This week, I've been finding all my evening entertainment in our resident swift colony. But let's just say the photographic evidence leaves something to be desired.
I have absolutely loved this ‘heatwave’. I used to live in Sydney, Australia, and this week’s weather has reminded me of innumerate summer evenings on my little apartment balcony overlooking the vast Pacific, with groups of wild rainbow lorikeets splashing noisily in the bird bath, and licking mango juice from my fingers with their tickly black tongues.
Gratuitous rainbow lorikeet shot – just because I still love these old Aussie friends.
So this week, after each long, swelteringly hot day of RSPB magazine-making, I’ve been recreating that Antipodean scene on my typically English back patio, but with friendly collared doves in the birdbath and the gaggles of friendly lorikeets replaced by my favourite British summer bird (albeit a much more aloof one): our resident swifts.
On such deliciously balmy evenings, I’m not interested in watching TV (except Springwatch) or being indoors. Having got the kids in bed, you’ll find the two of us chatting on the back patio, with the swifts soaring metres above our heads. The sound of 20-plus swifts shrieking through the sky is a summer lullaby to my children.
Every now and then, our conversation is interrupted with a ‘wooooaaaah!’ as half a dozen swifts zoom really, really close to us in perfect, noisy formation.
And all week, every evening, I’ve been trying to take photos of them on my phone. It has really NOT been going well.
A ‘woaaah’ moment, captured in this – the first of many swift photo fails.
Swifts move seriously fast. They’ll happily zoom around at over 50mph on those boomerang wings of theirs. Peregrines can stoop faster, but swifts hold the speed record for level flight. That’s definitely faster than I can move my camera. And they’re precision fliers – turning on a sixpence in mid-air without warning. When they’re flying high, it’s easier to at least get them in shot, but they come out looking like this.
I have about 100 similarly indistinct photos sitting on my camera, if you’re interested.
And when they’re flying low, you can see them more clearly, but the speed at which they flash past usually results in shots like this:
They’re too quick for me!
They never touch ground, so apart from the odd second or two on a windowsill or eaves, they don’t keep still long enough to snap.
We have at least one swift family nesting in the edge of our attic. The adults will loop a couple of close fly-bys before hurtling straight at the building at full tilt, and we suddenly hear the ‘thwump’ of feathers as they slip through the tiny gap under the roof tiles, to be immediately yelled at by an unknown number of shrieking swiftlets hiding in the eaves.
Sometimes, part of the adult – a wing or a tail – remains visible for a moment, overhanging the edge of the building, or they might perch for a second on a windowsill, but by the time I get the camera going, they’ve vanished inside. Then there’s no telling when they’ll emerge again. It might be moments later, or not until the following morning. I’ve run down my phone batteries from training its camera on the eaves, to no avail.
They usually wait until the moment I give up and put the camera down, then I’ll see a brown head and shoulders peer mockingly down at me, before the parent launches into the salmon-pink sunset. She joins the wheeling flocks and they fly low over my face, laughing heartily at my total abject failure to snap this spectacle.
Go on then. Giggle away.
I’m intrigued by their lives, and listen to them socialising. They clearly all know each other, these guys – it’s the same families turning up year after year, and the adult hidden in my eaves will shriek loudly in response to calls from others zooming close by. Perhaps they’re her children from a previous year, or her siblings.
Perhaps they’ve asked her to join them for dinner and she’s just telling them, “Yeah yeah, I’ll be out in a moment, Mbuyi – I’m just getting these pesky kids to bed!” (I like to give them African names, since that’s where they spend most of their time).
There’s certainly an awful lot of late-night chatter between those in the eaves and those in the air. I’m dying to have a look at the family hiding in my attic, but I daren’t disturb them – even though my favourite summer shoes are up there somewhere!
Eventually, my camera and I are defeated by darkness. I head indoors and their screaming fades, albeit only slightly. Apparently swifts can power-nap on the wing. I wonder how they manage to zoom around at insane speeds while sleeping, and not even crash… imagine if we humans could do that – the global economy would be steaming.
My swifts returned from central Africa to their ancestral breeding grounds – our street – on the last day of April and, judging by the cacophony in my roof, the family is doing very well. This is despite earlier spells of cold and wet weather. Swift chicks are unique in being able to enter a torpid state and survive without food or parents for several days, so the parents can commute away to seek sustenance in more benign regions. I thought I might have lost them. All seems back on track now, though.
Last year, they vanished suddenly, one day in August. The young will launch themselves from my eaves from their first flight, head straight off back to Africa, and the skies will fall silent. It’s a sad day for us, but they’ll be back next year to start families of their own. And then I can start another season of patio-based photo fails.
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Have you managed to successfully snap any swifts, swallows or even house martins in flight? All tips and inspiration welcome – share your snaps by emailing us at the magazine!
Phew! I hope you've been getting out in this hot weather. I know I have, as you've got to make the most of it before the British summer hits. Sticking to my word and hunting down some damselflies and dragonflies, I thought I'd head out to a very local reserve last weekend. RSPB Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire is just down the road from me, a measly 10 miles, so in stunning weather there really was no excuse not to visit.
If I'm honest, I was making the trip to Fowlmere to see turtle doves. It's probably the best place to see them near me, and as such an important and current species for the RSPB and conservation generally right now, I felt I had to see one while they're purring. Danny claimed we were guaranteed to see them at Fowlmere, and sometimes he knows what he's talking about.
Reed warblers from the first hide – probably the only time I've had a completely unobscured view of a warbler (Photo: Jack Plumb)
What better way is there to travel through the great British countryside than on a bike? At 10 miles away, I felt cycling to Fowlmere would go some way towards my training for an event later in the year, and of course you've gotta put your money where your mouth is if you work for the environment. I highly recommend wildlife by bike. On the way there and on the way back we saw several things you just otherwise wouldn't have noticed. At the top of a tree a short distance from the reserve, a corn bunting was blaring out its high-pitched football rattle call, and just by my house on the way back there was a special family moment.
Everyone's favourite neighbours in Grantchester (Photo: Jack Plumb)
Most of the wildlife treats were to be had on the reserve itself though. The two chipper volunteers on duty were keen to help point out on a map where to find what we were after, and had had some great sightings themselves on that blistering Sunday. Several turtle doves, all male apparently, were about on the reserve. The water voles were there, as usual – you could hardly blame them wanting to bath in the crystal clear water on a hot day. And finally a bit of a new one for me from a wildlife watching perspective, trout.
Super hi-tech shot of a trout – I'm available for photography work, including weddings (Photo: Jack Plumb)
We saw it all, and then some. Two turtle doves, purring away, happy to give us some great views – mission accomplished as far I was concerned. Several trout, suspended in the lazy current of the beautiful natural chalk spring-fed stream. Bizarrely good views of two reed warblers from the first hide, and a hairy dragonfly on the walkway. A kingfisher darted across the open water from the second hide (which is a 360 degree view tower on stilts – well worth looking out from), and a Cetti's warbler went out on a high and stayed for an encore.
A fine view to end the day with – thanks Fowlmere! (Photo: Jack Plumb)
The little reserve packed a lot in, and I felt a bit ashamed I'd never been before. I'll be going again soon, and I'm already looking forward to how the reserve changes with the seasons. Plus there was a great looking pub about halfway. Who's up for a cycle?
I spent last week in the sweltering heat of Tuscany and arrived back on Saturday to find conditions back here in the UK pretty much the same!
But it isn’t just the weather that linked my first trip to Italy and what's going on here in the UK. A surprise visitor to my garden pre-work this morning took me right back to Italy. My wife Laura was hanging the washing out and I, of course, was doing my equal share of the chores inside (cough). As I was idly watching her while doing said important share of the housework, I spied a movement next to the single red valerian plant I have managed to establish in the back border just behind her. It is about ten metres from the kitchen windows, but I could see it was hovering and suspected it was something very interesting...
Red valerian is very popular with one of our best insects – the hummingbird hawkmoth. I’d seen a few in Italy last week and I was pretty confident, I may have been looking at a long-awaited garden first. I yelled at Laura to check if it was a hummingbird hawkmoth, Her reply of “I think so”, had me racing outside. It was indeed and I managed five seconds of great views of it nectaring at the red flowers before it did what these super active moths do, zipped high up in the air and tanked away over the rooftops.
The scene in my garden this morning - hummingbird hawkmoth at red valerian (Ben Andrew rspb-images.org)
There is nothing like planting something or making something in the garden with a specific species in mind and then seeing it pay off. My pond clearance has resulted in a healthy populations of smooth newts this summer and a common toad making the backbreaking work well worthwhile. See what you can do by visiting our Giving Nature a Home pages and getting a personal plan for your garden.
If there’s one thing that weather like this is good for, it is insects, so keep a close eye on your flowers over the next few days, or head to the waterside to look for dragonflies and damselflies. Enjoy the sunshine while you can!