The following images won’t win any awards, but I thought I’d post them anyway. They’re of Common Swifts Apus apus, their crops bulging with food, flying with Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica over a field opposite the exquisite manor house at Great Chalfield.
To a local birder just twenty years ago there would have been nothing noteworthy about that in any way. Indeed when I was growing up flocks of screaming swifts hurtling through the sky was what summer was all about. Swallows (a more traditional harbinger of summer) were much more of a ‘country bird’ to a townie-birder like me, and it was the return of the Swifts that signalled that migration was well underway. They may not have stayed in the UK for long – just three short months before spiralling away towards wintering grounds in Africa – but they more than made up for it with their energy, their remarkable flying skills, the speed their sickle-shaped wings cut through the air above our suburban gardens…and hearing that penetrating scream again was (and hopefully will always be) a head-turning moment of sheer joy for an earth-bound birder like me who so desperately wanted to tear through the sky with these most aerobatic of birds…
So to a local birder in the 1960 or 70s nothing noteworthy. However, for many birders seeing flocks of Common Swifts is becoming more noteworthy as every year passes. Swifts have been disappearing from our skies for many years, and a series of recent reports have now put the decline into figures: numbers have plummeted by 47% in the last ten years, and for the first time the Swift has been added to the ‘amber list’ meaning it is of serious conservation concern.
The cause is our mania for ‘tidying up’ the countryside and for renovating or removing old buildings. Food has become more scarce as we drench our countryside in insecticides – Swifts are insectivores taking everything from small airborne spiders to gnats and flies as they charge back and forth over gardens, fields, and waterbodies – and nesting sites lost as we patch up the small crevices they use to breed in or tear down old buildings to replace them with something ‘more modern’ and hermetic (Swifts in the UK, almost exclusively nest in roof spaces in buildings). It’s a tragic loss to our biodiversity, and our summer will be the poorer if we don’t reverse the decline. A wonderful paragraph written by Horatio Clare in an essay in The Daily Telegraph sums up the situation perfectly:
If the swift should one day stop coming back to us, because we have sprayed our fields, filled in our eaves, and generally tidied up, as though Britain were one big real estate opportunity, to be ‘developed’, then we will have excluded ourselves from the great country of the swift: less of a fall than our expulsion from Eden, perhaps, but a failure none the less.
So, as I said, not award-winning photos but – and I sincerely hope this isn’t the case – perhaps a record of yet another species we lost while our backs were turned and our minds on other things…
All photographs copyright Charlie Moores
- For more information an excellent resource on the Common Swift is http://www.swift-conservation.org/
- There is also a very active (and expert) Yahoo group, Swallows, Swifts, and Martins Worldwide at http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/Swallows-Martins-Swifts-Worldwide/
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