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Swifts in a typical English summer

We’ve seen some classic English summer this week with a variety of weather ranging from very warm days to cool breezy days and some periods of much needed rain. The youngest non- breeders put on a lovely show for a couple of days in the heat last week but have not returned since, so the colony is largely quiet again. Adults are brooding their week old young quite late into the morning in the cooler conditions to keep them warm, but there seems to be plenty of food coming in from mid morning on. All eight chicks on camera look strong and healthy. There are chicks in a fourth box but I don’t know how many.

The young non-breeders vanished last Friday after ripping up our airspace for a couple of days with their crazy fast passes and mad flings at the wall! The east coast of Yorkshire saw some southerly swift movement on that day. This is almost guaranteed when our yearlings go, but I cannot of course be sure why so many end up on the coast or where exactly they are from. I do know that they will be back when the weather improves from all but the very late July/ early August departures.

Some swifts appear to be bonded in flight before they have a nest site. They follow each other very closely and constantly and make the bonding ‘peep’ call to each other- this call or very similar is heard when birds first enter a nest site together. These pairs sometimes perform a display flight in which they quiver their wing tips while making the bonding call as they approach the eaves. It’s a beautiful flight to watch- often both birds wing quiver and call in unison. These pairs are likely to find a nest site this year and settle without breeding, perhaps building a nest. Such non-breeding pairs being older are now committed to the colony and do not disappear with the yearlings unless the weather is exceptionally bad. I can now watch this potential new pair fitting in to our colony and they have a ‘tagger’ who might be one of our 6th pair. He(?) follows them everywhere as he learns the colony feeding areas in all weathers. This could explain why observers often see flypasts of three swifts?

I have been delighted and moved really by the way this colony has settled down in the last three years- three pairs right next to each other and a fourth on a different side of the house. All were in spectacular screaming flypasts until incubation began, when the skies suddenly turned much quieter as they all started diligently tending to eggs then nestlings. This seems to show the importance of those joint flypasts in cementing the colony as a unit- but as ever this is speculation. 

I was privileged to sketch on stage and talk about my passion for swifts at a Welcome Back Swifts event at the Friends Meeting House, Pickering on Saturday afternoon. There is great work for swift conservation happening in Pickering, with boxes now installed on the North York Moors Railway engine sheds as well as many houses. Swifts were celebrated through painting, poetry, writing, harp music and song. It was a relaxed afternoon celebrating the inspiration and joy that comes from knowing swifts. Depressing statistics of decline were generally avoided and a like minded crowd were immersed in swift adoration. Thank you for inviting me. It was wonderful to see the arts used effectively for conservation.

All images and text copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022

One of our fifth pair prospecting this morning? I hope.
Sketching on swifts on stage at Friends Meeting House, Pickering at the Welcome Back Swifts afternoon.

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