Summer treasure 4: Swifts

19/7/2018 The swifts arrive shortly after the swallows in spring. But for some reason, I associate swifts with hot, sunny days; weather such as we have been having for the last two months.

Perhaps this is partly because of an experience I had in the south of France in 2011. My father was performing a Mozart opera, La Clemenza di Tito, at the Aix-en-Provence music festival. It was the first opera I properly got to know, at the age of 11, and it has been my favourite ever since. The venue was the Archbishop’s Theatre, an outdoor theatre in the courtyard of the former archbishop’s palace that was converted into a theatre in 1948.

I had just arrived from the airport, sweaty and out of breath, having run all the way from the bus stop with a few unintentional detours. I sat down with great relief in time for the beginning of the overture of this deeply serious and emotional opera. There was a unique addition to the music, however, and one I would never have anticipated: screaming swifts circling high overhead in the dusk sky. It was an experience I will never forget.

But that was a recent experience. I don’t think my association of swifts with hot summers can stem purely from that. I think it is more likely that the times in childhood when I was most likely to see them was in the summer holidays, when we were in Suffolk long enough to go on excursions to places where they were plentiful, such as Lavenham. I rarely see swifts in the countryside around my house, but rather in small towns and villages where they make their nests in the eaves of old buildings, and swoop around the rooftops.

Swifts are larger and less elegant than swallows, with endearing large eyes and broad, flat heads. They appear all black in flight, and their call is not particularly beautiful. But they are magical, and I love their screaming, simply for the knowledge that they are here, and it is summer.

It was also an experience in Aix-en-Provence that taught me an astonishing but sad lesson about swifts. Behind a locked, high metal gate, apparently of office buildings (it was a Sunday), I saw a swift on the ground. It couldn’t get up and was flapping helplessly in the blazing heat. It broke my heart that I couldn’t get to it. I only found out later that swifts’ legs and feet are almost useless; if they land on the ground it is by accident. First I read that they couldn’t take off from the ground. But then I read that this is not strictly true – though they might not be able to take off from a surface such as long grass. I don’t know which is correct; perhaps a strong, healthy adult that lands on the ground may have no trouble taking off again. A young, weak or injured swift might be another matter.

What is certainly true, however, is that swifts never perch, and spend most of their lives in the air: eating, drinking, sleeping and breeding. Breeding swifts only land to sleep in their nests, and the longest recorded flight time of a swift – the longest of any bird – is ten months.

What a wonder.