Author: Rupert Masefield

I used to dream I could fly. Or more accurately, I flew in my dreams. Lots of people do – flying is one of the most common themes for our dreams. Theories abound as to the ‘meaning’, symbolism, and causes of dreams about flying. Don’t ask me to interpret their significance, that’s not what this is about and it’s not really something I want to understand. I’d much rather focus on the sensation of speeding through the air, soaring above the ground far below, wheeling and diving – as free as it’s possible to be from the restrictive action of gravity without going into orbit.

This, I imagine, is the feeling swifts get to experience almost continuously from the moment they first leap from their cliff-side ledge nests. I think the kind of flying I dreamed about is the kind of flying swifts, the fastest and most agile of birds, do in their sleep – literally, seeing as they sleep ‘on the wing’. I have to imagine it, as I’ve never had the inclination to try parachuting or don a ‘wing-suit’ myself. Instead, I’m content to experience the joy of flying vicariously by watching these aerial acrobats in action each spring and summer when they arrive back in the UK to breed.

 Did you know? From the moment they leave the nests, young swifts will generally not land again until they are two years old, when they reach breeding maturity!

I’m often alerted to their presence in the sky above by the screaming calls before catching a glimpse of them. As much of scream as it sounds they are having though – and I don’t doubt they are – swifts on the whole are facing an uncertain future. We have lost half – half! – of our breeding swifts in the UK since the mid-1990s, which has triggered a warning light for conservationists, with the swift being categorised as ‘Amber’ on the UK’s traffic light system of Bird of Conservation Concern. That is why the RSPB is asking people across the country to help it find out where swifts are nesting to inform conservation efforts for the birds where they breed.

 Look out for swifts this May as they return to the UK and send your sightings to the RSPB Swift Survey at

The national RSPB Swift Survey was first created in 2009, to collect data from the public on nesting swifts. It is important to record locations of swift nest sites around the UK as this information can then be used by

 What to look for 

Watch out for screaming groups of swifts flying at roof-height (that means they're breeding nearby), or where you've seen swifts nesting - perhaps entering a roof or hole in a building. You don't need to report sightings of swifts that are either very high in the sky, feeding over water bodies or away from villages, towns and cities. These birds could have traveled some distance and may not be local breeding birds.

Photo credit: Ben Andrew

When to look

The best time to look is around dusk on a warm, still evening, or early morning. And if you can see the nest, it's not a swift! 

The first swifts usually start to be seen in April, but these really are the early birds and most will not get here until May. As soon as they arrive, swifts start looking for somewhere to nest.

 June and July are the best months to look for screaming swifts, around dusk or early morning. These are likely to be young birds pairing up for the first time looking for potential nest sites.

If you have sent in records before, it’s important to know if birds are still returning to the same areas. Please tell us what’s happening there this year. This helps us know if the birds are returning, if the colony is stable and if the site is still in use.

Is it a swift, is it a swallow, or is it a house martin?

One thing you’ll need to be sure of before you start recording the swifts you see and reporting them to the RSPB’s Swift Survey is the difference between a swift, a swallow, and a house martin (or sand martin). This brief guide will help you tell them apart. For a more detailed look at all three see the RSPB’s online guide:

 House Martin prominent white on the belly, smallest of the three (but that is only helpful if they line up next to each other in a Red Arrows type formation)

 Illustration: house martin, credit: Mike Langman

Photo: house martin collecting mud, credit: Tom Marsh

Swallow – very defined forked tail and red on the head

Illustration: barn swallow, credit: Mike Langman

Photo: barn swallow, credit: Chris Gomersall

Swift dark all over, wings are long and scythe-like

Illustration: swift, credit: Mike Langman

Photo: swift, credit: Mark Thomas

Photo: close-up of a swift, credit: Ben Andrew

You can also help swifts by putting up a swift nestbox on your house or at your office.

Advice on building and installing nestboxes is available on the RSPB website, and a range of nestboxes for swifts and other birds is available to buy from the RSPB online at

To find out more about the RSPB visit

 For information and advice on ways to give nature a home in your back gardens and communities, visit