Tuesday 1 March 2011

A swift chick takes to the air for the first time.

Contributed by Mark Smyth

Photo © Arie Ouwerkerk
On May 16th 2010 two swifts arrived back from migration to take up residence in a nest box on the gable of a house, that they used for the first time in 2009. For nine months they have flown non stop between N Ireland and somewhere in southern Africa. Where they have been and what they have seen no-one knows but for sure they have flown over towns, lakes, seas, mountains, deserts and rain forests.
Two eggs were laid on the 28th and 30th of May and 19 days later they hatched. The adults were extremely busy coming back to the nest every 20 minutes with hundreds of insects in a moist ball under the tongue.

39 days on and the first chick has left the nest.
A few days prior to this the chick was restless, doing press-ups, looking out of the nest entrance, preening and climbing the inside walls of the nest. The urge to leave the safety of the nest must be huge especially when the swift chick has to leave the security of the nest site and fly in to the wide open world it has only seen from the inside of the nest box. Before it goes it can be seen watching adults go screaming by, house martins on the gable opposite and it watches large insects. Does it know one day they might be food?

The chick moves to the entrance pokes its head out and goes back in again. Watching from the mini cctv camera inside, I can see the chick lean out and then something makes it pull itself in again. It went back to the nest, preened, slept a while and then shuffled back to the entrance of the nest box.

I went outside because I was sure it was ready to go. As I got to a place where I could see the nest box the chick was about half way out and could be seen moving its head having a good look around the new world. Here was a little bird that had never flown before and never stretched its huge wings. In a flash it was out flapping crazily as it literally fell towards the shed roof below. With a couple of feet to spare it shot like an arrow from a bow towards the sky and was joined by a couple of adult swifts. It climbed higher and higher and was soon by itself. It was just a tiny spec high in the air. Suddenly it fell towards the roof tops before flying back skywards. The same thing happened over and over. Was it panicking, was it playing or was it getting the feel of its wings? It gradually came back towards the house doing massive loop-the-loops. At one stage it started to glide on stiffened wings and thought it had in the last few minutes learnt how to fly. And then it was falling towards the ground again and just as quickly it was back, high, a tiny spec in the sky. I ran through the house to get a better view because it was now heading north. For a while I lost sight of it. There were lots of swifts about and I couldn't see which was my bird, the one I had watched growing for the last five weeks. I was about to give up hope of seeing it again when I saw a swift flying in a way that lacked confidence. It was all over the place and again it was doing the sort of massive loops that the Red Arrows would be proud of. My sight of the bird was soon blocked by trees. I suppose my little bird was flying in the way a child rides a bike for the first time
In a couple of weeks my swift will be on its way to Africa unaided by the parents. How does it know the way? By the end of September it will have flown over towns, lakes, seas, mountains, deserts and rain forests. It will have seen many of the African animals we are only familiar with on wildlife documentaries

It will fly non stop for two to three years before it comes of age and have a nest of its own. It could be your house!

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