The Swift is a familiar, dark torpedo of a bird, common in the summer months across the whole of Europe. Arriving in late April from African wintering quarters, the Swift will stay in Europe until late August or early September, before undertaking its massive journey back southwards.
Swifts can literally be seen anywhere, whatever the area – city, town, or hamlet. So long as it has eaves to nest under, the Swift is happy. If the weather suddenly becomes very rainy and windy, however, all the Swifts will immediately move away to more hospitable areas, sometimes covering very long distances before returning after the storms have subsided.
With its scythe-shaped wings, short forked tail and generally dark brown plumage, it is a fairly unmistakable aerial feeder, seldom seen clinging to walls. Being such adept and competent fliers, Swifts can display a wide variety of shapes when airborne.
The plumage of the Swift is almost wholly dark brown, blackish, when seen from a distance, except for a small whitish throat patch. With close views, a subtle contrast will become apparent between the blackish forewings and the dark grey remainder of the wing. With exceptionally close views, the tiny black bill can be seen, as can the black eye.
The sooty-brown tones of the upperparts are easily seen when Swifts fly close by. The trailing edge of the wing may appear slightly paler in some lights. Swifts are very versatile when airborne and, as already mentioned, they can ‘change shape’ with great ease. In fast flight, the tail is closed, looking very pointed, and the wings are held well swept back, with very quick beats. When soaring, the wings are held further forward and the tail is open, giving an altogether different, stubby silhouette.
One of the most familiar summertime sights, particularly in the mid-evening, is of parties of screaming Swifts careering over rooftops, sometimes below head height but always in control. They seem to delight in their unrivalled skill in the air and almost shriek their pleasure to let everyone know just how good they are.
When Swifts make ‘landfall’ they are immediately transformed from majestic flying machines to ungainly, sad-looking birds, grimly holding onto a wall as if their life depended on it. Doubtless, this is the reason why they spend so much of their lives in the air.
Juvenile Swifts are hard to separate from adults when seen on the wing. At closer ranges, however, they will appear browner and more scaly, with white flecks on the forehead and a more extensive white bib on the throat.