Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Last In first Out

Swift on the wing © John N Murphy

Spring seems like a lifetime ago. The end of May was the last prolonged spell of fine weather we received from the gods, and it now feels like it was our summer.  Way back then we welcomed the long summer evenings that were rapidly approaching and people looked forward to warm days and the return of the Cuckoo and Swallow.  Both species are supposidly a natural indicator that summer has officially arrived. How wrong we were, we are still awaiting the summer, one that we now hope will be an Indian summer and it might arrive in late August or September.

Now that we have come close to the end of our summer and Autumn is in the air, we were not the only ones wishing and hoping for fine weather.  Spare a thought for the poor little Common Swift.  The Swift is an all brown or black large looking Swallow like bird, that returns from south of the Sahara at the end of April or the first week of May every year.  This year he must have though, fantastic, great to be home again in Ireland.  This basking sunshine is just what I need, a good year for me to catch loads of flying insects and raise a large Irish family.  How wrong he was also.

Swifts live a fascinating life.  Since humans have been building tall structures like castle and round towers, Swifts have been nesting in them.  They departed their caves and cliff face dwellings to raise young in a vast array of manmade structures.  In some parts of eastern Europe, Swifts still nest in holes high up in tall trees. Nowadays one of their favourite spots to nest are high up in Cathederal Spires, old tall Mill buildings and in the attic space of any tall house or structure.  Here they will not actually build a nest but lay a couple of eggs on a beam of on some ceiling plaster board or insulation. 

Swifts have long wings and short legs so they never land on the ground.  If they do, they cannot take off again without assistance.  Swifts spend all their time on the wing, high in the sky.  They sleep on the wing and coppulate on the wing also.  One of the few wild birds that are members of the mile high club.

But they are under serious treat.  The last four summers have seen very wet, cold  and unsettled weather patterns creeping into June and July.  These conditions do not favour the Swift.  Issues they face are the loss of nest sites through the demolition of old buildings. The lack of insects at high altitudes due to low pressure and moist conditions in summer, a factor and trend now accepted in our summers.  Torrential downpours are regular and heavy rain showers can ground Swifts. These grounded birds fall fowl to cats, dogs, foxes and others.  Swifts have been found to abandon nests in June and July, returning to Africa earlier than their norm in the first week of August because of these wet conditions.  So for a species that traditional was the last to arrive back from Africa, months and weeks later than the Swallow, House Martin and Cuckoo, it is now leaving even earlier than than ever before, being the first migrant out of the country every year.

A good book to read on the life of the Common Swift, is "Swifts in a Tower" by David Lack. It is hard to come by but one of the earliest studies carried out into the world of the Swift.

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