Swifts, swallows and house martins, the sky’s fast fliers

Do you keep a note of the first dates each year that you see a particular bird species? I have often wished that I did, so this year I’ve have made a start. My first swift sighting was 1 May, out along Factory Road. But it wasn’t until last week, as I walked between the Co-op and Costcutters, that I saw heard my first ‘party’ of swifts: they ‘screamed’ overhead, swooping in circles through the sky, their black, precision wings enabling them to turn, dip, angle, at high speed.

Often people ask me how to tell swifts, swallows and house martins apart. All arrive quite late in the spring as they come from the middle to southern Africa. They all swoop through the air, as they feed on insects. They often will come down low to water, as that is where there are a lot of insects.

Swifts are sooty brown but look black against the sky and have stumpy tails.

As we often see these birds only when they are silhouetted against the sky, I look at their different shapes to tell them apart. What they are ‘up to’ and the ‘noise’ they are making – I don’t think these birds have much of a song – is also helpful.

Swifts are sickle shaped and black all over. They fly the highest. They scream! They very rarely sit, except to go to their nest. So if you see birds sitting on a telegraph wire, they won’t be swifts.

Adults have long tail streamers, whiteish body and red under their chin.

Adult swallows have tails with long streamers, juveniles have streamers, but shorter. Even in flight, it is often possible to see their whiteish undersides and catch a glimpse of red under their chins. Their upper body is a beautiful glossy deep blue. Swallows will sit on beams in stables or on telegraph wires and ‘chatter’.

House martins are white underneath, and show a block of white on their upper tail as they sweep past.

House martins are slightly smaller than swallows and have more angular shaped wings – think of a triangle. The white on their upper tail is often clearly visible.

House martins often nest under the eaves around Felsham Chase area

If you see them nesting, that will also give you a clue about which bird you are seeing. House martins, as their name suggests, build their mud nests under the eaves of houses. I’ve noticed in Burwell that they love nesting on houses in the Felsham Chase area, but don’t on what look superficially similar houses up Newmarket Road. Please let me know if you understand why!

Swallows build their mud nests in outbuildings and stables, near to horses and cattle, or water, where there is a good supply of insects to feed their chicks. They don’t seem bothered by people being around – they just get on with what they have to be doing, which is getting food to their demanding chicks! Once we are allowed back to Wicken Fen’s visitor centre area you will be able to see them nesting around the café area, on the beams of the boat shed and sometimes the porch of the cycle hire.

I love seeing tiny chicks’ heads appearing above the mud wall of their nest as their parents arrive to feed them. And just think, the adults have flown all the way from Africa to have their young here in our village. That’s quite something..

Swifts nest in roofs, but under the tiles, so if you are lucky enough to have them, you will hear their chicks, but not see them… more of that anon.

Make silhouettes for your window – you can cut out swift, swallow and house martin shapes out of black paper and stick them to a window. As well as having fun making your own ‘flying bird parties’ this will help stop birds from flying into the window – they are more able to see that there is a pane of glass there.

With thanks to the RSPB community blog for the illustrations.

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