Afternoons with Swifts

This particular post has been prompted by Paul Trodd over at Plovers Blog...

Midsummer at Beddington Sewage Farm back in the 1970s frequently meant trying to catch Swifts. For such a fast-flying (and generally high-flying) species, trying to catch them is not an easy task. It takes cunning, it takes guile, it takes... well, to be honest, it takes a bit of muggy or cloudy weather to bring the birds down low so that they feed only inches above the ground. Because Beddington was one big insect attractant (rank vegetation, sewage settlement) it was also a virtual cafe for insectiverous birds. If the Swifts were low, then Beddington would be hosting them in their hundreds, possibly thousands.

We still had to catch them though. Running after a Swift with a giant butterfly net would have been futile, so we used to call upon the services of a mist net. If you haven't seen one, a mist net looks like a giant elongated hair-net (most between 20 - 60 feet long and up to eight feet deep). This net would be erected between two upright poles. They were fine enough so that they were difficult to see. A bird would hopefully fly into one, become temporarily tangled  before being expertly removed by a fully trained ringer.

A free standing net however would not fool a Swift. You needed to be a bit cleverer than that. So, 'flicking' was devised. This meant that two of you held the poles (at either end of the net) horizontally, low against the ground, until a Swift flew towards you. Teamwork was needed at this point, as one of you would call out, and in unison the net would be brought up into a vertical plane. Hopefully the Swift would be intercepted in flight. This worked remarkably well, and some afternoons (it seemed to be an afternoon pasttime) we trapped up to 50 individual Swifts.

There are two things that most birders do not know about Swifts. Firstly, they have very sharp claws. After a Swift ringing session your fingers would be covered in scratches. Secondly, most of them play host to flat-flies, quite large creatures that crawled over the Swifts body underneath the feathering. These quite unsavoury things would often jump off and onto the ringer and being the size of a flattened baked bean could cause panic.

The ringing recovery rate of Swifts would have been low but for the efforts of ringing teams up and down the country flicking these scythe-winged beauties. Foreign recoveries, understandably were rare.

I enjoyed these timeless afternoons, always on warm days, with the smell of rank vegetation, a subtle whiff of effluent and the torpor of the thick air cut through by the scream of Apus apus.


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