Swifts really are the birds of the moment. They’re now returned to many areas of the UK after a winter spent in Africa to scream and scythe their way through the sky. Many more are winging their way to us, so keep scanning the skies for that unmistakable sickle-winged shape, and listening out for those calls. If “your” birds aren’t back yet, don’t worry: swifts will continue to arrive throughout May.
There's no mistaking a swift - just remember all black plumage and "boomerang" shape (Mike Langman rspb-images.com)
Our Summer 2017 Nature’s Home magazine has the most beautiful close up swift on the cover (it’s my favourite cover ever) and a great feature all about the work going on in towns and cities around the UK to help them - building the swift cities! Not only that, we need you to tell us about your swifts this summer in the RSPB swift survey. This really is the month of the swift.
What a beauty - check out those big eyes and a bill that was made for insect-eating (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
I’ve picked out 10 of my favourite swift facts from the RSPB’s archives to keep the swift celebration going and to hopefully tickle your fancy with a few things about these amazing birds you may not know...
1.Swifts have an average life span of about five and a half years. One bird in Oxford was found dying in 1964, 16 years after it was ringed as an adult, so was likely to be at least 18 years old. This bird probably flew about four million miles in its lifetime, the same as flying to the moon and back eight times.2.Swifts have four toes, four arranged in twos, with each pair pointing sideways rather than forwards, a bit like a chameleon or a koala.3.They use saliva for building their nests in roof spaces and cavities.
4.The swift probably eats more species of small insect and spiders than any other UK bird – well over 300.
5.Swifts drink by gliding over smooth water and taking sips and bathe by flying slowly through falling rain.
Swifts very rarely land, but they have to for nesting of course (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
6. Their eyes have moveable bristles in front – sunglasses for reducing glare when they are on the wing.
7. Swifts can sleep on the wing – a French Airman in the 1914-18 war glided down with engines off behind enemy lines. At 10,000 feet he found himself amongst apparently motionless birds. One of them was caught in the machine and on the following day was found to be an adult male swift.
8.When they are about month old, baby swifts do ‘press ups’ in the nest to strengthen their wings. They lift themselves up by pushing down on their wings. By the time they’re ready to go, they can hold their bodies clear off the ground like this for several seconds.9.Each ball of food that the parents bring to their babies weighs just over a gram and contains 300-1,000 individual insects and spiders.
10.There are seven species of swift on the UK list. Our familiar swift is the only one that that breeds here, but there are six other rare visitors. The Alpine swift is a big swift with white underparts and throat, but the pallid swift is extremely similar to “our” swift. The little swift lives up to its name and has a white rump like a house martin. Then there are the really rare ones: Pacific swift, chimney swift from North America and the awesome, and incredibly fast, needle-tailed swift.Tell us about your swifts!
Once your local swifts have returned, We'd like you to let us know where you have seen them and where they're nesting. Watch out for screaming groups of swifts flying at roof-height (that means they're breeding nearby), or where you've seen swifts entering a roof or hole in a building, which means they are probably nesting.
We need sightings from anywhere across the UK and you can enter as many records as you like at different times. You can even submit sightings you remember from the past - the more records, the better!
Put some time in your diary this summer for searching for swifts - and tell us about them! (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
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. Your information will increase the RSPB's knowledge of swifts, so that more nest sites can be provided and protected for these beautiful birds during their short, but very important time spent in the UK.
Have a great swift summer!
The sun is shining, the shorts are on and the garden is in full bloom. It’s time for looking after the bees and the butterflies, the bugs and the beetles. You’ve done your bit to help your birds through winter by supplying them with nutritious, tasty treats and ticked off Big Garden Birdwatch, so it’s time to retire your feeders to the shed and tie up those seed sacks. Bird feeding - job done until the frosts come in late autumn, right?
Not exactly... You might be surprised to learn that it’s still important to feed your garden birds through spring, so here are the top five reasons why your birds will be thanking you for full feeders now spring is here.
1.Dressing to impressIf you’re a male bird out to impress, glossy, well-oiled and well-groomed feathers, gleaming bright “bare parts” (that’s legs, feet, eyes and beaks), a beautiful song and elaborate display will stand you in good stead when it comes to finding a mate. You also need to find a territory and then defend it against all comers, so you need to be fighting fit and have plenty of energy. With all that pressure to look and feel good, plenty of high-quality food to get into, and stay in, top condition, is a must.
It's not easy looking this good! Feeding birds, such as greenfinches, through spring means that they'll be in tip top condition for impressing a mate (Ben Hall rspb-images.com)
2.Building the ideal home
It’s not just about the boys though. Female birds also need to get into the best of health to help them lay fertile eggs - and plenty of them. The bigger the clutch, the greater chance of raising young to adulthood. And before all that, there is the not small task of nest building, which both birds of a pair may take part in, depending on the species. The female often has the final say when it comes to location and in the case of the wren, the male does all the building for several nests and is no doubt greatly relieved when a suitable home is finally given the thumbs up!
Making a nest requires a lot of effort and uses up energy, so keep your birdtable and feeders filled through spring (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
3.Bringing up baby
Resident birds soon have their first brood hatched out once April arrives. Robins and blackbirds are among the first young of the year to appear and while the parents are so busy tending to their fast-growing young, it’s all too easy for them to forget about themselves. Healthy, well-fed parents means a greater chance of more chicks surviving because they have the energy to work round the clock on the young's needs.
Healthy, well fed parents, like this song thrush, means that they can concentrate their efforts on finding food for their young (Mike Richards rspb-images.com)
4.The UK weather!
Let’s face it, the UK summer is unpredictable enough and in spring, anything can happen. Overnight frosts, gales, cold winds, even sleet and snow are all still possible through April and you certainly can’t rely on double figure temperatures. All of this means that natural food in the form of insects can still be hard to find. The ground can be relatively hard too before it warms up or if it is especially dry, so earthworms and other mini-beasts are harder to find too. Periods of really wet weather can be really problematic though, with lower temperatures, and make finding flying insects very difficult.
5.The cupboard is bare
Remember those heady days of last autumn when the hedgerows were full of rosehips, hawthorn and blackthorn berries; the woods were full of beech and hazel nuts and the fields full of seeds spilling out onto the ground? By spring, this natural bounty is pretty much gone and the cupboard, in many cases, is now bare. A good seed mix in your garden will go a long way in filling that gap between seeds and berries being easily available and summer’s abundance of insects. Remember good hygiene though and have a look at the what to feed advice on the RSPB website.
You can help to make sure your garden is full of baby birds by keeping the adults well fed this spring (Ray Kennedy rspb-images.com)
There is lots more advice on feeding your garden birds at this time of year on the RSPB website.
Get a half price bag of RSPB Premium sunflower hearts!To give you, and your garden birds, a helping hand this spring we’re offering a half price 5.5kg bag of Premium sunflower hearts when you spend £35 from the RSPB shop.
My “birthday treat” has taken a slightly different turn in the last few years. Not for me, drinks at the pub with friends, a wild party or a family meal. If the weather forecast promises sun and a temperature of at least nine degrees, I head for the heaths hoping for an encounter with our only venomous snake, the adder.
Adders may look a little fierce from certain angles but they are not aggressive at all (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
It took me a long time to see an adder and having spent quite a bit of time looking for them in recent springs, I now know why – they are slippery customers and it is much easier to get it wrong than to get it right when it comes to finding them. So through my pitiful failures (ok it’s not that bad), I hope that you, dear reader, can learn from my mistakes and have a great time with adders this spring.
My birthday adder watch three years ago broke my duck once and for all and to my astonishment I managed to see more than 50 adders in a single morning, including the fabled “dancing” of two males. After that, I admit to having become a little bit cocky and blasé about how easy they are to see.
Find your heath, find your sun and hey presto, it's reptile time (Ben Hall rspb-images.com)
This year’s birthday treat saw me driving a couple of hours to my nearest spot of heathland with a good adder population, arriving at 08.45 ready for what I was convinced would be an adder show to end all adder shows. I expected to be tripping over the sunbathing serpents as they soaked up the early spring rays. The thermometer on my car moved to nine degrees as I pulled up in the car park, I popped on my gators, just in case I surprised a basking adder and a bite ensued and stepped out onto the sunlit slopes.
All the fieldcraft techniques clicked in: tread lightly, ensure shadow does not pass across likely basking spots, search engine tuned in to “coiled dog turd” and wacth for that tell tale zigzag diamond pattern.
Basking adders can look remarkably like a dog turd - until they flick out their tongue!
Things got off to a great start adding to my confidence – a lovely slow-worm coiled up among the bracken and common lizards skittering across the crispy fronds at every turn. Soon after, the temperature shot up and once the sun was out it was very hot. Two hours later, and no adders to show for what seemed like miles of walking, I knew something was wrong and that smug smile was well and truly gone from my face. I began to think I had blown it. It looked as if had warmed up too quickly and the basking beauties had slithered off back under the heather and gorse. "Whoops" I thought (or words to that effect).
It looks like a snake, but it's a legless lizard - the slow-worm is another springtime reptile treat (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
Fortunately, just minutes before I left for my “backup” site, I managed to finally see three adders, including a tiny, red youngster born last year. All quickly slithered back out of sight though. I used another neat trick of putting a stick in the ground at the basking spots so I could return when they had come back out again, but they did not return.
At the next destination, just 10 minutes away, things were looking good with woodlarks in song overhead, nestbuilding Dartford warblers, another slow-worm basking away under the blocks of gorse and stacks of common lizards again. Adders were on show here with a further eight added to my tally, but frustratingly all of them very quickly moved into cover once I'd spotted them.
Common lizards are a little more approachable than adders and like to bask too (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
A lesson learnedAll in all, it had been a good morning for numbers of reptiles, just not the views I’d like ideally. My visit had fallen a little in the no man’s land of being a few weeks after the adders had first emerged so they’d had plenty of time to warm up after hibernation and before they shed their skin and become lovely and bright eyed with the males sporting a smart blue-green and black look. There had also not been enough cloud cover so instead of sunny intervals, it had become very hot very quickly.
Lesson of the day? Never, ever, become cocky where nature is concerned, or make any assumptions!