhaps next year or even the year after, to seriously prospect for nest sites and find a mate. I sit and sketch them raising the binoculars quickly to gain an impression of their brief cling ons.
For those of you playing calls and hoping to attract swifts, make sure they are playing between 7-9am at the very least. The swift sessions between 7-9am always seem particularly intense here, but on a day as warm as this with the swifts fuelled by abundant insects they may appear at anytime from dawn to dusk- but much more likely in the morning. Evenings here are more likely to see low level fast passes.
Around the summer solstice I record late returns of breeding swifts to their boxes. The record here is 10.23pm. I have recorded returns in this very minute several times and it has not yet been exceeded. In Wiltshire any returns after 10pm were late whereas the further north and west swift colonies are the later the returns, proving that their roosting returns are governed by light levels. The last few nights have been ideal for late roosters with cloudless skies. As non breeders ascend to roost aloft our breeders often join them up to a certain height then break off to descend at breakneck speed to their boxes.
It’s worth pointing out that all these observations are very much about this colony. Much will vary between different colonies, but much will be the same too, so I hope readers will recognise many times and behaviours recorded. Savour every moment of swift watching, for most of the UK the bulk of these birds will be departing in about five weeks.
All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2002