I saw my first swifts of 2016 last Friday, on 22 April.
They took me by surprise. For the past few years, or as long as I’ve paid attention, I haven’t seen any swifts till May. Last year I didn’t see them till 17 May, by which time I’d spent a fortnight scanning the sky and listening anxiously for their screaming.
But on Friday, swifts were far from my mind as I delivered election leaflets around the Watercolour housing estate. As I came to the end of a terrace a bird cut a fast curve at the edge of my vision. I thought at first it was a swallow – I haven’t seen any of those yet either – so I followed it and as the view opened out over the flooded-sand-quarry lagoons, my heart lifted at the unmistakable sight of swifts – lots of swifts, too many to count – wheeling and zooming through the air.
They swooped so low I would have had a close view of their never-seen feet and faces if they weren’t also going really fast.
There were smaller birds too tumbling with the swifts. I moved to the causeway between the lagoons for a better view and saw there were house martins with blue-black backs and browner sand martins mixed up with the swifts, all flying together in a three-dimensional swarm that felt gnat-like for its utter disregard of the few humans walking and standing around the lakes.
Birds shot by at close range, the swifts coming so close I felt that if I’d taken a sudden sideways step I’d have been struck by the sharp boomerang edge of a swift’s wing.
A pair of school-uniformed teenage lovers sitting on a bench broke off from kissing to look up and laugh in delight at the boisterous aerobatic display going on round their heads.
The joy stayed with me all day, and later, I searched online and found tweets, blog posts and articles all celebrating the return of swifts.
Several quoted the Ted Hughes poem I quoted in the title of this piece. So perhaps it’s a hackneyed thing to do, but it so well expresses my own feelings on the arrival of these dashing migrants that I’m quoting it here. You can read the whole poem at www.racingtheswift.com
Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialise at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
On a steep
Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries…
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come.