Big thank you from

Amazing Swifts are back - and earlier than ever

by Paul Cormacain

SWIFTS are back amongst us again for another season. There were two of these wheeling, diving, birds feeding over the waterworks at Easter and I could not be sure if they were passing through and had stopped off for a wee snack. Or if they were going to set up home in the vicinity and were just snacking before going home.

These were the earliest swifts seen by myself for years, which would seem to demonstrate that either my eyesight is getting better or this spring has been better than usual.

It seems to me that every living creature is different from every other living creature, but the swift is away off in a class of its own. It spends most of the time flying. If it comes to earth it is in trouble, and even stays in the air all night.

When a pair of swifts acquire a nest here the female has to come to the nest, usually under the eaves of a house, to lay eggs. She also has to incubate the eggs, but apart from this limited period of the year, she flies.

The male comes to the nest to help build it and to feed the young, otherwise he also flies.

Both birds catch insects on the wing and eat on the wing, apart from the specific times mentioned.

Comes the dark, and swifts start to rise and when it is bedtime, they sleep. Now sleeping can be very dangerous when you are high in the air, so it is believed that the bird sleeps only for a short time, then some inbuilt instinct tells it it is falling, it wakens and flies upward again. Then it falls asleep again.

Not my idea of a good night's sleep!

The waterworks swifts were the first of the year. Now I see these screaming, swirling, creatures, high in the air over towns. Which would suggest that all our swifts have safely returned from Africa, south of the equator, where they never land, to our fair shores, where they seldom land.

Did I mention that we saw swallows before we saw the swifts? Checking back over my records, it turns out that this year was the second earliest year for the swallow in almost thirty years. Eyesight or weather?

Then there was the first wheatear seen on the 18th April. This was actually the same day that we saw our first wheatear last year, although in many previous years we first saw wheatears in March. In the south of Ireland, and in the south of England, the wheatear first appears in early March.

It is a long, long, way from Africa to England and Ireland, so we should not expect that the bird would fly north non-stop. A few weeks spent on a slow, northwards movement should not be begrudged to the birds.

I have just been reading how the Victorians used to behave. Like us all, they appeared to have high standards and low standards simultaneously.

They used to trap wheatears when they landed on the south coast of England, when the poor birds were thinking, 'glad that the long journey is almost over, no more sea crossings'.

For thousands of the birds it was not only the end of a journey, it was also the end of their lives. The Victorians killed them and put them in the pot, and they were served up as delicacies on the dinner table. Thankfully that is one habit that seems to have died out!

On the day we saw the first wheatear, we heard the first cuckoo. My recollections may be inaccurate, but 1 am convinced that we used to hear cuckoos in every field between Belfast and Lisburn.

We used to see cuckoos, occasionally, and indeed used to see corncrakes the odd time. I have not even seen a cuckoo for a few years, and as for corncrakes - may they return to Fermanagh and Rathlin this year.

Since the last time I mentioned butterflies, only the green veined white has been about. There seems to be plenty of them. I thought I saw a wall brown today, but when I tried to get a definite ID the creature flew off. So I will never know. Just have to look out for more.

Coming Events

Till 31 May - Family fun searching for safe places for birds to lay their eggs, at Castle Espie, number 9187 4146

Friday 9 May - Bat detecting at Bog Meadows Nature Reserve, at 8pm, contact Annie O'Kane at the Wildlife Trust, 9062 8647

Saturday 10 May - Butterfly Conservation outing to Quoile area, 11am, phone 9258 4019.

Friday 16, Saturday 17 May - Oxford Island Family Sleepover and Barbecue, looking at the night wildlife, why not call 3822 2205

Sunday 1 June - A sea trip around some cliffs at Islandmagee, at 11am, bound to be spectacular. Contact Andrew Upton, Wildlife Trust, 028 4483 0282.

Ulster Star