Caught by the River

Return of the Swifts

6th May 2019

George Sawtell anticipates the imminent return of Finsbury Park’s swifts

Illustration by Carry Akroyd, which will be published in her upcoming book ‘A Sparrow’s Life’s as Sweet as Ours’ this August

In a long north south street in north London, excitement brews at the imminent return of the Finsbury Park swifts. These are the swifts that return on almost the same day every year, remaining above us until mid-August. Other swifts have already returned, heading further north after bug catching, skimming forays over local reservoirs in Walthamstow.

I never remember the exact date so I have to check the archives of the London Bird Club wiki, where London bird watchers log notable sightings. I vaguely remember they arrive towards the end of the football season and are gone/going as the season starts.

2018 5th May – swifts are back on patch on usual day

2017 5th May – swifts have returned

2016 4th May – local swifts returned this morning

2015 5th May – local swifts returned today

2014 5th May – resident swifts have returned (same as the Dalston birds)

2013 7th May – swifts returned this morning, 8+

2012 4th May – Dalston – 1 swift (not the whole group back yet)

2011 5th May – swifts were back this morning

I wonder if 2013 was an aberration of record keeping?

My new RSBP magazine says that a tagged swift left Northern Ireland via Western Sahara in August, spent October over the rain forest of Democratic Republic of Congo, and celebrated new year in Mozambique, arriving in February in Mali. “Antrim” turned back through DRC, spent a while in central west Africa before then crossing though Spain and France before returning to breed in N Ireland. Traveling 3,000 miles in 5 days has been recorded.

Last Monday I was walking along the Regent’s Canal alongside London Zoo and to my surprise heard a close by party of swifts. Surely too early? I craned my head in confusion but could see no birds. The screams continued and soon I located swift nesting boxes with noise to attract swifts to nest. Grimly this reminded me of a small, purpose-built concrete building I had seen on farmland in Malaysia with similar noises to attract swiftlets. Their nests are harvested before eggs are laid for bird’s nest soup; one of the most expensive food ingredients in the world.

As we enter early May those keenest start scanning the early morning skies on the way to work and straining our ears for that first swift cry. The number of common swifts in the UK has declined 50% in the last 20 years, so there is some trepidation.

Usually there may only be one or two swifts in the vanguard cruising high up. as though surveying their familiar summer breeding grounds and relaxing after having crossed that night from the continent. Word of arrival is relayed to street members and the wider bird community.

We can now look forward to long summer nights with large parties of screaming swifts (logged at almost 50 mph) around roof tops. At dusk they rise steadily upwards for a mile or two to nap in the night sky. During 1914-18 war a French plane glided down with engines off behind enemy lines. At 10,000 feet he found himself amongst swifts, apparently motionless.

The breeding birds can now touch down in a roof cavity for the first time in 10 months. They are clumsy on land and the reason the Greeks called the birds “footless”. The monogamous parents have to catch nest material from flotsam in the air with their beaks and add their own saliva to nest build.

Returning from our own summer holidays it can be quiet as the swifts have departed or at least the 6 week-old youngsters have who set off first for their life of near continual flight.