RE­FLEC­TIONS

Bird Watching (UK) - - Photo Feature David Tipling -

EV­ERY YEAR I watch for the bird that comes last and re­tires the ear­li­est, as John Clare put it, wait­ing for the avian aero­naut whose squeal­ing di­rects my gaze up­wards over the rooftops of nearby Saf­fron Walden. Glint­ing in early morn­ing sun, soot-brown and pale-chinned, they pep­per the sky, sil­very un­der­parts gleam­ing. Sickle-shaped long-winged fliers, gust­ing and play­ing, Swifts are never still for an in­stant, spi­ralling high into the skies where they van­ish from sight, ap­par­ently pre­fer­ring space to grav­ity, heaven to earth. Their genus Apus, ‘with­out feet’ (of course they have feet, but weak legs which in­hibit lift-off), rep­re­sents in her­aldry the arms of a fourth son who is un­likely to in­herit land: foot­loose, fancy-free per­haps, cer­tainly with no foothold. For a grounded Swift is a dead Swift, un­less helped back into flight (John Clare de­scribes one he found: its legs was very short and muf­fled with feath­ers like a ban­tum [sic]) How fast they fly as they rise, ar­rows in a nev­erend­ing dance, tiny specks disappearing into im­mense al­ti­tudes above the me­dieval roofline, grains of dust ris­ing on ther­mals un­til they dis­ap­pear from sight, leav­ing the blue sky empty. Then, later, as I re­turn to my car in the pre-rush-hour quiet of the street, there they are again over the roofs, close to their nests in the eaves, chas­ing in­sects to feed their young. Swift facts are among the most ar­rest­ing of the bird-world: a mem­ber of a fam­ily whose close rel­a­tives are the hum­ming­birds, Swifts fly on aver­age 500 miles a day, clock­ing up two mil­lion miles in a life­time that can span 30 years. That’s four times to the moon and back, reach­ing a top speed of 67 miles an hour and fly­ing as high as two miles above the earth. For three years, the ju­ve­niles re­main on the wing, with­out ever land­ing, from the mo­ment of fledg­ing un­til they mate and stop to nest, lay eggs, in­cu­bate and feed their young. The young feed from a bo­lus, a saliva-bound ball of any­thing up to 500 in­sects gath­ered into a pouch of the fly­ing par­ent bird, sit­u­ated just be­low the beak. Site-faith­ful, they pair for life, and sleep on the wing by clos­ing down one half of the brain at a time in or­der to re­main in flight while roost­ing. Some cul­tures call them ‘rain birds,’ Rain Swal­lows fly­ing in front of a storm, feeding on in­sects caught in the up­draughts. I have an abid­ing mem­ory of watch­ing Swifts on a trip to south­ern Mace­do­nia a few years ago. Fly­ing in to Thes­sa­loniki to stay the night be­fore driv­ing on­wards, we found our ho­tel along a nar­row street,

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