11 May Swifts Return

The first summer swift flew over the house on Tuesday, only four days later than last year.

It signalled the end of this spell of north easterly winds with their cold grey skies and cheerless spring. Despite the lack of warmth, the resident birds have successfully raised broods and the garden is busy with robin, sparrow, blackbird and starling families. But the fortunes of the spring bringers, the migrants we look for each year, are less hopeful.

Four house martins are attempting to repair their nest, needing around 1000 pellets of mud to achieve this. I am recording their activity here as part of the BTO House Martin survey, spending about 30 minutes a day watching their activity. BTO studies suggest that mud needs to be found within 300 metres for successful nest building. Although they fly in across the back field I can’t see where they are getting the mud from in this dry spring. House martin numbers are declining across southern and eastern Britain so I am willing them to have a successful year.

On Tuesday night the wind swung round to the south east bringing with it whitethroats and lesser whitethroats, now rattling out their dry songs from the hedgerows. And high up, black arrows in the summer blue, six swifts circled on their way north.

Today we bask in warm humid air and the sky is busy. Above us there are house martins, swallows and swifts looping through air, catching flies and filling the sky with summer sounds. It is a relief to see them back. The return of the swift is perhaps, after the cuckoo, the most looked for spring returner. Richard Mabey, in his book Nature Cure, writes of his joy at the return of the swift: “Some old romantic yell sang in me.” Many people quote Ted Hughes’ poem: “They’ve made it again/Which means the globe’s still working.”

What is it about the swifts’ return to our skies – is it their screaming flight, twisting and tumbling through streets and villages, over lanes and fields; is it their airborne life making us feel so shackled to the ground, or is it just these are the last of the summer migrants to arrive and so we sigh with relief, like Ted Hughes, and bless the fact that the cycles and seasons are still going round.

Yesterday evening I went to a Tree Wardens’ meeting and found myself asking: “Have you seen the swifts yet?” And of course they had. We were told of the increasing difficulty for swifts now that so many houses are being restored, lofts made airtight and insulated. Where are the broken tiles that let in the light and the gappy overhang under the eaves. How many swifts must swoop into the site of their old nests and, tiny crumpled feet curling, find the way barred.

In nearby Harleston, the community have created a welcome for swifts, even flying a flag in the town saying ‘Welcome Back’. Children have created mobiles of colourful swifts and the town is readying itself to help the swifts. In Stowmarket, swift boxes have been fixed to the church walls. Gradually people are beginning to understand the need for nest sites. Special nest boxes and swift bricks are being developed to help provide suitable spaces in our homes.

I hope we succeed for how dull would our summers be without the screaming swift piercing the air with its joyous flight and the late sorties of young swifts racing through our streets before their long return flights south.

For more on swifts and how to help provide nest spaces in your building see:


Photo courtesy of Saxifraga – Luc Hoogenstein