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Thursday, July 18, 2024
NatureNature Studies

Nature Studies

So here is the month of September, and you’re thinking, here comes autumn. Well I’ve got news for you. Autumn started more than three weeks ago. Or at least it did in my world, when the swifts departed.
These black arrowheads in the blue sky are the most dynamic of our summer birds, spending nearly all their life in the air—they eat and drink on the wing, they sleep on the wing, they even mate on the wing, as Gilbert White, the keen-eyed 18th century parson-naturalist who wrote The Natural History of Selborne, observed as long ago as 1774. People who are not birdwatchers sometimes confuse swifts with swallows and house martins, but although they are superficially similar and occupy a similar niche in nature, as high-speed aerial insect-eaters, they are not related; and if you want a quick way of telling them apart, remember that swallows and house martins are dark above and pale below, and twitter, and swifts appear dark all over, and scream.
Scream they do. One of the great sounds of summer is the cacophony made by swift “screaming parties”, when bands of the birds zoom around at low level emitting excited cries, and this sense of utter wildness about them has made them more and more a subject for writers in recent years, which was long overdue; people have celebrated swallows as bringers of the spring for millennia with not a word written about swifts. But now there is a growing swift literature, including a super poem by Ted Hughes, where his delighted cry at their return from Africa is so explosive it needs something rarely found in poetry, an exclamation mark: “They’re back!”
Swifts come late in the springtime, usually in the first week in May, and only stay with us for three months until the start of August, which makes their presence all the more precious. We came to the village in mid-August 2021 and to my great pleasure I observed at once it held a population of swallows and house martins, not due to leave for Africa until September or later, but there was no way of knowing if the village had swifts of its own, because if it did, the birds’ departure date was evidently past. I had to wait until the following spring to find out, and on Sunday May 8 2022 I did so, when my wife and I had a first evening drink in the garden and I looked up and there they were, the arrowheads carving up the glowing sky and I shouted out for joy and punched the air.
Our swifts congregate around one of the village’s oldest and largest houses, where they nest under the roof tiles. For me, the exhilaration of their return lasts all summer. But it is an exhilaration fully matched by a melancholy, at their departure; I have a strong sense of an ending, I take it to mean the summer is over, and that even though there may still be hot days, something vital has gone out of the world, and really we are into autumn.
This year it was hard to put a precise date on it, because of our washout July. Swifts have a simple reaction to rain: they flee from it. They will fly in a circle for a thousand miles to avoid an Atlantic low-pressure system, and in July we were hit by four of those, on four successive weekends, so the birds were often simply not there. My last notable sight of them was on July 20, one of the few lovely warm days of the month, when the garden was charmingly full of butterflies, peacocks and tortoiseshells and red admirals and cabbage whites and brimstones and holly blues, and the swifts were screaming above. High summer, I wrote in my diary. At the end of the month I scanned the sky each morning and evening, sometimes with rain, sometimes without, not able to be sure, but by August 4, when the evening was fine, I knew they had gone.
Personally, I would mark it with sombre music on the radio, swift leaving-day; I would have TV announcers report it in mourning dress. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to think of another moment in the natural calendar which leaves me so cast down, as that day when it’s still meant to be summer, and the sun’s still shining strongly, and you look up and see that empty sky.

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