Dear Readers, here in the UK we don’t expect the screech of swifts until mid May at the earliest, but this year we have been visited by record numbers of alpine swifts (Tachymarptis melba). Normally, these birds fly north from southern Africa and then nest in mountainous regions from the Alps to the Himalayas (hence the name), but this year hundreds have been blown further north. One was spotted at Walthamstow Wetlands this weekend but they’ve been popping up as far north as northern Scotland. They are most distinctive with their white tummies, though I suppose at a glance you could mistake them for a large house martin. However, they really are a lot bigger than your average house martin, and the wings are generally held in a boomerang shape, the better for scything through the air.
Like all swifts, these birds spend most of their lives on the wing, landing only to nest – one radio-tagged alpine swift was found to stay on the wing for 200 days straight. For preference, they will use the same nest that they used last year, much as ‘our’ swifts do – it saves a lot of energy not to have to recreate a mud nest every year. Plus, they use plenty of energy on their migration, as you can see from the map below – the birds breed in the green bits, and often rest for a bit in the blue bits. This year they’ve clearly literally gone the extra mile. Yet another reason not to ‘tidy away’ any swift nests that you have under your eaves (not that any reader of Bugwoman would think of such a thing, I’m sure!)
Swifts seem so full of joie de vivre to me – they ‘talk’ to one another constantly, chase one another, circle high after the insects that they eat and then shoot across your deckchair when you’re having a snooze, almost brushing you with their wings. There is some thought that maybe, with climate change, the southern region of the bird’s range is becoming too hot, and that they might breed further north. Everything is clearly on the move, and I wait with some interest to see what will happen next. And in the meantime, here are some alpine swifts calling as they fly – it’s a slightly different call from the common swift who will arrive later in the year. Here’s the alpine swift (recording by Stanislas Wroza)
And here’s ‘our’ swift, recording by Michel Veldt.
Doesn’t it feel as if summer is coming? So, keep watching the skies. Even if you don’t spot an alpine swift, the swallows and martins will be along soon.
And this is a very interesting article on the appearance of the alpine swifts, for those of you who want a bit more detail.
The White-rumped swifts here do not build their own nests but bully the Lesser-striped Swallows out of theirs. I watch this sad saga every summer: the swallows painstakingly build their mud nests only to have them usurped by the swifts. This summer the swallows had to build three nests before they could finally breed.