Regular readers (are there any?) of this blog might know my favourite bird is the swift - I have been known to get a little obsessed by these superb beasties in years gone by – but I’ve not really mentioned them much this year it seems. At least not on my website…
Well… all my boxes were primed and ready come mid April – and on St.George’s Day (easy for me to remember… plant the tatties on St.Patrick’s Day and “start the screaming” on St.George’s Day) I started playing my edited, neighbour-friendly swift call.
Regular readers of this blog might also know that since moving here nearly four years ago, we’ve (my wife and I) only really had one very good year for swifts screaming and banging around our swift nest sites (both internal and external) – in 2013.
Last year I had very high hopes (after the previous year), but it was almost a complete failure for me – oh surrrre…. A couple of brief investigations (whilst my swift call wasn’t playing ironically enough) but other than that – nada, nowt, zippo, zilch.
Whilst it’s fair to say that I knew attracting swifts to our (post war) house at the very edge of a post war town would be far more difficult than when I did so in a very old house in a very old town several years ago, I was hoping that I’d have some success – at least a swift in a box or in the attic, either this year or last.
There are very few swifts around our house – and very few (historically) around the town to the south – but I do regularly see them over the house, at height and as I’ve written above – we had two or three months of intense swift activity (half a dozen birds at one time often) around our house in 2013.
I don’t seem to be alone in this regard though – in a position to report much reduced swift activity – even around breeding colonies. This seems (at present) to be a pattern in 2015 –affecting much of the country.
My old neighbour (who you migggghhht have seen on TV a couple of weeks ago (with me stumbling briefly around in the background), trying to attract swifts to HIS house, next door to my old “Swift Half”) has had a terribly disappointing year so far – and we KNOW there are MANY swifts in that area - they’ve been breeding in “Swift Half” for decades and Reading itself is a veritable hot-spot for swifts – loads of them.
Not just him either – people are reporting low return numbers or abandoned breeding attempts etc… from many breeding colonies.
What’s gone wrong this year?
People are citing the unseasonably cool (or at least unsettled) weather for pretty-well-the-whole-of-the-month as the most likely reason.
(I should point out here that swifts are no different from other species it seems, in that they seem to have an obsessive following (mainly male it goes without saying) who very often like to think they know far more about “their species of choice” (the swift), than any other interested person (whether qualified or not) – and almost go as far to announce as such on various online fora. These for a are often nasty places in general where egos are gigantic… and also very fragile – aggressive poo-pooing other swift watchers’ information and assumptions is constant on one forum in particular – and that’s why I tend to stay away from such websites).
As is often the case in life, the empty vessels make the most noise (such is the case on these fora) but occasionally one might be able to pick up a snippet of useful information if one avoids the inflated egos.
The useful speck of information gold in the sea of sand this year I’ve discovered is that the weather really does look like dealing swifts a poor hand this year.
I’ve not really thought it’s been that bad (at least not down here in Berkshire), but it would be factual to say that after a very nice warm, (hot even) sunny early and mid April, the jet stream, which seems to be buggered these days, took a dive south over Britain and has given us high winds, cool temperatures and regular rain since. We’ve had some sun too… some quite strong sun (I have sandal tans on my feet) but in general it’s been really quite cool for May.
So what does that mean? Surely swifts can cope with a bit of “coolth”?!
Not that well really, to be honest.
Swifts arrive back in Blighty between the last week of April and if they’re REALLY late the last week of May(ish) and they need to get going with egg-production almost immediately.
The young take a long time to develop and eventually fledge from the nest and if the eggs aren’t laid in May (early May if possible); they simply don’t have enough time to get going and get home.
So yes, it’s unfortunate that if the weather in May doesn’t really produce a lot of good food for the swifts, enough to catch for themselves AND enough to feed either two or three (in good years) young, quite often swifts don’t even bother attempting to breed. Perhaps they’ll start and then abandon the eggs.
Perhaps they’ll start and kick the eggs out of the nest as a result of stress.
Perhaps they’ll not even return to their traditional nesting sites –or only one of the pair will – not enough to breed… obviously.
2014 seemed like a pretty good year for the best birds of all, (a very warm, insect-rich May) but so far this year (and it’s nearly over already as far as swifts starting to breed is concerned), whilst it isn’t yet a complete disaster… it doesn’t look at all like a vintage swift year – all over the UK.
It would be an awful shame if that did turn out to be the case – for at least a couple of reasons.
One – swifts only have about four weeks each year to get breeding and laying in – miss that and that’s it for them. This is very different to most other birds of course – resident birds in particular. It just so happens that these four weeks this year haven’t YET been good enough in terms of consistent swift food production.
Two – in about 5 days (so about the 4th June onwards), the jet stream does finally look like looping north again – bringing a spell of warm, settled weather (at least temporarily)… but JUST TOO LATE.
What now then?
I suggest we all cross our fingers & toes and hope the swifts that have managed to produce eggs this year (and like I say, this year is not a complete wipe-out yet) get a nice long summer to raise their young successfully.
And let’s hope for a far “nicer” May in 2016.
Keep ‘em peeled though grapple-fans – swifts aren’t about to head off south yet (lots are being reported on the BTO website – more than last year in fact), but that’s because they’re feeding in flocks as a priority now, rather than sitting on eggs (a lot of them).
We still have about two months worth of beautiful, amazing swifts to gawp at arrowing across our skies before they DO bugger off in August(ish) and you never know… we may (often the case) still get young yearlings heading into the UK to prospect for breeding sites next year, before that happens.
We can also just thank our lucky stars that swifts get a few (quite a few in fact) chances to breed in their lifetimes.
If swifts were barn owls (which generally don’t live much longer than 2 or 3 years in the wild and tend to only try to breed ONCE in their lives – but ONLY if the environmental conditions are right – lots of voles, not a lot of bad weather (wind, rain OR snow), we’d REALLY be up the creek without a paddle.
So… it’s not ALL doom and gloom.
Never is for the best birds of all eh?
Fingers crossed now…