Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Swifts ~ upon charcoal wings

A Swift glides effortlessly across the surface of the water
photo credit RSPB website

Last week the Swifts gathered in large numbers overhead, flying low and shrieking loudly.  They were preparing to leave their summer homes here in the United Kingdom and begin their perilous and long flight to their winter home. The RSPB website tells us, "Our UK Swifts migrate through France and Spain to spend their winter in Africa, south of the Sahara, where they follow the rains to take advantage of rapid changes in insect populations. While many immature birds return to the breeding grounds in the spring, some will remain in Africa."  It is not known exactly how long that Swifts live, some monitored birds have been at least 16 years, but the average is apparently around 6.

Martin Ridley, Swifts, Summer Evenings
His wildlife art on his website, Here:
Martin's post about the Swifts on his home, Here:
Those found in the UK are known as 'Common Swifts', though I have never seen anything common about them. We only have the joy of them for a few weeks. They more than any other bird herald the coming of summer. They arrive earlier than House Martins and Swallows, and they leave sooner. Though they live in two places, this is considered their home because it is here that they breed, bringing up just one brood. The years when our summers are very wet are difficult for them. They struggle to find enough to eat and their broods may not survive.

They make their homes in slits in tall buildings and their habitats are threatened by demolition and change. But there is hope. In several quarters people who love them are making a difference to their survival.

Oxford University Natural History Museum
from their website, Here:
When I visit Oxford I always try to take time to go to Oxford University Natural History Museum which is not only a wonderful Arts and Crafts building but is also a magical museum. I have often heard the Swifts overhead while there and on one visit the museum staff explained to us that they have nested in the ventilation flues in the tower for many years. They have been the subject of the Oxford Univeristy Swift Research Project which was begun in 1947 by David and Elizabeth Lack.  The book that David wrote about his study was ground breaking and if you are interested in the species it is worth the effort to find a copy from second hand book dealers. 

You can read more about the Swifts that live at the museum on their website, and it offers a special treat - you can watch them nesting in the summer months on their webcam, but they will be gone now and to do this you will need to check back next April when they begin to return.  Here:

And there is a follow up book by Roy Overall and Andrew Lack, son of David, they have monitored the Museum swifts every year since 1962.

Swifts are not technically related to our other summer visitors the House Martins and Swallows but you often see them all sharing the sky. They are different in one very significant way too, while the latter two are mostly country birds preferring cottages and farms Swifts are often found in towns, especially if they have tall buildings. But they also like a country setting too.

Swift (lower left) and Martins and Swallow (upper right).
Photo Credit BBC How to Identify each bird, Here:

Superstition surround these charcoal winged birds which to some resemble bats. Like many other black coloured birds they suffer prejudice. or me they bring joy and wonder.  Because of their mysterious nature in the past people believed that many of these summer visitors actually hibernated in the winter and thought they did so in the mud of ponds.

From the RSPB website page Help Save Swifts, Here:

Their little faces are smaller than that of House Martins and Swallows, and they lack the quick glmpses of colour, the blue on the wings, the white on the little bodies, or that red on the throat of the Swallow. This lack of colour may seem sinister to some.

Their very nature makes them seem less friendly than house Martins and Swallows who build their nests upon our houses, or in barns and chatter sweetly amongst themselves. Their gossip is calming and soothing. In contrast the shrieking of Swifts can seen harsh, although I always think that they are making their noises in the sheer exhilaration of being able to fly so high, swop so low over meadows and lake at such speed. 

Swifts by Paul Robinson, 1923
His website is Here:
Swifts are very aptly named, they are indeed swift in flight and spend almost all of their life on the wing, eating, mating and even sleeping in the air.  This makes them impossibly magical to me. They have the smallest legs of any bird, tiny claw like feet, with which they cling vertically to building and their nest. It is rare to see them still, and should you ever come across one on the ground know that it is in great danger and needs your help.

Photo from Action for Swifts, Here:

Action For Swifts has been helping Swifts for many years. You can read all about Swifts, the work they do to help them, and what to do should you come across a grounded Swift on their excellent website, Here:

Yet many people remain totally unaware of their presence as often they fly so high in the skies that only their scimitar outline can be seen and their shrieking is faint.  I find it amazing that so few people actually look up. What glories they miss there amongst the clouds.

Art Deco enamelled Swift brooch, Pierre Bex, France
website, Here:

You will find that Swallows and House Martins are much more often depicted in paintings, upon china or cast in jewels than the Swift. Every now and then I come across them or find words of inspiration written about them. I think the poem by Ted Hughes perfectly captures the feeling of magic in this painting below.


They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come

Ted Hughes ~

Common Swifts by Bruno Liljefors, 1886
His Wiki page, Here:

I love all of these summer visitors and await the arrival of them in our village each year. When it is time for them to leave I am always filled with a melancholy. Another summer has come to it's close. I never know how many of my winged friends will make the return journey the next year, or as life itself is fragile, if I will be here to welcome them home once more.

Olde Isleworth by The Thames
Swifts would be an impossible joy to me regardless but they hold a very special place in my heart because of my meeting with one when I was young and discovering all the wonder of nature. In those days I lived in a Victorian villa by the river in Olde Isleworth which was 4 stories high, one of the tallest buildings in the area bar the church and nunnery school. We had a Swift nest close by. I would stick my head out to listen to what they were saying to each other as they spun by and I was lucky to have a closer look at them. One day to my horror I found a young Swift on the ground. I cupped it in my hands and rushed home. It was bat like with a tiny face and great wings, such soft velvet like feathers of many shades of grey and black. Fortunately a phone call to a nature shelter provided me with the necessary information to assist this bird. After checking that the bird was sound, no broken wings or bones, I took it upstairs to the top of the attic and threw open the window. Holding it loosely on my hands it began to stir as it smelled the air and it moved it's wings. With great trepidation and a prayer I hoped that it would take wing.  I held my breath.

Common Swift in palm by zerofilius
on Deviant Art, Here:
It flew. And soared, and I swear that it went past me several times before continuing higher into the skies where I could never follow.

Swift by Jeffrey Fisher
His website, Here:


Other places you can read more about these fascinating birds.

David Attenborough presents the Swift on Tweet of the Day

Swift Conservation, their website is full of information. Here:

Royal Society of Preservation Birds (RSPB), Here:


  1. Fantastic story of the Swifts, excellent LeeAnn.

  2. Hi! Thank you for visiting my blog! What a great post here!

  3. Hi LeeAnn..what a deeply special tribute...I absolutely love swifts, they are bewildering beauties!( and like you I have an affinity for all birds that seem less desired by some..they are special to me) Gorgeous art and photos you have shared! I am so thrilled your touching story of the rescued swift had a happy beautiful and healing.
    Thanks for a fantastic post!

  4. How beautiful! I must look up more about this graceful bird. I don't think I've ever seen one.

  5. I love swifts. One of the means of identification to me is that if a swallow-like bird is flying too fast to be identified properly, then it's a swift, lol.
    Fabulous post, LeeAnn, and I find all your posts very inspiring. I especially love the Bruno Liljefors painting. Cheers. :)

  6. Dearest Lee Ann,
    Quite a surprise, for our standards of still very hot weather here in Georgia/USA, to read that your Common Swifts are already flying south bound! A very interesting bird this Apus apps, with a variety of names in the different languages.
    Thanks for sharing with us.

  7. What a beautiful and interesting post. They are pretty and graceful birds. I love the brooch and the Bruno Liljefors painting.

  8. Richard Mabey wrote about a childhood superstition where you had to hold onto your collar on the day the swallows/swifts were due back.This ensured their safe return.Have you heard of it?
    Just found your blog.Loved the recent Potter post.Grew up on the books.

  9. What a wonderful post! I have always loved swallows and swifts. I too feel a lift to the heart and a sadness at their arrival and departure. Jane xx


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