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14 Oct 2009

The fast birds have gone..

Although I like watching birds, and have all the usual guides, I can't identify with the twitchers and list compilers. The pleasure is just in the observation. I have been reading a new book, called Birdscapes by Jeremy Mynott, which tries to explain birdwatching in all its forms. It is, in fact, a fascinating and, to use an old fashioned word, learned work with references to everything from John Cage's 4'33” to Beaudelaire, Greta Garbo, Hilda Quick and Kevin Zimmer; it has added a lot to my knowledge and understanding of wide areas beyond birds.
Anyway, the house martins that have been twittering and twisting around the sky here for the last few weeks in increasing numbers, have now disappeared back to Africa. This is later than usual, and is probably because of a prolonged warm spell. Although they are amusing, agile little things, their mud nests under the eaves of houses do end up surrounded by large amounts of caca, dripping down the walls and in mounds on the ground.
In some of the ancient bastide towns of the Dordogne, they have nested under the roofs of the medieval market arcades. On ordinary days, they happily fly in and out without a problem, but on market days when the arcades are full of stalls, smoke and smells, and the cafes have tables full of people, they get rather twitchy, and desperately avoid flying directly to their nests. Instead, they fly around – at high speed – or perch in odd corners, before dashing to the nests. Their desire to hide the locations of the nests is defeated not only by the obvious crap around them, but by the squeaking cries of their young.
The swallows went early in September. One day we were at a vide grenier in a small village. Most of the houses were eighteenth and nineteenth century, but a couple were modern pavillons, and it was on these that about 200 swallows were gathering. Too many for the roof ridge, they were landing on the individual tiles, hanging on for a few moments before starting to slide down the roof, when they would take off and fly about for a minute or two, before trying again.
They were all continuously chirping, and every so often about half of them would take off at the same moment, whizz around a bit, and land again. Then without any apparent signal, the entire group took off, flew twice all the way round the adjacent field, and then headed off towards the south. Within twenty seconds they were invisible, and there was no more sound of cheeping and chirping.
The swifts were the last to arrive, and the first to go. In London, where I live near Hampstead Heath, the arrival of the swifts in May is the sign that summer could now begin. Some years they are late, and there are never many of them, just a dozen or so. But the first sightings, often high in the sky, accompanied by their high pitched screaming and high speed diving, is somehow very reassuring. Over two or three weeks as they pair up they perform some major aerobatics, especially when two start high in the sky and loop in opposite directions down to nearly ground level, at what must be an approach speed of well over a hundred miles an hour, and banking slightly at the last second to pass within inches of each other, screaming all the while.
By the second week of August the young are flying too, and although the groups seem to split up during the day, as dusk begins they all seem to gather and fly screaming around the sky for half an hour, just for the fun of it. Or so it seems. Occasionally, on hot days, parties will fly at maximum velocity along busy roads, at just above head height, again screaming all the time. The suddenly, around mid August, they have all gone. That, like the flowering of the rose bay willow herb, is the mark that the best of summer is probably over.
The martins are attractively black and white, and fly fairly fast around their nest areas; the swallows have that splendid forked tail, and zoom around, often just above the ground, but for me the most appealing of the three are the swifts. They may be an unexciting colour, but the scimitar shape of their wings against the sky, the incredible speed of their flight, their noisy social groupings, and the shortness of their stay all make them special.

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