I hear them from inside the house and feel a spark of excitement. In an instant I am out of the door and looking up at the dark, paynes grey-coloured sky. There they are, the curve of wings and the tiny streamlined bodies; the swifts are back. These are not the first swifts that I have seen this year but they are the ones that matter. These are the birds that will take up home in traditional sites along this urban street and these are the birds that will be ever present over the few short weeks that define our English summer. The swifts that I saw earlier in the year, hawking over flooded gravel pits on damp, overcast days, were transient pathfinder birds, passing through to breed somewhere else. It is ‘my’ swifts that matter and it is ‘my’ swifts that I await with such strong anticipation.
The hold that these summer visitors have over me is a relatively new thing; they are not a species with which I was closely associated in my rural childhood and it has only been since I moved into this small market town that they have come to mean so much. I think it is the coupling of their brief summer visitation with the knowledge that they have covered many thousands of miles, roaming over African landscapes, that creates a spell of great strength. They define my urban summer and when they leave and the sky falls silent, so I feel a sense of tremendous loss.
I know that I am not alone in the close connection that I feel with these birds. Phone calls and emails from worried friends, asking “where are the swifts; have they not arrived this year?”, tell me that others too wait anxiously for their arrival. The poet Ted Hughes captured this sense of nervous anticipation in one of his poems, delivering a great shout of relief once the birds appeared in the skies above his urban scene.
I like to imagine the journey that these tiny birds have made, to picture the different landscapes that they must have flown over, and the upward glances of those people who share ‘my’ swifts when they are elsewhere. The swifts spend so little time here that you might consider it wrong to think of them as ours, but they choose to make their homes here and to rear their chicks, so maybe it is a natural assertion to make.
Each morning, as I step out, I know I will glance up to the sky to check that the swifts are there, to take comfort in that knowledge and to hold it with me throughout the rest of the day. It feels good to have them home.