Apodidae – the swift

Last month I spent a day at the RSPB reserve at Titchwell near Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast. It’s a particularly dramatic bit of coastline and is home to a very impressive array of birdlife which is concentrated here on the reserve. As well as all the waders and other water birds squadrons of swifts were wheeling and zooming low over the water plucking insects out of the air.


Swift – Apus apus. Dansk – mursejler

Swifts have been declining in numbers and their conservation status is amber, but it was difficult to believe they’re struggling! There seem to be good numbers of them in the skies around Cambridge too. I love it in the summer when I open a window and the sound of shrieking swifts filters down from on high.

Insects beware, bandits at 6 o’clock!

Photographing swifts in flight is challenging to say the least and something I’ve never before had much success with, but there were so many of them at Titchwell and they were flying close to the ground so I gave it a go. They seemed to have preferred routes which I guess were dictated by where the insects were flying and that made getting pictures a little less tricky as their flight paths were more predictable. And here are the results.

Swifts are members of the Apodidae family and on ther face of it appear fairly similar to swallows and martins. But my oft ill-remembered scchoolboy Latin leads me to believe that ‘apodidae‘ means ‘lacking feet‘ whereas swallows and martins are passerines which means they have feet adapted for perching. Swifts do have feet but they are tiny and adapted for clasping and not perching, all four of their toes pointing forward. One thing that the three species do have in common is that they are all awesome aeronauts. A juvenile swift can spend up to three years aloft after fledging and it will spend most of its life on the wing: eating, sleeping, gathering nesting material and even copulating in the sky.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology swifts shut down their brains one side at a time in order to maintain stable flight. But I’d like to know how they found that out – I can’t think of an experimental design that would enable this conclusion!

The swift is a summer migrant to UK shores and they spend their winters in South Africa, and I suspect the journey doesn’t take too long, covering a thousand miles in a couple of days!

My day at Titchwell was gorgeous, it was during the foul wet weather we’ve been having but shortly after we arrived the sun emerged and stayed with us for the whole day. I took nearly a thousand photographs and I’m going to post the best of them in batches in the next few weeks, interspersed with some other local wildlife. I hope you like them!

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17 responses to “Apodidae – the swift

  1. I’m with Sofia in admiring that third photo, Finn…just lovely.

    Your narrative on the difficulty of photographing the swifts reminds me of a little lunch-time adventure at our local park and trying to photograph a duckling as it fed on the pond, darting to and fro and never staying within the frame as I attempted to focus. 🙂

    • Thanks Scott, I was very pleased to get any swift photographs at all that were good enough to share!

      Wildlife is always unopredictable and often moving at speed and I guess that’s what creates the fun element in trying to capture it!

  2. Pingback: Spotted flycatcher and roe deer | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Marvellous birds, Finn. I can almost hear them whistling as I look at your photos. Richard Mabey rhapsodizes about them in his recent book, Nature Cure. Their annual return was a highpoint in his childhood and formation as a naturalist. It’s hard to imagine a cityscape without them.

    • Hello Robert, I’m with Mr Mabey! I look out for them from the beginning of May and I usually see (or hear) the first one around may 15th. And then I know it’s summer. Apart from this year!

  4. amazing to get those epictures Finn, and so clear! I especially like the last one with the shadow on the water – look forward to seeing more.

  5. The third photo is stunning!

  6. I’m very impressed by your photos, they go so fast it’s extremely difficult to get a good shot. I didn’t know about their little feet before, how very interesting. What’s your photo of the moment, by the way?

    • Thanks Lorna, I took a few hundred shots to get a handful of good ones, but it was good fun trying.

      The ‘Photo of the Moment’ is a spider 😉

      • I haven’t got a confirmed i.d. for it, but I think it’s a raft spider, one of the genus Dolomedes, but I’m not sure which species. It was by the waterside at a lake at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire.

        (P.S. Apologies for not visiting ‘Tearoom Delights’ in the last couple of weeks – I’m inundated just now and struggling to keep up! But I’ll be back asap)

      • A spider – of course, all I needed to do was count the legs 🙂

      • Hee hee 🙂 Couldn’t resist it.

        She (I think it’s a she) is a beauty, and there were lots of them along this stretch of water, all lurking on leaves next to the water.

  7. Oh, how I would love to be able to shut half my brain down for a while, then the other…what an incredibly wonderful idea! I, too, would really like to know what sort of study led the researchers to that conclusion. And what an interesting factoid about all four toes facing forward–that’s very new to me.

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