Look up! Can you hear them? The happy chattering or the screams of joy? 

Swifts, swallows and martins, can you tell the difference?
Swifts, swallows and martins, can you tell the difference? A swallow’s nest – Credit: Paul Clayden

In my twenties, a friend and I would call swifts, swallows or martins: ‘swims’. 

This was not only because we couldn’t be bothered to tell the difference between these birds of the summer skies, but because they seemed to be constantly swimming hither and thither in those very skies. 

I have since worked out which one is which. The swift is, as the name implies, the fastest of them all – built like a sharp taut bow. 

Smaller is the swallow, with its shiny blue-black back and the unmistakable long forked ‘swallow-tail’. 

And smaller still are the different types of martin – but all looking, at least to me, like miniature Spitfires. 

But it’s their different sounds which are so remarkable.

The swifts really do seem to scream with joy as they go round and round the houses when they’re feeding early or late – or way up high above park or town, endlessly circling and swooping. 

The swallows and martins have similar chirruping, singing voices, very much as if they’re chattering to each other as they weave about. 

The martins are the first to arrive in spring and the last to go in late autumn; swallows are famous for giving us summer and we are sad to see them go; but swifts are with us for such a short time, coming in May and leaving the first week of August. 

But I’ve seen and heard so little of these air-weaving wonders this summer. 

Of course, we have climate change to blame for much of this, with the wet and cold spring holding them back from their migrations, as well as confusing the timing of budding flowers or emerging bugs. 

Meanwhile, the disappearance of meadows has impacted on their numbers – because the insects they feed on have no grasses or flowers themselves, all of which creates a real knock-on effect. 

And yet… 

What’s been so heartening this last year and a half is that so many of us have clearly become alive to the wonder of nature all around us and on our doorsteps. 

And this includes the wonderful things neighbours have been doing to encourage this diversity. 

Like the painter and decorator who whitewashes his house every year, but joyfully tolerates martins building muddy nests under the eaves of his otherwise pristine home. 

Or the owner of a holiday cottage who’s built a little platform under the swallows’ nests in his car port, so his guests’ nice clean cars don’t get splattered. 

In other words, it is perfectly possible and more than doable to live with the ‘mess’ of nature. 

Ready to migrate?
Ready to migrate?

Next year sees the 60th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’, when she warned about the catastrophe which awaited the indiscriminate use of pesticides. 

And, sadly, she was proved right, with the dramatic collapse in both insect and bird numbers which ensued. 

Today, though, we have no excuse: we’re all now very aware of these things – that we need meadows and verges, gardens and hedgerows to make up for some of that damage. 

But, in the end, it brings so much pleasure – just to stand in your back garden and have the evening family of swifts circle in a frenzy of screams or to sit under a tree as the swallows glide over the grassy field. 

We can, then, in the end, do much to bring this back. 

Like the neighbour in Sidford who has recorded the effect of having their own swift-boxes on the excellent www.swiftmapper.org.uk website. 

Or the Sid Valley Biodiversity Group, which is intent on putting together a Nature Recovery Plan. 

Do get in touch with the group if you’ve seen anything of interest. 

And see if you can find a place to put that swift-box: you’ll certainly appreciate those glorious sounds of summer.

 

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