Summer Daze

It is unsurprising that I have seen few swifts in the centre of York. One evening there were some high up above the Minster’s central tower – and now and then I spot a solitary bird above the garden. The preference of these birds is the open spaces of Yorkshire, rather than the urban quarters. Cycling back from Beningbrough recently we traveled beside open fields near Overton, a very small village mentioned in the Domesday Book. As I looked up to my right I suddenly noticed a sky full of activity – a large number of swifts darting and diving above the land.

They are remarkable birds to watch. High up, flitting among the clouds, swifts dart, spin and slice their path through dense summer air. They are in the element where they spend a remarkable amount of their lives. It is now well established that swifts can remain airborne for months at a time; eating, sleeping and finding moisture on the wing. Given this propensity for flight they aren’t the easiest birds to observe, often circling high up on a summer’s day. Their visits to the UK from Africa usually last about 4 months.

The poet Edward Thomas is not alone in responding to a mood that midsummer can stir in the hearts of many who rest and watch in a landscape steeped in life and heat. In Haymaking the poet is observing the countryside just before dawn, with the pre-mechanised task of harvesting about to begin. Birds in nearby thickets are already singing:

While over them shrill shrieked in his fierce glee
The swift with wings and tail as sharp and narrow
As if the bow had flown off with the arrow. Edward Thomas, Haymaking

The scimitar curve of the swift is perhaps its chief identifier, and the bird’s call is captured beautifully in Thomas’ ‘fierce glee’. An arrow’s flight is a good simile for the speed of the creature, and the idea of the bow going with the arrow captures the taut shape of the swift’s wings.

A swift I photographed last week against light cloud at Lanercost Priory, Cumbria

When you can see a swift at close quarters they become more noticeably different from other birds with which they are often associated, such as swallows. Swifts have a body shape that seems almost prehistoric – which reflects their early divergence from many other species. As Katherine Rundell put it in an excellent 2019 article in the London Review of Books, their antiquity means that they were on ‘nodding acquaintance with the Tyrannosaurus’. In this piece Rundell notes that swifts were one of the inspirations behind the legendary ‘martlet’, which never landed and was believed to have no feet.

In heraldry, the swift is one of the inspirations for the imaginary martlet, a stylised bird without feet. Unable to land, the martlet is a symbol of restlessness and pursuit: of the constant search for knowledge and adventure and learning.

Consider the Swift, by Katherine Rundell LRB Vol. 41 No. 16 · 15 August 2019

The North Yorkshire wildlife artist Jonathan Pomroy (@JonathanMPomroy) is a keen observer of swifts, and in the recent heatwave he noted the way these, and other birds, achieve some extra release of warmth: they dangle their feet in flight. Jonathan’s watercolours capture the detail, beauty and speed of the birds, which is certainly a challenge when the air is so hot that watercolours don’t perform as they should.

Our brief summer visitors were placed on the ‘Red List’ at the end of 2021, following a decline of more than 50% in the last 25 years. There are many reasons for this, with one major factor being the rising number of building conversions. Swifts are creatures of habit and return to the same site to nest. Renovation work might close gaps and holes that are essential for their survival. If the nesting place has disappeared it makes it less likely that a pair will breed. Many agencies are advocating the use of swift nest boxes and encouraging people to consider the consequences of building works. It would be a devastating loss if these summer visitors vanished from a landscape which they fill each year with life, beauty and dazzling displays of aerial brilliance.

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