To conclude our series of blogs for Swifts Awareness Week...
The first thing I should do is introduce myself, because I feel like I know you a little better than you know me. I’m Lauran, and for the duration of Swift Awareness Week, I’ve been volunteering for Hampshire Swifts. In my day job I provide social media and PR support to developers and studios in the Video Games Industry (you may not know that Guildford is considered The Hollywood of Games). In a complete departure from the usual topics I deal with on a daily basis, this week has seen me up to my eyes in poetry, facts and beautiful images of swifts, and I’ve been lucky enough to engage with many of you on twitter about them.
I’m almost bewildered that this nerd (nerd in more than one regard) has been accepted by the conservation community so seamlessly. Alongside the help from other conservation charities and passionate conservationists, the tweets I’ve posted have been retweeted by Michaela Strachan and Iolo Williams, and recently an infographic I made and posted on the HS account was retweeted by my childhood (and adulthood) hero - Chris Packham. Better than that - as if it could get any better - he said the information I shared was useful. Ladies and Gents, Chris Packham thinks something I did was useful. I can hardly compute it. I’ve always been a wildlife lover, I’ve been fascinated and obsessed with all kinds of bugs and beasties from a very young age. I watched David Attenborough and Chris Packham on TV as a child and my bookcase overflowed with nature books. I memorised as much as I could. I was besotted with wildlife. My dad’s best friend would take my brother and I on long walks through the Surrey countryside on the weekends, and I would soak up everything he told me about the flora and fauna around us. However, I was never all that fussed by birds. As a teenager, when living with my parents, I would regularly decline to sit and watch the birds rush in to eat the scraps my dad had put out for them. I didn’t get it at all. “I’ve seen robins before, Dad” I’d yell over my shoulder on my way out. Years later, once I’d moved out, I became quite enamoured with a pair of bullfinches that would visit my garden, but it was very much a passing phase. Birds were fine, but hardly the most interesting of creatures, I was convinced.
Around 5 years ago I found myself living in Reading town centre. I’d been brought up on the Hampshire/Surrey border, surrounded by woodland and commons, and now I was in what felt like a metropolis in comparison. The lack of greenery was difficult to adjust to, so I busied myself with making my small, stone garden a potential haven for bees (if nothing else). The more time I spent outside that Spring, the more pockets of nature I discovered. In time there were bees, magpies, possibly a hedgehog, some pretty big wood pigeons, stag beetles and cheesy bugs in their hundreds. “Better than nothing” I would grumble to myself. I can’t lie, it wasn’t an entirely happy chapter of my life, and the lack of greenery didn’t help matters. I’m sure we all remember the state of the world in 2016, but in addition to that I was walking wounded after the games studio I’d worked at (a studio that was much more than just a workplace to me) had been shut down. I felt far away from my friends and family, and had no job and thus no way to travel to them. It was the closest thing to depression I’d ever experienced. The concrete garden became my sanctuary once Spring started to creep over the country that year, and I would take my coffee outside every morning (weather permitting) and sneak as many more glorious minutes out there as I could when I was home. It didn’t take long to notice the positive impact the fresh air and sunshine and low-level naturalist observing would have on me. I missed it if I couldn’t go out, I was thinking about what I would do next whilst I was waiting to get back out into my little patch. One warm afternoon, as Spring was finally succumbing to summer, I heard whistling, high pitched shrieking, somewhere above me. One of the things my video game designer friends had always told me to do in games was ‘look up - there’s a whole world up there!’, and it’s served me well in real life as well as in video games, so having scoured the rooftops for the source of the racket, I looked up. I looked WAY up. It was a cloudy but bright day, I had to squint but I could just make out 4 or 5 birds whirling above the house. Swooping and swirling and, after a time, speeding past as low as my rooftop. I felt so sad, but they seemed to be having so much fun! Screaming with joy. What were these birds? Why hadn’t I heard them before and what was that noise all about?! I was hooked!
The Reading swift colonies, which consisted of so many more birds than the handful I saw on that first day, made such an impact on me. Somehow they gave me hope and inspiration to better my situation. I sought them out whenever I was outdoors, often interrupting conversations to point and exclaim “SWIFTS!”, which I’m sure became very tedious, very quickly to my companions. My house was at the top of a hill and swifts seemed to congregate above it for a good portion of every day for the 3 months they were visiting. I devoured as much information about swifts as I could. I secretly hoped I would one day find a crowd of people gathered around an exhausted little traveller that had fallen from the sky, and I would be able to valiantly step in and save the day. It never happened though (thankfully, as of course I’d much rather the swifties were safe up on the breeze) and for the remainder of my time in Reading I would await the swifts from the first signs of spring every year, and feel a keen pain on those inevitable late summer days when I would step out into the garden to be greeted by a distinct lack of screaming. Summer must pass, and it takes these little treasures with them. I couldn’t possibly put it better than Ruth Pitter, when she said: “And away with the summer, away like the spirit of glee
Flashing and calling, and strong on the wing,
and wild in their play,
With a high cry to the high sea,
And a heart for the south, a heart for the diamond
So they go over, so go away.”
I’ve been back in my beloved Hampshire for 2 summers now. I’m lucky enough to enjoy a garden flanked by woodland and a plethora of feathered visitors. Lockdown has given me a chance to really pay attention to what’s happening outside my window. I’ve carved out flower and vegetable beds and planted them up. I’ve been trialing new bird feed, feeders and tweaking the locations of them to try and make them as appealing as possible to the avian taste. I’ve seen blue, great, coal and long-tailed tits, dunnocks, robins, and a gang of 22 starlings - young and old - who often land in a succession of soft thuds on my bay window before descending on the feeders.
My bird feeder fiddling has finally attracted chaffinches and goldfinches, though I don’t see them nearly as much as I’d like. I’m sure I have at least one family of sparrows in the laurel bush, and the garden is most certainly a battleground for up to 3 male blackbirds. Recently I’ve seen a parent jackdaw feed three freshly fledged jacklings (I’m sure that’s the technical term) from the food on my bird table. After swifts, jackdaws are an absolute favourite of mine, so witnessing this was a real treat!
Bird watching has most certainly become a much loved pastime of mine, and it almost happened without my noticing. It’s funny how you can be spurred into action when something is missing from your environment, and that’s precisely how we should be reacting to swift decline now. I hope that the small part I’ve played this week will make some difference, and rest assured I’ve already contacted all of my neighbours to let them know I’m going to be putting swift boxes up on our apartment building. If everyone reading this put up one box on their homes, swifts would be in much better stead. What would summertime be without the joyous calls of the swift? They’re as iconic and reminiscent of summer evenings as that of the cuckoo.
Had I written this blog yesterday, it would have concluded ‘I’ve not seen nor heard a swift in the skies above my home yet…’ but by some wonderful coincidence, I took a break from writing to sit in my garden this afternoon and for the first time I heard and saw a party swifts above my garden. I emailed Andy at Hampshire Swifts as soon as I could to let him know, and he responded: ‘They’re just showing their appreciation’. I could cry.