Friday 17 August 2018

Country Matters: Devilish screams of dawn and dusk

Swifts remind me of mainland European cities and, in Ireland, of Listowel during balmy evenings of Writers’ Week (just ended), and Dun Laoghaire’s old parkland squares and high-storeyed houses visible from Glasthule Dart station.
Swifts remind me of mainland European cities and, in Ireland, of Listowel during balmy evenings of Writers’ Week (just ended), and Dun Laoghaire’s old parkland squares and high-storeyed houses visible from Glasthule Dart station.

Joe Kennedy

I had looked away from an endlessly chirruping sparrow on a roof tile to glance upwards - and suddenly noticed swifts (Apus apus) floating in scimitar silhouette in the morning sky.

The sparrow's attention-seeking calls only stopped for short periods when it disappeared beneath a tile. Was there a sitting bird within, or was this one just checking if the furnishings were adequate to attract a mate? It stuck its head out now and then and emerged again to break the silence.

The swifts were an exciting diversion. These birds were back to old nesting sites on high church towers in the area from Africa in an unbroken tradition.

There are no purpose-built boxes placed by birders to facilitate them, no call-tapes playing at dawn and dusk as can be found in the North where commercial firms such as bus companies and supermarkets have erected them at the behest of birder fans.

Swifts remind me of mainland European cities and, in Ireland, of Listowel during balmy evenings of Writers' Week (just ended), and Dun Laoghaire's old parkland squares and high-storeyed houses visible from Glasthule Dart station.

I have been lucky also to see them, in great numbers, in exotic locations such as Tarragona on the Costa Daurada, south of Barcelona, where in the evenings they were a lifting of the heart to summer, at the point of La Rambla overlooking the Mediterranean, whirling in the sky and dropping back to old, narrow streets and ancient stone buildings, playing their games of chance in the dark.

Here, the birds may be seen over convents and warehouses where they nest in crevices at dawn and dusk, soaring to suck up to 10,000 insects a day into their tiny, gaping mouths.

These devil-birds, as often described, are like heat-seeking missiles and scream through the skies, mating and sleeping while gliding through updrafts on long pointed wings, with beady eyes and four toes on each feathery foot.

They are principally townscape birds though they may flee inland from storm turbulence, nestlings surviving in a trance until parents return.

But concentration is on round-the-clock feeding of young to get them on the wing quickly. Two or three chicks hatch after 20 days in nests made from scraps picked up in flight, and once the youngsters take off they never look back.

From the beginning of August the long return to central and southern Africa begins.

The elegant swift is the epitome of speed in flight. Wing action differs from swallows and martins in that short rapid beats are followed by a long, slow glide with stiffened wings and forked tail, the scythe-shaped wings on cigar body making an anchor silhouette.

There are reckoned to be about 20,000 pairs of swifts visiting Ireland each year, which seems a healthy number, but they are "difficult to census" as one source has put it.

However, despite the demolition of old buildings and ancient stone walls, numbers appear to be remaining steady. We may fervently hope that will continue.

Sunday Independent

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