September 18, 2023


At this time of year the telephone wires just behind the trees to the north of the Castle are full of tiny brown birds balancing on them, before they jump off and dive around in the air in a cloud of winged friends.

Drawn to the water, which is not far away, they swoop down, skimming lightly, the widening concentric circles illustrating that fact they have in fact swiftly sipped. These birds are of course swifts.

They are aerial acrobats, tiny black shapes silhouetted against the bluest of autumn skies. They are in fact a plain brown colour but instantly defined by a short forked tail and sharply outlined wings. They visit us each April or May to breed. They live for up to nine years, pair for life and fly back to the same “home” here in England where they may well have to carry out a little renovation on their nest when they arrive.

The old chapel at Highclere

These nests are squeezed into gaps in buildings, whether houses or churches (as in the photo here for example), which means that modern air tight breathless brick buildings are not helpful. As a result they have been added to the endangered species – the highest conservation priority. Sadly, the swift population in the UK has fallen by 42 percent since 1994.

Two to three eggs are usually laid and they will hatch in three to four weeks. The chicks will then spend up to eight weeks in the nest before fledging, so it rather makes me thing that they are all practising their flying in August and September.

They can land on nest boxes, branches, or houses, but they can’t really land on the ground. That’s because their wings are too long and their legs are too short to take off from a flat surface. Sometimes you find them here on the ground hopping around completely stuck so carefully pick the bird up, go upstairs to open a window some heights above the ground and throw it out so it can fly..

These tiny birds could balance on your hand, yet they are now preparing to fly 3,400 miles south to East Africa. It is an epic journey as they set off over the Iberian peninsular, pausing for a few days in Spain before flying across the vast wilderness of sand which is the Sahara desert with very little food or water.

The Sahara is no place for migrating birds to spend any more time than they have to,  so they keep flying at up to 70 miles an hour.   Pausing in the greener land towards the Gambia, they can then  regain their energy as they continue along the west coast of Africa towards Liberia whereupon they turn east towards the Congo, eating and sleeping on the wing.

Swifts fly to and for on the same migration route- it is a well known migration route and one also followed by swallows and cuckoos for example. However, other birds such as sand martins migrate in a loop flying over the western Mediterranean, passing to the west of the Alps, but return in a loop via the eastern Mediterranean, passing to the east of the Alps.

It is amazing to imagine that these birds may be flying around herds of grazing animals, such as elephants, buffalo and wildebeest, snapping up flying insects disturbed by the herbivores’ feet before returning to England to hop around grazing herds of cows to do the same. The butter coloured yellow wagtail feed on the flies disturbed by hooves in zebras and elephants.  Translate that to the UK and it is the hooves of horses and cattle. Cattle are so important to the cycle of life for those with whom we share this beautiful world.

Before the swifts leave they circle the castle towers at speed, presumably finding clusters of insects around it but then suddenly one evening they are not there – they have gone and I will miss them until they return the next year.