It takes a few moments for the soft, drawn out, screech to penetrate my memory but then, instinctively, I tilt my head back and scan the sky for the source of the sound. The screech comes again, this time overlapped by a second, and my eyes pick out the crescent-shaped forms of two swifts against the deep grey of the passing shower clouds. They are back, these sentinels of summer; these all too brief visitors from south of the Equator are here and I feel a surge of joy.
The return of the swifts draws out a stronger response from me than my first calling cuckoo, twittering swallow or scratching sedge warbler. Quite why this should be is impossible to explain. Being brought up in the countryside, I came to live alongside swifts rather later in life than I did these other returning summer visitors. Perhaps it is because I have spent the past decade living in an urban centre, where swift is virtually the only summering migrant, that this bird has come to signify summer so much more strongly than any other species.
Still watching the sky I pick out a third individual, the small party twisting and turning as they feed before sweeping across the sky in long and shallow arcs. The swifts continue this display for many minutes before drifting off behind the rooftops of a neighbouring street. Are these ‘my’ birds, the individuals that will breed in the roof-spaces of some of the houses along my street, or are they passing through, still on their journey north? Over the next few days I expect to see more individuals gathering in the sky above the garden and to hear that soft screech of summer.
For a swift the passing of a year is all about the journey; ever on the move, swifts spend such a small part of their year here in England that we can hardly claim ownership over them. This is, however, the one place where they come down to ‘touch’ the Earth, where they settle briefly to breed, so perhaps our connection with these wonderful birds holds greater significance than for those over whose lands they are merely passing while on their great annual journey.