Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Migrants are Here

artits impression of a swift in flightUp until about 4 years ago, I never even knew they existed. I used to go off on my merry way to work, completely oblivious to my surroundings and even at weekends when I had time on my hands I still didn’t see them.

Now, it’s a different story. Every year from mid to end April, I start to look up at the sky… waiting. I look out the front windows, the back windows, stand in my garden or as I walk down the street I continue to look up at the sky. When? I ask myself. How much longer do I have to wait? How many will turn up? When will I get that wonderful feeling that summer is finally here?

I start to worry. Was the weather in Africa really bad this year? Is our weather going to cause problems for them too? Will they be late returning? Will they eventually decide that this place sucks and they need to find new summer quarters? Is something wrong? They don’t need passports, so why haven’t they got across the border yet?

I do a frantic search on the web. I can’t find a specific website on migration. In panic, I call my learned friend. “I don’t know what to do, I’ve searched the internet and local sites have spotted them in Portsmouth and Southend… doesn’t that mean they should be here by now?” He said “I was at a lake in Chingford and saw them there”. I was not happy. How can they reach Chingford and ignore Redbridge? That night, I went to bed sulking. I tried to console myself by saying they were just using Chingford as a stopover and were moving on to Scotland.

On the next day, they still hadn’t come. Then, on Saturday evening (3 May), my partner looked out the window and said ‘Look! Swifts! They’re here!’ Damn it! I wanted to be the first one to see them and say that. I rush out the house and start counting frantically. ‘Two!... Wait… Five… Wait… Seven… Wait… Ten… Could be twelve, but I definitely ten. Yee-hah! They’re here! Summer is finally here’. I start jumping up and down and start dancing. Yes, that’s exactly how I behave when I see the swifts and this was without any alcohol.

My first up close and personal experience was at a friends barbecue in… Chingford! I had pointed them out to her as they flew over our heads and as she listened through glazed eyes, a couple came tearing past us to feed on the insects we were attracting. I felt the breeze of the wing hit my cheek and thought for a split second that I had been hit, but not so, these are fantastic aerial flyers.

I admire these birds because they fly thousands of miles from southern Africa (a round trip is approximately 14,000 miles). This is not an easy journey and some perish along the way. So when I see them, I congratulate them on making it back to the UK and wish them a prosperous summer. They come to the UK for one reason – to breed! Everything is done on the wing; they feed, sleep and mate on the wing. Once the young fledge the nest, they will not land again for another 2–3 years and if they do it’s only to bring up their own brood.

I can only find two bad points about swifts: (1) they leave us in early to mid August which is an unfortunate reminder that autumn is coming and (2) they’re numbers have declined by almost 20%.

Why have they declined? Scientists are still trying to figure this one out because in order to save any plant or animal you need to understand its biology. If you can figure out what they need to survive, then you can formulate conservation plans to save them. However, they can perish easily in bad weather, this can happen during winter in southern Africa and along their migratory routes, but we are also to blame. Refurbishing old houses causes problems and some people block off any gaps to the
eaves of a house using such things as nets which reduces the number of nests thereby reducing the number of young produced. Nets can cause fatality to the adults; I’ve witnessed this in Ilford on house sparrows. On a few occasions some swifts can become grounded, please don’t ignore them because they can’t take off from the ground. Click here for advice. Swifts can use man-made nest boxes and I have included information further below. Swifts are fully protected under UK law. It is illegal to kill or harm them, to damage their nests or take their eggs.

Go on, look up at the sky and see if you can spot them. You don’t need binoculars because they fly too fast (about 50 miles an hour) and they come tearing along houses and streets. So once you start looking, you can’t miss them. I love walking down the street and watching them fly past me. I have also witnessed them flying from a house on one side of the street to another in a u-shape to remove insects from our gutters. I attach a picture of what you are likely to see when you look up at the sky. Believe it or not, this is a good picture! It’s not easy catching them flying at high speeds.

Swift watching: A good local place to spot them are the residential streets around Gants Hill roundabout.

You can find out more about swifts from the
RSPB and London’s swifts.

Happy Swift Watching!

Miss Tajinder Lachhar
Tajinder's photo of a swift in flight


  1. At least someone's Awake and cares - thanks for this piece B21 The count just in this small area is 15 plus one caught by the hawk.

  2. Opps it sent that before it shoulda - The BBC webcam site has many links to many cams nationwide which are accessible via subscription or registration. The Osprey are doing fine after their long journey back home, and Northumbria have other arrivals to offer on cam.

  3. Lovely spot,thanks Tajinder.
    When we leased land at Chigwell, every year the Swallows returned, it seemed they came back to exactly he same nesting spot they had last year. No hesitation they flew straight in the opening at the top of the stable door and started clearing out last years nest. This is where my story gets sad. During the winter the gap over the top of the door was netted in, because the chickens were shareing the stable block following repeated attacks from the local fox brigade. Somehow in
    a desparation to protect the chicks we completely forgot about
    the Swifts. The following summer along came the Swallows circling overhead in triumphant displays on pin-point accuracy on their return.
    We were delighted, just stood there watching them, then horror,
    one came down very low and attempted to fly into the stable, it hit the netting. We felt terrible. Tarjinder pointed out be very careful what you alter in the winter months when
    thoughts of summer are a long way off. Ron King