Pallid swift!

November 01, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Regular readers of this blog website may already know that Ben and I were lucky enough to watch what we're now convinced was a pallid swift, for a minute or so, over The Downshire golf club driving range at 16:22hrs exactly (I looked at my watch!) on 27th October.

I just wanted to give that sighting a little more attention than a few lines in my October monthly write-up, as well... I really think it merits it!

Firstly, I've never seen a pallid swift before - at least not knowingly and certainly not in the UK. I guess I may have seen them in Cyprus before (I certainly watched Eleanora's falcons chase hirundines  and apodiformes around that island in 1989 - I remember that well... so I suppose some of those hirundines or swifts might have been pallid swifts).

Pallid swifts breed on the Atlantic islands of the Canaries and Madeira, they are widespread throughout the European Mediterranean coastal regions and islands, including the Balearics, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Crete, the Dodecanese and Cyprus. Additionally, they have breeding grounds in Gibraltar, north Africa, Israel, the Arabian Peninsula and Iran.

They do, very occasionally show up in the UK in late October, when, around the end of their 2nd brood (they, unlike common swifts, get to their nests nice and early in April and have two (not one) broods per year), they get hit by strong southerlies blowing up from Africa. Southerlies which push them 100s or even 1000s of miles north of their comfort zone - into northern European countries like Poland and the UK.

This seems to be happening more and more.

I think the first recorded pallid swift in England was in 1978, but certainly there was a minor influx of a few dozen birds in 2015, 2018, 2020 and now 2022.

Look to the skies in late October (very late October) or early November (very early November) when there have been a few days of strong southerly winds from Africa and you may just get lucky enough to spot, like we did, a pallid swift flying around the UK in October skies (with bare trees underneath it - quite a bizarre sight - a swift over a bare tree!

I spotted it first. I would of course, being the exhaustingly hyperaware idiot that I am. I see everything because I feel everything!

We were hitting balls at the driving range after Ben had completed his fourth day at half term golf camp.

I looked out into the range, selected my target about 150 yards into the driving range and then saw it.

"THAT'S A SWIFT????!!!!!" I shouted at Ben. 

We both peered at it. And it was obvious. A swift (species tbc) was flying quite deliberately, north to south, over the range at a height of 50 feet or so (low) and was being lit up well by a low sun behind us.

At first, we naturally assumed it must be very (VERY VERY) late common swift.

But that just didn't feel right!

It seemed to be paler than a "normal" swift, with a noticeable white throat patch (very noticeable), a noticeable dark tail (less noticeable) and noticeable mottled or scaled effect on its belly (again... very noticeable). As I wrote on the Berks bird website, that very light brown (tan, really), almost scaly-looking belly could have been the darker, sooty brown belly of a common swift, illuminated brightly by the low sun behind us, giving us both the independent impression that it was tan in colour but was in fact just a brightly illuminated sooty brown belly ... but we just don't think so. 

It wasn't just the swift's belly that was tan. We got the very clear impression that the entire bird was just "lighter" or "paler" than a normal swift.

(Again... regular readers of this blog and anyone that knows me should know that I do know my swifts!).

It flew a little more deliberately I'd say than a common swift too. A little more gliding. A little more solid and chunky. A little less flitty and (as I said at the time) a little less like a bat.

It circled back over our heads for 20 seconds or so and then hot-winged it south, into a pretty fresh breeze.

I wasted little time reporting it.

At the time I was 80-90% sure that we had both seen a pallid swift, and if it wasn't a pallid (it was though!) then it was a common/pallid hybrid and if it wasn't that, then it was a very light brown common swift - two months (at least!*) later than it should have been.

* The last swift I saw over Berkshire this summer was on August 16th - almost two and a half months ago.


Anyway... since reporting it, quite a few pallid swifts have been seen over the country.  Unprecedented, Bird Guides calls 2022. All of them (at the time of the bird guides report here) at or near the coast - APART from our Berkshire pallid swift... which again at the time of the Bird Guides piece was the ONLY inland pallid swift to be reported!


Some chap called Fraser Cottington has now also reported what he thinks "can only have been" a pallid swift 120 foot above his house in Berkshire, although he only saw it for 3 seconds (his words). But if* that swift was a pallid, then that (Cottington's) would be the second Berkshire record in October this year and one of a growing number of inland reports after my first one.

* There is simply no way for someone to be 100% sure of a pallid swift identification after seeing it from 120 feet or so away for three seconds only, despite Cottington writing "it can only have been....".  It could potentially have been a common swift or a common/pallid hybrid or pallid. That's assuming it was a swift species at all. Cottington has recently publicly identified a town (or feral) pigeon as a stock dove after all, so his pallid swift could have very well been a blackbird for all we know!


Not so much doubt about our (definite swift and nearly definite pallid) swift though. 
We had a wonderful view for a good minute or so, in great light, really pretty close.

And HOO BOY do we feel fortunate to see it.

Fly well, wee fella (or lass!).





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